Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante
by Lily Tuck
Reviewed by Jason Berry
Italy's decay under the Mussolini dictatorship from the 1920s until the twilight of World War II is one of history's most poisoned chapters. The Fascist demagogue emulated Hitler's mass persecution of Jews, warping the society as wartime retrenchments spread poverty and fear. On Easter Sunday, 1941, a Jesuit who served as Benito Mussolini's confessor performed the wedding of two writers: Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia. Morante, 29, had come through a withering childhood to live on her own, doing translations, writing stories and pieces for newspapers. Moravia, famous at 30 for a best-selling novel, was so hard up as to be living with his parents.
His parents boycotted the ceremony but had the couple to dinner. Morante quarreled with her mother-in-law. "Elsa believed that there were two sorts of people -- those who had a soul and those who didn't," writes Lily Tuck in this engaging book. "His mother, she said, did not have a soul. The two women never saw each other again."
Mussolini's 1943 arrest and murder marked a turn in the war, but hardly the end. That summer Morante and Moravia fled Rome. Each was the product of a marriage between a Catholic and a Jew, hence legally Jewish under Fascist law. Moravia was on a wanted list by the police. Clambering up to a primitive mountain village, they "lived for nine months in a one-room hut built against the side of a rock," writes Tuck. "The bed was a plank with a sack of corn husks for mattresses....There were no pens or paper; the only books they had brought along were the Bible and The Brothers Karamazov (the pages of the latter were used for toilet paper)."
The marriage foundered in the 1950s, as Italy recovered. As Morante and her husband became noted literary figures, they parted ways though never divorced, maintaining friendly ties. Tuck portrays Moravia as never passionately in love with Elsa; she attracted him by force of character, a self-made literary woman.
Her most famous work, History: A Novel, published in 1974, won several European awards. One of the finest accounts of Italy's nightmare under Fascism, the novel opens with a young woman who is raped by a German soldier. She gives birth to a boy. Without sentimentalizing the mother's anguish, Morante creates the wonder of a world as it opens to the child, and a quaking if unspoken distress as he follows the young brown shirts drawn to Mussolini's drumbeat.
History: A Novel is a remarkable portrait of Italian family life during those years. Published in America by Knopf in 1974, the novel is available in Steerforth Press's notable collection of Italian reissues.
Tuck's portrait of Morante is the opposite of standard issue biography. Author of "The News from Paraguay," a novel which won a National Book Award, Tuck spent time in Rome in the 1950s with her father, a film producer. Although she never met Morante, Tuck orchestrates several first person cul-de-sacs to capture the milieu when Morante rubbed elbows with film directors Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini and Rome drew Americans like "handsome Lex Barker, who played Tarzan and also played high-stakes gin rummy with my father."
If Tuck's literary approach is vulnerable to charges of self-indulgence, she acquits herself by making us feel who Elsa Morante was, flaws and all. She doesn't tell us how Elsa -- a teenager who escaped a home of battling parents barely getting by -- and managed to learn English. Whatever the missing biographical shards of those grim prewar years, "Woman of Rome" is a dazzling read, full of passion for the odyssey of a writer who survived a traumatic childhood and gained an intensity in reading and writing that bypassed the customary stairway of college mentors, graduate schools and academic life. Morante lived by the words she sold, a writer to the bone. She bought her first television in 1969 in order to watch the first landing of men on the moon, and ignored the set thereafter.
According to Tuck, her greatest love was not Moravia, but a young American painter named Bill Morrow whom she met in her late 40s. On a trip to New York he fell or jumped from a high rise apartment after experimenting with LSD. Having no children of her own, she dwelt on the world of childhood in her novels and stories. In later years, she began her day with a long lunch at a restaurant, inviting friends, often young writers without much money. After picking up the tab, she headed back to her apartment to work into the night.
Although a Catholic, writes Tuck, Morante was attracted to Jesus as a rebellious figure, and "believed in an incarnate god who manifested himself in the forces of nature." She died in 1985. Twenty years later a scholarly work placed her in a pantheon of modern women writers including Simone Weil, Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Yourcenar.
Jason Berry is the author of Lead Us Not Into Temptation and, with Gerald Renner, Vows of Silence, among other books.