Friday, 6 March 2015

Book Review: Arturo's Island by Elsa Morante have always enjoyed writing memoirs, be they true or fictitious. Luck would have it that after the first and last part of the fictitious Memoirs of the Marquis of Bradomin by Ramón del Valle-Inclán, of which I reviewed a combined English edition titled Autumn and Winter Sonatas a week ago, I picked another book containing an invented man’s look back on his past. This time, however, they are memoirs of a childhood and confusions of first love which makes Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante a coming-of-age novel. The story set on a small island off the coast of Naples, Italy, revolves around teenage Arturo, his scarcely older step-mother Nunziatella and his mostly absent father who keeps everybody including his son at a distance.

Elsa Morante was born in Rome, Italy, in August 1912. The daughter of a teacher began writing very early and as from 1933 her poetry, short stories and tales appeared regularly in different periodicals, but most of her work was for children. During World War II she shifted her attention more to adult fiction and made her debut as a novellist with House of Liars (Menzogna e sortilegio) in 1948. Over the following decades she brought out another three novels, namely Arturo’s Island (L’isola di Arturo: 1957), History (La storia: 1974) and Aracoeli (1982). In addition she published the novella Lo scialle andaluso (1953; The Andalusian Shawl) and a short story collection of the same title (1963), some poetry, essays, and two translations of Katherine Mansfield's works. Elsa Morante died in Rome, in November 1985. Her Diario 1938 (1989; Diary 1938) and some Racconti dimenticati (2002; Forgotten Stories) came out posthumously.

The island of Procida in the Gulf of Naples (between the Italian peninsula and bigger as well as more famous Ischia) is Arturo’s Island. After the mother’s death in childbirth Wilhelm Gerace takes to travelling and leaves baby Arturo in the care of his servant Silvestro who is hardly more than a boy himself. He teaches him everything he needs to know to get along including to talk and to read. Arturo doesn’t go to school and doesn’t have friends in the village, nor does he often meet the man who takes care of household and cooking after Silvestro has been called up for military service. The boy thus grows up more or less on his own – sailing in his boat, roaming the island in the company of his dog Immacolatella and reading any book that he can find at home. He lives in a gloomy old house where no woman except his mother has stayed in over two hundred years. This is because it was built as a monastery which was later used as military barracks and its last owner called the Amalfitano (the Amalfian) was so uncompromisingly misogynist that he didn’t allow any woman to enter. Wilhelm Gerace inherited the house from his eccentric old friend and made it his home, but even though he has a son anxiously waiting for him there he drops by only at intervals and is too restless to stay for long. Arturo adores his father. In the dreaming boy’s eyes his tall, well-built and fair-haired father is a model of beauty, virtue and strength equal to the heroes and adventurers in his books. He imagines that everybody feels like him, while in reality the people of Procida are reserved towards the half-German who came to the island as a sixteen-year-old to live with his natural father and who never bothered to make friends with any of them except the Amalfitano. Things change drastically, when Arturo’s father arrives with his new wife Nunziatella from Naples. Fourteen-year-old Arturo isn’t used to having a woman around. Moreover, he’s entering puberty… and his step-mother is only little more than two years older than himself with an uncaring husband who soon resumes his usual travelling.

The Italian subtitle of Arturo’s Island immediately identifies the novel as the Memoirs of a Boy (Memorie di un fanciullo), but the first-person narrative written from the point of view of the mature Arturo Gerace is much more than that. It’s the universal story of growing up to find that parents are just human beings like all others. Of course, Arturo’s childhood idyll is extreme because the peculiar circumstances of his existence as the son of a voluntary outsider on a small island cut him off the rest of the world and even human society. In his isolation he is more than any other child limited to what he can learn from (antiquated) books and from his rarely present, though idolised father who does nothing to bring the boy’s distorted views closer to reality because he simply doesn’t care to take the responsibility. It’s not much of a surprise that the arrival of his young step-mother Nunziatella on the island brings him down to earth at last. She represents everything that he missed so far and will be his future, namely the wide world beyond the horizon as well as female company. The experience is even more disturbing for him because by and by it destroys his trust in Wilhelm Gerace the faultless and important man of his childhood fantasies. The fact that Arturo is about to become a man who not only falls in love with his step-mother and has an affair with her friend, but also has to digest that his ageing father is infatuated with a young man to the point of making a fool of himself, adds to the emotional turmoil of those two decisive years. The author told the story in great detail and with at least as much sensitivity showing by the way that homosexuality isn’t an acquired “taste” but an innate trait of a person which is stronger than will and socialisation. As usual I read the original, ie the Italian version of the novel and was delighted by the beauty of expression. Thanks to the clear and precise language the book was a mere pleasure to read and I can only hope that the English translation is too.

Since I enjoyed reading Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante very much, I recommend it, of course. It’s definitely a gem of Italian post-war literature that deserves being read more widely than it is today although in my opinion it’s quality at least equals that of more famous novels of the time like Bonjour tristesse by Françoise Sagan (»»» read my review).

* * * * * review is a contribution to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015, namely to the category Classic With a Name in the Title.

»»» see my sign-up post with the complete reading list.

And this is my first review for Valentina's 2015 Women Challenge # 3 on Peek-a-booK!, too.

»»» please read my sign-up post to know more.

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