Introduction to Elsa Morante's Aracoeli
Our most recent release—which shipped to subscribers last week—is Elsa Morante’s Aracoeli, her last novel, and by far her darkest. Below you’ll find the excellent introduction Robert Boyers wrote for our reissue of this book.
Thirty years ago, Elsa Morante seemed to many American writers and critics a major novelist. She had recently become famous with the publication of History: A Novel, a notoriously vast and tumultuous work, and yet clearly one of the most compelling accounts of the Second World War to come out of Europe. In the New York City of the late 1970s, literary intellectuals frequently debated the virtues of Morante’s overheated prose, and even critics who found her novels eminently resistible conceded that, at her best, she was a writer to be reckoned with. American and British editions of her books came festooned with the praise of her peers, and she was often grouped with other leading Italian writers of the war and post-war period. The recent biography by Lily Tuck—the first devoted to Morante in any language—studies her affiliations and makes clear that she was always, in her own country, an embattled figure, and it comes as little surprise to learn that the writer who could be savage in her responses to the work of her own closest friends might also find her own work subjected to savage attack, even by a confidante and admirer like the writer-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. A volatile and notoriously unpredictable character, subject to infatuations and bitter resentments of the sort she anatomized in her fiction, Morante produced novels marked by ambivalences fiercely, even desperately evoked.
Well before the appearance of History in 1974, Morante stirred attention with an enormous, badly flawed first novel entitled House of Liars (1951). But she made a much more significant mark with her second novel, Arturo’s Island, which won the 1957 Strega Prize as the best novel of the year in Italy. It is, in its way, a characteristic performance, vehement, implacable, indiscreet in its rage to uncover emotions that are raw and disturbing. Like many American readers, I came to the novel twenty years after its initial appearance, when History: A Novel had made Morante famous, but I heard in it then, and hear in it now, the early expression of a voice at once febrile and unbearably poignant, a voice that would again resonate in Morante’s final novel, Aracoeli (1982), now bravely reissued in a new edition. In both of these novels readers are asked, again and again, to absorb complex shocks of feeling, to attend closely to the painful probing of psychic wounds. These are not, we feel, novels for the faint of heart. The vagrant, occasional evocations of health or joy in such works seem fleeting, often delusional, the stuff of childish infatuation or naïve optimism. Everywhere in these novels we are made to anticipate iniquity and betrayal. Morante was a writer—so we feel— who worked from an intolerable burden of hurt and dispossession, who mistrusted her own inclinations to pleasure and self-approval.
In Arturo’s Island, the note of loss and disillusionment is persistent. Throughout there are references to “my heart’s impossible longings” and “an obscure, violated law.” Arturo himself often feels “like a criminal” who is inexorably “swept along by a terrible cyclone” he is helpless to resist. For all the moments of tenderness or reprieve Morante allows, the coloration of the work is dark, “rage and astonishment” always about to erupt, just as we might well say of Aracoeli, where the accent of self-loathing is even stronger, the sense that nothing can be done to alter anything even more emphatic.
Unlike Arturo’s Island, Aracoeli was not well received in Italy, and most of the reviews in the United States were frankly dismissive and uncomprehending. Perhaps this had much to do with the fact that Aracoeli was a complete departure from History, a work much more varied in its devices and more generous in its sympathies. More probably, Aracoeli was resisted because it opened up a devastated psychological landscape without the slightest intimation of a redemptive prospect. Of course the novel had its loyal adherents, though this reader can only marvel at those—like Stephen Spender—who were pleased to call it “a wonderful book,” or others—like Harold Brodkey—who thought it “fascinating,” hardly the epithets that recommend themselves for a work that is frequently appalling and saturated in self-loathing. The remorseless disinfatuation of the prose in Aracoeli is propelled, sustained, by what can sometimes seem an autonomous dynamism, the rhetoric of “amputation” and “pollution” the essential motor that drives the narrative.
Of course, a work shaped and controlled by an obsessive outlook and a corresponding rhetoric may come to seem monotonous. That is the risk Morante deliberately invites in Aracoeli. Emanuele, its first person narrator, knows that nothing he will tell us can alter or relieve his distress, which can border on the pathological. From the first, what he calls “my little happy life” is consigned, irrevocably, to the past, to a brief, never completely forgotten period of early childhood when things could seem innocent and he could think himself lovable. Almost at once he alludes to the “nameless malady” that would determine the course of his life, and soon the language of the novel is taken over by terms like “irreparable” and “malignancy.” Everything seems determined by a fate that “follows its own logic . . . sure and constant.” “To live,” the narrator contends, “means to experience separation,” where separation entails the loss of love and of a secure identity. Derided—so he believes—by virtually everyone he meets, the narrator of this novel imagines, “when I happen to find myself in a crowd,” that he is “marked out for lynching,” condemned for obscure, inarticulable reasons by the “overwhelming judgment of the Collective,” whatever that may mean.
To be sure, reasons are provided to account for the desperate unhappiness of the 43-year-old narrator, who recounts the trajectory of his life as if it were, in every important respect, at an end. He had been loved by his beautiful, erratic mother Aracoeli, and soon found himself rejected, his mother in the grip of an obscure sexual mania. The father, emotionally distant, reticent, unavailable, could offer nothing in the way of solace. Encouraged by his peers to find refuge in the company of women, Emanuele found himself impotent, inadequate, his consequent compulsive homoerotic excursions similarly dispiriting. Reasons, to be sure. Though Emanuele attempted, without conviction, “to emerge” from the constrictions of his own nature, he labored always in the shadow of “an old fable” in which “an immortal tailor . . . at night goes into the bedrooms of certain mortals he has selected. On them, as they sleep, he sews an invisible shirt, woven with the threads of their destiny.” Emanuele is one of the chosen, who can never tear off the shirt into which he has been sewn.
Can this sense of fatality serve as a sufficient reason to account for the life of such a person? In many ways it is the most compelling of the reasons Morante provides. Throughout the novel the narrator is at pains to insist upon the mystery of things. People are ceaselessly imprisoned by “secrets” they themselves cannot understand. We feel, all of us apparently, or so Morante’s narrator believes, that we are obscurely possessed by a “knowledge” we can never fully fathom. There are powers that enchant us, block our path to change or protest. For each hidden truth we sense but cannot penetrate there is an “ancient law” that decrees the limits of our understanding.
No doubt there are readers who will feel offended by the very suggestion of such a schema. They will say that an adult worthy of our attention over the course of a long novel cannot be made to submit so entirely to anything so nebulous as ancient laws, nor, for that matter, to the unfathomable laws of his own fixed nature. And yet Morante makes her Emanuele an extraordinarily compelling and believable character, whose sense of fatality is oddly suggestive of intimations to which every adult is, in varying degrees, susceptible. Susan Sontag noted, in a late essay, that “characters in a novel have intensely legible fates,” and it is the legible fate of Emanuele to be in the thrall of his own fanatic idea of fatedness, in a way that incapacitates him for healthy development. Is he therefore a one-dimensional figure? Say, rather, as Sontag says of novelists who “perform their necessary ethical work,” that Morante exercises her “right to a stipulated shrinking of the world as it really is” without ever allowing us to forget that the shrinking is the work of a mind, Emanuele’s, that is preternaturally inconsolable. More to the point, perhaps, Morante’s character, though alarmingly single-minded, is yet also open to vagrant impressions he knows not how to harness. There is nothing programmatic in Morante’s novel, no suggestion that the author participates in Emanuele’s fanaticism or offers it as a reliable statement about the laws to which the rest of us are immutably committed.
The ethical vision that underwrites Morante’s novel is discernible—again, in Sontag’s terms—in the “felt intensity” and “completeness” of her portraiture. These qualities demand, so we feel, that we honor her protagonist and care for him, in spite of the appalling, stubborn tenacity of his pessimism. Crucial in making this possible is Morante’s insistence that her Emanuele fitfully regress to dreams and memories of his lost childhood, which are conjured with an affecting immediacy. Just so, a few peripheral characters are permitted to surface and develop without being wholly subordinated to the incessant toils of the narrator’s disposition. Even the mother, Aracoeli herself, though subjected to a merciless dissection and a hideous fate, is permitted now and again to seem irresistibly vital and, for much of the novel, promising. In spite of the dark, downward drift of the narrative, Morante can allow us “a nostalgia of the senses,” in the grip of which the long dead Aracoeli is evoked in “her real, bodily voice, with its tender savor of throat and saliva,” and the son can feel again “on my palate the sensation of her skin, which smelled of fresh plum.”
Such delicacies and transports are, to be sure, rather infrequent in Aracoeli, and yet they do establish a necessary tension that works quietly against the grain of the narrator’s dark fanaticism. In this novel, Morante had the nerve—what George Steiner once called “the indispensable tactlessness”—to immerse her reader in an imagination that would necessarily seem sour and unlovely. But her own inveterate feeling for tenderness and beauty is also unmistakable, as unmistakable as her desire to get to the bottom of something she wishes with all her heart to encompass. There remains, as a residue of our encounter with a novel that is never less than troubling, an impression of a strangeness fully confronted but never fully understood.