Arturo’s Island 
by Elsa Morante, translated by Ann Goldstein.
Pushkin, 370 pp., £9.99, May 2019, 978 1 78227 495 7
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Given​ the current enthusiasm for the practice of literary translation, the frequent claims that this or that English version captures or even surpasses the original, one might suppose that there is little point in reading a foreign novel in the original language. Yet some literary styles remain elusive in translation. The characters in Elsa Morante’s masterpiece, Arturo’s Island, are bewitched and bewitching, in thrall to someone, or to some idea, and, simultaneously, enthralling to someone else. In describing all this, Morante flagrantly, joyously, looks for the same kind of relationship with the reader: her lush, generous style, rich in spoken idiom, yet far from standard usage, wills us to succumb to its strange and gorgeous pessimism. A translator is thus asked first to be enchanted as a reader, then to reproduce that enchantment for new readers in another language; captured, then capturing. It’s a tall order. Published in 1957, Arturo’s Island quickly worked its spell, winning Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Strega, and becoming a bestseller in the US in Isabel Quigly’s 1959 translation. Now the book appears in a new translation by Ann Goldstein.

Comparing their versions, one is struck by how differently two people can read the same text. Morante begins her story with Arturo remembering his childish enthusiasm for his own name. The chapter is called ‘King and Star of the Sky’. Here is Quigly:

First of all, I was proud of my name. I’d found out early on (from him, I have a feeling) that Arturo is the name of a star – the fastest and brightest in the figure of the herdsman, in the northern sky. And ages ago there was some king called Arturo as well, who had a group of loyal followers; and as they were all heroes like himself, he treated them as brothers and equals. The pity of it was, as I later discovered, this famous old king of Britain wasn’t proper history at all, but just a legend; and as I thought legends were kids’ stuff, I dropped him for more historical kings.

And here is Goldstein:

One of my first glories was my name. I had learned early (he, it seems to me, was the first to inform me) that Arturo – Arcturus – is a star: the swiftest and brightest light in the constellation of Boötes, the Herdsman, in the northern sky! And that this name was also borne by a king in ancient times, the commander of a band of faithful followers: all heroes, like the king himself, and treated by the king as equals, as brothers.

Unfortunately, I later discovered that that famous Arthur, king of Britain, was not a true story, only a legend; and so I abandoned him for other, more historical kings (in my opinion legends were childish).

These are quite different registers. Quigly, though she was English, goes for a voice that has hints of Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield: ‘Ages ago there was some king called Arturo as well … and as I thought legends were kids’ stuff, I dropped him for more historical kings.’ This is a long way from the elaborate, exclamatory rhetoric of Morante’s, or Arturo’s, Italian, which Goldstein follows almost word for word, without dropping the exclamation marks. She starts with ‘glories’ not ‘pride’ (the Italian is vanti, ‘boasts’, suggesting something spoken and vainglorious); she tells us, as Morante does, that Arturo is a star, not merely the name of a star. She gives straight dictionary translations for ‘learned early’, ‘inform me’, ‘borne by a king’ and ‘commander’, the last being particularly important, since to be sovereign is to command, and we are entering a world where people command each other; but also where Arturo longs to be treated as an equal by the person who commands him, his father, the ‘he’ who first told the boy the meaning of his name.

Goldstein also respects the paragraph breaks of the original, something Quigly frequently alters. This seems crucial on the novel’s first page where Morante sets up three short paragraphs, the first establishing the boast contained in the name, which is then dismissed with ‘unfortunately’, which opens the second paragraph. This second paragraph then speaks of Arturo’s feelings for the person who chose that name, his mother, who was ‘to me more than a queen’. This excitement is deflated by the opening of the third paragraph: ‘In reality, I knew almost nothing about her since she wasn’t even 18 when she died’ (giving birth to Arturo). So the book’s rhythm, of a mind always ready to be excited, always ready to imagine parents as kings and queens, then disappointed by a reality that cannot live up to these imaginings, is established on the opening page.

At first glance then, Goldstein’s version seems more reliable, though there is a price to pay for shadowing the Italian, such as clumsy repetitions: ‘he, it seems to me, was the first to inform me.’ The Italian here is more emphatic, but also more fluent: ‘fu lui, mi sembra, il primo a informarmene’ – ‘it was him, I think, who first informed me.’ Goldstein also adds the explanatory ‘Arcturus’, not in the original, which breaks up the excitement of the metaphor ‘Arturo è una stella’ – ‘Arturo is a star’ – perhaps because she is afraid that the English reader won’t get it. Both add that it is a star in the constellation of the ‘herdsman’, moving away from the glamour of exotic names and kings. Goldstein misses the insistent possessives when Arturo talks about the king’s loyal men: ‘Tutti eroi, come il loro re stesso, e dal loro re trattati alla pari’ – ‘All heroes, like their king himself, and treated by their king as equals.’ This is a world where belonging, family and community are supremely important. A king is not the king, he is my king. He commands me; I possess him. Arturo’s father commands his son’s mind, but he cannot escape being the boy’s father. The relationship is two-way.

Considering Morante’s work as a whole, one might say her signature achievement is to conjure raptures of fantasy from miseries of circumstance. Arturo is born on the tiny island of Procida in the Bay of Naples. After the death of his mother, he grows up mostly alone in the so-called Casa dei Guaglioni (literally the House of the Boys), a dilapidated ex-monastery turned filthy home. Arturo’s vagabond father inherited the place from an inveterate misogynist, Romeo the Amalfitano, the man from Amalfi, in return for having kept him company, so to speak, in his dotage. Wilhelm, the father, himself the only child of self-obsessed parents, is bitter, spiteful, vain, distracted, sardonic when not scathing, and very handsome. Born of a German mother to an itinerant Neapolitan, he is blond in a world where everyone is dark. Arturo reads that blondness, which he doesn’t share, as a sign of his father’s nobility and sees nothing of his faults. He understands his father’s long absences as quests of gallant endeavour. His chief obsession is to become worthy of joining his father on his travels when he is older. The father calls Arturo moro: ‘Blacky’, Quigly gives; ‘dark-haired kid’, Goldstein offers. ‘He scorned to conquer my heart,’ Arturo observes with wistful awe.

Morante was writing at the height of Italian neorealism. In the early 1950s Carlo Cassola, Beppe Fenoglio, Vasco Pratolini, Morante’s husband, Alberto Moravia, and her friends Natalia Ginzburg and Pier Paolo Pasolini were all in different ways seeking to describe postwar desolation in spare, chastened prose. Morante was having none of it. Her own writing is more reminiscent of the fin-de-siècle grandiloquence of D’Annunzio. And she is scarcely interested in the detail of Arturo’s physical survival. Could a baby really be bottle-fed on goat’s milk by an older boy? Could a child learn to speak and read so well with just the occasional help of an old family retainer who stops by once a day, mainly to leave him food? Could an infant live alone in an isolated house whose dozens of rooms are never cleaned, whose roof is falling in, whose central courtyard is a damp jungle of vegetation and discarded furniture? Could he really spend his whole childhood exploring rocky cliffs and beaches with his dog? What matters to Morante is Arturo’s imagination, his evocation of an island Eden. Like everything we powerfully imagine, this threatens to become a prison, a place he must escape from if he is to grow up. At the centre of Procida, high above the House of the Boys, is a fortress prison, establishing all too clearly the island’s status as both paradise and penitentiary.

From the roof of the house, one can see the full shape of the island, which resembles a dolphin; its small inlets, the penitentiary, and not far away, on the sea, the bluish purple form of the island of Ischia. The silvery shadows of more distant islands. And, at night, the firmament, where Boötes the Herdsman walks, with his star Arturo.

That was Goldstein. Quigly’s versions are always a little shorter:

From the roof you can see the dolphin shape of the island lying below, with its small gulfs, its penitentiary, and, not very far out at sea, the purple-blue shape of Ischia; silvery shadows of islands farther off; and at night the firmament, where the herdsman wanders with his star, Arturo.

If this seems the stuff of fable, or existential theatre, the psychological reality of Arturo’s relationship with his father is convincing and implacable. Wilhelm never writes when he is away, which is most of the time, and the boy marvels at his own certainty at his father’s continued existence, and dreams of the ‘blessed companions’ who enjoy the ‘aristocratic privilege’ of his presence. Briefly back on the island, Wilhelm shouts in German at a rock face to hear the echo, and Arturo, who can’t understand German, feels they must be ‘terrible, rash words’ and imagines ‘we’re at Roncesvalles, and suddenly Orlando will erupt onto the plain with his horn. We’re at Thermopylae and behind the rocks the Persian knights are hiding, in their pointed caps.’

How could a boy with no formal education produce these (and many other) erudite references? The Amalfitano, who held wild, men-only parties, who abhorred women and swore that if any female ever crossed the threshold of his house a curse would fall on her, kept a library stocked with classical literature. Arturo reads voraciously, in thrall to a culture that glories in male heroism. The only ‘female being’ the boy knows is his dog Immacolatella, a name recalling the Christian tradition of pious and devoted femininity. The dog is as besotted with her master as Arturo is with his father, or as the Amalfitano was with the young Wilhelm. Morante exposes but also seems to take pleasure in capturing the misogyny and machismo of Mediterranean culture, forgivable in Arturo, who has no other reference points, but disgraceful in the old Amalfitano and the opportunist Wilhelm, who in ten lavish pages pronounces a terrifying anathema; all women, he declares, are ugly; women’s love is a curse, and of all women mothers are the worst. Arturo listens, rapt, but at the same time longing for the mother love he has never known.

This is the world into which Morante introduces 16-year-old Nunziatella, whom Wilhelm brings home from Naples as his bride. Just two years younger than his new stepmother, Arturo watches, contemptuous yet spellbound as, fresh from the ferry, this illiterate girl unpacks from her suitcase a dozen different images of the Madonna and places them for protection around her bed. Her air of submission to a husband who seems to have married her only in order to have someone to mistreat, reminds Arturo of his dog. In the night he is shocked by her animal cries. Quickly falling in love, but at the same time intensely jealous of Nunziatella for having stolen his father’s attention, Arturo humiliates her in every way he knows, becoming of course more hopelessly attached to her in the process.

The drama is beautifully drawn, hilarious and shocking at turns, full of startling but seemingly inevitable reversals as Nunziatella proves far less vulnerable than she initially appeared, her unshakeable faith casting a spell that challenges Arturo’s more bookish fantasies, her simple affections effortlessly trumping the men’s misogyny. When Wilhelm falls asleep, drunk, after a long rant at her, she covers him with a blanket, and Arturo is stunned, ‘as if a mysterious, double-edged weapon had pierced my heart’. By the end of the book, he will acknowledge that Nunziatella is not just a queen but ‘worthy of a true king’.

Making all this possible is the peculiarly flexible voice and ambiguous point of view Morante used for the novel. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Goldstein says Morante writes ‘in the voice of a 14-year-old boy’, but in fact Arturo is speaking long after the events he describes. He begins his narrative in a distancing past-perfect tense that neither translator follows: literally, ‘one of my first boasts had been my name.’ The narrator is too eloquent to be 14, but he employs that eloquence to evoke a 14-year-old’s emotions and above all an adolescent’s limited awareness of the world he is growing up in, never making explicit what the reader intuits about the predatory sexual habits of Wilhelm and the Amalfitano. Every enchantment is built on denial and taboo; each character has things they don’t want to know and cannot speak of, issues the writing circles around, preparing the reader for the grand clashes when some of these things are finally brought into the open.

This​ fine balance, or blurring, between childhood and maturity, and above all Morante’s insistence on language as the vehicle of fantasy, puts her translators under pressure. For the book to work, the prose has to be captivating, quirky and lush. Quigly lowers the register, sometimes to the point of plainness, often skipping a nuance or flourish. Goldstein, as she does in her other translations, sticks tightly to the letter and syntax of Morante’s original. This might not be wise. ‘The letters of the Latin alphabet make it pretty hard to speak good German,’ Luther observed of his translation of the Bible, and the same is true of rendering elaborate Italian prose in English. Or even simple Italian prose. Here are a couple of examples. When Nunziatella goes into labour while her husband is away (probably in the fleshpots of Naples), Arturo rushes to the house of the island’s midwife. It’s a walk of half an hour, but he’s frightened and races there. ‘I don’t think I took more than ten minutes,’ he tells us in Quigly’s version. In phrases like this, Italian places the negative not with the verb ‘to think’ but with what is thought: ‘Credo che non impiegai piú di dieci minuti.’ Goldstein follows this formula, giving the more unusual English: ‘I think it didn’t take me more than ten minutes.’ Arturo bangs furiously on the midwife’s door and she appears at the window. ‘Oh, so there’s only one of you!’ she exclaims in Quigly’s version, having supposed from the noise that there must be an army out there. Again, Italian constructs the question of how many people there are in a group rather differently, in phrases like, ‘we are three,’ ‘they are four.’ And again Goldstein follows the ordinary Italian, ‘Eh, guaglió, sei uno solo,’ having the midwife say the improbable: ‘Hey, kid, you’re just one.’

Far from giving the ‘flavour of the Italian’, this approach, constantly deployed over 350 dense pages, makes everything uniformly quaint, a little awkward, vaguely ‘literary’. So Arturo is ‘closed in my thoughts’ (Quigly: ‘thinking my own thoughts’); a young man’s possession of a ring is ‘a clear document of his person’ (Quigly: ‘an obvious proof of his identity’); Arturo hides in ‘my usurped room’ (Quigly: ‘the cave I had taken over’); Nunziatella’s chin trembles, ‘like a real girl’s’ (Quigly: ‘like a little girl’s’); the house where Arturo fears Nunziatella has died in labour looked as if ‘already not a soul were alive within its walls’ (Quigly: ‘nothing [were] left alive within its walls’).

When so little of the prose reads like standard English, it can be hard to spot where Morante’s writing is adventurous. The problem is compounded by Goldstein’s attachment to English cognates of Italian words. She has ‘sojourn’ for soggiorno, ‘zone’ for zona, ‘land’ for landa, ‘historic’ for storico, ‘vile’ for vile, ‘piety’ for pietà, ‘exaggerated’ for esagerato, ‘negation’ for negazione – the list could run on and on – often in instances where the meaning or register is quite different in the Italian. When Arturo tells us that someone ‘mi riusciva … antipatico’ – a fairly ordinary Italian expression for ‘I didn’t like him’ or ‘I found him irritating’ – Goldstein has ‘[he] was antipathetic to me’.

Words that signal imagination and fantasy, which is what the novel is largely about, are particularly thorny. Morante frequently uses the adjective fantastico, but the word is more complex than it seems. When Nunziatella’s mother demands to know the reason Wilhelm is always travelling, leaving the girl alone with a tiny baby, her daughter answers: ‘Lui … viaggia perché è fantastico!’ Goldstein has this as: ‘He travels … because it’s fantastic!’ The pronoun ‘lui’ – he – is not strictly required in Italian and is used here for emphasis, to contrast Wilhelm’s reasons for travelling with other people’s. ‘He’ is the subject of both verbs. The sense is: ‘He travels because he is fantastico,’ where the adjective does not have the banal modern sense of ‘wonderful’, but the idea, now largely lost in English, of someone extravagant, someone with imagination. Nunziatella says this, Morante tells us, alteramente – ‘proudly’, ‘haughtily’ even – because she is pointing to her husband’s superiority, his specialness. Since she mentioned her own fear of travel, it’s unlikely she would say that it was ‘fantastic’, even if the syntax could be made to fit. Quigly more credibly gives: ‘He travels because he’s imaginative.’

Although Quigly often paraphrases and simplifies, she always seems to understand Morante’s Italian. After all, unlike Goldstein, she studied languages at university and lived in Italy; indeed she married and rapidly divorced an Italian in circumstances that, as described in her novel The Eye of Heaven (1953), led her to understand passion and disillusionment, and the vocabulary Italians use for it. At the climax of Morante’s novel, when Arturo finally realises that his father is infatuated with a young delinquent in the island’s prison, he confronts Nunziatella with her husband’s homosexuality. ‘he loves him,’ the boy shouts. And Nunziatella protests, ‘Tu … non dici parole giuste,’ which Goldstein translates as: ‘You … are not speaking true words.’ Aside from the unlikeliness of anyone expressing themselves like this in English, giusto doesn’t mean ‘true’ but ‘right’, ‘proper’, ‘appropriate’. ‘You shouldn’t say that,’ Quigly paraphrases, but she has the sense of it. Nunziatella is defending a taboo; in her world you don’t talk about love between men.

There is a lot of autobiography in Arturo’s Island. Morante always wanted to be a boy, and spent her childhood playing games of princes and princesses with three younger brothers who were in thrall to her. Her possessive and competitive mother dreamed of an upwardly mobile daughter and persuaded a noblewoman to take Elsa into her home for several months of the year. ‘Arturo, c’est moi,’ Morante said. Those who like to draw parallels between life and fiction will find plenty in Lily Tuck’s biography of Morante or in Moravia’s account of their relationship or in the recent MoranteMoravia: Una storia d’amore by Anna Folli. Morante was deeply attracted to the gay community around Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini, had an affair with Visconti and later with the American painter Bill Morrow. She was fascinated by the way homosexuality was experienced in Italian society. In his book, Moravia writes that Morante once played dead to force herself on his attention, a trick Arturo plays on Nunziatella in the novel. Moravia also speaks of Morante’s extraordinary inventiveness when they hid from the Nazis in a shepherd’s hut high in the hills of Lazio and had to choose between using pages of Dostoevsky or the Bible as toilet paper. In a comic aside, Arturo says that his father found newspapers so full of ‘roba fetente’, literally ‘stinking stuff’, that it annoyed him even to use them in the toilet. Goldstein has: ‘My father said [the newspapers] were disgusting, so full of cheap nonsense and idiotic gossip that one felt compelled to use them in the toilet.’ Quigly correctly gives: ‘My father said that newspapers stank … and it was an insult even to use them in the toilet.’

In the interview with Publishers Weekly Goldstein explains that she came to translate Arturo’s Island because her publisher had so enjoyed collaborating with her on the complete works of Primo Levi that he wanted to work with her again. ‘He looked into the Morante situation and this was the one that was available.’ Coming after ‘“Ferrante fever”, it seemed like this was a good time for translating Italian women writers.’ Perhaps she wasn’t aware of Morante’s complaint that ‘the generic concept of women writers as a separate category harks back to the society of the harem.’ In short, translator and writer were not matched by elective affinity. Goldstein found the novel ‘astonishing and difficult’. ‘Morante’s sentences are very complicated and full of words – there are so many words!’ Indeed. Putting her version down, one’s feeling is that many of them eluded her, and that this fine novel is yet to be captured in English.

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