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!
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.”
Before the birth of her bastard child by the German, one of the worst fears the respectable and submissive Ida has is of the reaction of her legitimate son Nino to the arrival of the baby. In a brilliant stroke we have already been given a glimpse of Nino as seen through the eyes of the German rapist who stares around her room:
He came to a halt at an enlarged photograph, which occupied the place of honor on the wall, framed like an important oil painting. It portrayed (at about half life-size) a little hoodlum of perhaps fifteen or sixteen, wrapped in a sumptuous camel’s-hair coat, which he wore as if it were a flag. Between the fingers of his right hand you could vaguely discern a cigarette’s whiteness: and his left foot rested on the running-board of a custom-built sports car.
At the time of the birth of his younger brother Nino has been away on some thuggish adventure. One day Ida comes home from shopping and finds he has returned.
He was all tanned, and an extraordinary liveliness shone in his eyes. With a thrilled voice, in irresistible suprise, he said:
“Hey, mà ! Who’s that?”
And he led her straight into the bedroom, where with little peals of rejoicing laughter, which already seemed a dialogue, he bent over the cot. And there was Giuseppe, who looked at him as if he recognized him already. His gaze, till then dreamy, misted in infancy, seemed to express in this moment the first thought of his life: a thought of supreme festive understanding. So that even his little arms and his tiny legs accompanied it, hinting at a minimal, primitive waving.
Realizing that he has gained an advantage by his accepting Giuseppe, Nino immediately demands of his mother that he should be allowed to have a dog, and without exactly getting her approval, dashes out into the street and returns with a mongrel whom he names Blitz. Nino’s love for Blitz and Giuseppe shows us redeeming qualities in the brutalized young tough. Giuseppe awakens in Nino poetic imagination, Blitz, enraptured love. Elsa Morante sees children in the light of their pathos, as Henry James also saw them. And in its way the portrait of Giuseppe is the most inspired invention in this book.
Giuseppe (or Useppe as he is usually called) indeed works a transformation of the brutally realistic material partly into magic fairy tale. He makes Nino, who kisses him frequently, loving and less brutal—if not less delinquent—his vulgarity harlequin-like. For Useppe, Nino is the innocent Italian for whom a motorcycle is a roaring snorting magic steed. It may be objected that toward the end of the book, after the deaths of Blitz and Nino, when Giuseppe is left virtually abandoned except by his mother and by Bella, his sheepdog, the fantasy goes too far. When Useppe makes up one-line poems, and Bella speaks whole sentences to him, while a bird repeats “it’s a joke a joke all a joke”—perhaps this provides Dickensian sentimental relief only to the surrounding horrors. But at least two reasons may justify the fantasy. One is that Else Morante has an uncanny understanding of Roman boys and of their dogs, and never translates into language signs of childishness or animality beyond the point where they are convincing to us. The other is that only fantastic imagination can sustain this story of the crushing reality of the History which destroys so many of its victims.
Giuseppe’s poetic nature bears the weight of his world from the moment when he becomes aware of life (Nino, Blitz, his mother) outside himself. The burden on him is that he is always there, at the center of things, often alone, when his mother is teaching or scrounging for food, his brother off on his adventures. The apartment house is destroyed in a daylight raid, and Ida and Giuseppe (Blitz has been killed and Nino has gone off God knows where) occupy a corner of a large refugee shelter at the edge of the Pietralata area, together with its other inhabitants. Outstanding among these are an extremely promiscuous group, half Roman and half Neapolitan, more or less interrelated, nicknamed “The Thousand.” The stench and misery of this life are what History has accomplished. But “the promiscuous life in the single, huge common room, which was a daily torment for Ida, for Useppe was all a festivity. His minuscule life had always been solitary and isolated (except on the happy nights of air-raid alarms); and now he had the sublime good luck to find himself, day and night, in numerous company! He seemed positively insane, in love with all.”
Ida considers herself a fugitive from the Nazi-Fascist racial laws, but at the same time she is drawn back always by some passionate need of identification to the ghetto. One of the novelist’s strongest insights is of the way in which timid and exposed sensibilities need other people as props and how if these are removed they become panicky and defenseless. With Ida, her father and husband have been removed, as, later, everyone but Ida and his sheepdog is to be removed from Giuseppe. So perhaps in going back to the ghetto, Ida obscurely feels that she is going back to her own relations. On one such visit, carrying Giuseppe in her arms, she witnesses the deportation in trucks of its inhabitants. The horror of this sight is transmitted to Giuseppe:
And as she peered around to examine him, she saw him still staring at the train, his face motionless, his mouth half-open, his eyes wide in an indescribable gaze of horror.
His magic world is undermined and finally will be shattered by History.
A mysterious character who appears in the large room of the refugee shelter calls himself Vivaldi Carlo. Later we learn that he is a Jewish partisan who has been tortured and has escaped, and whose real name is Davide Segre. When he has recovered from the frightful effects of his torture and escape he leaves the big room to rejoin the partisans together with Nino, whom Davide adores, and who changes, in the course of the story, from being a Fascist to being a communist partisan and then, with the Allied occupation, a black market operator.
“Consciousness” in the latter half of the novel is shared by Giuseppe with his amazing gift of happiness and by Davide with his tormented conscience of the anarchist in revolt against his bourgeois forebears. But in them, as in everyone else in this novel, consciousness is doomed to destruction by History. Giuseppe develops the symptoms of a more extreme form of epilepsy than his mother’s. This may or may not be inherited from her, but the profounder significance of the attacks which make him fall are the shocks he has received from glimpses of the workings of History in air raids, deportations, and the solitude to which he is condemned after the departure of the other inhabitants of the big room.
The form which Davide’s personal tragedy takes is also that of a defect which might seem inherited: the drug addiction of a very bourgeois aunt who had been the object of his greatest contempt when he was a child. But the real significance of his auto-intoxication is of course the utter contradiction between his humanist political faith and History. The climax of the political part of the novel is a long scene in a tavern in which Davide harangues the cardplayers on the subject of the willful reticence of everyone “on the subject of the last war and its millions of dead.” This scene is the only one in which Elsa Morante employs heavy novelistic devices of a Dostoevskian kind to make her âme damnée Davide smuggle in the impedimenta of a serious political thesis.
And setting out on this assignment, with the same seriousness as when, a schoolboy, he was called to the board, he began, with a speech so diligent and orderly he seemed to be reading from a breviary:
1) The word Fascism is of recent coinage, but it corresponds to a social system of prehistoric decrepitude, absolutely rudimentary, and indeed less evolved than that used among anthropoids…; 2) such a system is in fact based on the exploitation of the helpless (peoples or classes or individuals) by those who have the means to use violence; 3) in reality, from its primitive origins, and all through the course of human History, there has existed no other system but this. Recently, the name of Fascism or Nazism has been given to certain extreme eruptions of ignominy, madness, and stupidity, characteristic of bourgeois degeneration; however, the system as such is still functioning everywhere (under different, even contradictory names and aspects…), always, everywhere, since the beginning of human History….
Intoxicated as he may be, Davide here surely comes very near to expressing the author’s own view of History: The point is very strongly made in her account of the lives of her characters that their fates are scarcely affected by the Allied landings, the liberation of Europe, the meetings between leaders cutting up the world into spheres of influence. The reader may protest that although the disasters in the lives of poor little doomed Useppe and Ida his mother and Davide the partisan hero are convincing, the political generalizations drawn from this are too pessimistic.
Here we are brought back to the particular case of Italy, or rather of Rome and the scandal of the Roman bourgeoisie. Reading History we are reminded of the preface that an English poet of the First World War, Wilfred Owen, wrote to his Poems: “All a poet can do today is to warn.” As it bears on politics History provides a gravely pessimistic warning. But this is alleviated—contradicted at times—by the immense vitality of the life described. Present at the scene in which Davide delivers his fulminations are Useppe and his sheepdog Bella, who finally lead Davide away. Before this there is a wonderful meeting between Davide and Useppe, which draws together the themes of Davide’s love for Useppe and for Nino. Davide says:
“You and your brother…are so different, you don’t even seem like brothers. But you’re alike in one thing: happiness. Your happiness is the joy of…of everything. You’re the happiest creature in the world. Always, every time I’ve seen you, I’ve thought that, since the first days I met you, there in that big room…I always avoided looking at you, I felt such pity!”
But with the selfish destructiveness of the addict, Davide also delivers the death blow at Useppe which is the violent withdrawal of the prop of his friendship. Useppe and Bella go to visit him in his darkened room and are greeted with the cry: “Clear out, you ugly fool, you and your lousy dog!”
Useppe heard no more. The window had been closed again. Certainly, at that moment, the earth didn’t tremble; but Useppe had exactly the same sensation as if an earthquake had been released from the center of the universe.
History ends with the death of Davide Segre, followed by that of Useppe, which results in Ida’s going mad. The novel’s last words are, “…and History continues….” The tragic end is of course inevitable, imposed by Elsa Morante’s view of History and perhaps also by the nineteenth-century form she has chosen. The great virtue of her novel however is that although the reader accepts the inevitable ending, the life conveyed works as much against tragedy as for it.
The pathos of Useppe’s death is particularly grim. He and Bella come upon a delinquent boy called Scimó who is hiding from the police in a hut near the river. They visit him daily. When he is captured by the authorities, the last of Useppe’s props is taken away. But what one remembers is the eruption of this vivid and amusing character Scimó into the lives of Useppe and Bella:
The boy had, in fact, thin little arms and legs, exceptionally short in their proportions (though he himself was far from tall). His face, especially seen in profile, protruded like an animal’s muzzle. His eyes were round and set apart, of a lively olive color; his nose, small and restless, was almost flat. And his mouth, so straight it seemed without lips, still stretched to his ears when he condescended to smile.
On his head, recently shaved, a thick wool was growing back, like a little brown coat; and some tiny tufts of hair also blossomed from his ears, which were minuscule, and stuck out somewhat. Finally, over his white polo shirt and his dark gray shorts, this character wore, at present, a comical makeshift garment, not even sewn, and with two holes for sleeves: it derived, apparently, from a piece of khaki tarpaulin, once hastily painted here and there with patches of greenishbrown paint!
Scimó, on the run from the cops, is also defending his hut from a terrifying gang called the Pirates. He has various exotic possessions:
Digging into the pocket of his shorts, he took out an almost intact pack of Lucky Strikes. “American!” he boasted, showing them to Useppe. “They were a present!”
“Who gave them to you?”
The hut by the river where Useppe and Bella visit Scimó is from the Paradise of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, intertwined with the Hell of the Songs of Experience—without the Hell of history’s Satanic mills, innocence is meaningless. At the very end Giuseppe, who has Bella with him, is defending Scimó’s hut from a gang of boys who may be—but are probably not—the Pirates. One of them throws the stone that precipitates the attack of epilepsy from which Giuseppe later dies. This passage, describing Bella’s account of the battle, follows:
The ignorance of dogs, truly, is often foolish to the point of mania; and the shepherdess, according to her visionary psychology, was giving, of today’s events, the following interpretation:
THE DEFEATED WOLVES HAVE RETREATED IN FLIGHT, ABANDONING THE SIEGE OF THE HUT AND THE ENGAGEMENT ENDED WITH THE SENSATIONAL VICTORY OF USEPPE AND BELLA.
(I LUPI SCONFITTI SI SONO RITIRATI IN FUGA RINUNCIANDO AL’ ASSEDIO DELLA CAPANNA E LO SCONTRO È TERMINATO CON LA VITTORIA STREPITOSA DI GIUSEPPE E BELLA.)
So the book ends on the note of one of Mussolini’s war bulletins. But this too has been transformed by the sheep-dog Bella into something magical. Elsa Morante creates, paradoxically, more life than death in this tragic and pessimistic novel, whose visionary force lies not so much in the fate of her little band of doomed victims as in the nightmare of a period of history which had no regard for these lives, the history of Fascism, which, if we are to believe Davide Segre, in altered form still goes on today. Read the news from Italy. “History continues.”
Translation of a novel in which the dialogue is often in dialect, and very idiosyncratic, and in which there are passages of poetry, is a well-nigh impossible task, but William Weaver has produced a work which reads convincingly and with little awkwardness in English. It is a fine achievement.
April 28, 1977