Aracoeli by Elsa Morante, translated by William Weaver (Random House: $17.95)
The narrator is middle-aged, but he was never really born. He tells of his lifelong obsession with his dead mother. "My determination was this: To reenter her. To curl up inside her, in my only haven, lost now, who knows where, in what abyss." Elsa Morante's "Aracoeli" is a novel about a fetus.
Aracoeli, the mother, was a Spanish peasant girl who married an Italian naval officer after he visited her village and, in his sole transforming act of passion, carried her off. The husband was a kind, simple man, technically in the service of Mussolini, but in fact a stubborn Royalist. He brought her to live among the wealthy bourgeois society of Rome. In his long absences, she was painfully schooled to compress her instinctive and passionate nature into its stilted ways.
Her companion and consolation during the first years was their child, Emmanuele. She cuddled and cosseted him, taught him Spanish nursery rhymes, called him a beauty, and made him feel he was, if not the king of her world, at least viceroy while his father was away. And then she gradually receded from him. Her warmth and passion went to Emmanuele's baby sister and then, when she died in her crib, into a growing and destructive nymphomania.
An Obsessive Monologue
"Aracoeli" is Emmanuele's long, obsessive monologue of abandonment. He has become a middle-aged recluse, loveless except for a few humiliating homosexual affairs, and working at a tedious job with a minor publisher. His narration is the railing outcry of the humiliated.
Morante is a philosophical novelist, much esteemed in Italy; and Emmanuele's self-abasing torrent has something in common with the monologues of Camus and Moravia. His world, like that of their protagonists, is a brutal, unfathomable place in which the only moving thing is a thin and searching voice.
We have heard that pinioned voice in "The Fall" and "The Conformist" and in any number of Beckett's plays. The narrator lowers his head, but it is in order to draw our attention not to the head but to what is beyond it. Existential self-abasement denounces the world, not the self; yet denouncing the world is one more variant on literature's task of telling us something about the universe and through it, about ourselves.
With Morante's Emmanuele there is only the ducked head. He is so gummy in his speech and emotions that he blurs our chance of seeing much else. He has been swindled and spoiled, he tells us, but instead of leading us to contemplate the swindling and spoiling nature of human fate, we are cooped up with a presence that goes more fetid the longer we sit with it.
Emmanuele recounts his memories as he goes on a trip to try to discover the presence of Aracoeli--long-since dead--in her native village. It is a murky voyage, full of nerves and indigestion. Aracoeli's roots, which have assumed such mythic proportions in Emmanuele's sensibility, are dry and dead. Almendral is a ghost town, inhabited by a handful of old people.
The voyage provides neither passion nor climax. It is only a dispirited, if intermittent, interruption in Emmanuele's flow of bitter recollection. Amid the flow we catch occasional glimpses of an appealing free spirit: This country girl caught in the stagnant prewar mores of what the Spanish call the rancid oligarchy, and we might call the stinking rich. And of her tragic pursuit, finally, of every passing male from the gas-meter reader to her husband's devoted manservant.
Mostly, what we read are Emmanuele's surging laments of dispossession. Why, he asks Aracoeli, did you bring me up as your doll and then cast me aside? He dates his initial rejection to the time when, at 5 or 6, he had to wear glasses. The world suddenly became ugly to his eyes, a garish harshness replacing its soft outlines. Worse, he felt that he had suddenly become ugly in Aracoeli's eyes; a pale, gawky sissy instead of an adorable blue-eyed cherub.
And that sense of ugliness and rejection marked him from then on. Fate, he meditates, is a tailor who makes a shirt for every human being, one which, except in the case of the supremely talented, can never be removed or changed. His bears the label: "Never to be loved."
It is a wry notion, a moment that lightens the murk and gives us the hope that the narrative obsession will lead somewhere. Instead, it revolves for 300 pages of industrious sensibility boring itself, mole-like, deeper into the ground, and submerging us with it.