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Sensory and physical perceptions of the Roman round-up of 16-18 October 1943 in Elsa Morante’s La Storia: a cultural memory perspective

Perceptions physiques et sensorielles de la rafle romaine dans La Storia d’Elsa Morante : littérature et mémoire culturelle
Percezioni fisiche e sensoriali della razzia romana in La Storia di Elsa Morante: letteratura e cultural memory
Mara Josi

Résumés

Cet article analyse la réélaboration littéraire de la rafle advenue à Rome entre le 16 et le 18 octobre 1943 dans La Storia d’Elsa Morante. En prenant en considération les origines juives de Morante, il revient sur son expérience globale de la guerre et de l’occupation allemande et examine la nature de l’engagement dans le récit de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale à la lumière de la description de la rafle avec les instruments de l’histoire culturelle de la mémoire. Dans l’article est proposée une analyse de la fonction de la littérature comme médiation de la connaissance historique et de la mémoire : les textes littéraires, justement, ne sont pas seulement vecteurs de souvenirs et de témoignages, mais aussi des éléments actifs du processus permanent de la construction de la mémoire culturelle. La représentation littéraire de la rafle chez Morante est interprétée dans ce contexte à travers les perceptions sensorielles des personnages principaux, Ida et Useppe. Cet article montre donc comment l’auteure met en œuvre ce que Alison Landsberg appelle la « mémoire prothétique ».

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  • 1 See for example: G. Rigano, “16 ottobre 1943: accadono a Roma cose incredibili”, in S. Haia Antonu (...)

1On Saturday 16 October 1943, 1259 Jews were arrested by the Nazi occupiers of Rome and locked up for two days in the Collegio Militare Italiano. On 17 October, 252 of the 1259 were freed because they had been recognised as what the Germans defined as non-Jews. On 18 October, the rest were deported to Auschwitz. This episode has been seen as representative of the Italian Holocaust1. It was the largest single deportation from Italy during the occupation. It happened in the heart of the Roman Catholic world, when Rome had been declared an “open city”, when the Allies were in Naples and Romans were expecting them to liberate the city.

  • 2 In the following article, I will cite the Mondadori edition of La Storia: E. Morante, La Storia, i (...)
  • 3 A. Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Cul (...)

2This article looks at the literary re-elaboration of this episode in La Storia by Elsa Morante2. It considers Morante’s Jewish origins and impegno in writing of World War II, and it examines her description of the Roman round-up and the deportation from Rome in light of cultural memories studies. It summarises key events of her life, as they related to World War II and to the German occupation of Rome, and examines her her commitment to interrogate the past through literature. Her commitment is revealed both in interviews and by the sales strategy of the publisher, Einaudi. Morante’s literary representation of the events of 16 and 18 October 1943 is read in particular here through the lens of her depiction of the sensory perceptions of the main characters. This analysis shows how and to what extent the author fosters what Alison Landsberg calls “prosthetic memory”3.

What a history: literary re-elaboration of World War II

  • 4 On Morante’s Judaism see: M. Morante, Maledetta benedetta: Elsa e sua madre, Milan, Garzanti, 1986 (...)
  • 5 L. Fontana, “Elsa Morante: a personal remembrance”, Poetry Nation Review, vol. XIV, no. 6, 1988, p (...)

3Elsa Morante was of Jewish origin: her mother, Irma Poggibonsi, was Jewish. Morante’s consciousness of her own Jewish identity came with the promulgation of the racial laws in September 1938. This evolution is traceable in her works, and her poetics can be re-read in relation to her roots4. After 1938, the rights of the Jews started to be limited. After that, paradoxically, she became more aware of being Jewish. She even declared she was grateful to Mussolini for introducing the racial laws in 19385.

  • 6 Biographical aspects can be found in: E. Siciliano, Alberto Moravia: vita, parole e idee di un rom (...)
  • 7 K. Mansfield, Il libro degli appunti, trans. E. Morante, Milan, Longanesi, 1941; E. Morante, Il gi (...)
  • 8 E. Morante, Le bellissime avventure di Caterì dalla trecciolina, Turin, Einaudi, 1942.
  • 9 E. Siciliano, Alberto Moravia, op. cit., p. 58.
  • 10 A. Elkann and A. Moravia, Vita di Moravia, op. cit., p. 145.
  • 11 It is still not clear where they spent July 1944.
  • 12 A. Elkann and A. Moravia, Vita di Moravia, op. cit., p. 151.

4Morante’s family were not fully caught up in the racism of the Fascist regime. Elsa, as well as her siblings, had been baptized and consequently she had not been directly discriminated against by Fascists6. In 1941, she married the writer Alberto Moravia, also of Jewish origin. She published some of her work in journals, she translated Scrapbook by Katherine Mansfield, and her volume Il gioco segreto was published by Garzanti in the series called “Il Delfino”7. A year later, Einaudi published her fairy tale, Le bellissime avventure di Caterì dalla trecciolina8. In 1943, when Rome had been occupied by the Nazis, Morante left the capital with her husband. He recalled that, after the dissolution of the Italian Army, they received threatening phone calls. A few days after the dissolution of the Italian Army on 8 September, he was told his name was on the list of people to be deported9. Morante and Moravia left their two-bedroom apartment in via Sgambati. They went South, by train, and stopped at Fondi in Ciociaria. They found a safe place up on a nearby mountain, in the little village of Sant’Agata. They remained there for almost nine months, from the end of September 1943 until the end of June 1944. Between the end of October and the beginning of November, Morante went to Rome to get some warmer clothes10, and immediately returned to Sant’Agata. In August, she and Moravia moved to Naples, and they returned to the capital in September11. On their arrival, they were told that their apartment had been searched five times by the SS during the German occupation12.

  • 13 E. Morante, “Il beato propagandista del Paradiso”, in Pro o contro la bomba atomica, in Opere, op. (...)
  • 14 Subtitle of the first edition of La Storia. E. Morante, La Storia, Turin, Einaudi, 1974.

5These events and Morante’s imaginative re-elaboration of them became central to her work and her thinking about art and history. As an artist, Morante was convinced that “il confronto con la Storia è un’altra delle prove necessarie che la presenza nel mondo richiede agli artisti […] intesi all’azione13. Art creates the conditions for ethical thinking. In La Storia, she re-elaborates the facts of World War II in literary terms. She re-elaborates the insecurities and worries that gripped her during the period of persecution. She writes about the reality of the violence and horror she witnessed and experienced herself. More broadly, she denounces all forms of Fascism, most prominently in her novel La Storia where she shares her idea of History, capital H, as “uno scandalo che dura da diecimila anni14.

  • 15 S. Lucamante, Forging Shoah Memories: Italian Women Writers, Jewish Identity, and the Holocaust, N (...)

6The novel is an account of the life of a woman and her children during the periods which preceded and followed World War II. It is set in Rome. The protagonist, Ida, is a middle-aged teacher of Jewish origin. She struggles to protect her sons: Nino, the elder, and Useppe. Useppe was born after Ida was raped by a young German soldier, who died a few months later in Africa. The narrative unfolds between the beginning of the 20th century and 1956. The history of the Italian Jews is a subject that Morante deals with as part of the novel: she describes, albeit briefly, both the Roman round-up and the deportation of the Jews to Auschwitz. These episodes become synecdoches for the round-ups which occurred in Italy from the start of the German occupation. As Stefania Lucamante suggests, “Morante collects the memory of events deposited on the bottom and narrates to Italians the Story of the Shoah as situated in the geographical space of the Roman Ghetto”15.

  • 16 G. Lucente, “Scrivere o fare...o altro: social commitment and ideologies of representation in the (...)
  • 17 Ibid., pp. 231-233.

7La Storia was first published by Einaudi in 1974. Its publication process and sales strategy were in harmony with Morante’s ideological purpose, which was the transmission of knowledge. She wanted to make history accessible to anyone. The epigraph of the novel reveals her goal: “por analfabeto a quien escribo” by César Vallejo. It was printed in a paperback economy edition, which cost 2000 lire. As Gregory Lucente notes, the timing of the novel’s release was particularly favourable: it arrived in bookstores just before the Italian summer vacation, traditionally, a period during which more books are sold and currently popular titles are advertised and reviewed in the media16. A few weeks before the novel’s publication, the publisher mounted an extensive advertising campaign in the mass media to announce Morante’s new work. Almost 20,000 copies were sold in the first few days, 465,000 in a year. In 2012, the twenty-fourth edition was printed17. This publishing history suggests that the novel has had a deep influence on Italian culture. Morante fulfilled her purpose in bringing people into contact with a committed attempt to understand the history of suffering.

  • 18 E. Morante, “La censura in Spagna”, L’Unità, 15 May 1976, p. 3.
  • 19 “Prosthetic memory emerges at the interface between a person and a historical narrative about the (...)

8In 1976, Morante participated in a union-sponsored cultural conference in Rome, which followed the censorship of parts of her book in Nationalist Spain. There, she explained the goals of La Storia. She defended the integrity of her novel against censorship and asserted that “La Storia vuol essere un atto d’accusa contro tutti i fascismi del mondo e una domanda urgente e disperata per un risveglio comune18. Her idea that knowledge can be transmitted through art and create a form of shared memory across the generations in some ways prefigures key principles of cultural memory studies as developed in later decades, for example, in relation to the Holocaust, in the concept of prosthetic memory described by Alison Landsberg in 200419. La Storia is a novel whose intention is to engender a form of prosthetic memory in readers, to help them to assimilate historical notions and take on a more personal, deeply-felt memory of a narrated past, to empathise with the characters and to reflect upon the war in new ways as a result. Her characters are ordinary people with whom, I argue, the narrative facilitates the process of identification through an intense work on their sensory and physical experiences of the war. That is how Morante transcribes her own felt consciousness of the past in writing the novel, and her shared consciousness is transmitted to her readers. Through her narrative space and the characters she invents, she describes the heterogeneity and the complexity of historical events and her novel becomes a counter-memory to what she considered as the official hegemonic history.

9La Storia has a binary structure. There is the reporting of historical events on the one hand and there is the narrative of the adventures of the characters, which history determines and disrupts, on the other. There are connections between official and unofficial stories, as well as between reality and fiction. Morante creates characters who represent the people who were overwhelmed by the flow of events.

  • 20 From the original text: typescript of the introductory note to the American edition of La Storia f (...)

Eccovi dunque la Storia, così come è fatta e come noi stessi abbiamo contribuito a farla. Però mentre nei trattati a protagonisti della vicenda storica vengono assunti i mandanti o esecutori della violenza (Capi, condottieri, signori), in questo romanzo i protagonisti (gli eroi) sono invece coloro che subiscono, ossia le vittime dello scandalo.20

10She pays attention to the pluralised, unofficial, marginal and unrecorded memories of ordinary people and describes their stories. By combining historical events, memories of the war and imagined stories, she gives voice to those who were sidelined by “higher” politics and culture, and more broadly by what she saw as a dominant, hegemonic history. In her narrative, she shows socio-historical conditions through individual personal fortunes and prompts reflections on human experience during the war. She adds a warm and personal vision of the events to the purely objective representations of the historical material collected. Through it, she establishes a relationship with readers and facilitates their process of identification.

  • 21 See for example: M. Zanardo, “La biblioteca della Storia attraverso lo studio dei manoscritti: alc (...)

11La Storia, although the author describes it as a novel, is built on historical sources, testimonies and memories of the war, so the narrative is carefully contextualised in socio-historical evidence. Morante’s manuscripts, stored in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Rome, show her scrupulous historical notes compiled to build the plot: on the verso of every page of the original text there are historical references which corroborate the images of the past she was depicting. Monica Zanardo has conducted research on the historiographical sources Morante used for writing La Storia: she suggests that the novel is based on historical details and facts which were not emphasised in historical records and volumes. In the novel, they are transformed into narrative elements and they take on a powerful effect once included in the narrative of personal experiences21. There is in other words a process of mediation and remediation. Morante rewrites episodic and historical facts in her novel and turns archival and experiential traces into sharable and shared representations. As we will see, this process is central to Morante’s re-imagination of the round-up and deportations of 1943.

  • 22 In 1976, in a discussion of the American translation of her novel, Morante explained to her intern (...)
  • 23 H. White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Baltimore, Johns H (...)

12Morante’s perception of history emerges from the title, La Storia: romanzo, and from the photomontage of the cover of the first edition. The title establishes key interpretative coordinates for the text. The Italian word storia is semantically ambiguous because it means both “history” and “story”. Its use in the title implicitly argues that official history, La Storia (the novel was published using the capital S), with its silences and biases, is a construction, a fiction. Similarly, the fiction, Romanzo, is a bearer of history because it gives an account of voices and stories contextualised in historical frames22. Morante is in line here with the contemporary considerations Hayden White expressed in Metahistory23. Morante and White believed that history is culturally, socially and politically relativist. They suggested that all views of history are shaped by politics, and that images of the past are artificial and subjective. She sets out to reveal historical erasures and within her novel she juxtaposes a narrative space which completes the historical discourse and shows human experience.

  • 24 S. Carey, “Elsa Morante. Envisioning History”, in S. Lucamante ed., Elsa Morante’s Politics of Wri (...)
  • 25 Loc. cit.

13The photo-montage on the cover of the first edition was by Robert Capa. Morante herself chose it24. The picture, “The Fallen Partisan”, represents, in a garish red tint added for this cover, a lifeless body sprawled on a pile of rubble. As a photo-montage, it indirectly suggests how provocatively Morante deals with the union between reality and imagination, history and fiction. Morante’s work was not intended to be a precise historical reconstruction. As Sarah Carey says, Morante selected that particular image in order to show her novel would be a “back-and-forth between a historical reportage and the fictional story” of Ida Ramundo25.

14As noted, the novel is binary, moving between macro- and micro-temporal structures, namely history and personal stories, and combines them with literary imagination. Morante creates realities, but they do not contradict official historical records because the historical palimpsest which the novel is built on guarantees verisimilitude to the fiction. Elements of the real world are re-elaborated to create poignant and dramatic fictional passages. The title of each chapter is the year in which the plot unfolds. They are preceded by a presentation in chronicle form of historical information, where the major events of the year in question are presented. These are an integral paratext to the body of the novel. They are typographically limited to a few pages before each chapter. Nonetheless, they are fluidly dialogic: historical events shape and direct the plot. In these historical frames, as in historical records, human beings are an indistinct mass. In the fiction, in contrast, the perspective is narrowed down to the individual and events are narrated through the mediation and the perspective of humble characters. The characters are overwhelmed by the flow of history, and, at the same time, they constitute history itself. Each one is an infinitesimal part of the whole, a synecdoche for the hundreds and thousands of other individuals who shared their experiences.

  • 26 E. Morante, La Storia, in Opere, op. cit., vol. II, p. 421.

15The persecution of Jews in Italy is a core feature of chapter “1943”. In the historical frame, the text explains that between September and October 1943 the Germans started to arrest and to deport Jews from Italy. This is described in two narrative lines: “come negli altri territori occupati, anche in Italia i Nazisti procedono alla ‘soluzione finale del problema ebraico’26. No specific round-up which occurred on the Italian peninsula is mentioned. Through this historical frame, Morante shows that the Italian historical discourse transmitted until then has not dealt with the persecution of the Jews during the German occupation. In the following “fictional” pages, she writes about memories of the persecution which had not been widely conveyed and whose climax is reached in the description of 16 and on 18 October.

16In the narrative, some episodes of the “1942” and the “1943” chapters introduce readers to the massacre of the Roman Jews: the transportation of a calf from Stazione Tiburtina and the death of Bliz, the beloved dog of Nino and Useppe, for example. The passage in which a calf is locked up in a cattle-truck in Stazione Tiburtina anticipates the transportation of the Jews towards Auschwitz on 18 October:

  • 27 Ibid., p. 400.

L’unico viaggiatore visibile, sui pochi carri là in sosta, era un vitello, affacciato dalla piattaforma scoperta di un vagone […] dal collo, per una cordicella, gli pendeva una medagliuccia […] sulla quale forse era segnata l’ultima tappa del suo viaggio. Di questa al viaggiatore non s’era data nessuna notizia; ma nei suoi occhi larghi e bagnati s’indovinava una prescienza oscura. […] E forse fra gli occhi del bambino e della bestia si svolse un qualche sguardo inopinato, sotterraneo e impercettibile. D’un tratto, lo sguardo di Giuseppe subì un mutamento […] una specie di tristezza o di sospetto lo attraversò.27

17Useppe sees the calf from same perspective from which he will witness the deportation of the Jews. He is in Nino’s arms as he will be in his mother’s.

  • 28 Ibid., p. 376 (emphasis in original).
  • 29 Ibid., p. 453.

18Blitz is a dog with a star-shaped stain on his belly: “«Razza Bastarda» […] Nino lo rimirava con orgoglio «La razza di Blitz […] si chiama pure razza stellata. Blitz! fa’ vedere il bel disegno di stella che ciài»28. On 19 July 1943, the dog dies in the bombing of the neighbourhood of San Lorenzo: “il loro caseggiato era distrutto. […] la vocina di Useppe continuava a chiamare: «Biii! Biiii! Biiiii!». Blitz era perduto29. With Blitz’s death, Morante warns readers of the forthcoming massacre of the Roman Jews. Blitz’s star-shaped stain recalls the Star of David, and his death anticipates the death of the Jews. Thus the ground is laid for the description of 16 and 18 October in the “1943” chapter and for the intense subjective and sensory perceptions of it through Ida and Useppe.

Fear, hearing and sight

19In the “1943” chapter, the characters through whose eyes readers see the events of 16 and 18 October and through whose bodies readers feel them are Ida and Useppe. The perceptions of Ida and Useppe encourage the recollection and the understanding of these events and of the experience of depersonalization of the victims carried out by the Nazis.

20The round-up is reported for the first time by Tore, a minor character, who tells Ida what he knows:

  • 30 Ibid., p. 533.

Quella domenica, fra gli altri commenti, [Tore] notò poi che sul «Messaggero» non c’era traccia di una notizia che pure circolava dentro Roma, e che era stata pure trasmessa, dicevano, dalla Radio Londra-Bari: ieri, Sabato (16 ottobre) tutti i giudii di Roma erano stati razziati all’alba, casa per casa, dai Germani, e caricati su camion verso destinazione ignota.30

21On the night of 17 October, Ida is scared that the Germans might come to arrest her and her illegitimate child Useppe. She does not sleep. They might have to escape.

  • 31 Ibid., p. 534.

S’era coricata vestita […] per evitare che i Tedeschi, se venivano a cercarla durante la notte, la sorprendessero impreparata. Si teneva stretta a Useppe, avendo deciso che, non appena fuori udisse il passo inconfondibile dei militari e il loro picchiare all’uscio, tenterebbe la fuga per i prati calandosi giù dal tetto col figlioletto in braccio.31

22The round-up is described through Ida’s fear, which fosters the empathy and the sense of identification of the reader:

  • 32 Ibid., p. 592.

si sapeva che durante la razzia degli Ebrei, i Tedeschi avevano afferrato le creature, pure quelle in braccio alle madri, buttandole nei loro luttuosi furgoni come stracci da immondezza […] a queste notizie (le quali invero – occorre ripeterlo – furono poi confermate dalla Storia, e anzi rappresentavano solo una piccola parte della realtà) poca gente, allora, dava fede, stimandole troppo incredibili. Ma Ida non riusciva a scacciare quelle visioni.32

  • 33 H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, San Diego, London, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, pp. (...)

23In this passage, the narrative voice starts the sentence with si sapeva, an impersonal form whose subject is undefined. Here it refers to the Roman people, a group Ida belongs to. Words such as luttuosi furguni and stracci da immondezza vividly evoke the process of dehumanization and reification the Germans operated against the Jews. With luttuosi furguni she rapidly recalls images of the deportation of those who were captured and with stracci da immondezza she echoes the ideas of Hannah Arendt among others, in suggesting how the Nazis transform unique human beings into superfluous creatures or mere things, so that “murder is impersonal as the squashing of a gnat”33. Morante’s words reveal her re-elaboration of the reification process. The narrative voice shows it to her readers and addresses them indirectly with occorre ripeterlo to confirm that what it is told in the novel has been proved dalla Storia.

24In La Storia, the nadir of this reification process comes during the description of 18 October. Morante personalises the experience of the deportation to two main effects. First, the Nazi depersonalised; and thus Morante re-personalises the victims. Second, she offers individual perspectives of the event and these passages turn into a counterforce which provides a means of recording counter-memories, details and complexities which the hegemonic history has left out.

  • 34 See for example: R. Katz, Black Sabbath: A Journey through a Crime against Humanity, London, Barke (...)

25Ida is with Useppe near Stazione Tiburtina when she recognizes Celeste Di Segni, the wife of a Jewish salesman, and starts following her. Celeste is the literary representation of a historical figure: Costanza Di Sermoneta. Historical records confirm that Costanza was not in Rome when the round-up occurred34. She had been visiting the countryside and when she got home she was told that her family was in Stazione Tirburtina, leaving for an unknown destination. She arrived at the railway station and managed to get on the same cattle-truck as her husband and children. They all died in Auschwitz. Morante re-elaborates the story of Costanza and transforms it into a narratological means to represent the events at Stazione Tiburtina on 18 October. Costanza’s experience and, more generally, the cattle-trucks at the railway station, are described through Ida’s sense of hearing and Useppe’s sense of sight. These sensory and physical perceptions invite readers to be participant in, and even to feel, the suffering of the victims. Morante’s language is particularly powerful on this point.

26When Ida arrives at the railway station, she hears an indistinct sound which becomes louder as she comes closer to the railway tracks. First, she perceives it as a hum. Then, it is an animal cry. Then, it is human.

  • 35 E. Morante, La Storia, in Opere, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 540-541 (emphasis is mine).

Verso la carreggiata obliqua di accesso ai binari, il suono aumentò di volume. Non era, come Ida s’era indotta a credere, il grido di animali […]. Era un vocio di folla umana […]. In fondo alla rampa, su un binario morto rettilineo, stazionava un treno […]. Il vocio veniva di là dentro.35

27Ida’s experience in Stazione Tiburtina is described through her sense of hearing. Morante describes the voices of hundreds of Jews herded into cattle-trucks whose individual voices cannot be heard. Morante’s words pass from suono to grido di animali and vocio di folla umana. The reader experience is Ida’s experience.

28Ida is not the only character at the railway station, looking at the cattle-trucks. Useppe is there, too. Ida holds him and hears and feels, sentì, his heart.

  • 36 Ibid., p. 544.

[Ida] sentì dei colpi forti e ritmati, che rimbombavano da qualche parte vicino a lei; e li credette, lì per lì, soffi della macchina in movimento, immaginando che forse il treno si preparasse alla partenza. Però subitamente si rese conto che quei colpi […] risuonavano vicinissimi a lei […]. Era il corpo di Useppe che batteva in quel modo.36

29The child is paralysed.

  • 37 Loc. cit.

Non s’era più mosso […] fin dal primo istante […] seguitava a guardare il treno con la faccia immobile, la bocca semiaperta, e gli occhi spalancati in uno sguardo indescrivibile di orrore. […] C’era, nell’orrore sterminato del suo sguardo, anche una paura, o piuttosto uno stupore attonito.37

  • 38 A. Cavarero, “Framing Horror”, in G. Pollock and M. Silverman eds., Concentrationary Imaginaries: (...)
  • 39 Ibid., p. 50.

30As Adriana Cavarero suggests, at the railway station Useppe is paralysed because he cannot make sense of what he is seeing.38 People of every age and gender are promiscuously herded to be deported. The freezing and paralyzing effect Useppe suffers from “does not depend on the natural fear of death […] but rather on disgust for an ontological crime that outrages the human condition”39.

31Through the auditory and visual perceptions of the train, Morante represents Stazione Tiburtina as the first place of, and the first instrument of, Nazi bestialization and reification. Morante describes two spaces, two worlds, which run in parallel trajectories. One is the cattle-trucks and the other is the railway platform.

  • 40 E. Morante, La Storia, in Opere, op. cit., vol. II, p. 543.

«Vada via! Signora! Non resti qui!» […] Degli uomini si agitavano a distanza verso di lei […] però non si avvicinavano al treno. Sembravano, anzi, evitarlo, come una stanza funebre o appestata.40

  • 41 S. Nezri-Dufour, “La figure du juif dans La Storia d’Elsa Morante”, Cahiers d’études italiennes, n (...)

32On one side, there are the Aryans. They do not even go near the train. On the other, there are the victims who, as Sophie Nezri-Dufour says, are intentionally described only through metonyms to capture the progressive dehumanization to which they are destined41. Ida feels she belongs to the Jews, although she is on the other side of the cattle-trucks, on the railway platform. Through her hearing, she identifies with the victims and unconsciously recognises herself as one of them. She, too, is Jewish. Ida does not recognise herself as an individual, but as an inseparable part of the crowd locked up in the cattle-trucks.

  • 42 E. Morante, La Storia, in Opere, op. cit., vol. II, p. 544 (emphasis is mine).

S’era quasi smemorata di se stessa. Si sentiva invasa da una debolezza estrema; e per quanto, lì all’aperto sulla piattaforma, il calore non fosse eccessivo, s’era coperta di sudore come avesse la febbre a quaranta gradi. Però, si lasciava a questa debolezza del suo corpo come all’ultima dolcezza possibile, che la faceva smarrire in quella folla, mescolata con gli altri sudori.42

  • 43 Ibid., p. 542.
  • 44 Loc. cit. (emphasis is mine).

33She feels that she belongs to the confused chorus of sounds, from which “s’accalcavano dei vagiti, degli alterchi, delle salmodie da processione, dei parlotti senza senso, delle voci senili43, and this ancestral sound turns into “un punto di riposo che la tirava in basso, nella tana promiscua di un’unica famiglia sterminata44.

  • 45 Ibid., p. 543 (emphasis is original).
  • 46 Ibid., pp. 544-545.

34The destiny of Ida, though, is mirrored by that of the historically rooted character of Celeste. Celeste is praying to be deported with her children. She is leaving the railway platform. She hangs on to the train. She wants to get on it. She draws attention to herself: “«io so’ giudia! So’ giudia! Devo partí pur’io! Aprite! Fascisti! FASCISTI!! aprite!» […] e si accaniva al tentativo impossibile di sforzare le barre di chiusura45. Historical records confirm that Celeste/Costanza was indeed put in the same track and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. Ida eventually runs away in the attempt at protecting Useppe: “«Andiamo via, Useppe! Andiamo via!» […] essa si girava per affrettarsi via di là46. She leaves the victims and the railway station and she and her son survive the German occupation. Morante’s highly dramatic description of 18 October ends with the image of these two women. Two characters, one historical, the other fictional, two mothers who apparently have two different destinies, but actually are two victims of History, with a capital H.

  • 47 Ibid., pp. 1019-1020.
  • 48 Ibid., p. 1020.

35The novel itself will end with Useppe’s last, fatal, epilepsy attack. Ida sinks into apathy: “Iduzza ebbe un breve sussulto del capo: e questo fu, sembra, l’ultimo molo a cui la donna reagì, finché rimase viva47. She dies in 1956, after nine years in an asylum. Ida’s loss of connection to her world becomes readers’ loss of connection to the past described: “coi ciechi, coi sordomuti è possibile comunicare; ma con lei, che non era né cieca né sorda né muta, non c’era più comunicazione possibile48. Without her sensory perception and memory, readers lose their connection to Morante’s world.

Conclusion: La Storia in the light of cultural memory studies

  • 49 Cultural memory describes the complex ways in which societies remember their past through differen (...)
  • 50 A. Erll and A. Rigney, “Literature and the production of cultural memory”, op. cit., p. 112.

36The sensory representation of 16 and 18 October in La Storia analysed here can in conclusion be read through the lens of cultural memory49. Literature, as Ann Rigney and Astrid Erll state, is one of the media most suited to exploring and explaining the meaning of cultural memory50. La Storia, then, can be seen to function as a medium and an object of recollection and remembrance of episodes of the war in Italy and it works as a tool for observing the production of this previous and later cultural memory.

  • 51 A. Rigney, “Portable monuments: literature, cultural memory and the case of Jeanie Deans”, Poetics (...)
  • 52 A. Erll and A. Rigney, “Literature and the production of cultural memory”, op. cit., p. 112.

37La Storia, and in particular its pages on the Roman roundup, is a forceful example of Rigney’s social-constructivist model of literature as cultural memory51. With its literary re-elaborations, it mediates historical understanding of the Italian Holocaust and contributes to the larger discussion of the ways in which Italian society recollects its past. Thus, it can be considered a ‘memorial medium’ work, according to the concept proposed by Erll and Rigney52. It is a novel which strives to reactivate and re-embody distant individual and social memories and represents them in a familiar form of mediation and aesthetic expression.

  • 53 Rigney constructs a model of five distinct ways in which literature interacts with cultural memory (...)
  • 54 See for example H. Serkowska, “La Storia morantiana sullo schermo”, Cuadernos de Filología Italian (...)

38Considering the description of 16 and 18 October, La Storia enacts as many as four of Rigney’s five functions of literature53. It works as a “catalyst” because it describes facts of the Italian Holocaust and specifically of the Roman round-up, which were neglected in cultural remembrance, and establishes them as socially relevant. It becomes an “object of recollection” because it was made into a film: La Storia, directed by Luigi Comencini in 1986. It was distributed as a television series on Rai 2 and lasts 240 minutes54. Comencini’s choice to broadcast it on television guaranteed free national distribution in Italian households. Since 1986, Morante’s re-elaboration of World War II, generally, and of the deportation of the Jews, specifically, has spread out through both the literary and the television media. Together, they have shaped cultural memory in time and space. Lastly, the text is a “relay station” and a “stabilizer”. It transmits testimonies of the round-up in order to disseminate the memory of it. It provides a cultural frame for later recollections and it is a channel for perpetuating the memory of 16 and 18 October.

  • 55 A. Rigney, “All this happened, more or less: what a novelist made of the bombing of Dresden”, Hist (...)
  • 56 E. Morante, La Storia, in Opere, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 533-534.
  • 57 Ibid., p. 689.

39Morante’s literary description of these two episodes of October 1943 makes historical data and facts more knowable and memorable, connects to readers’ (or viewers’) own archive of experience and provides sensory memories of a past readers did not live through. The work broadens the horizon of what one considers heritage so that La Storia can be defined as a novel which engenders a form of Landsberg prosthetic memory. As Rigney more broadly suggests, “the sensual and physical experience of war […] has a role to play in building an imaginative and empathic bridge between past actors and present readers”55. The historical frames and the literary re-elaboration of events stimulate the readers’ historiographical interest. The description of the characters within their feelings stimulates the process of identification, influences the creation and the reflections of readers’ images of the war and of the persecution, and encourages their recollection. The Roman round-up and deportation from Stazione Tiburtina become Ida’s worries and terrors, “la paura non tralasciò di percuoterla, simile a un flagello di spini56. They become Useppe’s unconscious horrors and shocks, “stava lì a scrutare queste scene, in uno stupore titubante, e ancora confuso57.

40Overall, this article has proposed an alternative way of considering the relationship between historical facts, their literary re-elaborations and their transmission into cultural memory and has showed a possible reading of literary texts through the lens of cultural memory studies.

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Notes

1 See for example: G. Rigano, “16 ottobre 1943: accadono a Roma cose incredibili”, in S. Haia Antonucci, C. Procaccia, G. Rigano et al. eds., Roma, 16 ottobre 1943: anatomia di una deportazione, Milan, Guerini, 2006, pp. 19-74; R. S. C. Gordon, The Holocaust in Italian Culture, 1944-2010, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2012, pp. 86-107; M. Pezzetti, 16 ottobre 1943: la razzia degli ebrei di Roma, Rome, Gangemi, 2013, pp. 65-187.

2 In the following article, I will cite the Mondadori edition of La Storia: E. Morante, La Storia, in Id., Opere, C. Cecchi and C. Garboli eds., Milan, Mondadori, 1990, vol. II, pp. 255-1036.

3 A. Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, New York, Columbia University Press, 2004.

4 On Morante’s Judaism see: M. Morante, Maledetta benedetta: Elsa e sua madre, Milan, Garzanti, 1986, pp. 114-116; S. Lucamante, Quella difficile identità: ebraismo e rappresentazioni letterarie della Shoah, Pavona, Iacobelli, 2012, pp. 268-241; M. Beer, “Costellazioni ebraiche: note su Elsa Morante e l’ebraismo del Novecento”, Quaderni della Biblioteca nazionale centrale di Roma, no. 17, 2013, pp. 165-201.

5 L. Fontana, “Elsa Morante: a personal remembrance”, Poetry Nation Review, vol. XIV, no. 6, 1988, p. 20.

6 Biographical aspects can be found in: E. Siciliano, Alberto Moravia: vita, parole e idee di un romanziere, Milan, Bompiani, 1982, p. 55-60; M. Morante, Maledetta benedetta, op. cit., pp. 114-115; A. Elkann and A. Moravia, Vita di Moravia, Milan, Bompiani, 1990, pp. 138-151; C. Cecchi and C. Gabroli, “Cronologia”, in E. Morante, Opere, op. cit., vol. I, pp. XIX-XC; G. Bernabò, La fiaba estrema: Elsa Morante tra vita e scrittura, Rome, Carocci, 2012, pp. 19-21, 68-71.

7 K. Mansfield, Il libro degli appunti, trans. E. Morante, Milan, Longanesi, 1941; E. Morante, Il gioco segreto: racconti, Milan, Garzanti, 1941.

8 E. Morante, Le bellissime avventure di Caterì dalla trecciolina, Turin, Einaudi, 1942.

9 E. Siciliano, Alberto Moravia, op. cit., p. 58.

10 A. Elkann and A. Moravia, Vita di Moravia, op. cit., p. 145.

11 It is still not clear where they spent July 1944.

12 A. Elkann and A. Moravia, Vita di Moravia, op. cit., p. 151.

13 E. Morante, “Il beato propagandista del Paradiso”, in Pro o contro la bomba atomica, in Opere, op. cit., vol. II, p. 1568.

14 Subtitle of the first edition of La Storia. E. Morante, La Storia, Turin, Einaudi, 1974.

15 S. Lucamante, Forging Shoah Memories: Italian Women Writers, Jewish Identity, and the Holocaust, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p. 160.

16 G. Lucente, “Scrivere o fare...o altro: social commitment and ideologies of representation in the debates over Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo and Morante’s La Storia”, Italica, vol. LXI, no. 3, 1984, pp. 220-251, p. 231.

17 Ibid., pp. 231-233.

18 E. Morante, “La censura in Spagna”, L’Unità, 15 May 1976, p. 3.

19 “Prosthetic memory emerges at the interface between a person and a historical narrative about the past. […] The person does not simply apprehend a historical narrative but take on a more personal, deeply felt memory of a past event through which he or she did not live. […] The resulting prosthetic memory has the ability to shape that person’s subjectivity and politics”, A. Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory, op. cit., p. 2.

20 From the original text: typescript of the introductory note to the American edition of La Storia for the members of the First Ed. Society, Pennsylvania, 1977. M. Zanardo, Il poeta e la grazia: una lettura dei manoscritti della Storia di Elsa Morante, Rome, Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 2017, pp. 238-245.

21 See for example: M. Zanardo, “La biblioteca della Storia attraverso lo studio dei manoscritti: alcuni esempi di utilizzo delle fonti”, in E. Palandri and H. Serkowska eds., Le fonti in Elsa Morante, Venice, Edizioni Ca’ Foscari, 2015, pp. 111-119. M. Zanardo, Il poeta e la grazia, op. cit., pp. 17-58.

22 In 1976, in a discussion of the American translation of her novel, Morante explained to her international editor the antiphrastic and intrinsic meaning of the title: “sulla soglia del testo, era esibita l’ambizione di affidare alla finzione romanzesca – novel – la testimonianza di verità storica – history”, Milan, Fondazione Arnoldo e Alberto Mondadori, Erich Linder Archive, 26883 Elsa Morante, 36, 61/19.

23 H. White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

24 S. Carey, “Elsa Morante. Envisioning History”, in S. Lucamante ed., Elsa Morante’s Politics of Writing: Rethinking Subjectivity, History, and the Power of Art, Lanham, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015, p. 67.

25 Loc. cit.

26 E. Morante, La Storia, in Opere, op. cit., vol. II, p. 421.

27 Ibid., p. 400.

28 Ibid., p. 376 (emphasis in original).

29 Ibid., p. 453.

30 Ibid., p. 533.

31 Ibid., p. 534.

32 Ibid., p. 592.

33 H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, San Diego, London, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, pp. 442-443. Arendt’s volumes do not appear in the list of Morante’s books stored in Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale; probably they have been passed onto Morante’s heirs. S. Sgavicchia, “Fonti storiche e filosofiche nell’invenzione narrative della Storia”, in Id. ed., La Storia di Elsa Morante, Pisa, ETS, 2012, p. 114.

34 See for example: R. Katz, Black Sabbath: A Journey through a Crime against Humanity, London, Barker, 1969, p. 234.

35 E. Morante, La Storia, in Opere, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 540-541 (emphasis is mine).

36 Ibid., p. 544.

37 Loc. cit.

38 A. Cavarero, “Framing Horror”, in G. Pollock and M. Silverman eds., Concentrationary Imaginaries: Tracing Totalitarian Violence in Popular Culture, London, New York, I. B. Tauris, 2015, pp. 56-57.

39 Ibid., p. 50.

40 E. Morante, La Storia, in Opere, op. cit., vol. II, p. 543.

41 S. Nezri-Dufour, “La figure du juif dans La Storia d’Elsa Morante”, Cahiers d’études italiennes, no. 7, 2008, pp. 65-74, p. 72.

42 E. Morante, La Storia, in Opere, op. cit., vol. II, p. 544 (emphasis is mine).

43 Ibid., p. 542.

44 Loc. cit. (emphasis is mine).

45 Ibid., p. 543 (emphasis is original).

46 Ibid., pp. 544-545.

47 Ibid., pp. 1019-1020.

48 Ibid., p. 1020.

49 Cultural memory describes the complex ways in which societies remember their past through different media, how they transmit and store information deemed vital for the constitution and continuation of a specific group. On cultural memory and its relation to literature see for example: R. Lachmann, “Cultural memory and the role of literature”, European Review, vol. XII, no. 2, 2004, pp. 165-178; A. Erll and A. Rigney, “Literature and the production of cultural memory: introduction”, European Journal of English Studies, vol. X, no. 2, 2006, pp. 111-115; A. Assmann, “Reframing memory: between individual and collective forms of constructing the past”, in K. Tilmans, F. van Vree and J. Winter eds., Performing the Past: Memory, History, and Identity in Modern Europe, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2010, pp. 13-35; A. Erll and A. Nünning, A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies, Berlin, New York, De Gruyter, 2010, pp. 1-17, pp. 301-355.

50 A. Erll and A. Rigney, “Literature and the production of cultural memory”, op. cit., p. 112.

51 A. Rigney, “Portable monuments: literature, cultural memory and the case of Jeanie Deans”, Poetics Today, vol. XXV, no. 2, 2004, pp. 361-396, p. 369.

52 A. Erll and A. Rigney, “Literature and the production of cultural memory”, op. cit., p. 112.

53 Rigney constructs a model of five distinct ways in which literature interacts with cultural memory and transmits historical knowledge. She suggests that a piece of writing may be defined as a “relay station” when it conveys earlier forms of recollection of historical facts, as a “stabilizer” when it succeeds in representing particular periods in a memorable way and becomes a stabilizing factor in cultural memory, as a “catalyst” when it draws attention to historical events hitherto neglected, as an “object of recollection” when it is recalled in other media or other forms of expression, and as a “calibrator” when it represents a benchmark for critical reflection on a dominant memorial practice. A. Rigney, “The dynamics of remembrance: texts between monumentality and morphing”, in A. Erll and A. Nünning, A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies, op. cit., pp. 350-351.

54 See for example H. Serkowska, “La Storia morantiana sullo schermo”, Cuadernos de Filología Italiana, vol. XXI, 2014, pp. 173-183.

55 A. Rigney, “All this happened, more or less: what a novelist made of the bombing of Dresden”, History and Theory, vol. XLVIII, no. 2, 2009, pp. 5-24, p. 19.

56 E. Morante, La Storia, in Opere, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 533-534.

57 Ibid., p. 689.

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Référence électronique

Mara Josi, « Sensory and physical perceptions of the Roman round-up of 16-18 October 1943 in Elsa Morante’s La Storia: a cultural memory perspective », Laboratoire italien [En ligne], 24 | 2020, mis en ligne le 03 juin 2020, consulté le 31 juillet 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/laboratoireitalien/4926 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/laboratoireitalien.4926

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Mara Josi

Université de Cambridge • Mara Josi est doctorante au Gonville and Caius College de l’université de Cambridge, sous la direction de Robert S. C. Gordon. Son projet de thèse porte sur la représentation littéraire de la rafle du 16 octobre 1943 dans le ghetto de Rome. Ses intérêts de recherche comprennent les cultural memory studies, la Shoah, les études sur l’enfance pendant la Shoah et des écrivains du XXe siècle, tels Giacomo Debenedetti, Elsa Morante, Primo Levi et Rosetta Loy. En mars 2019, à l’occasion du centième anniversaire de la naissance de Primo Levi, elle a organisé à Cambridge le colloque international « Primo Levi: Sacred and Profane Intertextualities ».

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