Speaking Volumes: History

June 16, 1995

Olwen Hufton on Elsa Morante's History .

To select a single book from the thousands which have engaged me in one way or another during the passage from undergraduate to professor is a challenging exercise. Which work made me change direction, take stock, imprinted itself on my approach as a historian? This challenge demands grappling with memory and with emotions.

A book does not exist independently of the reader and what enthuses the 18 year old may not withstand the more sober appraisal of the seasoned scholar. I remember vividly being moved as an undergraduate by Paul Hazard's The Crisis of the European Conscience (1935) because it showed how the ideas which underpinned the medieval world, divine authority and the acceptance of tyranny as God's will in a world which was transitory, could be eroded and re-placed by a belief in human control.

Thirty-five years on I am more aware of what the Enlightenment left out of the definition of human in enlightenment reasoning (blacks, women, and the poor) and in 1995 I am unimpressed by the physiocratic commitment to the free market economy. As a graduate I was both moved and inspired by Richard Cobb's essays on popular responses to the French Revolution (collected in Terreur et Subsistences, 1965) because they got behind the rhetoric of the politicians and showed the people as victims. I appreciated his pungent way of conveying a view of great historical events from below. Would the unmarried servant impregnated on the ninth thermidor remember the date as that of the fall of Robespierre?

Many works have been a real pleasure to read - like Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic, and Christine Larner's Enemies of God (why are there so many wonderful books on witchcraft?) and have influenced how I have thought about the old and alone in history.

However, if pushed into the selection of one work which stopped me in my tracks and made me realise the strengths and the limitations of my craft, I have to name not a real history book but a novel, Elsa Morante's History (1977).

The story of a woman, a school teacher with a Jewish grandmother in Mussolini's Rome, raped and left pregnant by a German soldier (who himself died a few days later), her violation is preferable to the arrest and deportation she feared.

Her war is an attempt to keep herself and this infant fed and sheltered. When her apartment block is bombed she joins other families and individuals as poor as she is in a basement affording a couple of square metres. All of them have a survival story: all of them are hungry and the war takes its toll on every moral standard they ever possessed. Theft, prostitution, racketeering all have their place, while the politicians and generals make their decisions and the "final solution" moves apace.

Her adolescent son, initially an ardent supporter of il duce, deserts the army, joins the partisans but finally recognises that self is the only priority and lives by the black market, pimping and his gun. There are plenty of adolescents and street children in this book and their condition is not radically changed by the coming of peace.

The school teacher resumes her ill-paid work but the children and adolescents are not so readily reconverted from their survival strategies. One lives off services to "faggots" in the cinema: another, a gentle anarchist, blots out the present with dope and so on. It is a depressing story brilliantly recounted by a writer drawing on memory with a fantastic eye for detail but it brought home to me not just the human repercussions of power politics, or peoples' wars, but the factors which contribute to survival itself.

In the hierarchy of hunger the mother with the young child is hungriest and the infant with the most resourceful mother has the greatest chance of life.

But the child or adolescent survivor who had learned to live with abnormality as normality could not adjust as easily as those whose lives were shaped in pre-war conditions to the return of peace.

When I read this book I was engrossed in thinking about women in the French Revolution, about poverty and criminality in 18th-century France.

In the 1970s reconstructing the lives and values of ordinary people and giving women a past were two serious preoccupations.

None of the records I used permitted the reconstruction of an entire life history - I lacked the advantages of the novelist - but there were resonances in Morante's text which recalled the Parisian women and disillusioned deserters of 1794-95.

In 1993-94 events in Bosnia had many of the same human consequences. Rereading Morante's History I can see why as a young scholar in the 1970s it fired me.

In the context of the 1990s it caused me to reflect on how current historical vogues for discourses and symbols and the language of deconstruction have somehow had the effect of reducing both the human and the graphic element in the study of the world we have lost.

Olwen Hufton is professor of history at the European University Institute, Florence.

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