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Elsa Morante, 1940s

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.


Elsa Morante Estate

Elsa Morante and Pier Paolo Pasolini

Restored to peacetime, the couple fought. Tuck takes sides. Moravia was cold, she explains, and unable to satisfy Morante’s sexual needs. “Rumor has it that he may have been impotent or deviant.” In his autobiography, Moravia remarks that Elsa was “very passionate, but hardly sensual,” a combination that recalls Elisa’s mother in Lies, taking pleasure in the idea of erotic transport but in fact shutting herself up in a room to write passionate letters from an imagined lover.

Over the coming years, Morante would spend huge reserves of energy trying to get a romantic response from Moravia, and he an equal amount resisting. When, in the early 1950s, she openly took a lover, it was the homosexual director Luchino Visconti, suggesting a need to seduce difficult partners rather than satisfy sexual needs. Or perhaps she was just provoking Moravia again. He describes with bewilderment how, on arrival in a hotel in Paris, Elsa apparently fell into a coma for some hours. It was Sunday. He couldn’t find a doctor and was in despair when she opened her eyes and laughed in his face.

Moravia wrote every day at regular hours, producing a novel a year for decades. Morante worked frenetically, morning and night, or did no writing at all, sometimes for years. Indeed it’s hard to understand from Tuck’s biography how she did spend her days, if not drinking in bars with friends—Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini—writing the occasional film review, reading, sunbathing. Fantasies “deprived me of all capacity to act,” complains Elisa in Lies. Published in 1948 and completely out of line with the neorealist style then in vogue, the novel nevertheless won a prize and some bewildered acclaim. Georg Lukács would declare it the best modern Italian novel. Yet it would be nine years before Morante published another, her masterpiece, Arturo’s Island.

A small boy, Arturo, grows up alone on the island of Procida, little more than a rugged hill rising from the Bay of Naples and topped by a gloomy penitentiary. Living in “The House of Rascals” bequeathed to his father by a misogynist recluse, all his education comes from bookshelves dedicated to male hero worship. The only admirable woman ever to have lived was his mother, who died giving birth to him and of whom he preserves a single faded photograph.

Stocky and dark, Arturo worships his tall, blond father, whose mysterious absence only makes him more marvelous to the neglected child’s fable-driven imagination. For all affection he has a dog, Immacolatella, who is as faithful and adoring of him as he is of his father. The two sit together in the boy’s rowboat as he weighs up the adventure of escape to adulthood on the mainland against retreat to the deprived but dreamy security of his island.

Arturo, c’est moi! ” Morante claimed. Having always insisted she wanted to be a boy, she pours her creativity into evoking boyishness on the page, writing in the first person as Arturo with tremendous élan. The opening chapters are irresistibly rich, playful, ironic, poignant. Unable to swim herself and afraid of the sea, Morante plunges into idyllic pages describing Arturo’s seaside swimming. A lover of cats and their imperious elusiveness, she conjures up the most lovingly servile dog. A great believer in women’s independence, she revels in Arturo’s chauvinist views. The landscape, the skies, the earthy villagers, a boy’s fears and yearnings are all rendered with a lyric intensity and ironically patterned symbolism that is lushness itself beside the penitential neorealism of her contemporaries.

Yet much of the charm of this innocent boyhood comes from its evident precariousness. Eventually, as always in Morante’s work, childish happiness is swept aside by the discovery of a parent’s ugly sexuality. Arturo is fourteen when his father brings home a second wife, Nunziatella, only two years older than Arturo himself. The sound of her frightened, animal cries in the bedroom disturbs the boy. Even more disturbing is his realization that the father he thought of as sunny and absolutely sovereign is in fact gloomily besotted with a young male convict imprisoned in the island’s penitentiary.

Confused and naive, Arturo and Nunziatella fall in love, but given her religious respect for her marriage vows, the path to romance is blocked. To add insult to injury she gives birth to a blond baby boy who largely replaces Arturo in her affections. The harrowing finale commences with the release of the convict and his arrival in the House of Rascals. After a failed suicide attempt, Arturo at last abandons an island enchantment that has been transformed from paradise to prison.

Arturo’s Island, Tuck tells us, was the first book of Morante’s she read. “Surprised and shocked,” she knew at once that “I wanted to become a writer.” Why so? She doesn’t explain. Nor, however timely and welcome this carefully compiled biography of Morante may be, is it easy to understand what prompted Tuck to write it. She confesses she has only rudimentary Italian and has not read the novels in the original (Morante’s work is urgently in need of more adequate translations).

But there is a personal connection. In 1948, aged nine, Tuck joined her father, the filmmaker Rodolphe Solmsen, in Rome. He and Tuck’s mother, German Jews, had recently divorced. No doubt it was an intense experience to spend time on film sets and in Rome’s fashionable cafés, meeting the likes of Anna Magnani and Ingrid Bergman. Tuck digresses from Morante’s story to describe how her father’s Jamaican girlfriend (a slave in Ben-Hur !) took her to buy a bikini, and recalls in particular “the luxury of being carefree, young and naive.” At this point the reader begins to suspect that Rome represents for Tuck the pivotal moment explored in Arturo’s Island : at once the fullness of childhood and the beginning of adult secrets. In any event, it is this aspect of Morante’s work that seems to have touched Tuck and that becomes central in her biography, which is at once fascinated and alarmed by Morante’s intensity and pessimism.

While in New York for the publication of Arturo, Morante fell in love with the handsome twenty-three-year-old homosexual painter Bill Morrow. It was 1959. On her return to Rome, she took an apartment and invited him to live with her, though without abandoning her home with Moravia. It was very much a repeat of the Visconti affair: a romantic, improbable relationship lived side by side with a disillusioned but tested one. However, in 1962, on a brief return to New York, under the influence of LSD, Morrow fell, or jumped, from a Manhattan skyscraper. At the same time, Moravia left Morante to live with Dacia Maraini, a younger woman and writer, hence a rival in every sense.

Morante had been working on a novel entitled Without the Comforts of Religion, apparently an exploration of the impossibility of living without some consolatory illusion. Now, devastated, she put the book aside, traveling aimlessly and producing nothing until the 1968 publication of a collection of poems, The World Saved by Children. Many are addressed to Morrow, whom she thought of as an adult who had retained his childhood innocence. In her diary she speaks of herself as having died years ago.

Yet the big success was still to come. When Arturo left his fabulous island we were given the story’s only hint of a date, of history: he was to go as a soldier to World War II. Entitled History, Morante’s next novel reverses these proportions: the war, brutal reality, is the immediate subject. Historical references abound and childhood idyll is reduced to a few brief pages before a catastrophic conclusion. Gone are the flights of lyrical prose and the ironies of parodied archaism. This time Morante writes in a straightforward third-person voice.

The 650-page book opens with a teenage German soldier on the street in Rome looking for affection from an anxious, epileptic Jewish widow bringing home the shopping for her son. When he carries her bag to her apartment, she imagines he is planning to arrest her. The encounter ends with a rape just as she falls into an epileptic fit. He will be killed days later. She is left to bring up a baby boy, Useppe, also epileptic, together with her teenage son, who shifts from being a Fascist activist to a Communist partisan before being killed in a banal accident. Evacuating their bombed-out home, she meets a young Jewish intellectual, escaped from the German death camps, who delivers obsessive monologues on the obscenity of history, an interminable power game played out at the expense of ordinary people like little Useppe, who will die shortly after the war, as a result of being attacked by a group of louts.

Determined to get her message across to the greatest number of people, Morante insisted that the first edition of History be a paperback at the knockdown price of 2,000 lire. In the highly politicized atmosphere of Italy in 1974, it sold 800,000 copies. But the effect on her long-term reputation was not so positive. Often presented as the one Morante novel everyone should read, History has neither the charm nor the dazzling imaginative richness of the others, perhaps because it lacks the disturbing parent-children love triangles that drive their plots.

Morante’s close friend Pasolini wrote an implacably negative review of History. She broke off all contact with him. A year later he was murdered on the beach at Ostia where he regularly went for sex with teenage boys. Lonely and appalled, Morante abandoned her older friends and took up with a younger crowd who admired her work and whose bills she occasionally paid. She was always generous and no doubt it is easier to have a little harmony when those around you recognize your genius. Meantime, she wrote a last novel, Aracoeli, that seems determined to present a world bereft of any consolation. “Almost pointlessly disturbing and shocking” was Tuck’s response on first reading.

Aracoeli is a Spanish peasant girl who, in 1931, meets an officer in the Italian navy. Carrying her off to Rome, he hides her in a separate apartment, since she’s not an acceptable wife for an officer. Here she gives birth to Manuel, the novel’s narrator. She had hoped for a girl. She names him after her brother, in Spain, whom she adores.

Despite this unpromising start, mother and baby enjoy three idyllic years. Aracoeli is all animal innocence, the child all adoration. Then the two move into the father’s house; the boy can no longer sleep with her; Aracoeli must adapt to the demands of society. When the shortsighted Manuel puts on his first spectacles, he realizes that his mother now finds him ugly. The idyll is over.

A baby sister arrives, shifting attention away from Manuel. The little girl dies, and when the mother recovers from her grieving she is transformed. Once shy and modest, Aracoeli becomes aggressively sensual, puts on weight, flounces her hips at men, sends Manuel off for ice cream so that she can seduce laborers on the street. He finds her masturbating, seducing his father’s assistant. Eventually she runs away. The seven-year-old Manuel is sent to his grandparents in Turin, whence he will be recalled to sit at her deathbed after a failed brain operation. During the war her grave is destroyed by bombing. Afterward, an adolescent Manuel briefly meets his drunken father in an abandoned apartment nearby; the collapse of Fascism has completed his ruin.

The novel is set in a forty-eight-hour time frame. Now forty-three, Manuel sets out to visit Aracoeli’s Andalusian birthplace, a village not even shown on the map. “Of all the possible blessings people hunger for,” he tells us, “the only one I ever wanted was: ‘to be loved.'” Yet nothing in his life has compared with the love of those first years with Aracoeli. We hear of his failures with women, his fugitive sexual encounters with men. On every face he was looking for his mother. He imagines her calling to him from the grave, welcoming him to death with open arms. He hates her. When finally he arrives at a deserted hillside village, there is neither revelation nor catharsis. For a few seconds he manages to project his mother onto a small “sack of shadow” and complains to her that he has understood nothing. “But, niño mio chiquito,” comes her imagined reply, “there is nothing to understand.”

This is grim material. It comes across as absolutely compulsive. Morante, Moravia said, “thought of herself as an angel fallen from heaven into the practical hell of daily life. But an angel armed with a pen.” However great their sufferings, her narrators have the gift of fabulous eloquence. They use it to hit back at a world of hypocrisy and kitsch, or to evoke the joys of earliest infancy with a detail and intensity as persuasive as it seems perverse. Even the grotesque descriptions of physical decay in this book, very much in line with Morante’s feelings about her own body at the time, are eloquent and controlled. If Manuel has no positive illusion to take him forward in life, still he masterfully recalls the past, poignantly dramatizing the struggle to establish an identity within Morante’s habitual polarities of animal and rational, innocent and degenerate. But now the literary spell is understood to be strictly confined to the duration of the performance. When the voice falls silent there will be nothing.

Feeling life offered her nothing, in 1983, five months after the publication of Aracoeli, Morante took a large dose of sleeping pills and turned on the gas. Saved by her maid, she was diagnosed with hydroencephalitis. A brain operation kept her miserably alive for two empty years. In the days immediately before her death in November 1985, she tried to help a young Libyan cancer patient with his Italian; the book she gave the boy to learn from was Peter Pan.

This Issue

February 12, 2009