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Noble and Savage: The Bitter Extremes of Elsa Morante

Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa MoranteWoman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante by Lily Tuck

Reviewed by Robert Boyers
Harper's Magazine

Thirty years ago, it seemed that Elsa Morante had established herself as a major literary figure. History: A Novel (1974), which was a best-selling book in Italy, was widely reviewed in the United States when it was published here in 1977; such critics as Alfred Kazin and Stephen Spender debated her merits, and even those who wrote of her with misgiving acknowledged that, at her best, she was a gifted and compelling novelist. Morante was often grouped with other leading Italian writers of her generation, including Cesare Pavese and her former husband, Alberto Moravia.

It comes as something of a surprise, then, to learn that until recently there had been no biography of Morante in any language, and that the first should come from the American novelist Lily Tuck. Tuck notes that "few Italians actually read much of her work" today, and even scholarly books devoted to contemporary Italian women writers are apt to omit any reference to someone who happened to mean a great deal not only to Italians of her generation but also to Doris Lessing, Harold Brodkey, and various other discerning readers. Of course, the ups and downs of literary reputation are notoriously difficult to understand, though it is tempting to wonder whether the sudden explosion of interest in the French writer Irene Nemirovsky (totally forgotten for more than sixty years and now absurdly overvalued for Suite Francaise and other novels) should not give us hope that Morante, with her many gifts, will also be rediscovered.

Tuck's biography is perhaps a promising sign, and Morante is in every way a promising subject: a difficult, prickly, volatile character who for much of her life craved the company of others equally brilliant and combustible. In Tuck she sometimes appears as a case of arrested emotional development, a woman subject to infatuations and resentments of the sort she anatomized in her novels. But she was also a glamorous figure, married to Moravia (from whom she separated after twenty-one years), and the embattled friend of many of Italy's greatest artists, including the filmmakers Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti, and Bernardo Bertolucci. Her editor at the Italian publishing house Einaudi was the novelist Natalia Ginzburg, a devoted admirer and promoter whose attentions Morante sometimes spurned and derided.

But Morante's early years were interesting in ways that had nothing to do with glamour or celebrity, as Tuck scrupulously demonstrates. Born in Rome in 1912 to a schoolteacher mother named Irma and a probationary-officer father named Augusto, Morante also grew up with two uncles who appeared at the family apartment from time to time; one of them was Augusto's brother, the other a family friend who was sexually involved with the mother (and was Elsa's biological father). Openly contemptuous toward the hapless Augusto, Irma was an intimidating presence, and the household over which she presided was noisy with threat and acrimony. At the same time, Irma was determined that her precociously gifted daughter should rise in the world. Thus she arranged for Elsa to live for months at a time with a wealthy woman in an elegant Roman villa, where the girl developed a penchant for the finer things as well as an ambivalence toward people who were less than refined. That ambivalence is fiercely, even desperately evoked in Morante's novels, which alternate between a deep sympathy for the poor and an equally deep feeling for those, like a character in her novel Aracoeli, possessed by an "aristocratic concept of class."

Tuck is at her best in bringing to life Morante's struggles with emotions she was unable to master, and it is clear that these struggles originated in her earliest years. Morante never quite worked out the relationship between love and hate, envy and solicitude. The mixed signals sent by a mother who was overbearing yet caring, by turns embittered and generous, left the daughter feeling that uncertainty was the enemy; indeed, Tuck informs us, Morante always "maintained that she would have preferred to be either loved or hated," and she "could not stand people who were falsely humble or felt disappointed in their lives." One way or the other was what she demanded. She could tolerate either the truly humble or the truly cold and aloof; she despised those who envied what they couldn't have.

Yet Morante was by no means clear or consistent herself; in fact, she was as susceptible to spite and envy as anyone else. She never really forgave Alberto Moravia for writing a first novel, The Time of Indifference (1929), that made him famous years before they fell in love. "A. is a snob...," Morante wrote in 1938 in the private diary she kept, "and I myself want to satisfy his snobbism by, for example, having a high position in society or by being famous." But even when she complains that Moravia is "unavailable" and "cut off" emotionally, she continues to crave his company and to wonder at his ability to provide genuine "tenderness, love...and great comfort."

Tuck's account of the long on-again, off-again relationship with Moravia is never less than compelling, yet what she makes of it is not always persuasive. Although Moravia came to Morante with a reputation as a womanizer, she was entirely open about her own affairs and candid about having resorted to prostitution when short of money in the early Thirties. Referring to the diaries, Tuck declares that "the sex between Morante and Moravia might have been one-sided and not particularly fulfilling for Morante," but then Tuck takes her speculation much further to find in this "an example of how accommodating women can be and how they tend to sustain the hope that the men they sleep with can provide them with understanding and intimacy."

"Accommodating"? Not precisely the best word to describe someone whose "relationship to sex," as Tuck herself reports, "was terrible and savage," who openly criticized Moravia's inadequacies to their mutual friends, and who described women -- herself included -- "with such mocking animosity" that some close friends thought of her as a "misogynist" writer. She could be pitiless with those she loved, comparing her pal Bertolucci to Hitler when he'd become unforgivably famous after the success of his film Last Tango in Paris. Natalia Ginzburg reports that Morante invited her out to dinner so as to let Ginzburg know that her new play was "fatuous, silly, sugary, affected and false." Obviously, Morante was more inclined to rage than to submissiveness, and her refusal to accept bullshit was legendary in the circles she frequented. The notion that she was a pathetic, put-upon woman is questionable, to say the least, and since Tuck cannot have based her speculations on the evidence of Morante's life, one might wonder whether "accommodating" women figure prominently in Morante's novels. In the main, they do not.

Given the importance of Morante's novel History, it's appropriate that Tuck devotes considerable attention to the period of the Second World War, and she builds a sobering narrative of the years when Morante and Moravia went into hiding from the Italian fascist regime. Both writers were half-Jewish, and, after their marriage in 1941, they were forced to move from place to place to avoid arrest, eventually landing in Rome. The cruelest days of the war are unforgettably captured in History: "During the last months of the German occupation, Morante writes:

Rome took on the appearance of certain Indian metropolises where only the vultures get enough to eat and there is no census of the living and the dead....The Germans were encamped around the inhabited areas...and the disastrous cloud of the air raids...spread over the city a great tarpaulin of pestilence and earthquake....The populace had fallen silent. The daily news of roundups, torture, and slaughter circulated through the neighborhoods like death-rattle echoes.

Although Morante and Moravia were in Rome for only part of the war, their experience of the period was the experience of vast numbers of people who were similarly forced to negotiate their fates with what Morante calls "the true master," which was "hunger."

Tuck also captures the combined gaiety and febrile intensity of Roman literary circles in postwar Italy, the debates and petty jealousies and rumors of betrayal, all of it colored by Morante's mood swings and her preference -- as Moravia put it -- for the "exceptional" and the "impassioned moments" in life. The war period was never far from the minds of Italy's writers; Ginzburg wrote that her contemporaries would "never be cured no matter how many years" went by. Morante believed that the Italian people had been willing accomplices in all that had befallen their country, a people perfectly exemplified by their leader, Benito Mussolini: crude, mediocre, venal, conceited, superficial, and sentimental. Considering her passion for the distinguished, the noble, the just, the war years inspired in her a determination never to relent in the demands she placed on herself and on others. That she could be comically defensive and self-important never affected her conviction that she was the implacable foe of mediocrity and self-indulgence, and in this she was largely supported by her loyal friends, one of whom described her as "a cannibal, waging war [as a] way of living; with her one had to attack or retreat, bite or be bitten."

Both passion and contradiction are ever present in Morante's fiction, which is never sure or efficient in its unfolding but is always moving on the edge of intensities it can barely contain. In the first of her four novels, a 725-page work called House of Liars (1948) that chronicles the disintegration of a family, Morante did her best to keep the unruly devices and actions of her characters in control by insisting that every stray thought be accounted for and that palpable mysteries be made to add up. And yet, as Tuck rightly notes, the book remains "sprawling and confusing," the writing often "lugubrious" and "irritatingly precious." Morante would always be a vehement, driving prose writer, attracted to abundant detail and an overwhelming sensory immediacy. But in House of Liars she had not mastered her own gifts, and it is not at all surprising that there has been no successor to the 1951 English-language translation, which omitted nearly two hundred pages of the original.

Morante's second novel was a very different matter. Arturo's Island (1957) not only won the Italian Strega Prize but attracted an enthusiastic readership in the United States as well. It is a strange book, savage and sinister and, in its way, adolescent in its willed celebration of childhood and of heedless, reckless emotion. A boy lives largely unattended on a remote, sparsely populated island, visited occasionally by a father who comes and goes and seems to his son a godlike figure in his rude, peremptory, unforgiving detachment. But with the appearance of the teenage wife Arturo's father eventually installs in the island home, the boy's life changes. Everything in the book is writ large, as if Arturo, who is also the narrator, were throughout in the grip of uncontrollable passions. Everywhere we find his "heart's impossible longings" and "sacraments...beyond all human measure and human littleness." Arturo refers to "the pitilessness of my soul" and to his fantasies of unleashing "the most barbarous, unheard-of cruelty." The tenor of the work is hectic, the coloring often lurid. Punctuating the narrative are frequent references to destiny, fate, the inexplicable. The prose feels, much of the time, excessive, overwrought, and yet the unflagging energy of the book is by no means unattractive.

Tuck says of the novel that it is Morante's "most lyrical and luminous work," but its primary achievement lies in its uncanny portrayal of varieties of enthrallment and disaffection, of hatred giving way to love, and violence miraculously overtaken by tenderness. The peasant wife of Arturo's father is majestic in her simplicity and depth of feeling, and if, much of the time, she is held in thrall by the man who abuses her and she is unable to communicate adequately with the adolescent stepson who mistrusts her and lusts for her, she embodies elements of generosity and self-possession that loom large as the novel hurries to its conclusion. Ask yourself what Arturo's Island is about and you are apt to conclude that it has nothing to say yet reveals a great deal about the irresolvable tensions that bedevil us all.

The consensus, among Morante's readers and admirers, is that History remains her greatest novel, though when it was first published in Italy it inspired controversies that had little to do with its literary merits. Tuck notes that "the Italian left in the early 1970s was riding along on a wave of great optimism and it viewed [History] as far too pessimistic a vision of the world." Several Italian writers issued a public "invective-letter" denouncing "Morante's [apparent] refusal to align herself with any one political party." Pasolini, though at one time a close friend, savagely attacked the novel's ideological confusion, and it was clear that anything resembling a dispassionate assessment was impossible in the Italy of 1974.

There are other factors that even now make assessment difficult. Principal among them is the fact that History is a work so vast and tumultuous that it is hard even to provide an outline of the action. In brief, a multitude of working-class characters struggle to survive the chaos of war and to maintain some modest semblance of fellow feeling and family life. Much of the book recounts the difficult experience of children, whose suffering is made bearable to us only by unexpected irruptions of humor and the interventions of a talking dog. Morante's vision never seems fixed or repetitive. Although fatality looms over Morante's blasted landscape, she never retreats to the detached voice of the weary chronicler. Even her youthful characters, those possessed by a desire to "SMASH EVERYTHING" in order to escape the prison of their society, are permitted their intoxication with the beauty of the life they hope to create. For this writer, the innocent and the feral, the still living and the departed are together her sacred charge.

Among American critics of History, the most negative was Robert Alter, who complained most emphatically about one essential feature of the book. Each year of the novel's action -- it covers the period between 1941 and 1947 -- is "prefaced," as Alter wrote in his 1977 review of the American edition, "by a three- or four-page summary of the year's principal events in world politics," reflecting "a kind of simplified popular Marxism....Schematically and tendentiously, world disasters are attributed to the sinister mechanizations of big industry everywhere." One of Morante's more articulate characters puts it this way: "History is a history of fascisms, more or less disguised"; another character, late in the novel, observes that "the scenes of the human story (History)" are comprehensible as "the multiple coils of an interminable murder....All History and all the nations of the earth had agreed on this end." Alter declared it "pernicious nonsense to reduce all of history to such a grossly leveling common denominator....It is a way of not really thinking about history but of feeling about it, and feeling one thing -- blind, seething resentment."

Of course, Alter was not alone in noting that contemporary critics of a monolithic, undifferentiated "power" often operate from a "blind, seething resentment." But Morante's novel is not informed by resentment. Neither is it much interested in elaborating a formal theory of history. The prefaces affixed to each chapter should not be read as blunt ideological statements. They condemn political formations ranging from terrorist groups in Palestine to North Vietnamese operations against the French. Stalinist crimes are condemned along with American postwar missile production.

More important, the prefaces do not, except in rare instances, directly relate to anything that follows in the respective chapters. Considered as framing devices, they are fragmentary and transparently inadequate. They cannot possibly tell us what to make of the abundant narrative materials assembled in the various chapters, where the focus is relentlessly intimate. Morante's humble yet gargantuan task is to look closely at the experience of living in a time of crisis, to take us inside the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people. What there is of theory in any of this is minimal and clearly irrelevant in shaping the impressions we derive as readers who are privy to these lives.

Why, then, include the prefaces at all? Why grant to particular characters extended passages in which they offer a theory of history and thereby presume to account for everything under the sun? Morante understands all too well the temptation to reduce experience to a series of emblematic, unitary phenomena. The novel is set up to express that temptation and to demonstrate the futility of those comprehensive theories and explanations. The texture of History, page after page of close-grained narration and sympathetic portraiture, gives the lie to the didactic leveling apparatus she assembles with the prefaces. The truth of Morante's novel -- the authenticity it impresses upon us throughout -- has to do not with any explanatory schema but with its openness to the physical, the inconsolable, the redemptive, the irrelevant, the vagrant particulars that reveal, whether or not the novelist herself believes it, that "there is more than politics," as Susan Sontag put it in an essay on Victor Serge, "more, even, than history."

Three years before she died in 1985, Morante brought out her last novel, Aracoeli (which will be reissued by Open Letter Books this month). It was a large departure from History, and it wasn't well received. Lily Tuck reports that the first time she read it she found it "almost pointlessly disturbing and shocking," and the word "pointlessly" suggests what is especially problematic about the book. Late in a novel filled with dreams, flashbacks, and fantasies, the ghost of the narrator's mother, Aracoeli, declares that "there's nothing to be understood," and throughout the novel Morante's narrator derides efforts to make sense of things that are, in their nature, incomprehensible. Tuck speculates that as Morante grappled with old age and the deterioration of her body, she had reached a "terrifying awareness that nothing matters," including efforts to make sense of one's life and the lives of others. Plausible, to be sure, though Tuck may be too ready to associate Morante herself with the forty-three-year old male narrator of her book, a man whose extreme cynicism and sometimes portentous solemnity betray a dark, deterministic cast of mind. In fact, this man, Emanuele, moves so entirely in the grip of what he takes to be an overmastering fate that we cannot but think him terminally impaired, an unreliable narrator employed by the novelist not to express her own sentiments but to permit her to explore the effects of neurosis and self-loathing on a person vulnerable and submissive. The subject of the novel is aptly described by the late critic Lionel Abel as one man's "subjection to his mother, and his love-hate for her, which has continued over the years long after her death." His mother "is held responsible for his homeliness, bourgeois status, homosexuality, and inability to idealize anyone but her."

Improbable though it may seem, we do not experience Aracoeli as if it were merely an expression of grotesque emotion indulged for its own sake. To grasp the spirit of the thing we may need to recall a sentence by Dostoevsky, who wrote that "almost every reality, even if it has its own immutable laws, nearly always is incredible." A novel featuring a nymphomaniac mother who inspires her son to believe that "it would have been better if you had aborted me, or strangled me at birth with your hands" is bound to verge at times on the preposterous. But we believe in Morante's characters. The near-hysteria that marks much of Aracoeli has to do not with authorial self- indulgence but with the emotional lives of those who are incapable of ordinary restraint. The heightened language of the novel reflects Morante's refusal to nullify or tastefully chasten what authentically belongs to her characters. Primary in the view of life that emerges here, as elsewhere in Morante, is the sense that all relationships and loyalties are precarious and, in the end, disappointing. There was something ruthless and unforgiving in Morante's imagination that remains bracing and exemplary. She could not bring herself to believe in the redemptive promise of enlightened values or of love, and she seemed bravely impervious to the delusion of comfort.

At the same time, there was nothing complacent in her pessimism, nothing didactic in her mounting of the available human evidence. Her characters are made to struggle with their fate even when they believe that struggle is futile. In each of her three major novels, Morante moves with a sense that nothing can be done to alter what must happen, but she does not understand why this should be so, and she is compelled to demand some further understanding that is denied her. She offers an exploration of reality in which the point -- if there must be one -- is resistance to the very determinism that the novelist, like many of her characters, finds nearly irresistible.

Robert Boyers is the editor of Salmagundi and director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute. His last essay for Harper's magazine, on Nadine Gordimer, appeared in the February 2008 issue.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. History
    Used Trade Paper $10.95
  2. Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante Used Trade Paper $9.50

One Response to "Noble and Savage: The Bitter Extremes of Elsa Morante"

    s h a r o n September 25th, 2009 at 5:21 am

    Amazing review. Boyers is an awesome writer, himself.

    I found a droll link to him here
    which is a 1973 New York Times letter to the editor with numerous famous literary signatories complaining about the Ford Foundation's grant to "Encounter", a literary publication published in England. Ford's grant was interpreted as a snub to American writers.

    Anyway, I don't usually indulge in the kind of emotional dissection that makes up the majority of this review, but I couldn't turn away until I'd read the last word. It was well worth the time.

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