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A Fresh Focus on Novelist Morante

by Michael McDonald

Woman of Rome
By Lily Tuck
Harper, 263 pages, $25.95

Elsa Morante was born in 1912 in the working-class district of Rome called Testaccio. The product of an extramarital liaison between her mother, a schoolteacher, and a postal worker from Sicily, she grew up in straitened circumstances, compensating for life's dismal realities by becoming a voracious reader and by inventing stories of her own. She discovered her literary vocation early in life, writing fairy tales and poetry while still in her teens.

Morante would go on to become a prominent writer in post-World War II Italy. She achieved a certain renown in the U.S. as well, with novels such as "House of Liars" (1948), a complex family portrait set in southern Italy, "Arturo's Island" (1957), a cult classic about a young boy's coming of age on the island of Procida, and "History" (1974), about an Italian woman's fierce struggle to survive during World War II and its aftermath. Now Morante is the subject of a biography by novelist Lily Tuck, the author of the 2004 National Book Award-winning "The News From Paraguay." Ms. Tuck's lack of experience as a biographer is on glaring display in "Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante," but it's understandable that she would be drawn to Morante's story and to her work.

Morante left home at 18 and struggled for years to make ends meet by writing for newspapers and popular magazines. Her life changed when she met and later married, in 1941, the celebrated Italian novelist Alberto Moravia, whose anti-fascist tale "The Conformist" (1951) was made into a film of the same name in 1970 by Bernardo Bertolucci. The Morante-Moravia union proved difficult, but during the two decades that it lasted Morante created some of her most affecting stories, won important literary prizes and established herself as one of the pre-eminent novelists of her generation.

Something of a dreamy bohemian, left-leaning and libertarian, Morante had her own views on the public issues that roiled Italian society. But with few exceptions she kept them out of her writing, a fact that, together with her distinctive style — an enchanting fusion of the Italian classical tradition of prosa d'arte and that branch of surrealism known as magical realism — explains its perennial attraction.

The shared experience of World War II was, of course, a seminal period in the lives of Morante and Moravia. Both of them were partly Jewish, a fact that contributed to the couple's decision to flee Rome after the German takeover of the city in 1943 and to seek a mountain refuge in central Italy, where they lived in a hut for nine months, awaiting their homeland's liberation. Moravia would produce from this period the novel "La Ciociara," or "The Woman From Ciociaria," the story of a mother trying to shield her daughter from war's horrors. In 1960, Vittorio De Sica would bring the novel to the screen as "Two Women" with Sophia Loren in the lead role. Morante waited nearly 30 years to pen her most important work about the war. "History" caused a sensation in Italy, becoming an international best seller even as it was denounced by leftist critics for its biting dismissal of ideological extremism.

By the time "History" appeared, Morante and Moravia had long ago gone their separate ways — their tempestuous relationship ended in the early 1960s. Moravia went on to publish many more novels and stories and remained a prominent figure in the arts in Italy. Morante was not nearly so prolific, and once she was out of her husband's bright orbit, her star dimmed, to briefly glint again only with the publication of "History." She was diagnosed in the early 1980s with hydroencephalitis and died in 1985.

Morante's gifts as a writer are so readily apparent to anyone who picks up "House of Liars" and other works that the urge to rescue her from obscurity is almost reflexive. Yet Morante never won the fame in America that she deserved. To see her reduced to being known primarily as Alberto Moravia's former wife can't help but make fans of her work wince. But getting her life into a book would present a challenge even for a skilled biographer: Yes, she lived through interesting times, at least in the 1940s and 1950s, but the truth is that Elsa Morante led a fairly uneventful life. That is often the problem with the lives of writers, one that can be overcome if the biographer has the intuitive ability to create a convincing vision of the life out of what few character clues there are, or if a wealth of diaries and letters exists to be sifted in search of a compelling story.

But Lily Tuck is far from intuitive — she can't even be bothered to spell or translate Italian words accurately. Thus we encounter "fabuloso" instead of favoloso, "poci" for pochi. She misunderstands Novecento as meaning the 19th century rather than the 20th, and, most oddly, she translates ingerito veleno, which means "had swallowed poison," as "had eaten fish." In any case, Morante, who was herself hostile to the idea of raking through the personal lives of writers, didn't leave behind the sort of private writings that biographers covet.

Undaunted, Ms. Tuck plunged ahead with her life of Morante. The author seems not to have turned up much in the way of new material, aside from lots of scurrilous gossip about Morante's romantic life. As for factual material, Ms. Tuck's volume is heavily indebted to three sources: the densely annotated 90-page cronologia that appears in the first volume of the deluxe Italian edition of Morante's works; a 1990 biography of Moravia published in Italy; and a book on Morante by the Italian critic Cesare Garboli. "Woman of Rome" is also heavily indebted to … the life of Ms. Tuck. Morante is apt to disappear as the biographer herself takes center stage to prattle on — about life in Rome when Ms. Tuck was a child, about her meetings with people who knew Morante, about her father (who made movies in Italy in the 1950s), and even about her father's Jamaican girlfriend.

The non-Tuckian sections of the book do not compensate. The author uses just seven lines of text to explain what a "majority of Italians" thought during the critical years 1939-1944. ("In 1941, most Italians hoped they would win," we learn, while "by 1944, they hoped the Allies would win.") After asserting that Morante "refused to follow literary trends," Ms. Tuck mentions how the Beat poets in America influenced the poetry that Morante wrote in the 1960s. So much for coherent — let alone fine-grained — analysis.

But we get plenty more about Ms. Tuck. She doesn't just report what the actress Adriana Asti says about her encounters with Morante in the late 1950s; Ms. Tuck instead takes a Vanity Fair profile approach: "Adriana and I were having lunch at the Hotel Excelsior in Naples, the sort of quietly elegant hotel I am sure Elsa Morante would have loved." If you believe that the best biographers are those who keep their egos in check and refrain from intruding on the narrated life, this is not the book for you.

Morante's contemporary Giuseppe di Lampedusa was, like her, a writer's writer, one who also lived without a thought for would-be biographers, leading an even more hermetic life in his native Palermo. And yet David Gilmour's 1988 biography, "The Last Leopard," was an exceptional portrayal of the man, his milieu and his one masterpiece, "The Leopard." Mr. Gilmour's example entitles us to hope that justice may one day be done to the life of Elsa Morante as well.
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