Slammed by Hurricanes

Jenny Turner

  • 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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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