italian writer elsa morante loved catsI never met a woman named Aracoeli. As I read Elsa Morante’s impressive and  disturbing 1982 novel, of the same name, I wondered how to correctly pronounce “Aracoeli” and if it might be a common name for girls in Italy. My Italian friends Francesca and Renato both wagged their heads and fingers when I asked. “No,” they said. “It is a latin word. Imperative tense, a command, in fact that orders you ‘to look up to the sky’.”

And then, after finishing the book, I remembered having visited a church in Rome, located at the top of a hundred steps and to the side of the ‘wedding cake’ on Capoltine Hill: Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. It’s a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin for having given birth to the first son of God. At Christmas, pilgrims come from all over the city to adore the infant, play music for him,and leave him gifts.

The latin verbal command, along with the Blessed Virgin and child Jesus signifiers, are gateways into the novel, which like much of Morante’s work combs through childhood: how children look up to mothers who (at least in the beginning) love them unconditionally; and from that pinnacle of perfect the painful descent into adulthood. Life chips away illusions, fantasy, dreams, and family love.

The narrator of Aracoeli, a boy named Emanuel, laments that he is torn from the uterus but, as a reward for that pain, is glued to the wonderful teat of his beautiful mother, Aracoeli. That joy and the joy of his mother’s total adoration is a temporary way station. Emanuel grows into an ugly, nearly blind boy who wears thick glasses. He can’t read signals, is never chosen for any part, and suffers humiliation after humiliation from his family, schoolmates, and strangers. However, the worst weight he takes on is: THOU SHALT NEVER BE AN OBJECT OF LOVE NOT EVER.

Emanuel takes a lugubrious journey. He witnesses his mother become a nymphomaniac and then die from a brain tumor, which, supposedly, transformed her behavior. His father, a strikingly handsome naval officer, is distant and emotionally retarded by patrician restraints.  His Aunt Mondo, who lives nearby is concerned with what other people think and looks down her nose at Aracoeli because she is not from upper class stock.

Emanuel’s first intimate sexual encounter is with a wrinkled old prune of a woman who wears lots of make-up and who lives in a shit-smeared, bombed-out apartment building. The woman only charges ten lire but he can’t do it with her, or with anyone.  He ends up a kneeling homosexual who is never invited to bend over to receive.

During his life Emanuel has but one friend: a Sicilian sailor who lives in a closet under the steps in the familys hous ein Rome. In service to his Admiral, Emanuel’s father, the sailor takes care of Emanuel, walks him to school, cooks him sardine dinners. Aracoeli eventually rapes the young man and sends him scurrying back to Sicily, leaving her son once again abandoned and alone.

Add to the constant situational ugliness, that Emanuel insists is his fate–the wise glaze of childhood innocence; the bourgeois class system; the threat of Communism; Italian Fascism following on the heels of the Spanish Civil war; a dissolving family unit; and an utterly top notch translation–any fan of literature will undoubtedly realize he or she is reading one terrific novel.

The prose ( elegantly translated by William Weaver)  is mesmerizing. Morante was a natural, though not prolific writer. Neither was she well-educated, but she is brilliant. If you categorize her as a modern literary ‘woman’ novelist, Morante leaves Virginia Wolf, Doris Lessing, and Iris Murdoch behind in the dust. She stands right up there with as much word and story-telling muscle as any great ‘male’ writer. Perhaps her dark, disturbing stories has limited her popularity.

Aracoeli is not light, easy-reading entertainment. Aracoeli is an artistically crafted story that forces you think on a profound level–about love, about time and memory, about parenting, about sex, your childhood, your children, war, psychotherapy, philosophy, and about the ugliness in the world.

Millie grazie to OPEN LETTERS, an arm of University of Rochester that publishes literary translations, for including Elsa Morante in their corral.


A bow to the story arc in Aracoeli=looking up at the sky:

At the beginning of the novel Emanuel, living in bliss within the embrace of early childhood and unconditional love, looks up. “The sky was emptied on to the earth and into the water….All the colors were interchanged. It was a constant delight to see that transformation of space. The night was also colored.  The stars had countless, different colors besides gold and silver….it was a fact, too, that the world was not planted on the ground like a tree, but was suspended in air, in the midst of the firmament, ..our house, like a kite fastened to the earth by a string. And so the stars looked much closer.

At novels end, the narrator, Emanuel, is in his fifties and has NEVER BEEN AN OBJECT OF LOVE. Looking into the same sky: “I look up into the starry sky, I see it all as a black furnace, spurting embers and sparks; and there, all the energies we have expended awake and asleep continue to burn, never being consumed.  There, inside that planetary furnace, our life is paid off.  It is here, from our lives, that the whole THERE sucks all the energy for its movement.”

Note bene: As he begins his story, Emauel says he wished he had known all the writhing he did to find love would not have been met with rejection and relapses and therefore confirm his destiny, which was to be unloved.


by Elsa Morante

translated by William Weaver

published by OPEN LETTER

at the University of Rochester

311 pp