This is an in-depth essay about the works of Elsa Morante and Elena Ferrante, specifically La Storia and The Neapolitan Quartet. Between these five novels, the entire twentieth century is stripped bare, revealing a horrible darkness we are still barely emerging from. While reading any further might lead to some spoilers, these books are too rich to taint with my basic overview, which will dwell on the anarchism, history, celebrity, and anonymity of these Italian authors, one who is far better known than the other. Just like Elsa Morante, I write these words for those who can’t read, the illiterate.
Originally published by The Trans Metropolitan Review.
German version – Sūnzǐ Bīngfǎ #35 – 04. April 2022:
I was living in a small city on the north-western coast of the United States when I first found a copy of La Storia by Elsa Morante. Of all people, it was loaned to me by my landlord, who claimed her favorite character was the anarchist hero whose speech at the novel’s climax was the best in all of literature. I was truly surprised she liked anything related to anarchism, given she’d just evicted her friend by raising the rent too high.
I had the privilege of paying her $500 a month in this former logging town, but only until the end of spring when my room would turn back into a furnished, $800 a month boutique AirBNB unit, filled with sea-shells and the artwork of the landlord’s dead mother whose ghost, I believe, would routinely move the paintbrushes.
I read La Storia during the especially dark winter of 2017, when fascists were running rampant in the streets of the US thanks to Donald Trump, and I couldn’t believe this book had fallen into my hands, especially from a landlord who was draining me of all my money. In this bleak time, with the US polarized between disgusting liberals and deranged fascists, I fell deeply into La Storia by Elsa Morante, never imagining I would discover a forgotten anarchist novel.
The novel begins with a series of historical entries corresponding to dates, the first being 1900-1905, which simply reads: the latest scientific discoveries concerning the structure of matter mark the beginning of the atomic century. After this, the bleak twentieth century unfolds year by year, spanning the entire globe but also focusing on Italy, where the book is set.
In 1922, a mediocre opportunist named Bennito Mussolini, having tried to launch his career under the banner of socialism, now switches to the opposite side with a platform consisting only of a guaranteed anti-Communism, truculent and vulgar. This terrible fool has already created his fasci, a collection of vassals and assassins of the bourgeois revolution. And in such company, he defends his employers’ interests with the terrorist violence of poor action squads or bewildered mercenaries. Together, these monsters seize the Italian state.
Italy is eventually joined by Germany in 1933 with the Nazi’s rise to power, and soon Mussolini begins his imperial expansion into Africa, seizing the territory of Abyssinia and proclaiming a new Roman Empire. In 1936, the Italian fasicsts join the Nazis in a military pact aligned against the USSR, a country which Morante portrays as a false hope for global liberation. As her entries inform the reader, the earth’s oppressed multitudes–for that matter, ill-informed and deliberately deceived–still look to the USSR as the only homeland of their hope (hope difficult to give up, when there are no others).
In 1938, following the dictates of its ally Germany, Italy proclaims her own racial laws. The next year, Mussolini invades Albania, while to north, the Nazis and the USSR divide up Poland between themselves after a joint-invasion, formally initiating World War II. With the Nazis giving him a free hand, Stalin proceeds to subdue the Baltic States by force, responding to Finland’s incredible resistance, which will finally be quelled by Soviet arms.
In 1940, the idiot Mussolini makes his declaration of war against Great Britain and France, four days before the Germans enter Paris. At the end of that same year, the Italian fascists suffer a series of setbacks, first during their invasion of Greece, then in North Africa, where the British begin their counter-attack.
This breathless series of entries comes to an end one January afternoon in the year 1941 [when] a German soldier was out walking, enjoying an afternoon’s liberty [and] found himself wandering alone, through the San Lorenzo district of Rome, where almost half of the novel takes place. On this terrible winter day, the Nazi soldier forces himself into the apartment of a woman named Ida Mancuso, a thirty seven year-old school teacher.
The scene pauses here, and before delving back in time through Ida’s back-story, the author explains in Ida’s great dark almond eyes there was the passive sweetness of a very profound and incurable barbarism, which resembled foreknowledge. Those same eyes recalled the mysterious simplicity of animals, who, not with their mind, but with a sense in their vulnerable bodies, “know” the past and the future of every destiny. I would call that sense–which is common in them, a part of the other bodily senses–the sense of the sacred: meaning by sacred, in their case, the universal power that can devour them and annihilate them, for their guilt in being born. Not only does this bleak passage reveal the mysterious first-person narrator of La Storia, it introduces themes that will re-occur through the book: psychic communication and telepathic empathy.
Ida is born in 1903 into the glorious novecento, a time of great promise and change. Her mother Nora is a Jew from Padua, a northern city near Venice, while er father Giusseppe is from a peasant family, in the deep Calabrian south. Both her parents meet and teach in the elementary school of Cosenza, a city in central Calabria of about 20,000 people.
Nora’s family is from the walled Jewish ghetto of Padua and she switched her maiden name from Almagià to Almagía, convinced that by changing the accent she was fabricating an immunity for herself! Meanwhile, her Italian husband Giusseppe had dug up texts by Proudhon, Bakunin, Malatesta, and other anarchists. And on these he had based a personal creed, ignorant but stubborn, and destined to remain a kind of private heresy. In fact, he was forbidden to profess it even within the walls of his own house.
In the first twenty pages of La Storia, anarchism comes rearing its head as Giusseppe drinks wine at home instead of in a tavern out of respect for his position as teacher. As he drinks, he quotes Carlo Cafiero, Mikhail Bakunin, and Pyotr Kropotkin, and then he would start to shake his head, saying: betrayal! Betrayal!, meaning that he himself, since he had become an employee of the State, was behaving like a traitor towards his comrades and brothers. A teacher, if they were honest, facing those poor little creatures in the school, should preach anarchy, total rejection of the established order, of the society that raised them to be exploited or used as cannon-fodder. All of these words throw his wife Ida into a panic, believing as she does that someone will hear them and alert the authorities. She has panic attacks when Giusseppe starts preaching anarchy at the kitchen table, and every time he apologizes, only to do it again.
In 1908, Nora and Giusseppe learn that their daughter is now falling subject to attacks of an unnamed disease where she would suddenly fall silent, turn pale, with the impression that the world was spinning and dissolving around her. Nora insists her daughter keep these attacks a secret and cancels their annual trip south to Reggio Calabria, afraid that Giusseppe’s family will witness her condition. They never visit their Calabrian relatives again, given that Reggio is destroyed by the earthquake of 1908, and Ida grows into her teen years with this mysterious condition kept secret, along with her Jewish ancestry.
Her father escapes service in World War I thanks to a bad leg, although ever since the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911, there had been arrests and prison sentences in the very city of Cosenza for defeatists like him! Nevertheless, Giusseppe continues to spout Tolstoy and Proudhon quotes at the dinner table, stressing his wife Nora’s nerves even further, and he eventually ceases his drunken propagandizing in favor of helping his daughter Ida, who he calls Iduzza, study for school. As she prepares to take her teaching degree, World War I comes to an end, ushering in the so-called Red Years, a time when a revolution seemed imminent.
As Elsa Morante describes it, this was the period of the “occupation of the land” by the peasants and farm laborers. Illusory occupation: because when they had fertilized and cultivated the lands, the occupiers, in the name of the law, were driven off. Many were killed. In this time, one of Giusseppe’s sisters dies from the Spanish Flu where the deaths outnumbered those of the war. And the corpses remained unburied for days, since there wasn’t enough wood for the coffins. Giusseppe sends all of his teacher’s salary to his peasant farmer family in Reggio Calabria, leaving his immediate family to live off Nora’s salary. This burden is slightly alleviated in 1920 when Ida earns her teacher’s certificate and finds a fiance.
His name is Alfio, and his entire family was killed in the 1908 earthquake that destroyed Messina, a city in Sicily across the water from Reggio Calabria. He became a salesman after the war and meets Ida in Cosenza while he’s peddling his product. Soon enough they are off to Rome, headquarters of his company, where Alfio had already prepared their cheap two-room apartment in the San Lorenzo quarter. A few months into this new life, Iduzza is startled, up on the top floor, by a loud racket of singing, shouts, and gunfire in the neighborhood streets below. In fact, these were the days of the Fascist “revolution,” and on that particular day (30 October 1922) the famous “march on Rome” was taking place. One of the black columns on the march, entering the city by the San Lorenzo gate, had encountered open hostility in that Red, working-class district. And the Fascists had immediately set about taking revenge, beating up the inhabitants and killing some of the rebels on the spot. There were thirteen dead in San Lorenzo.
As the author sadly explains, Ida simply can’t comprehend what’s happening and she supposed this was the outbreak of the famous universal revolution constantly announced by her father. Only when Alfio arrives home safely that same evening does he explain that the things Don Giusseppe, her father, always said were surely right, sacrosanct; but, in practice, now, what with strikes, incidents, and delays, getting on with the job properly had become a problem for businessmen and merchants like himself! From now on, Italy would have a strong government at last, to restore order and peace among the people.
By 1925, this March on Rome has morphed into a full-scale fascist dictatorship, and in 1926 poor Ida gives birth to her son, Antonio, who will hereafter be referred to by his common name, Nino. When she takes her baby to Calabria to see her parents, Giuseppe suddenly regains his puppylike gaiety. Prior to their first visit, the man had been crushed, because seeing that grim parody triumph in the place of the other REVOLUTION he had dreamed of (and at the end had seemed immanent) for him was like chewing every day a disgusting gruel, which turned his stomach. The occupied lands, which still resisted in 1922, had been taken away from the peasants with definitive violence, and given back to the contented landowners.
To cope with his sadness, Giusseppe takes to spending much of his time in a secluded little place where he could give some vent to his ideas. It was a tavern of the lowest order, with three or four tables and a barrel of new wine. The owner, an old acquaintance of Giusseppe’s, was an anarchist. And he and Giusseppe shared youthful memories. The few customers in this place are farm laborers, migrant shepherds, and an occasional fisherman from the coast. This tavern is a place where Giusseppe could vaunt his youthful ideals, all the more exciting now, however, since they really were dangerous secrets. At the top of their lungs, he and his friend sing, Our Revolution’s on its way, our black flag will win the day, for an-ar-chy!
In her detached, cynical tone, the author explains that these men were, to tell the truth, poor Sunday anarchists, and this was the beginning and end of their subversive activities. When the authorities learn of their heresy, the tavern-keeper is sent off to enforced residence elsewhere; the tavern had to close down, and Giusseppe, without any specific explanation, indeed with some pretense of respect, was pensioned off at the age of fifty-four. This sad episode mirrors the fate of Errico Malatesta, the anarchist kept under house-arrest by Mussolini until his death in 1932. For the peasant anarchist Giusseppe, his worst regret was not the harm he had suffered or even his forced inactivity. What tormented him was the thought that among the friends of his little table, whom he called brothers, a spy, a traitor had been concealed. He dies in 1936, killed by cirrhosis of the liver, having drank away his pain for decades.
Soon after his death, Iduzza’s husband sets out for Ethiopia–recently subjugated by Italy–with some business plans so grandiose that he expected to distribute his merchandise through the whole Empire. Instead, he comes back from Africa with what he thinks is an exotic jungle disease that turns out to be cancer, which had perhaps been developing in him for a long time without his knowledge. After he dies, poor Ida is submerged in fear, and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, which promoted Italy from Kingdom to Empire, had remained, for our little schoolteacher in mourning, an event as remote as the Punic wars.
Ida, daughter of an anarchist and a Jew, blindly proceeds onward with her job, having her students copy fascist propaganda into their notebooks and salute the Duce’s image. To her, authority is simply an occult and awe-inspiring abstraction which makes laws, and she follows it blindly, an unremarkable anti-hero meant to represent the millions of Italians who went along with the fascist agenda.
In 1938, under pressure from Germany and the fascist mystic Jules Evola, the Italian state replaces its conception of Romanity with that of race, and soon they bombard the population with anti-Semitic propaganda. Nora, having just lost her husband Giusseppe, grows terrified at this racist onslaught and refuses to turn her radio on, fearing that any moment the government will take her away. She slowly goes mad in her Calabrian isolation and convinces herself she will walk to Palestine, although she knew absolutely nothing about Zionism, if she even knew the word. And of Palestine she knew only that it was the Biblical homeland of the Hebrews and that its capital was Jerusalem. But still, she came to the conclusion that the only place where she could be received, as a fugitive Jew among a people of Jews, was Palestine. In her delirium, Nora wanders the shoreline until she collapses in the sand and drowns, escaping by a few months the Italian racial decrees.
According to Article 8, sub-section D of these decrees, anyone born of parents of Italian nationality, of whom only one is Jewish, shall not be considered of the Jewish race if, on the date of 1 October 1938–XVI, he was of a religion other than Jewish. This decree exempted both Ida and her son Nino from being considered Jewish, so she dutifully reports this to the fascist authority who, in its secret coffers, from that day on retained the knowledge that Ida Mancuso, née Ramundo, schoolteacher, was a halfbreed, though for everyone else, still, she was an ordinary Aryan…In Italy, an Aryan! She eventually learns these laws are much more strict up north in Germany, and she fears one day the authorities will come for her and her son, Nino.
For his part, Nino becomes a fanatical admirer of the Blackshirts and grows excited when his beloved Duce declares war on England and France in 1939. He knows nothing of his Jewish or anarchist heritage, nor does he have any idea how his mother is suffering inside, racked with the same type of fear that killed her mother Nora. When she goes to visit the Jewish ghetto, a small, ancient quarter segregated–until the last century–by high walls and gates that were locked in the evening, Ida meets a neighborhood witch named Vilma who tells her and the other Jews stories of the death-camps being set up with the Nazis, only no one believes her, except for Ida, who intuits that it’s true, like an animal. This primal fear consumes her until one January afternoon in the year 1941 when a Nazi soldier barges into her apartment.
Ida thinks he has come to take her to the death-camp Vilma spoke of, when in reality he is simply drunk and arrogant. In her paralysis, the Nazi soldier rapes Ida in her San Lorenzo apartment while fourteen year-old Nino is out being a young fascist thug. She has the chance to kill the Nazi when he passes out on top of her, following the example of Judith in the Bible; but Ida, by nature, couldn’t conceive such an idea, even as a fantasy. The author nihilistically remarks that young Nino, however, with his political ideas, might even be proud of this visit, and would hail the German, his mother’s rapist, as a companion.
This Nazi soldier soon leaves, bound for the continent of Africa, and less than three days later, the air convoy in which he had just been embarked (from Sicily towards some southern or southeastern direction) was attacked over the Mediterranean. And he was among the dead. This is how Elsa Morante ends the first, giant chapter of La Storia, bringing the reader into the very center of hell on earth.
The World Saved By Children
The first chapter of La Storia is titled 19–. The second chapter is titled 1941, and encompasses that entire year as it was experienced in Rome. Like the chapter before, it begins with a series of historical entries that describe the global events that transpired in this war-torn year. For example, the reader learns that the Germans intervene in Greece, to prevent the complete rout of the Italian expedition, just as they learn the Nazis have betrayed Stalin and invaded the USSR. At the end of this list of world events, the author drops the reader back into Rome where we find poor Ida still sitting in her apartment, waiting for Nino to get home.
When he finally arrives, Ida tells Nino nothing, nor does she mention her violation to anyone. She continues to work at her school instructing children to copy down ridiculous phrases like to fight for the great-ness of the Fa-ther-land. Back at her San Lorenzo apartment, Nino rarely came home, but when he did he would ask for money for the movies. And she would doggedly deny it to him, until he would stalk around the room angrily, like a true exploiter of women, and finally would take it from her, by force or with threats of running away from home forever. Like the fascist futurists before him, Nino is obsessed with cars, screaming at Ida to shift into high. Give it some gas! However, amid the food shortages and gas rationing, young Nino begins to waver in his commitment to the Duce, subverting the fascist war hymn from, I want bullets for my gun! to I want real coffee with my steak!
Meanwhile, Rome is in a state of uneasy calm. The urban witch Vilma continues to tell residents of the Jewish ghetto of the horrors being committed in Poland, of the gas-chambers and cattle-cars filled with Jews. Still, no one believes her, for they hadn’t learned the true meaning of certain official terms, such as evacuation, internment, extraordinary pacification action, final solution, and so on. Likewise, none of the Italians in Rome believe their city will ever be bombed by the approaching Allies thanks to the protection of the Pope. Amid this sea of denial, Ida’s pregnancy, hidden until now, finally comes to term, forcing her into the hands of a Neapolitan Jewess who was the local midwife. It is here that she gives birth to her second son, who she names after her anarchist father, Giusseppe. He’s born on August 28, 1941, while his elder brother Nino is off at a young Fascists’ summer camp.
When he gets back, Ida reveals his new brother, only she claims to have found him in the street. After a few questions, Nino grows ecstatic at this new brother and immediately extorts his mother for some money to go out on the street. When he returns, Nino has brought along a dog who he names Blitz, and together with little Giusseppe, they will form an unbreakable trio, a symbol of Romulus and Remus raised by a wolf, the founding myth of Rome itself.
In addition to following Nino on his fascist outings, Blitz finds himself madly in love with Giusseppe, as well as Nino. But Nino was always out, and Giusseppe always at home: thus it was impossible for him to live constantly in the company of both his loves. From this moment on, Blitz becomes a fully embodied character with thoughts and feelings, possessing a language that Giusseppe is able to learn, a knowledge that, with his understanding of other animals’ language, was to remain a valid attachment of his for as long as he lived.
After another series of historical entries for the 1942 chapter, the reader is dropped back into the San Lorenzo apartment where little Giusseppe, unable to speak, pronounces his own name Useppe, eliciting howls of laughter from Nino, who dubs him Useppe, a name that will last until the end of the book. Newly christened, Useppe begins going on outings with Nino and Blitz.
On their second journey, they walk into the freight yard of Tiburtina Station. In one of the train cars, they see a calf tied to an iron bar, barely sticking out its helpless head (its two little horns, still tender, had been torn out); and from its neck, on a string, hung a tiny medal, like a tag, on which the last stage of his journey was perhaps written. As he stares at this poor creature, Useppe’s gaze underwent a curious change, never seen before, which, however, nobody noticed. A kind of sadness or suspicion crossed his eyes, as if a little dark curtain had been drawn down.
Nino notices nothing out of the ordinary in the train depot, and in the days to come, he continues terrorizing the streets with the Young Fascist musketeers, a volunteer army used to enforce new wartime regulations, and with this power his gang screams below the apartment of his Greek professor, suspected of anti-Fascism. Still, Nino grows bored and takes to evading his own Fascist patrols after curfew, for sport. As the author describes it, he now felt a kind of inner rage, and he began to grow impatient, and this feeling grows until he puts on a black shirt, black trousers, black cap, grabs a can of black paint, and writes VIVA STALIN on a wall near the Palazzo Venezia. He doesn’t do this because he liked Stalin, who, on the contrary, seemed the chief enemy. But just for the hell of it, for a laugh. He would have amused himself by writing VIVA HITLER on the walls of the Kremlin. So begins Nino’s journey away from fascism.
In the next chapter, 1943, Nino becomes a prolific thief, bringing contraband food back to the apartment, and when Ida worries he might be caught, he tells her he would display the black scarf with a skull printed on it, which he wore around his neck, declaring himself a musketeer of the Duce, authorized to requisition supplies. Later that year, as the war continues to ravage Italy, the bombs eventually get close Rome, and during air-raid alarms, everyone in their apartment building runs to the cellar, including Ida, Nino, Useppe, and Blitz. Huddled down there, few believe the bombs will hit their city, still convinced there was a secret agreement between Ciurcíl and the Pope, declaring Rome an untouchable city.
In that air-raid shelter, they meet some Neapolitans who explain that their own city, after the hundred air raids it had undergone, was reduced to a cemetery and charnel house. Everybody who could run off had gone; and the poor beggars who had remained, seeking refuge, went every evening to sleep in caves, where they had carried mattresses and blankets. While these stories horrify Ida, they make Nino feel the seduction of that adventurous existence in caves and sea-grottoes, which promised to be full of surprises and amorous fortune, risk and anarchy. With this urge boiling his blood, Nino manages to get accepted into a battalion of Blackshirts, leaving for the North. He leaves at the end of June, 1943.
In his absence, Ida and Blitz watch over Useppe, quickly becoming a tight, cohesive family. As little Blitz tells Useppe, you’re all I have left in the world now! This all comes to a quick end when the first bombs fall on Rome itself, levelling their San Lorenzo apartment. Ida and Useppe are out of the house when it happens, but poor Blitz is crushed to death, and with nowhere else to go, the mother and son retreat to the air raid shelter with dozens of other homeless Romans. Knowing she can’t stay there forever, she joins a procession of refugees out of the city center to the undeveloped outskirts of Pietralata where, so it was said, a dormitory had been set up for the homeless. On the way, Ida meets Cucchiarelli Giuseppe, an elderly red Communist, and he carries little Useppe in his cart all the way into the countryside.
Their arrival in the homeless shelter coincides with the fall of the Duce, who is voted down in the Fascist Grand Council and arrested by the King of Italy, the Duce’s former ally, who installs a new leader, Badoglio. This puppet simultaneously proclaims the end of Fascism and the continuation of the war at the side of the Nazis, while on the side he and the King begin making secret deals with the Allies, hoping to end the war. After signing an armistice, this provisional government flees south to where the Allies have already invaded, leaving the Fascists and the Germans the rest of Italy, where the war continued. Meanwhile, under orders from Hitler himself, Mussolini is broken out of jail and taken north to the newly formed Republic of Saló, of which he is appointed as leader.
Down in Rome, still under Nazi occupation, Ida and Ussepe take shelter with dozens of others in a single ground-floor room, rather vast, with low grilled windows, and one exit. Aside from old Cucchiarelli Giusseppe, who carried little Ussepe to this shelter in his wagon, their other friends are The Thousand, a family of displaced Neapolitans who had come to stay with their Roman relatives after Naples was destroyed by bombing, only to discover their relatives had also become homeless during the air raids. The only other friends of Ida and Ussepe is the cat Rosella, who will now become a central character.
One day, a delirious stranger walks into the shelter and is immediately given refuge. The first person to grow attached to this vulnerable young man is the cat Rosella, who begins to watch over him with sincere concern and responsibility. As the shelter’s inhabitants learn from his papers, this is Carlo Vivaldi, born in 1922, and everyone takes him for a simple army deserter. When two brothers of The Thousand show up in a truck, engaged in running black-market goods between Rome and Naples, they offer to smuggle Carlo to Naples amid the crates, given that’s where he claims he’s going. However, the brothers believe the Allies will soon take Naples from the Nazis, followed by Rome, and because of this belief, Carlo remains in Rome, with Ida and Ussepe.
Shortly after Naples falls to the Allies, young Nino returns from the north and visits his mother and brother in the shelter. He arrives with his comrade Quattropunte and announces they are both Communist guerrillas fighting the Nazis. This evokes the approval of Cucchiarelli Giuseppe, hereafter referred to as Giuseppe Secondo, a dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist. In a strange mutation of his previous beliefs, Nino champions a vision of communism where we’ll have a regular airline Hollywood-Paris-Moscow! And we’ll get drunk on whisky and vodka and caviar and foreign cigarettes. And we’ll ride around in an Alfa Romeo and a personal biplane. As these three cheer communism and the red flag, brooding Carlo Vivaldi suddenly reveals his secret allegiance: anarchism.
After listening to Carlo’s beliefs, Nino declares, I like anarchy. Later on, he asks Carlo if he was always an anti-Fascist, only to be told, I’ve always been an anarchist. Carlo goes on to explain that he had been distributing political propaganda when someone reported him to the German Headquarters, leading to his arrest and imprisonment. Carlo was kept in what was called an antechamber of death where someone is executed every night, at random. He was in there for three days with bandits and partisans, as they were called, and then eventually put on a train bound for a concentration camp. He escaped from this train and eventually ended up here, in the Pietralata shelter.
When asked to join the Communist guerrillas, Carlo refuses, claiming to be an anarcho-pacifist of the Tolstoyan variety. He tells Nino that true anarchism cannot admit violence. The anarchist ideal is the negation of power. And power and violence are the same thing. Nino and the other Stalinist are confused by this, unable to comprehend Carlo’s position, and Nino defensively states, I don’t believe in anarchy without violence! And you know what I say? YOU KNOW? That the Communists, and not the anarchists, will bring the real anarchy! Observing all of this silently, Ida is on the verge of whispering to her son, Carlo’s an anarchist, just like your grandfather, but shyness restrains her, and so she realizes, recalling her father’s sorrows, that the anarchists evidently encountered little sympathy in this world.
Having refused their offer, Carlo remains in the shelter while Nino, Quattropunte, and Giusseppe Secondo, now given the guerrilla name Moscow, march off to battle the Nazis. Should she need to get hold of him, Nino tells Ida to leave a message with Remo, a comrade who kept a tavern on the Via deģli Equi. Shortly after these Communists depart, the Germans round up all of the Jews in the Roman ghetto and bring them to the train station. The date is October 16, 1943.
As usual, no one believes this event has actually occurred, not even Ida, not until she sees with her own eyes, hundreds and hundreds of people locked in train cars, awaiting deportation to the death camps few people believed in. She’s only in the station by accident, holding Ussepe in her arms, and one of the prisoners throws her a scrap of paper, a message to be delivered. As she bends to pick it up, Ida realizes that there, scattered on the ground along the cars (from which a foul smell was already emanating), there were other similar crumpled notes among the rubbish and garbage; but she didn’t have the strength to stay and collect any. As she wanders out, it becomes clear the station is unguarded, only no guerrillas are there to liberate the prisoners.
In the weeks that follow this deportation, the guerrillas do take some action: a Nazi is slain in the streets, a riot breaks out that leads to the looting of an armory, and an entire group of SS is ambushed on October 22, 1943. Three days later, Carlo suddenly departs, saddening the cat Rosella, who’s been pregnant this whole time. After giving birth, she didn’t show up again that evening or the next day, while the kitten lay dying in the straw, leading one of the Neapolitans to curse this unnatural mother. A week later, Rosella departs and is never seen again.
Later that fall, Nino returns and whisks little Useppe off into the mountains to see his guerrilla hideout. Inside a little peasant hut are Moscow, Decimo, Tarzan, Quattropunte, and Carlo, now going under the guerrilla name Pyotr, after Kropotkin. When he Pyotr returns that night, he has just ambushed three SS and killed one with his bare hands, having learned that his parents, his grandparents, and his little sister, hiding under false names in the North, had been discovered (certainly through some anonymous denunciation) and deported by the Germans. Carlo is never the same after this bloody night.
After returning his brother to Rome, Nino and the guerrillas depart the region, not to be seen again for some time. In the meantime, the shelter begins to empty out as The Thousand depart for better shelters, tired of waiting for an Allied liberation that never comes. That November, Ida and Ussepe are the only occupants of the shelter, and they receive updates about Nino and his band of fighters. Ida learns that they had recently dynamited a whole train of German troops; it had exploded immediately, in an inferno of flames and twisted iron. Unfortunately, Pyotr had fallen into drunkenness, unuseable as a guerrilla, and some of the comrades wanted to liquidate him, with a shot in the head. The only reason this doesn’t happen is because of Nino, or Ace, who protects his anarchist friend with a heart the reader should not expect existed.
This chapter ends with everyone in Rome starving and the final anti-Jewish laws being enacted, ordering all Jews to be deported on November 30, 1943, with those of mixed blood to be put under surveillance. When the 1944 chapter begins, we learn the liberation is still far off, but that Nino and Carlo are still alive, unlike Moscow and Quattropunte, who died fighting the Germans. By a stroke of good-luck, Ida and Useppe find a furnished room to live in, rented by a family from Ciociaria, something Ida can afford with her meager teacher’s savings.
This apartment is relatively close to the Jewish ghetto, now depopulated, and the narrator informs us that all of Rome’s Jews were taken by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau and that, of the one thousand fifty-six who had left, in a body, from Tiburtina station, a total of fifteen came back alive. Ida doesn’t know this, nor does she like to think about the ghetto. The city has become a terrifying micro-dictatorship ruled over by the self-dubbed King of Rome, a Nazi monster who establishes torture chambers where inside, all the wretches infected with the vice of death found employment, like their Führer, masters at last of living, helpless bodies for their perverse practices. This depraved King of Rome eventually holds a food-distribution and in the square, around the trucks, photographers and movie-cameras were at work. Unable to help herself, Ida takes the kilogram of flour handed out by Rome’s German king.
Ida begins to steal after this, just like her son, first eggs, then cocoa, until, in those last ten days of May, she carried out, on an average, one theft per day. When she’s walking near the Tiburtina train station one day, Ida sees that some women, with the supreme audacity of hunger, had actually clambered up on [a] truck, which was loaded with sacks of flour. In this moment, Ida doesn’t hesitate, she loots her share of flour from the fascists, and in this extended scene, the reader can see just how much the good, rule-abiding fascist schoolteacher has transformed into a skillful thief and navigator of the black-market.
During one of her outings, Ida realizes she’s instinctively heading for the Jewish ghetto. Since the deportation, the few Jews who had escaped the Gestapo had returned only to be deported during a second raid, leaving the neighborhood truly empty. Ida tries to find the recipients of the note she was given at the train station, but when she does their apartment is empty and all she can hear are the literal voices of ghosts, making her cry out loud: they’re all dead! On her way out of this haunted ghetto, Ida sees an almost-closed door from which a trickle of blood was flowing, and when she looks inside it’s a butcher chopping into pieces the already-skinned and halved body of a baby deer, or kid. Without hesitation, Ida trades a packet of her looted flour for a leg and part of the shoulder.
The very next day, June 4, 1944, the Allies liberate Rome to cheers of Hurray for peace! Long live America! In the days to come, Ida learns that both Nino and Carlo are alive, although she’s told this by Remo the tavern keeper, who saw her son on an army jeep in the company of two American sergeants, and in a great hurry. Rome may have been liberated, but war continued to the north in the Republic of Saló, where the Nazi-Fascists multiply their acts of repression and genocide, with murders and incalcuable destruction, a final gasp of this fascist darkness.
As the war comes to an end, Nino gets involved in the black-market with some Neapolitans, Carlo returns to Rome, and a new dog named Bella enters the lives of Ida and Useppe, heralding great times ahead. Despite the promise of this regal dog, the final half of La Storia is the darkest, which is half of the tragedy. After the dictatorship, occupation, and war, everything was supposed to get better, only this is not to be, and I’ll leave you here, halfway through this dense, 550 page novel. If you chose to read La Storia, if you come to the end, you will read one of the greatest anarchist speeches in all of literature, one that is fragmented and garbled from the use of heroin and other narcotics, a dire warning Elsa Morante delivered to the autonomia wave of 1974, the year this book sold nearly a million copies inside Italy.
Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay
Elsa Morante was born in Rome on August 18, 1912. Her mother was Jewish, her father Sicilian. She wrote children’s stories and poems all through her childhood, publishing her first piece (“Story of Children and of Stars”) at the age of eighteen, in 1930, eight years after Mussolini seized power. Shortly after this first success, she moved out of her parents house into an apartment near the Piazza Venezia where she’d come to know famous writers like Italo Calvino and her future husband, Alberto Moravia.
According to her US biographer, Lily Tuck, Elsa was very poor and often went hungry in this time period when she earned a meager salary giving private lessons in Latin and Italian. When she had no money, Elsa didn’t hesitate to sell her body in the back-streets of Rome. From 1930 to 1938, she wrote over 100 stories for various Roman papers, many of them fables or prose meditations. It was in this context, as a respected writer, that she met Alberto Moravia in 1937. At the time, she was living with an older man and had several lovers, but Moravia soon grew obsessed with this free spirit.
While he was visiting Elsa’s apartment one day in June, 1938, a parade was taking place on the street below. Hitler and Mussolini, in the flesh, were about to pass by in a limousine, so Elsa prepared a giant pot of boiling oil and was on the verge of throwing it at the fascists when Moravia intervened, having convinced her of the utter foolishness of it all. As you will see, this should have been a warning, but Elsa quickly fell in love with this famous novelist, marrying him on Easter Monday, 1941.
The next year, she published her first book, a collection of her children’s stories called The Marvelous Adventures of Cathy with the Long Tresses and Other Stories, bringing her a much needed 2,000 lire. She and Moravia lived together in an apartment on via Sgambati, and it was here in 1943 that they learned Moravia would soon be arrested by the fascists, and given that both he and Elsa were half-Jewish, they quickly fled Rome, although not before Elsa stored the manuscript of her first novel, House of Liars, in a safe location.
Even though she wasn’t wanted by the fascist police, Elsa moved with Moravia from village to village, avoiding armed patrols, until settling in a one-room hut in the Campanian village of Sant’Agata, just across the water from Naples. Here they did nothing but survive. The only books they brought were The Brothers Karamazov and The Bible, the former of which they used as toilet paper, the latter they read cover to cover, being the longest book on hand when they departed. When it got cold, Elsa returned to Rome and gathered warm clothing, but also to check that the manuscript of House of Liars was intact, which it was. As she would later describe this journey, the trip filled me with bitterness because Rome, the city where I was born and where I have always lived, was for me, at that time, an enemy city.
During their exile in Campania, Elsa and Moravia were attacked by an English plane and an American plane, who straffed them with gunfire as they walked in the woods, although both were uninjured. On May 23, 1944, a US Army lieutenant heard a rumor from some partisans that two writers were hiding in the mountains, so he drove up to their hut and informed them that Campania had been liberated and granted them a military pass allowing them free travel into Naples, a city which would remain close to this woman of Rome.
On May Day, 1945, three days after Mussolini was killed and strung up like a side of beef, Elsa wrote in her diary that all of Mussolini’s faults were either tolerated or encouraged even, and applauded. Thus a people who tolerate the faults of their head of state are complicit with these faults. But if they encourage and applaud them as well, it is worse than being an accomplice. This was as much a critique of herself as others, for like most of her generation, they were always waiting for fascism to get worse before acting definitively, which none of them did, although at least Elsa had tried with her pot of boiling oil.
In the years to come, Elsa finished her first novel, House of Liars, published in 1948. As her biographer Lily Tuck describes it, House of Liars is a sprawling and confusing novel of over eight hundred pages. Any attempt to summarize the plot is likely to lead to more confusion. Suffice it to say that it is the story of three generations of an eccentric Sicilian family. It was generally given negative reviews by Italian critics (even by Lily Tuck in 2008), but the Hungarian writer and communist György Lukács called it the greatest modern Italian novel, a solid boost from the Stalinist patriarchy. Her greatest champion, however, was Natalia Ginzburg, the anti-fascist novelist whose first book had been published under an Italian pseudonym in 1942 and whose husband had been literally crucified by the Nazis in 1944 for their clandestine paper.
As Ginzburg would later write, I read House of Liars straight through and liked it immensely: although I can’t say that then I clearly understood its importance and greatness. I knew only that I loved it and it had been a long time since I had read anything that gave me such life and joy. It was an extraordinary adventure for me to discover, among the chapter titles I perceived still like those of the nineteenth century, the time and cities that were our own, and that had the painful and shattered intensity of our daily life; for me, it was a great emotion to discover the possibility even in our own time, when books were miserly and tangled, of giving our fellow human beings a work of art so luminous and generous. Perhaps, in a way, I understood the greatness.
Along with this praise, House of Liars received the Viareggio Prize in 1948, and as the first edition sold out, Elsa Morante was now rich for the first time in her life, so rich, in fact, that she quickly spent it all. In 1951, the US edition of her book was released, although when it hit the shelves, over 200 pages had been cut without Elsa’s permission. The bastards in New York City also placed an insulting comment in the front jacket flap, stating that this was the first work of Elsa Morante, who in private life is Mrs. Alberto Moravia. That was simply not her name, nor would it ever be, even with their Catholic marriage. In sum, the US edition of House of Liars sold horribly, sunk by the goons in Manhattan. Elsa would never become well-known in this insufferable country.
That same year, Elsa started a radio program on RAI public broadcasting called Chronicles of the Cinema. As you might have guessed, she reviewed films, but was fired when she didn’t shower a certain film by a male director with overwhelming praise. During the 1950s, she mingled with all the new Italian writers, artists, and directors, and when she could gather enough people in her apartment, she’d play the game Assassino (or, Murder in the Dark), a favorite still enjoyed by anarchists today. People like Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg, Pier Paolo Passolini, and Luchino Visconti all played Assassino with Elsa, and as the acclaimed director Michelangelo Antonioni would later recall, all of them were naughty. We played murder in the dark, the light went off and the ‘detective’ stayed away for a long time: in the darkness everything would happen.
With her marriage to Moravia an open one, Elsa began an affair with Luchino Visconti and would often stay at his house on the island of Ischia or his villa in Rome. According to Visconti’s other lover Franco Zeffirelli, the man often complained that the problem is when you please [women] once, they don’t ever leave you in peace, as the dear Elsa Morante knew very well. According to her biographer, Elsa was always very attracted to handsome, young, homosexual (or perhaps bisexual) men…I venture that her attraction to young gay men had more to do with her maternal instincts and her desire to have a son.
Elsa was going to leave Moravia in 1953 to be with Visconti, but at the last moment her lover backed out, dropping her into months of grief and sadness. She stayed with Alberto Moravia but their relationship became increasingly toxic, leading him to say that while they were hiding in Sant’Agata she had found herself in her element: danger, devotion, sacrifice, contempt for life. In Rome, on the other hand, daily life made her lose patience and become difficult, intolerant and even cruel. This same man would later call Elsa totalitarian.
Amid all this amorous chaos, Elsa began work on Arturo’s Island, one of the great works of gay literature. Begun in 1952, the novel is set on the island of Procida, just off the coast of Naples, a place where Elsa often retreated to write. When it was published in 1957, the book not only won the prestigious Strega (Witch) award, Elsa was the first woman to win this prize. In truth, this prize is named for the popular green liqueur Strega made by the company that sponsored the literary prize, their logo being a witch. The second woman to win this award would be Natalia Ginzburg for her novel Family Lexicon, published in 1963.
By then, Elsa had left Alberto Moravia, although now she was rich again from the sudden fame. As her relationship with Moravia was disintegrating, Elsa met an artist named Bill Morrow in New York City and travelled the world with him, just as they took LSD together, introduced to the psychedelic through US circles. He was deeply in love with Elsa and on the verge of coming to live with her in Rome when, with a massive dose of LSD in his body, he fell from the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper. In all likelihood, he was targeted by the CIA in their MKULTRA program, as was Elsa and their circle, all of them open radicals in the middle of a Cold War. This death (and potential murder) plunged Elsa into darkness and she didn’t leave her house for two months. When she did, it was to publish her short story collection The Andalusian Shawl.
Recovering her strength amid the darkness, Elsa wrote a long love-letter to Bill entitled The World Saved By Children, of which my favorite part is the character who plays “Cielito Lindo” on the ocarina, the revolutionary anthem of this highly-visual book of prose-poetry where letters make shapes and the text literally warps itself. This was her great contribution to the emerging hippie culture, although her presence was everywhere back then. The Zeffirelli film of Romeo & Juliet features one of her songs, “Ai Giochi Addio,” just as she was involved in every film that Pier Paolo Passolini made in the 1960s, acting as co-director, producer, soundtrack composer, actress, and general uncredited assistant.
To be blunt, Elsa was the secret mother figure, the grandmother-child, the nonna bambina of Italian arts and letters in the 1960s. As her close friend Allen Midgette recalled, she introduced me to everyone—Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luigi Comencini, Damiano Damiani, the whole scene. One day, Elsa called Allen and told him she was on LSD, and so, worried over her physical safety, Allen wandered the streets of Rome with her, a trip where she realized just how dirty automobiles were and that the obelisk in Piazza del Popolo is all made of dust. With her trip over, Allen walked her home, to which she replied, you are an angel.
Elsa was now into her fifties and the situation in Italy was growing volatile. She and her friends were despised by the fascists, who were bombing civilians with the help of their NATO backers and throwing anarchists out of windows. After the horrible murder of Giusseppe Pinneli, a classical Italian anarchist, Elsa seems to have remembered the lost world of peasant insurgents and poetic propaganda, just as she became obsessed with rekindling its flame. The dark old days had returned, worse than before, with the slaughter now taking place far away from Europe. As the Hot Autumn turned into the Years of Lead, Elsa spent days walking through the old Jewish ghetto of Rome, located in the Testaccio and San Lorenzo districts, and at night she would write her new novel, the contents of which she kept secret. When her friend Luca Fontana asked what it was about, she replied, I’m writing a book for the illiterate.
Obviously, the book she was writing was La Storia. Before publication, she negotiated the lowest possible price for her book, which would immediately be issued in softcover. To secure this arrangement, Morante forsook much of her royalties back when royalties meant something. For the price of 2,000 lire, around two day’s wages, a common worker could buy a 600 page novel that was not only simply written, it could be read for weeks and weeks, a good investment for those who had only a few spare moments to relax in this extremely pre-digital age. When La Storia was published in 1974, it sold 800,000 copies within the first year, saturating the Italian population with an anarchist voice amid the communist and fascist bulldogs.
Starting in 1969, several Italian communist organizations went underground and began a guerrilla war against the fascist terrorists and their state backers. This campaign was largely successful in pushing back against the fascists, and as the left temporarily gained the upper hand, a movement called autonomia began to emerge in the cracks of the communist dinosaurs, something animated by anarchism more than Marxism. In this crack of light, Elsa released La Storia, a book whose title doesn’t really translate into English. In Italian, the word for story and history is the same: storia. It all depends on when it’s used, making the title of Elsa’s novel even more compelling. An exact translation would be The Story or The History, and it was this version of the title that the Italian public received, while those in the US got History: A Novel.
The sales spoke for itself, and even the illiterate were reading it, asking their sons and daughters to explain what all the fuss was about. Elsa succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, spreading the great idea of anarchism further than all of the Italian anarchist newspapers of the 1960s combined, and I mean that literally. Radio Alice, Armed Joy, the autoriduzionista who didn’t pay for anything, the anarchist squatters, all of it came after La Storia and valued exactly what Elsa valued in her novel: life, in all its forms, against the regime of death.
Before her great work was released, Italian youth were turning to the false hope of the USSR, but afterward, thousands of them turned to anarchism, making it an even more potent threat. As you can imagine, the communists weren’t happy that La Storia was so popular, and they all came howling, along with fascists, each of them condemning what she’d written (aside from Natalia Ginzburg, who loved it). Even the anarchists who wrote for the Volontà newspaper were critical, claiming she’d presented anarchism as the domain of drunks and drug addicts, just as she’d failed to depict any true anarchist heroes in this time of darkness.
The most hurtful of these attacks came from her close friend Pier Paolo Pasolini, a lifelong communist, and his critique began a plunge into darkness that Elsa never recovered from. He called the book’s ideology a mish-mash of spiritualist animism and anarchy, and that when such an ideology is transformed into the ‘theme’ of a popular novel–voluminous by definition, full of facts and information, predictable, coming full circle to closure–it loses all credibility: it becomes a feeble pretext that ends by undermining the disproportionate narrative structure which it intended to put in motion. While this might just seem snarky and elitist, Elsa never spoke to Pier Paolo again.
As he wrote this review, Pasolini was casting the most beautiful actors and actresses for his new film Saló, or The 120 Days of Sodom, a re-telling of the Marquis de Sade’s fucked-up fiction set in the late fascist Republic of Saló during the 1940s. Having just finished his Trilogy of Life, something had possessed Pasolini to make a Trilogy of Death, and this Saló would be the first installment. While his former friend Elsa was hiding from all the negative publicity, Pier Paolo went on to film what can only be called fascist death-porn.
Sure, perhaps a few viewers might not have realized what kind of sick maniacs the fascists in Saló were, but the film is a non-stop barrage of torture, rape, and death, adding nothing to the new revolution outside the movie-theater besides more darkness, of which it already had plenty. I personally hate Saló and strongly dislike Pier Paolo for his pointless critique of La Storia, given Elsa had always defended him in public, against everyone. Elsa was equally mad with this dumb hipster-communist, but had they remained friends, she might have been able to pull him back from the edge of darkness, only that was not to be.
On November 2, 1975, the body of Pier Paolo Pasolini was found in Ostia, where the Tiber that flows through Rome meets the sea. His testicles had been crushed, his body run over multiple times and then set on fire. This assassination was more than likely committed by fascists angry at his upcoming film, or who simply hated him for being a famous, openly gay man. Either way, the darkness had come for Pier Paolo, and Elsa would live with the pain of his loss for the rest of her days. At the funeral, people said Elsa howled like an animal.
She dropped out of sight after that, retreating to write her next novel, but she was interrupted in 1977 by a violent development. Since the death of Passolini, darkness had cracked wide open as the fascists went on the offense again, just as the Prima Linea and Red Brigades escalated their attacks against the police, capitalism, and the state. On March 16, 1978, the Red Brigades kidnapped Aldo Moro, head of the Christian Democratic Party, and in response to the crisis, Elsa was moved to write the Red Brigades a letter, one she never sent. Inside this small text, she tells them that what they are pursuing is founded on the total contempt for human beings. A society based on the total contempt for a human being, no matter what name it gives itself, can only be an obscene Fascist society. Not wanting anymore public savaging, she kept the letter to herself and continued writing her latest work, Aracoeli, or alter of heaven in Latin.
This final novel, a meditation on the end of Spanish fascism and the dark legacy of Italian fascism, was published in 1982. While she was writing it, Elsa had fallen down some steps and broken her femur, and just before publication, her legs stopped working, keeping her stuck in bed. Despite the positive reviews of Aracoeli (whose main character is her version of Pier Paolo looking for his mother) Elsa was wracked with overwhelming sadness. On April 6, 1983, she tried to kill herself by taking three different kinds of pills and flooding her apartment with natural gas. She survived, but remained mostly-paralyzed in a clinic for the next two years, paid for by selling the TV-rights to La Storia. The only book she read was Dante’s Inferno, over and over again, and she passed away on the afternoon of November 25, 1985. The next day, the daily newspaper Il Messaggero ran the headline GOOD-BYE ELSA OF A THOUSAND SPELLS.
She was cremated on November 28 with her ashes kept in the Prima Porta Cemetery in Rome. Six months later, an anonymous group of friends broke into the cemetery, stole the ashes, and transported them all the way to the port of Naples. After boarding a small fishing boat and motoring towards Procida, the setting of Arturo’s Island, these friends scattered Elsa’s ashes across the sea, spreading them far and wide, just like La Storia across the Roman peninsula.
One day in the late 1980s, shortly after the death of Elsa Morante, a woman named Elena Ferrante starts writing a short novel set in Naples called “Troubling Love”. You can read more about it pn May 2, 2022 in Part 2 of “The Dark Century of Elsa Morante and Elena Ferrante”.