Elena Ferrante declared Elsa Morante’s début novel Menzogna e sortilegio (1948) ‘fundamental’ to her literary formation. The novel is now available unabridged in English for the first time as Lies and Sorcery, in a brilliant translation by Jenny McPhee.
Like Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Morante’s novel begins with the loss of the woman closest to the narrator, propelling a first-person epic to recover a shared past. However, this novel has little of the visceral realism that Ferrante has become famous for in the Anglophone world. It is instead a delirious mix of ghost story, romantic epic, and Künstlerroman that remains almost as difficult to categorise today as when it was published at the height of Italian neorealism.
In Italy, Dante is known as il sommo poeta (‘the supreme poet’). Ironically, such reverence obscures the creative personality. We know Dante responded to the shock of being exiled from Florence in 1302 by writing a visionary poem of hell, purgatory, and paradise, in which his tormented life and feuding world were set right – but why did he do it? With little biographical evidence and no original manuscripts of the Commedia surviving, most translators and commentators prefer to concentrate on Dante’s myriad historical and theological sources. It takes a simple shift of logic to search them for the missing psychological evidence.
Nobel Laureate, author of TheMagic Mountain (1924) and Doctor Faustus (1947), Thomas Mann (1875–1955) needs little introduction. His books have long been available in English. Yet one work, Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (1918), a series of confessional essays on which he laboured throughout World War I, is rarely praised. Mann (not known for his modesty) pointed to its importance as a historical document: ‘By listening to my own inner voice,’ he says in the prologue, ‘I was able to hear the voice of the times.’