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The Disillusionist

23 January 2019

From The New York Review of Books:

We live in a golden age of reissues. Every publishing season seems to bring fresh editions from a vital but ignored past: say, Clarice Lispector, who had one book come out last year, or Lucia Berlin, who had two. For readers, republication offers something rare: the possibility of reclaiming history simply by opening a book. The proper response to this is surely celebration. But I can’t help feeling a bit depressed that so many of the cool new writers are dead.

I’ve been particularly interested in the resurgence of midcentury women novelists who share certain characteristics. These women were underappreciated in their own lifetimes. They may have gotten prizes and awards, but they never earned the fame or money of their male peers or, in many cases, their more successful husbands. They distanced themselves from the women’s movement. They were rude in ways that were probably deeply unpleasant for their contemporaries but now translate nicely into witty anecdotes and retorts.

Take Elsa Morante. Like many of the authors who are regularly discovered and rediscovered, Morante never became internationally famous. Her novels are not widely read outside of Italy, unlike those of her husband, Alberto Moravia, or the works of many of the artists she collaborated with over the course of her life, like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Natalia Ginzburg. Her novels are not difficult, but they are also not easy: violent, emotionally tangled, lushly written in a way that often reads in English as more melodramatic than dramatic, and almost overwhelmingly ambitious.

“Elsa was a bit totalitarian,” Moravia said of his wife after her death. A man who had escaped fascism could not have meant that lightly, but it comes across as accurate and sincere. Morante’s novels have the drive of a general ready to obliterate the field. She’s also one of Elena Ferrante’s favorite writers, and the one from whom she derived her pen name. The connection is made very clear by the fact that this new translation of Arturo’s Island is by Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, and has a quote from Ferrante on the back.

. . . .

For Morante, the tangled entrapment of family wasn’t theoretical. Poverty and cramped quarters made independence early in her life impossible. Her parents had hoped to create a happy household. But on their wedding night her mother, Irma, a schoolteacher with thwarted literary ambitions, discovered that Augusto Morante was impotent. Irma punished her husband by making him sleep in the basement. Elsa and her siblings later came to learn that their real father was someone they had been introduced to as “Uncle Ciccio.” In Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante (2008), the novelist Lily Tuck describes how Morante’s mother used to wait until everyone was asleep before she went to the bathroom. The home was so small that even the facts of living had to be hidden.

. . . .

She met Alberto Moravia in 1937. He later recalled that they “had supper together with some friends, and as I was saying goodnight to her, she slipped the keys of her house into my hand.” During the war they married, then fled to southern Italy. Both worried about being arrested by the Fascists. This period of panic was in many ways the high point of their relationship. The chaos of war seemed to create a greenhouse that allowed the otherwise fragile marriage to thrive. Morante, who throughout her childhood had read stories of heroes and gods, could act bravely and boldly, as a character in a romance or myth might. She crossed occupied Rome to save the manuscript of her first novel, House of Liars, a long and convoluted story of love and disenchantment. Morante and Moravia wandered around the Bay of Naples, he with an owl on his shoulder, she with a Siamese cat on a leash.

Morante could deal with the stress of war. The boredom of peacetime was what she found difficult. “She considered herself, as it were, an angel fallen from heaven into the practical hell of daily living,” Moravia wrote. (Morante herself refused interviews for much of her life and destroyed many of her papers. Biographers are therefore unfortunately reliant on the words of her ex-husband to gloss her own.)

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

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