Mother of Melodrama

The feral freedom of children in Elsa Morante’s novels

By Cora Currier

Morante browsing a Renato Guttuso catalogue in her Rome apartment, 1961.

Elena Ferrante’s penname is reportedly an homage to Elsa Morante, one of the most famous Italian women writers of the postwar generation. Ferrante’s books are full of fraught motherhood, and when she won the Elsa Morante prize (a major Italian literary honor) she went searching for “an unequivocally female passage on the mother figure,” to cite in her acceptance speech. But she couldn’t find one. She could only find passages where “sons imagine their mothers,” she relates in Frantumaglia. Or daughters — here is Elisa, the narrator of Morante’s novel Lies and Sorcery, writing as a young woman: 

“In vain, my judgment dictates that I should call her a stupid, perverse, and vulgar woman, but my judgment, alas, is powerless since even today my emotions bathe her image in a divine aura. The bad mother, the killjoy, the wicked wife, I can only see her through my childish eyes. I see her resplendent in her embroidered stole, wearing her precious stones, as noble and as beautiful as Our Lady of the Orient.”

Morante’s novels dwell in the wayward emotions of children, in their intensity, confusion, sympathy, and their unsparing if naïve assessments. Lies and Sorcery, her first book, newly available in English unabridged for the first time, is told by a child grown up among the shadows of her parents’ love stories, and their indifference to her; Arturo’s Island is narrated by a semi-feral boy on Procida, whose coming-of-age is occasioned by his mysterious father bringing home a child-bride just a few years older than he; History follows the brief life of a baby, Useppe, born after his schoolteacher mother is raped by a teenaged Nazi soldier in occupied Rome; and Aracoeli, Morante’s last novel (and the only one I found hard to finish) is told by a full-grown man-child, searching for his mother. 

I encounter Morante by reading backwards from Ferrante

Morante did not have children, but by all accounts she loved them. Her friend Pier Paolo Pasolini referred to her as a “nonna bambina” (“grandmother child”), both for her “willed childishness as well as her love for children and the adults who remain like them,” in the words of her biographer, Lily Tuck. She was born in 1912 in a working-class neighborhood in Rome, the eldest of four. Her mother was a schoolteacher, who, according to Tuck, was fiercely jealous of Morante’s precocious talent and also did everything she could to support it — giving Morante her own room the other three children were forbidden from entering and guilt-tripping a wealthy godmother into supporting her studies and sending her on seaside vacations. She lived alone from her late teens, skipping university to write, giving lessons, and occasionally turning to sex work, per Tuck. She married Alberto Moravia, one of the most prolific and celebrated Italian novelists of the century, a complicated and often unhappy marriage (later, she had affairs with the director Luchino Visconti and a much younger American painter.) Moravia and Morante were anti-fascists, though not partisans, and spent the early war years writing on Capri, where she began Lies and Sorcery. In 1943, they fled the Nazi occupation of Rome and spent nine months living hand-to-mouth in a hut in a village in the South. 

Morante spent the rest of her life in Rome. Her novels brought her some material success and much esteem during her lifetime — History, when it was published in 1974, sold over 800,000 copies within a year, surely due to her insistence that it come out in paperback and cost only the equivalent of five dollars. But her style was always out of sync with her contemporaries and friends, the lions of midcentury Italian literature. Natalia Ginzburg, for instance, championed her work, and edited Lies and Sorcery, but you couldn’t get further from Ginzburg’s impeccably realist family scenes and studied morality. Morante’s work reminds me of shaggier, weirder Italian exports like the sweeping novels of Goliarda Sapienza (The Art of Joy, Meeting in Positano) or Sibilla Aleramo’s A Woman.

“In you, Fiction, I cloak myself/lunatic garment.”

Lies and Sorcery is a wild, digressive epic, running to almost 800 pages in Jenny McPhee’s new translation. Upon the death of her adopted mother, a prosperous sex worker named Rosaria, Elisa is visited by the ghosts of her grandparents and parents and compelled to relate their long and sorry entanglement with the Cerentano family, southern nobility occupying a grand palace in a Sicilian city. The obsessions of generations are self-consciously presented by Elisa in the manner of a nineteenth-century novel, distinctly ironized (e.g., “At that melancholy hour between dusk and dark, our hero recited to himself this elegy about that sad period of his life.”) 

“In you, Fiction, I cloak myself/lunatic garment,” Morante writes in a poem of dedication, and the novel is full of fictions, lunatic garments that the characters wear with gusto — among them the idea that love, or at least a good marriage, will lift their station. Elisa’s family history is full of the treachery of upper classes and the delusion of those who aspire to join them — a vain, striving teacher swindled by a broke and disinherited nobleman; a peasant woman seduced by the agent of a neighboring estate, who acts like its owner; a countess who pays off poor relations to keep them away from her son. That son is the duplicitous Edoardo Cerentano, object of both of Elisa’s parents’ affection and source of their woe. Elisa’s mother Anna is Edoardo’s cousin; they have a chaste but passionate relationship as adolescents, about which Francesco, Edoardo’s friend and Anna’s future husband, remains in the dark. After Edoardo’s death, Anna writes herself love letters from him, carrying on a fictional version of their affair that drives Francesco and Anna to their star-crossed ends. The letters are also Anna’s revenge on Edoardo’s mother, the imperious, nasty countess Concetta, who upon her son’s death performs elaborate religious rites throughout the city and keeps vigil over his room. Anna visits her there and reads aloud the faked correspondence, at once a one-over on Concetta and a balm for her own madness, as Elisa relates: “Forgetting all discord, Concetta and Anna, both lost even to themselves, became a double incarnation of their single illusion, and I, silent, alone in the depths of my armchair, contemplated that two-headed monster of love.” 

Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante in Capri in the 1940s.

Reading Morante can be slightly unsettling. Part of that is due to her novels’ seeming anachronism, the stylized and sometimes archaic writing, the operatic scenes. Her studied and stubborn refusal to conform to her time and place also comes across in her child or childish characters. (Just her chapter headings give a taste: “Enter Pockface”; “A catastrophe brought about by someone unnamed”; “My mother commits a sin and makes an offer of atonement.”) It takes some adjustment to get used to her protagonists, whose vehemence can be almost embarrassing. As adults, and as modern readers, we shy away from the intensity of emotions, we bottle them, ignore them, sublimate them in more or less useful ways. (Vivian Gornick wrote of Morante recently, “In our time, the time of the therapeutic culture, the shame of loneliness is much reduced — but so is the drama.”) Ferrante, for instance, makes literature out of the moments that the repressed intensity boils up, though its source isn’t the inner child so much as the unavoidable psychic inheritance of the mother. In Morante, something like the child’s expansiveness and unpredictability spills across the page, in the company also of cats, dogs, poems, songs, dreams, and ghosts. As such, her novels have an unusual imaginative breadth — call it freedom. 

The boys in Morante’s work embody this freedom most naturally. They see the world as they wish it to be, endow their surroundings with fairy tale qualities, designate noble fathers and evil mothers, or the reverse. Arturo epitomizes this, as a boy who lives in an entirely fantastical world and who, in his real, small fiefdom, can enact cruelty on the women around him with impunity. However juvenile and entitled we find him, we envy his charmed and lonely existence, we feel in it the hyperbole of youth. It is very possible, as Ferrante eventually realized, “to hear the male voices as disguised versions of female voices and feelings.” Morante once told an interviewer, “I’ve always wanted to be a boy, a boy like Arturo, who can hunt and fish and climb big rocks, and go about dressed badly and have the dreams and illusions of a boy.”

To thwart or care for these boys, there is a cast of women. Some are miserable and hysterical, as in Lies and Sorcery, where woman hands on misery to woman (to gender-flip Philip Larkin’s line). Then there are peasant women, often sanctified to a condescending degree, endowed with animal-like intelligence — like Arturo’s stepmother, Nunziata, and Francesco’s mother, Alessandra, a beautiful farmworker whose periodic attempts to reach her son and granddaughter in the city are little doses of sanity in Lies in Sorcery. Ida, the mother of Useppe in History, also has something animal about her, as she scurries through wartime Rome scrounging food and shelter; she is easily compared to the family’s sheepdog, Useppe’s “other mother” (though her terror of the fascists finding out she is part Jewish is anything but irrational.)

“I’ve always wanted to be a boy, a boy like Arturo, who can hunt and fish and climb big rocks, and go about dressed badly and have the dreams and illusions of a boy.”

The boys live in their imaginations, but the mothers (some of them, anyway) know best how to navigate the real world. Elisa’s father Franceso is one of the more sympathetic characters in Lies and Sorcery — we follow his upbringing in a rural village, his youthful revolutionary ravings, his besottedness with Anna and his tragic end. Yet from the beginning, Morante lets us in on the nature of his delusions: His shame at his peasant mother is the beginning of his undoing. “In her place, the mother who came to his rescue was the same one who regularly came to console immature, fainthearted youths: Imagination.” His infatuations with Edoardo and Anna are the disastrous result of this substitution. In Arturo’s Island, Arturo must learn his father’s frailty as much as he must realize the harm he’s done his young stepmother; her pain undermines his narration like a cold current throughout the book. In History, a child’s imagination crashes into world events; the novel is divided up by year and newsreel-style accountings of the march of World War II. Useppe’s precocity is no match for the dire circumstances he is born into. His delusions — calling every light a “tar,” for “star,” talking to birds when the refugee shelter empties out, thinking the neighborhood boys who torment him a band of pirates — are the most heartbreaking to see destroyed, because of his innocence as a small child, but also because we have witnessed his mother’s frantic efforts to keep them both alive. 

A woman standing on a roof holding a cat
Elsa at home with one of her cats, 1956.

Lies and Sorcery ends somewhat absurdly, with a poem dedicated to a cat. Perhaps it’s meant to show that Elisa remains stunted by her parents’ mystique, a forever child. But I read it in the same spirit as the quote which closes History, allegedly from a prisoner in a penitentiary in Turin: “All the seeds failed, except one. I don’t know what it is, but it is probably a flower and not a weed.” Both books end in a flash of spirit, with odes to the recourse of the human mind. Some illusions are necessary. 

I encountered Morante by reading backwards from Ferrante, looking to her analogues and ancestors, and benefiting from the wave of translation and reissues of Italian literature that followed Ferrante Fever (much of it by Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein), especially of women writers of the mid-twentieth century, among them Ginzburg and Alba de Céspedes. These novels have proved popular in the U.S. for their depictions of domestic angst and painful femininity. Where they feel dated (thank god!) they show an exaggerated version of the things that still confound us: the drudgery of housework, the claustrophobia of childrearing, the shame of adolescent sexuality, the stifling confines of the nuclear family. If in some families they are less gendered, the ennui and exhaustion commonly remain. 

In Morante, the engines of so many domestic novels — poverty, marital dysfunction, breakdowns — are there, but the mundane dramas of survival are secondary to the drama of the story and the characters’ self-regard. Moravia once observed (complainingly) that during the war Morante “had found herself in her element: danger, devotion, sacrifice, contempt for life. In Rome, on the other hand, daily life made her lose patience and become difficult, intolerant and even cruel.” That description suits her fictional characters, and even personifies her books. They don’t so much stand there fumbling the keys, like the protagonist of Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, as they smash right through the door. 

Cora Currier is a writer, and an editor at Lux.