Slammed by Hurricanes
- The World Saved by Kids: And Other Epics by Elsa Morante, translated by Cristina Viti
Seagull, 319 pp, £19.50, January 2017, ISBN 978 0 85742 379 5
Elsa Morante’s longest novel, La Storia, or History, is set mostly in Rome during the nine-month Nazi occupation that started in September 1943, and draws on her experience as a woman of partly Jewish heritage, forced into hiding until the liberation of the city in 1944. It was published in Italy in 1974, with an epigraph from César Vallejo: ‘Por el analfabeto a quien escribo’ (‘for the illiterate, to whom I write’). Above all, her biographer, Lily Tuck, explains, Morante wanted the book to be ‘read by the general public – the poor general public’. She pushed for a paperback original publication, with an unusually low cover price subsidised by her own royalties. She picked a picture by Robert Capa for the cover, a young man lying dead on a heap of rubble, and composed a line of text to run underneath it: ‘A scandal that has lasted ten thousand years’.
Within a year of publication, the book had sold 800,000 copies and was being discussed all over Italy, according to a New York Times correspondent, ‘in railroad compartments and espresso bars’. If ever you’d get a popular readership for a heavy historical novel, it would be in Italy in its terrorised 1970s, the so-called years of lead. ‘The critics,’ the New York Times man continued, ‘write endlessly about the meaning of La Storia and the reasons for the exceptional stir.’
One of these critics was Pier Paolo Pasolini, a close friend of Morante’s for two decades. The novel was good in parts, he judged (the best of it as good as The Brothers Karamazov), but overall it was a mess. The characters were mostly phoney, the use of dialect inaccurate and insulting. And it wasn’t even one book, but three different books stuck together, and of these only one – by far the shortest – worked: the story of the half-Jewish woman, living in secret, terrified of being found out.
The bit Pasolini liked lasts for just over sixty pages. In the next section, the half-Jewish woman – her name is Ida – is raped by a German soldier and left with a baby son, the uncannily joyous and beautiful Useppe. They are bombed out of their flat in the inner-city district of San Lorenzo and move to a refugee shelter on the outskirts. This part of the story goes on for the best part of four hundred pages, with many digressions and much inconsistency in points of view. The third part, ‘the book of the dead’, as Pasolini called it, picks up the story after the war is over, and was, he considered, good, but not joined up. The project as a whole was unthought through; Morante should have kept revising for at least another year.
Morante and Pasolini had become friends in the 1950s, when she helped him get his long poem ‘The Ashes of Gramsci’ published in Nuovi Argomenti, the journal edited by her husband, the novelist Alberto Moravia. The marriage had long been an open one, and for two years in the early 1950s Morante had been obsessively involved with the filmmaker Luchino Visconti, one of a series of passionate friendships with men who were mainly or exclusively homosexual. She and Pasolini liked to gossip, and eat with friends, and talk about the meaning of their dreams.
In the early 1960s, Moravia left Morante decisively for another woman, and Pasolini seems to have taken it upon himself to cheer Morante up. He gave her a tiny part, as a prostitute in a prison, in his first film, Accattone (1961); she went on to choose the music for The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), which featured the philosopher Giorgio Agamben as the disciple Philip, the novelist Natalia Ginzburg as Mary of Bethany and Susanna, Pasolini’s mother, as the older Virgin Mary. A few years later, Pasolini wrote warmly about Morante’s Il mondo salvato dai ragazzini (1968), a dramatic poetry cycle which has just been translated into English for the first time as The World Saved by Kids. He considered it ‘a political manifesto written with the grace of a fairy tale’. The review, like the book, was in free verse.
After his review of La Storia, Morante never spoke to Pasolini again. Less than a year later, he was found dead on the beach at Ostia, a favourite cruising spot, his corpse marked with bloody tyre-tracks from his own Alfa Romeo. Morante’s final novel, Aracoeli (1982), is an exceedingly dark and bitter monologue written in the voice of a lonely gay man, recalling his lifelong obsession with his long-dead mother and her brother, Manuel, who died in Spain fighting for the Republicans: it might have been the image left on the paper by Pasolini’s poem ‘Supplica a mi madre’, superimposed with the memory of Guido, Pasolini’s brother, who had been killed while fighting with the Italian partisans. In Aracoeli, the narrator travels from Milan to the south of Spain over the weekend of All Saints’ Day, 1975, the action culminating on 2 November. The critic Walter Siti was one of the first to notice that this was the date of Pasolini’s death.
According to Tuck’s biography, Morante took to her bed shortly after Aracoeli was finished. A few months after it was published, she took an overdose of sleeping pills and turned on the gas. She survived, but in hospital was discovered to have a build-up of fluid on her brain. An operation left her almost immobile. She died after two years in a ‘clinic’ – what we’d call a care home, presumably – in 1985, still legally married to Moravia, probably because divorce in Italy didn’t become legal until 1970, by which time both parties may well have felt there was no point. The TV version of La Storia was broadcast in 1986 with Claudia Cardinale as Ida, and the exposure made the book, now with a less confrontational cover (a photo of a little boy), a bestseller a second time over.
‘Morante’s subject,’ Tim Parks wrote in PN Review in the 1980s, ‘is the fairly common one of the child, every child, who grows up, grows away from the beauties and innocence of infancy to the complications and very often horrors of adult life, of consciousness, of history.’ That subject, he said, was developed in three main novels, L’isola di Arturo or Arturo’s Island (1957, translated 1959), La Storia and Aracoeli, with an intensity and sense of damage which ‘depends for its credibility, its bearability, on the cadence and resourcefulness of her prose’. In Italian, Parks testifies, her prose is dazzling: densely literary, but with the freshness of spoken language. But translators so far, in his view, had failed to get this across in English: ‘The effect is much like that of listening to opera on a scratchy record.’
Parks didn’t mention Morante’s first novel, the only one to tell the ‘fairly common’ story of the child from the point of view of a girl: Menzogna e sortilegio (1948), a literal translation of which is ‘Lies and Sorcery’ but which came into English in 1951 as House of Liars. This may be because, even in the Italian, it must stretch credibility and bearability far beyond breaking (Parks called it ‘bizarre and marvellous’ in an NYRB piece in 2009). A young woman called Elisa has recently buried her ‘second mother’, who looked after her for 15 years, ever since her parents died when she was ten. She’s going to sit in her little room, with no one but her cat for company, while she recounts the story of her family and the ‘ancient sickness’ – the ‘intangible, complicated and … inexhaustible inheritance’ – they have passed on to her. This she does, for five hundred-plus pages in the English translation, which is more than two hundred pages shorter than the Italian. The story ends with an ode to the cat, Alvaro: ‘The glory of my windowsill, my double flower/Of lovely eyes’.
The setting is Sicily, not that you’d really know it: the novel is not big on concrete details, and Morante researched the setting on a visit that lasted three days. The ‘ancient sickness’ seems to be something to do with illusion and self-deception, a desire for big, grand, romantic living when, actually, you are small and poor. Elisa’s mother, Anna, has it, and so has her father, Francesco, which is one reason both of them love Edoardo, a beautiful, spiteful young aristo. Edoardo dies of consumption, sending his mother mad with grief; Anna comforts the mother and gratifies herself by writing fevered letters she pretends have come from him. Francesco, meanwhile, seeks consolation in the arms of a golden-hearted prostitute called Rosaria, who will care for Elisa on the death of her parents, and who gives her the cat she has longed for since she was a baby: ‘He, who has always been near me while I have been writing this long story, watches me with his lovely, faithful eyes as I now prepare to write finis.’
Both Parks and Tuck read the archaic, artificial manner of this novel as ironic. ‘Overheated melodrama’, according to Parks, is played off against ‘mocking reflection’. But House of Liars has other fans for whom its success has nothing to do with irony, but something more like its opposite. ‘It’s the book through which I discovered that an entirely female story – entirely women’s desires and ideas and feelings – could be compelling and, at the same time, have great literary value,’ Elena Ferrante – whoever that is – told a Norwegian journalist in 2015. Ferrante has mentioned Morante several times as one of her favourite writers, and may even have chosen her own pen name for the rhyme. Also, Morante was, as Dayna Tortorici noted in her excellent 2015 piece on the Ferrante phenomenon, the only Italian included on the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective’s ‘mothers of us all’ list, and it was Menzogna e sortilegio that was singled out: ‘The immense, sumptuous place that thus opens up has a charm which makes us recognise it; it is the maternal place. In that place, criteria of measurement which make us seem poor are not operative. There abundance lies, and nothing is measured out to anyone.’
The room Elisa has vowed not to leave until her tale is finished – but you know this without my telling you – lies off ‘a little velvet-curtained alcove’ at the end of a ‘long hall’, separate and protected from the rest of Rosaria’s apartment and its commercial goings-on. The room of one’s own is a womb, a matrix – ‘a symbolic placement’, in the words of the Milan Women’s Bookstore writers, ‘a space-time furnished with female gendered references’ – for the growing and transformation of the family romance. Elisa’s room certainly keeps her safe and snug, embedded in imagination, until page 348 of the English version’s 565 pages, when a gap opens and the light floods in:
From now on it is over, my privilege of witnessing, as a solitary spectator, a comedy of ghosts … Today the drama of my childhood reminds me of a book which seems obscure when we read it as children and taken up later is quite clear and simple to our adult mind. The many signs and symbols stamped in my mind which seemed to me senseless or mysterious as a child, my experience translates for me today into their true meaning. This new clarity informs the old scene in my eyes.
Tuck’s biography, which appeared in 2009, is the only book-length biography of Morante in any language. Tuck is an American novelist and not, she confesses, confident in Italian: she seems to have hired interpreters and translators to help her, and at one point a graphologist. Her interest in Morante appears to have started from childhood trips to Rome with her father, a film producer, in the 1950s: ‘One evening Anna Magnani dined with us and I recall how shocked I was when I saw she chewed her food with her mouth open.’ I don’t know any Italian, which maybe is a reason I found the story Tuck tells oddly sparse and dreamlike. Though this probably also has to do with the sort of life Morante lived.
Elsa Morante was born in Rome in 1912, the eldest of four surviving children. Her mother, Irma, came from a Jewish family in Modena and worked as a schoolteacher. Irma’s husband, Augusto Morante, came from Sicily and worked as a probation officer at a boys’ reform school. Augusto was impotent and openly humiliated by his wife, who made him eat his meals apart from the rest of the family and sleep on his own in the basement. The children’s biological father was a man they knew as Uncle Francesco, who wasn’t their uncle at all but – in the enduringly creepy expression – a family friend.
Elsa was a brilliant child, precocious and sophisticated. A picture in Tuck’s book shows charming cartoons of queens and viziers, done when she was 13. Life at home was bad-tempered and pinched, but Elsa lived for ‘months at a time’ with a rich godmother, Maria Guereiri Gonzaga. She published her first piece of professional writing, a short story, in the Corriere della Sera when she was 18. Shortly after, she left home following a particularly vicious row with her mother. For almost a decade she lived on her own in a bedsit, supporting herself by giving private lessons in Latin and Italian, and, occasionally, by paid-for sex. She wrote a lot, and kept a dream diary, with entries written as letters to ‘Antonio’, her name for her elder brother Mario, who died as a baby, or as she put it, ‘opened his eyes and saw the light and was so disgusted that he quickly closed them again’. Her fiction of this period, Tuck finds, ‘made repeated use of certain settings’ that would become familiar in her mature work: ‘islands as paradise, beautiful gardens, the sea, certain animals who take on human traits’.
The affair with Moravia began in 1937: ‘I wasn’t in love, but I was fascinated by an extreme, heartrending, passionate quality in her character,’ he told his biographer, Alain Elkann. ‘It was as if every day of her life were the last.’ For a few years, Elsa and Alberto lived in suspension, as though Fascism, war, the racial laws weren’t happening: ‘Elsa walked around with a Siamese cat on a leash and I had an owl on my shoulder,’ Moravia said of one of their writing trips to Capri. They married in 1941.
In the summer of 1943, Moravia learned he was on a Fascist hit list: besides which, both he and Morante were half-Jewish and the Germans were marching in. The couple fled Rome on a train to Naples, but the line was already blocked. For the next nine months they lived in a mountain hut in the Ciociara, south-east of Rome, using their copy of The Brothers Karamazov as toilet paper – they’d packed light because everybody expected the Americans to arrive any minute. Morante sneaked back to Rome once, fleetingly, to pick up warm clothes for the winter. She also wanted to check that the manuscript of Menzogna e sortilegio was safe. When the war ended, Morante and Moravia became the centre of the group that gathered around Nuovi Argomenti, a bit like Beauvoir and Sartre and Les Temps modernes. After Moravia moved out for good in 1962, Morante lived on her own, with cats, eating out every evening, surrounded by admiring younger friends. It isn’t clear whether she chose not to have children or if she couldn’t. Tuck says she once said in an interview that it was partly to do with her health and partly because of the war.
‘Who’s to save you from your own mother?’ the father rails in Morante’s most famous novel, L’isola di Arturo. ‘She’s not free – that’s her nature; so she’d like to have you enslaved along with her. That’s mother-love for you!’ But his son, the teenage Arturo, disagrees: ‘The fact was, the idea of someone … for whom Arturo Gerace would be like the sun, the centre of the universe, was certainly something I took to.’ But Arturo doesn’t have a mother – his one died giving birth to him – and his father is mostly absent. And so his ‘battlefield’, he says, was one great confused dilemma, without the relief of hope or of revenge’.
Sons and mothers, love and entrapment, the agony of a self divided between its longing for the lost world of cosy infancy and the terrifying empowerments of adult sex: this, in different versions, is the drama at the heart of Morante’s three mature novels. It works least well in La Storia, probably because of the sprawling ambition indicated in the novel’s title. From Ida and Useppe to Mao and Gandhi, via the Jews waiting in sealed wagons at the Tiburtina station, where ‘babies’ cries overlapped with quarrels, ritual chanting, meaningless mumbles,’ as the novel inadequately renders the scene: Pasolini was completely right in his criticisms. It’s like several unfinished books only loosely stitched together, like those beds made of separate mattresses uncomfortably joined by zips.
In L’isola di Arturo, on the other hand, the drama sparkles like sea spray, cut with those deep, dark shadows you get when the sun is new. A lot of this has to do with the geography of the setting: the island of Procida, a volcanic outcrop ‘shaped like a dolphin’ between Ischia and the mainland in the Bay of Naples, which in Morante’s time really did have the ‘gigantic citadel … used as a prison’ that becomes central to the story’s final act.
Arturo’s island, with its ‘beaches of fine white sand, and smaller beaches covered with pebbles and shells, hidden between great cliffs that overhang the water’, becomes a rock theatre that encloses and amplifies the struggle between Arturo and his father – theatre itself, presumably, has its origin in something similar. The unities lend the story a grace and solidity you seldom find in Morante’s writing, not to mention the depth of myth.
‘I watched these two kissing each other as, from a solitary ship out at sea, I might watch an unapproachable, mysterious, enchanted country, full of flowers and foliage,’ Arturo says, driven frantic by the sight of his father’s new teenage wife showering kisses on her baby son. ‘I lay down on the sunny sand, whose carnal warmth made it seem like a beautiful silken body … I’d start saying: “Oh, darling sand! Darling beach! Darling light!”’ Later, he shadows his father on one of his walks to the hilltop prison. ‘Up there, in the unhappy buildings of the Walled Country, they knew another climate, one of desperation, of maturity, of proud ruin, one that kept them far from the world in which mothers existed.’ (The father turns out to be hopelessly in love with one of the inmates, whom he serenades from the hillside. ‘Beat it, you grotesque,’ the prisoner responds in Isabel Quigly’s translation – Tuck thinks it would have been better rendered as ‘Go away, you pervert.’)
A quarter-century later, Manuele, the protagonist-narrator of Aracoeli, remembers well the idyll of reciprocated mother-baby love; it hasn’t made him remotely happy, though, partly because his mother died when he was six. ‘The enchanted potion that you worked day and night into my flesh was actually this: your false, excessive love, to which you addicted me,’ as he puts it, in an encapsulation of mother-blaming misogyny. He has tried everything – sex, drugs, love, dreaming – to help him to crawl back inside that happiness. Whatever he does only leaves him more alone and unhappy than ever, trapped in a mind he experiences as ‘a foul, promiscuous room’.
Manuele’s mother, Aracoeli, was an immigrant to Italy from a remote hill village in Andalusia. His search for her birthplace begins in 1975, when he is in his early forties, with the televisions in all the bars tuned to the latest news of General Franco, ‘my Enemy’, who has recently fallen into the coma that will lead, within a month, to his death. As Manuele travels, his mind keeps snagging on various episodes in his life story, all shaped by ‘guilt and shame’. Then he finds, lurking behind them, the mother of all mortifying memories.
When he was six, Manuele explains, his mother gave birth to another baby, much loved by both of them, but who fell ill and died. Aracoeli grew ill herself, and then depressed, and then something even more awful happened:
An animal, an invisible presence had been introduced into our house and day by day was taking control of it. Especially in the morning, in the heavy air of the bedrooms, its odour could be perceived, like a sweetish fermenting breath … We seemed almost able to glimpse its spotted skin, and its greedy snout that peered out from under the furniture. And though incapable of seeing it, I still somehow sensed – perhaps through my pores – the undefined species, like a feral intrusion, nameless, that magically (at ever briefer intervals) was incarnated in Aracoeli.
She grows fat, heavy, dirty, compulsively sexual, then collapses into a coma, after which the family is given the ‘tragic diagnosis’: the disease ‘probably settled in her cells only a few months earlier, developing then with ruinous speed’. An operation leaves her with her head in bandages, her face now revealed as ‘the triangular snout of a little animal’ itself. ‘And then began Aracoeli’s vengeance … I suspected she was roaming in my room, in the darkness, always awake and hostile, preparing to show herself to me suddenly, bending over me.’
The novel does not specify the disease that has destroyed Aracoeli’s brain. It might be syphilis, picked up from her husband, which might also explain the death of the second baby, but it could be anything, heritable or non-heritable, that damages the frontal lobes. Did Morante have a disease in mind, or was she thinking again about ‘ancient sickness’ in a more general way?
A friend, Tuck writes, reported how terrible it was to see Morante after her brain operation, her head in bandages, ‘exactly like Aracoeli’. Moravia, as her next of kin, had given permission for the operation, but later wished he hadn’t: ‘For two years and eight months, Elsa lived a long agony … It would have been better not to let a person condemned to die survive.’
In 1959, Morante travelled to the US, where she fell in love with a young painter called Bill Morrow. He was, Tuck writes, ‘the sort of person everyone – men, women, children – fell in love with (in retrospect, this may have been part of his problem)’, and he was predominantly a lover of men. Morante brought him back to Rome and rented a flat for the two of them. In 1962, back in New York, he was killed jumping from a tall building. The rumour was that he had been dropping acid and hallucinated that he could fly.
Morante, grief-stricken, abandoned the novel she had been working on, to have been called ‘Without the Comfort of Religion’. She never went back to it, and published little until Il mondo salvato dai ragazzini, an ‘epic-heroic-lyrical-didactic poem in regular and irregular, free and rhymed verse’, as she described it. ‘It is a book,’ she wrote, ‘if by book we mean a common and unique experience fulfilling a cycle from birth to death and vice versa’; she also called it ‘an autobiography … a memorial … a manifesto … a philosophico-social system’, and other things. ‘But if by book we mean a product of a different sort, then this is not a book.’
Whatever it is, it could only have been made in the 1960s. The first piece, a poem called ‘Farewell’, is written in the voice of an older woman lover, waiting up for the return of her wild young man. Is he shoplifting orchids for his mother from a snooty florist? Is he cutting up the turkey he bought for his cat, ‘seized by a bitter disgust for all animal deaths and all life’? But really she knows deep down that he cannot return this time: the door of his ‘cubbyhole’ has been ‘slammed by hurricanes’. ‘My foot stumbles on your poor vest/that no one’s bothered to pick up from the floor.’
At the time Morante was working on these pieces, Pasolini was making his film of Oedipus Rex (1967). It may not, then, be coincidental that the longest piece in the book is a modern version of Oedipus at Colonus, set in a hospital, with Antigone as a scruffy Roman urchin. (Did Pasolini approve of these renditions of regional Italian? I don’t know.) It’s prefaced by a couple of short poems that appear to draw on disappointing drug experiences. (‘I had my passport, with the official visa from the/World Academy of Superior Chemistry,’ the first one begins. ‘La sera domenicale’ is the name of the second, ‘Late Sunday Dusk’ in translation – that is, LSD.)
A bigger piece, ‘Song of the HF and the UM’ – in which, the poem explains, ‘HF … is an abbreviation of Happy Few’ and ‘UM … stands for Unhappy Many’ – performs the very of-its-time drama of victimised genius v. mass culture mediocrity. Examples of the ‘HF’ include Gramsci, Rimbaud, Mozart, Joan of Arc and Simone Weil, with her ‘funny, short-sighted schoolgirl glasses’, her ‘foreign hospital bed … a harrowing maze of barbed wire’. And the piece that gives the book its title starts off with a transposition of the Crucifixion to the outskirts of contemporary Rome: ‘I know one thing,’ Jesus tells Simone, a builder, as they reach the mountain-top. ‘ALL OF THIS … IS NOTHING BUT A GAME.’ A radio plays ‘Cielito Lindo’ until interrupted by a very long, somewhat Brechtian ‘Song of the Great Masterwork’, a sort of psychedelic caravan of death that trundles around like a demonic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The grand finale is set in 1941 in Berlin, with the posting of the yellow star decree. All the Aryans rise up and wear yellow stars too, and the ‘maniacal faces’ of Hitler (‘known among kids by the nickname of Monotache or also Goffukk’) and Goebbels are overwhelmed in another NOTHING BUT A GAME. You can see why Tuck calls this ‘nearly untranslatable’, but, although I can’t speak for the accuracy of Cristina Viti’s translation, her English-language Morante reads beautifully – highly wrought and allusive, but also simple and conversational, just like Parks said. Though it’s a shame, maybe, that she picked ‘kids’ as her translation of ragazzini: the Italian has a morphological elegance the English does not. ‘Morante is the kind of cup that most translators, including myself, would be happy to see pass from them,’ Parks wrote in the 1980s. But if anyone wants new English versions of the novels, Viti would do them really well.
Writing in 2015, Parks sympathised with people who don’t like what they can see of Morante’s writing: it’s ‘so lush and fantastical, so extravagantly rhetorical, she must seem way over the top to some.’ Parks himself can’t abide her inheritrix, Elena Ferrante: ‘My impression is of something wearisomely concocted, determinedly melodramatic, forever playing on Neapolitan stereotype.’ He can enjoy Morante in a way readers limited to the English translations can’t, while non-Italian readers are able to love the Ferrante novels – clumsy and derivative, although I am devoted to them, as I can see they are – in a way not open to a committed student of Italian culture. Sometimes, being clumsy and derivative doesn’t matter too much if a work is powerful in a different way. As happens with Ferrante’s work, whoever, whatever Ferrante is.
In 1992, Ferrante won Italy’s Elsa Morante Prize for her first novel, L’amore molesto (Troubling Love). ‘I deeply love the works of Elsa Morante and I have many of her words in my mind,’ she wrote to the jury. ‘Before writing to you, I tried to find some to hold on to and extract their meaning … Among other things I was looking for words about the mother figure, which is central in Morante’s work, and I searched in Menzogna e sortilegio, in L’isola di Arturo, in La Storia, in Aracoeli.’ She didn’t find what she was looking for in any of the novels, but in a short story from 1951 called ‘Lo scialle andaluso’, ‘The Andalusian Shawl’. The words in it
describe the way sons imagine their mothers: in a state of perennial old age, with holy eyes, with holy lips, dressed in black or grey or at most brown … The mother’s clothes are shapeless and her only age, old age, is also ‘shapeless’, since, Elsa Morante writes, ‘no one, starting with the mother’s dressmaker, must think that a mother has a woman’s body.’
That ‘no one must think’ seems very significant. It means that shapelessness is so powerful, in conditioning the word ‘mother’, that sons and daughters, when they think of the body to which the word should refer, cannot give it its proper shapes without revulsion. Not even the mother’s dressmaker, who is also a woman, daughter, mother, can do so. She in fact, out of habit, heedlessly cuts out clothes for the mother that eliminate the woman, as if the latter were a leprosy of the former. They do this, and so the mother’s age becomes a mystery with no importance, and old age becomes her only age.
As far as I know ‘Lo scialle andaluso’ has never been published in English. I read it in French. It’s about a son and his mother and set in Sicily, like Menzogna e sortilegio. No one and nothing in it, the shawl excepted, has anything to do with Spain. But it’s an amazing shawl, like a magic cloak, first used to cover the nakedness of the son with the mother’s overpowering love, and then appearing to the son as ‘a great black shape hanging from the handle of the window, the very image of his shame’. Bodies and shawls, sons and mothers, shape v. shapelessness. The Morante-Ferrante connection takes us somewhere dim, vulgar, rude, mysterious – underwater, maybe, as Joan Didion once suggested was true of the experience of all women, in their ‘deepest life’.
Morante didn’t like feminists, according to Tuck: she liked ‘simple mothers, real mothers’, mothers like the uneducated rural teenagers her ‘lost boys’ long to be swaddled by in her books. The feminists of Milan in the 1980s, however, embedded and grew themselves in the rich environment of these strange writings, and now Ferrante fever seems to have prompted renewed interest among younger feminists in the process the Italians called affidamento, deliberate elective bondings between younger women and older ones, not because of subcutaneous sisterhood, but because both sides have things to teach and learn. (Silver Press, a new London-based publisher, recently announced a new edition of the Milan Bookstore writings, Don’t Think You Have Any Rights.) Are there Ferrante fans out there ready to plunge as her generation did into the depths of Elsa Morante? If so, and if they do so, I wonder what they will find.
I’d recommend starting with Aracoeli, not least because of the return to Andalusia. The novel also contains a couple of vaginas in extreme close-up – one a ‘little open vulva between two feathery wings’, the other ‘bare and greyish … a kind of bloody wound’ – and a narrator whose only ambition is to ‘re-enter’ the body of his mother, ‘to curl up inside her, in my only haven, lost now who knows where, in what abyss’. As Parks says, William Weaver’s translation is curiously laborious and stilted, but the power, the horror, the originality, are unmistakeable nonetheless.
The mother’s name, Aracoeli, is Latin for ‘altar of heaven’. But that’s another thing you’ll feel you’ve always known. ‘She may have felt that, as she knew everything about me, I instinctively knew everything about her,’ Manuele says, in love for ever with that ‘enchanting fusion’. But ‘no one can elude the birth sentence,’ as everybody also knows already. ‘Even stray animals seek, more than food, caresses, spoiled, even they, by the mother who licked them as cubs day and night.’