giovedì 29 maggio 2014

Disenchanted Nature: Assurdità infernale in Menzogna e sortilegio

Ecco i miei appunti per la conferenza che ho tenuto al convegno AAIS il 25 maggio 2014.


I will look at one chapter from Elsa Morante's 1947 novel Menzogna e sortilegio. I propose that this chapter is a playful modeling of the novel itself: it provocatively portrays the text and the author as purveyors of deception, menzogna, to the point of absurdity. This chapter shows the body as rooted in a world that joins artifice and nature, sin and corporality—and it relies upon 2 masters of Italian literature, Dante and Giovanni Verga to do so. It also offers a tangled lesson in repentance and reflection. I argue that here, Morante presents nature as disenchanted – offering no escape from the urban world that occupies so much of the novel..
This chapter falls within the novel’s fifth section, Parte Quinto: Inverno, and is titled: Un ritrovo mal frequentato. Il butterato si vanta e un carrettiere racconta un’assurdità infernale.

Summary of Menzogna e sortilegio

A quick summarization of Morante's first novel: alone, orphaned, grieving, Elisa De Salvi (whose name provocatively recalls that of the author—Elsa) begins to write the saga of her family in an attempt to liberate herself from the ghosts of her past and her melancholy. She paints a baroque, unforgettable picture of southern Italian society in the belle époque, of her parents and grandparents and their intrigues, lies, and seething ambitions. She is especially interested in the lives and amours of her parents, Anna Massia and Francesco De Salvi; Anna's aristocratic cousin Edoardo Cerentano, and her adoptive mother, Rosaria. Elisa also traces her family history back to the previous generation of Massias and Cerentanos, telling the life of her grandmother Cesira. Yet Elisa declares herself to be an untrustworthy, even mad narrator, and her story navigates the relationships between history and fiction, between the truth and the illusions she has inherited. She herself is the most afflicted by the hereditary illness of menzogna, she warns us.
Menzogna e sortilegio was Morante's bold attempt to achieve for the novel in Italian literature what Ariosto had achieved centuries earlier for the chivalric romance when he penned Orlando furioso—to write the last, best specimen of a genre and in doing so, kill that genre off! Complex, baroque, intensely self-conscious, Menzogna e sortilegio at times recalls Stendhal, at times Wuthering Heights. Generally heralded as Morante's masterpiece, the novel has influenced contemporary Italian authors such as Mariateresa Di Lascia. 

Vita di mia nonna; le nonne 

Vita di mia nonna was the title of the first 1943 draft of what would eventually become Menzogna e sortilegio. This actual title was explained by Morante as summing up the essence of the novel: "il contrasto fra la cronaca quotidiana e i mondi favolosi dell'immaginazione porta quasi tutti i personaggi a una conclusione tragica."[1]
So, given the title of Vita di mia nonna, we must ask: ma quale nonna? The paternal grandmother of Elisa, Alessandra, and her maternal grandmother, Cesira, happen to map rather neatly onto 2 poles: campagna / città.
These 2 grandmothers are Alessandra, la nonna contadina (one thinks of the grandmother in the 1937 story La nonna), and Cesira: la nonna cittadina (one thinks of the grandmother in 1935's Ladro dei lumi).
This city/country divide is crucial in Menzogna e sortilegio: the latifundia provide the wealth that the upper class enjoys, the class that the Cerentano family belongs to; the same wealth and status craved by others like Cesira, Francesco who seek it in town. The latifundium is integral to the plot, though physically peripheral: Alessandra's encounters with Nicola Monaco (the estate administrator who literally moves between these 2 realms) result in Francesco's birth, for example. Menzogna e sortilegio often feels urban, claustrophobic- with its domestic Roman, Sicilian cityscapes, labyrinthine streets- yet the countryside is also a space of constrictions and poverty. Like Verga, Morante doesn't romanticize the countryside or make it picturesque; it is where Francesco falls ill with disfiguring smallpox.  
I have often thought that Menzogna e sortilegio plays with the town/country spaces of 19th century English novels such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Mansfield Park, in which the primary setting is the country estate (note the house names in these last 2 titles...) Menzogna e sortilegio more closely resembles Great Expectations insofar as the wealth is derived from a "colonial" territory--the Sicilian countryside rather than Australia- and the action takes place in town-- "Palermo" rather than London. However, the Caribbean and American colonial fortunes that underpin novels such as Jane Eyre and Robinson Crusoe also come to mind.

Chapter of Menzogna e sortilegio: "Un ritrovo mal frequentato"

Appropriately for a chapter that will explore the divide, the boundaries between these 2 realms of città and campagna, the chapter I discuss today unfolds in a quite literally marginal place: a wretched wine shop patronized by gypsies, carbonai, carrettieri, and located nelle periferie of the city. Un ritrovo mal frequentato, as the chapter subheading says. Francesco passes dreary Sunday wintry afternoons there with his bored daughter Elisa.
As this chapter begins, Morante draws evidently upon Giovanni Verga. Morante's use of Verga, the late nineteenth century verista author, is not surprising as he was among her favorites and Menzogna e sortilegio has a Southern Italian setting similar to those often adopted by Verga.[2] In addition, Elsa Morante's  1945 tale "Il soldato siciliano," written in the same years she was at work on Menzogna e sortilegio, is strikingly influenced by Verga’s "Rosso Malpelo," as I explore in my manuscript. That the shop's owner is named Gesualdo and Francesco’s boast of a redhead smitten with him elicits a sly comment from the crowd about "Rosso Malpelo" further evoke Verga. By specifically mentioning the shop’s gypsy habitués, Morante introduces her typical Southern mythos (that same her novella Lo scialle andaluso demonstrates.) The jealousy of the malaria-ridden shopkeeper who keeps his wife (rumored to be a great beauty) perpetually cloistered and unseen is an initial jesting sketch – but one that echoes the marriage of Francesco and Anna too.  

"Il butterato si vanta"

Francesco is in the habit of giving lengthy, flowery, and untrue speeches in this wine shop-- we might think of Davide Segre’s speeches in La Storia. Francesco is a poor speaker, who seems to not only believe his own menzogna ["Pareva che le sue menzogne, appena dette, e in virtú, appunto della sua parola di ebbro, non fossero piú menzogne per lui, ma acquistassero tradizione e sostanza di verità." 514] regarding his own noble birth. He also predicts that "l’uomo dei secoli futuri sarebbe libero e felice." (514)  He is, however, not attuned to his audience who is inattentive and in their cups. Thus the second part of the chapter heading: Il butterato si vanta. In this "ritrovo mal frequentato" the young Elisa rehearses her role as our narrator and interpreter—there is even a cat to accompany her, like Alvaro, though this cat is unfriendly, feral, sooty, in keeping with the atmosphere of the wine shop and its rough patrons.  
Elisa’s inability to understand the double entendres of the male patrons in regards to Gesualdo's wife and Rosaria points to her unreliability in those roles of narrator and interpreter. (Rosaria, in fact, explains to Elisa later the true meaning of these witticisms.)
Elisa recalls one afternoon when a voice responds to Francesco from this audience—the speaker is "brigantesco e torvo." (We might think of "L'amante di Gramigna," and the brigand of that Verga story.) He wishes to describe something that happened to him "da giovanotto" when he used to fearfully attend church "come fossi stato una donna," he says. And he claims that his tale will illuminate to the signor "le sorti dei lavoratori" (519). Elisa observes that on the rare occasion that someone does speak from among the wine shop’s clientele, "il parlatore si mostrava perfino prolisso, e si rivelava, non meno di mio padre, empio e bugiardo. Uno di questi racconti da me uditi allora m'è rimasto nella memoria." (516) Thus a chain of grandiloquent speakers is established; this anecdote is told because it somehow remains lodged in Elisa's memory. This is in keeping with the production of this text as a whole, with Elisa’s familial disease of "menzogna," which makes her kin (as she declares in the prologue) worshiping falsehood, unable to recognize "nessuna felicità possibile fuori del non-vero!" (21) 

Assurdità infernale

The anecdote this unnamed speaker tells rewrites Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno, which contains the tale of Pier della Vigna in the wood of the suicides (itself a rewrite of the third book of Virgil’s Aeneid with Polydorus). The anecdote describes an incredible encounter with a tree that begins to speak after its branch is broken. I propose that Morante chooses this famous passage since it offers a moment where she sees nature and art joined, where sin and repentance are embodied, since the speaking and unnatural/natural body are precisely what is incredible about this canto. The chapter subheading with the word infernale reveals that the link with Dante is intentional—and recognized by Elisa, though we may ask, does she supply this title or is it Morante? And why "assurdità"?  
This storyteller is now an urban worker – a carrettiere- who used to have a more “country” profession: carbonaio. We might note that both are circulating jobs, moving within these spheres. What determines the movement of the carbonaio as opposed to the carrettiere, who drives where his patrons direct? Property laws govern the carbonaio and where he can gather wood--the same estates I mentioned previously. Nature is therefore divided by the same lines of class, status, as in town.
He recounts how he visited the stunted local wood during winter storm "una mattina d'inverno, tanto buia da parere una notte mi'incamminai per la montagna" (517); day seems like night and the wind evokes Canto 5's "bufera infernal che mai non resta.” He relates: "la boscaglia della pendice urlava e fischiava al pari d’una foresta" (517). We might think of who else wanders in a forest... 
He is tempted to harvest wood from a nobleman’s land, risking the sin of stealing.
Amidst this noise, he hears something confusing, disconcerting, strange: “mi parve d’udire nel frastuono un fischio umano, un motivo, come d’un un amico che mi chiamasse. Mi spinsi là donde era venuto il fischio, ma non vedendo persona viva, pensai d’aver sofferto un’allucinazione dell’udito. Nel dubbio, tuttavia, m’indugiavo, e intanto m’accade, giocando, distrattamente, di staccare un ramoscello dall’albero piú vicino; allora mi suonò accosto all’orecchio un urlo che mi gelò il sangue.” His perception that someone is calling to him evokes the misperceptions in Canto 13-  how Dante writes that Virgil thinks that Dante believes the wood of the suicides to be initially full of people hiding: "Cred' ïo ch'ei credette ch'io credesse"

Io sentia d’ogne parte trarre guai        22        Lamentations I heard on every side
e non vedea persona che ‘l facesse;    23        but I saw no one who might be crying out
per ch’io tutto smarrito m’arrestai.      24        so that, confused, I stopped.
  Cred’ ïo ch’ei credette ch’io credesse           25        I think he thought that I thought
che tante voci uscisser, tra quei bronchi,         26        all these voices in among the branches
da gente che per noi si nascondesse.   27        came from people hiding there.

Yet unlike Dante, who is purposefully directed by Virgil to pluck a "ramicel" the carbonaio abdicates responsibility for breaking off the branch. He is passive- this breakage simply happened while he was playing, distracted, at random from the nearest tree: "e intanto m’accade, giocando, distrattamente, di staccare un ramoscello dall'albero piú vicino." Thus the idea that a lesson will be conveyed is already confused-is this encounter accidental or purposeful? The tree challenges this abdication of responsibility, this distraction as it begins to speak, saying it is –"colui che tu mutilasti."
It explains: "Non sono un albero, sono un uomo battezzato come te, un carbonaio. Questo è il corpo mio, rabbioso e contorto, e questi rami agitati son le braccia mie, queste radici sono piedi miei." The carbonaio asks "se uomo sei, pianta sembri?" He initially assumes the tree, while human, stole wood from private lands, the same crime he was on the verge of committing. However, the tree explains that though he was honest, the profession of the carbonaio is per se sinful. Its contrapasso, the sentence of the damned carbonaio: "Chi, da vivo, bruciò rami e alberi per far carbone sia condannato, da morto, a vegetare nel suolo, e venga straziato, rotto, bruciato nelle membra per far carbone, rigermogliando nuovamente in eterno." (italics as in the original; 518) This parallels how souls fall into the Inferno and grow in the wood, as Pier della Vigna describes it:  

Cade in la selva, e non l’è parte scelta; 97      ‘It falls into the forest, in a spot not chosen,  ma là dove fortuna la balestra,           98        but flung by fortune, helter-skelter,
quivi germoglia come gran di spelta.  99        it fastens like a seed.

And not incidentally, by choosing a carbonaio, Morante plays upon Dante’s simile of a green log burning for Pier della Vigna’s voice— which evokes the humble process of making carbone:

Come d’un stizzo verde ch’arso sia     40        As from a green log, burning at one end,
da l’un de’ capi, che da l’altro geme   41        that blisters and hisses at the other
e cigola per vento che va via,            42        with the rush of sap and air,              
sì de la scheggia rotta usciva insieme  43        so from the broken splinter oozed                  parole e sangue                44        blood and words together…

Furthermore, this fate of eternally sprouting evokes Verga's words in "L'amante di Gramigna: "che la mano dell'artista rimarrà assolutamente invisibile, allora avrà l'impronta dell'avvenimento reale, l’opera d'arte sembrerà essersi fatta da sé, aver maturato ed esser sòrta spontanea, come un fatto naturale, senza serbare alcun punto di contatto col suo autore, alcuna macchia del peccato d'origine." Interesting how nature and sin appear here as well!
Yet there is still time for our narrator to save himself from this arboreal fate, to reflect and repent; otherwise the tree would not have spoken. The curious narrator asks about the fates of il falciatore, il fornaio, il fabbro? The tree merely "rideva alla maniera d'una strega." As for the fate of il macellaio? The tree gives a bloodcurdling "un gemito di lupo" (518).  
Another question is posed by the carbonaio: il gran signore, what is his destiny? The tree responds Socratically: "Fare niente è peccato?" The carbonaio reasons that those who do nothing in life, repose after death. However, the tree falls silent, withholding any final answers, perplexing the carbonaio who is left so unsure of his reasoning, so dumbfounded and confused that he has forgotten numbers to count with, which hand to cross himself with, he wouldn't even recognize his own mother if she returned from the dead... but he has a final question which returns to his initial misconception about his interlocutor (that he was a thief—a misconception that repeats his own near brush with criminality):
"Rubare è peccato?" The tree remains mute. Rubare è peccato seems a transformation of the anarchist slogan that private property is theft from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon decried the kind of property by which one person exploits the labor of another, while upholding property in another sense—such as the right of the craftsman to own his workshop and tools, or the farmer his fields, giving the individual control over his means of production. Specifically the kind of ownership that this worker lacks. And to look ahead to L'isola di Arturo’s revolutionary anarchist for the "Vera causa,"  Silvestro, La Storia's Davide Segre, Ida's father and Il mondo salvato dai ragazzini -- all expound anarchist-influenced ideas.
Reasoning that first, theft is punishable by imprisonment, and second, that a carrettiere at worst would be punished eternally by being transformed into a mule pulling a cart, our narrator staggers down the mountainside, resolved to quit his profession, and enter the city. It is striking that the carbonaio's questions are divided by class, profession, productive work, as opposed to the otium, the leisure of the gran signore. The same divide that determines not only where he can licitly gather wood, but also the fates of the characters—the leisure that Anna longs for, the wealth Cesira seeks, the status Francesco craves... Nature does not oppose culture in other words, they are entwined.
This tale is meant to be humorous, absurd, it elicits coarse laughter, "una corale risataccia" from the audience whose response guides ours. But Francesco appears to have not heard or even listened. (519) Clearly it is absurd to characterize every artisan as damned for all eternity, or that trees speak... or that grandi signori do not sin... or perhaps it is absurd that a carrettiere would know his Dante. Nature- harsh, terrifying, bewildering--is disenchanted here, the site of physical suffering, even eternal punishment. 
In contrast, we may recall that the art and artifice of the curtains of Edoardo's room in the Cerentano palace were "ricamate con fili di seta variopinte; e i fiori e frutti disegnati sul grande tappetto vincevano quelli della natura col loro smagliante colore." And for Elisa "questa camera del cugino parve cosí attraente, che avrei accettato volentieri di giacervi a lungo malata, al posto di Edoardo." [3] A bodily exchange and transformation for a different kind of suffering unto death, that of the gran signore… 
In conclusion, this bagatelle, this assurdità infernale proves to illuminate in a key of low comedy, reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, much of Menzogna e sortilegio, of the unreality of power (the power that is "tutto uno scherzo" as La Storia insists in its ritornello) and of the reality of great art to Morante, who describes herself as "essere stata addirittura risuscitata dai morti" by the extraordinary "vitalità" of her favorite authors. (Opere, vol 1, 1520)

[1] Morante, Garboli and Cecchi, eds., Opere vol 1., LVI.
[2] Elsa Morante, Opere vol. 2, eds. Cesare Garboli and Carlo Cecchi, (Milan: Mondadori, 1988), 1520.
[3] Morante, Menzogna e sortilegio  567.  

martedì 27 maggio 2014

Magnifica presenza morantiana al convegno AAIS

Il 23-25 maggio presso l'Università di Zurigo si è svolto il convegno annuale dell'American Association for Italian Studies, organizzato dalla professoressa Tatiana Crivelli, nel quale hanno partecipato non solo i soliti accademici e docenti americani ma anche un gran numero di studiosi europei. 

Eccovi alcuni esempi di conferenze sulla Morante:

The Cultural Crisis of Modernity: Fragmentation, Marginalization and Transgression in Italian Women Writers of the Novecento [II].  
  • Organizza: Chiara Fabbian
  • Modera: Alberica Bazzoni
  • Emanuela Piga — Altri sguardi e frammenti di storia nella scrittura di Elsa Morante

La maternità nella letteratura italiana delle donne dal ventesimo secolo ai giorni nostri [I]. 
  • Organizza e modera: Laura Lazzari    
  • Melanie Jorba — Le madri di Elsa Morante
  • Katrin Wehling-Giorgi — Ero io l’ordinatore della strage: Mothers and Violence in Morante, Ferrante and Sapienza

Dante in Dialogue [II]

  • Organizza: Jennifer Rushworth   
  • Modera: David Bowe
  • Manuele Gragnolati — Between Transformation and Identity: For a Diffractive Reading of Dante, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Elsa Morante

Ho avuto inoltre il piacere di far parte di un panel tutto dedicato alla Morante ed organizzato dalla professoressa Stefania Lucamante:

Unreality, Artifice, and Sin in Elsa Morante’s Writings
  • Organizza: Stefania Lucamante 
  • Modera: Gaetana Marrone-Puglia
  • Gabrielle Orsi — Disenchanted Nature: Assurdità infernale in Menzogna e sortilegio
  • Sharon Wood — From Sophocles to beat: Staging the modern self in Elsa Morante's "Una serata a Colono"
  • Claudia Karagoz — Peccati: Sin, Abjection, and the Body in Elsa Morante's Early Writing
  • Stefania Lucamante — Propaganda, pregiudizio, e totalitarismo: Arendt e il mondo della Storia


domenica 4 maggio 2014

Novità di Giovanna Rosa: "Elsa Morante. Profili di storia letteraria"

Seguo da anni l'ottimo lavoro di Giovanna Rosa- scrittrice, docente universitaria e ricercatrice italiana--e vi rimando con fiducia al suo libro Cattedrali di carta: Elsa Morante romanziere, del 1995. 

Ebbene, sono lieta di dare spazio a un importante libro nuovo suo: Elsa Morante. Profili di storia letteraria, del 2013.

È giunta l'ora per un'introduzione fresca alla vita e alle opere della Morante, secondo me... a mia conoscenza l'ultimo era Invito alla lettura di Elsa Morante di Carlo Sgorlon, che risale del 1972. A mio modesto parere, la lettura di Sgorlon oggi sembra un po' antiquato e per ovvi motivi non si tratta di Aracoeli (pubblicato circa dieci anni dopo l'uscita della monografia di Sgorlon, nel 1982).

Mi compro una copia di questo Invito; e ne scriverò di più qui sul blog, quando avrò finito di leggermelo.

Buona lettura!