Elsa Morante (1918-1985)
Italian novelist, short-story writer and poet, whose most famous work, LA STORIA (1974), was called at the time of its publication the novel of the century. The penetrating study of the impact of WW II on European culture was immediately translated into several languages. - Morante was at one time (1941-1963) married to novelist Alberto Moravia; they later separated. Morante first achieved fame with her first novel, MENZOGNA E SORTILEGIO (1948, House of Liars), which received the Viareggio Prize. Her last novel, ARACOELI (1982), earned her the Prix Medicis Etranger.
"By virtue of her rank and her gifts she felt certain she deserved the place of honor in those beautiful, holy places. But like the faithful wife who avails herself of the king's friendship to beg a favor for her husband, Concetta prayed not for herself but for Eduardo. For though she trembled at her son's irrelevance she felt she might redeem him by her own devotion." (from 'The Nameless One', in House of Liars, 1948)
Elsa Morante was born in Rome as the daughter of a Sicilian father and Emilian mother. Her formal education was incomplete, and she left home at the age of eighteen. Morante's marriage with the writer Alberto Moravia brought her into contact with the leading Italian writers and intellectuals of the day. They had met in 1937 when she was living with an older man; she took then a younger lover and became acquainted with Moravia. He was attracted to her by her personality and he also realized that she was a born writer, as though descended from some cantastorie, a wandering story-teller and ballad singer. "I never fell in love with Elsa. I loved her, but I did not manage to lose my mind, that is I was never in love." (Moravia in Vida di Moravia, 1990)
Morante's first book, IL GIOCO SEGRETO (1941) appeared in 1941. It consisted of short pieces, several of which had been published in periodicals. It was followed by LA BELLISSIME AVVENTURE DI CATERÍ DALLA TRECCIOLINA (1942), a children's book, which was later expanded as LE STRAORDINARIE AVVENTURE DI CATERINA (1959).
During the last years of World War II, she lived the life of a refugee in the countryside near Cassino, hiding from the fascist authorities. Later the rural world of the south played an important part in her fiction. In the late 1940s the American translator William Weaver arrived in Rome and became friends with a number of writers, among them Moravia and Morante, and made their work known in the United States. Morante's Menzogna e sortilegio was written in poetic language and showed the influence of Katherine Mansfield, whose work Morante had translated. The book achieved a critical success. It was translated in an awkwardly cut version into English and published in America under the title House of Liars in 1951. Menzogna e sortilegio, set in a Sicily both modern and legendary, presented themes that became central in Morante's works: memories, dreams and obsessions spanning over generations, a young, sensitive person in rebellion against bourgeois traditions, a private world threatened by external reality.
Morante was not a prolific writer. Her next novel, L'ISOLA DI ARTURO (Arturo's Island), appeared nearly ten years later and combined fantasy with Freudian themes. During this period she destroyed much of her texts, but wrote a novella, 'The Andalusian Shawl' for the anthology Modern Italian Stories (1955), and a long poem, 'The Adventure', which appeared in the American review Wake. In Arturo's Island the adolescent narrator, Arturo, looks back at his life and goes through a painful maturation. He becomes aware of his passionate love for his Neapolitan stepmother. Arturo's father is cold to his son and his wife, and he turns out to be a victim of his own passion: homosexual affairs. To face the bitter reality, Arturo leaves his island with his friend to enlist. IL MONDO SALVATO DAI RAGAZZINI, a mixture of poems in various styles, popular songs, and a one-act play, was published in 1968.
Morante took often her subjects from persecutions and injustices, rejecting the mainstream historical and political views. Morante's major work, La storia ( History), was set in Rome during and after WW II. At the start Morante summarizes the main historical events, and their impact on the everyday life of Morante's characters, distantly or indirectly. The story focuses on the lives of Iduzza, Ida Mancusco, a half-Jewish schoolteacher, her child Useppe, who dies of an epileptic attack, and Nino, her elder son, a fascist who becomes a partisan. Iduzza's husband has died. She experiences all the horrors of war, she is raped by a German soldier on his way to North Africa, and fights for survival with her two sons. Each of the novel's eight sections begins and ends with a brief history of the ongoing war, narrated by the omniscient "I". La storia, as with Morante's other works, reflects a deep understanding of the human psyche and the historical processes experienced by ordinary people.
Aracoeli was a mixture of private dreams, fantasies, imaginary encounters, and flashbacks, narrated by the guilt-ridden neurotic Emanuele. Aracoeli is his mother, who suddenly undergoes a terrible change - she becomes a nymphomaniac, and dies of a malignant brain tumor, the cause of her wild behavior. The book received mixed reviews, amongst others that of Raymond Rosenthal, who wrote in The New York Times "it would seem that Elsa Morante has turned against her innermost creative self and vision, her carefully nurtured private mythology, her special cult of the young and the innocent. This book reads as if she has surrendered to a blunt cynicism that doesn't work for her." (January 13, 1985) Morante also published essays and short stories. She died in Rome on November 25, 1985.
For further reading: Encyclopedia of World Literature, vol. 3, ed. by Steven S. Serafin (1999); The Theme of Childhood in Elsa Morante by Grace Z. Kalay (1996); 'History: A Novel' by S. Spender, in New York Review of Books (28 April 1977: 31-34); Struttura e stile nella narrativa di Elsa Morante by A.R. Pupino (1968); The Concise Encyclopedia of Modern World Literature, ed. by Geoffrey Grigson (1963) - "Elsa Morante is a story-teller, but plot is not the main element in her work. She uses a poetic prose to envelop her characters in a nature both logical and magical. While most of her Italian contemporaries reflect the neo-realismo discovered after the war by the Italian cinema, she aims at a deeper, non-documentary reality." (from The Concise Encyclopedia of Modern World Literature, ed. by Geoffrey Grigson, 1963)
IL GIOCO SECRETO, 1941 - The Secret Game
LA BELLISME AVVENTURE DI CATERI DALLA TRECCIOLINA, 1941
MENZOGNA E SORTILEGIO, 1948 - House of Liars - (Viareggio Prize) - see also: Open City: Seven Writers in Postwar Rome: Ignazio Silone, Giorgio Bassani, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg, Carlo Levi, Carlo Emili, ed. by William Weaver and Kristina Olson (1999)
L'ISOLA DI ARTURO, 1957 - Arturo's Island - Arturon saari - (Strega Prize) - film dir. by Damiano Damiani, starring Vanni De Maigret, Kay Meersman, Reginald Kernan, Luigi Giuliani, Gabriella Giorgelli
LE STRAORDINARIE AVVENTURE DI CATERINA, 1959
LO SCIALLE ANDALUSO, 1963 - The Andalusian Shawl
IL MONDO SALVATO DAI RAGAZZINI, 1968 - The World Saved by Little Children
LA STORIA, 1974 - History - suom. La Storia - film 1985, dir. by Luigi Comencini, starring Claudia Cardinale
ARACOELI, 1982 - trans. - suom. (Prix Medicis Etranger)
PRO E CONTRO LA BOMBA ATOMICA, 1987