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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. Elsa Morante first achieved fame with Menzogna e sortilegio (1948, House of Liars), which received the Viareggio Prize. Her final novel, Aracoeli (1982), earned her the Prix Medicis Etranger. Morante was at one time (1941-1963) married to novelist Alberto Moravia; they later separated.

"Nothing very new, in the great world. Like all the centuries and the millennia that have preceded it on earth, the new century also observes the well-known, immobile principle of historical dynamics: power to some, servitude to the others." (in La Storia)

Elsa Morante was born in Rome, the daughter of Francesco Lo Monaco, a Sicilian, and Irma Poggubonzi, of Jewish descent of her mother's side. Elsa was the oldest of four surviving children, who all got a Catholic education. She grew up believing that her mother's second husband, Augusto Morante was her father. However, due to his impotence Irma made him sleep alone. The family secret was unveiled when she was in her late teens. While keeping her private life to herself, Morante also fabulated many details of her life.

Both Irma, a friend of Maria Montessori, and Augusto were teachers. The family moved to Monte Verde Nuovo in 1922, where Morante began to write stories and poems. After completing her secondary school education, she left home. To support herself, she gave Latin and Italian lesson, and resorted to prostitution. For a short period, she studied literature  at the University of Rome.  Her early stories were published in such magazines as Il Corriere dei Piccoli, I diritti della scuola, and Oggi. Some of them were written under the pseudonym Antonio Carrera.

Morante's marriage with the writer Alberto Moravia, an opponent of Mussolini's fascist government, 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), consisted of short pieces, several of which had been published in periodicals. It was followed by Le bellissime avventure di Caterì 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, Morante 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 works Morante had translated. The book achieved a critical success and was translated in an awkwardly cut version into English and published in the United States under the title House of Liars (1951). Menzogna e sortilegio, set in a Sicily both modern and legendary, presented themes that were 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. The Hungarian philosopher and literature theoretician György Lukács placed Morante at the same level as Thomas Mann.

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. It has been said, that Arturo's Island was written "under the sign of Visconti". The adolescent narrator, Arturo, looks back at his life on the island of Procida in the Bay of Naples. He becomes aware of his passionate love for his Neapolitan stepmother. Arturo's father, whom Arturo first worships, is cold to his son and his wife, and he turns out to be a victim of his own passion: homosexual affairs, visits to his lover in the island's prison. To face the bitter reality, Arturo leaves his Procida with his friend to enlist.

Morante and Moravia lived together for twenty-five years. During this period Morante had an affair with the film director Luchino Visconti; they fell in love in 1955 during Moravia's trip to America. From the late 1960s, she became increasingly reclusive. In her last years Morante was confined to a wheelchair, after an accident in which she broke her hip. In April 1983, she attempted suicide by swallowing three different kinds of sleeping pills and turning on the gas. She lived for another two and a half years, reading and rereading at the hospital Dante's Inferno. Morante died of cardiac arrest in Rome on November 25, 1985. All the leading newspapers in Italy wrote long obituaries devoted to her and her work. 

The plot is not the central element in Morante's work, nor neorealistic preoccupation with leftist politics. Often her subjects are taken from persecutions and injustices, without direct connections to the mainstream historical and social conditions. A great exception is Morante's major work, La storia (History), 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 her 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, who are trapped by forces beyond their control.

Morante also published essays and short stories. Il mondo salvato dai ragazzini, a collection of poems in various styles, popular songs, and a one-act play, was came out in 1968. Aracoeli  (1982), Morante's final novel, 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  (January 13, 1985) "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."

For further reading: Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante by Lily Tuck (2009); Death or Deception: Sense of Place in Buzzati And Morante by Felix Siddell (2006); Under Arturo'S Star: The Cultural Legacies Of Elsa Morante by Sharon Wood and Stefania Lucamante (2005); Encyclopedia of World Literature, Vol. 3, ed.  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); Italian Women Writers: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook, ed. Rinaldina Russell (1994); Struttura e stile nella narrativa di Elsa Morante by A.R. Pupino (1968); The Concise Encyclopedia of Modern World Literature, ed.  Geoffrey Grigson (1963)

Selected works:

  • Il gioco segreto, 1941
  • Le bellissime avventure di Caterì dalla Trecciolina e altre storie, 1941
  • Il libro degli appunti /  Katherine Mansfield, 1945 (translator)
  • Menzogna e sortilegio, 1948 (Viareggio Prize)
    - House of Liars (tr. Adrienne Foulke and Andrew Chiappe, 1951: see also: Open City: Seven Writers in Postwar Rome: Ignazio Silone, Giorgio Bassani, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg, Carlo Levi, Carlo Emili, ed.  William Weaver and Kristina Olson, 1999)
  • Il meglio di Katherine Mansfield, 1957 (translator, with Marcella Hannau)
  • L'isola di Arturo, 1957 (Strega Prize)
    - Arturo's Island (tr.  Isabel Quigley, 1959)
    - Arturon saari (suom. Alli Holma, 1958)
    - film 1962, prod. by Compagnia Cinematografica Champion, dir.  Damiano Damiani, starring Vanni De Maigret, Kay Meersman, Reginald Kernan, Luigi Giuliani, Gabriella Giorgelli
  • Alibi, 1958
  • Le straordinarie avventure di Caterina, 1959
  • Lo scialle andaluso, 1963
  • Il Mondo Salvato dai Ragazzini, 1968
  • La storia, 1974
    - History (tr.  William Weaver, 1977)
    - La Storia: romaani (suom. Ulla-Kaarina Jokinen, Elina Suomela, 1976)
    - TV film 1986, prod. Films A2, dir.  Luigi Comencini, screenplay by Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Cristina Comencini, featuring Claudia Cardinale, Francisco Rabal, Andrea Spada, Antonio Degli Schiavi
  • Aracoeli, 1982 (Prix Medicis Etranger)
    - Aracoeli: A Novel (tr.  William Weaver, 1984)
    - Aracoeli (suom. Aira Buffa, 1987)
  • Pro e contro la bomba atomica, 1987 (foreword by Cesare Garboli)
  • "Piccolo manifesto" e altri scritti, 1988
  • Diario 1938, 1989 (ed. Alba Andreini)
  • Opere, 1988-90 (2 vols., ed Carlo Cecchi and Cesare Garboli)
  • 'Beato Angelico', 2000 (in Scritti d'arte: dieci maestri della pittura raccontati da dieci grandi della letteratura)
  • Racconti dimenticati, 2002 (ed. Irene Babboni and Carlo Cecchi)

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