Louisa Young was born in London and studied history at Cambridge. Her first novel, Baby Love, was listed for the Orange Prize. Her latest novel, My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You, is about the origins of facial plastic surgery in World War I. Louisa is also half of the children's novelist Zizou Corder, author of the Lionboy trilogy, which is published in 36 languages. Here she writes about Elsa Morante's History: A Novel.
Louisa Young on History: A Novel by Elsa Morante
Book of a lifetime, eh?
But then, which lifetime? And how can I tell? I'm still alive. Perhaps when you're there on your deathbed, one book will spring out, possibly carried under the arm of one lover, and you can safely cry 'Yes, you, you were the book/the love of my life', knowing that no late contender will have the chance to appear now, so late on in time. I mention this because until last week I was going to write about Paul Fussell's magnificent The Great War and Modern Memory, which helped to teach me how to think (about England, about history, about war, about humanity, about literature, about memory, about metaphor) and was a backbone book of my most recent novel (which was about the effects of the First World War); but now I am reading another book, and Fussell is ousted, as no doubt this new one will be in time. I have a terrible memory, and to be honest the book of my lifetime is often the one I read last.
So to the new one - History: A Novel (La Storia, una Romanza) by Elsa Morante. Again I am reading for a novel I am writing. Again I need to know about a war I never saw. (I've never seen any war. I am a fool.) And I find this.
The story is of a woman, ordinary, a teacher, half-Jewish; her two sons, who are less ordinary; and occupied, Nazi-Fascist Rome which is falling apart around them, between 1940 and 1947 (more or less - I haven't finished it yet). The small child, Useppe - a baby, really - is a saint, an innocent in hell, and one of the funniest creatures I have ever read about. Those who remember Egg in Hotel New Hampshire might wonder if John Irving ever read about Useppe. The older son, Nino (Ninnuzzu, Ninarieddu, Ace, etc etc) is a devoted fascist, then a wild and heroic partisan, then a carpetbagger of the first order, with a motorbike and contacts in Naples and 'the kind of arrogant little boots they wear in cowboy movies'; he is whatever circumstance calls on him to be. The love between the brothers surmounts each of them. The mother is the Virgin Mary, I suppose, white-haired at forty, eating grass to survive, fired only and purely by the animal requirement that her baby should eat. The father was a teenage German soldier, dead two days after the rape. You read on in terrible fear, specific and general, for all of them. Even the thoughtless, monstrous, glamorous Nino, because he is loved by the innocent, becomes someone to fear for.
It is a long novel, full and detailed, recalling Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert and Dickens, a bit. It is too long for modern days, and well known, but I had never heard of it before. It was first published in 1974. By beginning in 1900 and book-ending each section with a simple historical account of what was going on, war-wise, internationally, it gently reminds us of the fact that these few people we zoom in on, one little group of unprivileged ordinary humans, are only examples of thousands, millions, in Indo-China, in Russia, in Japan, in Korea, in Algeria, whom we glimpse as we are zoomed out again at the end. Morante ends with the line 'and History continues...'
History: A Novel infuriated many critics at publication, who took exception to Morante's anti-ideological view, her lining up of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Imperialism, communism, capitalism, as all 'partakers in the well-known, immobile principle of historical dynamics: power to some, servitude to the others'. Did they find her cynical? Or sentimental, in her attachment to motherhood, to the importance of fantasy, the tenderness of childhood? I'm not sure. But I like her for grabbing history by a different set of horns - not male ones. She wanted, she said, to give voice to the voiceless.
We know that history continues. We know too that 'Roma non basta una vita' - Rome is too much for one life. I thought I knew a little about Rome but I knew nothing. It doesn't matter. Where Morante zooms in, taking us to San Lorenzo and Testaccio and the ghostland of the Ghetto, it's not so important that she does it brilliantly - which she does. But as she recreates this little family, this situation, this city, this period, and as she parades it irresistably in front of us, she requires that we acknowledge this fact: this woman, these boys, while they are unique, they are also universal.
So if I die tomorrow, please put this one in the coffin with me, so I can at least finish it.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]