The freedom and courage with which Morante allows the unconventional loves of this novel to unfold make it seem daring, even today. Wilhelm is clearly bisexual and lives a difficult, divided life. He marries Annunziata, an illiterate sixteen-year-old Neapolitan girl, who cooks and cleans for Arturo. When she arrives on Procida, however, Arturo, who has adopted his father’s misogyny and is jealous of his affection, feels at once hostile and sexually attracted. Her eyebrows, for example, were “thick” and “irregular in shape”, but “from the throat to the chin there was a broad, tender curve”. Much of the novel’s dramatic tension comes from this impossible love, which is mutual but never consummated.
The characters in Elsa Morante’s masterpiece, Arturo’s Island, are bewitched and bewitching, in thrall to someone, or to some idea, and, simultaneously, enthralling to someone else. In describing all this, Morante flagrantly, joyously, looks for the same kind of relationship with the reader: her lush, generous style, rich in spoken idiom, yet far from standard usage, wills us to succumb to its strange and gorgeous pessimism. A translator is thus asked first to be enchanted as a reader, then to reproduce that enchantment for new readers in another language; captured, then capturing. It’s a tall order... At first glance then, Goldstein’s version seems more reliable, though there is a price to pay for shadowing the Italian, such as clumsy repetitions: ‘he, it seems to me, was the first to inform me.’ The Italian here is more emphatic, but also more fluent... In short, translator and writer were not matched by elective affinity. Goldstein found the novel ‘astonishing and difficult’. ‘Morante’s sentences are very complicated and full of words – there are so many words!’ Indeed. Putting her version down, one’s feeling is that many of them eluded her, and that this fine novel is yet to be captured in English.