Morante, Elsa

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Morante, Elsa 1918–

Morante is an Italian novelist and poet. Her work History: A Novel is considered a major contribution to modern Italian literature.

The very title of this enormous novel ["History: A Novel"], hailed by its publishers as the most important Italian work of fiction in a generation or more, is something of a provocation. It takes us back to an age when the novelist could confidently assume that he had authoritatively incorporated the actual movement of history into his imaginative inventions—to such a degree that some of the great fictional productions of the time bore subtitles like "A Chronicle of the 19th Century" and "A Study of Manners in the 19th Century." The technique of "History: A Novel" also harks back to the 19th century, particularly to the Naturalist novel, with its near-omniscient narrator deploying a huge cast of characters through a series of lower-class urban scenes. The book also has a distinct affinity—apart from one significant exception, to which I shall return—with the Italian Neo-Realist films of the early postwar period.

The main action of the novel takes place in Rome between 1941 and 1947. Scarcely anyone higher on the social scale than a pimp or a juvenile delinquent is allowed into the book…. Ida Mancuso, the frail, shabby, uncomprehending widow who is the novel's heroine—though it may sound contradictory, I think Elsa Morante thinks of her as that—is an elementary school teacher, but she approaches her work with about the same mental set as if she were a charwoman or a five-and-dime salesgirl; and however she may cling with her fingertips to the brink of bourgeois propriety, she clearly belongs to the realm of the downtrodden and the oppressed that is the whole human world of this novel.

The physical setting through which these personages move is equally reminiscent of the Neo-Realist cinema: a vast war-scarred landscape of rubble, skeletons of bombed-out buildings, shanties crowded with refugees, incessant scavenging for food, black-market transactions, talking over the bad news in the hope things will somehow get better. The whole novel, in fact, is easily imaginable in grainy black-and-white. Actually, only on occasion does it allow itself a splash of color, often symbolic, like blood-red; and it avoids any self-conscious display of technique or personal style as it moves with a more or less fixed focus from one scene to the next.

The plot is a progress of disasters, from Ida Mancuso's rape by a young German soldier in 1941 to the death six years later of the visionary, epileptic child born of that violent union. Compassion, though it gets Morante into certain serious difficulties, is one of her great virtues as a novelist, and so, interestingly, this is a world of victims without any clearly visible victimizers, except for one walk-on appearance of Wehrmacht murderers. (pp. 7,34)

Each year of the novel's action is prefaced by a three- or four-page summary of the year's principal events in world politics. These summaries reflect a kind of simplified popular Marxism that has become all too familiar in the 1960's and 70's: Schematically and tendentiously, world disasters are attributed to the sinister machinations of big industry everywhere; and, by the concluding summary, even the clichés of the ecological apocalypticists (the poisoning of the environment with plastics, and so forth) are trundled out. The question is whether there are grains of truth in such formulas but whether they help the novelist in his work—and in this crucial respect I am afraid their effect is calamitous….

It is, of course, pernicious nonsense to reduce all history to such a grossly leveling common denominator simply because at all times in history relationships of power have obtained among men. It is a way of not really thinking about history but of feeling about it, and feeling one thing—blind, seething resentment….

Morante's compassion … frequently spills over into pathetic excess, and her tough realism breaks down into a tediously proliferated series of disasters rigged by the novelist against her own creations.

There is nothing beloved in the novel, be it cat, dog, child, man or woman, that does not end up being hideously destroyed, and the novelist will go 20 pages out of her way to catch a good last agony, even pursuing one quite peripheral character all the way to the Russian front in order to evoke his hallucinations as he expires from frostbite. Again and again, Morante is unable to resist a pathetic overload of detail and commentary…. (p. 34)

It seems to me that all the great 19th-century novels of politics and history—from "The Charterhouse of Parma" to "Middlemarch," "Germinal," "The Possessed" and "War and Peace"—were built on some reasonably complex working hypothesis about what impels man as a political animal and about historical causation. Obviously I do not mean a "correct" hypothesis, but one sufficiently probing, subtle and flexible to help the novelist represent men and women in the flux of history with a satisfying psychological and political amplitude. It is because of this that the accounts of people in history rendered by these novels are still powerfully instructive.

When you assume that all history is a variation on the single theme of fascism, and that all evil—even, it would seem, a child's epilepsy inherited from the mother—is perpetrated by monolithic Powers not even allowed access to the scene of the novel, all that remains of historical experience is the pangs of victimhood; and those, after abundant repetition and heavy insistence, are likely to leave readers numbed—and with a sense that the sharpness of authorial indictment has finally been eroded by sentimentality.

For these reasons, "History: A Novel" does not really support the weight of all its encrusted details, though if it fails as a whole, it nevertheless has a good many arresting moments. The best of these, I would suggest, have very little to do with the crushing historical fatalism of the overall scheme. There is a peculiar Dostoyevskian visionary quality in Morante's writing that occasionally illuminates her somber Naturalist landscape. At a number of crucial junctures, she manages to carry out wonderful forays into the uncanny, moving from bleak earthbound things to metaphysical vistas. (pp. 34-5)

Robert Alter, "The Setting, Rome 1941 to 1947," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 24, 1977, pp. 7, 34-5.

Luigi Barzini, in his book on the Italians, discusses the melancholy aspect of the Italian character which is so little observed by the rest of the world. But the Italian writers seem to wear their melancholy on their sleeves: or perhaps they are so sad that they cannot conceal it. I have often wondered why this is so. One reason may be that in Italy the consciousness of the modern poet or novelist reflects more poignantly than elsewhere the contrast between European Renaissance genius—evidences of which survive so dominatingly in Italy—and the hopelessly degraded vulgar modern scene.

Falling has symbolic force in Elsa Morante's History: A Novel. Her heroine, the schoolteacher Ida, suffered when she was a child from le petit mal; and her wonderfully poetic child Giuseppe has the epileptic's grand mal—which brings on his death. Giuseppe falls in horror as the result of the nightmares, such as deportation, air raids, and other forms of violence he witnesses, that are provided by History. Mussolini's empire was itself a fall into a terrible vulgarity of, alas, a peculiarly Italian kind, for which, alas, some of the Italian writers fell. This may partly explain their sadness. The worst fall of all—abominable even by Mussolini's own standards—forms the subject of this novel. This was the adoption by Mussolini of Hitler's racial laws and his cooperation, through deportations of Italian Jews to German concentration camps, with the program for the extermination of the Jews.

History covers the period of Fascism and takes place mainly in wartime and postwar Europe. Each section of the narrative is prefaced by an italicized summary of the public events immediately contemporaneous with the corresponding period in the lives of the characters. Thus lives are imprisoned within brackets provided by History. These events happened, of course, not just in Italy, but all over Europe, and in Russia and America. They were worldwide. Yet in Elsa Morante's novel they become canalized into Italian behavior, and they assume peculiarly Italian forms. So this is a novel really about things that happened in Italy, not about the outside world except in so far as it affected Italy….

Within or beyond History, and apart from its victims, there is an effort of consciousness, of which History, with its almost invisible but omnipresent narrator "I," is a heroic example….

The tragedy of politics, as seen in History, is the inability of men to make politics human. This is no doubt a universal problem, but perhaps it is felt most intensely in Italy because of the particularly self-indulgent Italian upper class and bourgeoisie.

However to try to extract a message or lesson from Elsa Morante's book is to follow to literally the clue hinted at in the title. The story that she has to tell stands marvelously on its own. In outline it is extremely simple: being the account of the effects of an almost depersonalized History conducted by leaders who think of war as campaigns and of peace as a matter of "spheres of influence" upon the lives of impoverished victims. Elsa Morante's poor are those from whom History takes away even what they possess—their very lives. (p. 31)

Elsa Morante's treatment of Ida, or Iduzza (as she is often called), is close to Flaubert's of his heroine in Une Vie Simple. Indeed History is throughout written in the tradition of nineteenth-century realism. This may be because Italy, with its late pursuit of empire under Mussolini, had a twentieth-century history continuous with the nineteenth. Germany did not. Elsa Morante contrasts the figure of Mussolini with that of Hitler, writing that while both were dreamers, "the dream-vision of the Italian Duce was a histrionic festival," "whereas the other was … a formless dream … [in which] every living creature (including himself) was the object of torment…. And at the end—in the Grand Finale…."

Mussolini's Italy, then, can be imagined within the continuity of the nineteenth-century realistic novel. In any case, this is a convention completely suited to Elsa Morante's gifts. She is a storyteller who spellbinds the reader. Like Flaubert she seems a great processional artist who can cover an enormous canvas, introducing, as the plot develops, new characters who are fixed and made convincing in a few swift strokes, and who are caught up in the sweep of the whole narrative. While in the largest tragic sense, History is a novel of doomed characters (the external history of the time ultimately destroys all humble and insulted private lives), it is also full of enchanting surprises, showing the immense vitality of the poor and oppressed. This vitality is particularly Italian and finds its place—or refuses to do so—within the pessimistic vision of history. (pp. 31-2)

Elsa Morante sees children in the light of their pathos, as Henry James also saw them. And in its way the portrait of Giuseppe is the most inspired invention in this book….

[She] has an uncanny understanding of Roman boys and of their dogs, and never translates into language signs of childishness or animality beyond the point where they are convincing to us…. [Only] fantastic imagination can sustain this story of the crushing reality of the History which destroys so many of its victims. (p. 32)

"Consciousness" in the latter half of the novel is shared by Giuseppe with his amazing gift of happiness and by Davide with his tormented conscience of the anarchist in revolt against his bourgeois forebears. But in them, as in everyone else in this novel, consciousness is doomed to destruction by History. Giuseppe develops the symptoms of a more extreme form of epilepsy than his mother's. This may or may not be inherited from her, but the profounder significance of the attacks which make him fall are the shocks he has received from glimpses of the workings of History in air raids, deportations, and the solitude to which he is condemned….

The form which Davide's personal tragedy takes is also that of a defect which might seem inherited: the drug addiction of a very bourgeois aunt who had been the object of his greatest contempt when he was a child. But the real significance of his auto-intoxication is of course the utter contradiction between his humanist political faith and History. (p. 33)

The point is very strongly made in [Elsa Morante's] account of the lives of her characters that their fates are scarcely affected by the Allied landings, the liberation of Europe, the meetings between leaders cutting up the world into spheres of influence. The reader may protest that although the disasters in the lives of poor little doomed Useppe and Ida his mother and Davide the partisan hero are convincing, the political generalizations drawn from this are too pessimistic.

Here we are brought back to the particular case of Italy, or rather of Rome and the scandal of the Roman bourgeoisie. Reading History we are reminded of the preface that an English poet of the First World War, Wilfred Owen, wrote to his Poems: "All a poet can do today is to warn." As it bears on politics History provides a gravely pessimistic warning. But this is alleviated—contradicted at times—by the immense vitality of the life described. (pp. 33-4)

The novel's last words are, "… and History continues…." The tragic end is of course inevitable, imposed by Elsa Morante's view of History and perhaps also by the nineteenth-century form she has chosen. The great virtue of her novel however is that although the reader accepts the inevitable ending, the life conveyed works as much against tragedy as for it….

Elsa Morante creates, paradoxically, more life than death in this tragic and pessimistic novel, whose visionary force lies not so much in the fate of her little band of doomed victims as in the nightmare of a period of history which had no regard for these lives…. [and] in altered form still goes on today. Read the news from Italy. "History continues." (p. 34)

Stephen Spender, "Melancholic and Magic History," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), April 28, 1977, pp. 31-4.