Elena Ferrante’s Jewish Inspiration

by Talya Zax

When Hitler traveled to Rome to meet with Mussolini in 1938, Elsa Morante stood by her window with a pot of boiling oil on the stove. The duo’s parade route was going to pass directly below her apartment, and she was planning to dump the scalding liquid on their heads as they went by.

She didn’t do it; Alberto Moravia, the well-respected author of “The Conformist,” who would later become her husband, dissuaded her. It’s an odd story, a moment that says a great deal about Morante, an Italian-Jewish novelist considered one of the most significant of her era. She had a taste for the gothic – it takes a particular kind of mind to choose boiling oil as the best weapon against promenading tyrants – which was reflected in her work, especially her sprawling first novel, “House of Liars)” She had a complicated relationship to male power throughout her life, simultaneously despising it, desiring to possess it – she claimed that she had been a boy in a previous life and chose male narrators for many of her novels – and succumbing to it. She frequently chose to write about characters that were passive, and she focused on the depth of experience and thought informing that passivity.

The almost furious intensity of Morante’s writing might sound familiar to American readers who have joined the broad audience captivated by the work of Elena Ferrante, the famously anonymous Italian author whose Neapolitan novels have generated tremendous excitement in the United States. (The English translation of “The Story of the Lost Child” (“Storia della bambina perduta”), the fourth and final installment, came out this past summer.) Ferrante cites Morante as the author most essential to her work, even choosing her pen name because it echoes the name of her predecessor. Yet in America, Morante’s work remains obscure.

Elsa Morante was born in Rome in 1912. She had a contentious relationship with her mother and grew up without a meaningful father figure. Her legal father was impotent and ostracized in the family for being so. Although Morante probably knew the identity of her biological father, he was far from a constant presence in her life. She left home at 18 to live alone, an unusual move for an Italian woman at that time, and had no formal education after that point.

Morante married Alberto Moravia in 1941. In 1943, the pair, each of whom had a Jewish parent, fled Rome to live in a remote mountain village in southern Italy for the remainder of the war. (Morante’s experience as an Italian Jew during World War II would later inspire her most successful novel, “History.” She took a risky trip back to Rome during the war to make sure her first novel’s manuscript remained undamaged, then returned to the city full-time after its liberation, publishing “House of Liars” in 1948.

Over the next four decades, she separated from Moravia, nourished a great love of cats as well as friendships with the great Italian artists and intellectuals of her day, and published several more novels, plus volumes of short stories and poems. By the end of her life in 1985, she was an icon in Italy, and an increasing amount of scholarship and public attention has been devoted to her work since her death.

Ferrante’s presence on bestseller lists seems to buck a trend of Americans eschewing the works of non-English-speaking authors. But Morante’s American obscurity may also be due to the fact that the English translation of “House of Liars,” released in 1951, by all accounts butchers the original; its publishers cut almost a quarter of the Italian’s 800 pages without consulting Morante. As a result, the book, which won Morante both critical and public attention in Italy, went largely ignored in America. Its lack of success dulled any excitement that might have been attached to its author’s name, and subsequent critical attention for “Arturo’s Island” and “History” did little to revive public interest.

The reaction was different in Italy. The reading public initially considered Morante’s work too dense and too rebellious; “House of Liars” was dismissed as unbecomingly retrograde, a 19th-century gothic novel ill-suited to slim 20th-century realism. “Arturo’s Island” gained a small following, which increased when it won the Strega Prize, Italy’s top literary award. Morante’s reputation truly blossomed, though, with “History,” a broad-scale chronicle of World War II juxtaposed with the wartime experiences of a poor family led by a half-Jewish woman.

Morante insisted that “History” be issued as a paperback; she wished to make the book widely accessible. She assessed the potential power of her novel accurately; “History” generated the same unusual degree of excitement in Italy that Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels have produced in America. Shortly after “History” was released, the critic Paul Hoffman, writing for The New York Times – and quoted in “Woman of Rome,” Lily Tuck’s biography of Morante — observed “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.”

Yet it was Morante’s complicated, deeply flawed first effort that provided the spark for Ferrante’s work.

“There I discovered what literature can be,” Ferrante said of “House of Liars” speaking with Vogue by email in 2014. “That novel multiplied my ambitions, but it also weighed on me, paralyzing me.”

Morante’s lasting influence on Ferrante is easy to spot in individual scenes. For example, in both Ferrante’s “Troubling Love” and Morante’s “History,” the mothers of the central characters drown in the ocean, still wearing their wedding rings, their bodies remarkably unbruised by the usually violent sea.

On a broader level, Ferrante and Morante share significant themes. Chief among them are the complex and frequently troubled relationships between mothers and daughters, the vaguely menacing profundity of childhood experiences and the difficulty of accessing them as an adult, the perversions of various types of love — romantic, maternal, friendly, filial – and the way in which both men and women simultaneously sexualize the female body and find it disgusting.

The writers also display major differences, most visibly in their thoughts concerning gender. Morante felt she had a masculine soul. “A boy,” Tuck writes, “[Morante] thought, could be heroic; a girl could not.”

Ferrante shares that idea, but it troubled her to a greater extent than it did Morante.

“As a girl,” Ferrante told the Paris Review in the spring of 2015, “I was absolutely certain that a good book had to have a man as its hero, and that depressed me.”

“There’s no getting around it,” she continued, “my models were masculine. So even when I wrote stories about girls, I wanted to give the heroine a wealth of experiences, a freedom, a determination that I tried to imitate from the great novels written by men.”

Stefania Lucamante, a professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at Catholic University, credits that difference – Morante’s love of male heroes compared to Ferrante’s charge to change the paradigm of who could be a hero – to a few factors. One of them is that Morante wrote without seeking the guidance of a great female author, whereas Ferrante has, in Lucamante’s words, embraced Morante as “a literary mother.”

For Ferrante, Morante’s contributions, along with those of Virginia Woolf (Ferrante’s other great influence), represented an oportunity for a female voice to not only emerge, but also to defy the themes and forms lionized by their male counterparts.

“Although Morante was never a feminist,” Lucamante told the Forward, “[Ferrante] saw in Morante this example of a female writer who divorces her writing from whatever was trendy in the period and just chooses a completely different path for writing, for the system of the characters in the novel, and of course for the theme[s].”

Morante, for her part, refused to place herself in a literary lineage, although she was happy to discuss writers she admired. In “Woman of Rome,” Tuck quotes an interview Morante gave to reporter Francine Virduzzo in 1961. “I can’t really say that I have been influenced by any writer,” Morante said, “ – by a musician, yes: Mozart is my master.”

It seems possible that Morante’s reluctance to seek inspiration from other writers arose partially from a determination not to be overshadowed by the male novelists who surrounded her and with whom her work was most frequently compared. The public quality of her relationship with Moravia, especially, made Morante worry that she was not thought of seriously for her own artistic merits. In “Woman of Rome,” Tuck shares a story of Moravia’s in which he made the mistake of sending Morante a telegram addressed to “Elsa Moravia.” She caused, he remembered, “‘a scene that lasted three days, because I should have written Elsa Morante.’” Tuck imagines Morante must have been similarly irate when the deeply flawed English translation of “House of Liars” came out using her status as “Mrs. Alberto Moravia” as a selling point on its cover.

Morante may not have wished to see herself as anyone else’s literary protégée, but she has developed a lineage of her own: a string of contemporary Italian novelists, including Mariateresa Di Lascia, Simona Vinci and now Ferrante.

“I think that a lot of people need very big stories today,” Lucamante said, “maybe because we live in a society that’s determined by sound bites. People are starting to miss what it’s meant to have long novels, sagas. There is a void today in literature.”

Lucamante thinks Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels have helped fill that space. It’s likely, though, that seeing that void would motivate neither Morante nor Ferrante to fill it.

“Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature,” Ferrante commented in her 2015 interview with the Paris Review. “My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones.”

Talya Zax is the Forward’s culture intern.