The extraordinary literary career of Alberto Moravia has spanned more than fifty years. His work, which includes twenty-two novels and collections of short stories, three books of essays, and one book of dramatic work, as well as countless stories and critical essays published in the newspapers and magazines of Italy, shows the influence of a half century of Italian cultural upheaval. Born in 1907, Moravia has been through two world wars, the rise and fall of Fascism, the birth and evolution of Marxist Communism, and the survival of his country through the difficult contemporary period of the terrorism of the Right and of the Left.
Few novelists are fortunate enough to become truly popular and widely read in their own time while at the same time winning acceptance by the academic literary establishment. Moravia is one of these fortunate few, for he will certainly be included when the current literary scene becomes the literary history of the classroom. Moravia began his career as a novelist with Gli Indifferenti (The Time of Indifference), which he wrote in 1925 and published at his own expense in 1929. According to Moravia’s own testimony, the novel became one of the most successful works of contemporary Italian literature. That success established him as an important young writer and allowed him to publish almost anything that he wished, whether it happened to be neorealist fiction about the trials of his countrymen in the midst of war or a seriocomic dialogue between a man and his penis.
Moravia has managed to maintain his popularity not only through the kind of novels that he writes but also through his participation in the vehicles of mass-media culture. For many years, he has published short stories in the literary pages of Italian newspapers, and his film reviews appear regularly in the popular weekly magazine, L’espresso. Although he has never written specifically for the cinema, several of his novels have been transformed into films by the most prestigious European directors. Vittorio De Sica’s cinematic version of Two Women (1961), which starred Sophia Loren, was one of the first foreign-language films to receive wide public distribution in the United States, Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Mépris (1963; Contempt, 1965) which is from Moravia’s Il disprezzo (1954; A Ghost at Noon, 1955), and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) contributed significantly to Moravia’s worldwide reputation.
Moravia began writing in the 1920’s, during what might be called the dawn of Existentialism as a literary mode, before Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, but after the major works of the Spanish harbinger of nascent Existentialism, Miguel de Unamuno, who cultivated the Kierkegaardian theories that French Existentialists would popularize in the 1930’s and afterward. Moravia’s 1934 (1982; English translation, 1983) makes evident the Italian novelist’s affinity to the work of Unamuno, in its intellectualized, slightly detached agony transformed into a narrative stance. Unamuno’s cultivation of that almost histrionic spiritual suffering was never as successful as Moravia’s in appealing to a general reading public, precisely because it was so intellectual and eccentric, nor did it have 1934’s antidote for its potential Romanticism, the irony that makes Moravia’s novel so delectable.
1934 is a historical novel, in the sense that it re-creates the mood and events of that year after Adolf Hitler came to power, that year of the infamous Night of the Long Knives, which serves as a catalyst to the denouement of Moravia’s story. In his seventy-fifth year, the novelist here confronts the experience of the Italians who were not Fascists, trapped in the current of their historical moment. This is a timely novel, then, for it is in the tradition of retrospective dissection of the Fascist experience that has been so evident in the past decade, both in literature and in the Italian and German cinema.
Moravia’s treatment of this theme is particularly interesting because of its displacement. The protagonist’s spiritual conflict seems not to be related to the Fascist ideology, and that conflict becomes a metaphor for the moral implications of the political philosophies of Hitler and Benito Mussolini only because of the milieu in which the protagonist finds himself. Lucio’s concern throughout the novel is his own sense of despair, but there is no explanation for the presence of that despair. It is not obviously rooted in what is happening around him, for he seems too detached from the world to experience a spiritual conflict because of the triumph of Fascism or any other historical event. His quest is to institutionalize despair, to recognize it as a primary fact of existence, to accept it as the normal state of one’s being.
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