Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante

Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante

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by Lily Tuck
     
 

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The first biography in any language of one of the most celebrated Italian writers of the twentieth century.

Born in 1912 to an unconventional family of modest means, Elsa Morante grew up with an independent spirit, a formidable will, and an unshakable commitment to writing. Forced to hide from the Fascists during World War II in a remote mountain hut with her

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Overview

The first biography in any language of one of the most celebrated Italian writers of the twentieth century.

Born in 1912 to an unconventional family of modest means, Elsa Morante grew up with an independent spirit, a formidable will, and an unshakable commitment to writing. Forced to hide from the Fascists during World War II in a remote mountain hut with her husband, renowned author Alberto Moravia, she re-emerged at war's end to take her place among the premier Italian writers of her day. When Rome was film capital of the world, she counted Pasolini, Visconti, and the young Bertolucci among her circle of friends. She was charismatic, beautiful, and fiercely intelligent; her marriage, a passionate union of literary giants, captivated a nation; her love affairs were intense and often tragic. And until now few Americans have known of this remarkable woman and her powerful, original talent.

Editorial Reviews

Louisa Ermelino
“One literary doyenne takes on another in Lily Tuck’s wonderful, sensitive biography of Elsa Morante...This is one not to miss, both for its subject and its exquisite prose.”
Mary Gordon
“Everyone who cares about the literature of the 20th century must be grateful to Lily Tuck for her measured, elegant, and revelatory biography of Elsa Morante.”
Susanna Moore
“Lily Tuck understands Morante instinctively—it is as if Morante has been waiting for her, as if this book is a part of all that she lived for.”
Phillip Lopate
“For worldly understanding alone, there is nothing of recent vintage quite like this entrancingly written and compellingly forthright biography.”
Booklist
"Written with a charming personal touch...that warms the narrative to a fine glow, this is a vital biography bringing to American audiences a writer most will have previously known little about."
Boston Globe
“...well-researched, empathetic “Woman of Rome” is both a work of literary reclamation and an act of long, deep, devoted connection...[Morante’s] life and work come alive in this account.”
Booklist (starred review)
“Written with a charming personal touch...that warms the narrative to a fine glow, this is a vital biography bringing to American audiences a writer most will have previously known little about.”
Atlantic Monthly
“Equal parts literary biography and liberation tract, this engaging volume...elegantly achieves its dual aims. Rarely have subject and biographer been so aptly matched.”
Los Angeles Times
“Tuck is fascinated by Morante’s drive to continually reinvent herself and blends memories of her own childhood into Morante’s story, memories that add texture and a sense of honesty to the biography.”
Chicago Tribune
“Woman of Rome is a dazzling read, full of passion for the odyssey of a writer.”
Washington Post
“A lovely and worthy biography, the first of Morante to appear in any language.”
Mindy Aloff
Morante counted among her close friends the filmmakers Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci: Woman of Rome contains telling anecdotes of them all. Among its many virtues is the way it fills us in on the glamour (and cruelties) of postwar Rome. Still, the ultimate virtue here is Tuck's almost daughterly effort to demonstrate how Morante's writing can excite a reader today, and why this unhappy yet vital artist, ultimately married to solitude, ought to be remembered, without scumbling the harsher aspects of the woman's personality. Tuck also extends her sense of fair play to Morante's lovers and friends, beginning with Moravia, one of whose novels is alluded to in the title of this lovely and worthy biography, the first of Morante to appear in any language.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Novelist Elsa Morante and the city she symbolized come alive in this warm, sprightly literary biography. Novelist Tuck (The News from Paraguay) surveys Morante's life: her troubled relationship with an unstable mother; her salad days writing magazine pieces along with having to occasionally resort to prostitution to make a living; World War II, when she and husband, Alberto Moravia, both halfJewish, hid out from Fascist persecution in a mountain village; her postwar dolce vita immersed in friendships, affairs and dinnertable debates with Rome's glitterati. Morante emerges as a complex, vibrant character-difficult, mercurial and fiercely (often rudely) devoted to truthtelling, but also kindhearted and charismatic. Tuck ties the biographical details-and analyses of her subject's dreams and handwriting-to sympathetic but critical analyses of Morante's protean works, which include the hothouse melodrama of House of Liars, the darkly beguiling Huckleberry Finn fable of Arturo's Island and the pitiless meditation on force and corruption of her bestselling History. Tuck sets the life in a colorful evocation of Morante's milieu, enlivened by her own youthful reminiscences of Italy's postwar film scene, that makes the book a love letter to Rome as well as to her subject. Photos. (July 29)

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Library Journal

National Book Award winner Tuck (The News from Paraguay) here examines the life of Italian writer Elsa Morante, who made a significant contribution to Italian literature of the last century with such novels as House of Liars and History. The 20th anniversary of Morante's death in 2005 saw a renewed interest in the writer, both in Italy and abroad. In researching this book, Tuck interviewed many of Morante's friends, contemporaries, and family members, and through this research, she succeeds in depicting every aspect of Morante's life, including her unconventional childhood, complicated marriage, terrifying wartime years spent in hiding, literary successes, numerous love affairs, and poignant final years. As the author here discloses, her father frequented some of the same social circles as Morante and her husband, novelist Alberto Moravia. Her descriptions of a bygone era-e.g., the Rome of the late 1950s and early 1960s-are superb. After all, Tuck lived it. Recommended for all libraries that support an Italian literature collection. (Photos and index not seen.)
—Erica Swenson Danowitz

Kirkus Reviews
From National Book Award-winning novelist Tuck (The News from Paraguay, 2004, etc.), a concise biography of the Italian writer whose fiction explored the power of make-believe and the delusions by which people live. Elsa Morante (1912-85) was unconventional from the moment of her birth-the eldest of four, all fathered by a man not their mother's husband-to after her death, when a group of friends dug up her cremated remains and took them to be scattered in the waters surrounding the island of Procida, the setting for her beloved 1957 novel, Arturo's Island. She married fellow novelist Alberto Moravia in 1941 and was still his wife when she died, but they had lived apart for years and had never been faithful, though they remained friends. Desperately poor as a struggling young writer, Morante displayed in her fiction a profound sympathy for the oppressed, the misfit and those disfigured or incapacitated by disease. This attitude would find its most emphatic expression in her 1974 bestseller History, controversial among Italy's left-leaning intellectuals because the politically unaligned Morante painted such a pessimistic picture of proletarian life and the depredations of power. Fiercely devoted to truth-telling, she could be an uncomfortable person to know, but she was generous and loyal to her friends. (And expected the same; she never spoke again to Pier Paolo Pasolini after he brutally panned History.) She had wild mood swings, but loved pretty clothes, handsome men (she was one of director Luchino Visconti's many lovers) and good food and conversation. Well-known and respected in Italy, Morante's work is much more obscure in the English-speaking world, and it's not quite clear whyTuck chose to write about her. Though the biographer offers appreciations of the individual novels, she never really conveys a coherent picture of Morante's achievements as a writer. Those content with a vivid evocation of her powerful personality, however, will be satisfied by Tuck's graceful apercus. Lucid and intelligent, but perhaps a little too low-key. Agent: Georges Borchardt/Georges Borchardt, Inc.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780061472596
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
07/28/2009
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
936,500
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.64(d)
Lexile:
1240L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

Woman of Rome
A Life of Elsa Morante

Chapter One

Two Uncles

The year of Elsa Morante's birth is well known. But, as a favor, in an autobiographical piece she wrote in 1960, she has asked that her biographer not mention the date—not because she is vain but because, for her, one year is as good as the next and she would prefer to remain ageless.1 It is the same year that the Titanic set out on its doomed maiden voyage with 2,224 passengers and crew members on board; the same year that Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy renewed the Triple Alliance; the year of the outbreak of the Balkan War, which set the stage for World War I; the year the Olympic games were held in Stockholm and the twenty-four-year-old Native American Jim Thorpe won both the pentathlon and decathlon (he was later stripped of his medals when it was learned that he had played semiprofessional baseball); in the United States, the year that New Mexico and Arizona became states; the year that the German geologist and meteorologist Alfred Lothar Wegener proposed his theory of continental drift, arguing that the earth's continents had once been a single large landmass and were still in the process of change; and, finally, in Rome, the year that the first activities of the Italian Boy Scouts, founded by Carlo Colombo and known as Giovani Esploratori Italiani, took place.

In a poem Elsa Morante wrote many years later, she claimed to have been born of a "difficult love" at that "bitter hour at midday / under the sign of Leo / on a Christian feast day."2 She also claimed in "Our Brother Antonio," anewspaper piece she published in 1939, that from the very day of their birth, she and her brothers all showed themselves to be extraordinary paragons of virtue. She for example was born with a crown of gold hair so thick and so long that, immediately, the attending nurse who delivered her had to braid and tie it with a blue ribbon.3 (Photos, however, always show Elsa with short, dark hair—so what, one wonders, could she have been thinking of? And what, one also wonders, is true?) At the time of Elsa's birth, the Morante family lived at via Anicia 7 but, soon after, they moved to a small, squalid apartment on via Amerigo Vespucci 42, located in the Testaccio, which was then a working-class district of Rome. Later, Elsa Morante said she grew up in the company of both poor and rich children (the latter no doubt the children of the friends of Elsa's rich godmother, Donna Gonzaga) and thus she learned not to judge anyone by social class but by his or her kindness instead. In fact, the cruelest child she ever met, who made her drink gasoline, was the son of a butler while the nicest was a young patient at Gabelli (a famous Roman hospital which treated only venereal diseases), which, in retrospect, made her wonder what sort of pervert he may have been. Elsa learned the alphabet and learned to write at the same time. She claimed to have composed her first poem when she was two and a half years old:

Un povero galletto
che stava alla finestra
gli casca giù la testa
e va e va e va.
Un gallo piccolino
che stava alla finestra
gli casca giù la testa
e non vede più e più

A little rooster
who was at the window
fell down on his head
and went and went and went.
A small little rooster
who was at the window
fell down on his head
and he nothing nothing sees.

Not only was Elsa Morante a self-taught prodigy, she invented herself. At an early age, too, Elsa Morante imagined herself as other, as a boy. A boy, she thought, could be heroic; a girl could not.

Elsa Morante was the oldest of four surviving children. An older brother, Mario, whom Elsa always inexplicably referred to as Antonio and to whom, later, she addressed her diary, died shortly after he was born. According to Elsa, this Mario/Antonio opened his eyes and saw the light and was so disgusted that he quickly closed them again. According to Elsa's mother, who spoke of him often, comparing him to a famous king, had Mario/Antonio lived, he would most certainly have become a prophet or a genius and brought honor to the family.4 Elsa described her brother Aldo, who was two years younger, as lively and rebellious; she also said that Aldo had a large black birthmark on his forehead (but there is no sign of the birthmark on any of the photographs of him nor does Aldo's son, Paolo Morante, recall seeing a birthmark on his father's forehead5). Marcello, the younger brother, was timid and shy and, early on, according still to Elsa, was prone to amorous attachments; five or six minutes after he was born he developed one for the nurse who delivered him, grasping her finger and not letting go. Finally, there was Maria, the youngest child—younger than Elsa by ten years.

Elsa's mother, Irma Poggibonsi,* came from the town of Modena in northern Italy; she was a schoolteacher and had literary aspirations. She was also Jewish and since she was terrified of being discovered to be Jewish, she made sure her children got a Catholic education. (When World War II broke out, she changed her name to Bisi and went into hiding in Padua, taking the youngest, Maria, with her. Marcello was sent to Tuscany: Aldo was interned in a concentration camp; Elsa, by then, was living on her own in Rome.) Little is known of Irma's family. Her father was a hunchback whom everyone in the family was deeply ashamed of; Irma's mother had repeated breakdowns that manifested themselves in various ways: locking herself up in the bedroom and running back and forth, battering her head against the walls until either her head cracked open or she was knocked unconscious.

Woman of Rome
A Life of Elsa Morante
. Copyright � by Lily Tuck. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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What People are saying about this

Louisa Ermelino
“One literary doyenne takes on another in Lily Tuck’s wonderful, sensitive biography of Elsa Morante...This is one not to miss, both for its subject and its exquisite prose.”
Susanna Moore
“Lily Tuck understands Morante instinctively—it is as if Morante has been waiting for her, as if this book is a part of all that she lived for.”
Mary Gordon
“Everyone who cares about the literature of the 20th century must be grateful to Lily Tuck for her measured, elegant, and revelatory biography of Elsa Morante.”
Phillip Lopate
“For worldly understanding alone, there is nothing of recent vintage quite like this entrancingly written and compellingly forthright biography.”

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