Give Him a Break!


by Elsa Morante, translated by William Weaver
Random House, 311 pp., $17.95

Morante’s last novel, History, appeared eight years ago. Its child-hero, Giuseppe, was orphaned and deprived, so is the hero of her new book, Manuele. Giuseppe was the child of a poor middle-aged widow raped by a German soldier. He spends his early years in a shelter for displaced persons. Manuele is born ten years earlier, in 1932. His father is an officer in the Italian navy, but the apparent privilege of being born into the upper bourgeoisie is an extra curse laid upon him. He is the mirror image of Giuseppe, but the mirror glass is black. Giuseppe was born happy, though cursed with hereditary epilepsy, which killed him before he was seven. Manuele is simply born cursed:

According to an old fable, there exists, hidden in a forest, an immortal tailor, who sleeps in the daytime perched in a tree like an owl and at night goes into the bedrooms of certain mortals he has selected. On them as they sleep, he sews an invisible shirt, woven with the threads of their destiny. From that night on, each of the chosen…will go around sewn alive into his shirt…. And it is said…that the nocturnal tailor, enjoying in advance the future ravings of his unaware customers, during his work laughs at every stitch.

A few of his victims have the gift of sloughing off their shirts. Manuele has not. His shirt sticks. Its outward sign is his physical ugliness.

So it may seem strange that apparently he is, among many other things, an incarnation of Narcissus. Morante believes that all fiction is peopled by archetypal heroes, perpetually recycled. They range from Achilles to Hamlet, and from Don Quixote to Puss in Boots. Narcissus is one of them. Manuele’s mirror pond is introspection and memory, and he looks into it not to admire his present beauty, but to search for the lost beauty he had when he was a baby in his mother’s arms. His earliest memory—possibly apocryphal, he admits—is of seeing, framed in a mirror, a woman with a baby at her breast. The woman is his Spanish mother, Aracoeli, and the baby is himself. The mirror is real: it hangs in his parents’ room. But it is also a necromancer’s mirror which has swallowed and kept the past in its depths, and perhaps has swallowed the future too.

At the start of the novel Manuele is forty-three. His experience of love consists of two failures with women, one as a teen-ager with another teen-ager whom he has casually encountered on a beach, the other with an elderly prostitute. After that a series of unsatisfactory homosexual affairs culminated in the second great love of his life (the first being Aracoeli). He became humiliatingly enthralled to a middle-class dropout like himself who rejected him, but not until he had introduced him to drugs. Manuele has broken the habit at last and crawled back on to the bottom rung of bourgeois existence. Not that he wants to be a bourgeois. On the contrary, he is ashamed of it. He works in a dingy two-roomed office as reader for a company publishing manuals and pamphlets.

The work bores him literally to sleep. Soaked in disgust with himself and the world, he has no friends and no future. One day his chronic yearning to return to the womb metamorphoses into an urge to visit his mother’s birthplace, an obscure hamlet in Andalusia that he has never seen. On the eve of All Souls’ Day (a national holiday in Italy), he sets out from Milan airport to Almería. A fraction of the novel is devoted to his journey; the rest is long flashbacks into his childhood and his mother’s life and death.

Aracoeli was a fifteen-year-old illiterate Spanish village girl when Manuele’s father Eugenio fell in love with her. He was then a young ensign whose ship had put into Almería. “It was…, hers and his, a bold and sudden passion, but conjugal and definitive.” They went through a ceremony of betrothal in a church. Eugenio was still below the rank at which naval officers were allowed to marry. So he established Aracoeli in a little house in a Roman suburb, and it was there that Manuele was born,

my first separation from her, when alien hands tear me from her vagina to expose me to their insult. And there, then, my first weeping was heard: that typical little lamb’s bleat that, according to the doctors, has a simple physiological explanation, absurd for me. I know, in fact, that mine was real weeping, desperate mourning: I didn’t want to be separated from her. I must already have known that this first, blood-stained separation of ours would be followed by another, and another, until the last, the most bloody of all.

This passage early on in the novel encapsulates what is to come for Manuele, but gives no idea of the nightmarish fate awaiting the innocent and childlike Aracoeli.

Once the birth trauma is over, Manuele’s early years alone with Aracoeli seem a golden age. The little house is the Garden of Eden. His mother loves him and him only, or so it appears. Still only sixteen, she plays childish games with her baby, sings him Spanish songs, dresses, caresses, kisses, and endlessly admires him. The rooms are filled with benevolent Spanish madonnas and reassuring guardian angels. Manuele is four when his parents are able to marry and move into an apartment in a highly respectable quarter of the city. Under the beady eyes of Eugenio’s spinster sister Monda and her maid Zaira, Aracoeli applies herself to learning to be a signora, desperately anxious all the time to be worthy of her adored, amazing husband. Almost ridiculously modest by nature, she now acquires genteel little airs and graces, together with a solemn expertise in how a lady should dress. Underneath this veneer she remains warmhearted, bewildered, primitive, and innocent.

Eugenio’s parents in Turin are disgusted with his marriage to a peasant and do not bother to come and see their grandchild. They represent the North, and so do Monda and Eugenio himself, with his clumsy but touching inability to express his feelings. The polarization of North and South is a regular feature in Morante’s work: the North is cold, unfeeling, repressive, and hierarchic, but also rational and controlled. The South is warm and spontaneous, but given to baroque exaggeration, superstition, and dangerous, frenzied histrionics. Aracoeli is the South with her “elementary Catholicism, inhabited by church images, statues, Afro-Asiatic legends, and procession figures…she must have seen the blond gentleman, tall and golden, come from the North, as a kind of epiphanic Being.”

She becomes pregnant again and Manuele feels displaced and jealous even before the birth of “the little queen.” For Aracoeli passionately wants a girl; “the gaudy yearnings of her Hispanic-Oriental blood” go into the preparation of the trousseau. A girl is duly born but very soon dies. Aracoeli falls into a torpid depression. One day Manuele finds her sleeping with her breast exposed; he crawls into the bed and sucks her milk. Aracoeli awakes: her eyes “were staring at me in petrified horror, as if they saw a hideous animal before them.” She throws him out: another rejection. Gradually her tenderness returns, but from that time and for the rest of his life Manuele suffers nightmares—“the night was a torture machine.”

Aracoeli is sent away to convalesce. When she returns she has changed. There is something feverish in her moods, something morbid and obscene in her appearance and movements; she behaves provocatively in the street, she masturbates, she loses her peasant bashfulness with Eugenio. The signs of erotomania are so obvious that one day when she is eating ice cream in a café with Manuele, a brothel keeper approaches her and persuades her to spend afternoons at her establishment. She becomes more and more deranged. Finally she seduces Eugenio’s young orderly, Daniele. Next day Daniele tries to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of disinfectant. Aracoeli’s transformation is described from the child Manuele’s viewpoint; what he sees—and the reader sees—are the indecipherable signs of something frightening, irresistible, and repulsive. The onset of syphilis—presumably that is what Aracoeli is suffering from—therefore becomes as mysterious and threatening as it would be in a Victorian novel. Eventually she runs away and disappears—into the brothel? Manuele is sent to spend the summer with his hitherto unseen grandparents, and summoned back briefly to see his mother die. She is in the hospital, disfigured, hideously bandaged, moaning and semiconscious after an operation on her brain. Death is her final betrayal of Manuele.

He is never to return home. He lives with his chilly grandfather and neurotic grandmother who crush him with their haughty disapproval. “Their severity was formalistic, secular, methodical, austere, implacable, virile, and ghastly; and so it remained until the last day, even if they had been gradually forced to renounce their supreme manly ideal—I fear—as far as their grandson was concerned.” Eventually they send him to a monastic boarding school in the Alps where he is unpopular and solitary. The war breaks out and when the Allies land in the south the north is cut off from Rome. The fighting is barely over when Manuele escapes and hitchhikes home. He is not quite thirteen. He finds the family apartment occupied by other people, but the concierge directs him to Aunt Monda: astonishingly, she is married—and come down in the world. She has lost touch with her brother Eugenio but gives his address to Manuele. Manuele finds his father living in a slum, derelict, feeble, alcoholic, and physically revolting. A year later Eugenio is dead.

In the novel’s present, Manuele eventually makes his way to Aracoeli’s village. He imagined it set in orchards, but a few deserted hovels in a stony landscape are all he finds. Only one old man still lives there, and he knows nothing of Aracoeli’s family.

The novel ends with Manuele recalling his last visit to his father and how he burst into tears when he got out into the street. He concludes that he was weeping for three separate reasons: 1) a passing dog reminded him of his own dog from whom he had been separated; 2) he was weeping for his fate; 3) he was weeping for love—not of Aracoeli, whom at that point he hated for her desertion—but of his father: “Never till now, in the course of time, had I loved him. But during my visit…as I rebelled, disgusted, in his presence, I was perhaps desperately overcome with love of him.” Neither father nor son manages to show his love: another tragic loss.

The entire book feels like a river of tears for Manuele’s second reason for weeping: pity for his fate. Manuele weeps for himself, and the author weeps with him and through him for all the unhappy, unfortunate, unloved people in the world. With Morante, pity for humanity and self-pity seem uniquely and inextricably mixed up, even when her novels are written in the third person (Aracoeli is in the first, with Manuele as narrator). It makes sense, of course, since every “I” is a member of humanity. The subjective effect comes from the intensity of the writer’s sympathy with her people as she piles on the tragic horrors. The emphasis has shifted since History, where all the suffering protagonists belonged to the underprivileged classes. In Aracoeli deprivation is more psychological than material. The faintly Marxisant element has moved further into the background, and psychology and social anthropology have become more prominent among the intellectual underpinnings of her story. Insofar as Manuele suffers from social injustice, it is because he cannot wipe off the stigma of his bourgeois origins and make himself acceptable to the working-class boys he loves.

A Northern (in Morante’s sense) sensibility cannot help feeling some emotional overkill in Aracoeli. It wearies, but never, never palls. One reason is the luxuriance of the intellectual hinterland, philosophical as well as anthropological and psychological. Evidently a determinist, Morante puts the bleakest possible interpretation on the tragic concept of life as a wheel, the futile recycling of everything that is. “As a boy I was in doubt,” says Manuele,

on certain nights, about the real existence of the myriad stars that appear to us in the sky. In my opinion, there existed perhaps only a single star, created in the beginning, then multiplied to infinity by an illusory game of mirrors. Today, I am offered an autobiographical variant of this childhood cosmogony: this present existence of mine, in reality, would be simply the last of an infinite series of treacherous reflections.

Manuele’s meditation is set off by the sight of an old peasant couple on the road to Aracoeli’s village: he feels he has seen them before; it could only have been in a previous existence.

Morante’s irresistible combination of justesse and poetic originality makes her Weltanschauung seem fresh and freshly discouraging. Freud is ever present—in fact, there is really rather too much Freudian dreaming. All the same, each dream grips and throbs like a late Van Gogh painting, all magic and menace. There is magic and menace too in the talismans, spells, taboos, curses, and invocations that enrich the texture of the narrative. Morante is especially good at exploring the alluring territory that lies between anthropology, psychology, and philosophy: the coming and going of memory; the sense of having been somewhere before; the inexplicable significance of certain objects and places; strange compulsions and attractions.

She is an expressionist, using powerful and extreme images, often painful to the inner eye. After Daniele’s suicide attempt, for instance, Manuele decides to avoid his mother; then he sees that she has taken the initiative by avoiding him: “At this new, unexpected blow, my slavishness—as in those lowest invertebrates, which, if you cut them in two, grow again from their stumps—once more crawled before her, begging for a glance, a syllable.” Aracoeli is not a book for the squeamish. Manuele sees the world as a “lazaret…fermenting with massacres and with sweat.” Morante holds the sweepings from the lazaret floor under the reader’s nose, being particularly insistent on the senses of touch and smell. It is Eugenio’s clammy hand, for instance, that turns off his son; while in the hopeless quest to be loved, smell is an important potential obstacle: “Every creature on earth…offers himself: ‘I am born! Here I am! With this face, this body, and this smell. Do I appeal to you? Do you want me?’ ” Ruthless in her descriptions of what is disgusting, Morante is equally ruthless—tugging at the heartstrings—when she lingers meltingly on the physical appeal of animals, children, and innocent creatures like the young Aracoeli.

Surprisingly, perhaps, she also has a wicked sense of comedy—which comes across sharply in William Weaver’s conscientious translation. It is only rarely exercised, and always on the subject of idiotic social imaginings (like the grandmother’s conjectures about the royal family) or social pretensions. For instance, Aunt Monda admires Mussolini; but Zaira, her snobbish maid, cannot wholly share her admiration, “since according to her system of values, he (and like him, the whole bunch of the principal Fascist leaders) was a climber and therefore not a real gentleman but an upstart! Of necessity she tactfully avoided any discussion of the matter, changing the subject when she had to, as if it were a dish a bit difficult for her stomach to digest.” Daniele explains to Manuele that “a bull’s male, and an ox is castrated.” The little boy asks Aunt Monda what “castrated” means.

…”That’s not a nice word. You say fixed.”

And what does fixed mean?”

It’s a kind of steak.”

One can’t help wishing for a little more of this kind of thing to lighten Morante’s deeply emotional and intensely imagined tear-jerker.