A woman in her twenties sets out to write the story of her family’s complete disintegration. Elisa has become a recluse in the home of her recently deceased former guardian, who loved her with a tenderness her parents never expressed. Those parents built their lives on deception, leaving her with a riddle she becomes obsessed with solving. She makes up stories about them until their characters are “no longer ghostly but very nearly flesh and blood,” and reflects that “I was now in possession of the last and most important bequest left to me by my parents—lies—which they had transmitted to me like a disease.” Since her grandparents, cousins, and aunts—the entire Massia family—led lives of deceit, too, the family disposition was never going to skip her. Claiming to be the “sickest of all,” Elisa willfully assumes the role of our unreliable narrator.
Then her family’s memories begin to appear in her dreams. And in the mornings, rather than writing her fabrications, she meticulously transcribes the stories presented to her, exactly as she witnessed them. The cast of characters includes, most notably, her mother and father, Anna and Francesco; her grandparents, Cesira and Teodoro; and her mother’s cousin, Edoardo. Across nearly eight hundred pages, Elisa recounts her maternal grandmother’s isolated childhood and embittered marriage, her mother’s unrequited love for her cousin, her father’s feigned life as a baron, her parents’ affairs, and her great-aunt’s loss of her son. The story is a portrayal of three disastrous maternal models, each disillusioned to the point of madness.
“The whole point here is to gather reliable proof of my family’s long-inbred insanity,” Elisa says. She hopes that, once their story is documented, she can free herself from the “spell these fables hold over [her]” and discern the origins of her family myths. Maybe, once the story has been written, she will even be able to leave the apartment.
During World War II, Elsa Morante, a Jewish translator and writer, lived in hiding in Sant’Agata, a small town roughly thirty-five miles south of Naples. She took the risk of returning to occupied Rome to retrieve the manuscript of what would become Menzogna e sortilegio (Lies and Sorcery). She worked on the book throughout the war—trapped, like Elisa, and seeking an escape. When it was published in 1948, Menzogna e sortilegio received the prestigious Premio Viareggio, and critic Georg Lukacs praised it as one of Italy’s most important works of the century. The book did face criticism for its excessive detail, confusing plot, and nineteenth-century narrative form, which was inspired in part by Don Quixote (the story is divided into two parts, one potentially riddled with lies and the other supposedly telling the truth). The original English translation from 1951, titled House of Liars, was not well-received: heavily abridged, it cut the novel to 565 pages and stripped Morante of her ornate prose.
The rise of Elena Ferrante in the last ten years has led to a renewed interest in Italian women writers, prompting the (re)translation of the novels of her predecessors. This has led to an expansion of the Italian literary canon in the English language. Natalia Ginzburg, now considered to be the greatest female postwar Italian writer, has had six of her books, Family Lexicon (2017), Happiness, As Such (2019), Valentino (2020), Sagittarius (2020), Family (2021), and Borghesia (2021), retranslated since the rise of her successor. Ginzburg admired Morante, calling her the writer of her own generation that she admired most; Ferrante’s chosen pen name, too, evokes Morante. But she, until now, has been little read in English.
Lies and Sorcery, like the novels of Ferrante and Ginzburg, delves into the deepest recesses of the feminine psyche, reveling in its flows and flaws. Part One of the novel follows Cesira, Elisa’s maternal grandmother, who, despite her ambitions, fails to climb out of poverty. This disappointment leads her to vent her anger on her husband, Teodoro, whom she married under the belief that he was rich, unaware of his financial ruin despite his noble status. Cesira’s anger is described as something that “bewitches” her; as she ages and loses her beauty, she grows convinced that her husband has put an evil spell on her. When Teodoro experiences “true, pure, incurable love” through their daughter, Anna, Cesira grows resentful of her youth and beauty, which represents a “perfect female specimen of the paternal line.”
Lies and Sorcery presents a scathing account of the self-destructive pattern of narcissistic love, particularly between women. The novel’s strained mother-daughter relationships include two generations of mothers suffering from mental breakdowns, overidentifying with their daughters, and pining for other men. Morante wrote with an unyielding determination to flesh out her familial characters—this is, in part, based on her real experience of having a biological father who was not her mother’s husband, as well as her mother’s arrangement for Morante to spend months at a time with a wealthy woman to help her gifted daughter rise in the world. The book is dedicated to the narrator’s mother, Anna, “or rather, to the fairy tale,” and opens with a poem that begins, “in you, fiction, I cloak myself.”
Family Lexicon, perhaps Ginzburg’s most famous work, opens with the declaration, “The places, events, and people in this book are real. I haven’t invented a thing.” In that book, Ginzburg records the anti-fascist movement in Italy in the first half of the twentieth century through family sayings, which serve as a secret language and a form of resistance. There is no grand conclusion about World War II; it is a backdrop to the story. Ginzburg writes, “Soon no one was left who could pretend it wasn’t happening, who could close their eyes, plug their ears, and hide their heads under a pillow; those people were all gone. This is what the war was like in Italy.”
Lies and Sorcery, though written during the war, doesn’t even observe it obliquely (Morante wouldn’t take that on until 1974, with History: A Novel). This is not to say that Lies and Sorcery is apolitical—an implicit class critique underlies the narrative through the characters’ refusal to accept their poverty. They lash out, they spit, they curse each other for their fate. Perhaps we can understand Morante by situating her between Ginzburg and another contemporary, Anna Maria Ortese, whose fantastical first novel, The Iguana, is set on an uncharted island. Morante writes deftly between the two modes, weaving fairy tales into her familial stories.
There’s a mysticism common to the Massia women: they believe that fate commands their lives, that sorcery is trapped in family gems, and that gentlemen possess magical powers with keys to paradise. Most of all, they exalt family history as the stuff of myths. I understand this tendency; I know I try to piece together the disparate stories of the generations that passed before my birth, documenting histories that would otherwise be lost. I’ve become fixated on the differences between the stories passed down by my mother’s side of the family, who have lived in New England for generations, and my dad’s, who immigrated from Italy through Ellis Island in the twentieth century. Recently, an older cousin told me where to find the Brooklyn garment factories my grandparents and great-grandparents worked in, and that Our Lady of Grace Church on Avenue W has my great-uncle’s name on the wall, commemorating his death in a POW camp during World War II. But these stories inevitably remain incomplete. The breadcrumbs our ancestors leave behind assume a mystical quality, serving as potent links to the past.
Elisa’s father, for his part, rejects his family: once Francesco moves to the city and pretends to be a baron, he never visits his mother, even though she had been unwaveringly devoted to him as a child. Each character is trapped in their illusions about money, worshipping it “not for what it could buy, but as an ancient symbol of power and dignity.” But Francesco’s latent love for his mother “[gets] its revenge” by seizing him with frightening images of her death in the night. He becomes terrified her ghost might appear to tell him she has died, fearing the woman he loves most was at the mercy of some entity of which he had no understanding. When Anna grows up, she marries Francesco and resents him for their poverty. She secretly longs for a proposal from her cousin, Edoardo, a selfish, cruel aristocrat who lives in his mother’s mansion. After seducing Anna, Edoardo disfigures her face with a curling iron before deserting her forever.
After Edoardo’s untimely death, his mother refuses to accept the loss of her only son: she tells herself he must be off traveling and keeps his room ready for his return. Anna finds herself welcomed into her aunt’s home after forging letters from her cousin about his travels, creating a false reality in which Edoardo loved and confided in her. As multiple generations of Massia women pine over his ghost, I thought of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Natural Resources”:
The phantom of the man-who-would-
the lost brother, the twin—
For him did we leave our mothers,
deny our sisters, over and over?
These lines appear in Marianne Hirsch’s The Mother/Daughter Plot, as does Luce Irigaray’s definition of Western culture as inherently matricidal. “The bond between mother and daughter, daughter and mother, must be broken so that the daughter can become woman,” Hirsch writes. Hirsch argues that the heroine’s condition of motherlessness is an attempt “to cut herself off from a constraining past, to invent a new story, her own story . . . eager to avoid the typically devastating fate of her mother.” Elisa says as much herself: that she writes in order to plot the trajectory of the phantoms’ lives and lay them to rest. But as she gets lost in the history, she, too, becomes enamored with Edoardo, even though she is aware that his capriciousness drove her ancestors to sorrowful madness. She is vaguely aware that the more she continues to consume her family’s story, the more “she is herself consumed by it.” In the end, he becomes as dear to her as her parents, this phantom of the man-who-would-understand.
And so I’m left wondering: is Elisa’s attempt to appease the ghosts successful—is it freeing, in other words, to record family history as truthfully as possible? Given the acknowledgment of her inherited “sickness” at the beginning of the book, we cannot even be sure what in the story is true. Hirsch points out that a number of female authors in history seem to identify as daughters. Elisa, too, defines herself by her status as a daughter, a niece, and a granddaughter, and—to enter the murky territory of biography—Elsa Morante never had children. Could this be the “freedom” Elisa achieves? To not pass on the disease?
The book ends, jarringly, with a ballad dedicated to Elisa’s cat, her only living companion. We don’t know if she ever leaves the apartment. Instead, she tells us that this animal is all she needs: “You who are perennially free and innocent, / while my fate contains three things: / prison, sin, and death.” Writing, even after all these pages, has not broken Elisa’s bond to her family.
Flipping between a used copy of House of Liars and the new NYRB edition, I found that this retranslation was abundantly necessary, its purpose clear. If each translation of a book is a metamorphosis, Lies and Sorcery restores the winding, labyrinthine prose to its author, bringing English readers closer to Morante’s original vision. Although it sets out to be a book of lies, I found while reading it that, perhaps more than anything else I have read, this new translation of Morante seemed to express something true about the desire to unravel family history.
© 2023 by Brianna Di Monda. All rights reserved.