Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2009
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.
This institutionalization of despair represents a kind of pronouncement that imposes a particular way of thinking on individuals, who, being human, do not ordinarily react to despair as Lucio would like to react. Religions tend to institutionalize the spiritual crisis by providing an alternative, and governments—such as the Fascist state—may do the same by attempting to eradicate all evidence of despair among the governed. Writers and intellectuals—such as Lucio, the novelist who narrates this novel—attempt to “institutionalize” a point of view through persuasion, and enough writers and thinkers working toward the same kind of institutionalization at the same time may create literary movements that give the impression that entire societies are accepting the same solutions to spiritual crises at the same time.
The story that Lucio tells in 1934 creates an ironic parallel of these two possibilities. The novel deals with the moment of the apogee of Fascism, the triumph of the moment in which the state takes over the spiritual responses of the individual and solves all the moral dilemmas. At the same time, the novel is deeply entrenched in the literary tradition of German Romanticism with its idealization of experience, with its transformation of the world into a universe of absolute goods and absolute evils. Lucio has just completed an academic dissertation on Heinrich von Kleist, the German writer who ended his life in a suicide pact with his lover, Henriette Vogler. Lucio is also spending his time on Capri translating Kleist’s Michael Kolhaas, reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, and writing a novel of his own that will provide an ideological model for transforming despair into a raison d’être.
Moravia’s skill as a novelist is evident in his ability to get away with creating, in the midst of all of these literary references of the most obvious kind, a story for his protagonist that mirrors the intellectualized spiritual crisis of Lucio. This is the story of a young writer immersed in Romantic sources who encounters a real-life experience worthy of a novel. As Lucio philosophizes about whether it is better to be or not to be, whether despair can be accepted as the normal state of things or whether it should lead one to its logical end of suicide, he sees Beate on the boat to Capri. Beate turns out to be a rigid, anti-intellectual Fascist who spends her time trying to find someone to enter into a love/suicide pact with her, à la Kleist. When Beate suddenly disappears and in her place leaves her twin sister, Trude, and when Trude turns out to be her opposite—the perfect bourgeois intellectual snob—Lucio’s story begins to sound very much like a novel.
The narrator, of course, is a budding novelist and quickly recognizes that his own experience is becoming as strange as fiction. Here, Moravia is saving himself from disaster in a familiar way, admitting openly that this literature is a little too much like literature. The story becomes much more complicated, and more novelesque, with the entrance of Paula, the mother of Beate and Trude, who appears to be far too young to be their mother, and with the recognition in the text of the fact that the reader already suspects—that Beate and Trude are not identical twins at all but simply one and the same person playing some kind of charade. Nor is Paula their/her mother but probably a lover. Only Alois, Beate’s husband, is what he claims to be, a typical German husband who returns to Germany and becomes one of the victims of Hitler’s slaughter on the Night of the Long Knives. The other significant characters of the novel, Shapiro the art dealer and Sonia his secretary, also reflect the narrator’s frustrated attempts to order experience into a set of clearly definable opposites. Sonia is an exile from the aborted ideals of Russian Communism, who tells a wild story about spies and counterspies which ends in her escape from Russia to avoid killing the lover who abandoned her upon hearing that they were both denounced as traitors to the Party. Shapiro, the connoisseur of beauty, closeted away in his villa and protected from the world by his Sonia, represents to Lucio the answer to his internal conflict. Nevertheless, when Lucio finally talks to him about despair and the need to accept the agony of existence as the normal state of things, he hears Shapiro’s extraordinary formula for happiness. Get rich. Wealth is the only thing that allows man the freedom and the time to appreciate beauty; wealth is the only goal worth the struggle.
The irony of the cynicism of Shapiro, whom Lucio has sought out as if he were a guru, is compounded by the fact that this conversation between Lucio and Shapiro takes place as the radio in the next room is broadcasting Hitler’s speech. Lucio’s resolution to seek his own authentic Romantic experience—a love/suicide pact with Beate-Trude that same night—is thwarted when the news comes that Alois, Beate’s husband, has died in the Long Knives massacre. Lucio awakens the next morning to find that Beate-Trude has left him a letter announcing that she has decided to carry out the love/suicide pact not with him, but with Paula.
1934 is typical of Moravia’s novels in that the symbolism is obvious but not offensive, primarily because the narrative style is so simple and direct. The novel seems almost naive, because its narrator seems so inexperienced at doing anything except cultivating the intellectual lucidity that leads him to formulate his theory of institutionalizing despair. The historical milieu of the rising Fascist state deals with despair by eliminating the opposition and by eradicating all traces of individualism, so that the kind of private despair that Lucio experiences cannot exist.
Although Moravia’s symbolism is obvious, the way in which he integrates the two principal motives of his story is admirably subtle. Lucio thinks of himself as an individualist, and he claims at several points in the novel to be apolitical. In fact, he shows little reaction to the Fascist turmoil that exists around him and listens without comment as the other characters of the novel talk about their experiences with the various forms of totalitarianism. Nevertheless, the things that happen to him in the course of the novel are determined to a large extent by the institutionalized, authoritarian state. Sonia is in Anacapri as a refugee from Communism; Shapiro is in hiding from the ugliness of society; Beate-Trude and Paula carry out their suicide pact as refugees from the Fascist world that has marked them for death.
Even at the very end of the novel, as Lucio discusses the chain of events that led from Hitler’s speech to the suicide of the two women, he does not acknowledge any sense of involvement in his historical moment. It is precisely the narrator’s lack of commitment to the reality around him that enables Moravia to convince the reader that this story of coincidences and obvious parallels is not, as it may at first seem, too coincidental and obvious for its own good. Moravia has an excellent sense of how far he can go, of the extent to which he must acknowledge the novelesque quality of the story that he tells, and the extent to which he can let the story speak for itself.
Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115
Sources for Further Study
Brose, Margaret. “Alberto Moravia: Fetishism and Figuration,” in Novel. XV (Fall, 1981), pp. 62-75.
Harper’s. CCLXVI, April, 1983, p. 65.
Heiney, Donald. Three Italian Novelists: Moravia, Pavese, Vittorini, 1968.
Lewis, R.W.B. “Alberto Moravia: Eros and Existence,” in From Verismo to Experimentalism: Essays in the Modern Italian Novel, 1969.
Library Journal. CVIII, March 1, 1983, p. 517.
National Review. XXXV, September 2, 1983, p. 1084.
New Statesman. CVI, November 4, 1983, p. 27.
The New York Review of Books. XXX, June 30, 1983, p. 25.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, May 8, 1983, p. 11.
Pacifici, Sergio. The Modern Italian Novel: From Pea to Moravia, 1979.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, February 4, 1983, p. 363.
Time. CXXI, May 30, 1983, p. 80.
West Coast Review of Books. IX, July, 1983, p. 27.
World Literature Today. Autumn, 1982, p. 669.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support