I first heard of Elsa Morante's History: a Novel about thirty years ago when I saw it on someone's list of indispensable books for the 20th Century,* along with works like Hope Against Hope Nadezhda Mandelstam or Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West and the like. I finally got around to it just now (we did it as a readaloud). I'd say it is a remarkable piece of work with may virtues, but as to best of the Century--I wonder if the recommender had actually read the last couple of hundred pages. Say at least that in the grand tradition of novels, it has some important limitations. Although come to think of it, I suppose it may be in this case that the limitations are at least as thought-provoking as the novel itself.
The core story is simplicity itself. Ida is a(n Italian) widow living in Rome with her son, NIno. She is raped by a German soldier. She has a second son, Useppe. Ida and the child of rape live through War II together with the discontinuous participation of Nino.
It's a stark framework. Writing about innocence is one of thee toughest tricks in the literary armory--perhaps only Dostoesvskii and Cervantes have ever fully succeeded. At least in the first part of the book, Morante does pretty much succeed: she tells the story of Useppe with empathy and and a keen observational eye, without moralizing and without judgment.
But on a closer look, we can see that the real theme of these early chapters is not innocence but (is there such a word) "ferality." Useppe is feral (as are all infants?). But so is his Nino, and so, in her own way, is Ida. So also indeed are any number of others in the story, including a whole menagerie of sympathetically rendered animals (she includes, although it isn't relevant to much, about the most sympathetic portrait I ever expect to read of a murderous pimp). Each has a core of vitality with they deploy, with greater or lesser success, to help them cope with a world they aren't remotely equipped to understand.
It's customary to characterize History as a "war novel," and in a large sense, this is not wrong. Indeed, Morante leave no doubt that she intends it to be a war novel: she intersperses her account of the lives of her characters with a sort of newsreel account of events in the larger the world--after the manner of Dos Passos, I suppose, though not nearly so artfully done. Yet the presence of war is oddly abstract, registered more in indirect impact than in direct encounter. Ida's apartment is bombed out, but she is not at home. They to a refugee shelter; then they bunk in a small apartment with another family; then they find a place of their own, and the war ends. In a sense, this is right: in fact Rome suffered far less direct harm in the war than so many other cities (indeed about the only significant bombing on rome was thee attack that took her apartment).
But the war does affect both Useppe and Ida in one important way: hunger. The details are unclear to the reader (as to Ida herself?). but it does seem they both suffered permanent damage from wartime malnutrition. And Ida (although not Useppe) suffers in a second, perhaps more important way: fear--stark, nameless, pervasive, disabling fear. Ida seems to be fearful almost by nature--shy, cautious, easily overawed and wracked by guilt, so fearful. But the war adds an extra reason: she is Jewish, or at any rate part Jewish and thus, perhaps, liable to be rounded up and sent away by the occupying Germans. I say "perhaps" because Ida herself never actually learns whether her blood taint is sufficient to bring her within the condemned circle.
All this is the canvas on which the early part of the book is worked out. But along about two thirds of the way through the book, two things happen to trigger a radical shift in focus. One, the war ends. And to, Useppe grows up--or at any rate, grows beyond the innocent infancy that has characterized him so far, so we would expect him to grow up. With regard to Useppe at least, Morante responds to the change in a not entirely predictable manner: she keeps him young. Useppe, that is, is defined as remaining outside ordinary human society--notwithstanding his age--for the rest of the book. It isn't clear exactly what afflicts Useppe. That is--it becomes clear he suffers from epilepsy but this alone can hardly account for his absolute inability to relate to anybody outside his family.
Inside the family, there is his mother, of course. There is his brother, but his brother comes to a bad end. And there is a dog. Animals proliferate throughout the book, but none more important than Bella, the big, cheerful, friendly beast who becomes Useppe's boon (and almost "only") companion. And here I feel Morante takes a wrong turn. That is, here for the first time she chooses not merely to allow Useppe to languish in his innocence. Rather she begins that enterprise of imputing--to Useppe, but also to Bella--the kinds of qualities we are tempted to impute to the innocent, so as to make them better than ourselves. It's a terrible temptation to an artist and one that never leads to convincing results.
Something else unexpected happens after the war ends: Morante more or less abandons Ida. She focuses on Useppe and Bella. But she also shifts to spotlight to an entirely different character--Davide, a young, intense, warm-hearted, bewildered young man who is trying to puzzle his own way through the dreadfulness of his recent experience. Like Ida, Davide has Jewish blood, but in his case, it matters: he has lost his entire familiy to the Camps. Morante sketches Davide with great tact and understanding--indeed, most of her character portraits are first rate. But he is, at least a character from a different novel. And however insightful she is at sketching, the portrait remains static: he remains a "character" not a protagonist--neither in his own life, nor in anyone's else.
I won't spoil the ending here though you would hardly expect so somber a story to end well. But I will note one gaping hole in the structure that becomes apparent on a broad overview. That is the character of Ida herself, and in particular, her utter helplessness, her almost complete passivity in the face of everything the world has to offer. I need to tread delicately here because I risk being seen as blaming the victim and I wouldn't remotely want to do that: fate treated Ida with great cruelty, in so many ways for which she is not remotely responsible. Yet there is almost never a time when she seems able to lift so much as a finger to make her own lot better. She won't tell anyone--anyone--that she is pregnant, much less raped (except the midwife who finally succors her through her delivery). She won't tell her own son that he has a new brother: she lets him find it out. Even then, she won't correct his inference that she must be a slattern.
And so it goes. She hears that Germans are out to get Jews; she can't bring herself to find out just who and how they will be coming. She won't ask for information. She won't ask for help. She won't offer to help. She won't seek to cooperate with anybody who might help her.
And it is not just Ida at issue here, of course: for good or ill, she does have the two sons. The older one bullies her shamelessly, but that becomes almost a side issue. It is Useppe who needs her. Obviously she loves him desperately. Yet she can scarcely being himself to care even for him. One can feel for Ida--one would have to have a heart of stone not to feel for Ida. Yet the only two times when one feels fully on her side are when she bestirs herself to commit acts of petty theft to find food for her baby.
It's a sad world we are in, then--a world where the innocent (and the feral) may suffer. It's a book about the rottenness of war, but it is in a way a book about the rottenness of life itself. I am not sure that Morante herself has sorted out all the possible implications. An admirable book, then, in its way, with much to offer. But if we are putting together a list of the books that really define the last century, I'm not persuaded that this one belongs on it.
*A bit of searching reveals that what I had in mind was a piece from the New York Times book review dated June 3, 1979, headed "Immortal Nominations," with the lede: The Book Review asked a number of writers the following: Which post-World War II boos have already established themselves or may eventually establish themselves in a group of a hundred or so of the most important books of Western literature; also, which prewar books that were not considered in this category might now be, in light of the history of the last three decades.
I'm not at all sure I understand that stuff after the semicolon, but there it is.