I have long wanted to read the Italian writer Elsa Morante, ever since I learned of her influence on Elena Ferrante (you can find my reviews of Ferrante’s work here). Arturo’s Island was Morante’s second novel, originally published in Italian in 1957, and now freshly translated by Ann Goldstein for this Pushkin Press edition (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). It is a beautifully-observed, passionate coming-of-age story, one that captures the pain and confusion of adolescence in an imaginative, poetic style.
The narrative is told from the viewpoint of Arturo Gerace as he looks back on his teenage years spent on the remote island of Procida in the Bay of Naples – a tumultuous, troubling time in this young individual’s life.
At fourteen, Arturo spends most of his days roaming around the island, dreaming of great adventures with pirates, kings and other enigmatic figures from tales of fantasy. His father, Wilhelm, is a restless wanderer who frequently leaves the island for long periods with no planned date of return. With his unpredictable nature and temperament, Wilhelm is prone to frequent outbursts, displaying little thought for the feelings and sensitivities of those around him. In spite of this, Arturo idolises his father unquestioningly, eagerly anticipating the day when he is old enough to join Wilhelm on his seemingly intrepid travels.
Every act of his, every speech, had a dramatic fatality for me. In fact, he was the image of certainty, and everything he said or did was the verdict of a universal law from which I deduced the first commandments of my life. Here was the greatest seduction of his company. (p. 24)
Life for young Arturo is a solitary one, with his father often away and his mother no longer alive following her death in childbirth. He yearns for some much-needed love and affection, the kind fuelled by his romantic imagination – the absence of Arturo’s mother is very keenly felt.
She was a person invented by my regrets, and so she had, for me, every wished-for kindness, and different expressions, different voices. But, above all, in the impossible longing I had for her, I thought of her as faithfulness, intimacy, conversation: in other words, all that fathers were not, in my experience. (p. 44)
Moreover, young Arturo is largely in charge of the Geraces’ home, a somewhat run-down, castle-like building bequeathed to Wilhelm by an old friend – a man with an intense dislike of women and their ‘ugly’ appearances. As such, Arturo has had very little exposure to girls or women during his life, particularly given the isolated nature of his upbringing.
One day, Wilhelm returns unexpectedly to Procida with his new bride, Nunziata – a rather hesitant young girl from Naples who has been pushed into marriage by her mother, Violante. At sixteen, Nunziata is barely older than Arturo, a situation that leaves our protagonist struggling to understand this sudden change in dynamics and everything it represents. For the first time in his life, Arturo has a rival for his father’s affections, one who is almost as inexperienced and naïve as the young boy himself.
When I passed my father’s room, I heard from behind the closed door an excited whispering. I was almost running when I reached my room: I suddenly had the sharp, incomprehensible sensation that I had received from someone (whom I couldn’t yet recognise) an inhuman insult, impossible to avenge. I undressed quickly and, as I threw myself into bed, wrapping myself in the covers up to my head, a cry from her reached me through the walls: tender, strangely fierce, and childlike. (p. 124)
Virtually as soon as he has arrived home, Wilhelm becomes restless again, seeking the company of Nunziata and Arturo one minute and then shunning it the next. It’s not long before Wilhelm begins to view Nunziata as an appendage, akin to a tiresome relative of little interest or importance. Consequently, Arturo and Nunziata – the latter now pregnant with Wilhelm’s child – are left mostly on their own at the Casa dei Guaglioni while Wilhelm continues his erratic travels abroad.
At first, Arturo wants as little as possible to do with his new stepmother, shunning her company in favour of wandering around the island.
My antipathy towards my stepmother, meanwhile, didn’t diminish but became fiercer every day. And as a result of the life she led with me during my father’s absence from the island was certainly not very happy. I never spoke to her except to give her orders. If I was outside and wanted to summon her to the window to give her some command, or warn her of my arrival, I used to simply whistle. (p. 158)
Then, all of a sudden, he experiences a dramatic change of heart, prompted by the belief that Nunziata’s life may be in danger during the birth of her child, Carminiello. From this point onwards, Arturo begins to see his stepmother in a new light, viewing her as more beautiful and graceful than before. Meanwhile, Nunziata devotes herself to caring for the new baby, mainly at the expense of any consideration for Arturo or his potential needs – a situation that leaves Arturo feeling somewhat jealous of his new stepbrother.
I felt I could never have peace if she didn’t return to being, toward me, at least, the same as she had been before the fatal arrival of my stepbrother; and yet at no cost did I want to betray that longing to her. So I looked desperately for a means that, without wounding my pride, would force her to be concerned with me, or to manifest once and for all, her irredeemable indifference towards Arturo Gerace. (p. 233)
As the months slip by, Arturo must try to make sense of his emotions as they oscillate between an idealised form of first love for Nunziata and abject disillusionment – his demonstrations of affection are swiftly rejected. He tries, somewhat in vain, to grapple with new and confusing situations in this abrupt exposure to the complexities of the adult world.
Arturo’s Island is an emotionally-rich novel, frequently punctuated with passages of profound depth. Morante skilfully captures the vulnerabilities of youth, the maelstrom of emotions that characterises Arturo’s adolescence – the young boy’s experiences are very keenly felt. The author’s style is perfectly matched to the subject matter at hand: lyrical, intuitive and painfully perceptive. While the main thrust of the narrative takes places in the run-up to WW2, there is a timeless feel to this story, akin to a classic myth or fable.
With its imposing penitentiary, Procida is painted as an isolated, mysterious place, one with elements of menace and darkness, albeit lightened by the allure of the natural world. Morante’s descriptions of the island’s environment are beautifully expressed.
As this excellent novel draws to a close, Arturo must contend with emotions of antipathy, lust, jealousy and disillusionment. Morante’s portrayal of the young boy’s experiences is both intimate and compelling, tackling themes of forbidden love and ambiguous sexuality with insight and sensitivity. Alongside the struggle to reconcile his feelings for Nunziata, Arturo must also come to terms with a new, rather disturbing vision of his father – a discovery that will leave a mark on his character forever.
This is a layered, emotionally-rich novel, one that will likely suit lovers of interior-driven fiction with a strong sense of place. The pace is leisurely, reflecting the rhythm of life on the island – definitely a slow burner, but one that will reward the reader’s patience and emotional investment.
I read this book for Biblibio’s #WITMonth, which is running throughout August. For an interesting companion piece dealing with similar themes, see Agostino (1944) by Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante’s husband – also very highly recommended indeed.