Morante, Elsa (1912–1985)

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Morante, Elsa (1912–1985)

Noted Italian writer who used the techniques of "magic realism" to explore the way in which individuals have been shaped by the pains and traumas of childhood. Pronunciation: Moe-RANT-Tay. Born on August 18, 1912 (some accounts give alternative dates ranging from 1916 to 1918) in Rome, Italy; died in Rome on November 25, 1985, of a heart attack; daughter of Irma Poggibonsi Morante (a descendant of a Jewish family in Modena) and legally the daughter of Augusto Morante (a Sicilian schoolteacher); probably the daughter of Francesco Lo Monaco; largely self-educated, but some sources indicate that she studied briefly at the University of Rome; married Alberto Moravia (a writer), in 1941 (separated 1962).

Published first short stories (1935–36); met Alberto Moravia (1936); went into hiding to evade fascist police (1943); published first novel, Menzogna e sortilegio, and won the Viareggio prize (1948); won Strega prize (1957); wrote bestseller, La storia (1974); won Prix Medicis (1982); attempted suicide (1983, some authorities place this in 1984); publication of Maledetta benedetta (Cursed and Blessed), a family history by Marcello Morante (1986); posthumous publication of her diary (1989).

Major works:

(novels) Menzogna e sortilegio (House of Liars, 1948), L'isola di Arturo (Arturo's Island, 1959), La storia: romanzo (History: A Novel, 1974), Aracoeli (1982); (poetry) Il mondo salvato dai ragazzini (The World Saved by Little Children, 1968), Alibi (Alibi); (short stories) Il gioco segreto (The Secret Garden, 1941), Lo scialle andaluso (The Andalusian Shawl, 1963).

Elsa Morante was one of Italy's most distinguished writers during the middle decades of the 20th century. The author of novels, poems, children's books, and essays, she won the greatest acclaim from some critics for her short stories. Morante achieved her highest level of fame, however, both inside Italy and before an international literary audience, with her bestselling novel La storia (History: A Novel), which appeared in 1974. It received a mixed critical reception but became the most popular Italian novel since Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard (1958). Resolutely original as a writer, notes Sharon Wood , Morante was "a permanent political and cultural dissident," someone always uncomfortable with the idea of categorizing her characters according to fashionable Marxist or feminist positions.

Most of Morante's writing focuses on the problems of troubled childhoods and difficult family lives. "Dissolute, damaged, or incomplete families stand in the background for many of her characters," writes Alba Amoia , and "Morante's dominant theme is how a lack of parental love can lead to children's despair and destruction." Many critics, however, find a quasi-political thread running through her work, one that denounces power and violence and lauds what Amoia called "an essentially anarchic concept of society."

Much of Morante's work is patently autobiographical, although she was notably reticent in talking about her personal background during her own lifetime. For years she refused to give interviews or to speak in public, maintaining the position that her readers could find out all they needed about her from her books. Critic Rocco Capozzi described her as "a solitary and even peevish personality." Her brother Marcello Morante's publication of a short family history in the year following her death has made it possible for students of Morante's work to make an informed inquiry into how her own experiences fed her writing. The posthumous publication of her own diary has also shed some light on the background of her work.

According to Amoia, Morante wrote in the style of "magic realism," which takes "the

true-to-life" and transforms it into "an atmosphere of enchantment and bewitchment." Her effort to penetrate to the psychological core of her characters often involves what Amoia describes as a "dialogue between the ego and a fantasy figure." The large role that dreams play in Morante's work reflects her desire to penetrate to the subconscious level of her characters' minds. Other critics remark on the presence of a central narrator in many of her works, a participant in the story who is also the storyteller.

Morante was born in Rome under murky family circumstances on August 18, 1912. Legally her father was Augusto Morante, a Sicilian schoolteacher whose name the young girl took. Her mother was Irma Poggibonsi Morante from Modena in northern Italy. Since Augusto was unable to have children, Irma had five offspring, including Elsa, using a family friend, Francesco Lo Monaco, to aid her in conceiving. In defense of her mother's unconventional choice, Morante shortly before her own death described her mother as "the chastest of women."

The young girl's childhood years remain largely undocumented, but she apparently lived in poverty in the slums of Rome, then found an alternative home in her wealthy godmother's mansion. Although some authorities indicate that she studied for a time at the University of Rome, a more important formative development was a taste for literature Morante displayed at an early age and the vigorous program of selfeducation she pursued during her teenage years. Her particular literary mentors were the great novelists of the 19th century.

She is acutely modern in her awareness of the fragility of the human ego.

—Sharon Wood

Morante also began to write while she was still a teenager. Her first stories appeared, to no particular critical response, starting in 1935. One notable short story, "Le bellissime avventure di Caterì dalla trecciolina" ("The Most Beautiful Adventures of Caterì with a Pigtail"), was completed when she was merely 14. This work and many others received a degree of literary acclaim only in the decade prior to her death. Critics find in her early stories, many of which were published in the collection Il gioco segreto (The Secret Garden), themes that would continue to appear in her later, more polished work. Among these were the difficult relations between parents and their children, and the various dangers that sprang from love between the sexes. She continued throughout her writing career to use children and adolescents as main characters in her works.

Elsa Morante left home at the age of 16, by which time she had learned the secret of her parentage. She established a romantic liaison with the rising young writer Alberto Moravia around 1936. They married in Rome in 1941, then spent the next two years living and writing on the island of Capri. The two would separate, without ever formally divorcing, in 1962.

Morante first received a measure of critical acclaim for her novel Menzogna and sortilegio (House of Liars). Despite its failure to sell many copies, it won the prestigious Viareggio Prize for the year 1948. The story is set in Sicily at the turn of the century. Typically for most of Morante's works, the book shows no concern with the political background of events. A central character and the narrator of much of the book is the girl Elisa. With her unhappy childhood and her insight into the psychological pain it has caused her, Elisa is, at least in part, a figure who draws many of her characteristics from Morante herself. Like many of Morante's narrators, Elisa admits that what she remembers may well be false or distorted. "Half-remembered, half-imagined … like ghosts," writes Michael Caesar, "the actors in the family drama move in a space occupied pre-eminently by insomnia, fantasy, and day-dream." Centering on the lives of members of two Italian families at the turn of the 20th century, the novel explores the consequences of falsehoods people tell their intimate relations in an effort to win their affection. The book is marked by unhappy human relations as several of the main characters find their love for one another rejected.

The first time Morante enjoyed both wide critical success and a large popular audience came almost a decade later with the publication of L'isola di Arturo (Arturo's Island) in 1957. The royalties provided her, for the first time, with an adequate income and the means to travel. The novel's main character is a boy, Arturo. Like Elisa, he is enamored with the world of books. Arturo's adolescence is marked by the arrival of a stepmother, a girl from Naples not much older than himself, with whom he quickly becomes infatuated. In addition to this tangled situation, his early teenage years are disturbed as well by painful revelations about his father, a homosexual who abandons the family for a disreputable male lover.

During these years, Morante devoted much of her energy to poetry. Her verse was sometimes the product of her effort to take a respite from writing novels. Alibi, a set of 16 poems that appeared in 1958 and which contained works she had produced over the past two decades, also delves deeply into the nature of childhood experiences. The title of the revealing poem "Sheherazade" in Alibi not only indicates how Morante saw her role as a writer, but it also provides an insight into her techniques. The line "It is not my merit, but the heaven's/ that made me so fanciful" provides Capozzi with evidence that she saw her "magic realism" not as a choice of styles but as one she was destined to follow. Indeed, by this time, the themes and techniques of Morante's writing had become evident. She tended to present her ideas through various narrator-protagonists who, notes Capozzi, "both hide and reveal the author's intimate desires, fears, delusions, and personal experiences related to love and rejection." He went on to note that her autobiographical narrator "like a modern Sheherazade" used the narration to "seek cathartic relief, self-therapy, and hope."

A notable event in Morante's married life was a nine-month period when she and Alberto Moravia were forced into hiding from fascist authorities in the coastal mountains between Rome and Naples during the closing months of 1943 and the first part of 1944. Italy had just left the Axis side in World War II, and German troops were occupying much of the countryside. Both of them used the experience as material for a later book: Moravia's 1957 novel Two Women and Morante's 1974 La storia (History: A Novel).

In the years following her split with Moravia, Morante lived a deliberately isolated existence. A writer famous for the slow, deliberate way that she produced her books, she used this period of solitude to great advantage. The result was La storia, along with a collection of short stories and her challenging book of poems, The World Saved by the Little Children.

Published in 1974 by the firm of Einaudi, Morante's novel La Storia became a bestseller both in Italy and abroad. The book is distinguished from her other novels by the presence of a third-person narrator who stands above the often horrible events being recounted. The narrator is identifiably female, and her often cutting comments are directed at both major events and the European leaders who played the crucial role in them. In an interview she granted shortly after the book had appeared, Morante described her reason for turning her work in such a new direction. "Now, almost an old woman, I felt I couldn't depart from this life without leaving the others a testimonial memory of the crucial epoch in which I was born." She saw her book, moreover, as a call for "communal awakening" and as "an accusation of all the fascisms of the world." Within a year, one million copies had been sold.

The book marked a major stylistic departure for Morante. Each of its nine chapters begin with a date, accompanied by the major historical events of both Italian and world history that marked it. The main content of the book, however, is the story of obscure, helpless individuals whose lives are being shaped, even destroyed by these grand happenings. The book starts, for example, with the rape of an Italian schoolteacher by the German soldier. But the soldier too is painted as someone deprived of an independent will: "He knew precisely four words of Italian and of the world he knew little or nothing." Thus, he too is presumably a victim of larger events he cannot shape. He will, in fact, shortly die during the fighting in North Africa.

With the city of Rome during World War II as the background for events, the book examines the experiences of a variety of characters, principally members of a single, partly Jewish family. As usual, Morante focuses much of her attention on the character of a child. Useppe Raimundo is the son of the Italian-Jewish schoolteacher who had been forcibly impregnated by a German soldier. The product of this rape, Useppe is both handicapped and destined for an early death. Thus, Useppe is unique among Morante's other major characters; throughout her writing, her central figures are invariably disillusioned and embittered adults who have, nonetheless, survived their tragic childhoods. Some critics have found that the book's success came from its ability to evoke, in nostalgic fashion, the wartime years and the effort of the anti-Fascist resistance movement. Others insisted that the book was too far removed from any identification with Italian heroism to be praised. A second source of criticism came from members of the literary avant-garde who attacked the book for its relatively conventional style and structure.

The novel presents the message that history is a mere cavalcade of suffering, much of it inflicted on innocent youngsters like Useppe. Morante personalizes that suffering by telling the story of individual victims. Despite its popular and critical success, the book also put the author at the center of a bitter literary controversy led by Marxist critics who displayed their distaste for the work. In the view of Gregory Lucente, the book had a particular impact on intellectuals of a Marxist persuasion because it appeared at a time when the Italian Left seemed to be moving toward power. Thus, they were "less than comfortable with a book as pessimistic, depressing, and insistently prodding as Morante's novel." The factory workers in the book, for example, have no political consciousness let alone an attraction for Marxism, and the book as a whole was marked by a profound lack of faith in the prospects for the human condition. Morante thus rejected Marxist concepts, which she had claimed to accept earlier in her career, of the dominant and hopeful role of the class struggle in human affairs. Moreover, her sympathy for the tiny victims of the workings of the world now stood above any political consideration. As Wood put it, "Morante controversially mourns the loss of the small cogs in the power machine—German and Italian, Nazi and partisan alike." Lucente declared: "Morante sees that all History is nothing but a story of sickness, oppression, and death … no one escapes alive."

Morante's last work was a notably gloomy novel, Aracoeli, which appeared in Italy in 1982. Aracoeli centers on the recollections of childhood present in the mind of the narrator, Manuele, a gloomy man in his early 40s. Like L'isola di Arturo, written 25 years before, the book explores the mind of a central male figure whose life has been dominated by rejection when he was a child. Notes Caesar, the book is distinguished by its "wonderful evocation of the unhappiness of childhood, of the anxiety of a child who senses … that he is in some way being left out, uncherished." Critics who believed that Morante saw her writing as a kind of therapy found firm evidence for their position in the author's final novel. At one point, the hero Manuele speaks of taking a final journey through memory to recapture his deceased mother and thus "attempting a last, absurd therapy to be cured of her."

In the closing years of her life, Morante suffered from the debilitating disease of hydrocephalus. The accumulation of fluid around her brain that characterizes the disease led to a decline in her mental powers to which she responded with an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Some authorities place the event in 1983; others indicate that it occurred the following year. In any case, now an invalid, she spent her remaining life in a nursing home in Rome.

In late 1984, approximately a year before her death, she gave a uniquely revealing interview to Jean-Noël Schifano, the writer who had translated her work into French. She spoke of her identification with the character of Arthur in L'isola di Arturo and her desire to have been born a boy; she also addressed such other painful issues as her suicide attempt and her failure to have children. Perhaps whimsically, she suggested that the mourners at her funeral have the pleasure of listening to music by Bach, Mozart, and Bob Dylan.

Elsa Morante died of a heart attack in Rome on November 25, 1985. Following Morante's death, Wood wrote of her as an author "whose deepest sympathies lie with the small, the oppressed, that which is unvalued by our social structures." In terms of Morante's stature in the literary world, according to Rocco Capozzi, "Her death … deprives Italy of one of its most prestigious authors."


Amoia, Alba. 20th-Century Italian Women Writers: The Feminine Experience. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Press, 1996.

The Annual Obituary, 1985. Patricia Burgess, ed. Chicago, IL: St. James Press, 1988.

Capozzi, Rocco. "Elsa Morante: The Trauma of Possessive Love and Disillusionment," in Contemporary Women Writers in Italy: A Modern Renaissance. Edited by Santo L. Aricò. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

Caesar, Michael, and Peter Hainsworth, eds. Writers and Society in Contemporary Italy. Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, Eng.: Berg, 1984.

Lucente, Gregory. Beautiful Fables: Self-consciousness in Italian Narrative from Manzoni to Calvino. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1986.

Marotti, Maria Ornella. Italian Women Writers from the Renaissance to the Present. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Palotta, Augustus, ed. Italian Novelists since World War II. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1997.

Russell, Rinaldina, ed. Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Wood, Sharon. Italian Women's Writing, 1860–1994. London: Athlone, 1995.

suggested reading:

Bondarella, Peter, and Julia Conaway Bondarella, eds. Dictionary of Italian Literature. Rev. ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Cornish, Alison. "A King and a Star: the Cosmos of Morante's L'isola di Arturo," in MLN. January 1994, pp. 73–93.

Giorgio, Adalgisa. "Nature vs Culture: Repression, Rebellion and Madness in Elsa Morante's Aracoeli," in MLN. January 1994, pp. 93–117.

Lazzaro-Weis, Carol. From Margins to Mainstream: Feminism and Fictional Modes in Italian Women's Writing, 1968–1990. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Peterson, Thomas Erling. Alberto Moravia. NY: Twayne, 1996.

Wood, Sharon. "The Bewitched Mirror: Imagination and Narration in E. Morante," in Modern Language Review. April 1991, pp. 310–321.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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Morante, Elsa (1912–1985)

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