Elsa Morante (Lilly Pudding/Alamy Stock Photo)

In a 2014 interview, the novelist Elena Ferrante described the transformative effect of reading Elsa Morante’s 1948 novel Lies and Sorcery when she was sixteen years old. “There I discovered what literature could be.… That novel multiplied my ambitions, but also weighed on me, paralyzing me,” she explained, because in its pages “I discovered that an entirely female story—entirely women’s desires and ideas and feelings—could be compelling and, at the same time, have great literary value.” In Lies and Sorcery, those desires, ideas, and feelings take shape and find force in the experiences of three generations of Sicilian women, before and after the turn of the twentieth-century, in their struggles and sufferings as daughters, mothers, and grandmothers, and as wives and lovers. But if that makes these characters sound soft-focus—inspiring, tragic, resilient, etc.—be warned: this is a novel populated by women who lead lives stretched across acid planes of frustration, fury, and fantasy. 

If you’ve read any of Elena Ferrante’s fiction, which explores the punishing situations of poor, volatile, introspective women in modern Italy, you’ll immediately understand why and how Morante proved so influential. Indeed, Ferrante very clearly chose her pseudonym in a nod to Morante. Her appreciation for Lies and Sorcery is cited in the introduction to Jenny McPhee’s new translation of the novel, the first edition of the full book in English. Elsewhere in her introduction, McPhee explains that a shorter version of the novel first appeared in English in 1951, under the title House of Lies, but to Morante, the mendacity of the title was in the translation itself, which—without consulting her—involved the cutting of some two hundred pages from the original. Using terms consistent with the intensity of her storytelling, Morante called the 1951 translation “a ‘mutilation,’ a ‘massacre,’ ‘unrecognizable,’ and ‘hurtful.’” Worse still, and particularly in light of the novel’s profound focus on the irreducible distinctiveness and difficulties of women’s experiences, the jacket copy identified the novel as “the first work of Elsa Morante, who in private life is Mrs. Alberto Moravia.”  

Did the people involved with the original English-language edition of Morante’s work even read it? I’m going to say that yes, they did, and speculate that they were in fact inspired by the book’s energetic chronicling of the knowing cruelties people visit upon each other—and that’s why they degraded the work itself through crude abridgment, and likewise diminished the independent standing of the author by identifying her in relation to her husband in “private life.” Rich or poor, believer or apostate, wife, mother, daughter, grandmother, cousin, jilted or jilting lover: no other kind of life was available to the women Morante was writing about in this novel, which she composed during World War II and published in Italy in 1948, to strong initial reception. Indeed, Lies and Sorcery marked the start of a critically acclaimed career that extended all the way to the publication of her final novel, Aracoeli, in 1982, three years before her death. McPhee’s new (and complete) translation affords contemporary readers the opportunity to appreciate why Ferrante and earlier writers like Natalia Ginzburg, Italo Calvino, and indeed Morante’s then-husband all praised the book. And whether you like Ferrante’s novels, or Jesse Armstrong’s television series Succession, or Cervantes’s Don Quixote, you’ll find more than enough to keep you in this story for its eight-hundred-page revelation of how we come into the relationships we have with each other and with our own inner lives, and the harmful lengths to which we’ll go to sustain these against reality. 

The novel’s narrator, Elisa, is a young, housebound woman living through an extended convalescence—from what is initially unclear. She’s lost both of her parents, Anna and Francesco, and, more recently, her “second mother,” Rosaria. What she has, instead, is the felt burden of their life stories and those of others related and connected to them. Elisa informs her readers of her hope:

Perhaps by reconstructing my family’s story, I will finally be able to solve the mystery of my childhood as well as discover the truth behind all the other family myths. Perhaps my ancestors have come back to liberate me from the spell these fables hold over me, and, feeling guilty for having sickened the sensible Elisa with their fabrications, they now want to cure her. This is why I obey their voices and write. Who knows, perhaps with their help I may at last be able to leave this room.

Ralph Ellison’s contemporaneous Invisible Man shares the same premise: that the narrator-protagonist will be able to emerge from self-confinement on the far side of telling his story, but while Ellison’s version is highly individualized, male, and finds its primary storytelling model in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Morante’s is collective, female, and finds its model in Don Quixote. This effort begins with the story of Elisa’s grandmother, the proud and beautiful Cesira, who marries the charismatic and moneyed Teodoro only to find out he’s been disinherited. This disappointment creates a lifelong resentment that warps their daughter Anna against her mother and vice-versa because of Anna and Teodoro’s compensatory, mutual affection. With this triangular grouping and others, Elisa both recounts the actual events that mark her family’s existence and tries to understand why fantasy is so central to the being and bearing of each person. 

But if that makes these characters sound soft-focus—inspiring, tragic, resilient, etc.—be warned: this is a novel populated by women who lead lives stretched across acid planes of frustration, fury, and fantasy.


Morante shows us young people both representing themselves and regarding each other in aggrandizing ways, whether in private thoughts, conversation, or courtship rites. The same young people, reacting to parents who often accuse them of causing their misfortunes, imagine for themselves other possibilities, even whole other lives. In other words, whether young or old, characters in the novel perpetually tell themselves and each other outlandish stories and repeatedly believe these, not against the evidence of ordinary reality but because of it: fantasy-making is a stay against what, in Morante’s rendering, are the inevitable disappointments of actual courtship, married life, parenting, and being parented. Such disappointments unfold amid the daily difficulties of poverty and poor public standing in urban and rural communities dominated by the longstanding relationships within a static cohort of families. Both the Church and daily, lived-out Catholicism are everywhere present in this world, though never coherently: baptism is experienced as a furtive act that saves the soul of the child at the expense of the marriage, while marriage itself becomes a test of wills. One would-be spouse forces the other to choose either a civil ceremony or a devout single life of obedience to the Church’s rules. More generally, characters either blithely ignore religion, sincerely and ostentatiously devote themselves to it, or fold it into a larger array of fearfully observed superstitious practices. Across all of this activity, characters never stop with their extended and elaborate imaginings; eventually, as they become adults and then grow old, these become “fictional memories” that the characters treat as real spurs to present-day decisions and deeds. Initially benign versions of fantasy-making repeatedly extend to extremes of delusion and damage, recalling Cervantes. 

This phenomenon repeats itself from generation to generation, with Elisa especially focused on the story of her parents, Anna and Francesco, who come together because of Edoardo, Anna’s wealthy cousin on her disinherited father’s side. As teenagers, Anna and Edoardo are a would-be couple; Anna’s mother encourages the match because of the material improvements it would represent for them, while Edoardo’s mother pretends it’s not happening, even while quietly sending money to Anna and her mother following Teodoro’s death. In one especially revealing scene, Edoardo informs Anna that he’s about to depart on a summer tour. He beguiles her with his plans, which amount to elaborate images of the places and people he’ll encounter and, perhaps more importantly, the figure he’ll cut in the noble accoutrements of other European countries. But he keeps going on and on, taking up page after page. Brilliantly, the longueur eventually leads the reader to forget that Anna’s even there, just as Edoardo has: he’s actually beguiling himself with the fantasy and Anna was just the occasion for doing so. Crueler still—and also typical of what often happens between characters in this novel—Anna decides to break off her family’s crucial financial dependence on Edoardo’s mother, having convinced herself this will move him to respect her more and eventually marry her. Already aware of Edoardo’s monstrous self-involvement, you’re not surprised that he doesn’t notice Anna’s sacrifice. What’s striking, however, is that when he does learn of it, the effect is nil, because he’s already overwhelmed by another drama.

As Edoardo grows indifferent to Anna, he maneuvers his poor, bookish friend Francesco into becoming his replacement. Francesco’s on the far end of a failed redemption effort with a brassy prostitute named Rosaria and quickly falls in love with Anna. She cynically agrees to marry him only because she knows she can’t be with Edoardo. And so begins one of the most awful marriages in modern literature: year after year of recrimination and fractured relationships while the family barely subsists on Francesco’s overtime-filled income as a postal worker who owns exactly one suit. The awfulness of their relationship becomes even worse when Anna confesses an affair with Edoardo—it’s a fictional affair, Edoardo’s already dead by this point—that in turn leads to an extended sequence of vicious and creative personal attacks between husband and wife, with their child watching and listening and learning. All of it, feeding off the accumulated bad feelings already generated in the novel’s prior pages, makes the blow-ups between members of the Roy family in Succession feel like the stuff of a Hallmark movie. And it gets even worse from there when Anna turns her attention away from her husband and toward her aunt, who is grieving the tragic loss of her son Edoardo but also trying to convince herself he’s still alive. Anna is well-positioned to help: she’s maniacal, malevolent, self-motivated, but also perversely well-meaning in what she does. 

Why read eight hundred pages of bleak soap opera and Harlequin-adjacent Cervantes? Because of Elisa’s presence, as both victim of her extended family’s ways and, through the extended act of storytelling, as victor. Importantly, her victory doesn’t come from rejecting the members of her family—she can be just as haughty and self-involved as they are, and also very funny and carefree in insulting the reader’s capacities for intelligence and patience. Rather, the victory comes from the up-close vision she has of her mother near the agonized end of her mother’s life. This vision, she admits, “made me love her even more furiously, almost to a frightful degree.” After so much fantasy, what’s the source of such fury and fright? Perhaps that this formidable fantasy finally dissolves before the ordinary reality of the person herself. 

Lies and Sorcery
Elsa Morante
Translated by Jenny McPhee
NYRB Classics
$24.95 | 800 pp.

Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and a professor of English at the University of Toronto. 

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Published in the June 2024 issue: View Contents
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