Sunday, December 28, 2008

Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante

Lily Tuck has written the first biography of Elsa Morante, post-World War II Italian novelist. Within Italy critics consider her one of post-war Italy's best novelists but outside Italy she is mostly know as the wife of novelist Alberto Moravio. Tuck does a superb change in rescuing Morante from oblivion for English-speaking audiences and recreating her central role in the explosion of Italian literature starting in 1945.

Morante had a difficult childhood. Her legal father was impotent and scorned by her mother; her mother had a long affair with a handsome rascal who fathered her four children but abandoned his offspring. At 18 Morante left home in the 1930s to support herself tutoring and struggling to write in great poverty--an act of great courage at time for a young Italian woman. Tuck shows had courage, dedication to writing, and honesty were three main aspects of Morante's character.

By 1941 she had married Moravio, who already was an established writer. Because Morante and Moravio were both half-Jewish, their lives in Rome grew more precarious toward the end of the war until the Fascist police wanted to arrest Moravio, so both fled into hiding, first with friends in Rome and then in a small mountain village south of Rome. One of the most moving part of the biography is Tuck's description of Moravio and Morante's harsh nine-month exile up in the mountains in a one-room peasant hut close to starvation waiting for the Allies to arrive.

With the liberation of Rome, Morante and her husband returned to Rome, beginning to publish novels, establishing themselves as the de Beauvior/Sarte of post-War Italian literature. They were friends with many of Italy's leading writers and filmmakers in that amazing cultural explosion directly after the war. Tuck's book wonderfully recreates the glories of this cultural explosion in Rome of the 1940s and 1950s--la dolce vita. But la dolce vita had a harsh side for Morante. Even as her novels won literary prizes, her marriage with Moravio broke up, she had a painful love affair with the filmmaker Visconti who preferred men, and her close friendship with filmmaker/poet Pasolini eventually broke up.

Tuck also gives much insight into Morante's writing, showing how she was part of the modernistic revolution in Italian literature against realism. Her writing was influenced by surrealism, Freud, the violence of World War II, and her close friendships with two leading homosexual artists. In her writing she explores the toxic effects of obsessive loves within families, homosexuality, and the horrible violence of World War II on the Italian poor. The last theme dominated her most famous novel, "History: A Novel," which showed the impact of World War II brutality in destroying a poor mother and son living in Rome. Morante is an Italian equivalent of Simone de Beauvoir or Virginia Woolf as a courageous woman writing exploring major themes of the 20th century, and Tuck's biography is excellent.

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