Alberto Moravia Essay - Moravia, Alberto (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Moravia, Alberto (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Moravia, Alberto 1907–

Pseudonym of Alberto Pincherle. An Italian novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter, Moravia is known for The Time of Indifference, The Woman of Rome, and Conjugal Love. He is a proponent of realism and sexuality in his fiction, as well as tedium and absurdity. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

Apathy, indifference, the image of death in sex—these are Alberto Moravia's major and minor interests, and they constitute rather cramped quarters for such a restlessly prolific writer. Admirers must sometimes wish that Signore Moravia would swing out a little wider. Yet he keeps bounding back to his negative themes like a retriever who knows that they conceal something more significant. And such is his conviction, skill, and curious air of gloomy authority, that readers continue to bound along with him to see what he comes up with next—to the point where Moravia may soon achieve the difficult double of a Nobel Prize … and a solid popular following, without ever quite having told all he knows.

In The Lie, Moravia continues to scratch away at his blank patch of ground. This time it is harder than ever to tell whether he has found anything, because the book may be just what it calls itself. Or it may be the truth masquerading as a lie; or something in between. The novel is written in the form of a diary, by a character who may easily be a lie himself….

[This] is one of those books where the author has placed mirrors facing each other, so that you can't be sure which one you are looking at. This may not be altogether a new trick, but Moravia plays it with great virtuosity and a real novelist's interest in knowing what the mind does to truth….

In any event, after a long career which spans and obliquely records the ungenuine Fascist years and so much other unreal history, Moravia continues to move around vigorously in his strait jacket and redecorate his cell. If this vision sometimes seems as stagnant as the life it reflects, his art continues to live and grow. And The Lie is certainly one of his most intriguing, intellectually entertaining, and artistically adventurous books.

Wilfrid Sheed, "Alberto Moravia: The Lie" (1966), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 253-55.

Moravia continues to be emphatic. He continues to repeat his key words with greater and greater insistence. He is as persuaded as ever that to state and restate a conviction or opinion is equivalent to gaining consensus for it. He approaches the reader with a sledge-hammer, tells him what to think, and then tries to drive the truth home with a blow. Meanwhile his characters continue to be strangely puppet-like, moved by visible strings, distant alike from the reader's sympathy and antipathy, silhouettes against a gray background, reminiscent of the geometrical forms of metaphysical painting but without the bright colors that liven many a De Chirico.

One clue to understanding Moravia can perhaps be found by remembering that he started writing when Pirandello dominated the stage. Take away the anguish and rage with which Pirandello's characters tear at themselves and others and leave only the intellectual will that drives them and you have something of the icy atmosphere of The Time of Indifference. Or, think of Moravia the novelist as a Peeping Tom…. The novelist is the eye that sees (and not the heart that feels). What he will put on the page is the tracework of lines and not the tonalities of music. He will try to blot out the distance by being categorical, but the distance remains. It is the reason for his sense of alienation and the concomitant straining toward reality….

For many Italians, who have a clearer view of Moravia's development than foreigners who came to know him avec retard, he continues to be primarily the author of The Time of Indifference, and it is with that work that he is considered to have won his place in the literary Pantheon. Yet, if you press his admirers for a statement of the merits of The Time of Indifference, they will be able to tell you little more than that it was a forerunner, written long before it became the accepted thing to speak with scathing hardness about the inner decay of the middle class….

In short, I feel that in spite of his success in terms of market value and notoriety, Moravia's case has not yet been proved. It is not an easy case, for his work which is traditional in structure and unimaginative in language will never benefit from the prestige-giving attention of "close" reading. Nor do his own dogmatic statements help, for they underline rather than mitigate its shortcomings. Moravia has by and large been unable to renew himself…. But because it is a difficult insight for a writer to come to terms with—and Moravia is a writer, a born storyteller—he has often been tempted to find the new direction … in retrospect.

Olga Ragusa, "Alberto Moravia: Voyeurism and Storytelling," in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 127-41.

[Various] facets of Moravia's work have appealed to a series of different audiences, so that one might encounter him anywhere from the opera stage to lurid-covered drugstore paperbacks. The Moravia of the Roman Tales is a highly specialized regionalist in subject matter and a miniaturist of the shortest of short stories; but he has also written some of the finest novella of our century, two or three of which are brilliantly artistic handlings of Freudian assumptions on the development of the sexual drive in adolescents. While his essays and one drama are interesting in their own rights, it is his novels that are the foundation for his enduring reputation….

Moravia has staked out a clearly delimited province in contemporary Italian fiction. For those readers willing to grant him what Henry James would call his données, his recent work is consistently in the line of his major achievements, with a new access of contemplative wisdom. Moravia remains a quiet, venerable, consistent, and highly professional writer whose own career is the best illustration of those virtues which he maintains are essential to an understanding of reality: "study, patience, humility, sincerity, sense of truth, and disinterestedness."

Frank Baldanza, "Mature Moravia," in Contemporary Literature (© 1968 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 9, No. 4, Autumn, 1968, pp. 507-21.

When an Italian author brings out a book entitled Paradise we are entitled to expect something remarkable. It says much for Alberto Moravia that we do not feel at all let down on reading his new book with this title. It is a volume of very good short stories translated by Angus Davidson. Moravia does not attempt to depict any aspect of eternity, but to capture the fleeting moment and the innumerable vicissitudes of character.

Every one of these 34 stories is written as though by a woman, and a pretty disturbed woman at that….

Some of these stories are as simple as those by Katherine Mansfield; others sting with the lash of whips. In all of them Moravia is, as ever, well worth reading.

F. J. Brown, in Books and Bookmen, January, 1972, pp. 58-9.

Pornography that does not amuse is bad; pornography that fails to titillate is worse; and pornography that does neither, that masquerades as literature, is worst of all. By these criteria Alberto Moravia's latest work to be translated into English [Two: A Phallic Novel] is superlatively bad.

Peter Wood, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 29, 1972; used with permission), April 29, 1972, p. 76.

To write about Alberto Moravia is especially difficult for me since for the past decade I have had a sense of him as a figure no longer interesting or even available to anyone committed to the future possibilities of the novel rather than its past achievements. Moravia is the kind of writer who belonged to the history of the novel from the moment his first book appeared….

[In] his new "phallic" novel [, Two, he deals] with the basic themes which have obsessed him since [Conjugal Love] at least: Art and Sex, Sublimation and Desublimation, Male and Female. He is so exclusively concerned in his fiction with sex, Moravia has assured us, because only in their sex-lives do superurban men still inhabit "nature," and only in "nature" are we all one. This, surely, is the essential clue to what motivates Moravia as a writer….

Moravia has remained a half-hearted (and until the present book fundamentally genteel) pornographer because he wants to be a popular writer without ceasing to be a sophisticated city dweller. But sex, as he understands it, is too abstract to be mythological; and his venture is therefore doomed. Yet it is hard not to admire the dogged way in which he has kept trying to make his essentially abstract concerns seem actual flesh and blood. In [Two], however, he finally abandons even the pretense that what intrigues him is dialogue between human beings; since his scenario writer—obsessed with the notion that only "desublimated" men succeed in the world, but forever the slave of his swollen superphallus—can talk to no one who does not share his distended skin. And with him, the secret is out: what has always concerned Moravia is the dialogue within the single self between Mind and Body, Spirit and Flesh, Ego and Id, or, as he puts it this time around, between a Man and his own Penis.

Moravia may have introduced no new techniques into Italian narrative, and he may remain somehow bafflingly provincial. But whenever he evokes the shame and terror of the European bourgeois looking for Real Life, i.e., his own Unconscious, in an encounter with a prostitute or the seduction of innocence next door, he makes a real contribution to the fiction of our dying century, unforgettable in its own minor way. This is especially true at the start of his career. But even in [Two] what most moves the reader is the humiliation of the failed bourgeois artist at the hands of certain self-styled young Revolutionaries, who may themselves be equally bourgeois yet have at least the advantage of confidence and youth and are possessed by the image of growing up to be Mao Tse-tung rather than the man with the world's largest penis.

Leslie Fiedler, "Alberto Moravia Has No Descendants But Himself," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 30, 1972, pp. 2, 14.

[Moravia's] apparent unawareness of his character's stupendous dullness leads to speculation that the dullness is his own. Although abundant superficial detail about external actuality fills the novel's pages, the detail reflects no perception. Both the inner and the outer world seem unreal; both deadeningly shallow. The book's lack of intellectual and formal discipline, its air of recording whatever comes to mind, its smug seriousness about its reductive delineation of a male problem—all suggest Moravia's failure to define his character as an autonomous entity. His hero is, in effect, merely a manner of speaking.

Patricia Meyer Spacks, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1972, pp. 497-98.

Outside his own country Moravia is undoubtedly the best-known Italian novelist of the twentieth century, easily surpassing Verga and predominating, through his staying power, over such immediate postwar reputations as those of Silone and Vittorini. He has published something like twenty-five volumes of fiction, a good deal of criticism, a travel book or two, and a continuous production of high-level journalism on the terze pagine of Italian newspapers. Yet it is a little difficult to assess in just what his accomplishment consists. He has produced no work as original as Vittorini's Conversation in Sicily, no novel as compelling and powerful as Pavese's The Moon and the Bonfires, nothing as complex or linguistically striking as Gadda's fiction, nothing as subtle and psychologically sensitive as Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, nothing that penetrates so impressively into the convolutions of the subconscious as Berto's The Incubus. What is it, exactly, that makes Moravia important? For important he is; this is indisputable….

He has achieved something that probably no other Italian author of the century has done; in forty-five years of assiduous work he has produced what used to be called an oeuvre, a body of material like that of Goethe or Balzac that develops shape and pattern as it accumulates and eventually becomes, in its hugeness and economy, a work in its own right with its development, its climax, its recurring themes, and its internal self-consistency. This in itself is a unique accomplishment….

[But] Moravia is not Goethe or Balzac,… there is something fundamentally second-rate about him (a kinder term would be derivative) that excludes him from the circle of these giants of world literature. In any technical sense he is not a great novelistic innovator like Joyce or Proust. Is he then a thinker? It is obvious that he thinks and that his thinking is interesting…. He is … a competent novelist, an assiduous craftsman, and a secondary thinker who reflects, with an unerring precision, the concerns and anxieties of the twentieth-century intellectual and by extension twentieth-century man. He is not precisely a "moralist" in the Voltairean sense but rather a novelist-educator, a diffuser of contemporary thought among a wider audience, an "engaged stylist."… [He] is "authentic." This term is, of course, the pivotal one in Moravia's most recent and probably most important novel, The Lie (1966).

Donald Heiney, in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1973 by Purdue Research Foundation, Lafayette, Indiana), Winter, 1972–73, p. 637.