Ostia: Elsa Morante Library

‘L'amore vero è così: non ha nessuno scopo e nessuna ragione, e non si sottomette a nessun potere fuorché alla grazia umana.’ 

True love is like this: it has no aim and no motive and it does not submit itself to any power other than human grace. (Elsa Morante) 

I am working on my third novel and place, as ever, will play a big part. I can’t seem to move my characters about until I know what they can smell and touch and taste, what they can see from their window, what is around the corner from their home and what the corner itself is made of, whether stucco or stone, mud or brick. 

A photograph of Elsa Morante Library in Ostia, Italy

My writing space here in Ostia is on the second floor of the public library, at a desk in a spacious, light room with green painted windows, butter-yellow blinds, plants everywhere and an ornate and venerable lift. It is a relatively peaceful place to work. The concept of silence, of being quiet in a library, seems to be different from the UK. Here it involves loud whispers and, sometimes, even shouting. 

A photograph of the interior of Elsa Morante Library in Ostia, Italy.

The library is situated on the edge of the ocean and has a wonderful view from the reading room. It is reputedly the most frequented of the libraries of Rome (Ostia, although in effect a separate town, is officially a district, or municipio of Rome) and it is also the place where I wrote substantial parts of Early One Morning. This next novel relates to the relationship between Italy and North Africa and it seems very appropriate that as I write I can look out over the sea that separates them. 

A photograph of the sea at Ostia, Italy.

The library is named after one of my favourite authors, Elsa Morante. Her harrowing depiction of Rome during the second world war in her most famous novel La Storia (History, A Novel in English) was part of the inspiration for Early One Morning. By all accounts, she was a feisty, impulsive woman of great allure and fascination. She preferred to be known as a poet - una poeta - rather than as a scrittrice (writer) because the word for poet has no gender bias and she said that to succeed in a man’s world, a woman had to be ten times as good as a man. She was married to another of my literary heroes, Alberto Moravia and best friends for many years with yet another, Pier Paolo Pasolini (of whom more later). 

I gave Morante a cameo role in Early One Morning. Like me, my heroine, Chiara Ravello, idolized Morante and had the fanciful notion that her cleaner, Assunta, who bore a marked similarity to the author, might even be Morante in disguise. Chiara imagined that Morante might be on her uppers or perhaps doing research for another book and trying to find out how the other half lived, how the life of a semi-literate cleaner might play out. 

‘She imagined that Assunta, once around the corner away from the house, would slip off her crimplene jacket and put on a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles.’ 

The notion was not entirely fanciful (apart from the fact that Chiara Ravello is an invention) because Morante lived in Rome a stone’s throw from Chiara’s house in Via dei Capellari and was a contemporary (1912 – 1985). 

What I love above all in both History and another of her novels Arthur’s Island is her evocation of childhood. In both there is a small boy protagonist, enchanted with the world and the reader is party to that enchantment, lives and breathes it alongside him. 

‘The only reason I had (of which I am aware) for writing Arthur’s life has been (don’t laugh!) my longstanding and incurable desire to be a boy,’ Morante said of Arthur’s Island. I don’t share that desire but I do love, as a writer, leaping into the shoes of a boy child and looking out at the world from there. I didn’t do it in Early One Morning because the child, Daniele Levi, essentially unknowable is only seen from the outside, from the point of view of others. Some readers have however requested that I write another version of the novel, entirely from Daniele’s viewpoint…