House of Liars
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 Ones); 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. “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 Sorcery). 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 …