Monday, September 28, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“HISTORY: A Novel” by Elsa Morante (“LA STORIA” first published in Italian 1974; English translation by William Weaver first published 1977)
Sometimes a novel can stay in your head for years, even if you were never fully satisfied with it in the first place. This has been my experience with Elsa Morante’s History. (The original Italian title La Storia means both “story” and “history”, just like l’histoire in French.)
When it was first published in Italy in 1974, it was a huge bestseller, although the critical reaction to it was mixed. It was translated into most European languages, made it into English in 1977 and earned high praise from at least some highbrow reviewers. It has been placed on a few of those tedious “100 Best Novels of the 20th Century” lists, although it was never in any other country the bestseller that it was in Italy. History is a blockbuster, being the best part of 800 pages long in the hardback version I read nearly thirty years ago. Looking at it again years later in the Penguin Modern Classics edition (the same translation by William Weaver), I find some of the judgments I made on it then still seem valid, while others I would modify.
Despite its length, its central storyline can be synopsised briefly. Spanning the years from 1941 to 1947, it deals with a poor woman’s dogged attempts to survive and to protect her two children in Italy during the Second World War and its immediate sombre aftermath.
Ida Mancuso (sometimes known as Ramundo) is a partly-Jewish working-class schoolteacher in the San Lorenzo quarter of Rome. She is widowed and has an unruly pubescent son Antonio (usually known as Nino and sometimes as Ninnuzzu). Ida is raped by the German soldier Gunther, who proceeds to be killed in the war. Ida gives birth to the rapist’s son Giuseppe (usually known as Useppe). From this point on, the focus of her life is protecting Useppe.
The war years are bleak. Ida is bombed out of her home and evacuated to a crowded room, which she has to share with a large and rowdy Neapolitan mob nicknamed ironically “the Thousand”. In a spirit of pure devilry and adventurousness, the thuggish teenager Nino, who was once an ardently Fascist youth, now joins the partisans. Ida has to worry about whether he will be killed in action, just as she fears that a pogrom will be unleashed against people of her ancestry. Her fears are shared by Davide Segre, an Italian Jew who has escaped from a round-up in the north and who travels under the alias “Carlo Vivaldi”. Davide, who is something of an intellectual, becomes as important as Ida in the latter part of the novel. Davide joins the loutish Nino in the partisans toward the end of the war (they are hailed as heroes by the Communist tavern-keeper Remo, but the novel takes a more ironical view of their exploits).
The war ends. Nino’s visits to his mother become rarer. Ida is frequently sick as is the little boy Useppe. There are suggestions that wartime malnutrition has weakened them. On top of this, Useppe shows signs of being an epileptic. Nino (who is hero-worshipped by his little brother) becomes a black marketeer. He dies in a road crash. Davide the intellectual, having no cause to serve, sinks into lethargic despair. He moves in with the ugly old whore Santina to have a place to sleep, but she is murdered by her pimp. Submitting to complete despair, Davide commits suicide by overdosing on painkillers. Useppe, now aged six, is subject to nightmares and convulsions. He dies in a fit.
After all her deprivations, Ida’s mind cracks. She goes raving mad and, we are told, spends the last nine years of her life in a madhouse.
Over 800 pages, the brute forces of history have destroyed the Wretched of the Earth - Davide the hunted intellectual; Ida and the two sons she tried to protect; not to mention the hordes of bombed-out and displaced refugees who figure greatly in supporting roles. I said the novel was long but, as you can see, the concept is essentially a simple one. Apparently Elsa Morante’s first inspiration for the novel was a newspaper story, just after the war, about a bereaved working-class woman found raving mad over the corpse of her child in a bombed-out Roman apartment.
According to my reading diaries, when I first read this novel I called it “long-winded” and “overlong” and I resented some of the author’s stylistic mannerisms. There are some direct addresses to the reader in the otherwise third-person narrative, as if the narrator is an historian conveying historical records to us. (“As far as I have been able to discover, Ida was at this time….” etc. etc.). These come across as very arch.
Given that most of her main characters are not very conscious of the forces that create their historical circumstances, and are not following in detail the huge world war of which their Italian experience is just a small part, Morante precedes each of the novel’s seven parts with a summary of historical events, newspaper style. Some critics have compared this technique with the newspaper cut-up style of John Dos Passos in his USA trilogy. While it is not the author’s intention, this does make the experience of her main characters look a small thing in comparison with the death camps, the bombing of Coventry, the Battle of Stalingrad and so forth.
More than anything, though, I found the novel too loaded with physical descriptions of places and circumstances, often leaving the characters as small and redundant figures on a large and over-elaborated stage. The urge to document and record takes precedence over characterization. Ida herself is, after all, not a very complex character. The author herself says early on that Ida has a childish and immature mind – and she sinks into the background once Davide comes to dominate the pages. In the latter half of the novel, little Useppe also becomes a centre of attention, with his poetic mind and his attraction to animals (the dogs Blitz and Bella, and the cat who lives in the crowded cellar with “the Thousand”). The author is in effect attempting to make the child a representative of all the privations that war wreaks on the helpless – spiritual privations as well as physical ones.
The trouble here, though, is that nobody in the novel, apart from the omniscient narrator, appears to have a thinking adult mind. Even Davide, the novel’s representative of intellectuals, produces no more than thirty pages of semi-coherent drunken ravings shortly before his death. Things happen to characters. In an odd way, amid all their experiences, they are passive creatures. Puppets.
The author’s position is summed up in a sentence before the death of Useppe: “All History and all the nations of the earth had agreed on this end: the slaughter of the child Useppe Ramundo”. History is a blind force in which power squashes weakness and poor people are passive and helpless victims. Useppe’s whole young existence has been the progressive stripping from him of everything that could give his life colour and meaning – the dog Blitz, his brother Nino whom he idolises, Davide, the kid Pietro Scimo (who is hauled off to reform school and away from Useppe once the war is over).
This passivity – and essential brainlessness – of the main characters, places us and the author-narrator in an odd position. We are in effect forced to look down on the characters rather than to see them as our fellow human beings. In this respect, much of History has the same effect as the worst tendencies of Emile Zola. Here is the author ostensibly asking us the see the realities of deprived lives and to sympathise with them; but in effect making us see them as a species quite different from us literary and reading people. On first reading this book, I found myself using the word “patronising”.
And yet, coming back to History for a second time, I do find that it has a major strength, too. It is that very documentary tendency which has such a negative effect on characterization. It is the asides of the novel – the vignettes of things that are not essential to the arc of the main narrative – that are most memorable. These I held in my mind longest between my two readings of the novel. I would include such scenes as Ida chancing on a rail-truck crammed with Jews in wartime Rome and obviously bound for a death camp; or the horrible and minute description of Nazis murdering the family of one of Nino’s girlfriends, deemed to be partisans; or the account, quite unconnected with the rest of the novel, of an Italian soldier dying on the Eastern Front. I do not think History works as a novel, but as documentary it has some very arresting moments.
To round things off, a few words about the author.
Elsa Morante (1912-84) was for twenty years married to AlbertoMoravia, Italy’s best-known novelist of the mid-20th century; but obviously she, as a writer, resented being known to the general public mainly as another novelist’s wife. Feminist critics have adopted her own view of herself and “talked her up”. Her marriage was very stormy (both spouses had multiple affairs and arguments) and ended in divorce. Morante and Moravia had something in common, however, which was important to the genesis of History. They both had some Jewish forebears and for some of the Second World War, they chose to hide out among south Italian peasants for fear of a round-up. Clearly some of the things Morante records in History came from her observations in those years.
History took Morante many years to write, and she regarded it as her magnum opus. But, despite its being a huge bestseller in Italy, she was wounded by the critical response. The Left were irked that she tended to see history as a blind, irrational force, even if early passages denounced capitalists and big business for promoting war. This led to negative reviews from Morante’s left-wing friends, who ridiculed Morante for ignoring ideology and seeing working-class people as so helpless and passive. The Marxist film director Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote a particularly stinging review, which led Morante to break off her long friendship with him.
From just a little searching around the ‘net, I am interested to find that scholarly articles are still written about History in publish-or-perish academic journals. But, amidst the praise, there is often an undertone suggesting that the novel has not survived all that well as a literary work and is not held in the same esteem as it was originally. It is mainly analysed as an historical document.
Redundant cinematic footnote: I have not seen the 1986 Italian film La Storia based on the novel and starring Claudia Cardinale in the leading role. Apparently filmed as a TV series, it was cut down to make a feature film, but was not successful internationally.