I will keep calling this History: A Novel because of the way it’s just emblazoned across the front of my copy. I will post the copy I read as a picture and link to the updated version of the differences between them.
I learned about this writer after apparently already owning several works by her former husband Alberto Moravia, though not having read him yet, and from reading Elena Ferrante’s interview and essay collection Frantumaglia.
In the Elena Ferrante collection, she makes several explicit references to Elsa Morante and many of the people who correspond to her about her work also make this comparison. They’re both Italian, Neopolitan, women who write about women, and women who focuses on the unpolished truth about living and surviving in world’s of violence. In Elena Ferrante’s novels, (Which if you haven’t read, you should check out. They aren’t for everyone but they sometimes turn people off because of their strange covers, that will eventually come to understand better. They are about female friendship but they are also about sex and violence and crime and dirt and Italian politics. They are truly great) we see post-war Italy from the 1950s on, but this novel squarely takes place in the years surrounding WWII.
The novel itself is mainly about Ida Mancuso nee Almalgia, who is a women of Italian-Jewish descent. The novel starts with her walking with her husband and young son, being observed by a young Nazi soldier who will rape her and impregnate her with a second son. He will die soon after and Ida won’t even know. The rest of the novel are the various troubles and scrapes that Ida and her family deal with living in the Italian war zone, on the southern coast, and the heightened terror she faces as someone not legally considered Jewish, but whose legal status changes through changes to the law. While she is forced to lay-low, this is not a Holocaust escape novel like Night but more so about how disrupted any semblance of life is during the war and with that status hanging over her head.
The novel also deals a lot with her own family history, a history of the war both directly and indirectly, and then shows the horror it allows for.
What makes this novel so affecting is that there is zero glamorization whatsoever. There’s zero attempt to place the war historically and morally, there’s no desire to see Italy’s role as laudatory. The novel does not care one bit for the geopolitics or morality of WWII. What it cares about is showing how the war affects people who didn’t want the war, didn’t ask for it, and were routinely and summarily screwed over by it. Every part of Ida’s life is disrupted and for the all the movies that discuss nobility and heroism, this novel tells a starker version of things. It’s brutal and blunt and unforgiving.
My copy was the first paperback edition of the American release from 1977. So even though there’s a nice trade version now, mine was a fat, used bookstore mass market edition.
It was a physically and emotionally tasking read, but it was worth it, if not an entirely enjoyable experience. Hence, all the YA and comics supplementing me. So anyway, here’s the author with some cats: