History: A Novel
by Elsa Morante, translated by William Weaver
Knopf, 561 pp., $10.95
Over ten years ago, at the time of a PEN Club conference held in Tokyo, I traveled for a few days through Japan together with Alberto Moravia, the husband of Elsa Morante. One day, looking out of the train window at the brilliantly sunlit fields and sea—green and blue shining silk—Moravia said in tones of profound melancholy: “After all, it is a beautiful world.”
Inconsolable sadness seems to me an outstanding characteristic of several recent Italian writers. Montale, on receiving the news that he had won the Nobel prize, was reported by the press as commenting that the award slightly lessened his unhappiness. Ignazio Silone, whose youth, it is true, was passed against a background of terrible tragedies, has the face of a tragic clown or of that early English King Stephen who, when his son was drowned, never smiled again.
Luigi Barzini, in his book on the Italians, discusses the melancholy aspect of the Italian character which is so little observed by the rest of the world. But the Italian writers seem to wear their melancholy on their sleeves: or perhaps they are so sad that they cannot conceal it. I have often wondered why this is so. One reason may be that in Italy the consciousness of the modern poet or novelist reflects more poignantly than elsewhere the contrast between European Renaissance genius—evidences of which survive so dominatingly in Italy—and the hopelessly degraded vulgar modern scene.
Falling has symbolic force in Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel. Her heroine, the schoolteacher Ida, suffered when she was a child from le petit mal; and her wonderfully poetic child Giuseppe has the epileptic’s grand mal—which brings on his death. Giuseppe falls in horror as the result of the nightmares, such as deportation, air raids, and other forms of violence he witnesses, that are provided by History. Mussolini’s empire was itself a fall into a terrible vulgarity of, alas, a peculiarly Italian kind, for which, alas, some of the Italian writers fell. This may partly explain their sadness. The worst fall of all—abominable even by Mussolini’s own standards—forms the subject of this novel. This was the adoption by Mussolini of Hitler’s racial laws and his cooperation, through deportations of Italian Jews to German concentration camps, with the program for the extermination of the Jews.
History covers the period of Fascism and takes place mainly in wartime and postwar Europe. Each section of the narrative is prefaced by an italicized summary of the public events immediately contemporaneous with the corresponding period in the lives of the characters. Thus lives are imprisoned within brackets provided by History. These events happened, of course, not just in Italy, but all over Europe, and in Russia and America. They were worldwide. Yet in Elsa Morante’s novel they become canalized into Italian behavior, and they assume peculiarly Italian forms. So this is a novel really about things that happened in Italy, not about the …