Ferrante Before Ferrante

LIES AND SORCERY, by Elsa Morante. Translated by Jenny McPhee.

Elsa Morante published “Lies and Sorcery,” a nearly 800-page novel that combines mythic storytelling with Depression-era realism, in 1948, just when postwar literary Italy was embracing the modernist voices of writers like Natalia Ginzburg, Italo Calvino and Morante’s own husband, Alberto Moravia. Nonetheless, it received serious reviews and was a success across Europe. Although an abridged version appeared in America under the title “House of Liars,” the saga was never available in its entirety in English until now, courtesy of New York Review Books, in an inspired translation by Jenny McPhee.

The time is the mid-1940s, the place Sicily, the first-person narrator a young woman named Elisa who — emerging from a yearslong isolation in the home of her guardian, Rosaria, a prostitute who had loved her father — now feels an urgent need to write about the lives of her mother and grandmother.

Raised in rural poverty, Cesira, the grandmother, longs from earliest youth for a larger life than the one into which she was born. She makes her way to the city where she meets Teodoro Massia, the dissolute younger son of a decaying aristocratic family. Only after she marries him does Cesira discover that Teodoro has been disinherited; whereupon she flies into a state of near-demented disappointment that makes her revile her husband for the rest of their lives, tormented with longings. When she ends up talking to herself in the street, Morante tells us that “these were the last cries of a spirit still grappling with hopes and desires, not yet ready to give up.”

Out of the union of Cesira and Teodoro comes the beautiful Anna. One day in her teens Anna meets her cousin, Edoardo, the handsome, evil-tempered son of Teodoro’s rich sister, Concetta. As in a fairy tale, Edoardo impels Anna to fall passionately in love with him; and then, again as in a fairy tale, to fall victim to his seemingly inborn need to betray and abandon all whom he seduces. (Eager to give every one of her characters his or her due, Morante suggests that perhaps Edoardo, suffering from an inexplicable despair of his own, is one of those “citizens of Earthly Paradise who are not yet used to their exile,” an explanation of misanthropic behavior Freud would have appreciated.)

Feeling soiled and adrift in the world after Edoardo deserts her, Anna marries the besotted Francesco, a university student who leaves school and takes a civil service job that consigns them to a future of near-poverty; whereupon, Anna develops the same unhinged contempt for a loser husband that has eaten up her mother’s life. The years go by and lonely, embittered Anna waits to explode. Then Edoardo dies of tuberculosis in a foreign country and his mother loses her wits. For Anna, the moment has come to redeem her benighted life. She convinces the demented Concetta that Edoardo is still alive, producing a series of brilliantly mad letters that she herself manufactures in the dead of night.

And now everything and everyone goes up in flames: Francesco endures a fatal accident while trying to board a moving train, Anna succumbs to a mysterious fever, and 9-year-old, orphaned Elisa withdraws to a back bedroom at Rosaria’s where 15 unlived years accumulate, as in a hallucinatory dream, until Rosaria dies, and we arrive at the present, only mildly lunatic, moment.

What made this door-stopper of an Italian soap opera feel like great literature to large numbers of sophisticated readers 75 years ago? The same thing that makes it wonderful today. The writing, pure and simple. Each plot development is surrounded by acres of commentary whose richness and intensity — deep, dense, psychologically penetrating — provides the story with transformative values, converts melodrama into metaphor.

At the heart of the book lies Morante’s stunning grasp of the damage done by commonplace emotional deprivation, the kind experienced when those relations that have historically promised to relieve the human heart of its native isolation fail to do so. For Morante the consequences of such damage are of mythic proportions, deranging at best, murderous at worst.

Hardly an original trope in literature. We have only to remember Faulkner’s Gothic American South or Emily Brontë’s ghost-ridden English moors — or Elena Ferrante’s 20th-century Naples, for that matter — to feel its power. Or Marguerite Duras, who, in her novel “The Lover,” evokes to perfection what it feels like to grow up with a dangerously depressed mother and two brothers — one slow-witted, the other a bully — all of whom remain strangers to one another and therefore to themselves. Among these people, Duras writes, “Never a hello, a good evening, a thank you. Never any talk. … It’s a family of stone. … Every day we try to kill one another, to kill.” And there you have it: They need not merely to get past but to kill one another. Why? Why kill?

In “Lies and Sorcery,” each of the major characters is possessed of a raging heart that refuses to make its peace with a life that has failed to deliver the necessary balm of human intimacy; behind such fury lies an ur-loneliness that all humanity experiences as shameful, even humiliating. It’s the pain that makes children shoot parents, brothers burn down one another’s houses, countries unable to resist civil war.

Morante knows that the loneliness, grounded in our one and only life, is self-created. But for her the wildness of its despair feels biblical. In our time, the time of the therapeutic culture, the shame of loneliness is much reduced — but so is the drama.

Vivian Gornick is the author, most recently, of “Taking a Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in Our Time.”

LIES AND SORCERY |By Elsa Morante | Translated by Jenny McPhee | 775 pp. | New York Review Classics | Paperback, $24.95

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