The English-speaking world isn’t all that familiar with the work of Elsa Morante, but in her native Italy she became more famous than her very famous husband, Alberto Moravia. Her writing won important prizes—and yet there seems never to have been any consensus of opinion about it. Lies and Sorcery is the second, and very welcome, English translation of her first novel, Menzogna e sortilegio, originally published in 1948—an enveloping tumult of a book whose forcefulness and utter oddness throw some light on the noisy discord of responses to her work.
Let’s say (it’s an undemanding hypothesis, anyhow) that novels generally set themselves in motion with a problem that must be solved or a challenge that must be met—something of that sort. And that this—usually implicit—statement of purpose, along with distinctive aspects of style and tone and so on, shapes the reader’s expectations and instructs the reader how to read what follows. The predicament outlined at the opening of Lies and Sorcery is expressed urgently and in detail, though perhaps somewhat murkily. And from there on out, we might have to just drop the idea that the way ahead of us will be clear—and the way, undeniably, is long, almost eight hundred pages, which might have run to near twice that if the print were a friendlier size.
It is a few months after the death of Elisa’s “winsome and extravagant” guardian, Rosaria—“labeled in our parts a fallen woman”—who has housed and protected Elisa since the death of her parents when she was ten. And this recent death, of the one remaining person she loved, has brought Elisa to an impasse. Although it has been over fifteen years since her parents died, Elisa is only now examining their legacy: the enigma of the circumstances attending their deaths; her own extreme fear of rejection; and, most significantly, the tangle of vague and confusing lies in which she is lost.
The reader might also wonder how the ward of a free spirit, who seems to be a prostitute or something of the sort, has turned out to be so prim, neurotic, and self-conscious, but the more pressing problem—for Elisa, anyhow—is a tormenting sense of her own falseness. In the silence of her sudden solitude, she sees that she has lived her life in thrall not only to the lies her parents lived by but also to the progeny of those lies: insubstantial, self-flattering, childish, and consuming fantasies of her own construction.
These consolatory and pleasurable fantasies—fantasies of a prestigious (even solvent) ancestry and loving family—have insulated her from painful realities, but only at the cost of leaving her disastrously diminished, arrested, isolated, and all but immobilized. Clearly, she must find her way out of this self-perpetuating prison by disentangling herself from the skeins of deceptions she has inherited and elaborated. “All I desire is to be honest with myself,” she says. But how is she to go about that, debilitated as she is? It takes a great deal of energy and all too much practice to be a person—to yield to reality as it comes at you. Desperation supplies the key:
During these wakeful nights, my former delusions were replaced by a new companion—my memory. I would spend the entire night recalling past events. My past, my childhood…. But also their pasts, those of my mother, my father, and my entire dead family. The only verb I can use to describe this activity is “to remember.” Things I never knew about I now understood and I could retrace their lives from the beginning, as if their experiences were mine….
In my dreams I would encounter the same people and the same city of my memories…. I rose out of bed, and sat at my side table, straining to hear my memory as it whispered recollections of the night’s dreams, dictating to me page upon page of the chronicles of my family’s past.
Those pages are what we’re reading. A novel purporting to be a document written (rather than a story told) by its protagonist is a double dose of fiction right off the bat. And considering the conspicuous similarity between Elisa’s name and her author’s, it seems that Morante is administering a triple dose—an invitation to contemplate stories (fictions? lies?) at the heart of a life.
It’s easy enough to accept the proposition that sleep is a sort of shuttle service that carries day’s inscrutable substances to the refinery of dreams, where they will be converted into disguised disclosures—and certainly we sometimes find ourselves in possession of knowledge that we didn’t know we’d acquired. But Elisa’s/Morante’s conflation here of memory, dream, and information to which we’ve never actually been exposed might raise some eyebrows.
Elisa does occasionally concede that even collaboration between the penetrating insight of dreams and the elastic stuff of memory will have left gaps in her record of the family history that require some speculation to fill in. And anyhow, either we accept the premise or at this point the book goes sailing out the window. But by the time the reader has been hypnotized into believing that Elisa’s dreams are accurate reports, any mention of dream mediation lapses, and we’re right there, receiving, as Elisa has, the histories of her parents and grandparents with nothing at all to buffer us from her harsh, impassioned tale.
Although Elisa is in Rome as she writes, almost the entirety of her story is set in the city of her birth and childhood, an unnamed city in the south whose somber magic is a sort of incense that suffuses the book. This city, whose citizens “cling to old superstitions and who, for centuries, have been lorded over by a dominant feudal class,” survives
in an arid and barren landscape, distant from any industry (apart from a few sulfur mines and glass factories). Few rich people live here, and those who do are descended from old families whose wealth comes from huge properties handed down for generations…. Only the church possesses equivalent patrician domains, the clergy sharing with the grand, and for the most part devout, landowners the blind and mystical respect of the ragged poor.
The Old City is still surrounded by its original wall, and “there, now mostly neglected or falling apart, were once noble, grandiose structures of marble and stone, though even in their splendor, cumbersome and forlorn.” Those strolling in the cool, fresh air of the public garden high above the city can look down at
the railway as it meanders into the countryside. A multitude of apartment buildings has grown up along the tracks, with squalid architecture already in decay…. Constructed with cheap materials and intended for the lower middle class—clerks, manual laborers, and shopkeepers—the buildings are tall, wide, packed with hundreds of families, and crisscrossed by narrow and badly maintained streets.
A new, more squalid district, crumbling even as it arises, sprawls out near the open fields. This is populated by what Elisa/Morante also designates as a lower middle class: miners, railway workers—people on the perilous brink of ruin. And it is home to Elisa and her family.
The principal figures in Morante’s drama, in addition to the precocious witness, include little Elisa’s beautiful, arrogant, coldly self-involved mother, Anna; her self-lacerating, abject, grandiose disaster of a father, Francesco; and her two sets of grandparents, whose histories are indispensable to our understanding of the others. Francesco’s parents are rural, Anna’s urban, but all these people live under the—generally increasing—weight of poverty.
There are also immensely wealthy relatives—aristocrats, who lead a very different life. This is the Cerentano/Massia family, to which Anna’s father, Teodoro Massia, belongs, and from which he is irremediably estranged:
From a young age he demonstrated an indifference, or better yet, a disdain for the privileges of his birth, as well as for the customs and prejudices of his class. However, it would be an error to assume that he was a saint or hero. Unfortunately…he did little else beyond cultivating his vices.
As a young man, Teodoro sails buoyantly along on his charm, wonderful good looks, panache, and lavish expenditures, but by the time he comes to have regrets about his valiant (or cavalier) rejection of the family cachet and wealth, his good looks and inheritance are all but gone, his gifts have atrophied, and he has disgraced himself far beyond the limits of social acceptance, to say nothing of his family’s slim margin of tolerance.
Late in the day, when nobody else shows up wanting to be charmed by him, Teodoro mindlessly allows himself to be charmed by Cesira, a pretty governess in the home of some patrician friends. Fears and hopes inspire both parties to misrepresent themselves (or, as it could more charitably be put, to show their “best selves”), and vanity enables each to misinterpret the other. Their wishful fantasies form the gauzy basis, which falls into shreds before the wedding is over, of their marriage—a marriage between a venal shrew rather than the innocent flower Teodoro envisioned and a destitute and pathetic alcoholic rather than the glamorous man-about-town on whom Cesira had been counting to rescue her from either humiliating servitude or penury. Their daughter will be Anna, and her daughter, Elisa.
Teodoro’s sister, the devout, censorious, and obtusely self-congratulatory Concetta, is the Cerentano matriarch. Her children, Anna’s cousins, are Augusta, a dour, devoted dishrag of a daughter, and the dazzling, irresistible Edoardo—disastrously overindulged, moderately talented and cultivated, willful, capricious, easily bored, and, as you would guess, mean as a snake when bored. Edoardo, Elisa writes, is “the true culprit…the shifty fabricator of our every intrigue.” The bridge between the two unequal branches of the family, Teodoro’s and Concetta’s, has been left in utter disrepair—and yet, however frightening or dangerous to cross, the bridge remains a fact, and as such is indestructible.
The marriage between Elisa’s parents is no less anguished than the marriage between her mother’s parents. On Anna’s part there is not, and never was, a trace of love for her husband, Francesco. Indolent as she is, Anna completes rudimentary housewifely chores, but she expresses only frosty scorn in response to Francesco’s worshipful ardor. And she has the minimum possible interest in little Elisa, who is also—how else to put it—in love with her beautiful mother.
The city these people share is like a stunning, dramatically lit set for an Italian opera, in which the characters, caught in its highly stratified social stranglehold—maintained, to common benefit, by the feudal aristocracy and the bejeweled clergy—are inescapably consigned to their roles and fated tragedies. As it happens, several of the characters (men) like to show off their good voices and musicianship by bursting into familiar arias, but we readers hear the bars around their solitary cages being rattled.
It’s not a milieu conducive to upward mobility, and you won’t find much of that in Elisa’s account. On the contrary, every ambition is thwarted, both by the rock-solid architecture of the social system and by the characters’ rebellious displays of self-destructive behavior. It’s true that Rosaria, Elisa’s sunny guardian, is something of an exception, but as her good fortune is owing exclusively to the mutual enthusiasm between her and men, she might not exactly count as an exemplar of a flexible or benign social system. In fact, almost the only significant social mobility demonstrated is Teodoro’s—his straight downward plummet.
As Elisa’s young life has taken place in a cramped and comfortless apartment, the cast is relatively sparse and her experience, lived and remembered, is, to say the least, intense. Although her retrospective reflections filter in, we are largely being addressed by the unhappy child, whose fears, loneliness, and ignorance magnify and distort what she observes.
But experience is intense for the other characters, too. With so little room to breathe, they are caught in the snares of their compensatory aspirations, enduringly knit together by misdirected longings and fixations that could seem, to put it politely, disturbing (although Morante is too unconventional a writer and thinker to apply labels like “sadist” or “narcissist” or “incestuous” that would reduce, pathologize, or dismiss essential complexities and ambiguities). Around and around they go, these figures from Elisa’s childhood, always missing the exits, engraving their destinies, as time goes on, ever more deeply.
Morante’s prose, too, has a slippery, feverish, dreamlike quality; for the most part it’s stately and naturalistic—elegant prose that might have seemed at home in the later part of the nineteenth century, a bit brittle, often very beautiful, and rich in superb analogies. But one is bound to notice strange colorations gleaming through it—some startling, slangy anachronisms, for example, and suggestions of ironic self-consciousness, even self-mockery. There are jokey chapter headings: “An Unexpected and Knavish Collision,” “The Pockface Has Some Bad Luck in Love,” “Is the Art of Romantic Seduction Simply a Matter of Lousy Prose?”
It’s as if Morante were writing with both a scalpel and a blunt hatchet. The meticulous detail and emphatic, repetitive characterization plus the holes the writer has punched into the novel’s pointedly elevated style (surely a workout for the translator) can give the reader an impression of not quite seeing straight, of not being securely situated within the book’s rules and principles—the feeling of struggling to get a peek at something that’s concealed. The story seems to have escaped from its container and to be swerving around instead of sitting comfortably on its pages.
Initially it all seemed too declarative to me, too heightened, too hectic to credit. There were moments when I felt as though I were locked in the spin cycle of a washing machine with a very high, OCD octopus. But each time I put the book down, with the intention of never picking it up again, a tentacle would reach out, seize me, and drop me right back in my chair, reading. At some point, a potent enchantment prevailed, and for me, the book’s impassioned insistence became an unassailable and transporting reality.
Most, if not all, of Morante’s writings have had plenty of detractors, though not necessarily the same detractors for each. And it seems to have been especially irksome to many of her left-leaning Italian readers that, despite her clear partisan rage on behalf of the poor and working class, she was a witness, not an ideologue, and her writings were neither programmatic nor predictable.
Her most overtly political work, the massive La Storia (History), published in 1974, is her most widely read. The plot is based on a newspaper account of a young child’s death and concerns the immensely difficult and turbulent day-to-day lives of “ordinary people” during the war. It sold 800,000 copies within a year of publication and was also violently criticized on various grounds. Conflict about books is usual, of course, but Morante’s readers seem especially to have bristled at each new work as if betrayed. Pier Paolo Pasolini, for instance, who was probably Morante’s closest friend for many years, wrote a review of La storia so brutal that the friendship was absolutely unsalvageable.
In Woman of Rome (2008), her warmly admiring biography of Morante, Lily Tuck noted that “at the time of the publication of House of Liars, the Hungarian philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács said that it was the greatest modern Italian novel.”* But most critics at the time, she writes, “greeted the novel with incomprehension.” And one of the readers who is out of sympathy with the novel is Tuck herself. She regards it with “admiration…for the ambitious enterprise,” but adjusts her uneasy praise, saying that House of Liars is
a strangely anachronistic and lugubrious novel. The reader is not drawn to any of the characters, nor does he or she care much what happens to any of them…. The writing is irritatingly precious, the plot is too convoluted and contrived to be credible. The result is a kind of artificial airlessness.
But wait! What novel are we talking about, exactly? The one I read is called Lies and Sorcery, and the one Tuck refers to is the earlier English translation of Menzogna e sortilegio, called House of Liars, first published in 1951 in the US. About a quarter of the novel was cut in that translation, to Morante’s reasonable fury.
And even aside from deleted or savagely compressed portions of Menzogna e sortilegio, there’s the very significant matter of the title alone—because there’s simply no way to jettison the “sorcery” element without severely diminishing the reader’s understanding. The title House of Liars leads us to expect a banal domestic melodrama interlarded with coarse revelations, something quite different from Morante’s feverish vision, in which all the characters are spellbound and sorcery is everywhere, in certain objects, in memories, in the power of love or need or shame, and—most importantly—in the alchemy involved in conjuring something that ought to be true out of the shabby and unsatisfactory materials at hand.
Tuck (who was fascinated by Morante but didn’t know her) and her sources, who include Moravia and various close friends of Morante, present a consistent portrait of an opinionated, playful, terrifyingly outspoken, very private yet tirelessly curious and engaged, sure-footedly original, and stormy person. She charmed, amused, and exasperated friends, and her friendships were vital, though she was extremely difficult—except under extremely difficult circumstances, when her considerable resources of patience and courage were put to the test, as when she and Moravia, both half-Jewish, lived in hiding during World War II in an impoverished, nearly starved village between Rome and Naples.
Starting in early childhood she made up stories and poems, and there’s a fantastic photo in Woman of Rome of a drawing she did when she was thirteen for a children’s book. She was brilliant, she was witty, she was well read, drawn to adventurous art of every sort, to fairy tales, to Eastern religions. Among the things she most detested were poverty, with which she was well acquainted, and lying (with which everyone is), and she was vehemently intolerant of any pretense or falsehood. But, Tuck tells us, according to Moravia, “She disliked reality—she regarded reality, he said, with as much fondness as her many cats regarded water.”
The road to truth is foggy, filled with obstacles and detours, twisting and altering like a living thing. And it’s generally recognized, at least by fiction writers, that fiction is one of the surest routes. Good fiction, that is—fiction that’s 100 percent inarguably real, whether it’s about the Napoleonic Wars or a guy waking up to find that he’s a giant bug. And not to minimize—in any way!—the value of fact or reality, but the distinctions among fact, reality, and truth are substantial.
The character in Lies and Sorcery whom Morante appears to judge most severely is Elisa’s father, Francesco, though he is also probably the most heartrending. She is pitilessly satirical in describing the way he thrashes about to shore up his embattled self-respect—his eloquent Marxist diatribes to bored drunks in a bar, for instance; his theatrical and obviously hypocritical displays of indifference while poor, lovestruck Rosaria almost literally turns herself inside out trying to (re)ignite his passion. His deceptions and self-deceptions are comparatively harmless to others, really, but presenting himself as a baron (a vague title, but a title) does violence to his own principles of social justice—and restoring self-respect is obviously the opposite of what lying does.
Elisa’s mother, Anna, having been strenuously courted and summarily rejected by the love of her life, her cousin Edoardo, suffers on in a sort of bloody-minded, imperious isolation, until almost the end of the book, when Morante executes some breathtaking hairpin turns, and Anna invents a series of triumphal, truth-inflected lies—a magnificent swan song of sorts.
Injustice, by definition, is wrong. But it’s also inconvenient, both for those who are suffering it and those who are supporting it, partly because it engenders resentment. Is resentment an emotion? I’m not sure—it seems too static and grinding to be one, exactly—and Google doesn’t seem to be sure, either. But whatever resentment is, it has terrible consequences: it can badly distort one’s understanding of a situation; it circles back on itself, gaining traction and conviction with each rotation; it can result in great violence; and the license it provides to substitute a more tolerable, less shaming reality for an intolerable one can create catastrophes.
Elisa and her parents and grandparents are, understandably, virtuosos of resentment, and their lies—far from being the superficial, instrumental kinds—are integral to their beings; their lies determine behavior and alter reality. As to whether, at the end of the story, Elisa is indeed freed by or into truth—well, I definitely have my own opinion. But Morante’s ending is so ambiguous and so surprising that each reader will have to decide for herself.
I mulled over Tuck’s assertion that the reader doesn’t care what happens to these characters. I’m not sure whether I did care or I didn’t, and eventually I realized that for whatever reason the question didn’t seem to apply to my experience of the book. After all, it’s not really necessary to like specific people in order to care what happens to them. And I did care very deeply about how what happened to the characters happened. Morante’s insight into their plights and psyches—into the nuances of anguish and ravaging, unfulfilled longing that accrete into the thick, reverberant substance of the novel—is penetrating and, to me, entirely credible.
Still, I think what struck me most about Lies and Sorcery is its thrilling peculiarity, Morante’s obstinate refusal—or unapologetic unsuitability—to adapt herself to any conventions of what a book ought to be like. Because, to tell you the truth, it’s very hard to make something out of words, and if the thing you make out of words isn’t exactly what you want to make, and made in a way that no other human could make it, I really don’t see the point.