Italian opera classic gets a new translation
The first time I took the 1957 novel by Italian writer Elsa Morante “The Island of Arturo”, in this new translation by Ann Goldstein, the talented translator of Elena Ferrante’s novels into English, I put it back after 75 pages. Morante’s vision is so baroque, and his prose so operative, that after reading it I needed some time alone, with cucumber slices on my eyelids.
“Arturo’s Island” tells the story of the coming of age of a semi-orphan boy on the island of Procida, in the Bay of Naples, just before World War II. The themes of the book – incest, misogyny, narcissism, homosexuality – slide across the pages like lava.
Morante delivers epic emotions. His people do not speak so much as they exclaim “with a contemptuous sneer” or “a loud cry of haughty derision”. They tremble with violent dislikes and savage attitudes. They strike poses of fear, disgust and, in the words of one character, “aggressive and insolent vehemence.” They shake the cutlery and they shake each other.
“Arturo’s Island” kept calling me, however. He had put down his brutal hooks. Before picking it up, I found Lily Tuck’s slim and sophisticated biography on Morante, “Woman of Rome” (2008). Reading it is an experience that I recommend. Morante led a hectic and unconventional life; a life that helps contextualize the dazzling cadences of feelings in his novels.
The unlikely details come in from the start. Morante’s stepfather was a probation officer at a boys reform school. He proved helpless on his wedding night, and his wife often forced him to stay, as punishment, in the basement of the family home in a popular area of Rome. Morante’s mother was often hysterical and attempted suicide. The family photos had striped faces.
Morante did not go to college. She lived in poverty, sometimes resorting to prostitution, while struggling to become a journalist and then a novelist. In 1938, she prepared a pot of boiling oil, intending to pour it over the heads of Hitler and Mussolini, who passed in a convertible limousine under the windows of her apartment. Her future husband, the novelist Alberto Moravia (1907-1990), dissuaded her from this suicide mission.
Moravia discovered he was on the Fascist Police wanted list. He and Morante were each half Jewish. The couple fled in 1943, hiding for almost a year in a small town, in a one-room hut built against a large stone.
Returning to Rome after the war, they became a bit like the Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir of the Italian intelligentsia. Their friends included writer Italo Calvino and directors Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti, with whom Morante was having an affair. (She was to share it with actress Anna Magnani.)
His speech at the table was famous. Filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci told his father, who begged him to go to university: “My university dines every night with Elsa Morante, Alberto Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Morante wore pants, a rarity for Italian women at the time. She did not suffer from fools. Woe to those who spoke of her using her husband’s name and not hers.
His novels, hugely influential in his home country, include “House of Liars” (1948) and “History” (1974), which was an overwhelming bestseller in Italy. Of its impact, Paul Hofmann wrote in The Times: “For the first time in our memory, people in railroad compartments and espresso bars are discussing a book – the novel by Morante – rather than the football championship or the latest scandal. Translations of his novels have had little impact in the United States.
Ferrante was one of those who devoured Morante’s novels. She chose her pseudonym because of its echoes with that of Morante.
In interviews, Morante has often claimed that she wished to be born a boy, so that she could have heroic adventures. About the young male hero of “Arturo’s Island”, she commented: “Arturo, it’s me!
The island of Procida, in this novel, feels stolen from the myth. A huge prison overlooks the island, as if it were Alcatraz. Arturo’s own house is a ruined, spider-web 20-room palace. The boy travels the island with his dog and the sea in his small boat.
Arturo’s mother, 17 and illiterate, died in childbirth. His father, whom he idolizes, is mostly cold and distant, spending much of his time away from the island on trips he refuses to talk about.
Arturo grows up in a world with contempt for women. The former occupant of the house, a wealthy and apparently gay man, threw elaborate parties and refused entry to women. His father, who inherited the house from the man, also inherited most of his opinions.
“In my judgment, real women possessed no splendor and no magnificence,” said Arturo. He adds: “They were ashamed of themselves, maybe because they were so ugly; and they went about like sad beasts.
One day, Arturo’s father brings home a new wife, a young peasant girl named Nunziata. Father and son treat her abominably. (“Shut up, you ugly, neglected devil,” the father tells him, in a typical dialogue snippet.) When she has a child, however, Arturo is jealous of the attention the baby receives. He realizes he’s never been kissed. He slowly falls in love with his stepmother and asks her to run away with him.
Arturo’s growth works against the reader’s conscience of the war that befalls him. There is a tragic feeling that the heroic dreams of his youth are about to be tested in ways he never anticipated. Arturo’s sense of himself and his father is shaken when he realizes that his father is in love with a prisoner on the island.
The men in this novel are knives, and the woman are meat. There are few happy or fulfilled women in Morante’s work. Yet Nunziata keeps the fires lit in the kitchen; she makes fresh pasta every day; she takes care of her child and tries to stay on top of the fray. She is luminous, a kind of saint.
Morante’s themes are not subtle. “The Island of Arturo,” even in Goldstein’s skillful translation, is a mass performance. But his writing, once you get used to its gargoyle extravaganza, has the power of curse.