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Elsa Morante: Menzogna e sortilegio (House of Liars; later: Lies and Sorcery)

Note that the original US version of this novel is an abridged version and not the complete text.

Though written at the end of the first half of the twentieth century this is essentially a nineteenth century novel written with a twentieth century sensibility. A few things give it away as a twentieth century novel – regular trains, even to remote rural areas, and a gramophone as well as the fact that, unlike most nineteenth century novels, none of the main characters survives unscarred. Indeed, most of them die, usually relatively unpleasant deaths. The other unusual feature is that there is no reference whatsoever to political events in the country. Napoleon is mentioned in passing but that is it.

But, as both the original English and the Italian titles imply (the Italian means Lies and Sorcery as the latest English-language book is titled), this is a story about people who delude themselves and others, who tell lies and live in a fantasy world. We follow three generations of the family, with the story told by the lone survivor, Elisa de Salvi. At the beginning her adoptive mother, Rosaria has just died. She then moves back in time and tells the story of her family.

Her grandfather on her mother’s side – Teodoro – is the black sheep of the family. He has run up huge debts and has been disowned by the family. He has a sister – Concetta Ceretano – who has married well but is now a widow with a daughter, whom she virtually ignores, and a very spoilt son, Edoardo. However, he has no contact with them. Elisa’s maternal grandmother – Cesira – is poor but ambitious and gets a position teaching the son of a well-to-do family. However, she flirts with one of the visitors, Teodoro, who is fascinated with her beauty, though he is much older and long since divorced. Her flirtations cost her her job but Teodoro marries her. Only when they are married, does she realise that he is bankrupt and that the creditors were waiting, hoping that he would make an advantageous marriage. When he does not, they close in. The couple start hating one another, Cesira goes back to teaching to earn some money for the family. They have a daughter – Anna – who adores her father, who is still handsome and dashing, and despises her mother. Teodoro has a stroke and, after an illness, dies. By this time, Anna is a young woman. By chance, she meets her cousin, Edoardo. Edoardo, as we have learned, is cruel and arrogant and selfish. We have seen him through his family’s steward, Nicola Monaco, who was a friend of Teodoro, who is critical of Edoardo but steals from him.

Edoardo, who enjoys flirting, flirts with his cousin and seems very interested in her – there is even a very un-nineteenth century sex scene – though his mother is very much opposed to the affair. Edoardo is taken ill and, when he recovers, cuts off all relations with Anna. Eventually, he goes abroad and then dies but not before he has introduced Anna to his friend, Francesco. Francesco is masquerading as a baron but is the son of a farmer who works on the Cerentano land and knew Nicola Monaco well. Indeed, Francesco’s mother, Alessandra, claims that Monaco is Francesco’s father. When Edoardo drops her and her mother dies, Anna is destitute and marries Francesco out of desperation. To make matters more complicated, Francesco had been having an affair with Rosaria (yes, the one who will become Elisa’s adoptive mother), who also had a brief fling with Edoardo.

As with Anna’s parents, this marriage is sour and bitter, though Elisa takes her mother’s side. Anna cannot get over her love for Edoardo and Francesco ends up a lowly postal worker, though resumes his relationship with Rosaria. When Francesco (a railway accident) and Anna (of some unspecified disease, though the implication is heartbreak) die, Elisa ends up with Rosaria, who still misses Francesco. At the end, Elisa is left alone and we are left with the impression that she, too, will have a miserable life. There are no redeeming characters in this book but Morante tells a superb nineteenth century story, dense, detailed and colourful.

Publishing history

First published 1948 by Einaudi
First English translation 1951 by Harcourt Brace
Translated by Adrienne Foulke (House of Liars), Jenny McPhee (Lies and Sorcery)