"The first time I read Aracoeli, I found it almost pointlessly disturbing and shocking. On rereading it, I still found it disturbing and shocking, but I have also grown to admire it--perhaps because it is so dark and resists any attempt to classify it. In writing this novel, Morante may have knowingly sacrificed clarity and logic in order to express her vision of a chaotic world." (Lily Tuck,Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante) Aracoeli--Elsa Morante's final novel--is the story of an aging man's attempt to recover the past and get his life on track in the process. The Aracoeli of the title is the narrator's deceased mother, who grew up in a small Spanish town before marrying an upper-class Italian navy ensign. The idyllic years she spends with her only son--Manuel, the narrator of the novel--are shattered when she contracts an incurable disease (probably syphilis) and becomes a nymphomaniac. Now, at the age of 43, Manuel, an unattractive, self-loathing, recovering drug addict who works a dead-end job at a small publishing house, decides to travel to her hometown in Spain in order to look for her. Filled with dreams and remembrances the novel creates a Sebaldian landscape of memory out of this painful journey, painting a portrait that is both touching and bleak. Appearing here for the first time in paperback--the hardcover was published in 1984--Aracoeli is an important, and long-neglected, work in Morante's oeuvre.
The first half of the book switches between Manuele’s empty present life, where he decides to go back to Aracoeli’s Spanish hometown, and the past, where he describes his parents’ anomalous relationship and marriage and their happy life together. The prose is wonderfully vivid and little details, like a servant’s snobbery, the differing character of their neighbors, or Aracoeli’s shopping habits, end up being memorable. Manuele’s father, a naval officer, and Aracoeli, an uneducated peasant girl, have a love at first sight relationship. After she has Manuele, his father moves them to a small house outside of the city until their marriage and removal to a class-appropriate flat. Manuele’s Aunt Monda, a helpful and busy spinster, provides support and teaches Aracoeli how to behave correctly. The narrator recollects their time in the little house as a lost paradise, when he had his mother all to himself. Even when they moved and he had to share her with his father, his life was still happy. He believes Aracoeli loves him less as he grows older and uglier, but their final estrangement starts with some family tragedies and Aracoeli’s increasingly bizarre behavior. The second half of the book stays in the past and depicts Aracoeli’s unhappy end.
Describing the plot can’t really give the feel of the book, with Manuele’s feverish obsessions and dreams, his frequently recurring inside references, occasional disquisitions on fate and unhappiness, and his detailed descriptions of every facet of the only happiness he’s ever known. The juxtaposition between the lengthy, twisting prose and Manuele’s childish self or the mundane events in the 1970’s works well. His present life is very depressing and he only has bad memories of life after Aracoeli. While the prose was still creative and high-flown in these sections, they weren’t as interesting to read. Besides the dead-end feel of the present sections, the other problem I had with the book was a possible interpretation of Manuele’s stunted romantic relationships. Unfortunately, his life seems to fit a negative stereotype of gay men – he turned to men because of a rejecting mother and badly behaving/gross women. Those bits were annoying, but overall this is a very well-written book. Recommended, with the above caveats.
It's not clear to me what Elsa Morante set out to do here. I don't think it's an accident that this book spends long monotonous stretches detailing the narrators history with his mother. I'm guessing this was Morante's way of really imprinting this deep in the readers mind, giving the book some heft, a lot of heft. And that I think that works. It was effective, rewarding to an extent. This is a carefully and deeply crafted book.
As other reviews have mentioned, the highlight of this book is the exquisite language. William Weaver definitely deserves some credit for his beautiful translation. Despite the fact that I was torn between pity and disgust for the protagonist throughout the novel, reading about him was, if not a pleasant experience, a moving and surprisingly beautiful one. I think that Elsa Morante touches on a basic element of humanity in Emmanuel, the need that all people have to be loved and accepted. Emmanuel's search for those things certainly hit close enough to home to make me feel uncomfortable at times.
Although the pace is sometimes sluggish, it is definitely a masterfully crafted book that will haunt you some time after you've finished it.