The first time I picked up the Italian writer Elsa Morante’s 1957 novel “Arturo’s Island,” in this new translation by Ann Goldstein, the gifted translator of Elena Ferrante’s novels into English, I put it down after 75 pages. Morante’s vision is so baroque, and her prose so operatic, that after reading her I needed some alone time, with cucumber slices over my eyelids.
“Arturo’s Island” is about a semi-orphaned boy’s coming-of-age on the island of Procida in the Bay of Naples in the years just before World War II. The book’s themes — incest, misogyny, narcissism, homosexuality — slide across the pages like lava.
Morante delivers epic emotions. Her people don’t talk so much as they exclaim “with a contemptuous sneer” or “a loud, haughty cry of derision.” They tremble with violent disgusts and savage attitudes. They strike poses of fear, loathing and, in the words of one character, “aggressive, insolent vehemence.” They rattle the cutlery and they rattle each other.
“Arturo’s Island” kept calling out to me, however. It had set its brutal hooks. Before I picked it up again, I found Lily Tuck’s slim and sophisticated biography of Morante, “Woman of Rome” (2008). Reading it is an experience I recommend. Morante led a striding, unconventional life; a life that helps put the soaring cadenzas of feeling in her novels in context.
The unlikely details arrive right from the start. Morante’s stepfather was a probation officer at a boys’ reform school. Found to be impotent on his wedding night, his wife often made him stay, as punishment, in the basement of the family’s house in a working-class section of Rome. Morante’s mother was often hysterical, and attempted suicide. Family photos had faces scratched out.
Morante didn’t attend college. She lived in poverty, sometimes resorting to prostitution, while struggling to become a journalist then a novelist. In 1938, she prepared a pot of boiling oil, intending to pour it on the heads of Hitler and Mussolini, who were passing in a convertible limousine under her apartment windows. Her future husband, the novelist Alberto Moravia (1907-1990), talked her out of this suicide mission.
Moravia found that he was on the wanted list of the fascist police. He and Morante were each half-Jewish. The pair went on the run in 1943, hiding for nearly a year in a small town, in a one-room hut built against a large stone.
Back in Rome after the war, they became something akin to the Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir of the Italian intelligentsia. Their friends included the writer Italo Calvino and the directors Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti, with whom Morante had an affair. (She had to share him with the actress Anna Magnani.)
Her table talk was famous. The filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci told his father, who begged him to go to college, “My university is having dinner every night with Elsa Morante, Alberto Moravia and Pier Paolo Pasolini.”
Morante wore trousers, a rarity for Italian women at the time. She did not suffer fools. Woe to those who referred to her using her husband’s surname and not her own.
Her novels, enormously influential in her home country, include “House of Liars” (1948) and “History” (1974), which was a landslide best seller in Italy. About its impact, Paul Hofmann wrote in The Times, “For the first time since anyone can remember, people in railroad compartments and espresso bars discuss a book — the Morante novel — rather than the soccer championship or latest scandal.” The translations of her novels made little impact in the United States.
Ferrante was among those who devoured Morante’s novels. She chose her pen name because of its echoes with Morante’s own.
In interviews, Morante often claimed she wished she’d been born a boy, so that she could have heroic adventures. About the young male hero of “Arturo’s Island,” she commented: “Arturo, c’est moi!”
The island of Procida, in this novel, feels stolen from myth. An enormous prison looms over the island, as if it were Alcatraz. Arturo’s own house is a crumbling, spider-webbed 20-room palazzo. The boy roams the island with his dog, and the sea in his small boat.
Arturo’s mother, who was 17 and illiterate, died in childbirth. His father, whom he idolizes, is mostly cold and aloof, spending much of his time away from the island on trips that he refuses to talk about.
Arturo grows up in a woman-scorning world. The house’s previous occupant, a wealthy and apparently gay man, threw elaborate parties and refused entrance to women. His father, who inherited the house from the man, also inherited most of his opinions.
“According to my judgment, real women possessed no splendor and no magnificence,” Arturo says. He adds: “They were ashamed of themselves, maybe because they were so ugly; and they went around like sad animals.”
One day, Arturo’s father brings home a new wife, a teenage peasant named Nunziata. Father and son treat her abysmally. (“Shut up, you ugly, slovenly devil,” the father says to her, in a typical snippet of dialogue.) When she has a child, however, Arturo is jealous of the attention the baby gets. He realizes that he has never been kissed. He slowly falls in love with his stepmother and asks her to run away with him.
Arturo’s growing up plays out against the reader’s awareness of the onrushing war. There’s a tragic sense that the heroic dreams of his youth are about to be tested in ways he did not anticipate. Arturo’s sense of himself, and of his father, are shaken when he realizes that his father is in love with a male prisoner on the island.
The men in this novel are knives, and the woman meat. There are few happy or fulfilled women in Morante’s oeuvre. Yet Nunziata keeps the fires lit in the kitchen; she makes fresh pasta every day; she cares for her child and tries to stay above the fray. She is luminous, a kind of saint.
Morante’s themes are not subtle. “Arturo’s Island,” even in Goldstein’s adroit translation, is a sledgehammer performance. But her writing, once you acclimate to its gargoyle extravagance, has the power of malediction.