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 …