Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante by Lily Tuck
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.
Born in Paris, LILY TUCK is the author of four previous novels: Interviewing Matisse, or the Woman Who Died Standing Up; The Woman Who Walked on Water; Siam, or the Woman Who Shot a Man, which was nominated for the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction; and The News from Paraguay, winner of theNational Book Award. She is also the author of the biography Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker and are collected in Limbo and Other Places I Have Lived. Lily Tuck divides her time between Maine and New York City.
New York, New York
Date of Birth:
October 10, 1939
Place of Birth:
B.A., Radcliffe (Harvard); M.A., Sorbonne, Paris
Read an Excerpt
Woman of Rome A Life of Elsa Morante
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 3 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
This is a superb and very readable biography of Elsa Morante that really kindled my interest in Morante and Rome in the mid-20th Century. Tuck has a novelist's sharp eye for the most telling and delicious details and seems exceptionally well-matched to her subject. The B&N review above has a couple of quibbles I want to quibble with. First, it's obvious to me that this book never set out to be an exhaustive academic biography or a history of Rome during its cinematic heyday. Rather, Woman of Rome is a life that's elegantly, intelligently, and economically rendered. As such, it serves as a compelling introduction to an important--and intriguing-- writer, one who was on the brink of being forgotten in this country. Secondly, Woman of Rome most certainly DOES have footnotes--they're listed in the back of the book!
More than 1 year ago
This book is more fiction created by the author than substantial scholarly work. To attempt to do a biography of such an important literary figure and then fantasize is an insult not only to the author but to the reader as well.
As a Morante follower, I am very disappointed with Ms. Tuck's boasting about her connections and her audacity to think that she could get any interview she wanted.
Do not bother with this. It is not worth your effort.
With incomparable storytelling skill, New York Times bestselling author Colleen McCullough brings Rome alive in
all her majesty—and illuminates the world of those favored by the gods at birth.In a time of cataclysmic upheaval, a bold new generation of Romans ...
The New York Times bestseller, now available in paperback—“Half memoir, half polemic, and entirely necessary,”
(Elle UK) Caitlin Moran’s debut—an instant runaway bestseller in the UK—puts a new face on feminism, cutting to the heart of issues with an irreverent, ...
Men like Benvenuto, unique in their profession, need not be subject to the law.--Pope Paul
III on learning that Cellini had murdered a fellow artist Benvenuto Cellini was beloved in Renaissance Florence. A renowned sculptor and goldsmith whose works include ...
A New Yorker writer revisits the seminal book of her youthMiddlemarchand fashions a singular, involving
story of how a passionate attachment to a great work of literature can shape our lives and help us to read our own histories. Rebecca ...
New York Times and USA Today BestsellerSometimes the wrong choice can be just right .
. .Fun and fearless, Cora Lewis knows how to keep her tattooed bad boy friends at the Marked in line. But beneath all that flash ...
“Tuck packs a small universe and decades of emotional history into each story.”Stephan Lee, Entertainment
WeeklyLily Tuck’s The House at Belle Fontaine brings together ten of the award-winning author’s most exquisitely-wrought and captivating stories. These intimate tales traverse ...
The author of The Future of the Body and the author of Mastery team up
to present a proven method for reaching the next stage of human development.Can people with the time-and energy-consuming concerns of job and family find a ...
The Woman Who Walked on Water is a beautifully crafted, dark fable, the story of a
woman's search for meaning, from the author of The Double Life of Liliane.Adele leaves her comfortable life in Connecticut for India, to follow a guru ...