By Saskia Elizabeth Ziolkowski
Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island: A Novel is an enchanting, complex work about a boy, Arturo, growing up on the island Procida. He swims, struggles to understand his father, adores his dog, falls in love, and eventually leaves home. His drama of adolescent feelings is both universally relatable and singular. Since he grows up outside of conventional society, his life is magical, isolated, and at times disturbing. The woman he falls in love with is his father’s new wife.
Ann Goldstein’s 2019 rendering of this tremendous novel gives English readers a new chance to visit Arturo’s island. In a profession characterized by its invisibility, Goldstein has been labelled a “star” by the Wall Street Journal. In the Anglophone world she is the public face of Elena Ferrante, whose connections to Morante are suggested even in her selection of a pen name. Ferrante had planned to use a quote from Morante as an epigraph to Troubling Love, which won the 1992 Procida Prize, named for Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island. It was one of the earliest official recognitions of Ferrante’s status and Ferrante’s award speech starts: “I deeply love the works of Elsa Morante, and I have many of her words in my mind” (Frantumaglia 2016, 18). In the United States, Ferrante and Goldstein have helped shed new light on this often overlooked master.
Goldstein’s translation of Arturo’s Island, for which Morante was the first woman awarded the prestigious Strega Prize in 1957, is not the first in English. Isabel Quigly’s translation of L’isola di Arturo appeared in 1959. From the first sentences the texture of Quigly’s and Goldstein’s choices diverge. Quigly: “First of all, I was proud of my name. I’d found out early on (from him, I have a feeling) that Arturo is the name of a star – the fastest and brightest in the figure of the herdsman, in the northern sky.” Goldstein: “One of my first glories was my name. I had learned early (he, it seems to me, was the first to inform me) that Arturo – Arcturus—is a star: the swiftest and brightest light in the constellation of Boötes, the Herdsman, in the northern sky!” (1). The strangeness of “Boötes” and the exclamation point are Morante’s. A first translation, as translation studies criticism has noted, may change certain elements to make the work more appealing for a new audience. Some critics have found Morante’s punctuation and at times emphatic style (“him” or “he” is also italicized in the original) off-putting. Goldstein is not afraid to translate the way Morante’s work moves between registers and evokes varied levels of emotion, often simultaneously.
While these two sentences are the first sentences of Arturo’s story, they are not the work’s first words, since before the beginning of the chapter a reader encounters a dedicatory poem by Morante, an epigraph from Umberto Saba, an epigraph from Sandro Penna, a chapter title, and a chapter section title. The term “paratexts,” referring to the material like the title and dedication that precede the main text, seems to have been invented for Morante. Although Arturo’s Island and her next novel History (La Storia, 1974) are very different works, they both play with the idea of the threshold of the text and raise questions about where the novels themselves begin. Morante’s dedicatory poem suggests themes that occur in the novel, such as young love (“Your first love will never be violated”) and the idea of the island as a place separated from the rest of the world (“The fearful emblem will never cross the threshold/of that blessed little island”). The relationship of the dedicatory poem to the author’s own fiction can be hard to pinpoint. This blurring of boundaries of the works contributes to how Morante creates a whole world, since the island and lives described in the novel seem to burst out of it. Even if you do not like her characters or how she writes, her world will stay with you.
Morante, a woman with Jewish heritage, has been described as outside of Italian literary culture. Although she has her own unique style that did not follow a particular trend, she was also embedded in the literary landscape. The two authors she quotes at the beginning of Arturo’s Island were friends. She was married to Alberto Moravia and had some level of friendship with a long list of important Italian authors of the time, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Natalia Ginzburg, Tommaso Landolfi, and Italo Calvino. The idea that “Her books stood apart, as she did,” is a statement full of praise. At the same time, one reason she was so often described as separate from the Italian literary scene is sexism.
One way Italian criticism has sought to rectify the issue of ignoring women writers and voices is by concentrating on motherhood. Morante’s often illiterate, religious mothers have been an important focus of study. Katrin Wehling-Giorgi has called attention to the ambiguities of Morante’s mothers: “With the main focus on the idealised, self-sacrificing aspects of maternity, critics often ignore a central feature of Morante’s portrayal of motherhood: the profound ambiguity which accompanies the maternal figure throughout her writings, depicting her as intensely loving and caring on the one hand, and as suffocating or even repulsive on the other.” The primary mother figure in Arturo’s Island embodies these opposing qualities.
As a child Arturo develops a “Code of Absolute Truth” with a list of rules and his second rule is, “NO AFFECTION IN LIFE EQUALS A MOTHER’S” (25). While Arturo’s first rule, “THE AUTHORITY OF THE FATHER IS SACRED!” (25), and fourth one, “NO LIVING CITIZEN ON THE ISLAND OF PROCIDA IS WORTHY OF WILHELM GERACE AND HIS SON ARTURO” (25), originate primarily from his experiences, his rule about mothers comes instead from books, since his own mother died giving birth. Like many others, Arturo prefers books that align with his views: “Among the many teachings, then, that I got from my readings, I chose on my own the most fascinating, and those were the teachings that best corresponded to my natural feeling about life” (25)
As a child, Arturo reconceives of both reality and literature in order to suit his personal understanding of the world. Initially, when stories diverge from his views, Arturo reimagines the literary texts. Using his reading to support his ideas of the world, he matches stories with the perception he has of his father: “As girls imagined fair-haired fairies, fair-haired saints, and fair-haired queens, I imagine great captains and warriors all as fair, and resembling my father like brothers. If a hero I liked in a book turned out to be, from the descriptions, dark and of medium height, I preferred to believe it was the historian’s mistake” (30). Arturo both takes his father as a model for his reading and uses his reading to create an image of his father.
The examinations of mothers in literature have increased in part because of growing attention to the particular tensions of women’s experiences in society and shifts in terms of the views of motherhood itself. At the same time, critics working on topics related to motherhood have helped call attention to problems, not only in terms of critical lacunae in literary studies, but also more broadly in terms of societal structures. These discussions of family – one of the most crucial elements of how our society functions – reveal the important interplay between literature and reality, including the power both have to influence each other. While studies of families often concentrate on how reality affects literature, the description of Arturo’s worldview reveals the significance of considering families from the other direction. Morante’s subsequent novel, History, suggests more overtly how literature can potentially reshape history and culture, but Arturo’s Island, set in Fascist Italy, asks the reader to consider the strength and drawbacks of the family unit and its connections to other social formations.
In 1995, in a response to a question about the connections between her work and Morante’s, Ferrante drew attention to how important the sense of the literary is in Morante: “But I have to confess that many of Morante’s stylistic traits are alien to me; that I feel incapable of conceiving stories of such breadth; that for a long time I haven’t valued a life in which Literature counts more than anything else” (Frantumaglia 2016, 64). Thanks to Ann Goldstein, readers now have a new, sensitive translation that provides another entryway to this alluring author whose stylistic traits, breadth, and literariness compel readers to return to her over and over again, always discovering something new. Retranslation is a sign of appreciation, of an author’s status, and of the richness of the work itself. Morante’s novels all deserve multiple translations and we are fortunate that Ann Goldstein decided to render Arturo’s Island into English again.
Morante, Elsa. Arturo’s Island. Translated by Ann Goldstein. Liveright/Norton, 2019.
 Elsa Morante, Arturo’s Island: A Novel (Trans. Isabel Quigly, Steerforth Press 2002), 3.
 Luca Fontana, “Elsa Morante: A Personal Remembrance” PN Review 14:6 (January 1, 1988): 18.
 See Cristina Della Coletta’s discussion of this in “The Morphology of Desire in Elsa Morante’s L’isola di Arturo” in Under Arturo’s Star: The Cultural Legacies of Elsa Morante (Eds. Stefania Lucamante and Sharon Wood, Purdue University Press 2006), 129.
 Katrin Wehling-Giorgi. “‘Il mondo delle madri’: Pre-Oedipal Desire and the Decentred Self in Elsa Morante’s La Storia and Aracoeli,” in The Fire Within: Desire in Modern and Contemporary Italian literature (Ed. Elena Borelli, Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2014), 191.