LIKE MOST READERS, when I read a novel I like to be swept away. A novel that can become, as I read it, a movie in my mind is already ahead of the game. It may not finally prove to be a great movie, but if it can meet that initial test of populating the imagination with 3-D characters intensely engaged in dramatically significant action, I will be its happy captive. If one got a ticket to see Garbo as Anna Karenina, and instead were given a lecture on psychology or a political harangue, one might well feel cheated and aggrieved. But if the same thing happens in a novel, we are not supposed to complain, and if we do the critical guns are already in place, eager to demonstrate that what we are objecting to as an unending, one-ended conversation is, in fact, a higher and more serious kind of art.

Aracoeli is not as dismal a reading-experience as that intro would suggest, but it is marred, especially in its early, turn-resistant pages, by long passages of such strained, tendentious rhetoric as this time-marking description of a plane trip: "The takeoff was preceded by some of today's usual cheap, industrial-quality music, which scrapes the stomach and the brain and always revolts me with its squalid imbecility. But the vacuous din found me immune, as if deaf. Immediately on entering the cabin I was sheathed in a kind of narcosis, isolating me from common phenomena and from people. . . I alone am setting out for El Almendral; extreme stellar point of Genesis, breaking up the horizon of events, to swallow my every plot in its dizzying maws." That is pretty dismal stuff, and it surely can't be blamed on the translator, William Weaver (whose translation of Eco's The Name of the Rose was a bravura performance), nor yet on the unreliability of the novel's first-person narrator. Nowhere in her novel does Morante signal that we are supposed to look askance at her prose, which is cut from pretty much the same cloth as that of her earlier third-person narrative, History: A Novel.

Indeed, Aracoeli and History correspond so closely in theme and treatment as to seem like two paintings of the same subject by the same hand rather than like separate novels. In both the "history" of large-scale public events serves as an ironic backdrop to domestic tragedies, and the tragic heroines in both cases are middle-class women of retiring dispositions devoted obsessively to male children of preternatural sweetness. In History this divine child dies a death that makes Little Nell's seem a model of restraint. Aracoeli lacks an equivalent infant Piet,a, but the relationships between mother and child are otherwise as like as two Raphaels. Lest that sound like a complaint, I must say that as Morante disencumbers herself of the framing narrative, with all its pseudo-Proustian disquisitions on the subject of Memory, and begins to chronicle the lives and (very limited) social circumstances of Aracoeli and her darling boy, her novel becomes interesting. The conversation may still be one-way, but there is some substance to it. At its best, reading Morante's book is like listening to a doting but intelligent mother tell you about her children and her neighbors. As the neighbors are all Romans of the upper-middle and servant classes, there is enough local color for readers familiar with that milieu to derive the additional satisfaction of recognition ("Why, I know that shop! It's right on Via Babuino."). But the most vivid moments of the narrative are timeless and stateless, as when, on being fitted for glasses at age five or six, the narrator and his mother both realize, simultaneously, that he will become ugly as he grows older.

Aracoeli comes to an unhappy end, and her progress to that end is minutely observed, but observed from the distance of her son's uncomprehending (but all-too-sympathetic) innocence and devotion. If one were to draw a moral from this case history it would seem to be that concupiscence in a mother leads to homosexuality in a son, but Morante avoids making such a coarse observation overtly. Indeed, any number of meanings can be teased from the text -- and in that respect the conversation is not one-sided.

The more I read of the book, the more I found to admire, and I suspect women readers would take to it with even greater enthusiasm. But perhaps I show in that remark a failure to grasp one of the book's intended lessons: that a sense of powerlessness and a life (such as that shared by upper-class housewives and young children) of enforced idleness is a breeding ground of neurosis and self-destruction, whatever one's sex, or era, or country. CAPTION: Picture, Elsa Morante. Photo copyright (c) by Jerry Bauer