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Open Letter Spring 09 Catalog: Aracoeli by Elsa Morante

A couple weeks back I started unveiling the spring/summer Open Letter list . . . and then promptly got distracted by our Best Translated Book of 2008 award.

But now I’m back . . . We announced The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilch and Landscape in Concrete by Jakov Lind earlier, and today I’d like to write about our July 2009 title: Aracoeli by Elsa Morante.

Morante’s been getting a bit of play recently, thanks to Lily Tuck’s Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante that came out from HarperCollins earlier this year. And the attention is well deserved. Although History: A Novel has remained in print, Morante seems like an overlooked figure in twentieth-century Italian fiction. Her husband Alberto Moravia, has had a bit more success, thanks to the recent NYRB reissues of Boredom and Contempt, but a number of his books also remain out-of-print as well.

Aracoeli was Morante’s final novel and William Weaver’s English translation came out in 1985. A novel that, when first published, was regarded as a sort of departure for her—a much darker, disturbed book. According to the New York Times review: it would seem that Elsa Morante has turned against her innermost creative self and vision, her carefully nurtured private mythology, her special cult of the young and the innocent. This book reads as if she has surrendered to a blunt cynicism.”_

Personally, I think this is an incredibly well-crafted book. It has touches of Sebald in the way that the narrator—a middle-aged man who is filled with self-loathing, who works a dead-end job in publishing and is trying to recapture his mother’s past—creates a sort of landscape of memories. The date he starts his quest to “resurrect” his mother is All Saints’ Day in 1975, the same day of Pier Paolo Passolini’s murder, an interesting sidenote that many critics have pointed out. It’s a beautifully written book, and I feel that it’s cynicism is one of the reasons that it’s still quite powerful.

Lily Tuck’s bit on this novel is pretty illuminating and helps connect it with the rest of Morante’s oeuvre:

The first time I read Aracoeli, I found it almost pointlessly disturbing and shocking. On rereading it, I still found it disturbing and shocking, but I have also grown to admire it—perhaps because it is so dark and resists any attempt to classify it. In writing this novel, Morante may have knowingly sacrificed clarity and logic in order to express her vision of a chaotic world. Manuel’s bitter, self-revelatory journey into memory seems almost unjustifiably painful and unnecessary, as does Aracoeli’s transformation from virginal beauty to voracious sexual predator. Yet, at the same time, there is something almost inevitable if one regards Manuel as the last progression in a long chain of lost boys beginning wiht Arturo [Ed. Note: from Arturo’s Island an earlier work of Morante’s.] and continuing with Useppe. These are the boys who once, according to Morante, could save the world but now no longer can. The themes of maternity and identity too are rejected and abandoned, and at the novel’s end—never mind that one may not understand Aracoeli’s experience, her degradation and illness—one is left with the terrifying awareness that nothing matters any longer for the protagonist or, perhaps, for the writer as well.

Here’s an excerpt from an early part of the novel.



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