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This article is taken from PN Review 62, Volume 14 Number 6, July - August 1988.

Elsa Morante: a personal remembrance Luca Fontana

Her books stood apart, as she did. Slim volumes, where a lean and sparse prose tried to catch the rhythms of the American novels of the thirties and forties, as adventurously if somewhat haphazardly translated by Vittorini and Pavese, were the norm in Italy in the early fifties. That was neo-realism in fiction. But Menzogna e sortilegio (1948) was a fat tome of Dickensian bulk. Opened at random, the very layout of the page caught the eye, interwoven as it was with verse, fragments of operatic arias, popular rhymes and songs. From the opening paragraphs, it confronted the reader as a huge baroque altar of elaborate, fantastical craftmanship.

Elisa, the narrating protagonist, had deceived herself into imagining the miserable, drab reality of her petty-bourgeois family story as a wondrous chivalric poem. And so did the reader, for a while, because the stuff Elisa's dreams were made on was so much the raw material of a collective, quasi-subconscious culture of consolatory self-deception. That was the true, deep imagery of a class, large in numbers, that at the turn of the century had made a first step from the archaic peasant world of southern Italy to the outskirts of urban petty-bourgeois life. And there had remained, throughout the twenty years of Fascist dictatorship, but dreaming of another reality, a world of fairytale gentility conjured up by the heightened diction of chivalric poems, as remembered by a peasant grandfather, or the grand boundless emotions expressed in opera librettos. The book ...

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