History: A Novel (La Storia: Romanzo)
HISTORY: A NOVEL (La storia: Romanzo)
Novel by Elsa Morante, 1974
The success of Elsa Morante's best-selling novel La storia: Romanzo (1974; History: A Novel , 1977) is perhaps best understood within the context of its thematic appeal and its publisher's marketing strategy, accentuated by the political tensions between the Italian right and left in the mid-1970s. It narrates the experiences of Ida Ramundo, her children, and their acquaintances in Rome from January 1941 through the summer of 1947. Other than the first and the last chapters, which are dated 19**, the seven remaining ones correspond to single years. They each open with a brief chronological commentary highlighting historical events, followed by a lyrical passage that negotiates the space between historical and fictional narration. Morante has referred to History: A Novel as a "work of poetry" and "an act of accusation against all the fascisms of the world." History: A Novel represents Morante's most articulate meditation on the Holocaust and its effects on Rome's Jewish community.
Inspired by her readings of Simone Weil, Morante first conceived of the novel toward the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1971. She completed the manuscript in 1973, and Einaudi published the book in 1974. As with her other works, History is an anti-conformist novel that resists facile categorization. The novel's polemical title alludes to the text's narratological and ideological concerns with the relationship between history and fiction. The private histories of those excluded from public history provide a compelling and necessary account for understanding History—always capitalized throughout the text—because the one without the other is incomplete. This dialectical identification is articulated through the formal juxtaposition of textbook history as fiction and fiction as history. Public history's representation as successive acts of violence perpetrated against the private unvoiced histories is reiterated in the novel's subtitle, which refers to History as "a scandal that has endured ten thousand years."
Morante bases many of the fictional episodes in the narrative on her personal experiences. A German soldier rapes Ida Ramundo, a widowed, half-Jewish schoolteacher, and nine months later she gives birth to Giuseppe [Useppe]. He is a magical and strange child who is representative of a poetic celebration of innocence. Ida also has an older son, Nino, from her marriage. He does not share Useppe's sensitivity to his environment, but instead seeks to change it. Just as her mother Nora had done, Ida lives in constant fear of racial persecution. She has always denied her Jewish identity—even going so far as to conceal from Nino his Semitic origins. As a result she is not arrested with the Roman Jews during the infamous deportation of 16 October 1943. Later she wanders through the deserted ghetto listening to the voices of the dead. When her home is destroyed by bombings she moves the family to a shelter in Pietralata. In this refuge they meet a Jewish anarchist named Davide Segre. He uses drugs to escape the present because, as he explains, "History, of course, is all an obscenity from the beginning, but years as obscene as these have never existed before." Davide is an authorial alter ego who articulates the horrors of the Holocaust. He understands History's scandal but ultimately succumbs to it by dying of an overdose. Nino joins the partisans and then, after the war, works in the black market. He is killed in an accident while being pursued by the police. History has bequeathed Useppe an early death from an epileptic seizure at the age of five. His passing reaffirms the impossibility of either poetry or innocence surviving in a violent world sustained by History's scandal. When Ida learns of Useppe's death she goes mad and is institutionalized. She dies nine years later.
Morante's lyrical prose emphasizes communication in the realist tradition. Despite employing a refined vocabulary the syntax is linear and accessible. The third-person female narrator's intrusive comments and questionable reliability challenge both the tenets of realist discourse and the conventions of the historical novel. Although the narrator resists omniscience by voicing the limitations of her knowledge, these affirmations reinforce her textual authority by subtly disporting the reader's textual dependence on her. Nevertheless, the narrator's subjectivity calls into question her reliability and mediates the textual opposition between History and fiction.
History: A Novel concludes with a brief bibliography in which Morante acknowledges those authors to whom she is indebted for providing documentation that inspired episodes in her narrative. She cites Giacomo Debenedetti's 16 ottobre 1943 (1959), Robert Katz's Black Sabbath (1969), Pino Levi Cavaglione's Guerriglia nei Castelli Romani (1945), Bruno Piazza's Perché gli altri dimenticano (1956), and two works by Nuto Revelli, La strada del Davai (1966) and L'ultimo fronte (1971). By framing her text within this academic discourse, Morante subverts generic categorizations and inserts History into History's bibliography.