Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2833
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 avoid censorship under the Fascists, it also appealed to his playful nature. Much later he reverted to this form. “Celestina,” for example, treats a robot as if it were a girl. The title character “grows up” in a middle-class home, but, despite her own brilliance and her parents’ social and economic status, she elopes with an old water heater.
In the postwar period, Moravia’s writing changed in two important ways. His earlier writings had concentrated on the middle class, and his protagonists were generally effete intellectuals incapable of acting. Their stories were presented in the third person by an omniscient narrator. Without permanently abandoning any of these literary devices, Moravia in Roman Tales and More Roman Tales allowed his characters to tell their own stories. The use of the first person allowed Moravia to capture more fully the language of the characters and to demonstrate the limited vision that the individual possesses, thereby indicating that omniscience is too great a fiction even for fiction.
The other change lies in the social class that Moravia turned to consider. As he said in an interview with the Paris Review in 1958, “I’ve tried in these stories to depict the life of the sub-proletariat and the très petite bourgeoisie in a period just after the last war.”
The 130 stories collected in these two volumes first appeared in the Milan daily Corriere della sera beginning in 1952. This form of publication imposed a brevity and concentration upon these pieces. Yet the sparseness of detail mirrors well the empty lives of the characters and concentrates the reader’s attention upon them: A length of some six pages allows for no distractions. While a lesser writer might find this format confining and the large number of stories exhausting, Moravia thrived on the challenge, and these two books contain some of his best stories.
“The Lorry Driver”
Though the form and characters differ from Moravia’s earlier work, the theme does not. Like their prewar bourgeois counterparts, the bartenders, barbers, and dishwashers are trapped in a meaningless world. Typical is the narrator of “Il camionista” (“The Lorry Driver”), who, with his partner, Palombi, regularly drives between Naples and Rome. On one of their runs, they pick up an attractive hitchhiker, Italia. She becomes a frequent passenger, and the narrator quickly falls in love with her. On their drives, he puts one arm around Italia, and they exchange “mere trifles and jokes and lovers’ talk.” Meanwhile, Palombi “either noticed nothing or pretended not to notice.”
One night, the drivers have a minor accident. When they enter a café to get help, they find Italia cleaning up; they also learn that she has a lover, or husband, who is a seafaring hunchback. This discovery is one of two that the narrator makes that night. On the way back to Rome, Palombi tells him, “We were more or less engaged.” The narrator correctly observes that “Italia had fooled us both,” but the partners have also deceived each other. Though all three sat so close together in the cab of the truck, no one understood the others; their communication indeed consisted of trifles. At the end of the story the two drivers separate, thus confirming the spiritual isolation that had existed all along.
The Fetish, which followed the two collections of Roman stories, returns to third-person accounts of the middle class. The title story reveals one of Moravia’s fictional devices, in which a seemingly insignificant event such as a dream at the beginning of a narrative serves as a trenchant commentary on the action that follows. In this case, as Guido waits for the rest of his family to get ready for a picnic, he puts a disc on the phonograph. The machine malfunctions, ruining the record; when Guido tries a second time, the record player works flawlessly.
By now, the family is ready, and as Guido drives he tells about this unusual experience. Jokingly, his wife responds, “Obviously, machines sometimes get fed up with being machines and want to prove that they’re not.” Nearing the lake that is to be their picnic site, Guido suddenly gets the urge to drive the car off a cliff into the water and so kill himself, his wife, and his two children. He drives off the road but lands in a meadow, an ideal spot for having lunch. Like the record player, Guido had momentarily malfunctioned. He had wanted to assert his individuality, to demonstrate that he is not a machine. In the end, though, he returns to being the predictable husband and father he has always been, unable to escape.
“Il misantropo” (“The Misanthrope”) from this collection again stresses a character’s entrapment. Another Guido sets off with an acquaintance, Cesare, for a day at the Lagi di Vico. Cesare has provided a date for each of them, but Guido soon tires of his and secretly asks Cesare to trade. His companion agrees, but Guido quickly tires of her, too, and asks to sit beside Cesare. By the time they reach their destination, Guido hates him as well. As they walk to the restaurant overlooking the lake, he sees his reflection in the water and feels such disgust that he throws a stick at it. Once more characters have failed to communicate; Guido is alienated even from himself.
Command and I Will Obey You and Paradise, and Other Stories serve as companion volumes, the former told by first-person male narrators, the latter by women. The social world of the characters varies: In Command and I Will Obey You, Tullio, from the story “Tu mi conosci, Carlo” (“You Know Me, Carlo”), is a beggar; the narrator of “Le cose che crescono” (“The Things That Grow”) is a lawyer; and the protagonist of “La cognata” (“The Sister-in-law”) is a teacher. Similarly, in Paradise, and Other Stories, some women are married to rich husbands, others are middle class, and some, such as the protagonist in “L’immaginazione” (“Imagination”), are impoverished. Whatever their social class, though, they are alienated and feel reduced to machinery, like Guido in “The Fetish.”
A prominent image expressing this condition is the double; like objects, people in the modern world are mass-produced rather than individual. In “Doppioni” (“Doubles”), a student thinks about taking a second apartment in another part of town. He discovers that this place exactly resembles the first, the second landlady has the same name and appearance as the first, and her daughter, who bears the same name as the daughter of his present landlady, behaves exactly like her counterpart. In “Tipo medio” (“A Middling Type”), the narrator regards his apartment, his furnishings, and himself as unique. A flower girl whom he lures to his apartment disabuses him, telling him that everything, even the device he used to attract her in the first place, is identical to the behavior and possessions of the previous occupant.
In his 1941 essay “L’uomo e il personaggio” (“The Man and the Character”), Moravia had remarked, “Modern man seems a mere cipher within mass groupings which are amongst the most formidable humanity has ever known.” The narrator of “Doubles” repeats this observation: “We’re identical with millions of other people in the world.”
The idea of mass-produced humanity informs Paradise, and Other Stories as well. In “I prodotti” (“Products”), the narrator sees herself as a producer of various kinds of love, such as maternal or conjugal. Even when she sits on her husband’s lap, kisses him, or jokes with him, she feels no emotions. Instead, she is like a machine or robot. Hence, when she learns of her husband’s infidelity, she remains unmoved, simply deciding to produce one item more—murder. “I am a pretty young woman, wife of a rich young man,” the narrator says in “Venduta e comprata” (“Bought and Sold”). Her husband, too, has been unfaithful, indicating that in Moravia’s vision of the modern world, fidelity is lacking because the bonds between friends, lovers, and spouses have vanished. Each character is trapped within himself, unable to connect meaningfully and permanently with anyone else. In this story, the woman does not contemplate murder, though; she seeks instead something more fundamental than revenge: herself. Viewing herself as a beautiful object that has been discarded by her husband, she goes into the country each Sunday and pretends to be a prostitute. After a man picks her up, she first takes his money. Then, just as he is about to have sex with her, she feigns illness and returns his payment. In this obsessive way, she tries to buy herself back, selling herself to regain her selfhood.
Moravia’s subsequent short fiction has continued to explore questions of sex, interpersonal relations, and humans’ quest for self-expression “within mass groupings.”
The title story of Erotic Tales again considers the theme of entrapment; here Diana cannot free herself from her cruel lesbian lover. In “La cintura” (“The Belt”), the female narrator had once been struck by her father when she resisted his efforts to save her from drowning. That experience has turned her into a masochist, so the only way she can relate to her husband is to anger him until he beats her. “Il diavolo va e viene” (“The Devil Comes and Goes”) expresses a recurring theme in this and other books of Moravia’s when the Devil says, “Hell isn’t suffering more; it’s repeating what’s already been done.”
That is indeed the hell of modern life that Moravia depicts. Characters repeat what they or others have already done. They may think that they are escaping the past, that through violence or love they are breaking out of the circle of repetition, but the reader sees their mistake. Moravia’s clinical prose never comments on the plight of humans; it merely portrays it. In “Recalling Time of Indifference,” Moravia observed that he had wanted to write tragedy, plays that involved “crime, bloody and insoluble conflict, passion, violence.” Although making his reputation as a writer of understated fiction rather than of melodramatic plays, in one sense he remained true to that early ambition. His stories and novels do in fact reveal the tragedy of modern humans, trapped within themselves with no way of finding the exit, if indeed an exit exists.