Monday, May 14, 2007

"History: A Novel" Elsa Morante

The great Italian novel of the Second World War, is ostensibly the story of Madonna and Child. It focuses on Ida’s struggles to survive the Nazi occupation and bombing of Rome, and to ensure the survival of the child conceived during a rape by a German soldier in the early days of the war.

At the same time, as the colon in the title intimates, it is an examination on a larger scale than Levi’s The Juggler of the relationship between literature and history: history is a novel, so horrific are the events portrayed in it that they beggar disbelief. The novel becomes history, reflects it, stores it, (re)creates it. The book is framed by a summary of the main historical events starting from 1900, from a Marxist point of view, in which humanity is described as the victims of the capitalist war industry, that wars are started not as conflicts over territory but as ways of consuming the products of an already existing war industry. Who is to say that she is wrong? This summary is then intensified in a month-by-month break down of each year before each of the seven parts into which the book is divided. Against this historical ‘background’ the gritty details of Ida’s story are set in context. And yet what is the real history? The events described in the summary, or the real suffering undergone by the victims of war – as fictionalized in this novel.

The story is an inherent criticism of theories of history in general, and of Marxist historical theory in particular. History is the accumulation of detail, the layer of suffering, and only the artist can recreate it. Morante’s position is in fact closer to Collingwood or Benjamin than Marx. Like that of Brecht, Morante’s Marxism is undercut by her genius for language and the humane selection of detail.

Morante's prose veers from the coldly clinical objective journalism of a war correspondent, to richly evocative and symbolic descriptions of character, psyche and dream: Grandfather … in his waking intervals did nothing but hawk and spit. His long body, thin and bent, was a cavernous well of catarrh that could never be drained. The old man kept always beside him a big chipped basin and hawking, he emitted sounds of extreme anguish, like donkey’s braying, which seems to charge the silence with the total sorrow of the cosmos.

The book really picks up after Ida moves back into the city out of the liminal space where she has been living for the first two years of the war. The characters she lives with – the Marroccos - are wonderfully described, and the descriptions of the devastation of Rome approach Becket’s bleakness, Kafka’s nightmare, and the gothic evocations of Piranesi. The book packs a punch in the descriptions of the Jews’ return to Rome, the lost voices echoing in their heads that no one can bear to listen to, and the images left forever in the retinas of the eyes of the survivors, their extreme isolation. One has heard it all before, and read about it all before, but here it recovers the full freshness of its horror and banality. Like Arendt, Morante is convinced that the evil in men is product of the lack of imagination.

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