It wasn’t until I hit my late teens that I realised that women are, y’know, just ordinary human beings like myself, with similar impulses. Prior to this realisation I was, not frightened of them, but wary; my approach to them was something like how one would approach a not-necessarily-dangerous animal, whose reactions, motivations, and behaviour you could not be sure of. Ironically, I think that having been brought up by a single mother, with no positive male influence, made me even more wary of women, when one would expect the opposite to be the case. Yet, for me, this upbringing, which was a poor one, gave me an idea of women as something other. My understanding of men, and boys, was that they were gluttons, thrill-seekers, a sex primarily interested in pleasing itself [I saw myself this way too]; for me, being a man involved freedom and vulgarity. Women, however, I saw differently. I felt certain that my mother had no interest in pleasing herself; I hardly ever saw her eat, she never bought herself anything, she never went out with friends, I had no idea, even, if she had a favourite tv show. What characterised women, in my mind, was an overwhelming selflessness, a compulsion to sacrifice for the sake of others, a bewildering, heartrending, ability to be immensely strong-willed and at the same time be so emotionally weak. It was, for me, like living with an alien, one who I felt unworthy of, and yet one whose behaviour also seemed illogical.
Artuto Gerace was brought up in a different set of circumstances, but these circumstances also lead to his ideas about women being equally confused, and unrealistic. Unlike myself, Arturo is without any female company from birth, his mother having died during labour. He is raised, not by his father, who spends most of the year travelling and enjoying himself, but initially by a male nurse, and then, once he is old enough to fend for himself, he is left completely alone. This early tragedy, this lack of feminine care and attention, breeds in the boy a intense longing for kisses and caresses, for mothering; his dead mother he deems angelic, beautiful, perfection, precisely because he didn’t ever know her and so could never be disappointed by her, and because she is, or would have been, everything that his father is not [ e.g. interested and attentive].
[A scene from L’isola di Arturo, directed by Damiano Damiani]
As noted previously, Wilhelm Gerace, Arturo’s father, spends the majority of the year away from the island and the house where Arturo lives. Even when he is there he does not behave like a parent, does not attempt to bond with his child, but remains an enigmatically distant presence. Arturo, however, idolises his dad; he sees in this disinterest and selfishness a manly, heroic, even regal, attitude. As a result he too develops a haughty sense of superiority; he believes he is better than anyone else on the island, especially the women who he considers ugly [as they are so unlike men, so unlike his father]. This attitude is exacerbated by Wilhelm’s apparent contempt for women also, and by the story behind the large family home [which was bequeathed to Wilhelm by Amalfi, a rich misogynist who never married and who would not even allow women to step through his door].
As you can tell, there is a lot going on here. Not necessarily in terms of plot, but in terms of psychological complexity. Arturo’s behaviour and beliefs, even when irrational, feel kosher; Morante had, clearly, an impressive and empathetic understanding of humanity and its foibles. The first quarter of the novel, which features an abandoned Arturo and his dog, his peregrinations around the island, and efforts to impress his father, is near-flawless. Then, roughly around 100 pages into the book, Wilhelm brings home a new wife, a young girl only one or two years older than Arturo, and for the remainder we are in star-crossed-lovers-intense-pangs-of-jealousy territory. Nunz is, really, the first female that Arturo has spent any time with and, although initially he antagonizes her, he eventually realizes that he loves her in a less than innocent way. The drama, of course, is provided by the bizarre love quadrangle between Arturo, Nunz, her baby [born roughly half way through the book] and her husband. Arturo loves Nunz, who loves Arturo; Nunz is married to Wilhelm but doesn’t love him; Wilhelm hates all women; Arturo is jealous of Wilhelm and Carmine [his baby half-brother] because both have a claim to Nunz that he doesn’t have; Arturo loves, admires, and simultaneously despises his father, who treats Nunz horrendously; Arturo also hates Nunz for most of the novel, or thinks he does, for stealing his father and for trying to replace his mother. Yet, in reality, his antipathy is caused by emotional and sexual frustration. There is, I ought to add, a not particularly surprising, but somehow still shocking, twist in the book which is well-handled by the author.
Ultimately Arturo’s Island is a tragic tale of impossible love, but the real interest for me was in how Morante explored how one’s upbringing, who one is raised by, and in what circumstances, can affect the way that one views the world and, in particular, how one sees sex, and the relationship between men and women. Morante nails, via Arturo, the mental processes of a young but maturing boy; his emotional epiphanies feel at all times authentic. For your sake I hope his behaviour, the way he thinks, reminds you of your own childhood and teenage years, your own first loves, because the greater the ignorance the more intense and wonderful the eventual awakening.