I 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.

ARACOELI by Elsa Morante    translated by William Weaver   published by OPEN LETTER  at the University of Rochester  www.openletterbooks.org