From National Book Award–winning novelist Tuck (The News from Paraguay, 2004, etc.), a concise biography of the Italian writer whose fiction explored the power of make-believe and the delusions by which people live.
Elsa Morante (1912–85) was unconventional from the moment of her birth—the eldest of four, all fathered by a man not their mother’s husband—to after her death, when a group of friends dug up her cremated remains and took them to be scattered in the waters surrounding the island of Procida, the setting for her beloved 1957 novel, Arturo’s Island. She married fellow novelist Alberto Moravia in 1941 and was still his wife when she died, but they had lived apart for years and had never been faithful, though they remained friends. Desperately poor as a struggling young writer, Morante displayed in her fiction a profound sympathy for the oppressed, the misfit and those disfigured or incapacitated by disease. This attitude would find its most emphatic expression in her 1974 bestseller History, controversial among Italy’s left-leaning intellectuals because the politically unaligned Morante painted such a pessimistic picture of proletarian life and the depredations of power. Fiercely devoted to truth-telling, she could be an uncomfortable person to know, but she was generous and loyal to her friends. (And expected the same; she never spoke again to Pier Paolo Pasolini after he brutally panned History.) She had wild mood swings, but loved pretty clothes, handsome men (she was one of director Luchino Visconti’s many lovers) and good food and conversation. Well-known and respected in Italy, Morante’s work is much more obscure in the English-speaking world, and it’s not quite clear why Tuck chose to write about her. Though the biographer offers appreciations of the individual novels, she never really conveys a coherent picture of Morante’s achievements as a writer. Those content with a vivid evocation of her powerful personality, however, will be satisfied by Tuck’s graceful aperçus.
Lucid and intelligent, but perhaps a little too low-key.