By **Suzanne Menghraj**
I’m teaching my first content-rather-than-craft-driven course this spring. It seemed fitting, since we’re in Italy for the semester, to begin with an Italian novel. I chose Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel, the story of a half-Jewish Italian woman, her sons, and their lives during World War II. Even more than its subject matter, it’s the style of the novel that attracts me. Morante’s narrator—her journalist-poet-novelist self—alternates throughout the novel between removed, journalistic modes of expression, even as she tells of the most intimate events, and ecstatic, poetic modes. Lily Tuck, who penned the book’s forward (and wrote a biography of Morante), tells us that Morante’s idea for the novel came from an event reported in a Roman newspaper in 1947; the article described a mother, her dead six-year-old son, and a dog having been found in an apartment in Rome’s Testaccio district and asked what might have brought the family to such a point.
That Morante’s novel takes as its provenance a bit of news makes me think—as the novel itself does—of the relationship between those events big and small that constitute fodder for journalism and the stories embedded in any news line: whether it’s one story (about a mother, her boy, and their dog) or millions (to quote a line from the beginning of the section of the novel titled “1942” and subtitled “March-June”—a line bloated with stories): “At a meeting of the Reichstag in Berlin, Hitler (who has already assumed personal command of the army) receives official confirmation of absolute power, with the right to decide the life and death of every German citizen.”
I think, too, of Luc Sante’s translation of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, which elevates news items from a Parisian newspaper circa 1906 to the level of poetry—or terse novel: for example, ”‘If my candidate loses, I will kill myself,’ M. Bellavoine, of Fresquienne, Seine-Inferieure, had declared. He killed himself.” Or, “Finding her son, Hyacinthe, 69, hanged, Mme Ranvier, of Bussy-Saint-Georges, was so depressed she could not cut him down.” Morante takes a blurb such as Fénéon would have written and fills it out over the course of 734 pages.
I spoke with my students about the distinction Tuck makes between History with a capital “H” and what she calls on Morante’s behalf “real history”—the stories of ordinary people. We spoke as well about the relationship between the two types of H/history and looked at news from the period during which History: A Novel takes place and contemporary news for little signs of the lower case “h” history in journalism. Like any two-and-a-half-hour discussion, ours included moments of transcendent revelation (for me, anyway) and moments of absolute weariness. (I hadn’t, for what it’s worth, assigned all 734 pages.)
When I got home tonight, I read a short article reported by The Associated Press and published in the Washington Post about Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev moving for Russia to be on summer time—no more moving clocks back—year round. The closing sentences of the brief report:
“This is Medvedev’s second attempt to control time. He has already cut the number of time zones in Russia from 11 to nine.”
How many stories—of farmers, of ego—those two Fénéon-esque lines contain!
Copyright 2011 Suzanne Menghraj
Suzanne Menghraj is a contributing writer for Guernica. She teaches in New York University’s Liberal Studies Program. Her most recent feature, “With Their Heads in Their Hands,” appeared in Guernica in May 2010. Read her previous blog post for Guernica here.