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Morante, Elsa

MORANTE, Elsa

Nationality: Italian. Born: Rome, 18 August 1918. Family: Married the writer Alberto Moravia in 1941 (separated 1962). Career: Writer. Awards: Viareggio prize, 1948, for Menzogne e sortilegio; Strega prize, 1966, for L'isola di Arturo; Prix Medicis Etranger, 1985, for Aracoeli.Died: 25 November 1985.

Publication

Collection

Elsa Morante. Opere (2 vols.). 1988 (vol. 1), 1990 (vol. 2).

Novels

Menzogne e sortilegio. 1948; abridged and translated edition, as House of Liars, 1950.

L'isola di Arturo. 1957; as Arturo's Island, 1959.

La storia: Romanzo. 1974; as History: A Novel, 1977.

Aracoeli. 1982; as Aracoeli, 1984.

Short Stories

Le bellisime avventure di Cateri dalla trecciolina [The Marvelous Adventures of Cathy Pigtail] (for children). 1941; revised and enlarged edition, as Le straordinarie avventure di Caterina, 1959.

Lo scialle andaluso [The Andalusian Shawl]. 1963.

Il mondo salvato dai ragazzini e altri poemi [The World Saved by the Little Children]. 1968.

Poetry

Alibi. 1958.

Other

Il gioco segreto [The Secret Game] (essays). 1941.

Botteghe oscure. 1958.

Diario 1938, edited by Alba Andreini. 1989.

Translator, Il libro degli appunti. 1945.

Translator, Il meglio di Katherine Mansfield. 1957.

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Critical Studies:

"Elsa Morante" by Michel David, in Le Monde, 13 April 1968; "Elsa Morante" by Michael Caesar, in Writers and Society in Contemporary Italy, edited by Caesar and Peter Hainsworth, 1986, pp. 211-13; "The Textualization of a Female I. Elsa Morante's Menzogna e sortilegio " by Valeria Finucci, in Italica, 4, 1988, pp. 308-23; "Illusion and Literature in Morante's L'isola di Arturo " by Luisa Guy, in Italica, 1988, pp. 144-53; "Elsa Morante's Aracoeli: The End of a Journey" by Rocco Capozzi, in Donna, edited by Ada Testaferri, 1989, pp. 47-58; "The Bewitched Mirror: Imagination and Narration in Elsa Morante" by Sharon Wood, in Modern Language Review, April 1991, pp. 310-21; "Elsa Morante and the Adventure of Caterina" by J. Cavallo, in Forum Italicum, 28(1), Spring 1994, p. 71; The Theme of Childhood in Elsa Morante by Grace Zlobnicki Kalay, 1996.

* * *

From 1965 until her death 20 years later, Elsa Morante refused to discuss details about herself, insisting that she had already written her life into her books. This imbrication of fact and fiction is perhaps the only recurring element in an otherwise diverse narrative production. While she misrepresented many of her experiences, these fabrications, deceptions, myths, and alibis construct necessary illusions for both the writer and her characters.

Despite Morante's various assertions to the contrary, she was born in Rome on 18 August 1912. Her mother, Irma Poggibonzi, a schoolteacher of Jewish descent, was married to Augusto Morante. When Elsa was in her teens she learned that he could not have children and that Francesco Lo Monaco was her biological father. The family lived in the Roman working-class district of Testaccio where Morante had homeschooling until the age of 10. In November 1936 she met the writer Alberto Moravia, whom she married in a Catholic ceremony on 14 April 1941. In September 1943 Moravia heard that there was an order for his arrest, so the couple took refuge for a year in Ciociaria, a mountainous region south of Rome. Morante recalls this experience in her third novel, La Storia. Romanzo (1974; History: A Novel , 1977). Although they remained married Morante and Moravia separated permanently in 1962. She died in Rome on 25 November 1985.

Morante's writing is fiercely independent of contemporary narrative trends and formulates a distinct expression in Italian literary historiography. Her first novel, Menzogna e sortilegio (1948; The House of Liars , 1950), which won the Viareggio Prize and brought the author critical acclaim, introduces the themes of memory and childhood—the latter interpreted as a trauma of rejection. Lies and deceit sustain familial relations in a story that spans three generations in Sicily. Similar anxieties are explored in the story "Lo scialle andaluso" (The Andalusian Shawl, 1951), which recounts a son's love-hate relationship with his mother. In her second novel, L'isola di Arturo (1957; Arturo's Island , 1959), winner of the Strega Prize, the boy Arturo is able to delude himself through self-deception and imaginary tales that his frequently absent father is some sort of hero until maturation prevents Arturo from sustaining the illusion. Morante's collection of 16 poems, Alibi (1959; "Alibis"), expands upon this autobiographical material and stipulates fabrication as a necessary condition for life. Aracoeli (1982; Aracoeli , 1984), her fourth and final novel and winner of the Prix Medicis, reiterates the trauma of rejection through a symbolic journey of desecration.

The Holocaust and Jewish identity assume a prominent position in History: A Novel, which engages in a polemical representation of history and fiction. The narrative recounts the period between January 1941 and the summer of 1947, and many of its fictional episodes are derived from Morante's wartime experiences. The text formally juxtaposes history and fiction by introducing each chapter with a descriptive chronicle of the historical events that took place in the time frame covered by the narrative. History—the term is capitalized throughout the text—is presented as sequential acts of persecution, genocide, and violence upon the innocent. Fiction, then, in Morante's exposition must assume responsibility for giving a voice to the stories that History has silenced.

History recounts the experiences of Ida Ramundo and her children. Ida is a half-Jewish widowed schoolteacher who refutes her Semitic origins. A German soldier rapes her, and from this act of violence Useppe is born. The deportation of the Jews and the destruction of the Roman ghetto are recurring themes in the novel. In October 1943 Ida and Useppe are at the Tiburtina Station and witness hundreds of Jews boarding windowless cattle cars to German concentration camps. Later, in one of the narrative's most powerful scenes, Ida is drawn back to the deserted ghetto and hears the voices of the dead. Throughout the narrative Jews are symbolic of the sacrifice of humanity to History, while the Holocaust is the ultimate manifestation of History's violence. In the midst of this devastation, Ida rediscovers an emotive bond between herself and her Jewish identity, but this consolatory moment is overwhelmed by the desecration that leaves nothing in its wake. Following the death of Useppe, Ida goes mad and remains institutionalized until her death.

History occupies a distinctive position within Italian literary representations of the Holocaust that situate it alongside other singular works such as Arnaldo Momigliano's Pagine ebraiche (1987; "Jewish Papers") and Giuliana Tedeschi 's Questo povero corpo (1946; "This Poor Body"). While it sold nearly a million copies in its first year of publication, the novel's representation of History's scandals through micro-histories ignited an ideological polemic that engaged the Italian left for the better part of 1974 and brought the Holocaust to the forefront of historicist debates.

—Piero Garofalo

See the essay on History: A Novel.

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