(Steerforth Italia)In 1941, a German soldier is wandering around the San Lorenzo district of Rome. He has grown up in the German town of Dachau, which, as we all know, "was to become famous for the camp on its outskirts devoted 'to labor and biological experiments.'"
The soldier, Gunther, comes upon the shy schoolteacher, Ida Mancuso, follows her upstairs to her humble apartment, falls upon her, and rapes her --- which causes her to pass out. He leaves, and, three days later, his convoy is bombed. And, "he was among the dead."
This is the story of Ida, and Useppe --- her son, the result of this unlikely union --- along with her first child Nino. It also includes one of Nino's friends, Davide, and (if you will believe it) Nino's dog, Bella. It all takes place between 1941 and 1947, starting at the beginning of World War II, including the Allied invasion of Italy, the taking over of Italy in 1943 by the Germans and their ultimate defeat, and concluding with the return of peace to Italy.
History: A Story is almost 750 pages long, and I am hard put to compare it to any novel I have ever come across. Perhaps we could say that it's not far from the USA Trilogy --- largely because Morante is intent on tying history, and the history of WWII, and the history of the world, to her characters. This means that we get to see, first hand, the effect of those desperate years on body and soul. History, and circumstance become meshed with Ida's fears and struggle: the effect of war on psyches --- bombings, deportations, deprivation, daily patrols of police and the military and later, the SS and, specifically, Ida's daily terror (she's half-Jewish).
USA, possibly --- but there is a touch of War and Peace. We are in the middle of great historical happenings: Rome under siege, there's a back and forth of the military --- the Americans to the south, the Germans to the north. There's the Italian resistance, governmental terrorism. There are the loss of homes and jobs and lives to bombers, the isolation of Jews, the effect of hunger on the very young. It is as if Tolstoi's great novel were focused on the effect of towering historical events on the poor and the powerless and the dispossessed --- people enmeshed in an historical progression over which they have no control.
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Even in the briefest of sketches, one can visualize the characters, see them, hear them:
The girl's name was Maddalena, but she was called Lena-Lena by Useppe. Not infrequently, early in the morning, she could be encountered on the stairs, intent on giving the steps a hasty washing with a wet rag; or else she was seen sitting in the lodge, momentarily substituting for her grandmother. Keeping still was a sacrifice for her, however, since she preferred movement; and she didn't in the least mind running up to Useppe's in the morning. She was a little girl of about fourteen, who was as a rule quite cloistered in the family; and she lived not far away, at San Saba, having arrived from the interior of Sardinia. She had a plump little figure, with short legs, also plump; and black hair, kinky and excessively long, which grew upward, compensating for her very short stature, and making her look like a country hedgehog (or porcupine). She spoke an incomprehensible language, all full of u's. which sounded foreign; still, with Useppe, she managed somehow to make herself understood. He would let her listen to his record, and in return she would sing to him, in a harsh, high voice, some Sardinian dirges, all with u. of which he understood not a word; but the moment she finished, he would say to her "again!" as he did after Ida's Calabrian songs.
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The writer Elsa Morante was married to the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia. Like him, her concern was to write about those who history forgets ("The illiterate are outside of history," he said). We could say she learned his "naturalistic" writing style from her mentor --- but she's no mere Moravia clone. They each have their distinctive style and hers, I believe, comes even closer to baring the soul of humanity, if such is possible. Or rather, she gives the reader a chance to participate in history, the grisly history of those awful days, when, for instance, Useppe and Ida come upon a train of which
the sound suggested certain dins of kindergartens, hospitals, prisons: however, all jumbled together, like shards thrown into the same machine. At the end of the ramp, on a straight, dead track, a train was standing which, to Ida, seemed of endless length. The voices came from inside it.
There were perhaps twenty cattle cars, some wide open and empty, others closed with long iron bars over the outside doors. Following the standard design of such rolling stock, the cars had no windows, except a tiny grilled opening up high. At each of those grilles, two hands could be seen clinging, or a pair of staring eyes.
Ida recognized this confused chorus...all this wretched human sound from the cars caught her in a heartrending sweetness, because of a constant memory that didn't return to her from known time, but from some other channel: from the same place as her father's little Calabrian songs that had lulled her, or the anonymous poem of the previous night, or the little kisses that whispered carina, carina to her. It was a place of repose that drew her down, into the promiscuous den of a single, endless family.
It's high art when one can take desolate scene such as this and overlay it with a "heartrending sweetness." This is the mastery that makes it possible for Morante to tell us that, after the German soldier rapes Ida, "he peeped at her in time to see her face, filled with amazement, relax in a smile of ineffable humility and sweetness."
It is the same "sweetness" of visage that comes to Useppe after his gran mal seizures. It is the gesture of a partisan women, captured by an SS, thinking he is taking her back to her cabin to make love to her, so, as they are going along, she lays her head on his shoulder (he shoots her shortly afterwards). It is an intermix of tenderness and violence that runs through History--- and History). Such a twisting and turning so that terrible moments somehow come always to be grafted onto those with an unbearable gentleness.
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Morante has the ability to capture characters and details so completely that it puts us in the middle of her movie. There is a childlike beauty in this film: the world of children has become part of, touched by, at times poisoned by, at times elevated by, the adult world. It reminds us of the enchanted world of Borges --- but this is two decades before Borges. For instance, early on, brother Nino buys a present for Useppe:
A vendor of colored balloons happened to be going by; and amused at his novice brother's rejoicing, the generous Nino spent almost his entire wealth to buy him one, a red one. Then they resumed their way home, no longer three, but four, if you count the balloon.
"a red one..." "no longer three, but four, if you count the balloon." This magic comes into high relief as we approach the end, where Useppe and the dog Bella start leaving the tiny apartment to investigate the world of Rome. You and I have known all sorts of sappy dog-
and- boy conversation stories, but Morante is too good a writer to hand out mere sentimental animal mush. Rather, she builds a worthy antidote to such soft romanticism:
Seeing he needed solace and distraction, Bella, seated beside him, decided to tell him a story. And, blinking slightly, in a fabulous tone, filled with melancholy, she began by saying:
"Once I had some puppies..."
She had never spoken of them to him before. "I don't know how many there were," she went on, "because I can't count. But when it was feeding time, all my tits were occupied, that's sure, every one!!! So there were lots of them, and each more beautiful than the other. One was black and white. One was all black with one white ear and one black, and one was also all black with a little goatee... When I looked at one, he was the most beautiful; but I would look at another, and this one was the most beautiful; then I would lick another, and meanwhile another would stick his nose up, and he was beyond doubt the most beautiful. Their beauty was infinite, that's the truth of it. Infinite beauties can't be compared."
"What were they called?"
"They didn't have names."
"They didn't have names?"
"And where've they gone?"
"Where...I don't know what to think about that. From one moment to the next, I looked for them, and they weren't there anymore. Usually, when they go off, they come back later, at least that's what happened with other friends of mine, who also had puppies..." (Bella, like her friends, was convinced that each successive litter was another return of the same puppies) "...but mine never came back again. I hunted for them, I waited for them a long time, but they never came home."
Without sentiment, but with considerable magic, Morante is telling us the story of four children and a dog. Shy Ida, no matter her age, is a child among children (she teaches first grade, but she's good because she's one of them). Nino is a man-child, and excitable, and noisy --- as is his friend Davide. Useppe is but a babe. All of them are caught in the terrible machinery of war where fantasy and magic and outright disbelief are necessary for their survival.
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Elsa Morante somewhere, somehow, picked up a magic style, one that comes so naturally and so effortlessly and so sweetly that we are swept along on the wings of her story --- immersed in it as if Ida and Nino and Useppe and Davide were our own family: you and I magically transported into 1942 or 1944 Italy to participate in the wonders and horrors of the lives of four people merely trying to survive in a world of no shelter, little food, and constant danger.
It's a cosmic writing --- a writing that causes the reader to be awash with the day-to-day of a people that we would never otherwise have a chance to meet. These are characters that, over the course of a few pages, begin to move and act so naturally that we think that a camera has been set up for us in San Lorenzo, a camera with a special sensing device so we can hear the conversations, feel their doubts, get into their minds, participate in their ecstasies and their terrors.
Most of all, it's a story of forgotten peasants, told by one who's language is straight, direct, simple --- one could even say peasant-like. For a touch of verisimilitude, every now and again, the author introduces herself into the narrative:
How that little runaway Jewish student [Davide] then managed, when hired, to produce suitable documents, I couldn't say. However, I have been assured that (thanks to some clandestine intrigue) in the factory his real identity was unknown...For myself, the scant and fragmentary information I have been able to gather came, to a large extent, from Ninnuzzu [Nino] and he, for that matter, gave it a comic interpretation...And so my present memoir of the event remains rather patchy and approximate.
How did you know all this? Oh, says Morante: I asked. I asked one of the characters in the novel. It was the best I could do, so my memory of it must remain "patchy and approximate."--- Lolita Lark
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Go to a reading from History
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