“That terrible ungrateful age”: Elsa Morante, Arturo’s Island

arturo

We should recognize that it’s not easy to cross the last frontiers of that terrible ungrateful age without having anyone to confide in: neither a friend nor a relative! Then, for the first time in my life, I truly felt the bitterness of being alone.

Arturo’s Island was my book club’s choice to follow Lampedusa, which we all loved so much that we wanted to stay longer in Italy, if only in our imaginations. We thought a real Italian book would give us something different than another book just set there, and we were right: Arturo’s island is nothing like the languorous, sensual, sun-drenched Italy of so many English novels. There is plenty of passion, but it is all ugly, uncomfortable, awkward, confused, confusing passion–that is to say, it is the passion of male adolescence, and being immersed in it for 350 pages is anything but a holiday in the sun.

I really disliked reading Arturo’s Island. I don’t know if I would have stuck with it, if it hadn’t been for my book club. It may be (and I think we ultimately concluded that it is) a “good” novel, in that it does what it sets out to do (as far as we could discern what that was) really effectively. It seems fully committed to its own unpleasantness and to Arturo’s emotional disarray. It does not do any of the formal or literary things that would have lessened the impact of Arturo’s account of his youthful errors and offenses, from his vaguely loutish behavior to his obsession with and eventual cruelty to his young stepmother, from his hero-worship of his horrible father (his father is really really horrible, in general and to Arturo) to his murderous thoughts about his tiny stepbrother. There is no retrospective narration to show us how he has learned and grown: there are a couple of comments that tell us he has grown up and away (“Later, when we’re old, I know, such tragedies are, more than anything, comic; and, If I like, now, at a distance, I, too, can laugh”) but nothing frames his nasty story, nothing softens it, nothing excuses it. We get no post-childhood, post-island Arturo to show us either that he never really got over his turbulent past, with all the freedom a boy could want but none of the love, or that he found the nurture and maturation he needed somewhere else.

arturo smallWe thought that absence of solace or redemption had to be deliberate: that Morante had to be setting us up to see how wrong Arturo is, and to infer explanations and justifications (perhaps) for his wrongness, without ever letting us escape from it. Assuming the goal was immersion, emotion, and discomfort (with a significant tincture of pity, because Arturo really has a pretty deprived and distorted life) it’s a novel that is very good by the Lewes Standard (matching means to ends, a measure of greatness I derive from GHL’s assertion that Austen was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end”). There are some other good things about the novel, too. The descriptions of the island are full of vivid details, and you really get a strong sense of Arturo’s strange life there, running wild and shaping his own strange identity from his father’s books. It’s also (and again, we thought maybe this was purposeful) a powerful antidote to sentimental or picturesque notions of Italy: it makes sense to me that the novel as Elena Ferrante’s endorsement, as her novels too (IMHO etc.) are ugly and unsentimental and driven by raw emotion–and, as Arturo’s Island is (at least implicitly), highly critica of certain strains of macho Italian masculinity. No flowery Tuscan hills here; no operatic gorgeousness; no above all, no love.

So: an interesting, unsettling, reading experience – and a very good discussion, because we all had quite strong, complicated, and sometimes contradictory reactions to the book, which I guess makes it a good choice even though I didn’t like it!

2 thoughts on ““That terrible ungrateful age”: Elsa Morante, Arturo’s Island

  1. Tony February 12, 2021 / 1:56 am

    Oh, dear – I thought this was excellent 😉

    • Rohan Maitzen February 12, 2021 / 10:28 am

      One thing I try hard to do is separate my reaction from questions of merit. I didn’t think it was a bad novel – in fact, I think it probably is excellent!

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