In 1974, great anticipation mounted for Elsa Morante’s new novel. As was her custom, she was very secretive during the writing which took the better part of three years (1971-74), not sharing early drafts with Natalia Ginzburg, her editor at Einaudi, nor her many writer friends (P.P. Pasolini, Ginevra Bompiani, Paolo Volponi, Alfonso Berardinelli, Dario Bellezza) or her husband, Alberto Moravia. The only known reader during the writing was the much younger poet Patrizia Cavalli, whom Morante asked to read out loud various drafts, upon completion.
Both critics and the public did not know what to expect: her preceding novel Arturo’s Island, 1957, followed by a collection of stories Lo scialle andaluso, 1963, had established her as a powerful and original literary voice, yet their almost fable-like language seemed outdated by 1974. The enigmatic and hard to categorize poetic text The World Saved by Children, 1968, had indicated her having adopted, at least in verse, a more experimental style.
In Italy, as well as in France at the time, literature was entering a highly politicized experimental phase, giving birth to competing avant-guard movements. In Italy, younger writers were rebelling against the leading forms of prose and poetry: neorealism and hermeticism. Calvino’s post-modern If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, appeared only five years later, in 1979. When La Storia was published, many saw it as a throwback to the literature of the early post-war years, and back even further to the 19th Century verismo (Realism) of Giovanni Verga (one of Morante’s models).
The novel is written in a straightforward realist style, attempting to replicate the language that the characters and notably Ida, a simple woman in the 1940’s, may have spoken. It is powerful, imaginative, often poetic but certainly very distant from the formal innovations of the avant-guard. Morante aimed at a language of the people, for the people, which she expressed in often lapidary prose. And yet what interested her was not Realism, but adherence to “the real.”
Despite the authors stated, paradoxical intention, to write a novel for the illiterate, La Storia, is stylistically rich, complex, and ultimately literary. Inevitably some of the subtleties are lost in the translation: how and when a character slips from Italian to a regional dialect, for example, or the way Davide Segre’s character — a Jewish anarchist— is created through dramatic shifts in the use of his language, corresponding to various disguises and changing circumstances.
While the plot of the novel follows a chronology from 1941 to 1947, the inner architecture is based on abrupt interruptions in the narrative, flash backs, and forward leaps.
Besides mirroring autobiographical experiences —Morante had lived, with Alberto Moravia, in and around Rome during the time described in the novel— the stylistic device that makes it sound true is steeped in the voice of a third person as narrator. Personally, I find it difficult to resist the temptation to recognize Morante’s own voice in the narrator..
Morante establishes the narrator as a reliable first-hand witness, and because of this, we believe her. At various topical moments, the narrator reveals personal familiarity with the characters and events in the plot, thus becoming in a sense a witness.
Among the critics who have tried to describe her style, Giorgio Agamben is perhaps the most insightful:
“Her realism is animated by an intimate process of metamorphosis into an abysmal bottomless unrealism. […] One is struck by the attention and precision with which she describes places and objects; and yet those places and objects are not the protocol of reality, but the foundation of a new reality.
[…] But the secret to Elsa Morante’s style, lies in her attitude to the world — too complex to be briefly summarized here—which recalls the definition that Spinoza gave of benevolence as love born of piety and pity born of love”*
*”Lo scrittore e’ come un ladro di lumi,” Paese Sera, Jan 4, 1964.