Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739
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 juxtaposing her late nineteenth century setting with central figures who are incongruous within that setting, Morante achieves effects that approximate those of the Surrealists in the visual arts.
In the character of Rosaria, the lover of Elisa’s father, there are correspondences to the protagonist of Moravia’s The Woman of Rome (1947), which suggests that Moravia and Morante were writing from shared experiences. Similarly, Moravia’s Two Adolescents (1944) raises questions that Morante explores in her Arturo’s Island. Just as Elisa experiences separation from those she loves, the adolescent Arturo in Arturo’s Island suffers separation from his parents—from a mother who dies at his birth and from a father who places his own pleasures before parental responsibilities. When Wilhelm, the father, returns unexpectedly from Naples with Nunziata, a bride two years older than Arturo, the son experiences fully the trauma of parental rejection. Arturo must thereupon deal with the conflicting feelings that Nunziata has stolen his father from him, that she has replaced his mother, and that, ironically, being so close to his age, she is a needed friend in his fragmented existence.
In this work, as in her last novel, Aracoeli, Morante demonstrates her understanding of what separation by death means to a young person. To Morante, death reflects the loss she felt when she broke with her family.
In 1963 Morante’s marriage to Moravia ended in divorce. Five years later Morante began writing History: A Novel. This most ambitious and longest novel, which required six years of concentrated effort, is the story of a half-Jewish school teacher, Ida, who is raped by a Nazi soldier and, in 1941, having nowhere else to turn, arrives in Rome with her older son, Nino, who is committed to the Fascists, and with the child conceived during the rape, Useppe (short for Giuseppe). The novel encompasses the war years—depicting the air raids, food shortages, poverty, uncertainty, deportations to concentration camps, and deaths and disappearances—as well as the war’s aftermath. Following the publication of this novel, her physical and mental health deteriorated. Her condition went undiagnosed until 1983, when, after an attempt to commit suicide, it was determined that she suffered from hydrocephalus, which causes high levels of cerebrospinal fluid to accumulate in the cranium.
In her last novel, Aracoeli, the forty-three-year-old protagonist is still struggling with the loss of his mother thirty-seven years earlier. Perhaps in an oblique reference to her own experience with a cerebral disease, which had been the cause of her erratic behavior, Morante has the character die of a brain tumor. Morante herself died of a heart attack in 1985, one year after the English translation of Aracoeli was published.
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