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The Dark in the Piazza

House of Liars

by Elsa Morante, translated from the Italian by Adrienne Foulke, with the editorial assistance of Andrew Chiappe
Harcourt, Brace, 565 pp. (1951)

Arturo’s Island

by Elsa Morante, translated from the Italian by Isabel Quigly
Steerforth Italia, 351 pp. (2002)

History

by Elsa Morante, translated from the Italian by William Weaver and with a foreword by Lily Tuck
Zoland, 740 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Aracoeli

by Elsa Morante, translated from the Italian by William Weaver
Random House, 311 pp. (1984)

In the summer of 1942 a recently married couple strolled around the island of Capri in the Bay of Naples, he with an owl on his shoulder, she with a Siamese cat on a leash. Alberto Moravia was thirty-five and the celebrated author of Gli indifferenti (The Uncaring Ones1); Elsa Morante had just published a collection of fantasy children’s stories written in her adolescence. Now she was thirty. An owl, for Italians, is emblematic of grumpiness; Elsa would always complain of Alberto’s “incurable detachment.” A Siamese cat on a leash could hardly help but seem exotic. Elsa shunned reality, Alberto remarked, the way her many cats shunned water.

In his autobiography, Moravia recalls how the two met in their home city of Rome in 1937.2 “We were at a dinner party with friends and, saying goodbye, she put her house keys in my hand.” As slow and unromantic as Elsa was impulsive, Alberto proposed marriage four years later because “it was such a cold winter that after walking her home every evening I got back chilled to the bone.”

Unusually for the period, the young Morante lived alone; following a violent argument with her mother, she had left home at eighteen. Frequently she went hungry. In addition to publishing a few short stories, she gave private lessons to make ends meet and wrote graduation theses for students too lazy to do the work themselves. Always top of the class at school, she herself had dropped out of university for lack of funds. “Her hair had gone white in adolescence,” recalls Moravia,

a big mushroom of it above a round face. She was very short-sighted, with beautiful eyes and that dreamy look short-sighted people do have. She had a small nose and a large, capricious mouth. A rather childish face.

Years later, Pasolini would refer to her as a nonna bambina—a girl granny.

Telling the story in Woman of Rome, a new biography of Morante, the American novelist Lily Tuck admires the writer’s candor in acknowledging that she resorted to prostitution in those difficult years. Tuck also mentions a possibly aborted child had by one of many lovers and suggests that this might be why Morante never had children later. But without corroboration it is hard to be sure of anything Morante said about herself. “Not much happened in Elsa’s life,” Moravia comments, “but she livened it up…with lies that were…pathetic, I mean that aroused pathos in her regard, her private myths.” The book Morante was writing in Capri in 1942 would bear the title Menzogna e sortilegio (Lies and Sorcery3). Its narrator, Elisa, an obvious alter ego for Elsa, describes the aspiration of her youth thus:

To become a worshiper and anchorite of falsehood! To meditate on lies and make them one’s wisdom! To reject all experience, not just painful experience, but moments of happiness too, denying any possibility of contentment outside untruth! That’s how I have lived.

Born in 1912, Elsa was preceded by a brother who died a toddler; she would grow up hearing him referred to as a king and potential genius. From earliest childhood Elsa wished to be a boy and strove to prove herself a genius. She claimed to have written her first poem at age two and a half. It is hard to be in competition with a dead paragon.

The family lived in a working-class area of Rome. Morante’s Jewish mother, Irma, was a schoolteacher while the man Elsa grew up calling father, Irma’s husband, Augusto Morante, worked at a boy’s reform school. Years later, she and her three younger siblings would discover that Augusto had been impotent and that a man they had known as an uncle was in fact their father. Meantime, Irma punished her husband’s sexual failure with constant humiliation. He slept alone in the basement and was not allowed to eat with the family or share their life. “Irma,” Tuck recounts, “was a shouter…. The walls of the Monteverde house never ceased to reverberate with screams, insults and threats.”

To escape domestic conflict, or to get the upper hand, Elsa retired to her room and wrote compulsively, creating fantasy worlds she then acted out with her younger brothers. Lower middle class as the family was, these worlds were always aristocratic and nobly antiquated. The women were beautiful and kisses turned dark hair to blond. Invariably, the brothers were given roles that involved slavish obedience to plain, dark Elsa.

As it turned out there was an aristocrat in Morante’s life. Ambitious for her children, Irma had persuaded Donna Maria Guerrieri Gonzaga to become Elsa’s godmother and, albeit reluctantly, the wealthy woman agreed to have the girl stay in her villa for months at a time. Elsa thus experienced a world of economic ease and proud tradition without possessing it or feeling reassured. However long she spent with Donna Maria, her affections remained with her mother, though she wished that Irma would lose weight and dress more elegantly. For her part, Irma was both proud and envious. No sooner had Elsa won some praise for her writing than she too wrote and published a story.

The situation made for confused emotions. After one argument Elsa slipped a note under her mother’s door bearing the word maledetta (accursed one), then sometime later another with the word benedetta (blessed one). Although translations like “bitch” and “saint” might better convey the tone of these messages, the frustrated appeal to supernatural powers—invoking curses and blessings—is typical of the characters Morante creates. None of them are at ease with reality, nor do they accept the people around them for who they are. Or to put it another way: the aspect of reality that most interested Morante was people’s, as she saw it, endemic determination to deny the world they found themselves in, imposing on it, and above all on those close to them, an illusory, parallel world, more gratifying to the ego.

Lies and Sorcery is 706 dense pages in its Italian edition.4 Responding to the question “Was Morante ambitious?” Moravia replied, “Ambitious would be an understatement. Literature was her life.” In fact Lies is remarkable not just for its scope but for its highly conscious literariness. Though the characters are contemporary, drawn for the most part from humble backgrounds, the style is elevated and archaic to the point of parody, aligning itself with their pretensions rather than their circumstances. The intention, Morante explained years later, was to “kill” the novel genre once and for all, presumably by showing how all novelizing was a form of tyranny and delusion, a theme that nods back to Don Quixote, which Morante cites as a model, and looks forward to the work of writers like Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard.

But it is the word “kill” that most characterizes Morante’s mindset. For her, ambition always meant competition, hopefully domination. “Elsa,” remarked Moravia, himself unsettled by her competitiveness, “was a bit totalitarian.” He would have been aware that “totalitarian” was a word Mussolini had coined.

In “killing” the novel, Morante, as a novelist, would also be wounding herself, and Lies and Sorcery is a story whose characters have a vocation to self-destruction. The setting is Sicily. Chaste and isolated for years in the house of her “protectress,” Rosaria, Elisa tries to break the spell she is under by telling her story. She begins with her grandmother. To escape from poverty, the avid, ingenuous Cesira married the aging Teodoro, a dissolute aristocrat on the brink of bankruptcy. Neither partner had any conception of the other’s illusions in their regard.

Teodoro’s wealthy family at once cut off all communication with their penniless relatives, who nevertheless lived with a constant, corrosive yearning for status and wealth. Eventually, Anna, their only child, meets and falls in love with her handsome cousin Edoardo, bringing aristocratic and ordinary worlds together in a brief idyll. Edoardo, however, spoiled beyond redemption by riches and mother love, betrays Anna with his friend Francesco’s fiancée, Rosaria. On the rebound, Anna and Francesco are united in the book’s second catastrophic marriage, which again produces a single offspring, Elisa, the narrator.

The climax of the tale is told over two hundred delirious pages following Edoardo’s death. In denial, his bigoted mother convinces herself that her son is still alive. To assist her in this illusion, Anna is persuaded to write love letters as if from Edoardo to herself and to read them to the decrepit mother. The ten-year-old Elisa is present as her mother writes these steamy letters, and again as she reads them out loud and the two Edoardo-obsessed women go into ecstasies over the dead man’s belongings.

The more letters she writes, the more Anna enters into a fantasy world far more satisfying than her relationship with adoring husband Francesco, who now imagines she must be having an affair. Reveling in his humiliation, Anna does everything to increase his suspicions, even encouraging him to kill her for her unfaithfulness. She appears to find intense erotic pleasure in imagined transgression while not wishing to have any real sexual contact with anyone.

Meanwhile, hopelessly in love with her mother (“first and most serious of all my unhappy loves”), Elisa is both caught up in the drama and entirely neglected, obliged to watch her mother grow madder daily, her father more abject and drunk. “You’re a coward!” the mother yells when Francesco is unable to kill her.

I am a coward, yes, my treasure,” my father replied as he began to kiss her hands again. “I am a coward, but you, you haven’t betrayed me, have you? Confess, confess, my angel, my saint, you just slandered yourself, you lied on impulse, it was a child’s whim. Confess and from now on I’ll be nothing but your servant night and day, I’ll respect you like a sister, I’ll respect the hatred you feel for me, my only reason for living will be to honour you.”

Morante’s achievement in this bizarre and marvelous novel is her ability to play off overheated melodrama (drawing on southern Italian tropes of mother love and masculine honor) against profound, wry, sometimes even mocking reflection on the mind’s inexhaustible appetite for self-deception, lies generating “spells,” or altered mental states that fester for years.

It may seem strange that a writer should be concocting such Gothic tales exactly as Europe was overwhelmed by war, but what was the Fascist rhetoric that had surrounded Morante throughout her youth if not an attempt to impose a precarious myth of militarism and antique glory on a poverty-stricken modern Italy? “Illusion, is perhaps the only reality in life,” Mussolini once remarked, in much the tone of Morante’s Elisa; though on another occasion he did confess that “it is impossible to ignore reality, however sad.”

Reality finally caught up with Mussolini and broke Fascism’s long spell in 1944. The consequences for Morante and her husband were dire. After the Duce was ousted and the Nazis raced to Rome to block the Allied advance, Moravia discovered that his name was on a list of men the Germans were seeking to arrest. Fleeing by train to Naples, the couple were forced to get off in open country because of bomb damage to the line. Climbing into the hills, they took refuge with the poorest of farming folk and eventually spent nine months awaiting the Allied armies, eating one frugal meal a day, living in a tiny room with bare earth for a floor, and surviving Nazi roundups, British air attacks, and long periods of inactivity. Elsa, Moravia acknowledges, was at her best in these extreme circumstances, on one occasion bravely returning to Rome alone to pick up warm clothes for winter. It was normal life, he explains, that she found impossible.

  1. 1

    The American edition is entitled A Time of Indifference, but for the purposes of this review it seems important to give the exact sense of the Italian title.

  2. 2

    Life of Moravia is actually a book-length interview with coauthor Alain Elkann (Steerforth Italia, 2000). Translations here are my own.

  3. 3

    The American edition is entitled House of Liars. However, since the connection between lies and sorcery was important to Morante, I use a more literal translation of the original title. Translations from the book are my own.

  4. 4

    To Morante’s chagrin, the American edition was abridged by two hundred pages.

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