Alberto Moravia Short Fiction Analysis
In his “Frammento d’autobiografia” (fragment of autobiography), Alberto Moravia wrote, “The dominant theme of my work seems to be the relationship between man and reality.” Michele, an autobiographical character in The Indifferent Ones, elaborates on the difficulty this relationship poses for modern humans:Once upon a time men used to know their paths in life from the first to the last step; but now one’s head was in a bag; one was in the dark; one was blind. And yet one still had to go somewhere; but where?
That is the question that Moravia’s characters repeatedly attempt to answer. Often the correct response is, “Nowhere.”
What Moravia said about his first novel in “Recalling Time of Indifference” applies equally well to his early short stories, in which he sought to render the “boredom and impatience” of the Roman middle class, feelings to which he himself was subject. Later stories often deal with the lower classes rather than the bourgeoisie; here, too, though, the characters are trapped by their fears, desires, and lack of direction in a world that has lost all sense of values.
On the cover of L’imbroglio, Moravia wrote that if the short story “is to rise again from its present state of inferiority, compared with the novel, it must regain its former character, turn back to plot and anecdote, exploit its possibilities for violent dénouements and rapid synthesis, and condense events into natural and concise narrative.” In fact, Moravia used plot and action only as a means of revealing character. Many of his most successful stories revolve around mundane activities—a drive into the country, for example, or a picnic at the seashore—and provide only sufficient detail to demonstrate the characters’ moods, usually alienation and existential anxiety.
Moravia used the family, or male-female relationships, to express this sense of isolation, showing the inability of men and women to communicate with one another. Arguing in 1961 in “Erotismo e letteratura” (eroticism in literature) that sex is “among the few ways of expression and communion available to man,” he thus explains what some regard as his obsession with the erotic. Erotic Tales might serve as the title to any collection of his fiction, but sex is a means, not an end, for his characters. Their goal is to cure what Adriana in The Woman of Rome describes as “absurd, ineffable anguish,” and physical coupling is the only way for them to achieve spiritual union. In other cases, sex serves as an escape. Again, The Indifferent Ones explains the motivation of many of Moravia’s fictional characters when Carla tells why she will accept her mother’s lover as her own:Virtue would merely throw her back into the arms of boredom and the distasteful trivialities of everyday habit this present adventure was the only epilogue her old life deserved; afterwards, everything would be new—both life and herself.
“Inverno di malato”
This desire for escape from the present, whatever the cost, is evident in the story “Inverno di malato” (a sick boy’s winter), published in 1935. Girolamo is staying in a sanatorium in the mountains because he is suffering from tuberculosis of the knee bone. A greater affliction, though, is his roommate, Brambilla. This coarse traveling salesman relieves his own boredom by mocking Girolamo as effete. To prove himself, Girolamo decides to seduce Polly, an English girl who has been a sympathetic companion. As so often happens in Moravia’s stories, this effort to escape leads only to greater alienation. Girolamo’s sexual adventure results in the loss of Polly, and Brambilla still despises him. When Brambilla departs, cured, Girolamo is even more isolated than he was before.
“Crime at the Tennis Club”
Another early story that exposes the ennui and callousness of the middle class is “Delitto al circolo di tennis,” published in 1927 and translated in 1960 as “Crime at the Tennis Club.” Members of a tennis club invite an aging countess to a party because they know that she will get drunk and entertain them by making herself ridiculous. This indifference to another’s dignity and sensibility turns even more vicious when five of the men lure the countess into a room and try to undress her. Her resistance so angers the self-centered Ripandelli that he hits her on the head with an empty champagne bottle and so kills her. Jancovich easily persuades his colleagues to dispose of the body in the river to make the crime look like an accident, and the young men return to the party to become “indistinguishable from the other male dancers.” They are indistinguishable not only because of their dress but also because none of the other partiers would have behaved better; all seek an escape from the present, whatever the cost may be.
In technique, these stories show Moravia as the contemporary and admirer of Marcel Proust and James Joyce, using realistic details to expose the unreality of man, whose existence is bounded by and composed of bits of time and the objects he perceives. Thus, Moravia details Ripandelli’s “starched shirt-front” and the countess’s “black shawl embroidered with birds, flowers and arabesques of every possible color.” The story “Fine di una relazione” (“End of a Relationship”) notes the furniture in Lorenzo’s apartment, which includes “the yellow marble top of the sham Louis XV table in the hall.” Such description not only grounds these stories in reality but also frequently reveals character. The countess’s behavior is as bizarre as her shawl; Lorenzo’s sham table and ground-floor apartment in a “small new building at the far end of a still unfinished byroad” indicate the falseness and incompleteness of the character’s life.
In the 1940’s, Moravia experimented with another form of fiction: Surrealism. Frequently, these pieces are thinly veiled social or political satire. In L’epidemia, people’s heads begin to give off a putrid odor, but the victims regard the stench as perfume. Moravia here comments on the moral decay that fascism causes. “Primo rapporto sulla terra dell’ Inviato speciale della luna” (1944; first report on Earth of the special envoy from the Moon) purports to be an analysis by a lunar delegate on the two races of humans, the rich and the poor. Because this delegate understands nothing about money, he assumes that everyone behaves as he wishes. He therefore concludes that one race prefers “rags to new clothes, cheap furniture to good makes, municipal pools to the sea.” Beneath the humor lies the message that the middle class often shares the same attitude as the delegate, for both are equally ignorant of the true nature of the class struggle.
Although Moravia adopted this surrealistic mode to...
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