‘Arturo’s Island’ by Elsa Morante (Review)

While this week’s first Italian post was very much about the journey, today’s review is all about the destination.  We’re moving from a collection of short prose-poems to one of my more favoured genres, a meaty classic novel perfect for a few days of self-isolation pleasure.  We’re off, then, on a Mediterranean holiday, to spend a couple of years on an island with a boy who’s never left it, in a tale of beaches, hills castles and the joys of wandering freely.  Oh, and, of course, family…

*****
Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press) takes us to the small island of Procida, not too far from Naples, where Arturo Gerace has grown up in virtual isolation.  His mother died in childbirth, and his father, the German-born Wilhelm Gerace, is a wanderer, leaving the island for months at a time, only to return unexpectedly (often during the summer) to catch up with his son.

That may seem a rather lonely existence for a young boy, but Arturo has known no other life and is happy as the master of his domain, spending his days climbing hills or taking his boat out to sea, then coming back late to eat whatever the family servant, who visits daily, has left him for dinner.  However, nothing lasts forever, and when Arturo’s father comes back to the island one day, he has company.  Wilhelm has taken Nunziata, a young Neapolitan woman, as his second wife, meaning Arturo is no longer alone in the house he’s lived in since his birth.  For a boy at a pivotal period in his life, the arrival of this step-mother stirs up a mixture of emotions and puts an end to his carefree, boyish existence.

My Pushkin Press edition of the book has praise from Elena Ferrante on both the front and back covers, and that’s unsurprising as Morrante is often cited as an inspiration of Ferrante’s (both for her work and the pseudonym).  On the evidence of Arturo’s Island, it’s easy to see why she’s such a fan.  Morante’s book, winner of the prestigious Strega Prize, is a wonderfully absorbing Bildungsroman, a novel looking at a couple of years in the life of a boy on the verge of becoming a man.

The story runs to 370 pages over eight sections, each divided into little chapters of a few pages each, and yet very little really happens.  Much of our time is spent with Arturo, a boy enjoying his free-range childhood on an island which is itself one of the more memorable characters of the book:

And if a stranger happens to get off at Procida, he marvels at not finding here that open and happy life, of celebrations and conversations on the street, of song and the strains of guitars or mandolins, for which the region of Naples is known throughout the world,  The Procidans are surly, taciturn.  All the doors are closed, alomost no one looks out the window, every family lives within its four walls and doesn’t mingle with the other.  Friendship, among us, isn’t welcomed.  And the arrival of a stranger arouses not curiosity but, rather, distrust.  If he asks questions, they are answered reluctantly, because the people of my island don’t like their privacy spied on.
p.4 (Pushkin Press, 2019)

Arturo is no exception to this native tendency, so it’s little wonder that the arrival of the young stepmother throws his young existence into disarray.  Soon, though, the relationship between them becomes fraught for different reasons, with the time the two spend together inevitably changing how they feel about one another.

In truth, though, while Arturo’s Island is named for its narrator and major figure, the focus of the novel is very much his father.  Wilhelm is Arturo’s idol, and the boy sketches out a portrait of a rather unusual man, one who seems unable to stay put, leaving his son (and later his wife) behind to go off on his travels, only to pop up when least expected.  Fathers always loom large in their children’s imagination, and Wilhelm appears to be a giant for Arturo, a legendary sea-faring adventurer travelling the globe in search of riches.

However, Arturo knows him well enough to realise there’s a dark side to his character, and even when Wilhelm is by the boy’s side, he’s never really present, his eyes gazing into the distance, thinking about his next journey.  Nunziata has it even worse, though.  Having been gradually worn down, as we later learn, by Wilhelm’s persistent advances, and agreeing to become his wife, she arrives on the island to find a run-down house, a hostile step-son and a husband who has suddenly revealed another facet of his personality:

“You’re afraid, eh? You’re afraid of your wedding night!” my father exclaimed, breaking into a fresh, free and pitiless laugh.  “Stay here.  Don’t move.”  And he clasped her more tightly to his hip, enjoying her fear.  “You’re right to be afraid: you know, yes, what happens to girls on their wedding night!  But the worst, then, Nunzià, is that you very seldom meet a husband as mean as I am.  Husbands are usually meek little men…  No, it’s pointless to try to escape now; you can’t save yourself, it’s over! (p.122)

All of which seems like a very bad start to a marriage.

Yet as Arturo grows up, he begins to understand that his father isn’t who he thinks he is and wonders just what it is he gets up to when off the island.  His childish visions of his father’s adventures were mere fantasies, so as the youth grows older (and taller), his view of Wilhelm changes along with his more mature perspective.  The second half of the novel sees the son catching the father in his more private moments.  It’s now that Arturo realises that his idol doesn’t just have feet of clay – he may have been fatally flawed all along…

One of the more enjoyable aspects of Arturo’s Island is the way it opens a window into another place and time.  While released in 1957, it’s set at some point before that and appears to hail back even further, with a distinct nineteenth-century feel.  This comes from the ageless stone houses (including the family’s Gothic ‘castle’), the traditional roles (and invisibility) of the island’s women, the carriages creaking up from the port and the use of bellows to get the fire going.  Quite apart from the old-fashioned nature of daily life, the island’s remoteness from modern society, despite its proximity to the mainland, exaggerates the distance between Arturo and the reader.

Also recalling the manner of nineteeth-century literature is the structure of a man looking back and telling the reader the story of his boyhood.  Skilfully crafted, at times flowing effortlessly, the story allows us to drift in Arturo’s wake up and down the hills and off to the beaches he knows so well.  The story can also be emotional in places, with the narrator’s objective tone cracking, and the boy’s enthusiasm and passion shining through, and where the first half of the book appears to consist of days that will last forever, time gradually exacts its due.  There are subtle hints, then more concrete signs, that the boy’s time on the island is drawing to a close.

Arturo’s Island is a wonderful book by a writer who is well worth checking out, and not just for the Ferrante connections.  I’m sorry I didn’t get around to trying this sooner as it’s a perfect read for days spent at home wishing you could spread your wings a little.  Self-isolation isn’t always as relaxing as it sounds, but rediscovering gems like this on your shelves can certainly make the days a little more enjoyable, and brighter 🙂

4 thoughts on “‘Arturo’s Island’ by Elsa Morante (Review)

  1. Happy to read that you really liked ‘Arturo’s Island’ by Elsa Morante. It was my favorite novel for last year. Her husband Alberto Moravia is a wonderful writer also.

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    1. Tony – Really enjoyed it. I actually have a collection of her stories in Italian on my shelves – it’s just a matter of gathering the courage and determination to sit down and give them a go 😉

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  2. It sounds excellent, though 370 pages is a little longer than I’d like. It sounds like it maintains interest throughout though.

    Oddly enough I’ve been to Procida. It had probably changed a bit in the intervening decades – when I went there it was a day trip for Neapolitans wanting a beach.

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    1. Max – I actually forgot to check whether it was a real place or not, so thanks for that! Yes, I’m sure things are very different than they were in Arturo’s day 😉

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