Born in Rome, Elsa Morante (mohr-AHN-tay) left her parents’ home at the age of eighteen. Within a few years she married the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia, who was eleven years her senior. Moravia, outspokenly antifascist, was forced during the Nazi occupation in 1943 to leave Rome. He and Morante fled to the Italian countryside, where they lived reclusively among the local peasants, who protected their identities. This experience made an indelible impression upon Morante and directly influenced her writing.
Morante began work on her first novel, House of Liars, during this time of exile. Upon its publication in 1948 it was hailed as a significant first work of fiction. The Italian title—which is more accurately translated as “lies and charms”—captures the essence of the novel. The story is set in southern Italy just before the beginning of the twentieth century and narrated by twenty-five-year-old Elisa, the daughter of the book’s main protagonist, Anna. After the successive deaths of Anna, Elisa’s father, Francesco, and the prostitute who was in love with him and cared for Elisa after his death, Elisa attempts to reconstruct her family’s history, beginning with the life of her grandmother, Cesira. A recurrent theme in the book is the alienation of children from their parents. Another theme, also one with personal associations for Morante, is the love of women for older men who are surrogate fathers.
In House of Liars, as in much of her work, Morante compares life as it is with life as it should be. Indeed, a central concern in her work and her life is the juxtaposition of illusion and reality. She achieves her artistic ends by dealing meticulously with small details and by building her characters so that each seems central to the narrative. By...
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