Elsa Morante was born in Rome in 1912, and except for a period during World War II, would reside in her home city until her death in 1985.
She married the novelist Alberto Moravia in 1941, and through him she met many of the leading Italian thinkers and writers of the day.
Morante began writing short stories which appeared in various publications and periodicals, including periodicals for children, in the 1930s. Her first book was a collection of some of the stories, Il Gioco Segreto, published in 1941. It was followed in 1942 by a children's book, La Bellissime avventure di Caterì dalla Trecciolina (rewritten in 1959 as Le straordinarie avventure di Caterina).
Towards the end of World War II, Morante with her husband, novelist and film critic Alberto Moravia, fearful because both were half Jewish, fled to the area around the Ciociara region near Rome, a flight that inspired Morante's "La storia" and Moravia's "La Ciociara" (translated into English as "Two Women" and later made into a film with Sofia Loren). Southern Italy is the backdrop for much of her work. She began translating Katherine Mansfield during this period, as well as working on her first novel—she even risked returning to war-torn Rome to retrieve the manuscript of "Menzogna e sortilegio" and obtain winter clothes.
Following the war, Morante and Moravia met American translator William Weaver, who helped them to find an American audience. Her first novel, 1948's Menzogna e sortilegio, won the prestigious Viareggio Prize, and was later published in the United States as House of Liars in 1951. However, Morante and others found the English translation quite poorly done, to Morante's great disappointment.
Morante's next novel, L'isola di Arturo, appeared in 1957 and won the Strega Prize. Much of the work she had written in the meantime, she had destroyed, although she did publish a novella, The Andalusian Shawl, and a poem, The Adventure. Her next work, Il mondo salvato dai ragazzini (The World Saved by Children), a mix of poetry, songs and a play, many addressed to her lover Bill Morrow, an American, did not appear until 1968. Freudian psychology, Plato, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Simone Weil have all been cited as influences on her writing.
Morante and Moravia separated in 1961, and Morante continued to write sporadically. La storia (History), a story about Rome during World War II, appeared in 1974, which although a bestseller in Italy for the publishing house Einaudi, issued in an economical paperback edition at Morante's request, provoked a furious and at times negative reaction from literary critics on the left, who disliked its anti-ideological polemic. After her friend Pasolini wrote a negative review of the book, she broke off their friendship.
Her final novel, 1982's Aracoeli, has been seen as a summation, albeit by some critics a pessimistic one, of motifs and trends present in all of her writing, such as the importance of children and childhood, and private worlds in which fantasy provides an escape from dreary external realities.
The first English language biography of Morante, A Woman of Rome, by the American writer Lily Tuck, was published in 2008.
Novels and novellas
- Menzogna e sortilegio (House Of Liars, 1948)
- L'isola di Arturo (Arturo's Island, 1957)
- Lo scialle andaluso (The Andalusian Shawl, a novella, 1963)
- La storia (History, 1974)
- Aracoeli (1982)
Short Story Collections
- Il gioco segreto ("The Secret Game", 1941)
- Racconti dimenticati ("Forgotten Stories", 2002, collection of early short stories)
- Alibi (1958)
- Il Mondo Salvato dai Ragazzini ("The World Saved By Children", 1968)
- The song of the H.F. and the U.M. in three parts (La canzone degli F.P. e degli I.M. in tre parti - from Il Mondo Salvato dai Ragazzini) transl. M. Palladino & P. Hart (Joker 2007)
- Le straordinarie avventure di Caterina (1959)
- Pro e contro la bomba atomica (1987, essays)