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Lies and Sorcery

Lies and Sorcery

by Elsa Morante, translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee

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Elsa Morante is one of the titans of twentieth-century literature—Natalia Ginzburg said she was the writer of her own generation that she most admired—and yet her work remains little known in the United States. Written during World War II, Morante’s celebrated first novel, Lies and Sorcery, is in the grand tradition of Stendhal, Tolstoy, and Proust, spanning the lives of three generations of wildly eccentric women.

The story is set in Sicily and told by Elisa, orphaned young and raised by a “fallen woman.” For years Elisa has lived in an imaginary world of her own; now, however, her guardian has died, and the young woman feels that she must abandon her fantasy life to confront the truth of her family’s tortured and dramatic history. Elisa is a seductive, if less than reliable, spinner of stories, and the reader is drawn into a tale of secrets, intrigue, and treachery, which, as it proceeds, is increasingly revealed to be an exploration of a legacy of political and social injustice. Throughout, Morante’s elegant writing—and her drive to get at the heart of her characters’ complex relationships and all-too self-destructive behavior—holds us spellbound.  

Additional Book Information

Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781681376844
Pages: 800
Publication Date:


[In Lies and Sorcery] 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.
—Elena Ferrante

Now, for the first time, Lies and Sorcery is available in full in English, in an electrifying new translation by Jenny McPhee...a melodramatic saga of social climbing and doomed romance, is a deliberate anachronism in both its themes and its style. Its Belle Époque setting, sweeping cast of characters, frequent asides to the reader, and grandiloquence place it firmly in the tradition of the nineteenth-century novel....As Morante reminds us again and again, however, appearances are often deceiving. Despite its nineteenth-century veneer, Lies and Sorcery could have only been written in the twentieth century. The novel is animated by Morante’s hatred of the selfishness and superficiality that she saw in her countrymen. In their masochistic worship of hierarchy, tendency toward idolatry, and susceptibility to kitsch, its characters embody the traits that she believed had enabled Mussolini’s rise.
—Jess Bergman, The New Yorker

Morante’s audience had been shaped by the triple-deckers of 19th-century maestros like Dumas, Dickens, Tolstoy and Manzoni. Her novel is a savage spoof of those masterpieces, an enormous work of literary disenchantment...Lies and Sorcery is, then, a phenomenal feat of misanthropy and disillusionment.
—Sam Sacks, The Wallstreet Journal

Set in turn-of-the-century Sicily, [Lies and Sorcery] is a social epic tinged with fabulism and written in a sensual and highly ornate prose....McPhee translates, expertly, to convey a sense of the original baroque syntax and the heightened register, without feeling fusty or overwrought....[Morante] is, it turns out, that old-fashioned thing, a writer of conscience, and of brilliance besides.
—Bailey Trela, The Washington Post

[Lies and Sorcery] is a work of wild abundance and inexhaustible psychological depth....[it] evokes the passage from a traditional society steeped in the values of collectiveness and belonging to one obsessed with power, with the idea that an individual need only impose their will to have what they want....Elsa Morante’s is, undeniably, a grim vision of the world; yet to read Lies and Sorcery in this heroic new translation by Jenny McPhee, always admirably attentive to the original’s delicate balance between archaism and fluency, is exhilarating throughout.
—Tim Parks, TLS

[Morante’s] signature achievement is to conjure raptures of fantasy from miseries of circumstance.
—Tim Parks

[Lies and Sorcery] is a thrilling saga of love and madness in a southern Italian city…Maintaining an ironic distance, Morante’s lengthy but propulsive narrative describes in detail the characters’ desires, fears, and superstitions, as well as the stultifying class divisions, religiosity, and financial troubles that define their lives. It’s a tremendous accomplishment. —Publishers Weekly

Morante’s vast, sprawling epic of passion and delusion, obsession and madness, certainly contains multitudes...Morante's novel is a masterpiece, and to have it finally translated into English in unabridged form is a great gift.
Kirkus Starred Review

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