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Melancholic and Magic History

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 outside world except in so far as it affected Italy. And during the war Fascist Italy was of course different in being not triumphant, like Germany at the beginning of the war, or defiant, like England, but merely abject: first following Hitler’s successes in a jackal-like way and trying to share the plunder; and later, after the fall of Mussolini, in being occupied by its ally, Germany.

Within or beyond History, and apart from its victims, there is an effort of consciousness, of which History, with its almost invisible but omnipresent narrator “I,” is a heroic example. In this novel, the attempt to understand History and to transform it into action on the scale of individual human beings is undertaken only by anarchists—first by Giuseppe Ramundo, the father of the timid, childish heroine, who early in the novel is recalled as having yelled out during one of his drinking bouts: “The day will come when masters and proletarians, black and white, male and female, Jews and Christians, will all be equal, in the sole honor of being part of humanity!” But when he says this Giuseppe Ramundo is drunk, and when, at the end of the novel, Davide Segre, the Jewish partisan, the idealistic anarchist, rebelling against his bourgeois family, takes up the theme, he is a drug addict, self-defeated and self-despising, on the verge of suicide, and reading incoherent passages from his notebook of earlier days:

There,” he says to himself, “the degradation of the intellect. Maybe I’m already crazy, I reduce myself, on my own, to the condition of insanity…TO UNDERSTAND, on the contrary! It is necessary TO UNDERSTAND! The vital end of man: is to understand. The straight way of the revolution is: to understand.”

The tragedy of politics, as seen in History, is the inability of men to make politics human. This is no doubt a universal problem, but perhaps it is felt most intensely in Italy because of the particularly self-indulgent Italian upper class and bourgeoisie.

However to try to extract a message or lesson from Elsa Morante’s book is to follow too literally the clue hinted at in the title. The story that she has to tell stands marvelously on its own. In outline it is extremely simple: being the account of the effects of an almost depersonalized History conducted by leaders who think of war as campaigns and of peace as a matter of “spheres of influence” upon the lives of impoverished victims. Elsa Morante’s poor are those from whom History takes away even what they possess—their very lives. We watch Ida Mancuso being deprived first of her father and husband, and her elder son Nino, and then of her illegitimate second son, the almost miraculously happy child Giuseppe. And with Giuseppe’s death, deprived of her sole motive for keeping sane—to look after him—she loses her sanity, which is perhaps her way of recognizing the reality of history.

When the book opens Ida Mancuso, an elementary schoolteacher who thinks of herself as having no duties except to transmit Authority to her pupils, is on the point of being assaulted by a German soldier who has forced her to conduct him to her little apartment in a Rome tenement. “Assaulted,” I write, rather than raped, because this frantic act of the homesick young German soldier is less terrifying to her than that which she feared would happen: that he would arrest her for being Jewish (her mother is of an old Jewish family). The flashback to the past, which divides the opening pages from the actual scene of rape, shows Ida’s childhood with her father, the anarchist also called Giuseppe, and her mother Nora, who hides the secret of her Jewishness. Ida’s father dies of drink and her husband of cancer, shortly after he has been repatriated from Mussolini’s adventure in Abyssinia. We are told:

The Italian invasion of Abyssinia, which promoted Italy from Kingdom to Empire, had remained, for our little schoolteacher in mourning, an event as remote as the Punic wars. Abyssinia, to her, meant a land where Alfio, if he had been luckier, could apparently have become rich….

In the classroom where she taught, in the center of the wall, just above her desk, next to the Crucifix, there were enlarged framed photographs of the Founder of the Empire and its King-Emperor. The former wore on his head a fez with a rich hanging fringe, and an eagle on the front. Under such headgear, his face, in a display so impudent it was downright ingenuous, wanted to imitate the classical mien of the Condottiere. But in reality, with the exaggerated jut of the chin, the artificially clenched jaws, and the mechanical dilation of eye-sockets and pupils, it resembled more a vaudeville clown playing a sergeant scaring recruits.

And as for the King-Emperor, his insignificant features expressed only the narrow-mindedness of a provincial bourgeois, born old and with an inherited income. However, in Iduzza’s eyes, the images of the two figures (no less, you might say, than the Crucifix, which to her meant only the power of the Church) represented the absolute symbol of Authority, that occult and awe-inspiring abstraction which makes laws. In those days, on instructions from higher up, she wrote on the blackboard in large letters, for her third-grade students to copy as a penmanship exercise:

Copy out three times in your good notebooks the following words of the Duce:

Hold high, O Legionaries, your banners, your steel, and your hearts, to hail, after fifteen centuries, the reappearance of the Empire on the fatal hills of Rome!

Mussolini

Elsa Morante’s treatment of Ida, or Iduzza (as she is often called), is close to Flaubert’s of his heroine in Une Vie Simple. Indeed History is throughout written in the tradition of nineteenth-century realism. This may be because Italy, with its late pursuit of empire under Mussolini, had a twentieth-century history continuous with the nineteenth. Germany did not. Elsa Morante contrasts the figure of Mussolini with that of Hitler, writing that while both were dreamers, “the dreamvision of the Italian Duce was a histrionic festival,” “whereas the other was…a formless dream…[in which] every living creature (including himself) was the object of torment…. And at the end—in the Grand Finale….”

Mussolini’s Italy, then, can be imagined within the continuity of the nineteenth-century realistic novel. In any case, this is a convention completely suited to Elsa Morante’s gifts. She is a storyteller who spellbinds the reader. Like Flaubert she seems a great processional artist who can cover an enormous canvas, introducing, as the plot develops, new characters who are fixed and made convincing in a few swift strokes, and who are caught up in the sweep of the whole narrative. While in the largest tragic sense, History is a novel of doomed characters (the external history of the time ultimately destroys all humble and insulted private lives), it is also full of enchanting surprises, showing the immense vitality of the poor and oppressed. This vitality is particularly Italian and finds its place—or refuses to do so—within the pessimistic vision of history.

The scene of the “assault”—the rape—is characteristic in its realism and surprise. The German soldier is reminded by Ida’s wretched apartment of his own home. Home for him means sleeping—schlafen, schlafen. He produces a photograph of his family, says “Mein Name ist Gunther!” To Ida all this means not that he is going to rape her but that he has found her name on some “blacklist of Jews and their hybrids.” He comes from a village, the relevance of whose name, when he shows her a photograph, neither of them recognizes—the quiet little village of Dachau. When the rape is accomplished, Ida has a recurrence of the petitmal which she has experienced as a child (and which Giuseppe, the son of this union, is to suffer from in a much more acute form). As a result of this seizure, when she recovers and the soldier (knowing nothing of her illness) peeps at her, he sees “her face, filled with amazement, relax in a smile of ineffable humility and sweetness.”

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