History: A Novel

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History: A Novel

by Elsa Morante

THE LITERARY WORK

A novel set mainly id Rome during and after World War II (1941 -1947); published in Italian (as la storia) in 1974, in English in 1977.

SYNOPSIS

Divided by brief timelines of larger historical events, the chapters center on a half-Jewish Italian schoolteacher who is raped by a German soldier, and on her two sons during and after the Second World War.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born in Rome in 1912 to Irma Poggibonsi and Francesco Lo Monaco, Elsa Morante was the second of the unmarried couple’s five children. Irma, a Jewish schoolteacher, raised the children with her husband, Augusto Morante, who worked as a tutor at the Aristide Gabelli school. Both he and Morante’s biological father were Catholic. Mainly self-educated, Morante left home at the age of 18 to dedicate herself to journalism. In 1936 she met Alberto Moravia, who was already a novelist of some repute. Like Morante, Moravia was part Jewish and had been baptized—facts that would greatly affect their experience in wartime Italy. Morante’s relationship with Moravia brought her into contact with leading Italian intellectuals. She and Moravia married, and remained so for 22 years (1941-1963). Early in the marriage, Morante published her first novel, House of Liars (Menzogna e sortilegio, 1948), for which she received one of Italy’s highest literary honors, the Viareggio Prize. Over the course of her career Morante would publish numerous articles; a poetry collection, The World Saved by Children (II mondo salvato dai ragazzini, 1968); and three major novels: Arturo’s Island (L’isola di Arturo, 1957), History: A Novel (La Storia, 1974), and Aracoeli (1982). Morante has been praised for “capturing in prose the rhythms of the torment of mutual dependence” (Hainsworth and Robey, p. 393). She does so in History, meanwhile depicting the impact of World War II on ordinary Italians, especially women, children, and Italian Jews condemned to deportation or lives in anxious hiding.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Jews under Mussolini before 1938

The Jewish population of Italy had maintained a continuous presence on the peninsula for more than 21 centuries before Benito Mussolini seized power in 1922. At times on harmonious terms with their Italian rulers and compatriots, at times persecuted, Jews figured prominently in the Unification of Italy in 1861. Mussolini himself was keenly aware of this fact (“Mussolini could never forget that 4 of 7 founders of Italian nationalism were Jews” [Begnath in Bosworth, p. 343]). After Unification, the Jews assimilated into national life, attaining positions in business, education, government, and the arts, and intermarrying with the Catholic majority. Italo Svevo and Alberto Moravia, two of the nation’s foremost novelists, were of Jewish descent (see Zeno’s Conscience and The Conformist , also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). These trends continued into and beyond Mussolini’s ascension to power. Jews and Catholics mingled easily at the time, with mixed marriages numbering as many as one in three (Roth, p. 505). The Italian Jews, a small minority, fused thoroughly into mainstream life. Children who were Jewish attended Italian schools; musicians who were Jewish conducted orchestras; professors who were Jewish taught at key universities; and Jewish soldiers fought for the Italian homeland. Little did anyone know how abruptly all this was about to change.

ITALIAN JEWISH POPULATION

Emigration and conversion reduced the number of Italian Jews to roughly 45,000 in 1937 (0.1 percent of the Italian population). The number was further reduced to 35,000 by the fall of 1943, when circumstances conspired to divide Italy, placing the South in the hands of the Italian king and the Allied powers, and the North and center under German control. Earlier in the war, Italy had mostly ignored or enacted half heartedly its anti-Jewish measures. One such measure expelled foreign Jews (about 10,000) and all jews who became citizens after 1918. But many Jews stayed and with the help of the general populace managed to escape arrest There were clergymen, officials, neighbors, and colleagues who protected Jews. “All night and throughout the day,” explains one such citizen during a round-up of Jews, “the Germans moved through Rome, seizing Italians for their furnaces in the north. The Germans wouid like us to believe that these people are alien to us, that they belong to a different race; but we feel that they are flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood. They have always lived, fought and suffered with us” (Yahil, p. 427). Records show that for every Roman Jew caught, nine escaped. Of course, this was little comfort to the detained and deported or to those who, like Morante’s protagonist, escaped the round-up but after-wards lived In constant terror of arrest.

Mussolini’s stance towards the Italian Jews deteriorated over time. Early in his tenure (1922-1943), he was publicly cordial toward Italian Jewry but later, especially after his alliance with Hitler in 1936, relations foundered. The official Fascist stance changed to one of outright anti-Semitism from 1938 to 1943, followed by physical persecution and deportation from 1943 to 1945.

At first eager to solidify his hold on the country, Mussolini cultivated the support of Italian Jews along with the rest of the population. And indeed Jews figured among the initial adherents of his regime, some filling administrative or political posts, others serving in the Fascist navy of Italy. Guido Jung, an Italian Jew, served as finance minister under Mussolini, for example. On the other hand, many more Italian Jews opposed Mussolini even then, among them, General Emanuele Pugliese, one of Rome’s defenders during the Fascist march and takeover of 1922.

The turning point came in 1936-37, when Fascist Italy signed a treaty of friendship with Nazi Germany (the Rome-Berlin Axis) and Mussolini visited Hitler. Afterward, Italian Fascism turned fiercely anti-Semitic and its rhetoric grew hateful. One anti-Jewish pamphlet (1936) accused the Jewish minority of putting their Judaism before Fascism and so failing to be sufficiently patriotic. Soon the Fascist media, as well as Fascist intellectuals, were promoting racism. Jews, they said, did not belong to the “Italian race”—Italians were Aryan; Jews were not. Whereas previously southern Italy had been the scapegoat for all that was “wrong” with Italy, now the blame shifted to the Jews, only less charitably. Despite the fact that Jews had been assimilating ever more fully into national life, they were suddenly described as in-capable of assimilation. These attitudes laid the groundwork for the 1938 racial laws.

Fascist anti-Semitism, part 1: racial laws

Italy enacted its anti-Semitic laws in 1938. Having decided to persecute the Jews as a race, the government had to conceive a legal definition for the Jews and establish a criterion for the half Jews born of mixed marriages. The state defined a Jew as a person whose two parents were Jewish by birth, whose father was Jewish and mother foreign, or who, though only half Jewish, practiced Judaism. For children bom of a mixed marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew, if at least one parent was Italian, the child was considered non-Jewish, as long as he or she demonstrated “ethical, political, and religious behavior in keeping with this non-Jewishness” (Sarfatti in Cooperman and Garvin, p. 419). The laws expelled Jews who were not Italian citizens or had just recently (beginning in 1919) become citizens. The remaining Italian Jews became subject to a host of bans and restrictions. They were forbidden to marry Aryans, to hold public office, to join the Fascist Party, to serve in Italy’s armed forces, to own more than 50 hectares of land, to run a business with more than 100 workers, or to employ Aryan servants. Jewish students were expelled from Italian schools; Jewish professors, from Italian universities; Jewish textbooks, from Italian classrooms; Jewish names, from the textbooks. Overnight the government reclassified Jews as aliens, as members of an enemy nation. Reactions in the larger population varied. Some betrayed Jews to the authorities. Others denounced the anti-Semitic laws as immoral, helping Jewish friends and co-workers find refuge in the homes and convents of Italian Catholics. Abandoning their own quarters, a number of Italian Jews went into hiding. Others waited and watched, until the fall of 1943, perhaps to their fatal misfortune.

Fascist anti-Semitism, part 2: bodily harm

In 1943 relations between Italy and Germany collapsed. The Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III, signed an armistice with the Allies, and Mussolini fell from power. He was rescued by the Germans, then propped up as leader of a breakaway Italian republic, the Italian Social Republic (also known as the Republic of Saló), which ruled northern and central Italy, where most of the Italian Jews lived. Thereafter, Nazi Germany took charge of the Italian Jews, conducting round-ups in major cities for deportation to concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Nazi officers initiated a phase of mass arrests, moving from Trieste, to Rome, to Florence, and Bologna (a deportation that included Jews from Milan, Verona, Trieste).

A JEW DEFINED—NAZI GERMANY VS. ITALY

The protagonist of History, Ida Ramundo, is nervous about her Jewish heritage, even though Just one of her parents was Jewish, which exempts her from Italy’s 1938 anti-Jewish laws. Her nervousness is clearly understandable in light of Nazi Germany’s earlier 1935 laws, which differed dramatically In this regard. In Fascist Italy one was either Jewish or non-Jewish; there was no category for the half-Jew. But in Nazi Germany, and most of the countries it dominated, children of mixed marriages (Mischlinge) were referred to derisively as Jewish offspring, and although a “full” Jew was someone with three Jewish grandparents, there were categories for half-Jews and quarter-Jews. This Nazi attitude found its way into Italy, despite its different racial laws.

In Rome, on September 26, 1943, two Jewish spokesmen were summoned to the German embassy by Major Herbert Kappler. The two were asked to raise a ransom of 50 kilograms of gold in 36 hours for 200 Jews who would otherwise be deported. When asked if the forthcoming anti-Jewish measures would also be applied to Italians of Jewish descent who had been baptized or had been born of mixed marriages, Kappler replied, “I make no differences between one Jew and another. Whether they are…. baptized, or mixed, all those with a drop of Jewish blood are the same to me. They are all enemies” (Kappler in De Felice, p. 203).

Other raids followed. The round-up in Rome, conducted October 16, 1943, made its way through 26 neighborhoods, starting with the Jewish ghetto. Arriving at daybreak (5:30 a.m.) Theodor Dannecker and his Nazi police moved from door to door, arresting and holding 1,022 Roman Jews, releasing 237 who turned out to be non-Jews or children of mixed marriages. The 1,022 Jews were dispatched to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland, where 839 were sent directly to the gas chambers; of the remaining 183, just 17 would survive the war.

The arrests continued. Jewish prisoners were jailed in local prisons, detention centers, and transit camps. At San Sabba, near Trieste, the Fascists, and later the Nazis, ran an extermination camp for political prisoners and Jews, with a crematorium to burn the bodies of those executed or tortured to death. It was the only such camp in Italy. In general, inmates fared better in the Italian concentration camps than in other European concentration camps; Italy’s inmates could live with their families and did not have to don prison garb. But conditions varied depending on the camp or prison, and most places were insufferable. Food, clothing, and blanket allotments barely kept the jailed alive at San Vittore prison in Milan. At Fossoli, in northeastern Italy, a transit camp in which the novelist Primo Levi was confined, murder and torture became common (see Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz , also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Prisoners grew desperate; some committed suicide.

By December 1943 the phase of mass arrests had ended, and a new phase, focused on individual manhunts, began. Nazis and their Fascist partners seized Jews on the run or in hiding. Mussolini’s breakaway republic, the Republic of Saló, had recently ordered the arrest of all Jews and the confiscation of their property, but to limited effect, since many had already emigrated, converted, or fled into hiding, and the ones easily caught had already been rounded up and deported. Nevertheless, Italians of Jewish descent became newly vulnerable, which sheds additional light on the nervousness that grips the protagonist in Morante’s History. Excluded from arrest were Jews older than 70, Jews who were gravely ill, children of mixed marriages, and Jews who were married to non-Jews; still, the anxiety remained.

In Rome after close to eight months of anguish and terror, the city’s Jews found relief: on June 5, 1944, the Allies, along with 5,000 Italian troops, took Rome; they would go on to seize more of central and northern Italy in the coming months. But the Germans held on to Trieste, and the transports bound for extermination from the nearby San Sabba camp continued, a final one leaving January 11, 1945.

Meanwhile, in the fall of 1944, the Nazi empire had started to crumble, which led to the liberation of many camps, including Auschwitz, where most of the Italian Jews (5,951 out of 6,746) had been sent (Sarfatti, p. 15). The few hundred survivors headed home to Italy to reunite with loved ones. The Italian Jews in hiding emerged to welcome back the death-camp survivors. But the community’s problems were far from over. Many Italian Jews returned to find their homes destroyed, looted, or occupied by refugees. The luckiest landed jobs or resumed their former occupations. Moving to rectify official wrongs, Italy’s postwar government abrogated the anti-Semitic laws, and enacted new laws to ensure the civil rights of Jews. Jewish educators regained their positions in schools; synagogues reopened; religious services resumed; and people mourned.

A memorial plaque at Portico d’ Ottavia (the archway at one end of the Jewish ghetto) in Rome recalls Nazi Germany’s round-up of October 16, 1943, and other Italian Jews who fell victim to atrocities in the Nazi death camps.

Here on October 16th began the ruthless hunt for the Jews and two thousand ninety one Roman citizens were sent to a cruel death in the Nazi extermination camps, where they were joined by another six thousand Itlians, victims of infamous racial hatred. The few who escaped the slaughter, the many who sympathize invoke love and peace from humanity and invoke pardon and hope from God.

(SIDIC Roma)

Later estimates place the total number of Jews deported from Italy to the death camps at close to 6,800 (Picciotto Fargion in Cooperman and Garvin, p. 454). Nearly 6,000 of them perished in the camps. Another 300 or so died in Italy from massacres, murders, and similar causes. Altogether the war killed roughly one fifth of Italian Jewry, and of the four fifths that survived, many emerged alive but “physically and spiritually broken” (Guttman, p. 726).

The Novel in Focus

Plot overview

History unfolds in eight chapters, the first serving as an introduction and each of the rest coinciding with a year—from 1941 to 1947. At the start of each chapter is a timeline of global events, and all eight are followed by a postscript that is a timeline of events from 1948 to new wars transpiring in 1967. Before the chapters are a few literary excerpts—a few lines of poetry, prose, and scripture—that introduce the novel’s focus on victims in human history (the poor, the sick, women, children, the illiterate). The first excerpt is a line taken from Peruvian poet César Vallejo: “Por el analfabeto a quien escribo [For the illiterate to whom I write]” (Morante, History, p. ix). Scattered through the novel are other such excerpts—nursery rhymes of deported Jewish children, a verse by the Russian poet Marina Cvetaeva, another by the Spanish poet Miguel Hernández. The novel ends with a quote from Gramsc’s Letters from Prison (also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). The excerpt is an anonymous message taken from a prison wall: “All the seeds failed except one./I don’t know what it is, but it is/probably a flower and not a weed (Prisoner no. 7047 in the Penitentiary of Turin)” (History, p. 557).

RACE AND RAPE IN WORLD WAR II

Nazi Germany linked Aryans to male strength and dominance, Jews to women and weakness. The stronger group was meant to conquer the weaker, a mindset that made rape a fitting tool for Aryan men seeking to establish themselves as the master race. In the words of one historian, “it was perfectly logical within the framework of fascism that rape would be employed by the German soldier as he strove to prove himself a worthy Superman” (Brownmiller, p. 49). But in truth soldiers on all sides committed rape during the war, German soldiers in the various countries they invaded, Russian soldiers in Germany, Japanese soldiers in China (the Rape of Nanjing), Moroccan soldiers in Italy, and other Allied soldiers elsewhere. The Russians assaulted German women at the war’s end, ravaging them because of their nationality, their ties to the male enemy, and their womanhood, factors that prompted many of the random rapes committed in Europe and Asia during the war. In Italy, the Moroccans behaved as they wished with the local population, the commonly ignored victims of war, the subjects of Morante’s History. Seventeen years later, Vittorio de Sica made this last travesty the subject of his film Two Women (1960), about a mother and her virgin daughter who survive the war only to be gangraped by some of the Moroccan soldiers in Italy, In real life, such incidents went unpunished. The war crimes tribunal at Nuremburg failed to prosecute Nazi rapists, and no tribunals were ever held to expose and condemn Allied rapists. There was not even an effort to publicly document sexual atrocities against women in the war, which only confirms Morante’s point—that mainstream history (or his-tory) fails to tell either her-story or the story of other disempowered parts of local populations.

Plot summary

The story proper begins with an epigraph:

One January afternoon in the year 1941

a German soldier was out walking

in the San Lorenzo district of Rome.

He knew precisely 4 words of Italian

And of the world he knew little or nothing.

His first name was Gunther.

His surname is unknown.

(History, p. 11)

As he wanders the San Lorenzo district, this unknown German soldier comes upon a 37-year-old widow, Ida Ramundo, whom he rapes. Gunther is portrayed not as malicious but as a desperate, sensitive youth “gripped by a ghastly, lonely melancholy, proof of his still adolescent character” (History, p. 15). A victim himself of especially the war, he soon dies prematurely in an air strike.

Ida’s story continues. She is a woman of no exceptional intelligence or beauty with a “rather undernourished body, shapeless, the bosom withered, [and] the lower part awkwardly fattened” (History, pp. 17-18). A schoolteacher and the widow of Alfio Mancuso, Ida has a son, Nino. Nino is a happy, thoughtless, rebellious sort, who switches roles through the novel: from anarchist, to Fascist, partisan, and lastly contrabbandiere (smuggler) for the American soldiers. Ida herself is the only child of Giuseppe Ramundo and Nora Almagià, a Jewish woman from a lower-middle-class family’s, who made her husband and daughter swear not to divulge the secret of her “obscure racial background” (History, p. 19). In 1938, when Italy “intoned the official chorus of anti-Semitic propaganda,” Nora, a widow by now, feels threatened by the order to report to the census takers and “declare publicly her fatal secret” (History, p. 40). She resolves to leave Cosenza, her hometown, for Palestine, “the only place where she could be received, as a fugitive Jew” (History, p. 43). One day in a delirious state, garbed in nothing but Giuseppe’s old cloak, she heads for the sea and a few days later is found there—drowned. The account of her death includes a list of the Italian racial laws promulgated in the autumn of 1938. It becomes clear that the mother has transmitted her anxiety over her Jewish descent to Ida, who considers herself Jewish, despite her mixed blood. She worries whether she and Nino will qualify as Aryans.

In “1941” and “1942,” Ida becomes pregnant as a consequence of the rape and gives birth to another son, Useppe, who has epilepsy. She survives the shame of the other schoolteachers discovering the secret of her rape, but her anxieties mount. Her fear over the possible return of the rapist—“she would go into the hall and listen, her ear to the door, afraid of hearing again that firm tread which had remained into her ears”—builds on her anxiousness over her Jewish descent (History, p. 72). In the midst of all this personal stress, Rome’s Jewish ghetto, in which Ida does not live, assumes new importance: “almost everyday, with the pretext of having to buy some little article, without any motivation, Ida would set off for the Jewish quarter” (History, p. 81). Another factor that gains importance is the support she receives from female relationships. One summer afternoon Ida meets Ezeckiel, a Jewish midwife. At summer’s end, when labor pains strike, Ida rushes to Ezeckiel’s house where she gives birth to “a little man … so small he could fit comfortably into the midwife’s two hands” (History, p. 82).

In the next chapter, “1943,” the official history of the Second World War intersects more directly with the protagonists’ personal stories. Still following Ida’s daily comings and goings, the narrative describes how she manages to survive wartime hardships, from hunger and homelessness, to the air strikes over Rome. Also covered are the drama of incoming sfollati (refugees) and the deportation of the Jews to Germany. When an air raid leaves Ida homeless, she escapes to a refugee shelter at Pietralata, where she keeps to herself. On top of all her other misfortunes, she suffers an almost impossible relationship with her teenage son, Nino, who laughs at all the fear around him and cares little about the possible loss of the family’s property. Afraid that people in the shelter might find out she is Jewish, Ida decides to return to one of the vacant apartments in the ghetto, but then remembers that it has been emptied of people. What follows is one of the most emotional scenes in the novel. At the Tiburtino train station, Ida and her son Useppe watch the Jews embark onto the cars headed to the Auschwitz extermination camp, amidst all the disorder created by “babies’ cries,” “meaningless mumbles,” and “ritual chanting” (History, p. 209).

In “1944,” a 16-year-old named Carlo Vivaldi (who later turns out to be a Jew named Davide Segre) mysteriously appears at the Pietralata refugee center. Thereafter, the novel interweaves his personal saga into Ida’s story. Also the novel fuses into the story the impact of the war on unsuspecting animals, from the little dog, Blitz, whose death accompanies the loss of Ida’s house, to some canaries, a cat named Rossella, and another dog, an affectionate companion to Useppe named Bella.

During the final months of German occupation, the situation deteriorates and decay is apparent everywhere: in Rome where “beggars and refugees camped on the steps of the churches or below the Pope’s palaces” and also at Pietralata (History, p. 277). Driven by a “daily imperative—find food for Useppe”—Ida becomes insensitive to outside happenings and loses any sense of shame and fear (History, p. 279). One morning, her heart pounding wildly, she steals some flour from a German truck packed with food.

A short chapter, “1945,” explains how the Nazi genocide intensifies in Italy as the war winds down. Mussolini is caught while trying to escape in disguise as a German, and is shot to death near the Italian border. In the fall of the same year, a small remnant of surviving Jews returns from the concentration camps and Ida is a witness to the first horrifying accounts from Auschwitz.

In the postwar chapters, “1946” and “1947,” the contrast between daily life and the grand sweep of history gives way to the general drama of existence and the extreme solitude prompted by the characters’ separate tragedies. Without divulging anything about the hard times ahead, these chapters start happily enough: Ida and Useppe move into a new house close to Ida’s school, which has announced its reopening. Digressing to focus on Davide Segre, History reveals the fate of his family’s members, who were deported in 1943 and died because of illness or extermination in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. While still in high school, Davide started to isolate himself from them and take long trips, wandering Italy like a penniless gypsy. He never finished school and refused to be sent “across the ocean like other Jewish youngsters,” instead remaining in Italy and spreading propaganda for some militant anarchist (History, p. 348). After being caught by the Nazis, Davide renounced all political activity and found a job as an unskilled worker in a factory in the North where he met Ida’s son, Nino. Davide, it becomes clear, had a combative relationship with his family’s, whom he regarded with contempt because of their acceptance of Fascism “since they were bourgeois” (History, p. 348). Now, in the postwar years, he responds to the violence perpetrated on them by committing an act of violence himself: the murder of a German soldier. His internal conflicts intensify and he begins using drugs. The promising beginning of postwar life is completely shattered by further developments: Useppe suffers from increasingly frequent epileptic attacks, and Nino dies in a truck accident. The tragic death of her elder son comes as a shock to Ida; that day “she couldn’t scream, she had become mute [and] felt a lacerating sensation in the vagina” (History, p. 394). Only Useppe pushes her onward, giving her a reason to live.

The sense of tragedy continues into the final chapter, “19—,” the dashes suggesting the mostly unrelieved repetition of wars and other destruction. One day, in a meeting at school, Ida is over-come by an unbearable sense of sickness and an urge to rush home to her six-year-old son. There, to her horror, in the dark little entrance, she disalways in his falls” (History, p. 546). Refusing to comprehend the truth, Ida attempts to shout, but stops herself, thinking, “If I shout, they’ll hear me, and they’ll come to take him away from me” instead she runs “wildly around her small home as the scenes of the human story (History) also [revolve],” perceiving them “as the multiple coils of an interminable murder…. And today the last to be murdered was her little bastard Useppe” (History, p. 546). At this point, the broken woman descends into mental illness, moves to a hospital, and dies an ordinary, unremarkable death on December 11, 1956, at the age of 53.

Gender and race discrimination

Morante’s novel begins with Ida’s rape and the account of her mother’s life and tragic death. The mother and daughter are members of two marginalized groups: they are women and they are Italians of Jewish extraction. Though Morante’s novel deals with more than female characters, it shows them to be “exploited and oppressed as women” (Boscagli, p. 169). When for the first time Useppe reads some magazines at an edicola (newsstand), he spots the photos of several dead partisans, which include a woman. Unlike the photos of the hanged men, which bear the inscription “Partisan,” the photo featuring the woman lacks any identification. The photo furthermore shows her to be the victim of an atrocity that reduces her to the level of a slaughtered animal: “And all were males, except for a single girl … who had no sign and, unlike the others, was not hanged by a rope, but with a butcher’s hook through her throat” (History, p. 315). In another incident, some Germans in search of anti-Fascist Partisans violate another mother-daughter pair. Denying any knowledge of where the partisans are, the women are forced into revealing the hiding place, then brutally raped and killed: “A couple of days later, some country people found the bodies of Marìulina and her mother massacred by bullets, shattered even in the vagina, with knife-stabs or bayonet wounds in the face, on the breasts, everywhere” (History, p. 263). Such savagery can be linked to what the women represented. In the eyes of the German soldiers, they likely symbolized Italy—an Italy that had betrayed Germany—and, because they were women, served as easy targets for vengeance and frustration. Ida herself is a target: the German soldier Gunther “rape[s] her with rage as if he wanted to murder her” (History, p. 59).

Ida’s pain and suffering take on a new dimension with the passage of the racial laws. Because her mother baptized her into the Catholic religion, Ida manages to retain her job as a schoolteacher. Yet she is drawn toward her Jewish heritage. The more Ida becomes terrified about and obsessed with her ancestry, the more she feels attracted to the Jewish ghetto as a “nurturing and maternal space” (Re, p. 364). Meanwhile, she moves through larger Italian society (which history shows to have been rife with anti-Semitic political cartoons and remarks about Jews polluting Italy). There results an internal conflict in Ida, the agony of which is depicted in the scene featuring the deportation of Jews from Rome to Auschwitz. Accompanied by Useppe, she arrives at the train station, where the desperate cries from inside the cattle-cars take her mind back to her lost childhood innocence: “All this wretched human sound from the cars caught her in a heart-rending sweetness, because of a constant memory that didn’t return to her from known time, but from some other channel: from the same place as her father’s little Calabrian songs that had lulled her, or the anonymous poem of the previous night, or the little kisses that whispered carina, carina to her” (History, p. 209). She identifies with the victims even though she is not fully Jewish, a reaction that emerges as a redeeming human trait amidst all the social savagery. But this factor is not strong enough to withstand the savagery visited upon her, mostly because of gender and racial status. Violated because she is a woman, in danger of violation because she is born of a Jew, she escapes the tragic fate of the Auschwitz-bound cargo only literally. A certificate of baptism may have saved her from the cattle-cars, but circumstances conspire to wound her fatally nonetheless. The brutality inflicted on Ida because of the rape, compounded by the terror she endures because of anti-Semitism, leave her with only a fragile hold on sanity in postwar Italy. Conditions improve, but for her, as for many in real life, it is “impossible to cancel the memory of the evil years, impossible to redress the broken spirits” (Roth, p. 552). So Useppe’s end drives her to a breakdown and death, one not written up in mainstream histories but statistically significant, argues the novel, nonetheless.

Sources and literary context

Italian writers of the 1970s gravitated to a traditional type of literature that resembled neo-realism, which attempted to represent social reality in a specifically Italian way. Within this climate, Morante’s novel showed a return to simple storytelling in chronological order and to representational fiction. By choosing what many regarded as an outdated focus of interest for literature (the Second World War and its aftermath) Morante demonstrated not only her unconventional approach to literature, but also her ideological independence.

The influence of mainstream historical accounts on Morante’s novel is obvious. Of no less importance are the writings of America’s 1950s beat movement, which generated underground works that Morante read. Her friendship with the young American painter Bill Morrow no doubt also influenced her sensitivity to a spirit of uneasiness and rebellion, which then affected her development of the young characters in her novel. Finally, Morante was a passionate reader of the French writer Simone Weil’s Notes, concerning death, war, and human relationships; her novel tackles these same issues in ways that recall Weil’s writing.

Behind History is the legacy of the historical novel in Italian, beginning with Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Despite numerous differences, the two novels converge in their strategy of using everyday people as protagonists in the sweep of history. Manzoni’s interest was in the portrayal of innocent victims of history and in the interplay between power and oppression. Morante seized upon this interplay and developed those elements she saw as essential: the experience, the body, the unconscious, and the everyday event. Morante too shows more marked interest in the victimization of women among the oppressed.

The 1970s gave rise to vigorous feminist activity in Italy as elsewhere in the West. In the feminist piece Sputiamo su Hegel (1971; Let’s Spit on Hegel), Carla Lonzi spoke of the importance of elaborating on a culture of difference between men and women and of re-evaluating the female essence. The task was to create another history and an alternative culture different from the one imposed by patriarchal society. In keeping with this aim, one of Morante’s goals was to create a parallel account to official history, an alternative that features ordinary people. She thus begins each chapter with a brief account of global events, contrasting history as men have conceived it with the story of a woman and her small struggle for survival. Morante furthermore set out to portray women in a way that would give them central roles and would reveal female truths, joining an array of new works giving voice to female views by women writers: Natalia Ginzburg (You Never Must Ask Me, Family Sayings, The Little Virtues); Oriana Fallaci (Interview with History, A Man); Dacia Maraini (The Age of Malaise, Woman at War); Rosetta Loy (The Dust Roads of Monferrato); and Gina Lagorio (Tosca’s Cats).

Finally, Morante’s History includes autobiographical elements. During the German occupation, the growing anti-Fascist reputation of Morante’s husband, Alberto Moravia, caused the endangered couple to flee their Roman apartment and seek refuge among remote farming villagers in the mountains south of Rome. There Morante observed the impact of the war and may have first resolved to write an account of how history affects ordinary people struggling to survive. Also Morante’s own Jewish legacy, inherited from her mother, influenced the characterization. Ida’s inner conflict over her Jewish heritage recalls Morante’s own internal struggles in relation to her mother’s Judaism.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Italian feminism in the 1970s

Postwar economic development saw significant changes in social roles and family’s life. Especially affected was the role of women, who began to enter the work force in larger numbers. Other factors, such as a delay in the age of women at marriage, and the downsizing of the Italian family’s contributed to the growth of a postwar Italian women’s movement.

Two main trends distinguished the modernday women’s movement in Italy: individual self-awareness and a larger feminist struggle featuring groups of women who organized committees and mounted, for example, a campaign to claim wages for housework. The first trend concerned itself with a need for self-definition. Women were no longer willing to define themselves according to the expectations and perceptions of a man. Instead such women insisted on pursuing an independent variety of self-construction. DEMAU (“demystification of authority”), the first official feminist group in Italy, struggled against the authoritarian structure of society, trying to find an alternative to the patriarchal system. The same urge to unveil the myths perpetuated by men animated the Rivolta Femminile (Feminine Revolt) founded in 1970 in Rome. The Italian feminists spoke of the need for women to change their patterns of behavior and of the role of language and literature in shaping a woman’s consciousness. Carla Lonzi (1931-82), one of the first Italian feminists, advocated re-education of society by adopting a new concept of sexual difference, wherein women would no longer be identified in relation to men. In Morante’s History, the absence of such a separate identity is what leaves Ida so ill-equipped to deal with her world. She teaches and raises children, filling the sanctioned maternal role, and once childless, lacking a sufficient sense of herself, she crumbles.

By the writing of the novel, the status of the Italian woman had begun undergoing significant change, thanks in no small part to the modern feminist movement. Encouraged by Lonzi and other feminists, women demanded equality of treatment in education and by the law, as well as full access to abortion and contraception. In 1970 divorce was legalized and, in 1975, the new Family Law established gender equality, asserting that a husband has no more rights than his wife, maintaining that within a marriage, the man and the woman have the same rights and obligations.

Publication and reception

The first 100,000 copies of History flew off bookstore shelves. By year’s end, the novel had sold an astonishing 465,000 copies. Morante had insisted on a very low price for the book, thereby making it accessible to the ordinary people it features, and, of course, this may have had something to do with the numerous sales. But the first reviews were unanimously positive too. Then a damning letter appeared in II Manifesto, a leftist newspaper. Written by Nanni Balestrini, Elisabetta Rasy, Letizia Paolozzi, and Umberto Silva, the letter condemned History for its lack of political commitment and denounced the resignation and despair that coursed through the novel. Morante was accused of failing to represent the social class struggle and of promoting a mindset that envisions humble folk as irredeemably subordinated to and defeated by the powerful. The critics also complained that the novel lacked irony; rage and hatred toward the oppressors were missing, they said. Morante’s characters observed injustice but never denounced it, resigning themselves to it.

The attacks went a step further when Natalia Ginzburg was attacked for writing an overly favorable review of History in which she called the novel “il più bel romanzo di questo secolo” [the most beautiful novel of the century] comparing it to the great novels of the nineteenth century (Ginzburg in Bernabó, p. 91). This praise led to more criticism. Morante was accused of trying to restore the classical novel, which promoted a repetition of the existing social order rather than revolutionary change.

To weigh this response, it is important to recall that 1974 was a year in which the Italian left (la sinistra rivoluzionaria) influenced various dimensions of life, including culture. In such an atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that some reviewers had such strong objections to the novel. Morante certainly could respond by pointing to the novel’s focus on the larger patterns of history and their intersection with individual lives. Clearly her purpose was to expose rather than denounce: “my novel ‘History’ wants to be an accusation against all the fascisms of the world. And, nevertheless, an urgent and desperate question, addressed to everyone for a possibly common awakening” (Morante in Lucente, p. 240).

—Nicoleta Ghisas

For More Information

Bernabó, G. Come leggere La storia di Elsa Morante. Milan: Mursia, 1988.

Boscagli, Maurizia. “Brushing against the Grain: Elsa Morante and the Jetztzeit of Marginal History.” In Gendering Italian Fiction. Ed. Maria Marotti and Gabriella Brooke. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.

Bosworth, R. J. B. Mussolini. London: Arnold, 2002.

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Cooperman, Bernard D., and Barbara Garvin. The Jews of Italy: Memory and Identity. Bethesda: University Press of Maryland, 2000.

De Felice. “Hunting down the Jews.” In Fascism, Antifascism, and the Resistance in Italy. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

Guttman, Israel. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan, 1990.

Hainsworth, Peter, and David Robey, eds. The Oxford Companion to Italian Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Lucente, Gregory L. “Scrivere o fare … o altro: Social Commitment and Ideologies of Representation in the Debates over Lampedusa’s II Gattorpardo and Morante’s La Storia.” Italica 61 (autumn 1984): 220-251.

Morante, Elsa. History: A Novel. Trans. William Weaver. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.

Re, Lucia. “Utopian Longing and the Constraints of Racial and Sexual Difference in Elsa Morante’s La storia.” Italica 70 (1993): 361-75.

Roth, Cecil. The History of the Jews of Italy. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1946.

Sarfatti, Michele, ed. II ritorno alla vita: vicende e diritti degli ebrei in Italia dopo la seconda guerra mondiale. Firenze: Giuntina, 1998.

SIDIC Roma. “The Jews in Italy—Before and after the World War.” Service International del Documentation Judéo-Chrétienne. http://www.sidic.org/english/dossier/ghettojewishit.htm.

Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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