Elsa Morante: La Storia – History (1974) Literature and War Readalong August 2011

History was written nearly 3 decades after Morante spent a year hiding from the Germans in remote farming villages in the mountains south of Rome. There she witnessed the full impact of the war and first formed the ambition to write an account of what history does when it reaches the realm of ordinary people struggling for life and bread.

La Storia aka History is the last WWII centered book of this readalong. It’s also the most ambitious, starting before the war and ending just a few years after. It describes in minute details how the schoolteacher Ida Mancuso, her two sons and the people to whom they are connected are affected by the war. La Storia looks in great detail into the impact of war on civilians. In telling this ordinary woman’s daily life we see how precariously civilians live during a war. The constant bombing, the fear, the loss of the houses or apartments, of friends and the jobs, the lack of food and clothes, rape and brutality, fear of being transpotred to a camp, all this together is part of everyday life. What civilians endure is no less harrowing than what happens on the battlefields.

Summarizing this vast canvas of a novel that is driven forward by ebullient storytelling would be quite a challenge, that is why I decided to highlight a few points.

History starts in 19** and ends …. 19**, but the core chapters focus on the years from 1941 to 1947. Before each chapter we find detailed accounts of all the important historical facts of those years. Reading this overpowered me and that was probably the aim. One horrible event follows after another and each and every single country participated in one awful event or the other. It’s a mad circle, a maelstrom that sweeps along everything and everyone and whose impact shapes, distorts and changes the life of normal people who are unable to escape this crazy frenzy.

Following the accounts of History’s furious rage, we read about the simple, childlike Ida, whose mother was Jewish. This fact fills her with constant anxiety all through the novel and even pushes her to do crazy and dangerous things. Ida is a widowed schoolteacher, the older of her boys, Nino, is a foolhardy opportunist, while the other one, Useppe, is the child she conceived when she was raped by a German soldier at the beginning of the war. In the early chapters of the novel Ida lives in modest circumstances but she has an apartment and enough food. When the war breaks out and finally comes to Rome, their house is bombed and she must flee to the countryside where she and Useppe, the little one, live in one room together with numerous other people.

Ida’s older son Nino first joins the fascist forces, later changes over to the partisans and finally becomes a criminal after the war. His “career” seems somewhat typical and I found that in creating a character like this Morante managed to capture a lot that is wrong in Italy. Opportunism and corruption are everywhere.

Focusing on Ida, we witness the ordeal of the “ordinary people”, how much they had to endure. The hunger is unspeakable. What they have to eat is hardly imaginable. Grass, cats, rats, anything. Being homeless and having no clothes is horrible. Having to fight or steal for just a little bit of bread is hard to imagine. It’s a truly harrowing account.

One of the most interesting details is the narrator. Who tells this story? To whom belongs this voice that is audible at any time, that speaks to us directly and from the heart of this novel?  Is it History speaking to us? It seems to be, as the way Morante describes people, animals and things seems to signify that everything is animated. So why not History itself? History is such a force, it seems as if it has become a being driven to destroy.

What I loved about this novel is that everyone has a voice. Useppe is as much a person as are his dogs Blitz or Bella. Their thoughts and feelings are rendered in great detail. I think in doing so she manages to emphasize that in a war everyone is equal, everyone is threatened. I also liked the detailed in the descriptions, the exuberant storytelling.

Despite all the positive aspects I also had a few problems with the novel, especially at the beginning. I didn’t like Ida. I know, it will sound mean, but she was too simple for me. She isn’t very introspective, she is almost a simpleton, still she is touching and the tragedies she endures moved me. I understand Morante’s choice for a character like this but I didn’t always enjoy it.

While reading this novel I found myself smiling a lot. Useppe’s and his dog’s thoughts are so charming in their naivety. The end of this novel moved me a lot. Without giving away too much, I can tell that it showed that there are far more victims in wars than winners, that wars still impact people long after they have ended and that history doesn’t spare anyone. There is no escaping this force that wreaks havoc in human lives.

Before closing I would like to ask a question of anyone who might have read this novel, now or at another point in time: Isn’t it dangerous to treat History like a being? Isn’t this blurring the fact that History isn’t an undefined, independent force but, in the end, it is people who harm other people?

Other reviews:

*****

History was the eight book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Discussion starts on Friday September 30, 2011 .

28 thoughts on “Elsa Morante: La Storia – History (1974) Literature and War Readalong August 2011

  1. History sounds interesting. It doesn’t sound like a boring book at all. I have heard of History before but never really paid attention of what its about.

    History as a being is an interesting idea. Maybe I should try reading this one day.

    If this book is the end of WW2, what’s next? I thought you are only focusing on the 2 ‘big’ wars…I guess I was wrong 😉

    • You might like it, it’s fascinating and the way she writes about animals is a bit like they are treated in Myazaki’s movies. The next two books are focusing on Vietnam, and the the last two on the American Civil War. Next year I would like to include other wars as well. Smaller ones. Hardly any country has been spared this experience apart from a few neutral ones like Switzerland but they were still affected to a certain degree.

  2. I haven’t read the novel but I agree with you re the treatment of history–that said though people can get swept along (I’m thinking of one example, the American Civil War).

    I was taking out a dvd out of the machine the other day and caught a part of some ridiculous financial programme in which an expert was describing the housing debacle. The way she told it, this ill-wind swept through the country taking everyone’s equity along with it–there was NO discussion of the way people bought more house than they could afford or how many repeatedly refinanced. Yes some people did nothing ‘wrong’. They bought an overpriced house to see its so-called worth sink, but other people were amazingly stupid. They had a part in what happened to them. But the ‘expert’ acted as though ALL people were innocent bystanders and were victims of history.

    Anyway, your comment about

    • That was exactly my point. I think she describes the force of history very well. When a war breaks out everyone is drawn into it but it’s not the force starting it. I had a feeling she treated history like it was some sort of natural catastrophe. When you are in the middel of some happenings it can feel like that. It’s really the same regarding the financial crisis.
      Maybe Morante wanted to underline how helpless one feels in horrible circumstances against which one can’t do anything.
      She is a very compassionate writer.

      • Carlo Lucarelli wrote the de Luca trilogy:
        Carte Blanche
        The Damned Season
        Via Delle Oche
        The trilogy follows the career of a detective in WWII Italy. One interesting aspect of the novels is the way the hero shifts with the political situation, so there’s that idea of a man caught up in history.

  3. I’m still reading– am in 1943! I’ve only skimmed your post (though I think you didn’t give anything away). I’m having a mixed reaction to this book as well. It’s actually easy reading in some ways, though not easy reading about the bombardment of Rome or people starving or the other awful things that happen, but I find it is easy to put it down. I can only read small chunk at a time and then need something else. I was expecting this to be mostly about Ida, but it’s almost more about Nino and Useppe, which is fine, but I was expecting it to be about a woman’s life. Nino, even though he is not a particularly nice person, and a Fascist is almost more interesting to read about–but I am only a third of the way through so maybe it is too soon to make judgment on that. Ida is not a very introspective character–you don’t get a sense of her inner life. Still, I’m glad I am reading it and will have to think about what you’re saying about History as a being–I was also wondering who exactly was telling the story–this helps shed light on things. I’m looking forward to reading Tim O’Brien (and by the way have also bought the first two books of the De Luca trilogy as I really liked Almost Blue–haven’t started them yet).

    • It isn’t really about Ida, I agree. She opens and closes the book but her two sons are very important. The last third is Useppe’s part. There is one part towards the end completely dedicated to David that was quite annoying in parts but would be interesting to discuss. Why did she choose to include this? You will get to it sooner or later. We can always discuss then.
      I’m glad Tim O’Brien is short. And the others as well. 400 pages is still fine. But if there is a nex year 300 will be the maximum.

  4. Congrats on finishing it. It sounds like a lovely novel However, I would have issues with Ida as well with the simple outlook. I haven’t read this, but after reading your review it kind of reminded me of The Adventures of a Simpleton, which is a novel about the 30 years war.

    • Thanks, it did take quite a while. I presume you mean Simplicissimus, a German novel? Well, I’m not sure it can be compared but she really is quite childish, the narrator states that she has never fully grown up, neither mentally nor emotionally. It’s still a great book.

      • Yes Simplicissimus. In the states we refer to it by the other name. I enjoyed the novel. I’ll have to check this one out when I have more time.

        • It’s very old, 17th century, I think. In German it’s hard to read because unlike French and English, German changes much more. Even books from the 19th century are already hard to understand for German native speakers.
          Did you read Voltaire’s Candide? I specialized in French literature from the Middle Ages to Voltaire (and in French African and Carribean, funny combination, right?). Maybe it is hard to “like” Voltaire but he is worth reading. I ended up adoring his philosophical stories. He was so cunning, to make people swallow the bitter pill of his philosophy he dipped it in a story.

          • I didn’t know that about the German language. I read a translation. Candide is on my top ten list of my favorite books. I can’t remember how many times I read it. It is a delightful gem and each time I read I pick up on something new. I would have loved to have a friendship with Voltaire. I bet he was a character and I would love to listen to him share his thoughts. French African and Caribbean is an odd combo. I bet it was fun though!

            • I actually meant the literature from the Middle Ages and French African/Carribean is strange. French African and Carribean works well together.
              Voltaire would have been an incredible friend. For years whenever anyone asked me which author I would like to meet it was always Voltaire.

  5. You’ve definitely piqued my interest. I’ll put this one on my TBR list. It’s interesting to me when there is an unlikeable protagonist (for whatever reason). I always talk about this in my writing classes. Would you ever stop reading because you didn’t like the main character? Is unlikeable and unrespectable two different things?

    I’ve already read The Things They Carried. I hope you like it as much as I did. Have you read Suite Francaise by Irene Nemrovsky? That was a doozy of a war novel especially when you learn the author’s personal story.

    • I don’t think you need to necessarily like them but I must admit I prefer unlikable characters who are intelligent. She really isn’t.
      I’m looking forward to The Things They Carried. It is one of the books Francine Prose recommends in Reading Like a Writer.
      I haven’t read Nemirovsky yet although I bought it right after the French original came out…
      In any case Morante is an interesting writer and I’m really glad I read it.

  6. I’m not sure I understand your question correctly, Caroline, but I think history can be both “an undefined, independent force” AND “people who harm other people” at times–especially in terms of understanding causality (where there is any to be understood at least). Sorry to say that I had to set this novel aside part way through to make time for other reading that was speaking to me more. I still hope to finish Morante’s book within the next few to several weeks, and I enjoyed what I experienced of the writing for whatever that’s worth. Thanks for hosting the readalong, and sorry I couldn’t finish in time to join you as I had hoped to.

    • Yes, you did get my question. I just thought she emphasized the aspect of an undefined force more and made it sound as if there were no actors behind it all. But it really only felt like that when I had finished the book.
      Don’t worry about not finishing, I was tempted a few times to abandon it. I’m not very good with long books. All in all I am glad I finished it and also know I will read Arturo’s Island. It was an interesting experience to read La Storia. I am glad I learned so much about Italy during the war. I knew the outcome due to a review that mentioned it. That can often be a spoiler but I didn’t mind knowing it all, it even made me like the book more.

  7. I’m a little late in my blog reading these days.
    The older I get the less I want to read long books. I don’t know why or perhaps it’s because I don’t have time to read a lot of pages in a row and spending weeks and weeks with the same book isn’t appealing. (except for Proust) All this to say it sounds tempting but it’s the kind of book that would sit for ages on the shelf because of its size.

    The experience of war at a human scale is well-described in Journal à quatre mains by Benoite & Flora Groult.

    Reading your review, I understood that she used History as a sort of deus ex machina, in a “the gods are thirsty” way. I suppose it’s like a natural catastrophe in someone’s life, though it sounds strange to use it as a literary device. Does the narrator sound like a Roman god pulling strings and wreaking havoc to “see” how people will react?

    PS: In democraties, we are all responsible for the wars we take a part in, since we vote for the people who make the decisions…There’s nowhere to hide from that.

    • I was never very good with long books but the time factor is important. There are some books that you can read over a long period of time and it’s fine. History is rather one you want to read in one go but that would have kept me from reading anything else for at least two weeks. I had to plan carefully in advance which I really don’t like.
      I’ve had Journal à quatre mains for years now. I don’t know why I always forget about it. I read one chapter once in an anthology and liked it very much.
      I had the deus ex machina felling, yes, but I’m not sure the narrator was a deus ex machina. Rather not. The voice sunded compassionate, did a lot of foreshadowing but I had never the feeling whoever told the story was enjoying the misery. At times the narrator sounded like one of the people but then he knew so much that one of them couldn’t have known.
      I would have liked to see what others thought of it but I was quite sure I would be the only one finishing in time. Kevin didn’t get it from the library or he would have joined.

  8. Very interesting! I like the idea of History as a narrator, an animated force of its own. You’re right, of course, that people have individual choices and bear personal responsibility, but we are also defined by things outside our control. I would be a different person if I’d lived through World War Two, and I honestly don’t know how I would have behaved. Would I have been swept up in the “crazy frenzy” you describe, and done terrible things to other people? I hope not, but I really don’t know. I think the same about being born in the present day but in very different circumstances.

    • I’m glad I asked this question at the end of my post beacuse it was really something that was bothering me and it starts to get clearer. It is History talking I think but from inside, not from outside, as perceived by those who endure it “outside of whose control ” it is. I think she certainly has a point, history can be experienced like this but, and was my “problem” there are actors hidden somewhere. Exactly this feeling of things being outide of ones control can make people passive.
      It’s an interesting question whether and how we would be changed by circumstances. I’m not much of a follower but I wonder whether I would have joined the Resistance or just tried to stay outside of things.

  9. I wasn’t able to participate in this month’s group read since I was hosting the Civil War read-along on War Through the Generations. I’m a bit bummed now, since it sounds like this was really good and thought provoking. I’m very curious about the idea of history as a being. I’ve never thought of it that way but more about what people themselves set into motion.

    • I thought it was a great approach and a lesson as well. Those introductory chapters were amazing. I wasn’t aware of all the consequences WWII had and still has.

  10. I just read -or more precisely SWALLOWED- this book, and I’m browsing the internet to find everything I can about Elsa Morante and this novel of hers. I am absolutely in love with La Storia. I just couldn’t stop reading, and it took me less than a week to read it entirely. I have read hundreds of novels, and this has become one of my favourites. I am so moved by Useppe, I loved this character so much… I spent hours crying when I finished reading, and yet I’m not a very emotional person. Never ever has a novel made me so emotional !! (except perhapd Oliver Twist when I was 10…)

    • What a coincidence. Was thinking about this novel yesterday and that it isn’t as well known as it should. It’s amazing. I wanted to read her other novels and certainly will. I’m so glad to hear you liked it this much. It’s a very moving story.

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