The Disillusionist

Arturo’s Island

by Elsa Morante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Liveright, 370 pp., $27.95
Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images
Elsa Morante, Rome, 1961

We live in a golden age of reissues. Every publishing season seems to bring fresh editions from a vital but ignored past: say, Clarice Lispector, who had one book come out last year, or Lucia Berlin, who had two. For readers, republication offers something rare: the possibility of reclaiming history simply by opening a book. The proper response to this is surely celebration. But I can’t help feeling a bit depressed that so many of the cool new writers are dead.

I’ve been particularly interested in the resurgence of midcentury women novelists who share certain characteristics. These women were underappreciated in their own lifetimes. They may have gotten prizes and awards, but they never earned the fame or money of their male peers or, in many cases, their more successful husbands. They distanced themselves from the women’s movement. They were rude in ways that were probably deeply unpleasant for their contemporaries but now translate nicely into witty anecdotes and retorts.

Take Elsa Morante. Like many of the authors who are regularly discovered and rediscovered, Morante never became internationally famous. Her novels are not widely read outside of Italy, unlike those of her husband, Alberto Moravia, or the works of many of the artists she collaborated with over the course of her life, like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Natalia Ginzburg. Her novels are not difficult, but they are also not easy: violent, emotionally tangled, lushly written in a way that often reads in English as more melodramatic than dramatic, and almost overwhelmingly ambitious.

“Elsa was a bit totalitarian,” Moravia said of his wife after her death. A man who had escaped fascism could not have meant that lightly, but it comes across as accurate and sincere. Morante’s novels have the drive of a general ready to obliterate the field. She’s also one of Elena Ferrante’s favorite writers, and the one from whom she derived her pen name. The connection is made very clear by the fact that this new translation of Arturo’s Island is by Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, and has a quote from Ferrante on the back.

The violence of Morante’s world starts at birth. Adults who pine for their childhood, boys who want to climb back into the womb: the men Morante wrote about experience entering the world as rejection. “I know, in fact, that mine was real weeping, desperate mourning,” Manuel says of his birth in Aracoeli (1982), Morante’s final novel. He “didn’t want to be separated from” his mother. “I must have already known that that first, blood-stained separation of ours would be followed by another, and another, until the last, the most bloody of all. To live means to experience separation.” Later, he describes trying to suckle on his mother’s breast as a child after his younger sister died: “A great pounding of my heart shook…

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