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 .

Literature and War Readalong August 26 2011: La Storia – History by Elsa Morante

The readalong book for August, La Storia or History,  is one of the most important books of Italian literature. It is also quite a substantial book, depending on the edition, it is over 800 pages long which is why I decided to post the introduction already today to give anyone who would like to read along the opportunity to do so.

I’m already on page 150 and fascinated by her writing that reminds me of Latin American literature in its exuberance. Before the individual chapters there are detailed accounts of the history of Italy. La Storia is pretty much the story of a woman, the schoolteacher Ida Ramundo, and the history of a country. Given all the atrocities Germany committed we tend to forget that there were allies like Italy. The history of Italy during WWII is  story of megalomania, bad choices and bad planning and borders quite often on the ridiculous. But there are also stories of resistance and heroism. This, however, is not the topic of this novel.

I did a bit of research and found out that a lot of this novel is based on Morante’s own life. Her mother was half Jewish and a teacher, like Morante herself.

Elsa Morante was married for quite a long time to Alberto Moravia, author of  La Noia (Boredom) and many other outstanding books.

History isn’t Morante’s only novel, she is also the writer of Aracoeli and L’isola di Arturo (Arturo’s Island).

La Storia has been made into a mini-series starring Claudia Cardinale as Ida Ramundo.

12 Recent German Movies on German History

I have said it repeatedly elsewhere, I think that Germany produces some of the best movies and especially when dealing with German history they have shown great talent. Many movies that have stayed with me far longer than the 1.5 – 2hrs it took to watch them were German. Here are some of the best of the last decade. They are all focusing on history, sometimes local (Requiem, Sass), mostly on a larger scale. All of them are good or very good or at least (Dresden) they manage to show something that hasn’t been shown like this before.

Sass (2001) Sass tells the incredible true story of the brothers Sass. After getting into huge financial problems they become the most famous bank robbers in Berlin in 1924. They were so cheeky and cunning that they became heroes. The police just couldn’t get them. It’s a wonderful period piece that reawakens the Berlin of the 20s with its salons and smoky dance halls. Ben Becker and Jürgen Vogel are two of my favourite German actors and they are great as the brothers Sass. Rola wanted to make a “Larger than Life ” movie and did well.

Herr Lehmann aka Berlin Blues (2003) Based on Sven Regener’s outstanding first novel, Herr Lehmann tells the story of a barkeeper in West Berlin’s Kreuzberg just before the wall falls down. It’s not as good as the book but still worth watching as it captures the “alternative scene” of the 80s very well.

Goodbye Lenin (2003) This is the funniest movie and maybe one of the best German movies ever. It’s simply brilliant. It portrays the former DDR in a humorous way but manages to really show what it must have been like to live behind the wall. It is also able to show what people who grew up in the DDR miss about it. Alex’ mother is in a coma when the wall is removed. She awakes and because the doctor says she shouldn’t be stressed or she might die of a heart attack, Alex tries to keep the DDR alive for her. This is extremely difficult. The trailer gives you an idea of the problems they face. It’s hilarious.

NaPoLa aka Before the Fall (2004) NaPoLa shows the machinery of the so-called National Socialist Elite Schools. It shows how the black pedagogy led to total subordination albeit costing the souls of those who were not totally accepting. It’s a shocking and tragic movie. It conveys how the Nazi regime already got hold of the very young and through ritual and discipline achieved to turn the young people into mindless machines.

Der Untergang aka The Downfall (2004) The last weeks of Hitler showing an outstanding Bruno Ganz. Der Untergang captures Hitler’s madness and the madness of those around him. It’s very chilling and a must-see.

Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage aka Sophie Scholl – The Final Days (2005) Sophie Scholl is very moving film that tells the last days of the Geschwister Scholl or Weisse Rose, as they were called. It shows what people are capable of. It makes you want to become a better person and to put yourself behind an ideal. Sophie is such an admirable young woman and it’s hard to believe that someone so good existed, someone so unflinching and strong. Very sad and touching. She was one of the heroes of WWII Germany.

Das Leben der Anderen aka The Lives of Others (2006) Another look at life in the former DDR. What was it like to be under suspicion in the DDR? What was it like to work for the Stasi (Staatssicherheit/secret police)? The terror and horror of the life under a totalitarian regime.

Requiem (2006) Based on a true story this movie tells about a shocking event that took place in the 70s in Germany. The young student Michaela who suffers of epilepsy leaves her home in which she suffocates. Her parents are ardent Catholics and didn’t leave her any freedom. In the city she enjoys life until she starts to have psychotic episodes. Believing she is possessed by the devil, she seeks help from a priest who will try to exorcise the demon. This is not a horror movie, mind you, but it is no less shocking. Superstition and fanaticism will cost the young woman her life.

Dresden (2006) Dresden is a TV production and a bit corny. I wouldn’t recommend it here if it wasn’t the best movie on the bombing of Dresden that I have ever seen. If found it very well done (apart from the tacky love story). It gives you an idea of the atrocity of the burning city and is very thought-provoking. Were the Allies really justified to erase a whole city like Dresden, a city of culture and art? Was the bombing of Dresden a war crime?

Die Fälscher aka The Counterfeiters (2007) Germany WWII. Crooks, thieves, communists and Jews all land together in the Concentration Camp in Sachsenhausen where they will help the Nazis to forge the money of the Allies. Helping the Nazis, is helping them to win the war. Opposing them could cost you your life. It’s based on a true story and explores the question whether you are allowed to think of yourself while the whole world is at war.

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008) In the 70s things were not as they should have been in Germany. Many of the former National Socialist party, ex-Nazis,  were still in important positions. The US had their bases in Germany. The Vietnam war was raging. A couple of students didn’t want to take it any longer. They protested and then terrorized the country systematically. The famous heads were Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof. This is their story. Extremely worth watching. You cannot deny that they were right, only the means to achieve justice were not well chosen. And they paid for it. Each and every one of them. But what is the most amazing, is the fact that they were willing to go the whole way. You cannot be more radical than this.

Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin aka Anonyma –  A Woman in Berlin (2008) Berlin at the end of WWII. If you ever wondered what happened to the women in Berlin when the Russians arrived… This excellent movie will tell you. It is based on the diary of a German woman who lived in Berlin at the time. It’s a tale of rape and ruins. And despite all this, quite a beautiful love story.

Nora Murphy: Knitting the Threads of Time Casting Back to the Heart of our Craft (2009) A Memoir

You don’t need to be a knitter to enjoy this book. I am not. Still I liked this book for many reasons. It is a memoir in which Nora Murphy takes us on a personal journey on which she starts and finishes a difficult sweater for her son and explores the manifold meanings of knitting, yarn and clothes.  Now is the perfect time to read it as the memoir starts in October and ends three months after All Soul’s Day. Her style is very evocative.

A woman sits in her comfy chair. Two needles and a ball of yarn keep her company. She is knitting away at something. Maybe a scarf? Socks? She enjoys the sound of her needles beating like a soft drum. She inhales the smell of the waxy yarn. She exhales the satisfaction of watching a single strand transform into an object of beauty. She is perfectly present, in perfect bliss. (Epilogue, Darkness Falls p. 3)

And another teaser:

October is a bit like the last dance in Minnesota. We know it’s the first month of darkness, but we don’t want to acknowledge it. We’d prefer to keep our attention on the sunlight dancing off the red and orange and yellow and gold and brown mosaic in the trees overhead. But we know better – a long winter awaits us. (Leaves p. 13)

Nora introduces us to herself, her family and her friends and the people she meets on her journey. She opens up her house and her heart for us. We are allowed to catch a glimpse of her cozy little home and the life she lives with her two sons and Diego her friend and lover. Through her we meet a woman who owns a yarn shop, an owner of a sheep farm and all of her animals, and many other people. We get to know Minnesota through several seasons. And we learn a lot about yarn. Nora Murphy combines history and cultural anthrolpogy. I did not know, for example, that King George’s Wool Act of 1699 might have been responsible for the American Revolution. England felt its wool industry was threatened by the colonies and forbid to export sheep to America. But some animals had been smuggled in and where already quite numerous by 1665. At some time, anyone found guilty of trading in wool faced severe punishment. The cutting-off of hands is mentioned. However, unlike Ireland, America was too far away from England to be threatened for long and the way to independence could not be blocked forever.

Nora’s book is also a lesson in values. Cherish the moment. Learn from the past. Try something new. Remember the simple things. In a world that spins in confusion she tries to build stability and conveys this to those around her and her readers. I felt very comforted, enchanted and energized by this book.

Nora Murphy’s Homepage