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Moravia, Alberto 1907-1990
(Born Alberto Pincherle) Italian short story writer, novelist, essayist, critic, dramatist, translator, scriptwriter, travel writer, editor, and journalist. See also Alberto Moravia Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 2, 18.
Moravia is considered one of the foremost Italian literary figures of the twentieth century. His depiction...
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- Critical Essays
Moravia, Alberto 1907-1990
(Born Alberto Pincherle) Italian short story writer, novelist, essayist, critic, dramatist, translator, scriptwriter, travel writer, editor, and journalist. See also Alberto Moravia Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 2, 18.
Moravia is considered one of the foremost Italian literary figures of the twentieth century. His depiction of existential themes, based upon mass indifference and the selfish concerns of the bourgeois world, predate the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Deeply informed by the theories of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Moravia's work commonly focuses upon such subjects as politics, sexuality, psychology, phenomenological philosophy, and art. In his exploration of humanity's conceptions of reality, Moravia presents a world of decadence and corruption in which individuals are guided primarily by their senses and sex serves as a comfort for spiritual barrenness as well as a substitute for love.
Moravia was born in Rome and educated at home. His father was a moderately wealthy Jewish Venetian architect and painter. His mother was a Dalmatian Catholic. At eight, Moravia was stricken with tuberculosis of the bone, which left him bedridden and isolated during his adolescent years. He spent much of this time avidly reading and writing and achieved major success with his first novel, Gli indifferenti (1929; The Time of Indifference, 1953), written while Moravia was in his teens and published when he was twenty-two. He travelled extensively throughout Europe, North America, and Asia, and soon became a correspondent for La stampa and later La gaietta del popolo, newspapers in which Moravia wrote several travel articles. While his first published short story, "La cortigiana stanca" ("Tired Courtesan," 1954), appeared in the review Novecento in 1927, it was not until 1935 that Moravia published his first collection, La bella vita. His dissatisfaction with fascist Italy and growing appreciation of Marxism led to his dismissal from La gazzetta del popolo and made publication of his second collection of short fiction (L'imbroglio, 1937) difficult.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, during Benito Mussolini's regime, Moravia's perceived antifascist ideas were subjected to close scrutiny, and he came close to being labeled an enemy of the state. Consequently, his fiction of the period is laden with satire and allegory. With Nazi occupation of Italy in 1943, Moravia and his wife, writer Elsa Morante, were forced to flee Rome and live for several months among peasants in rural Italy. This first exposure to the lower class profoundly affected Moravia's later work, which often features characters suffering from poverty and unemployment. Moravia enjoyed great professional success in the 1950s; I racconti (1952; The Wayward Wife, and Other Stories, 1960) was awarded the Strega Prize in 1952. He also cofounded the cultural journal Nuovi argomenti with Alberto Carocci. His turbulent marriage to Elsa, however, ended with their separation in 1963. For many years he lived with playwright and novelist Dacia Maraini, whom he often referred to as his second wife. Moravia received his high school diploma after passing equivalency tests at age 60, and in his seventies entered politics as a member of the European Parliament, backed by the Italian Communist Party. In 1986, shortly after his first wife's death, Moravia married writer Carmen Llera. He continued writing until his death in Rome in 1990.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Moravia's early fiction frequently attacks the Italian upper-middle class. In his acclaimed story "Inverno di malato" ("A Sick Boy's Winter"), published in La bella vita, the young protagonist has some difficulty with class differences and his own sexuality. In the fiction Moravia wrote during the Mussolini years, including the short stories collected in I sogini del pigro (1940) and L'epidemia (1944), the author portrayed characters who abused others as a means of self-satisfaction, but he cloaked in allegory and satire material that could be construed by censors as containing allusions to fascist politics. After his expulsion from Rome, Moravia's fiction became more socially conscious, displaying Marxist elements and expressing sympathy for the lives of common people. In the novella Agostino (1944; Agostino, 1947), which was awarded the Corriere Lombardo, an adolescent loses his innocence when he becomes increasingly aware of both his sexuality and the plight of the lower classes. The short stories Moravia wrote during the postwar decade, like his novels from this period, are influenced by his preoccupation with populist concerns. He also abandoned the use of a third-person narrator in favor of first-person narration in order to depict the world subjectively. In the short fiction collections Racconti romani (1954; Roman Tales, 1957) and Nuovi racconti romani (1959; More Roman Tales, 1964)—which contain many of his best works—Moravia uses colloquial language to depict commonplace occurrences in the lives of working-class characters. By the 1960s, Moravia had strayed from Marxism and began employing basic Freudian and phenomenological principles to resolve his characters' conflicts. Later short story collections, Un'altra vita (1973; Lady Godiva, and Other Stories, 1975) and La cosa e altri racconti (1983; Erotic Tales, 1986), center upon sexuality and the alienation of the human psyche.
Moravia felt the pressure of censors throughout his literary career. He was accused of immorality, lewdness, and obsessiveness. Some of his works have been banned, and in 1952 all of his works were placed on the Papal Index. He was attacked for his frank treatment of sex in his later works as well, including Erotic Tales, written when Moravia was in his seventies. Because of his repetitive themes and journalistic style of writing, many critics have concluded that Moravia is most effective when writing within the short story framework. Moravia's tendency to rework a limited number of themes has led some critics to fault him as a writer of narrow range who has done little to advance the techniques of the novel or the short story. Most, however, appraise Moravia as an artist who realizes the full potential of his subjects and uses classic storytelling devices to examine the preoccupations of modern civilization.
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La bella vita 1935
L'imbroglio: Cinque romanzi brevi 1937
I sogni del pigro: Racconti, miti e allegorie 1940
L'amante infelice 1943
Agostino (novella) 1944
L'epidemia: Racconti 1944
Due cortigiane e Serata di don Giovanni 1945
La disubbidienza [Disobedience] (novella) 1948
L'amore coniugale, e altri racconti [Conjugal Love] (novel and short stories) 1949
I racconti [Bitter Honeymoon, and Other Stories; also published as The Wayward Wife, and Other Stories] 1952
Racconti romani [Roman Tales] 1954
Nuovi racconti romani [More Roman Tales] 1959
L'automa [The Fetish: A Volume of Stories; also published as The Fetish, and Other Stories] 1963
Una cosa è una cosa [Command and I Will Obey You] 1967
Il paradiso [Paradise and Other Stories; also published as Bought and Sold] 1970
Un'altra vita [Lady Godiva, and Other Stories; also published as Mother Love] 1973
Boh [The Voice of the Sea, and Other Stories] 1976
La cosa e altri racconti [Erotic Tales] 1983
La villa del venerdì e altri racconti 1990
Other Major Works
Gli indifferenti [The Indifferent Ones; also published as The Time of Indifference] (novel) 1929
Le ambizioni sbagliate [The Wheel of Fortune; also published as Mistaken Ambitions] (novel) 1935
La mascherata [The Fancy Dress Party] (novel) 1941
La speranza: ossia, cristianesimo e comunismo (essay) 1944
La romana [The Woman of Rome] (novel) 1947
Il conformista [The Conformist] (novel) 1951
Il disprezzo [A Ghost at Noon] (novel) 1954
La ciociara [Two Women] (novel) 1957
Beatrice Cenci [Beatrice Cenci] (drama) 1958
Un mese in U.R.S.S. (travel essay) 1958
La noia [The Empty Canvas] (novel) 1960
L'uomo come fine e altri saggi [Man as an End: A Defense of Humanism: Literary, Social, and Political Essays] (essays) 1964
L'attenzione [The Lie] (novel) 1965
Il mondo è quello che è. L'intervista [The World's the World, Salmagundi] (drama) 1966
La rivoluzione culturale in Cina: ovvero il convitato di pietra [The Red Book and the Great Wall: An Impression of Mao's China] (travel essay) 1967
Il dio Kurt: Tragedia in un prologo e due atti (drama) 1968
La vita ègioco (drama) 1969
Io e lui [Two: A Phallic Novel; also published as The Two of Us: A Novel] (novel) 1971
A quale tribù appartieni? [Which Tribe Do You Belong To?] (travel essays) 1972
La vita interiore [Time of Desecration] (novel) 1978
Impegno controvoglia: Saggi, articoli, interviste: Trentacinque anni di scritti politici (essays) 1980
Lettere dal Sahara (travel essay) 1981
1934 (novel) 1982
Storie della preistoria (juvenilia) 1982
L'uomo che guarda [The Voyeur] (novel) 1985
L'angelo dell'informazione e altri testi teatrali (drama) 1986
L'inverno nucleare (essays) 1986
Passeggiate africane (travel essay) 1987
Il viaggio a Roma [Journey to Rome: A Novel] (novel) 1988
La donna leopardo (novel) 1991
Diario europeo: Pensieri, persone, fatti, libri, 1984-1990 (diaries) 1993
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SOURCE: "A Novelist of Detachment," in The Times Literary Supplement, July 5, 1947, p. 333.
[In the following assessment of Agostino, the author commends Moravia for his use of detachment and delicate handling of an adolescent in crisis.]
Agostino was one of the works of Signor Moravia's enforced and uncomfortable seclusion [after the author fell into disgrace with the Fascist authorities]. Published in 1944, it gained the prize for the best Italian novel of the year in 1945. It is a brilliant and delicate—though some of its details are supremely indelicate—study of a crisis of adolescence undergone by a boy of thirteen, the only son of a beautiful widow. It may strike some readers as a supreme instance of artistic detachment that an author, while in hiding from a tyranny that was bringing Europe to ruins, should be so absorbed with but one aspect of its decadence—and should approach his subject with such complete objectivity. The scene is an Italian bathing beach at the height of summer, the characters are Italian, like the air that surrounds them, and the age-old influences, atavistic and physical, that have formed them. Agostino's mother has no scruples about attracting a young lover; that just happens, and her actions seem to be regarded as perfectly natural. The young and ruffianly boys, with whom in his worried apprehension that his mother is just a woman, Agostino humiliatingly forgathers, are not presented in order to raise questions of juvenile delinquency, character-training and so forth. Cricket has not been played, and never will be, on that field. But if morals and cricket can be left at home, and only then, will the English reader succeed in appreciating Signor Moravia's object. This is to depict Agostino's mental torture when driven from the paradise of childhood, his humiliating initiation into sensual realities by his low playmates, and his ineffectual attempt to rid himself of an overwhelming obsession. The boy's failure lies in his inability either to recapture his reverence for the affectionate mother, who is entirely unaware of his mental agony, or to exorcise that memory of a being whose affection, with its acts of familiar and unthinking immodesty, now wears an ugly look.
Signor Moravia's success lies in his forcible rendering of character, scene and mental state. True, it is not a pleasant subject to reflect on, and the unpleasantnesses take place, although without lubricity, in the brightest illumination; nevertheless, it is a work devoid of meanness or vulgarity.
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SOURCE: A review of Agostino, in The Modern Language Journal, October, 1949, pp. 483-84.
[In the following evaluation of Agostino, Funderburg lauds the effectiveness of Moravia's use of short sentences and minimal dialogue in his psychological study of an adolescent boy.]
Agostino is a psychological study of a boy who for the first thirteen years of his life is unaware of woman as such and of his transition from naiveté to awareness of sensual life. Agostino is initiated abruptly and crudely into the knowledge of sexual life by a group of boys from the dregs of society.
The transition through which Agostino passes is well planned and his poignant feelings are realistic. At first, he worships his mother, is honest and incapable of lying, and completely unaware of anything sensual. Hence, when he meets with the vulgarity of the boys, he is horrified and feels repulsion toward them. With Moravia's introduction of his mother's lover, Renzo, Agostino feels uneasy without knowing why. This is the beginning of his awareness which needs explanation and which needs a stimulus to make him think. After the explanation of physical relations from the group of boys and after his first sensation of surprise passes, he considers such behaviour on the part of his mother, not as right or wrong, but as being natural. Typical and realistic is Agostino's search for any overt signs of his mother's supposed relationship and his consequent sense of delusion when he sees none.
When spying on his mother in hopes of seeing her nude and finding her in a negligee, he feels a mixture of repulsion and attraction. Because he feels deceived in having believed her different from what he now supposes she actually is, he begins to hate his love for her and to see her only as a woman.
The quality and importance of his recently acquired knowledge oppress and sadden him. He feels a need for clarifying to himself the relationship between his mother and Renzo. While his first feelings of uneasiness and repulsion were those of a filial love disturbed by an obscure awareness of maternal femininity, after his first meeting with the group of boys, they arose from a sharp, unbearable curiosity. If, before, he tried to separate his affection for his mother from his repulsion toward her, he now feels it necessary to separate his new knowledge from the sense of being a son of a woman whom he wishes to consider merely as a woman. He now feels that her maternal immodesty provokes him. Yet, inspite of his constant efforts to be objective, he is always dimly aware that she will always be the mother he loved so innocently. Suddenly, Agostino is made to realize that he is still a child. However, his most important realization is that the maternalness and femininity in his mother cannot be separated by him, since they have always co-existed and will continue.
The style is easy and the lack of long, complicated sentences seems to suit the story of a child. Moravia has written the novel with a minimum of dialogue, which makes for greater description rather than explanation on the part of Agostino. This lack of dialogue emphasizes the psychological aspect of the novel, for conversation by Agostino during his various crises would be unnatural What dialogue there is is in the form of phrases or short sentences, for the most part from Agostino's associates. It indicates their lack of education and their social class. The short sentences also form a contrast to the fairly long sentences of the description and therefore, give greater emphasis to Agostino's transition.
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SOURCE: A review of Two Adolescents, in Commonweal, July 28, 1950, pp. 395-96.
[In the following excerpted review of Two Adolescents, Cogley praises Moravia for his subtle moralism and bitter commentary on modern society.]
Even the most doggedly prurient won't be disappointed with [Moravia's] two adolescents. Both of them, Agostino and Luca, have their problems—and, as anyone who has ever been one knows, the deepest concerns of adolescents are rarely bound up with solid geometry or endruns, pious literature to the contrary notwithstanding.
But there is more to Moravia's work than meets the leering eye. There is power and delicacy in these two stories and a certain subtle moralism. Each of them in its way is a bitter comment on modern society. Each of them gives witness to the modern malaise, the self-loathing that marks the age.
Agostino tells of a young innocent, thirteen, the sheltered son of a spoiled, beautiful widow. One day the boy is thrown in with a gang of young toughs. From them he gets his first abrupt, crude lesson in the facts of life. Young Agostino, hardly ready to bear the burden of sex, is nearly crushed by it. He finds himself at a point where to move one way leads to incest, to move the other, to homosexualism. And as so often happens with adolescents—in life as in novels—he is alone, with no one to turn to, at the most crucial moment.
The boy, neither a child nor yet a man, learns that he is not ready to meet the world on its own savage terms, and the world is not ready to accept him. There is no place for innocence that like his has ceased to be ignorance.
[In the second novella Disobedience] Luca, Moravia's second adolescent, is no innocent but the knowing, sophisticated son of money-grubbing rich parents. In his disgust for the world he is about to enter, the boy, consciously and deliberately, rejects everything that seems to give its ultimate shabby meaning to the life he sees around him. He gets rid of his piggy-bank savings, burying the lire rather than following his first generous impulse to give it away, in order to show his contempt. He disposes of his football, his books, a beloved stamp collection. He refuses to eat as he should and neglects his studies, which he has been taught should lead to the kind of success his father found. He convinces himself that he is rejecting life itself.
After a long illness, marked by a purging Freudian delirium, and a peaceful (it is the only word) sex experience with a kindly, maternal nurse, Luca welcomes life again. Living, he realizes then, is not the monstrous distortion his parents and teachers have made of it. It was not he in his rebellion but his elders themselves who had rejected life. Life should be: "not sky and earth and sea, not human beings and their organizations, but rather a dark, moist cavern of loving, maternal flesh into which he could enter confidently sure that he would be protected there as he had been protected by his mother all the time she was carrying him in her womb." The good motherly woman who came to his bed stood for nature. And for him to know their placid union—docile boy and experienced, undemanding woman—was finally to live.
So run these two stories of adolescents. Agostino comes to the brink of manhood knowing only that the life the modern world offers is ugly and will surely bring him lonely anguish. Luca, the exceptional, learns that only by rejecting the modern travesty of life can a man finally know what it is to live.
It was Saint Augustine who said that flesh is not life. But Augustine knew a life that finds no recognition in Alberto Moravia. Without recognition of it, living will always be a bitter riddle. In Two Adolescents Moravia has framed that riddle with precision and art.
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SOURCE: A review of Two Adolescents, in Atlantic Monthly, August, 1950, pp. 84-5.
[In the following excerpted review of Two Adolescents, Rolo praises Moravia's "brilliantly realized portrayal" of the sexual awakening of the thirteen-year-old title character of Agostino and finds Disobedience a disagreeable but perceptive story of a different crisis of adolescence.]
[From] Italy comes Alberto Moravia's Two Adolescents a pair of novelettes, Agostino and Disobedience, which deal with the emotional turmoil of adolescence. . . .
Moravia is well endowed with two qualities which do not often come together in equal proportions: he is both an extremely vigorous, sharply realistic storyteller and a shrewd, searching psychologist. Though written in colloquial and rather graceless prose, his work has a strongly distinctive individuality—harsh, energetic, and supercharged with sexuality; and more often than not it achieves a pretty powerful impact.
It certainly does in Agostino, a brilliantly realized portrayal of the sexual awakening of a thirteen-year-old boy, a sheltered member of the wealthy bourgeoisie. Agostino, vacationing at the seaside with his mother—a widow, still youthful and splendidly beautiful—is bitterly resentful when she allows a young man to come boating and swimming with them, and he hates the "strange" way she behaves toward the intruder. To punish her, Agostino goes off on his own and falls in with a gang of low-class adolescent toughs, who, among other things, jeeringly instruct him in the facts of life. Now he discovers in himself horrifying feelings about his mother's beauty, and, desperate to dispel them, he plucks up enough courage to visit a brothel, where he is laughingly patted on the head and told to run back home.
Disobedience, a rather disagreeable story, perceptively explores a different crisis of adolescence, a sudden leaden inertia and consuming hatred of life itself. Moravia's fifteen-year-old Luca masochistically sets out to deprive himself of everything he likes, of everything which still attaches him to living. Eventually he works up to a total physical breakdown, and, while convalescing, is seduced by his nurse, which more or less dispels his neurasthenia.
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SOURCE: "Fiction in the Dog Days," in The Nation, Vol. CLXXI, No. 6, August 5, 1950, pp. 133-34.
[In the following excerpt, Jones lauds the effectiveness of Moravia's detachment from his subject while constructing complex themes in Two Adolescents.]
Two Adolescents is by far the best new fiction to come my way this summer. It is also the least pretentious. Quietly and with the seeming effortlessness of the artist who knows exactly what he wants to do, Moravia re-creates traumas common enough to adolescence but realized in terms of the individuals on whom they descend. Agostino is about deracination and initiation. A thirteen-year-old boy learns that the mother he adores is capable of love quite different from that which she has shown him. In part he arrives at this knowledge and at the beginnings of self-knowledge through young hooligans who are, to his shame, unwilling to take him into their gang. The desire of the innocent and ignorant and gently bred to be accepted by an older and, in the most worldly sense, a wiser group whose values are not those in which he has been brought up is frequent in adolescence. I know of no recent fiction in which it is so poignantly stated as here against a finely drawn background of sea and summer.
[Also known as Disobedience] Luca, a terrifying study in neurotic nausea, presents the more intricate case of a boy of fifteen who, "at an age when sensitiveness is awake and consciousness still sleeping," revolts against the imposition upon his own will of the will of others. It takes the form of systematic and willing self-destruction, a pursuit of death which leads him to reject in turn school, family, possessions, food, and sex. Without ever being explicit, Moravia is attacking those upper-class mores which sometimes seem specially designed to foster such collapse: "Why did he move his legs, why did he avoid being run over by a bus, why did he stop and rearrange the pack of books under his arm, why did he pull his hat down on to his forehead?" At the height of dissociation his body betrays him into delirium; he is brought back to a desire to live by a "final initiation not merely into physical love but also into that more general love for all things."
On those complex themes Moravia plays with an astonishing delicacy. He is detached from his subject, sometimes even clinical. But these are not simply studies in adolescent breakdown. He takes a neurosis as James took a situation; he records its every shift in pulse and its entire context, although there is a minimum of furnishing in these stories, which depend, most of all, on symbols at once dense and spare. They are inconspicuously constructed. The logic with which Luca sets about compassing his own end, the duel between his will to death and the instinct which saves him, is completely engrossing. (It is also reminiscent of the tortured reasonings of the heroes of Italo Svevo.) Moravia's power lies in the detachment which makes his writing so clear—nothing is redundant—and in the unobtrusive compassion which envelops it. He conveys no explicit message save that cited above from the end of Luca. This is what adolescence can be like, he is saying, and having said it perfectly he stops.
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SOURCE: "Novels on Several Occasions," in The Hudson Review, Vol. III, No. 4, Winter, 1951, pp. 611-19.
[In the following excerpt, Frye commends Moravia's adroit use of symbols in Two Adolescents and applauds the writer as one who "still clings in technique to the old traditions of novel writing. "]
Each of Moravia's stories of Italian schoolboys [in Two Adolescents] deserves the higher compliment of being called a story that you can put down. One pursues a clumsy and faked narrative as one gets through a crowd on a sidewalk, in haste to be rid of it—a point often overlooked by those who sit up all night over mystery stories. Moravia fits normal life: one can drop his Agostino or Luca anywhere with a coherent structure already in one's mind, secure in the writer's ability to continue it properly. Nothing happens to Agostino except that boredom, bad company and ambiguous feelings toward his widowed mother fill him with a typically adolescent misery. Nothing happens to Luca except that he gets sick and recovers, his nurse climbing into his bed during his convalescence. The virtuosity of the born story-teller then goes to work. The story of Luca takes us deep into the death-wish that caused his illness, and shows how acts that outwardly seem only perverse or petulant really belong to an inner sacrificial drama. And as Luca recovers, the archetypal significance of what he has done takes shape. His story is a humble but genuine example of what the great religions are talking about: of losing one's life to find it, of gaining charity through renunciation, of becoming free by cutting oneself loose from everything that attaches and motivates. Symbols, ordinarily as hard to make convincing in fiction as jokes, drop into the right places, from the very adroit use of the Purgatorio to the final sentence about a train coming out of a tunnel into daylight. It is characteristic of such a story that a quiet word like "nausea" or "absurdity" (neither likely to be the invention of the unobtrusive translator), simply because it is the right word for its context, can bring more of what Sartre and Camus respectively are trying to say into focus than a good many pages of Sartre's metaphysics.
In the background of Moravia's stories is a solid sense of bourgeois Italian society, its values, its folklore and its class conflicts. There is something oddly old-fashioned about this solidity: it is like finding good carpentry and seasoned lumber in a flossy new bungalow, and one feels that the swaying Venetian backdrops of Hemingway or the dissolving pan shots of Schulberg are unfortunately more up to date. Moravia still clings in technique to the old traditions of novel writing in which those who had a sense of established society, like Austen and Dickens and Trollope, wrote with authority in the centre of the tradition, while those who lacked it, like Scott and Lytton and Wilkie Collins, had to depend on plot formulas for support. This kind of novel is disappearing with the society that produced it, and a new approach has become necessary. Society is not a containing unit for characters any more: it is too nomadic and too much an open arena of clashing personalities and ideologies.
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SOURCE: "A Husband, a Wife, and a Book," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXXIV, No. 13, March 31, 1951, p. 19.
[Below, Davidson lauds Moravia's "Proust-like ability" to evoke profound significances from seemingly trivial happenings in the relationship between a man and his wife in Conjugal Love.]
In his third book to be published in America the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia makes use of a tricky literary device which calls to mind the famed Quaker Oats trademark: a mother holding up temptingly before her child a box of Quaker Oats upon which is imprinted a mother holding up temptingly before her child a box of Quaker Oats upon which. . . . And so forth until the eye fails. In short, Conjugal Love is a novel about a novelist writing a novel under a title none other than—Conjugal Love.
The analogy ends in the fact that Signor Moravia, as demonstrated by his previous books, The Woman of Rome and Two Adolescents, and by most of the present work as well, is a writer of outstanding skill, perception, and distinction, whereas his fictitious counterpart, Silvio Baldeschi, is presented as a poor, uncreative, sterile dilettante. Not until a rather horrifying and spectacular experience at the very end of Signor Moravia's novel is Signor Baldeschi so awakened finally as to see life with keen eyes and be enabled presumably to go on and produce a novel as good as this one.
Whatever satisfactions this convoluted device may have given Moravia personally it is the novel's least notable aspect. Where Conjugal Love shines and where it most fascinates is in its Proust-like ability at times to evoke profound significances from seemingly trivial happenings in the relation of a man and his wife.
Baldeschi's wife, Leda, was a beautiful but not overly cultivated woman with a calm bordering on dulness, not to his displeasure. The one danger signal perhaps was the odd stance she sometimes struck in which she appeared to be "thrusting away some imaginary danger and at the same time indicating . .. that the danger of assault was not unwelcome." Entirely absorbed in the chef d'oeuvre which would lift him from mediocrity, Baldeschi basked in Leda's "good will," though sensing it to be a little patronizing. Matters came to a head over Baldeschi's barber, who Leda complained had pressed against her insolently while dressing her hair. But Baldeschi, for the moment totally occupied with writing about their marriage as he fancied it to be, laughed the matter off as an accident.
It was weeks later after giving himself up as a novelist and returning full force as a husband that he began to see the deeper implications of the incident. By then he was reaping the whirlwind, a failure as husband and novelist both. In Leda stood revealed hellish new aspects he could never have imagined. And some gentler ones, too.
The climax of the story and Baldeschi's oddly masochistic acceptance of it are not likely to strike every reader as plausible, including this one. But along the way and in the closing pages Moravia offers rich and subtle fare. His newest work, despite its almost novelette shortness, leaves far more sticking to the ribs than many a seven hundredpage "giant" of recent memory.
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SOURCE: A review of Conjugal Love, in Atlantic Monthly, April, 1951, pp. 77-8.
[In the following assessment of Conjugal Love, Rolo praises Moravia's masterly study of the relations between a husband and wife.]
The vagaries of love of the orthodox kind are brought under the microscope in a short novel by Alberto Moravia, Conjugal Love. . . . Moravia's two previous works have won him a sizable following and a good deal of critical praise. His special forte, to my mind, is his adult handling of sexuality in all its aspects, a talent which is relatively rare among Anglo-Saxon writers, however copiously or candidly they may write about sex. There is a vibrant awareness in Moravia's fiction of the erotic element in life—something of the sex-consciousness of D. H. Lawrence minus Lawrence's sex-mysticism. Moravia's powerful sensuality is altogether spontaneous and forthright, free of any taint of staginess; and his shrewd insight into the psychology of sex never sounds like clinical analysis.
The narrator of Conjugal Love is a wealthy, slightly fatuous dilettante, Silvio Baldeschi, whose life has been restless and ineffectual until his fairly recent marriage, which has proved profoundly satisfying. Baldeschi has long cherished a belief in his creative powers, and now he has the strength of purpose to apply himself to writing a masterpiece. He soon perceives, however, that what he is writing is commonplace, and concludes that a period of continence might give his inspiration more chance to express itself. Moravia leads him in due course to a recognition of his painful lack of talent and the detection of his wife in a shocking infidelity. But the discovery of the devil in his wife's flesh and the collapse of his own pretensions bring an understanding of truths which give a deeper substance to their "conjugal love."
There is no hint of Pollyanna in the way Moravia handles all this. Out of an episode which might easily have made no more than a sardonic anecdote à la Maugham, Moravia has fashioned a masterly study of the relations between a husband and a wife.
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SOURCE: "Directives for Salvation," in The Hudson Review, Vol. IV, No. 2, Summer, 1951, pp. 314-20.
[In the following excerpt, Aaron notes that, while not an extraordinary book, Conjugal Love demonstrates "how the artist can achieve a poetic reality without being topical. "]
Alberto Moravia is deaf to the demands of earthly and heavenly authority, at least in Conjugal Love, and deferential only to instinct. He also writes of people out of time, whose difficulties are personal.
Conjugal Love is a severely classical sketch of a man's discovery of himself after a deep humiliation, a humiliation neither political nor religious. Silvio Baldeschi, a dilettante critic and self-satisfied husband, attributes his failure to do creative work under the most ideal of conditions to the demands of love, and renounces his conjugal duties until he has finished his masterpiece. He completes the book at precisely the moment when his strongly sexed wife, Leda, is giving herself to Zeus, this time in the guise of a baldheaded barber for whom she has previously expressed the most intense revulsion. Silvio, who witnesses his wife's seduction (a wild and primitive dance on the threshing floor of a deserted mill), suffers as Gabriel Conroy suffers in Joyce's much profounder story, "The Dead." He also sees himself as "a well-meaning sentimentalist" and "a pitiable fatuous fellow," but Moravia is only partly concerned with the disintegration of an ego. Conjugal Love, like some of E. M. Forster's stories, exposes the sterility of reason and taste and implicitly asserts the vitality of vulgarity. The fact that this carnal message should be presented so elegantly accentuates the contrast between its meaning and form, but the medieval fabliau, comic and rank, cannot be refined away. The deluded cuckold and his beautiful wife is an old story. Resuscitated by Moravia and re-written with Lawrentian overtones, it speaks without pretentiousness of men's kinship with the earth and of the perils of introspection.
Conjugal Love is not a great or an extraordinary book, but it demonstrates once more how the artist can achieve a poetic reality without being topical or enmeshing himself in contemporary issues. Silvio Baldeschi's self-revelation—"the acute sense of a sudden crumbling to pieces, of a headlong plunge into absurdity and emptiness"—is presented by Moravia as a victory, without divine assistance, of the artistic consciousness over the subterfuges of the self.
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SOURCE: A review of Two Adolescents, in The Listener, December 25, 1952, p. 1087.
[In the following excerpt, Spender faults Two Adolescents as being calculated and contrived, but finds Moravia's use of the unexpected extremely captivating.]
Moravia's two studies of adolescence [in Two Adolescents] have a strangely German quality, reminiscent of Thomas Mann. They are written with a consciousness of art crossed with a consciousness of psychology which are perhaps too evident to the reader. Into this formidable mixture there is infused a tumescent sensuality which is extremely disturbing. It is difficult not to discover in the orgiastic descriptions of the carryings on of the boys on the bathing beach in the first of these stories Agostino and in the scene where the governess incites Luca in the second, Disobedience, an element of lasciviousness which goes beyond the needs of art. It must be admitted though that Moravia's sensuality is really exciting: so much physical pleasure in fiction seems incurably dull. But to me it seems there is something suspect in Moravia's writing. Extremely calculated and contrived, I find it essentially second-rate. But the calculations and contrivances—the complete reliability of this writer's use of the unexpected—are captivating in the extreme.
Agostino is the story of a boy who is witness to the casual love affair of his mother with a young man she meets on holiday at the Lido. Unable to understand why his mother's interest suddenly becomes withdrawn from him, Agostino one day wanders away from her and comes to a place on the beach which is the resort of a troop of truly scarifying boys. He is taken over, bullied and shocked by these boys, who horrify and fascinate him. The brutally obscene drama of their everyday lives is an enactment to him of his mother's modish languors.
Disobedience is a still more interesting study. Luca is a boy who in adolescence is overcome by such a horror of himself, his family and his school, that he decides systematically to dissociate himself from living by a secret course of disobedience, a refusal to participate even in eating. He is won back to a certain interest in life by a governess's attempt to seduce him. Just when he has decided—or when his nature has decided against his own will—to visit the governess in her bedroom, she suddenly dies. Thus the idea of physical relationship becomes merged in his mind with the equally physical one of death. The mouth which kissed him is full of mud under the ground (an image which surely owes a good deal to Thomas Mann, this).
Both of Moravia's adolescents achieve a sort of liberation. They go through the phase of resisting the body and come to accept it. This is certainly very true to life, and there are things about adolescence which Moravia 'does' better than I have ever seen them done. For instance in Disobedience he describes Luca's physical self-consciousness of his own body, which amounts almost to a feeling of its disintegration limb by limb. This seems to me the very vivid expression of an experience I knew well but had never before seen expressed. If Moravia does not seem great like Tolstoy, or Proust, or Forster, it is because he states a problem which goes far beyond the solution he offers to it. One does not feel that the discovery of sexual fulfilment in casual intercourse takes us as far as the life he describes needs to be taken. I have no idea what the required solution of these two stories of adolescents is—but I feel that a greater writer would have found it. Moravia seems too satisfied with exploiting his own gifts, which are, indeed, immense.
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SOURCE: "The Moravian Muse," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Spring, 1953, pp. 215-25.
[In the following excerpt, Bergin lauds Moravia's underlying romantic attitude, as presented in Two Adolescents, as a revolt against middle-class society.]
The stories of young Girolamo in "Winter of an Invalid" and the boy, Agostino, in the novella of that name, bring out the same frustrations and the same obsessions [presented in The Indifferent Ones]. Girolamo, merely to conform to the standards of a vulgar traveling salesman who shares his hospital room, attempts the seduction of his little playmate, and Agostino, out of dimly realized jealousy of his mother's lover, attaches himself to a crowd of young toughs. In both instances, these desperate attempts to "conform" to some kind of standard as a means of seeking refuge from an intolerable inner uneasiness have ironic outcomes; the traveling salesman is not impressed but shocked by Girolamo's gesture, and the gang merely uses little Agostino as a butt. Luca, in the story, Disobedience, is overcome with such a profound world-weariness that he attempts a kind of progressive withdrawal from life which eventually brings on him a serious illness. Luca is saved by initiation into sexual experience, and as he is the only one of the adolescents in Moravia's gallery who really wins to salvation, there is an allegory here that is significant and of which more is to be said. In their solitude, their revolt against circumstances, and their dim suspicion that society is false and evil, all these young characters are at first glance simply romantics. (Moravia has admitted that his first novel at least was born of a "strongly romantic" mood.) But their outlook is anything but romantic; the sources of their distress are emotional as well as psychological, but their calculation and self-awareness are mature beyond anything the romantics ever dreamed of. They are flesh and blood, to be sure, but the color of their crisis is intellectual—coldly intellectual, one might say.
Yet for all that, the underlying romantic attitude is Moravia's true strength, even if it is not immediately apparent. For, taken all together, what do these adolescent crises signify if not a revolt against society and its cheap pretenses? Were it not for this thesis—and such it is, though never overtly expressed—Moravia would not have the appeal for his readers that in fact he does. For he is in fondo—very much in fondo, if you will—as much of a moralist, as much of a wistful idealist as any nineteenth-century champion of Rousseau or Shelley. Two short stories—as yet untranslated—may buttress the argument here. In one, called "Metamorphosis," a young man goes to a fashionable reception and at a certain moment as he looks at the throng, he remarks that every guest has lost his human face and head and has taken on the features of an animal, reptile, or insect. He observes that there is a preponderance of asses, rabbits, and goats. In another story, and a very good adventure story it is too, a young courier, waylaid and robbed of his jewels, falls in with the girl bandit who, in order to win his sympathy, tells him a long story of her early innocence and betrayal and the like. She also, as a matter of course, seduces him. He is ashamed of "taking advantage of her," but the author (Moravia is never reluctant to interpret his characters) steps from behind the curtain and informs the reader that their only true relationship was in love, and the young man falling back on the conventional pattern of hypocritical bathos was in effect trading honesty for pernicious illusion. Such tales as these, underlined by the allegory of Luca's experience, give us the key to the meaning of the novels, which are on the political side anti-bourgeois, and in the spiritual realm truly desperate assertions of the need for integrity in human relationships, and affirmations of the values of natural instinct as against the frustrations of middle-class society.
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SOURCE: "One Good Tune," in The New Yorker, May 7, 1955, ñ 39.
[In the following summation of an interview conducted in the New Yorker, Moravia discusses his writing and feel for his characters.]
The distinguished Italian writer Alberto Moravia is in this country as a guest of the State Department, and we were fortunate enough to have lunch with him a few days ago, shortly before he took off to explore the Wild West. A swarthy, stocky man of forty-seven, Signor Moravia speaks a somewhat rickety brand of English and speaks it every bit as fast as if it were his native tongue. The words come in lengthy bursts, followed by hard-breathing silences; then more bursts. This machine-gun-like delivery appears to present no difficulties to the great man but is apt to leave his American listeners a burst or two behind. We were occasionally in that fix ourself, and if any of the fusillades that we quote sound as if they couldn't possibly have been laid down by the eminent author of six novels, two plays, and about three hundred short stories and articles, please assume that the fault lies with us and not with the machine gun. Signor Moravia's fictional accounts of contemporary Rome are said to be more detailed and accurate than any historical documents of the period are likely to be. "I am a strong believer in autobiographical writing," Signor Moravia told us. "Not that I believe in all the time writing about oneself. I mean, rather, that the writer should become the person he is writing about. In my work, I impersonate this or that character in Roman life—the kleptomaniac waiter who is hired for big parties by foreign diplomats, the mechanic who has trouble with his girl, the men and women you might meet on any corner."
Signor Moravia went on to say that he reads a good deal and tries to keep himself informed about what is happening not only in Italy but in other countries as well. "Very few people in Italy do much reading," he said. "Most of us in Rome are glad to talk all night about nothing but have no time to read. Would you not call that the sign of a rather modest intellectual curiosity? As for me, I consider myself my own employee and am therefore obliged to report to myself now and then on what is taking place throughout the world. Otherwise, how—" A pretty girl passed us on her way out of the restaurant, and, leaving "how" in midair, Signor Moravia stated that he is a believer in the utter vulnerability of the male. "A man who makes himself invulnerable to the pains of love is an indecent character, a swine," he said in a single burst. "He is what I call a mere dehumanized item of existence. I am for women's right to speak without making much sense when they are in that mood and to make more sense than men do when they are in a different mood." Signor Moravia also believes that the writer should be as much of an ascetic as possible. "Writing is being there by not quite being there," he said. "Beautiful as they are, indispensable as they are, women are bound to get in the way of one's work. There's an old Italian motto that is ideal for writers. It goes, 'Dear Lord, permit us to remain chaste and to recount the loves of others.'"
Signor Moravia paid his first visit to New York twenty years ago. "I had been given a number of letters of introduction to people here, but I tore them up," he said. "I spent a whole winter in New York, living alone, in a state of profound melancholia. I suffered more than I can tell you. I am an addict of boredom. I understand it so well. It is a frightful thing, yet a great creative force. A necessary poison. No one who is not bored can create anything." Hard-breathing silence for a few moments, then a burst: "I dislike the dimly lighted bars and restaurants you have here. I am Mediterranean, and this shadowiness is to me all fake intimacy. I prefer the sun." Silence, then another burst: "The use of man as a means and not as an end is the root of all evil." Silence, then burst, burst, burst: "I never trust a writer who can say too many things. By that I mean a writer who has too many tunes to play. One good tune is enough. Good writers are monotonous, like good composers. Their truth is self-repeating. They keep rewriting the same book. That is to say, they keep trying to perfect their expression of the one problem they were born to understand."
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SOURCE: "Truth or Consequences?," in The Saturday Review, Vol. XXXIX, No. 32, August 11, 1956, p. 17.
[In the following excerpt, Kelly notes that while all of the stories in Bitter Honeymoon share anatomical explicitness, immaculate literary style, and gloomy endings, they also contain brilliant observations from Moravia of human behavior under emotional stress.]
In considering Alberto Moravia's new collection, Bitter Honeymoon and Other Stories, let us assume we do not know the author has been hailed as one of the consummate craftsmen of our day. Or that groping critics have coupled the name Moravia with D. H. Lawrence and Stendhal in the field of sensual perception. The masterful morbidities of Conjugal Love and the nightmarish compassion of The Woman of Rome certainly have little in common with the malevolent monotone of Bitter Honeymoon. Or do they? Our mind now deals with the image of a sickly Cyclops, one sex-bright eye in the middle of his forehead trained pitilessly upon people in the act of being doomed and destroyed by the devil in their flesh.
Can it be true that most of life's big issues (growing up, self-confidence, peace of mind, romantic love, worldly success) must pivot wildly upon the Freudian by-products of erotic encounters? Putting it directly, is sex really this intricate and is the author dealing with truth or the consequences of not telling it? Although Philip Rahv, in his brief introduction to the present volume, compares the author to titillating tale tellers of the fourteenth century, some readers will decide that Signor Moravia's preoccupation with the human body compares more closely with that of the late Bernarr Macfadden than to Boccaccio.
These eight short confrontations have much in common: anatomical explicitness, immaculate literary style, an arena in which sex is the game and participants are bigger, smaller, or more tortured than life usually provides—and gloomy endings. They have notable points of difference, too, mainly confined to knowing and often brilliant observations in which the author passes along his knowledge of human behavior under emotional stress. In "Tired Courtesan," perhaps the most powerful entry, a boy regards an aging prostitute: "As he stared at her he felt he was looking at the face of existence itself, which reveals itself and speaks for a moment and then is silent and still again. His contemplation didn't last long." A husband discovers too late his passion for a neglected wife in "Back to the Sea," a magnetic exercise in naturalism: "When she put up her hand to arrange her hair, disordered by the wind, he seemed to make out the blackness of her armpit through the linen shirt and felt profoundly troubled." The story called "The English Officer" is a small masterpiece of suspense as the reader watches a sensitive prostitute greet and meet her man.
Any reader's eye may be lighted by "Bitter Honeymoon," a small idyll in which a bride bewildered by Communism and virginity is brought to her sensuals by a thunderstorm. Or perhaps by "The Unfortunate Lover," a story of a man visited at the seashore by a shrewish mistress who came only to tantalize. It is not likely that the surrealistic effects of a boy and tortured cat in "The Fall" or the adolescent prurience of a "A Sick Boy's Winter" and "The Imbroglio" will do the same.
Few if any major novelists should allow their occasional stories to be collected in one place. . . . Looking at these stories another way, however, those who find entertainment in one will find it in all.
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SOURCE: "Precarious Balance of Opposed Demands," in Commonweal Vol. LXIV, No. 21, August 24, 1956, p. 520.
[In the following review of Bitter Honeymoon and Other Stories, Greene applauds Moravia's ability to present characters as real people.]
The name of Alberto Moravia is not a new one to American readers. His novels have been published in this country as a matter of routine, and he is to us a writer whose biting, analytical realism matches a modern mood. That mood has prevailed nowhere more strongly than in Moravia's native Italy where the ruptures and griefs of our age have struck with stunning impact. Yet Moravia never joined the post-war preachers. In novels like The Woman of Rome, he catches not the tone of violence, but its debilitating effect upon persons. His style, however, always emerges from the alleyways and bordellos of its passage untouched and uncompromised.
Now Bitter Honeymoon makes Moravia's short stories available to American readers for the first time. The several very fine stories in this collection are bound to increase Moravia's reputation in the country. Each of the stories in the book is concerned with man's relationship with woman, but beyond this the stories are as different one from another as a versatile talent can make them.
Moravia ignores, for the most part, the usual furniture of the modern short story—the long dialogues, the extended explanations and descriptions. He concentrates, in a classic fashion, on his main characters and the result in this book is a marvelous gallery of personalities who are no less (and no more) ambiguous than are real persons.
The longest story in the collection, "The Imbroglio," concerns a shy, confused university student, Gianmaria, stumbling into his first romance. The situation has never been treated with a more gentle, sophisticated humor. The boy falls in with some not-very-desirable company, and his inability to distinguish sincerity from insincerity is made agonizingly believable.
"Back to the Sea" finds the author intent on probing the motivations of more mature people in love. They do not come off any better. The story opens with the woman no longer able to bear the man, and, for less than purely noble reasons, the man is unwilling to end the marriage.
The inability of the sexes to communicate in any meaningful way is something close to an obsession with Moravia. His women are nearly always petulant, but only because the men are obtuse, unable to understand the subtle shadings of a woman's right and wrong, a woman's propriety and vulgarity, beauty and squalor. His men, for nearly the same reasons, are constantly frustrated in their intentions, their resolutions and desires. Love is almost always an affliction in these stories, a disease causing irrationality and a kind of death to the will. In "Back to the Sea" Lorenzo, the hapless husband, takes his estranged wife to a place by the sea where they had an earlier happiness and where he is sure she will repent. He alternates constantly on this trip between desire and despair. "Despite his emptiness and sadness of spirit, he could feel the turgid vitality swelling in his veins. In view of his despair, this vitality seemed a useless and ironical form of wealth and he felt desolate." Seconds later Lorenzo is again attempting to talk casually with his wife. In "Bitter Honeymoon," the title story, there is the same basic alienation and unbreakable solitude in two people just married.
As Philip Rahv points out in a short introduction, there is a basic inability in all these people to rise above the sensual facts of their lives together. They are never able to act rationally, to harness wild, goat-like wills. The result is deepening frustration, more turbid desire, a wilder will.
But from all this, Moravia does not deduce violence, jungle law or an uncivilized society. That people like Lorenzo and Gianmaria are delicately and eternally poised between the demands of self and the demands of others is a fact of their existences. It is a fact which casts a velvety cloud of sadness over these stories. In some cases the balance is destroyed. But more often resignment without acceptance sets in—a purgatory where love is inconsolably locked up in the human heart.
Moravia is often attacked as a "naturalist." But the term legitimately covers only Moravia's frame of reference, and the truths he seeks out are no less valid for that. He is merely demonstrating the truth of what another Italian wrote over six hundred years ago in the closing cantos of the Purgatorio: "God's high decree would be broken, if Lethe were passed, and such viands were tasted, without some sort of penitence that may shed tears."
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SOURCE: A review of Roman Tales, in The Saturday Review, September 21, 1957, p. 18.
[Here, Bergin praises Moravia's skill as a short story writer.]
Alberto Moravia, if not beyond question the leading writer of contemporary Italy (in his own country, at least, his supremacy is still a matter of debate), is certainly the most widely-known abroad. He has a large public in America and the faithful will know what to expect in his newest volume. Yet Roman Tales do in a sense give us a Moravia hitherto unknown in English dress. For one thing they will serve to exemplify his skill as a short-story writer. Moravia has been turning out novelle for years; but this is the first selection to be offered to American readers. All the stories in this book are of quite recent vintage and all display the typical Moravian manner, which may be described as the employment of vigorous, dispassionate prose for the report of some brutal deed or the delineation of some unsavory character, not without an underlying stony irony. In "Rain in May" a waiter plans to murder his employer; in "The Go-Between" an avaricious woman trades on the passion of her admirer to squeeze another million lire rental out of her apartment; in "The Film Test" a chauffeur deceives two girls into thinking him a millionaire and finds the girls are not what they seem either; in "The Girl from Ciociaria" a country wench uses her simple untutored mind for a career of petty larceny in the city. And so it goes. All the characters are from the lower classes: at best, the very lowest level of the bourgeoisie, at worst, the professional criminal.
In all the tales the action takes place in Rome or its immediate environs and all the characters are drawn from Roman life. In recent years, Moravia has succumbed to the growing cult of Rome (not limited to Italians, either) and has taken to pinpointing his plots, fixing them on the Via dell'Anima or in the Trastevere or near the Acqua Acetosa, as the case may be. This gives the reader who knows Rome a kind of topographical frisson but in truth the characters themselves do not seem particularly Roman either in motivation or reaction. Greed, egocentricity, sensual materialism are not necessarily limited to the inhabitants of the Eternal City.
These stories lose a little by each other's company. It is better, if you have the leisure, to read one or two at a time.
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SOURCE: "The Classicism of Alberto Moravia," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. III, No. 4, Winter 1957-58, pp. 309-20.
[In the following excerpt, Baldanza hails the stories in Two Adolescents as "masterfully controlled vignettes of unexampled chastity and clarity of tone." ]
It is with Agostino and Luca, the Two Adolescents, that Moravia reaches his first genuine triumph. In a curiously negative way, his total work began with the chronicles of fevered and perverse promiscuity of Time of Indifference (an exercise in Camus existentialism), Mistaken Ambitions, and Fancy Dress Party; with Two Adolescents and Woman of Rome the affirmative character of love begins to appear, since it is a curative and redemptive force in Luca's experience, and a nearly supernatural grace for Adriana, the woman of Rome; in these books there is no diminution in the accuracy or mordancy of his treatment of physical love, but the experience approaches transfiguration more nearly than in the early books, where it is at best a spasmodic disease. Even in the earlier books, though, the protagonists were aware that some form of wholesome, honest, and deeply felt passion is necessary to go on living; even the aging and witch-like Mariagrazia in the first novel realizes that her cook fails because she has no passion: "And when passion is lacking, everything is lacking." But with the latter two books his characters arrive at a new plane, one in which passionate involvement itself is no longer the question, but in which human beings face the problems of how to enforce their passions and how to reconcile themselves to thwarted passion. To some extent, this change in the philosophical side of his subject parallels a change in social class, since he has, with Luca and Adriana, renounced the petty nobility and the even pettier social climbers that nourish their pride in the earlier novels.
Two Adolescents, in short and masterfully controlled vignettes of unexampled chastity and clarity of tone, reveals in a limpid and Mediterranean light the secret spiritual springs of growth. All the hidden passions and the burgeoning identity of adulthood, all the disgust and horror of the lonely realizations that man faces find expression in poetic imagery of a simplicity and exactness that are as definitive as a satyr on an Athenian vase.
Agostino's sudden initiation by a group of ruffians, who brutally pantomime what adults so falsely term the "facts" of life, stirs up in his fervid consciousness the oedipal crisis which, although unresolved, is in the process of dissipation as he trudges home from his unsuccessful attempt to enter a bawdy-house. Luca, the second adolescent, and to my mind the more interesting and profoundly moving of the two, falls into a game-like code of rejecting life. First his studies suffer; then, when he learns his parents hide their money behind a Raphael madonna that he was forced to pray before as a child, he begins disposing of his possessions. His death-drive is enhanced by an attempted affair with his cousins' nurse, whom he finds on her death bed when he visits the apartment for what would have been their first assignation. He then sinks into the depths of a hallucinatory and feverish illness, to be resuscitated only by the primitively sexual attentions of a maternal nurse.
In these two stories, the delicacy of touch and the precision of effect are those of a great artist; despite the brittle crispness of its texture, the narration leads the reader into the darkest and most devious folds of the psyche; the proportions are flawless, and every detail functions exquisitely. Luca's solitary communions with the yew trees beneath which he has buried his gold, and beneath which he had earlier envisioned his own mutilated corpse; and his stammering efforts at disobedience in the classroom as he reads to the accompaniment of the rain on the window a horrifying passage from Dante that describes the sort of death he longs for—these are among the most gracefully lyrical, profoundly and accurately controlled, and chastely modelled pages of recent writing. . . .
But it is in Conjugal Love and A Ghost at Noon that Moravia enters his rightful province and shows the full fruition of his own particular aesthetic gifts. The clinically objective first-person narrative, the complex psychological analysis, and the cat-and-mouse progression of the hero's awareness of his fate are acutely reminiscent, as we shall shortly see, of the peculiar effects of a tragedy like Oedipus. Both books are alike in that they chart a husband's tortured realization of his wife's reluctant but determined unfaithfulness with a clearly inferior man. The other man, however, possesses the indispensable quality of primitive, passionate, and direct masculinity which the husband in each case fails to assert to his wife's satisfaction. In both cases the initial pretext for the wife's failure of faith in her husband is the brutal advance made by the other man, which the husband either rationalizes or overlooks in his own highly civilized, rational, and speculative manner.
In addition, the husband in each case is occupied in producing a work of art. In Conjugal Love, for example, the husband needs to prove his vocation as a writer, and requests that they suspend their sexual relation during the time that he works on the book. His wife, who understands nothing of art, but who approves of what looks to her like ambition, agrees. The husband's failure to live up to her ideal of primitive masculinity is neatly symbolized by his inability to shave himself, and by his refusal to dismiss the sinister barber who shaves him each day after his wife insists the man made an obvious sexual advance while curling her hair. The husband's "discovery" begins with a peasant's revelation of the barber's local reputation as a provincial Don Juan; since this coincides with a trip to town to buy typing paper for the final draft of his novel, the sexual and artistic crises of the book develop concurrently and reach a climax on the night that the final version of the book is completed and on the same night that the husband accidentally watches his wife and the barber meet secretly on the ancient threshing-floor of the farm. He is nearly simultaneously convinced that his book is worthless and that his whole life thus has no form or meaning. The result is as explicit an Aristotelian "discovery" as fiction can offer:
At that moment I had an exact perception of the weakness of my own character, made up, as it was, of impotence and morbidity and selfishness; and I accepted it completely, all at once. I knew that, after that night, I should be a much more modest man, and that perhaps, if I so wished, I should be able, if not exactly to change, at least to correct, myself, since in that one single night I had learned more about myself than in all the other years of my life.
The resolution of both the sexual and the artistic dilemma occurs in a succeeding bedroom scene in which Silvio and Leda resolve their mutual problems as they conclude that both his manuscript and their marital relation are of a respectably ordinary quality.
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SOURCE: "Alberto Moravia: Voyeurism and Storytelling," in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter 1960, pp. 127-41.
[In the following excerpt, Ragusa examines the voyeuristic scenes in Two Adolescents, Bitter Honeymoon, and The Fetish.]
Moravia's fiction abounds in voyeuristic scenes. The most successful are, I believe, those that involve adolescent boys: for instance, Agostino in the story that bears his name (Two Adolescents), and Tancredi in "The Fall" (Bitter Honeymoon and Other Stories). Not only is curiosity about sex natural in adolescents, but the special aura of constraint and complicity that surrounds it in Moravia, and thereby heightens its emotional tension, is the direct result of the socio-psychological situation of his protagonists. A summer such as mother and thirteen-year-old son spend at the seashore in Agostino is not out of the ordinary for the Italian middle-class; nor is a home like the villa in "The Fall," complete with maid, the customary sexual initiator for the boys of the well-to-do. Of course, the two stories are quite different. Agostino is the case-study of an Oedipal conflict which manifests itself rather late by classical Freudian standards, but offers Moravia, in line with the whole tradition of the novel of adolescence in Europe, a richer, more complex subject matter to make use of than would otherwise be the case. With "The Fall," instead, we are frankly in the realm of the pathological. Tancredi's uneasiness, his "chronic apprehension or feeling of foreboding, as if everything concealed a trap," has a less well-defined origin than Agostino's unhappiness, and thus lends itself to the surrealistic juxtapositions Moravia favors in this story and which would be out of place in the more rationally analytic Agostino. In each of the stories there is a carefully worked out, and in its way unforgettable, voyeuristic scene: in Agostino, the final page where the boy, barred from entering the brothel because of his youth, looks in through a window; in "The Fall," the more mysteriously suggestive sight of a pair of legs which Tancredi watches through a crack in a door. . . .
Moravia has been writing short stories for as long as he has been writing novels. Only very few of the earlier ones are available in translation, mostly in the collection Bitter Honeymoon, which first appeared in 1956. Of the recent ones a much more generous sampling has found its way into English. This is to be explained not by the superiority of the second group over the first, but by the circumstances of Moravia's introduction to the English-speaking world. His success in England and America dates from the appearance of The Woman of Rome, which was read at the time (1949-1950) in the context of remembered or vicarious war experiences in Italy and of the vogue of neorealism. From that point, interest in Moravia was quite naturally sustained by every successive publication of a new work. What he had written earlier (and there had been at least twenty years of literary activity prior to The Woman of Rome) did not have the same topical urgency, nor did it always reflect the same concerns. The surrealistic and satiric Moravia, for instance, seemed at odds with the social critic and the psychological analyzer. Thus, though many of the earlier works were eventually translated and published, there are gaps in what is available to readers of English. As a short story writer, Moravia is unequally represented in English, and it is to be doubted that the two volumes of Roman tales and the latest collection, The Fetish, will do much to establish or maintain his reputation in the genre.
One trouble is that the short stories in these three volumes are not typical of the genre, either as cultivated by Moravia himself at other times, or as it developed in the nineteenth century. They are journalistic pieces, originally written for the literary pages of a large Italian daily. As such, their length and to a certain extent their subject matter and narrative development are pre-set. It is difficult for writers who over long periods of time write on assignment for a specific type of consumption to avoid adopting formulas. That is why these particular stories reinforce the impression of excessive repetition and monotony in Moravia's work. Many of them, taken singly, convince and amuse; read in succession, they tire and exasperate.
This is especially true of the stories in The Fetish. Through a long succession of episodes and scenes, Moravia tells of the boredom of modern life. Many of the stories deal with the typical contemporary couple who hope to escape from their sense of indifference and isolation through one another, but only find themselves more deeply entrapped than ever in the anonymous apartments and mass-produced cars which contain their lives. In "The Bill" a young man has just arrived at a vacation paradise, Capri perhaps, and is struck by the crowd of people around him: "They were almost always couples, some of them young, some middle-aged, some elderly . . . It seemed to him that all of these couples, as they passed close to him, were saying: we're two and you're only one; we know where we're going and you don't; we have a purpose in life and you haven't." Indeed, the couple—rather than the family—is a characteristic of modern life, and Moravia's portrayal of it in the different stages of its cohabitation could well be categorized into as "anatomy." In "The Honeymoon," for instance, we have the bride and groom who have just set off on their wedding trip. A chance remark of his wife startles Giovanni into the discovery that there is no true relationship between them. The rest of the train ride is taken up by his efforts to bridge the gap of incommunicability and by his wish at the same time that the gap might become even wider through his wife's disappearance. An amusing twist at the end shows that the wife had experienced exactly the same feeling, but this cannot undo the thought the husband had had earlier: " . . . as soon as his wife came back he would feel unhappy again. And so it would be as long as they lived, since they were married and there was nothing to be done." In "The Fetish" the newly married husband is annoyed by a modernistic sculpture bought by his wife and cannot refrain from joking about it. A quarrel ensues; misunderstandings come to the surface and are discussed; resolutions are made to be more conciliatory in the future. At the end, however, when peace is restored and his wife sits opposite him at the table again, the husband notices that "in perspective, his wife's face appeared to be closely coupled with the stupid, ferocious face of the fetish." Numerous are the stories which deal with the triangle situation, from the obsessive jealousy of the fiancé in "The Man Who Watched," to the lazy toying with the idea of unfaithfulness by the wife in "The Escape," the search for "thrills" on the part of an "enormously" bored wife in "Too Rich," and the wife's discovery in "Scatter-Brains" that her husband has a mistress. Finally, there are the stories that mark the dissolution of the love or marriage tie: for instance, "Repetition," in which two estranged lovers try to reenact their first meeting, or "Measurements," in which a man separated from his wife looks over the rooftops he sees from his window.
I would like to comment on only two of these stories. "Scatter-Brains" introduces a wonderfully vapid society woman, "absolutely incapable of concentration" as she herself puts it, who in her conversation flits from topic to topic so that in the end everything is reduced to the same uniform level. She invites a friend, Sofia, to come to see her because she has something important to tell her. But in the conversational stream of consciousness with which she greets Sofia, she forgets the important thing she wanted to tell. Only when Sofia is already at the door, ready to leave, does she suddenly remember and she hurriedly blurts out that her (Sofia's) husband is unfaithful. Later that evening, Sofia tells her husband that she has learned something important, but . . . "It's no use. I've forgotten it, and it's useless for you, with your usual morbid curiosity, to try and find out what it was . . . I've forgotten it and there's nothing to be done about it." The story is amusing: the description of the scatterbrain quite brilliant, the final note ironic. The reader is left wondering why the wife forgot: was it a ruse to avoid telling her husband something unpleasant, or has she really forgotten, numbed by the silly patter of her friend? Obviously Moravia's treatment of the theme is radically different from what it would have been in nineteenth-century fiction, where a discovery of this kind would have led to dramatic action or tearful resignation—at any rate, to the test and revelation of character. Moravia is saying, in substance, and all the stories in The Fetish bear this out, that modern life has dulled the sense of personal identity to the point that a woman in Sofia's predicament is more likely to mimic unconsciously the reactions of a friend who is personally uninvolved, than to take a stand on her own.
The story "Measurements" is one of Moravia's contributions to chosisme, Robbe-Grillet's poetics of objects. The man looking at the rooftop opposite his window is an engineer and there is thus some slight justification for his abnormal tendency to want to measure mentally all the different structures which have with time been built on the roof. One day, leafing through Casanova's Memoirs, he comes upon a passage in which the Venetian adventurer makes a similar mathematical description of the objects he sees from his prison cell at the Piombi. Moravia's protagonist remarks, however, that Casanova, who was planning his escape, had good reason to be interested in these details, while his own observations are "purposeless, inexplicable, absurd." Earlier he had also noted that the objects about which he was so passionately curious are the very things that form "the fixed, incomprehensible background of every life," that as long as life goes on they go unnoticed, but that as soon as life stops they reveal themselves. Awareness of their presence, then, is a symptom of stasis, death, of the imprisonment to which modern man is condemned. If with "Scatter-Brains" Moravia commented on the disappearance of emotions, with "Measurements" he shows that even the ability to perceive has been attenuated, for his protagonist sees not the distinguishing features of the scene opposite him—the turrets and stairs and balconies, man-made objects with their historically conditioned styles—but abstract compositional lines, distances, and relationships.
Narrative formulas predominate in the Roman tales as they do in The Fetish, but local color somewhat redeems them. It is a special kind of local color, emphasizing not the quaint and the original, but the usual and the typical. But where the emblematic couples of The Fetish merge into one joyless, gray mass, the garage mechanics and cab drivers, the movie house cashiers and country bumpkins, the chambermaids and waiters of the Roman tales have greater élan, are quick to recover from setbacks, and live carefree lives, knowing that tomorrow will bring its own golden opportunities. Though Moravia, in theorizing about these stories, lumped their characters together under the common denominator of economic man, the Marxian archetype driven by necessity, the reader cannot help recognizing in them the classic comic types: pranksters and tricksters with their foolish victims, bumblers and small-time crooks, gullible girls and neighborhood gallants. Moreover, they are descendants of the skeptical and colorful Roman populace of the past which had already left its mark in literature through the bright dialect poetry of Belli and Trilussa. As stories, the Roman tales are often simple faits divers, human interest news items raised to the level of "art" through the addition of a punch line which serves to make the ironies of life explicit. They resemble nothing so much as the earliest examples of contes and dits, where we find the same strong grounding of the story in a definite social reality, the same quick delineation and revelation of character, the same quick smile which attests to the success of the final effect. Read one by one, as a kind of daily ration of literature for readers of the Corriere della sera, the Roman tales have their own slight charm. But it would be difficult to claim for them any more serious significance.
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SOURCE: "Moralist Without an Ideal," in Commonweal, Vol. LXXI, No. 25, March 18, 1960, pp. 679-80.
[In the following mixed review, Dunlea finds the tales contained in The Wayward Wife and Other Stories absorbing, but not as impressive as Moravia's earlier works of short fiction.]
It is not perhaps by accident that Alberto Moravia has become Italy's most internationally acclaimed contemporary novelist and that he should at the same time be a maverick in Italian letters. For one thing, Italian writing had so long stood shy of the main literary currents to the north, whereas Moravia has channeled these into his work with a will; for another, he has allowed himself to become obsessed with sex to a degree which can only be viewed as eccentric in a country where a sense of measure survives in the general approach to the problems of sex. Moreover, the esthetic conservatism of Benedetto Croce still lies heavily on the arbiters of literary taste in Italy, and in stringently literary terms. Moravia is not a writer of major note.
But of course his reception abroad has not primarily been, as in fact it could hardly be, a literary appreciation; rather has it been, with inevitable irony, a recognition of a distinctly contemporary yet signally Italian temperament and sensibility. This is the same type of irony by which the uniquely American characteristics of many of our writers have been translated back to us from France, and these are the qualities, together with his highly dramatic conception of character, which underlie Moravia's extraordinary narrative powers.
Lust and passion, operating on a destructive principle, and their irreversible depredatory patterns, form the substance and economy of Moravia's art; but the artist is indifferent to the spiritual mystery of evil in itself. In his world it is merely the most dramatic expression of a universe where chaos reigns and futility rules. And if there are ideas in his novels they are ideas in scrawl, shifting with the emphasis of the times.
Moravia is a moralist without an ideal. What is more irreconcilable artistically, he is a psychologist without much subtlety; so it is even when he is treating such delicate sexual themes as those of Agostino and Luca—two of his most moving narratives—where complexity is too often indistinguishable from contrivance. (One need simply recall the part played in Luca by the child's discovery of the family safe concealed behind the picture of the Madonna.) Moravia's tendency is to resolve everything in terms of story over and above characterization, with the result that there is more simplifying than resolving. . . .
The tales in The Wayward Wife—they are tales more than stories—are all absorbing, though none may be so impressive as such earlier ones as The Unfortunate Lover. Not the fluent regional colors of Roman Tales but duller tones prevail. The story of the title, nearly novel length, is so top-heavy with old-fashioned plotting that one must despair of making the slightest dent in its intricacies by relating that it concerns a young lady whose dream of marrying into a wealthy family is dashed by the revelation that she is the illegitimate offspring of the father of the young man who had been rejoicing her with his attentions.
Although here somewhat tenderized, the author is an unsentimental dissector of womankind, and by this quality, as by a certain melancholy charm, the thing is sustained decently above bathos. In the balancing vignettes the Moravian slice of life comes off as a side of beef with love profane and/or professional, and the author having raffish satisfaction of the carnal automaton in the male, while sending his harpoon at young beauties so statuesque they even make love like statues.
As a story writer, Moravia is not constrained by the fact that we expect, as we do of a novelist, something more than a good story; and his imagination, always as formidable as it is facile, is free to follow its native propensities and to construct a completely tactile world. Here he is a species of cynical genius, an etcher of sadistic intensity.
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SOURCE: "Moravia's Proletarian Roman Intellectuals," in The Modern Language Journal, Vol. XLIV, No. 7, November, 1960, pp. 303-6.
[In the following excerpt, Mitchell praises Moravia's use of uneducated, middle-class narrators as a new mode of expression.]
While Alberto Moravia's post-war preference for proleterian Roman settings and characters is well known, it does not seem to have been recognized that La Romana and the two volumes of Racconti romani represent not just a new predilection in subject matter but also a rather daring narrative experiment. This experiment lies in the creation of a novel sort of fictitious narrator. The literary practice of abandoning more or less remote anonymity for the nearer vantage point of a personage in the story is not, of course, new, though narrators' connections with the events which they have to relate have often been, as in Madame Bovary, so slight as to make the whole device rather insignificant. First person narrators, such as Proust's "Marcel," have normally been, too, people of considerable literary education. The narration of stories about quite uneducated people has nearly always been done impersonally, as in the novels of Dickens or Zola. Moravia has chosen instead to have his Roman works presented by characters belonging to the lower-class, unlettered milieux in which the action is set. He has not adopted this approach, in the main, for the sake of picturesqueness or of humorous effect but in search of a new mode of expression. . . .
The Racconti romani and the Nuovi racconti romani contain 120 quite short stories, all relating adventures of modest citizens of Rome in the postwar period. Some exceptional ones have to do with particularly strange or comical happenings, and a few others raise serious moral or philosophical questions. Thus "La Parola Mamma" presents the amusing misfortunes of a petty crook and "Negriero" describes the difficult life of a professional beggar. "Non sanno parlare" brings into apparent conflict the virtue of charity and one's duty toward his own family, while in the conclusion of another, "Caterina," one may even discern a personal revelation of the absurd after the existentialist model. Most of the stories are built, however, upon apparently unexceptional occurrences and have no evident grave implications. Although the tales may owe a good part of their popular success to the fact that they are Roman and that they contain numerous references to familiar localities or aspects of Roman life, there is hardly any question, either, of local color. If characters do occasionally show their pride at being citizens in the SPQR tradition, they are not systematically presented as persons of a certain race or culture. Local color, suspense, social commentary, and moral philosophy are all of secondary importance, for the dominant impression left by the Racconti is one of constant, detailed speculation about human nature. As in La Romana, personal relations are the favorite subject of analysis, but here there is much less attention to passion and to love than to calmer relationships, to friendship and plain compatibility. This sort of material is better suited to the kind of detached and reasonable reflection in which the protagonists like to indulge.
Because the narrators' attention is concentrated upon matters in which they are competent and about which they can reason dispassionately, there are few examples of the kind of ironical presentation, noted for parts of La Romana, which invites one to have recourse to his own superior education or understanding, to "read between the lines." A noteworthy exception is furnished by the tale appropriately entitled "Non approfondire," in which a man wonders naively why his wife has left him while readers understand quickly that the reason is his vanity. The great majority of narrators seem to have been chosen neither for the eccentricities of their own thinking nor for the exceptional interest of the things they have to tell about but for their unusual good faith and shrewdness in interpreting everyday experiences. This good faith and shrewdness are carefully established by virtue of certain stylistic mannerisms.
Most evident among these mannerisms are those meant to assure a frank and intimate tone in the narration. The first sentences of stories often seem to come in the middle of a conversation between old friends and may even feign to presuppose on the reader's part some prior knowledge of the material about to be presented, as though there remained only to explain the exact manner in which things had occurred. These two beginnings may be taken as examples:
Era più forte di me, ogni volta che conoscevo una ragazza, la presentavo a Rigamonti e lui, regolarmente, me la soffiava. . . .
Fate caso alle età; fino a trentacinque anni ero vissuto con mia sorella Elvira che ne aveva trentotto . . .
It is as though the narrator had already communicated the essential facts and were now about to proceed, perhaps at the request of his listener, to a fuller presentation of the story. Midway through their accounts, narrators often address their listeners directly, saying "E notate," "Avete visto," or, most characteristically, "Vedete un po' com'è fatto l'uomo." They are forever appealing, one man of the world to another, to his mundane knowledge of human types and habits: "[era] uno di quei piccoli che si vendicano della piccolezza spadroneggiando e facendo i prepotenti." The confidential remark "Si sa come vanno queste cose" is ubiquitous, while shifts and swerves of the narration are habitually punctuated with such informal, easygoing expressions as "basta" and "insomma."
One of the narrators, a waiter, states, in terms which might apply to nearly all of them, that he is of an observant spirit, having found that life is as amusing as a show. All of them reveal the intensity of their interest in psychology inadvertently, as it were, by frequent indulgence in sententiae and citing of proverbs. These formulas are often found at the beginning of a story, where they serve to indicate the precise area of its psychological interest:
Quando in una compagnia di amici entra una donna, allora potete dire senz'altro che la compagnia sta per sciogliersi e ognuno sta per andarsene per conto suo.
There may be instead a rhetorical question which serves the same purpose: "Se ne dicono tante sull' amicizia, ma, insomma, che vuol dire essere amico?" In the first sentences of other tales, e.g. "Quant'è caro," a narrator warns that the facts which he has to recount will seem to contradict a proverb. The main body of the narration also abounds with general statements about human nature. Some of the original ones are rich with imagery:
Eh, è più difficile assai non essere invidioso dell'amico fortunato che generoso con quello sfortunato. E l'invidia è come una palla di gomma che più la spingi sotto e più ti torna a galla e non c'è verso di riccaccierla nel fondo.
This image, like most of the psychological ones, is essentially intellectual, in that it means to explain a mental process by analogy with a physical one.
Being scrupulously objective—albeit fascinated—observers, the narrators are anxious to present all germane details for the reader's and, it seems, their own, reflection. Sharing Balzac's celebrated opinion that temperament and mood are reflected in one's exterior appearance, they present a sort of psychophysical description of principal characters, recalling, for example: "Notai che ci aveva lo sguardo torbido e il viso assorto e che rosicchiava l'unghia dell'indici: segno in lui di preoccupazione." When they do not report conversations directly, they are careful nevertheless to do so in such a manner as to evoke exact words and expressions:
Poi, all'uscita, mi spiegò che lei mi aveva notato da un pezzo, dal giorno si può dire che era stata assunta all'albergo. Che da allora non aveva fatto che pensare a me. Che adesso sperava che le volessi un po' di bene, perché lei, senza di me, non poteva vivere.
If the phrase "mi spiegè che" and its subordinate "che" were removed, this passage would be a fine example of the realistic narrative procedure called "free indirect style," whose first systematic use in literature is often attributed to Flaubert but which, as any observant listener knows, is adopted instinctively by all good oral story-tellers. Moravia's narrators also faithfully report their own moods and reactions and sometimes even puzzle as objectively over the possible motives of their own actions as over the deeds of others.
It is not unusual, in fact, for protagonists to confess themselves unable to understand their own behavior or that of other characters. Their accounts are sprinkled with the expressions "Non so perché" and "Chissà perché." While such frankness and modesty work, of course, to increase verisimilitude, they also testify to the seriousness and to the nearly professional competence of the narrators' speculations. Their failures to understand do not normally appear as signs of naïveté but rather as evidence of a real, if limited, sophistication. These unlettered Romans have become sophisticated about human nature through their habit of observation and also through their attention to the popular wisdom of proverbs. Their perplexity is the sort which comes to wise men, and smiles it may evoke are appreciative rather than indulgent. The whole effect of their tales might be compared to that of an illustrated book of maxims in which were included a good number of situations to which no maxims seem to apply.
In creating narrators who are at the same time unlettered and, in their way, sophisticated, Moravia was breaking almost new ground. This is not to say, of course, that there have not been other proletarian narrators who were meant to be taken seriously. Camus' Meursault is a recent example to the contrary. This humble hero's understanding of events is, however, more instinctive than analytic and the tragic substance of his thoughts hardly invites reasonable interpretation. The writer has been able to find a really close literary relative of Adriana only in our own Huck Finn. Like her, he seldom thinks directly about the social questions which his adventures evoke, though his marginal thoughts are full of grave implications. Also like her, he is extraordinarily well-acquainted with the laws of human nature and unusually perspicacious in his diagnosis of concrete psychological situations. Huck has, of course, an entirely different sense of humor—perhaps a typically American one—but there is a basic similarity of narrative attitudes and techniques.
The protagonists of the Racconti are even more unusual in that they are set to telling only of such matters as they understand—at least in the measure that such matters can be understood. It is as though the author, having noted the success of Adriana in presenting certain subjects, had decided to let his next Romans concentrate upon doing what she had done best. No one narrator becomes very well-known and the areas of his weakness, unlike those of Adriana, remain hidden and irrelevant. The result is the appearance in literature of a novel breed of popular intellectuals whose manner of presentation is more intimate than that of an omniscient author and whose language is both simpler and more inventive than that of the usual narrator with a literary education. Their observations about human nature are not, of course, very new or very surprising, the subject being ancient and well-worked. What is new and surprising is their ingenuous gift of expression, well exemplified in the imaginative sententia quoted above. Much of the tales' appeal derives, too, from the narrators' success in assuming the tone of intimate conversation. Speculation about an interesting subject is always more pleasant in the company of another interested person, and it is not for nothing that the narrators are made to seem eager to share their reflections and their perplexities. Their personalities are so well adapted to the subject matter of their stories that they would plainly be less talented for speculation either about social conditions or about man's lot in the universe. After letting them recount over a hundred tales illustrative of the peculiarities of human nature Moravia may well consider that they have exhausted their startling but well-defined talents. It would not be very risky to predict that his next works, having different preoccupations, will depend upon a different kind of narrative device.
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SOURCE: "Alberto Moravia's L'automa: A Study in Estrangement," in Symposium, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1964, pp. 357-64.
[In the following essay, Pacifici examines Moravia's effort to dramatize the estranging effect of automation upon individuar s lives in L'automa.]
In the fall of 1962 Alberto Moravia's latest work was brought out by Bompiani of Milano. The new volume, aptly titled L'automa, consists of forty-one short stories, all of which were commissioned by the northern daily Il corriere della sera for publication in its third, "literary" page—a fact that must be borne in mind if we are to appreciate the strength and weaknesses of the individual stories. Within a few days after its appearence, the first printing of the book was sold out and a new edition on its way to the book stalls and shops. Judging from such an enthusiastic response, Moravia's popularity with his public continues its steady climb, in spite of the critics' cool reception to the book.
As usual with the work of any important or controversial writer (and few are today ready to question that Moravia is both) the appearance of a new volume affords its reader another opportunity to re-examine the artist's worth in a new light, and from a changed perspective. In one way, at least, L'automa differs from previous collections of short stories by Moravia. Comparing L'automa with, say, I racconti romani, one discerns that while in the latter the connecting link between the various stories is provided by local color, in the former it is to be found in the ideological stance of its characters. By the same token, while the tales of L'automa present different facets of a world view dramatized in Moravia's previous fiction, their intellectual and ideological content has become clearer and more pronounced, frequently at the expense of dramatic representation.
Once again, the title of the book indicates not only what its author feels to be its dominating theme, but what in the last analysis may be said to constitute his chief preoccupation as an observer of life: his heroes relive, in the condensed form proper to the short short-story, the same absurd, vacuous existence easily recognizable by the reader well acquainted with his previous creations. But the malaise from which they have long been suffering is here swiftly and succinctly examined, though with less of the psychological penetration and the clinical precision of Agostino and La disubbidienza, two works that remain probably the finest things Moravia has written to this date.
L'automa emerges as a study in estrangement, as a conscious effort to dramatize the kind of automatic life to which we have all, for mysterious reasons, fallen prey. Moravia does not explain such estrangement (which he believes to be one of the distinguishing traits of contemporary society) in sociological, political or even moral terms. I suspect that such a failure prompted the anonymous reviewer of The Italian Scene (Vol. IX, No. 2, Feb. 1963) to remark ironically: "Moravia of late has been delving deeper and deeper into what he calls "alienation," a malady discovered by Social and Soul Doctor Moravia himself. Nobody has quite understood the nature of this latest virus . . . hence the profuse verbiage which is pouring out of many literary publications on this subject." One must, of course, respect the critic's right to express his own opinions, however damaging or unsound they may be. In the present case, however, two clarifications would seem to be in order. First, while it is true that a good deal of intense debate has been taking place lately in various Italian reviews on the subject of "alienation" (a malady certainly not discovered by Moravia but by Fichte and Hegel and then, in a more socio-political and economic context by Karl Marx), to this writer at least such discussions have seemed not only proper, but indeed profitable and at times highly instructive, as in the case of the pieces published in Il Menabò, Nos. 4 and 5 (issued in 1961 and 1962). Second, and here we are dealing with what may be regarded as central issues of Moravia's work with regard both to its form and the vision it offers, no sensitive reader can have missed the fact that Moravia has been preoccupied with the alienation of contemporary life ever since his first novel, Gli indifferenti, published in 1929—well before, that is, critics and novelists alike were to respond to what has become, along with Existentialism, one of the most fashionable themes of our age. It is also not surprisingly unnatural that a nation that has become industrialized within a brief period of time should develop the necessary cultural sophistication to be concerned with (and make articulate) those problems that may no longer be considered peripheral.
The reader of Moravia will have no difficulty recognizing the heroes of the stories collected in L'automa. As usual, they are either intellectuals or, partly by way of their interests or occupation, have intellectual pretensions. Similarly, we invariably find them at a critical juncture in their lives, in the moment, that is, when they are able and ready to express what has been for some time a profound source of unhappiness, emotional discomfort, or uneasiness. Much like Michele of the early Gli indifferenti, they realize, and regret, that their power to "feel" has been lost. Likewise, like the characters of Luigi Pirandello (to whom the novelist has only occasionally and not persuasively been compared), Moravia's automatons eagerly want to see themselves live, only to experience the harrowing feeling that they are watching a puppet act. The chief difference between Moravia's most recent and earlier characters is perhaps one of intensity, not of kind. Their yearnings have remained basically the same: they all want to reach the "paradise of reality and truth," hoping that by so doing their physical and spiritual dessication and uselessness might gradually ease. With the passing of time, however, not only has their dilemma remained unsolved, it has grown unsurmountable.
In view of the fact that the collection derives its title from one of the stories ("L'automa"), the reader is somewhat encouraged to accept it as the most significant piece of the book and as the one that more clearly points to the sort of inspiration that in recent years has given birth to more than one of Moravia's novels. This suspicion leads the reader to take a closer look at that story, in the hope of discovering in it an illustration of the author's concerns or of the underlying assumptions of his world view.
As it is true with all other tales in the volume, "L'automa" revolves around a single, ordinary event. As the narrative opens, we find Guido getting ready to take his family on a Sunday pleasure ride in their automobile. Guido seems to be slightly irritated by the disorder of his bedroom, a disorder in striking contrast with the order and tidiness of the living room, where he stops briefly to put a record on the automatic turntable. But because of some kind of mechanical trouble, the arm of the turntable does not drop on the first groove of the record but on the middle of it, making an unexpected harsh, grating sound, after which the arm returns to its original position of repose. Guido puts on a different record, but remains baffled by the event. A little while later, together with his two small children, Piero and Lucia, and his attractive wife, he steps into the car and drives off toward Lake Albano, in the vicinity of Rome. During the ride, his wife keeps the children busy and amused by talking to them. She also expresses satisfaction with her life and husband, to whom she is happily married. But Guido is uneasy: and his wife, sensing his anxiety, asks him to tell her what is on his mind; whereupon Guido relates the incident of the turntable. His wife's reaction is simply to say that "machines are sometimes tired of being machines and want to show that they are not machines." As the car is going uphill, Guido shifts into a lower gear, experiencing at the same time the urge of driving his car and its occupants into the precipice ahead, and down into the lake below. The thought surprises him, as he does not hate his family; in fact, "never before had it seemed to him that he loved them as much as in the moment when he was actually thinking of doing away with them." Fortunately, he swerves the car to the right, misses the precipice, and the family, totally unaware of having narrowly escaped death, reach their destination where they all get out of the automobile to admire the beautiful panorama. It is then that Guido remembers that his wedding anniversary falls on that day: indeed, the whole Sunday excursion had been planned precisely to celebrate that event. And with this thought the story comes to the end.
The tale, as even my brief synopsis makes plain, is unsuccessful primarily because its actions are not presented with a view to providing us with the minimum amount of anticipation and illumination we expect from fiction. Yet "L'automa" is representative of both the general tone and character of the other forty stories of the volume. In all of them, the author is essentially concerned with depicting (dramatically at best and discursively at worst—in a manner that resembles the essay form) the atonality and inconclusiveness of contemporary existence, the feeling of misplacement and the mechanical behavior that, for Moravia, are the burdens of modern man, the pattern of responses that has turned us all, in the frightfully disjointed world of the twentieth-century, into hopeless robots. His stories are, in effect, calculated to give us a mosaic-type picture of a life robbed of its possibilities of fulfillment, even though the human needs of shelter, food and affection have either been satisfied or can easily be. Moravia's heroes, all fortunate enough to have money, a good job, and at least the opportunity to be loved, cannot help feeling intensely alone in a strange world, at odds with themselves and their reality.
Typical, in this sense, is the story "In paese straniero," where Lucio, a university student, becomes aware of his involvement in things which do not have any meaning or interest for him, of having to read books that do not enrich his spirit or mind, of having friends he finds both ephemeral and unworthy of him. He goes to pay a call on his girl friend Baba. But his visit, far from bringing him a measure of comfort and companionship, merely increases his awareness of the natural disorder of life—a disorder reflected in Baba's untidy apartment, in her falsely fashionable attire, in her inconsequential and absurd acts, such as her playing a 78 RPM record at a 33 1/3 speed, or her stabbing the armrest of the couch with a knife, or her tearing in two the telephone directory. It is only when Lucio slaps Baba in the face that he re-establishes touch with reality, a solution, one remembers, also reached by several other previous characters, as Michele of Gli indifferenti, Mino of La romana (both, as Lucio, university students), or the painter protagonist of La noia. All of them reduce, however briefly, the existing gap between themselves and reality by committing what are frequently gratuitous acts of violence on a loved one. Were we to analyze carefully the various reactions of Moravia's characters, in fact, we would discover their surprising similarity and how limited, in this sense, has the author's range proved to be. Thus, to give but one of many possible illustrations, Lucio (of the same short story above), as he leaves Baba's apartment, comments on his personal situation in a manner almost identical to that of Lorenzo ("Fine di una relazione"), Agostino (in the novella by the same title), or the heroes of Il disprezzo and La noia:
Nello stradone suburbano, camminando lungo i platani, avverti di nuovo l'odore boschivo ridestato dalle pioggie autunnali e si accorse, per contrasto, di essere acutamente e stupidamente infelice. Possibile, pensò, che la sua vita non potesse rassomigliare a quell'odore cosi buono e cosi vivo; e che lui fosse invece condannato a fare le cose e a stare con le persone che non gli piacevano? Si rendeva conto che non prendeva gusto a niente e che non capiva niente; proprio come uno straniero che si trovi in paese straniero e che debba, per forza, prima di orientarsi, fare una quantità di errori. Ma questo adesso lo consolò un poco. Dopo gli errori, chissà, pensò ancora, sarebbero forse venute le cose giuste.
The "typical" heroes of Moravia (and it is fair to speak of them as such now that the novelist has produced over fifteen works of fiction) share the common yearning of better days to come, of days that will bring them the hope of some respite from their estrangement, and will restore a sense of purpose to their otherwise empty existence.
The question that may legitimately be asked here is: just what is the cause of the alienation that brings an untold amount of anguish and frustration to Moravia's characters? While such estrangement is never closely traced to the biographical events of the characters, or diagnosed as resulting from their private neuroses, I believe that the author has brought us, with his latest work, a little closer to a more complete understanding of this problem. Once the stories are methodically sorted out, it will become apparent that they gravitate around an extremely limited number of situations. Thus, there are, first of all, the many tales of encounter and/or departure, probably the dearest to the novelist's imagination and symbolic of the farce of life Moravia has been depicting for over three decades; then the stories describing the loneliness of the individual; next come the stories depicting the "automatism" of modern life (these are probably the most intellectualized and least successful of the lot); then there are the tales centering upon the manner in which two people (usually husband and wife) have become estranged from one another, usually because one of the two (usually the husband) has proved himself to be unworthy of any esteem by his desires, actions or even his professional activities; finally, there are the stories of ineffable or unexplainable incidents, and written in the vein of Pirandello.
What are probably among the most successful stories of the volume revolve around the problem of human incommunicability—which provides, I believe, the chief clue to the riddle of alienation. More specifically, such tales deal with the manner in which words have lost their meanings, principally, I suspect, because they are but empty sounds that spring from no genuine feeling. Typical of these stories is "Le parole e la notte," where Giovanni, who wakes up after having had a nightmare, never succeeds in communicating to his wife the source of his anxiety; "L'alfabeto," the tale of Girolamo's decision to break off from his girl friend by having her read a letter he has composed to inform her of his intention—a plan that fails, however, when Girolamo discovers that his girl is illiterate and, being ashamed to admit it, makes a valiant effort to postpone the whole affair; "Le domande," a brillant tour de force illustrating the kind of conversation that is never turned into a dialogue. In that story, the protagonist, Riccardo, admits that "the things that torment us have the same meaning as the words, or better the sounds, our son was just making: Bla, bla, bla. Why should we torment ourselves, then?" The typical hero of Moravia does not react much differently: when all is said and done, he discovers that there is still the fact of living that has to be faced, and that much has to be accepted. The situation is satirized somewhat in "Non ti senti meglio?" where Giacomo, who is lonely and wants companionship, tries to persuade his mistress Elvira (who has come to his apartment to tell him how lonely she is after having been left by her husband) that words have a meaning only because we charge them with emotions, associations, and feelings that are extraneous to such words. The telephone then rings and the maid of another girl friend informs Giacomo that her mistress has left without indicating her destination, and then hangs up. At that point Elvira, quite obviously in a vindictive mood, turns Giacomo's technique on him by telling him that he must not curse the telephone, since it is "but an ordinary black instrument, not too large, made in a certain way, with a dial, some numbers, wires, etc." The moral is that we cannot be angry at things, since they have no feelings, and are nothing more than objects that occupy otherwise empty spaces. (One of Moravia's stories is aptly titled "Gli oggetti" and deals with a situation in which a woman accuses her fiancé of having treated her as a thing.)
Estrangement, however, does not result solely from our inability to communicate. Moravia attributes to loneliness, resulting partly from our being physically alone and partly from our common failure to share ourselves with others, a large share of the blame. In at least one occasion, the novelist succeeds into turning the situation into a highly lyrical one when a married couple decide to keep each other company during their wakeful night hours. They spend some pleasant hours admiring the still beauty of the night, of the surrounding meadows and nearby buildings, and have even time to do the sort of things they obviously do not normally do—listen to music together, with the wife putting on a dance exhibition for her husband, and making fresh orange juice. Only seldom, however, is the problem of human loneliness resolved as happily as in "L'insonnia insieme." More frequently, Moravia's characters reach the conclusion (only once, in "Niente," clearly stated) that "Non è solo chi si sente solo." This insight, by no means original or new in Moravia's work, is dramatized again and again in the stories of L'automa, most curiously, I think, in the tale titled "La camera e la strada." There Riccardo, returning home from the office one day, gets off the bus at the wrong stop, sees a beautiful woman, follows her into a near-by building with the obvious intention of making advances to her, finally stops her as she arrives in front of her apartment—only to discover, when she turns her face to talk to him, that she is his wife whose hair had been dyed blonde a little while before their meeting.
When we are lonely, Moravia suggests, we do many foolish things, including taking refuge into a past that cannot be relived. In the Pirandellian story "La ripetizione," two lovers about to part decide to re-enact the scene of their original encounter. They soon find out, however, the impossibility of recapturing the past in its immediacy of feelings and spontaneity of action. Yet it is also loneliness that forces us to want to see ourselves "live" and eventually to abhorring every minute of it. Such is the case of "L'uomo che guarda," and "Lo specchio a tre luci." Here Giovanni, having looked at his image in the newly purchased three-way mirror and having ascertained that his small son is the spit and image of himself, states frankly that he cannot stand the sight of himself and, by inference, of his own child. It is precisely at this point, when watching oneself "live," that life takes on the nightmarish quality best exemplified, I think, in "Scherzo e gelosia," where reality and illusion are juxtaposed too finely for either the characters or the readers to perceive clearly the difference between one and the other.
Even such a brief note has shown how the short stories of Moravia's latest work merely restate the themes ever-present in his previous fiction, from Gli indifferenti onwards. "I never trust a writer who can say too many things," he once told an interviewer. "By that I mean a writer who has too many tunes to play. One good tune is enough. Good writers are monotonous, like good composers. Their truth is self-repeating. They keep rewriting the same book. That is to say, they keep trying to perfect their expression of the one problem they were born to understand." But even by such standards, it is difficult to see in what sense the recent stories of L'automa, point to the author's increased range and sensibility, and to a continuous effort to add to our insights of a given problem. Indeed, they are little more than sketches, or pseudoclinical reports of maladjusted failures, whose neuroses are comprehensible but never adequately explained, or, better still, dramatically "represented."
It may be true, as some claim, that Moravia is playing for time. In that case, we might well agree with Paolo Milano, who, reviewing the book in the weekly radical paper L'Espressa, expressed his hope that "il romanzo prossimo di Moravia non si dibatterà piú fra [tali] secche. Che sia per essere di segno negativo o invece positivo, la crisi risolutiva, a me pare, già si annunzia all'estremo orizzonte."
Perhaps. After closely watching the "development" of Moravia over the years, this critic has come to the conclusion that the time is now past when we may expect any "surprises" or anything truly "new" from Moravia. We should, however, be thankful for the work he has thus far produced: through it, he has given a dramatic dimension to the anxieties and instabilities riddling our discontented, uneasy world.
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SOURCE: A review of More Roman Tales, in The New York Review of Books, July 30, 1964, pp. 13-14.
[In the following excerpt, Arrowsmith praises Moravia's craftsmanship as a storyteller in More Roman Tales.]
[Alberto Moravia's] reputation is doubtless inflated, and the importance of his novels (as opposed to his novellas and short stories) is surely exaggerated. But this is his critics' doing, not his. As a man Moravia may very well be vain, but he is the least pretentious writer in Italy: his whole career has been a long protest against inflation of any kind, whether Fascist rhetoric or fake postures. (Admittedly, there is always Moravia the sentimental populist and fellow traveler, but this is presumably an honest delusion). Limited by a glum and gloomy vision of life ("the bleak Columbus of boredom," a critic once described him), he has loyally stuck to his perceptions without ever thinking of pleasing his public and critics by violating his vision or brightening his themes. "A novelist," he once said, "has only one good tune." From The Age of Indifference (1928) on, Moravia's themes have changed only very slightly, if at all. Certainly there is no new theme visible in this collection of More Roman Tales. It is the same old Moravia: saturnine, disillusioned, and suspicious, preoccupied with the hard reality of sex and money. But reading them I am struck over and over again by how very good they are, how purposively functional, and how consistently Moravia succeeds with this extremely restrictive form of eight to ten pages. Certainly they should not be written off as mere grist from the Moravia mill, or mildly praised and negligently read. Their form may not be much to American taste, but these are novelle in the tradition of Boccaccio and Sacchetti, and Americans should acquire the taste. They are to be taken two and three at a time, however, and not gulped down by the dozen.
What gives these stories their distinctive edge is their concentration. They are quintessential Moravia, the tedious moods and longueurs of the novels stripped away, leaving the ironic contours of the thought starkly revealed. Moravia is, of course, no great verbal stylist (and Angus Davidson's wooden English translation has not improved him). His style derives more from the order of his perceptions than from his words. The perception is hard and detached and acute; this is why the characters are invariably alive and why Moravia can, without so much as clearing his throat, make his Roman situation so generally true. In one story, for instance, a pathetic bum with an impoverished "line" is swindled by a professional vulture whose tale is utterly persuasive and destructive because it speaks to the victim's secret desires, his hunger for life. In another story a chimpanzee at the Borghese Zoo throws dung at a girl—her name is Gloria—whose peevish, finicky pretense of refinement makes her malign the zoo animals and, implicitly, her boyfriend's animal high spirits. Not every story evokes such apparitions as these (Medusa faces of this life, Henry James called them), but of the thirty-odd stories in this book, there are barely eight or nine which are trivial or unsuccessful, and that is performance of a very high order.
Of greatness there should be no question. Moravia is not a great writer (as Svevo and Verga—and, I would argue, Tozzi and Pavese—are great), but he is an exceptionally able and prolific one. He is also a professional craftsman with a natural gift for telling stories, and an exceptional literary and humanistic intelligence (as his volume of essays, Uomo come fine, will make clear). It is this intelligence, visible in the consistent self-control and functional modesty of his work, that makes him so powerful an influence in contemporary Italian literature. That influence may have its unfortunate side, but surely it is all to the good that this committed and intelligent writer stands as a model of the Italian man-of-letters. That example is particularly valuable now, when so many Italian writers and publishers seem to be forgetting the nature of their job.
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SOURCE: "Moravia's America," in Western Humanities Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, Autumn, 1964, pp. 315-59.
[In the following excerpt, Heiney examines Moravia's portrayal of the "Americanization" of Italy in Roman Tales, New Roman Tales, and Conjugal Love.]
[In many of Alberto Moravia's] stories and tales written after 1945, American culture plays an important part, and it is the part of the prepotente. It stands for strength, vigor, and success, and in this sense it is contrasted to Italian culture which represents the opposite: weakness, decadence, and failure. But this neat contrast is valid only in a limited sense. By 1943 . . . there were signs of a new vigor in Italian culture. Two examples were the anti-Fascist Resistance and the remarkable resurgence of Italian fiction, in which Moravia himself had taken part along with Vittorini, Pavese, Silone, and others. Another was the "economic miracle" of 1950-60, the new industrial prosperity that had transformed Italy, or at least the northern half of it, in ten years. In his fiction Moravia often associates these phenomena with America; to him they are part of the "Americanization" of Italy that includes everything from Coca-Cola to the new fiction style of the post-war writers. All this new progress and energy is concentrated in northern Italy and particularly in Milan, and Moravia is a Roman. Traditionally Rome is conservative, indolent, and easy-going, and this is the Italy out of which Moravia himself came. Considering his background and tastes he ought to be hostile to "Americanization," and he is in a certain sense. Other aspects of it he admires, but this is at a deeper and less rational level. Politically he is leftist and opposes NATO and American foreign policy; in the back of his mind he admires American prepotenza. In an ordinary man this would be confused thinking, but the task of the writer is precisely to convert this confused thinking into art. Moravia is very well aware of the contradictions in his attitudes and frequently uses them as a framework for conflict in his fiction. In this sense his work like that of all true artists is autobiographical; he exteriorizes his inner struggles.
This conflict is seen most clearly and obviously in his stories, especially the Roman Tales (1954) and New Roman Tales (1959) and those included in the Italian version of Conjugal Love in 1949. The two volumes of Roman tales, most of them written for the literary page of Il Corriere della Sera, are simply miniature studies in the theme of prepotente and impotente, and almost invariably the central character is somebody who wants to do something but cannot. There is not a single protagonist in these two volumes of stories who consummates anything. In a comic story called "The Baby" an impoverished couple fail even in their efforts to abandon an infant in a church ("Lady, you left your package on the seat"). They then try to leave it in a parked car, change their minds and come back for it, and end in a furious argument with the owner of the car, the baby still in their possession. Moravia's characters are powerless even to give something away.
These people are examples of one kind of "Roman" character. There are two Romes superimposed in these stories. The first is the old Rome of Trastevere, Piazza del Popolo, the antiquaries in Via Margutta, the aristocratic families and small shopkeepers, the Rome of which Moravia himself is a product. The other is the slick modern Americanized Rome of Parioli and Via Veneto, along with its parodies in the lower classes—the rock-and-roll devotees of the slums, the boys who wear levis and have their hair cut "alia Marlon Brando." To Moravia this second Rome is vigorous and successful but vulgar. One of its symbols is the portable radio—rock-and-roll which can be hung from the shoulder and carried around the city, pseudo-American culture in its most moronic form. Another is the automobile. Moravia's early fiction is full of cars and motor trips; his heroes frequently have chauffeurs or are chauffeurs themselves. Probably this is connected to the fact that in the Thirties his frail health made the automobile his only means of mobility. Symbolically the automobile stands for power, prestige, and mastery over the physical elements, in short for prepotenza. In the Roman stories the cars, especially if they are powerful, are often American or driven by Americans. In "Scherzi di Ferragosto" ("August Holiday Fun") the would-be-prepotente hero Torello wants to pass all the cars on the Via Aurelia but is beaten by a huge black American car. The driver is a powerful and vulgar man who smokes black cigars and is evidently an Italo-American. From the car his blonde companion smiles at Torello, and the American slaps her. Later at the beach Torello goes on trying to court the blonde woman in the style of the traditional Italian Don Juan (his name means "little bull") but gets nowhere. At the end the American beats him in a casual but savage manner, striking him several times in the stomach, and then drives off with the woman. When an American car appears in these stories, it invariably means that its owner is prepotente and will get what he wants before the story ends, usually by forceful or brutal means.
By way of contrast, in a story called "The Laughter of Gioia" the car is Italian and as impotente as its occupants. The title also means, ironically, "Joyous Laughter." Two working-class youths, Mario and Ruggero, set out on New Year's Eve to find some excitement, although they have no money. They finally end up at a rather wild artist's party with a girl called Gioia, followed by a melancholy taxi driver who wants to be paid. Gioia, who knows most of these international Bohemians, goes about among them blithely trying to raise a thousand lire. None of the Italians has it. Finally she approaches a blond and bespectacled youth in a windbreaker and tells him, in an Italian for Americans, "Percy, you lend me thousand lire pay driver." Percy, who is rather drunk, offers to give her even three thousand for a kiss, then he flings himself on her "like a savage." When Ruggero tries to interfere, the American calmly takes off his glasses and knocks him flat. There is a brawl and all three Italians are thrown out of the party, but when they are out in the street, somehow Gioia has the money. "Who knows where it came from," Ruggero wonders. This story is a model of Moravia's prepotenteimpotente theme as it involves Americans. Not only has Percy physically dominated Ruggero, who fancies himself as rather tough and dangerous, but Gioia has sold herself to him for money before the eyes of her Italian escort. It is clear that Gioia is on her way to the international café society of Via Veneto. The evening ends with two flat tires on the (Italian) car.
The Roman tales were written for newspapers and most of them are rather slight; they remind the American reader of O. Henry. Often they are sketches for themes developed more fully later in the novels. One even has the same title as a later novel: "La ciociara" (the Italian title of Two Women). The stories collected in the 1952 Tales (Racconti) and in the Italian version of Conjugal Love are more substantial. Most of the Conjugal Love stories are set in the immediate post-war period and several of them involve foreigners in Rome; one is called "The Mexican" and another "The English Officer." One of the finest of these stories, "The Negro and the Old Man with the Knife," is simply a more subtle variation on the theme of "The Laughter of Gioia." Cosimo, another one of the endless young Italians in Moravia who fancy themselves as lovers, goes to the beach with Cora at a place where the coast is lined with pine woods, probably Ostia or Fregene. The beach is being used as a rest camp for soldiers, and the pineta is full of American trucks. Hoping to make love to Cora, Cosimo takes her down the beach to a deserted spot where the only signs of life are a few fishermen's huts. After a while an old fisherman comes down the beach selling mussels, but Cora only comments that it is a good way to catch typhus. She tells Cosimo about an American officer in Rome who tried to seduce her; she says she doesn't mind soldiers but "wants to be respected." Cosimo tries to kiss her but she rejects him ("Uff, all these kisses"), and he decides she is frigid. They lie face down on the sand to sunbathe; Cora loosens the halter of her bikini. The next time Cosimo looks at her he sees a black hand in the middle of her back. A huge Negro soldier is repeating in a singsong voice, "Signorina . . . signorina."
To Cosimo's surprise, Cora obeys the touch of this hand immediately and without hesitation. She gets up quite calmly and goes away with the Negro, who threatens Cosimo with a knife. Cosimo, lying flat on the sand behind a dune, watches him leading Cora away by the arm. He has the odd impression that he is watching not a woman being abducted by force but a pair of lovers going for a walk on the beach. "Terrified and indignant, he began to curse her in a low voice: 'Bitch .. . with me no, with the Negro yes.'" But as the two go off down the beach they pass the old fisherman, who is standing in the sea raking for mussels. Suddenly Cora runs to him and takes refuge behind his back. The old man comes out of the water with a roncola, the curved hedge knife that peasants cut brush with, something like a sickle. (The word is translated in one American version as "billhook.") Holding this tool which is also a weapon in his hand, he talks calmly to the Negro. "The gestures of the roncola were more oratorical than menacing and it seemed the Negro was listening with attention." Persuaded by this discourse, the Negro goes off down the beach. The old man stands watching him for a while with his roncola and then goes back into the sea, and Cora comes back to Cosimo. When Cosimo apologizes for his conduct she says simply, "What could you do? He was a giant. I was afraid."
The three males in this story stand at the points of a triangle with Cora in the center. Cosimo is the conventional Italian Don Juan, a type Moravia usually views with irony. His virility is not convincing; the notion that the professional seducer is subconsciously afraid of his own impotence is very old and goes back as far as the Don Juan legend itself. The Negro stands for prepotenza, here frankly sexual. The fact that he is an American is essential to the story, but it is also significant that he is made a Negro. In his effort to exaggerate the contrast between the two men, Moravia deliberately selects the kind of American considered the most virile, the most highly sexed, and the least intellectual—a stereotype often shared, paradoxically, by American racists and European intellectuals. When Cora goes off with the soldier, Cosimo "remembered having heard of the attraction Negroes aroused in certain white women and thought that Cora was perhaps like this." Cosimo is perfectly right in suspecting that Cora's abduction is not entirely involuntary. Cora, in fact, with her complex and rather cryptic motivations, is the only psychologically complicated character in the story. Moravia's heroes never understand women very well, and Cosimo is typical.
The third male in the story, the old fisherman, is thoroughly Italian, even more Italian than Cosimo because he is less modern. When Cosimo first sees him he points out to Cora how beautiful he is, although she merely grimaces and says, "An old man," Moravia is careful to point out his resemblance to a classic sculpture. He is old, wiry, mild on the surface but with a quiet power underneath; he comes out of the sea like Proteus, and at the end of the story he goes back into it. It is significant that he uses his roncola, which resembles the short sword of the Roman soldier, not for brute violence but to persuade "oratorically" in the Latin tradition. In short he represents the ancient and traditional virility of Italy that lies under its superficial, and modern, impotence. Whatever Cora's attitude toward these two figures may be on the surface, she passively allows herself to be overpowered by the Negro and then turns instinctively for protection to the fisherman. Between them Cosimo does not cut a very impressive figure. As he and Cora leave the beach in the car she allows herself to be kissed, but in the ardor he has waited for so long "he sensed something that had nothing to do with him and had been awakened by the insistent singsong voice of the Negro and the roncola of the fisherman. And he felt at the same time remorse and jealousy."
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SOURCE: A review of The Fetish, in The Spectator, December 4, 1964, pp. 788-89.
[In the excerpt below, Dick finds the stories in The Fetish fascinating in themselves but disappointing as a collection .]
Forty-one stories packed into 285 pages from Alberto Moravia sounds like a bargain; unfortunately, like most bargains, it is a trifle disappointing. Most of [the] stories [in The Fetish] have the kind of glitter, the polish, the touch of authority we expect from such a master-craftsman; read separately, in magazines, over a considerable period of time, the memory of them might be a brighter, more joyous experience than reading all of them through at a sitting, which produces a sense of staleness and reader's frustration. Inevitably one compares; to take a good contemporary example, Maugham's collected stories, which stand up to marathon reading in a way that Signor Moravia's do not. Why is this? What is missing? Probably that feeling, which Maugham conveys so forcibly, of the author's personal excitement and interest in his own story-telling.
"The Fetish" and other stories have an overall drabness, a monotonous undertone, as though the same pitiful tale were being told again and again. Love, despair, pride, communication between emotionally involved people, communication and the lack of it—these provide the basic themes. They are shavings, no more, from a skilled and prolific professional writer, fascinating in themselves as they spiral down from the expert hand, yet ultimately produce a feeling of loss like the bursting of those rainbowcoloured soap bubbles so creatively blown in childhood. "I write simply to amuse myself," stated Moravia in the Paris interview, and clearly these stories belong to that classification of intention, which of course is not to deny their entertainment value, nor overlook their small truths about personal relationships which motivate this collection. There's a lack of concern (and little humour) for the small pity of it all, and that, basically, distresses one about any work from Moravia.
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SOURCE: A review of More Roman Tales, in Studies in Short Fiction, Spring, 1965, pp. 294-96.
[In the following excerpted review, Ragusa lauds the Romance tradition evident in Moravia's storytelling .]
Moravia's Roman tales (Racconti romani, 1954; Nuovi racconti romani, 1959), together with the novel Two Women (La ciociara, 1957) and to some extent the earlier The Woman of Rome (La romana, 19"47), mark his turning from his favorite middle class setting to the Roman working classes and in some cases the Roman Lumpenproletariat. In a recent interview (Quaderni milanesi, II, Spring 1961), Moravia revealed that what he calls "the myth of the people" had begun to attract him as early as 1935, but that his first real contacts with "the people" occurred only during the German occupation, when he lived as an evacuee in the country outside Rome (setting of Two Women). His direct experience of the popular milieu at that time was bolstered by an ideological justification for his new interest. In the postwar years a widespread movement in Italy sought to bring intellectuals closer to the working classes. This desire, epitomized in the phrase andare verso il popolo, was accompanied by a general feeling that Italian society was undergoing a crisis in which writers, heretofore representatives of the bourgeoisie, were becoming more and more estranged from it. It was natural that Moravia, to such a large extent the "illustrator" of the Italian middle class, should succumb to the trend. Moravia's interest in the Roman populace thus has very little to do with the attitude described so blithely by the jacket blurb of More Roman Tales: "These stories all have the happy quality which Stendhal characterized as being most specifically Roman: they have energy. Just as the Roman himself stands apart from all other Italians—a creature of inquiring, untiring humanity—so these stories reflect the Roman's unfailing interest in his fellow man. They are far from the bored despair of the fashionable dolce vita." In his portrayal of the Roman working classes, Moravia is concerned neither with "energy" nor yet with the Roman's "inquiring humanity." As for the concept of dolce vita, it had not been formulated at the time of the earliest Roman tales.
More significant than the confused presentation of the jacket, dominated by what might be dubbed the tourist's view of the cultural context within which the Roman tales came to be, is a statement of Moravia's in which popular characters and middle class characters are contrasted. This statement, too, stems from the interview mentioned above. "The popular character," Moravia says, "has unconsciously retained traditional morality and, therefore, the ability to objectify, distinctive of that morality. . . . The middle class character, instead, has given up trying to define his world in moral terms and is more or less incapable of escaping from a subjective evaluation of problems." This analysis seems to explain why Moravia's works of fiction dealing with the lower classes reflect the narrative procedures of traditional realism, while those that deal with the bourgeoisie belong to another kind of realism, the kind found so frequently in the twentieth century in the wake of Freudian depth analysis and the interior monologue.
We may now be in a position to define and explain the success of Moravia's Roman tales not only in their Italian dress but in translation as well. To do this we must reject first of all the implication contained in the jacket blurb that the theme of Roman life as such, or the more restricted interpretation of the theme chosen by Moravia, has universal validity. Instead, we must try to answer two questions. How does it happen that a reader unacquainted with the reasons that induced Moravia to andare verso il popolo can still find his report of that experience so diverting? How does it happen that even the unhappy bilingual reader who starts out by being so painfully aware that he is reading a translation, eventually reads on unimpeded in his progress by linguistic barriers (which in the present instance include the additional hurdle of translation into British English)? The answer is, of course, that Moravia is a born story-teller, one of that rare breed who find subject matter anywhere and find it already "formed," grouped, that is, around a nucleus and fully developed within the strict limitations of a genre. In Roman Tales and More Roman Tales the genre is not only the traditional short story with its rapid delineation of character, its concrete statement of setting, and its direct plot resolution, but it is a particular sub-division of the short story which in Italy grew out of the journalistic practice of the so-called "third page." Page three in Italian dailies is the literary and cultural page, featuring book reviews, travel reports (Moravia's trip to India and Piovene's trip to the United States first appeared in this fashion), articles on subjects of current interest (such as the reform of school curricula), and commentaries on sociological, legal, or ethical problems facing the nation, or contemporary society in general (divorce laws, employment practices, etc.). The principal third page article, occupying the two right hand columns, is often a fictional interpretation of an event very much in the news (something like the spectacular English train robbery of the summer of 1963 or the more recent impudent jewel theft at New York's Museum of Natural History). Moravia's Roman tales belong to this category of narrative writing: they are faits divers under the guise of fiction, and they afford the reader the pleasure of rediscovering a familiar episode of everyday experience ever so slightly "perfected" by art. The added "perfection" is, of course, the punchline which makes the ironies of life explicit.
But this kind of story telling, though a direct outcome of contemporary—and late nineteenth century—journalistic practice, is also the kind of story telling we find in the earliest examples of nouvelles, contes, or dits of the Romance tradition. There, too, we had the strong grounding of the story in a particular social reality, often completely foreign to the readers' experience (as in the tales from the Orient, for instance), and there, too, we had the perfect viability of the story divested of its original linguistic garb and still capable of moving from country to country, from dialect to dialect, from one social class to another. Their kinship with this oldest story-telling tradition in the West is what gives Moravia's Roman tales universal validity.
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SOURCE: "Love Among the Ruins," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. CCXV, No. 6, June, 1965, pp. 144-45.
[Below, Barrett praises Moravia as a master of the short story, but finds the narrow world portrayed in The Fetish "almost stifling. "]
Despite a famous excursion into the lower social strata in a novel of a woman of the streets, Alberto Moravia's favored material has always been the life of the Roman middle and lower-middle classes, with their impotence of will, dedicated selfishness, and petty eroticism. The Fetish, a collection of stories, shows that he is master of this world as well as of the short-story form, but leaves a nagging impression that his people are so brittle that they might break apart in the author's hands.
The title story is typical Moravia. Livio and Alina are a young married couple, not very much in love, who are furnishing their new flat in Rome. She has a taste for antiques and acquires a primitive fetish, a large ugly statue with a sullen and brooding face. The statue is placed in the dining room, much to Livio's discomfiture, but when he tries to carry off the situation lightly by making jokes, his wife is offended and they quarrel. Suddenly, as he stares at her heavy-set features across the table, they take on the sullen cast of the statue's, and he shudders at this premonition of marital doom.
The married couples in the stories are nearly all loveless, and sometimes estranged from each other even on their honeymoons. Strangely enough, preoccupied as he is with the theme of the erotic, Moravia continues to discover in the life around him only petty hatreds. Despite his superior gift as a storyteller, and a frequently clever and malicious wit, the world he portrays is so narrow as to be almost stifling.
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SOURCE: A review of The Fetish, in Commonweal, October 22, 1965, pp. 100-02.
[In the following negative review, Mayhew faults Moravia for abandoning passion in favor of philosophical ponderings .]
Most of the forty-one contrived and mechanical short stories in this Moravia collection [The Fetish] are nothing more than anecdotes six or seven pages long—inconclusive, ineffectual, unvaried. The hard-nosed, rough and tortured characters of Moravia's early books and stories are gone; so is any pretension to narrative. These stories resemble his last novel, The Empty Canvas (La Noia, or Boredom), which was a plotless and laconic treatise on alienation, nothingness and the absurd. It was later made into an appalling movie with Bette Davis playing the mother of the existentialist ghoul, which isn't worth discussing, except that it pointed up not only the thinness of the content, but also the constant factor in Moravia's work—that his prose can distract from the lack of content by its enormous technical prowess.
Moravia's vintage works were real live stories about desperate, frightened, determined, materially threatened people; about survival, sometimes with honor, sometimes without it; evil; Italy writhing in the horrors of fascism from which he himself was a refugee. His writing was intense, straitened and seductively pessimistic. But now, to judge by the last two books published here at least, Moravia has given up interest in everything except elucidating other people's dynamic philosophic discoveries. These stories are not served by symbolism and technique, but dominated by them. All forty-one appear primarily thematic—they arise to make their points and slip away enigmatically.
Moravia is one of the craftiest writers alive, and his prose remains sparse and hard, his descriptions, precise and calculating; his world, tactile. The stories, however, with rare exceptions are interchangeable. Collections by the same author are difficult to read in any case. There are too many rapidly-sprung climaxes, lessons on identical points, and the view and tone of voice tend to be monotonous. But reading these particular forty-one stories, it is difficult to avoid incurable déjà vu.
Much of what the people in Moravia's stories do is inexplicable. That apparently is the point. One man who does make a serious attempt to explain to himself whether he has good reason to suspect his wife of infidelity finds in the end that what he had decided had been a dream is reality. And what (because it was too horrifying to accept) he has convinced himself was a dream had really occurred, but can be explained innocently away. He is a cuckold either way; life is a derisory affair. One concludes that the wife and her lover (if he is) just want to confuse him.
Another story asks the question: "What [do] you mean when you say that you thought of me?" and answers it: What do you mean, what do I mean?
These stories, in short, have a pale, imitative, existentialist lingo and are set in neutral gloom. The characters are satiated, disgusted, frustrated, but they share only a mutual susceptibility to inscrutability. One character, " . . . had difficulty in believing that so unpleasing a face [in the mirror] could be his own"; another finds " . . . no enjoyment in anything and did not understand anything"; a third makes the scarcely interesting observation that, " . . . man is not lonely because he is alone; he is lonely if he feels alone." And so on.
One description of a scatterbrain conveys something of what cumulatively passes for action in these sketches—".. . associations of thought allowed her no peace: piling up ceaselessly . . . they forced her . . . to cut short a subject of conversation she had scarcely begun and launch forth into a second one before she had even skimmed, still less explored, the first. [She] went chasing after them as long as she could with her talkative tongue . . . which was exceedingly fluent."
Moravia's guile has become transparent. The former burning brand with which he marked hypocrisy with disfavor now becomes whim in his characters, passion has turned into fancy, cruelty has become careless chatter and pique, the exploration of human motivations is no more than a taut synoptical elipsis. The characters in these works do not move as his characters once did. They have no independent life, simply decorative value.
Moravia was never the deepest kind of writer, but he could be tremendously effective and immediate, when he wrote about the sorrowful tragedy and miscalculation that tore his world apart and shocked and dismayed. His clarity and force put that world into sometimes startling relief. It was a world he clearly felt deeply about. As for the philosophic equations that have taken its place as subject, Moravia lacks the intellectual scope and the creative temperament to cope adequately with them. It looks as if it's all done with mirrors.
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SOURCE: A review of The Fetish and Other Stories, in Studies in Short Fiction, Winter, 1966, pp. 269-70.
[In the following excerpt, Fantazzi faults Moravia for reverting to the themes of his longer fiction in The Fetish and Other Stories and finds some of the stories insipid and formulaic . ]
True to his oft-repeated code of creative writing, Signor Moravia keeps turning out the same book with relentless monotony. Unfortunately the theme that he has chosen for his life's work cannot stand up very well to this constant repetition. Ten years before Sartre's La nausée, Moravia at the age of eighteen had already isolated the peculiar malady of modern man, especially of that species known as l'homme bourgeois, and detailed it in bold, vivid strokes in the novel Gli indifferenti (The Time of Indifference). In an impressive succession of novels he has continued to probe with a clinical fanaticism into the inexhaustible fund of human torpor and apathy. Owing mostly to a kind of sensational pansexualism that is expressed through his heroes and heroines in their desperate search for life, Moravia has attained international fame, so much so that his last novel, given the title endemic to all his writing, La noia, "boredom," (English version The Empty Canvas) was immediately translated into twenty-four languages. Only in a few collections of short stories set in Rome among the popolino, the poorer classes of the city, is there some relief from his usually humorless pages. The chambermaids, garage mechanics, and artisans of these Roman Tales do not have the time or the intelligence to be absorbed with problems of psychology. In[The Fetish and Other Stories] however, Moravia reverts to the themes of his longer fiction, capsulized now in the form of the short story. The briefly-sketched characters of each tale are all caught in the mute tangle of despair, from which every momentary effort to escape is unsuccessful. One story, called specifically "The Escape," tells of a discontented wife left waiting on a lonely beach while her husband goes off for a mechanic to repair their motorboat. She becomes aware of a man looking at her from a cave farther inland. In a desperate hope for adventure and temporary cessation to her boredom, she attempts a strange kind of long-distance seduction, exposing by degrees various parts of her body, and then, failing this, her gold wristwatch and other adornments, always under the silent gaze of the man in the cave. Finally she understands that it is the boat that he wants for his own escape, which, like hers, is in the end abortive. In another story an insomniac vainly watches a darkened window for a solace that never comes. Baba, the jaded protagonist of yet another variation on this theme, tries to amuse herself by playing 78 rpm's at 33 1/3 speed. Her boyfriend, after several attempts at inventing new distractions, discovers that the thing that comes most naturally at the moment is to beat her up, which he does. His reflective, beatnik logic goes like this: "Perhaps, he thought as he seized Baba by the hair and threw her flat on the sofa, perhaps this, precisely, was the natural thing he had been waiting for all the time, the thing that would spring from the stupid, sterile situation in which he found himself." In other stories the individual becomes aware, in a sudden Joycean flash, of his inane, mechanistic existence. In the original title piece, "The Automaton" (for publication purposes I suppose The Fetish is a more fetching title), a man finds one morning that his record player for no apparent reason fails to function properly. Later in the day on a family excursion along the Via Flaminia, he suddenly feels the urge to plunge his car over the precipice at the summit of the next hill and would have done so save for a fortuitous miscalculation that saves him from his family despite himself. Like the phonograph, the human mechanism can go awry treacherously and unexpectedly. Moravia likes to depict the moment of self-recognition as coming through a casual glance in the mirror or a reflection in a lake. This trick is cleverly combined with a Moravian taste for surrealism in one story, in which a jealous husband spying on his wife sees his own apparently decapitated head dancing in the mirror's reflection. Despite Moravia's extraordinary craftsmanship, some of the tales inevitably degenerate into an insipid, formulaic pattern. In "Repetition" the account of two estranged lovers trying to re-enact their first meeting hardens into a set piece; "Too Rich," obviously cinematic in technique, was no more successful in its blown-up movie version with Sophia Loren than it is here. The evident danger of Moravia's tired theme is that it can produce a similar effect on the reader, and certainly it would be inadvisable to attempt too many of these morsels at one sitting. This world of oppressive aboulia, dull disillusionment, phatic communion and meaningless impulses can become extremely cloying; and yet it exercises a strange spell over the reader, as presumably it also does over the author, as Moravia intimates in more than one place, but most forcefully in a story called "Measurements." An engineer living apart from his wife spends long hours contemplating a maze of rooftops, walls, and chimneys that confront the view from his apartment window, driven by an irrational compulsion to study and measure each confused part. "These structures fascinated Giacomo without his being able to explain why: possibly because they constituted a kind of conundrum in masonry, inasmuch as it was generally difficult to guess their origin and purpose; or possibly, he sometimes thought, because ugliness, as opposed to beauty which always has limits, is unlimited and inexhaustible."
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SOURCE: "Moravia and the Philosophy of Personal Existence," in Italian Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 41, Summer, 1967, pp. 39-68.
[In the following excerpt, Rimanelli examines the social, Freudian, and existential elements in Agostino and La disubbidienza.]
Alberto Moravia belongs to the group of Italian Neorealiste whose art was formed out of the Fascist period. Many of the themes and much of the style of these Neorealists have been the outcome of the impetus of American Realists who were translated by Vittorini, Cecchi, Pavese and others in the 1930's. The themes of the alienation from society, the autonomy of the individual, and "the misfit" are reflected upon in such novels as Huckleberry Finn and, later, The Catcher in the Rye. Moravia is to be differentiated from the first generation of writers in this century for he does not speak about the "call of Art," and his style is the opposite of that of the former Italian school of "prosa d'arte." He is intensely concerned with the problems of Being and Existence in our epoch and sheds much light on the sexual aspect. His achievement is certainly important and impressive, but he can convey only one aspect of the present metaphysical illness. This is as it should be. Moravia has not tried to force on us an acceptance of his aspect as the whole picture, but has tried to develop as deeply and as thoroughly as possible the different facets of his main themes:
I never trust a writer who can say too many things. By that I mean a writer who has too many tunes to play. One tune is good enough. Good writers are monotonous, like good composers. Their truth is selfrepeating. They keep rewriting the same book. That is to say, they keep trying to perfect their expression of the one problem they were born to understand.
Moravia's first works read with the same effect as a psychology laboratory report. He has chosen Luca (La disubbidienza) as a subject to analyze and study. The importance of such works as Gli indifferenti (1929) cannot be underestimated from the point of view of theme development, but the later works (post-1945) are of much more importance. The switch from the traditional third-person narrative that is omnipresent and all-knowing to the subjective first-person narrative is one important change. Moravia is able, by using this technique, to convey a lived feeling of experience of isolation, alienation, and indifferentness.
Moravia's work develops in three directions: the social, the Freudian and the existential. Either in Agostino (1945) or La disubbidienza (1948), the social aspect—again centered upon the bourgeois society—remains in the background while the psychological study, embroidered with the existential vision of the world, becomes very detailed in these two short novels. . . .
Moravia reveals himself to us in diverse forms. He usually concentrates on the lives of the bourgeois and the lower classes, giving us a cross-section of the two in conflict, or both operating together in hierarchical order. There is no doubt that his best literary accomplishments are the short stories, the Racconti romani (1954) of which he is an undisputed master. In this realm he concentrates on the lower classes of Roman society offering us many facets of their quotidian existence, which are at once valuable as source material for this particular stratum of society and a rich source of Moravian psychological motivation. The longer novels are sometimes boring and overly stuffed with descriptive padding. One has the notion that the longer novel form simply proportions Moravia a more extensive means of releasing his own psychological tensions while the short story concentrates on a more predetermined form within the classical elements of Aristotelian drama, complete with catharsis. . . .
Moravia's Agostino is . . . the very embodiment of the recrudescence of the Oedipus complex at puberty. Moravia has taken two of the most important weeks in an adolescent boy's life to demonstrate his basic convictions concerning the Freudian theory. He has again chosen a bourgeois, well-to-do family as his narrative object and, true to form, the father-image is absent. The mother is rendered excessively desirable to Agostino alike by dint of her youth and beauty and the favorable setting of the story, a beach resort in summertime.
Agostino passes through predetermined stages of jealousy, anxiety, fear and hostility as the mother-image grows ever more desirable to his awakening sexual consciousness. As in Luca of La disubbidienza this is a period of puerile secrecy and introspection into the budding sexually of youth. Within the short period of time in which the story unrolls, Agostino is successively introduced to the manifold phases of sexuality that had till now lay dormant. Within the group of beach-urchins he discovers a similar probing of the libido which he himself is experiencing, though they are consciously aware of their actions while he is not. In Saro, the twelve-fingered fat man, he is introduced to homosexuality which he instinctively rejects.
Indicative among the many emotions experienced by Agostino is the lack of anger in active form. He is unable to relieve his pent-up emotions through this means and turns instead to feelings of disappointment and humiliation, the passive character in its formative stages.
Interesting to note is the incident where he is faced with the reality of sleeping together in the same room with his mother. His one idea is to free himself from this relationship. Of psychological importance is the secrecy with which he initiates his discoveries of his mother. He displays the same clandestine curiosity at the "villa" where he and Tortima have gone to purchase the favors of the women who live there. Rejected because of his youth, he derives vicarious pleasure from peeping through the window of the villa.
Luca, or La disubbidienza, is a true study in child neurosis. Published together in the United States under the title of Two Adolescents, Luca is the image of Agostino two or three years later. From the beginning of the book to its end, Moravia provides us with an acute observation of juvenile stress in the face of the Oedipus complex. In Luca's family it is the father who rules, while his mother is extremely rational. Luca had "recently grown with abnormal speed" and he often finds that "this body of his rebelled when Luca least expected it." He is not fully in control of his somatic situation and, therefore, also a victim of the ensuing psychological complications.
He is at the age "when sensitiveness is awake and consciousness still sleeping." He is given to sudden fits of rage, releases of nervous psychic energy which can find no outlet in sexual activity. Above all, his relations with his parents are strained to the breaking point.
On one occasion, while returning from the summer resort, he has planned to eat dinner in the dining car of the train but his father, from financial motives, has decided to buy a box lunch. His mother gives in in her usual compliant manner. Luca has flown into a fit of rage because he feels that in their decision they have rejected him and his desires, having failed to consult him at all on their decision. He is so upset psychologically that he jumps off the train and vomits in the station. He felt this was an act of revenge against his parents, while the situation easily demands a more composite expression of this psychosomatic disturbance. His rejection by the mother and father (with whom he is a rival for the mother's affections) has caused him to turn his rage against his parents inwardly, toward himself, in a masochistic reaction of the psychic energy: a revenge against them through that which they love most, Luca himself. This reaction soon gains momentum when he decides to seek the full measure of vengeance by starving himself to death. He extends his feelings to inanimate objects, his most treasured possessions, and "he knew that he hated them precisely because he loved them and not because they were odious in themselves." His attachment to money, "which he soon discovered aroused in his mind a sense of possession that was more mysterious and more absolute than that aroused by dolls and other objects," leads him to enact a deeply neurotic scene wherein he buries the money in a hole he has dug beneath a tree. In this way he feels he is disposing of that part of him which cleaves to the money.
With the arrival of the governess he diverts his inward energy to an external, now acceptable, form of sexual release. She is not beautiful or desirable for any reason than that of being a member of the feminine sex outside his immediate family and because she is of immediate access. She proves to be not only amenable to his needs but actually stimulates them. When she invites him to her apartment for a Sunday afternoon of erotic activity, Luca is at first enthralled by the idea but gradually is overcome with apprehension and dread. Both these emotions stem from his basic feelings of guilt and anxiety which are themselves rooted in the more primitive Oedipus complex. He has not the will to succeed. Yet he does possess the physical desires. He alleviates his problem by going to the park and the zoo where he engages in multiple fantasies among which may be numbered his desire to be thrown to the lions, to have them devour him alive as a sacrifice to his emotions. This masochistic reaction, further impressed upon his conscious by the reading of certain novels which stressed martyrdom, affords him some respite. This selfhumiliation is linked with many images which he constantly conjures up in his neurotic fantasies. The governess represents a goal which he must be aggressive to obtain, aggressive to a degree in that he must go himself to her flat. The fact that he does not wish to obtain gratification or to succeed is clearly pointed out by the fact that he only visits her when he learns she is sick. In the neurotic mind this type of situation is linked to fate, blind luck, the determination that everything is without justification, absurd. He now finds that the governess is not only sick but will die, just at the moment he had finally "determined" to seek satisfaction with her. This, of course, is a sick rationalization of his neurosis. He would never have gone to see the woman if she had told him she was sick. Reflecting that perhaps the governess might live he is filled anew with fear and anxiety, the chance that he may have to pass through the same uncertainty that assailed him the one day he attempted to see her and could not. Upon her death, she has become completely unobtainable and as such is more than ever the object of his desires. His life now becomes tinged with what Moravia terms an "irresistible necrophilia" when, in reality, he is only savoring what for him has been the one solution to his present predicament: the death of the governess having released him from his immediate anxieties which stem from his inability to succeed, he is now able to cherish her memory inviolate. He has no need to fear subconsciously that he will ever succeed.
Having neglected his physical state for some time and because he has released all his nervous energy in an inward flow, his body rebels and he suffers a severe breakdown. At this point he is introduced to a new feminine object, the nurse. Sensual as are most of Moravia's women, the nurse restores him to health and finally seduces him. Her gradual stimulation of his sexual desires which have lain dormant for months during his illness awakens him anew. This time, however, having freed his subconscious mind of the overflow of emotions through hallucinations, he experiences a rebirth at the hands of the nurse who initiates him in erotic practices while fulfilling her duties as his nurse. In this situation the nurse acts as the mother substitute but without the accompanying feelings of guilt and anxiety. Luca is literally reborn, just as if he had been expelled from the womb, in his abrupt return to consciousness one day and his gradual rehabilitation, his re-education into the world of reality. We are left in no doubt as to the truth of this release of psychic energy which Luca had formerly directed toward his mother as a result of the Oedipus complex. The nurse has acted as a mother substitute in satisfying his unconscious incestual lust. Moravia subtly depicts Luca's rationalization of the pseudo-incestuous act as a return to the maternal womb. Luca is returning to the womb to revitalize his jaded psychic energy.
This is, however, a Freudian aspect that one immediately grasps in reading Moravia. Yet, it is not the most important. One of those, that we may consider important, is the state of isolation and indifferentness which assails, at a certain moment of their life, most of Moravia's adolescents and adults. The initial loss of innocence in Agostino is matured and developed at a complementary stage in Luca, and it can be said that Dino of La noia (1960) is Michele of Gli indifferenti in middle age.
There is an important difference between the adolescent problem in Moravia and former works dealing with it, such as, for instance, Huckleberry Finn. The former works deal with the adolescent through his adventures, which are either of the mind or physical. Moravia deals more with the internal aspects and the psychology of the adolescent. He remains to a degree in the realistic tradition, but this difference sets him apart as a modern with an existentialist aspect to be considered in his works.
Agostino is awakened to his senses and loses his innocence, but is not able to find a new state in which to live. The notion of good and evil latently rests in his mind waiting to emerge in a clear, comprehensible and satisfying form; but this does not come about, while the tension continues to torment the adolescent in the mind of Luca.
Before his rude awakening to the fact that he can never return to a state of innocence, his mother's relations with the young man seemed mysteriously tinged with guilt, but after his awakening he is full of doubts and unsatisfied curiosity. His first reactions had been of jealousy, but these were replaced by feelings of a bitter, disillusioned curiosity that he wished he had never experienced. Losing the illusions of youth, Agostino is no longer interested in his former toys and becomes indifferent to them; his only interest now is to satisfy his insatiable curiosity and to find a new state of contentment. He is aware of the need to break away from his mother, but this need is not fulfilled. Yet he can no longer have a full experience of filial love, nor can he satisfy the needs he is aware of. This is the beginning of a long quest by Moravia to find a habitation for his characters that will satisfy their needs and desires. Beginning with the idea that sexual desire is indefeasible but tormenting and frustrating, Moravia explores this basic theme in terms of communication and alienation, converting, by his style, every lack of communication with the exterior world, every lack of transcendence, every lack of Being-back, to adolescent psychology, the root of which is sex.
The representative character of Moravia is almost similar to the notion of modern man himself in Camus' definition, where Camus feels himself a stranger in a universe suddenly emptied of illusion and light—and behind this lies a lost paradise of reality and truth mixed with the bitter desire to regain it.
Agostino and Luca only have a short insight into their state of being but the reader has a satiable, thorough knowledge of what is happening. Agostino has a lot of self-consciousness, that is, he is aware of what he looks like from the point of view of others, and strives to imitate what he considers to be his proper appearance in the eyes of others. He dresses shabbily, and plays the role of a boatman's son, but is not aware of his psychological state. Self-awareness remains a vague, nebulous, enigmatic thing to the early adolescent in Moravia's works; a painful, frustrating hell that he must find his way out of. The lack of reality, the insufficiency which is the very nature of boredom and indifference is often misinterpreted by parents and teachers as a weakness, and this lack of understanding is a source of further alienation and bitterness to the two adolescents.
The adolescent is moved to action by the expectancy of a fresh revelation, by the anticipation of a way to move from existence into Being (essenza). The lack of awareness on the part of the adolescent is, in a sense, the illusion he lives under—the illusion of hope. Hope is still an illusion even for Luca. It may seem that he has lost all rapport with objects when he sells his toys and books, but the calculated striving for a state of indifference and disobedience suggests that indifference is an object in itself for Luca. He acts, he thinks and occupies himself with it. His burial of the money, his contemplation of how not to think in the classroom, are all indicative of a definite scope and course of action in his life. As Luca walks through the forest he feels a sense of freedom, and feels that action is a fine thing, even if it was calculated to destroy, for it means performing things according to one's will and not out of necessity.
There is a very important ambiguity in Moravia. Where does psychological determinism leave off and free will begin?
Moravia, though he explains in a clear, psychological and scientific manner of all of the Freudian motives, does not commit himself on this point. One has the impression that he is unsure of himself. In the meantime he leaves his characters in a painless hell of indifference, undisturbed by the expectancy of a fresh transition, e.g., Dino of La noia.
It seems that Moravia pertains to the first part of the existentialist teaching. He is able to open man's eyes to the temptation of despair, but he is unable, on the other hand, to supply a faith by which he can move on.
In the middle of La disubbidienza. Luca moves from a state of Freudian death-wish into a momentary contentment—that is, the transition from the child Agostino to the adolescent Luca. Moravia writes:
Egli si accorse di provare amore per quel viso di adolescente che lo guardava con occhi trasognati. Era, è vero, lo stesso amore che provava per la donna e per tutte le cose; ma ricordandosi dell'odio che un tempo aveva nutrito verso sé stesso, gli parve l'aspetto più importante di questo cambiamento.
The acceptance of his new state leads Luca to live a passive life from then on, and he welcomes the seemingly lovable, completely understandable reality. Ironically he experiences simultaneously a new sense of virility that gives him a sensation of aggressive freedom:
In quel buio, gli sembrò di vedere affiorare la vita che gli restava da vivere: i luoghi, i visi, i movimenti, gli incontri. Era una sensazione sconvolgente di libertà agressiva, di esplorazione illimitata, di visione balenante; come se l'avvenire, accendendosi e bruciando al fuoco dell'immaginazione, gli si fosse consumato e scontato in un attimo, tutto intero, fin nei minimi particolari.
The state of adolescence looks both to the past and to the future. There is a mixed desire to profess both which takes the form of a death-wish in Luca and a desire to retain the former state of being.
Although Luca has a rebirth, it is not without a Freudian back-to-the-womb overtone that obscures the point where volition might enter and psychological determinism leave. The dream of the assimilation with a tree, which can be taken as a phallic symbol, immediately precedes the scenes with the nurse as a mother-image. The snow at the end of the book is most likely a symbol of the new chastity and innocence that he feels—further exemplified in his attitude of innocence in his relationship with the nurse. It is almost similar to the image of innocence and happiness of Huck Finn on the raft, but as there was no refuge from society for Huck, not even the river, there is no refuge from Freud for the adolescent in Moravia. The River can be a symbol of freedom for Huck, and it is easily contrasted with the Shore as a symbol of corruption of society—hypocrisy, cruelty, greed, and so on. Whereas the protest in Mark Twain is apparently on a social level, and the apparent goodness of Huck is innate, there is a duality of theme. Twain sees people and human nature as disgusting on the Shore, not just the society alone; and he visualizes the intrusion of the disgusting elements as a contributing factor to the corruption of the adolescent. The disgusting elements of life in Moravia—indifference, contempt, greed, sickness, weariness, crime, ugliness, deceit, conformity, and solitude—sharply and often abruptly awaken the innate psychological motives that are more important as a factor contributing to corruption. Indeed, by his strategy of conversion, Moravia puts the psychological factors into the active position, and the exterior elements into a passive position.
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SOURCE: A review of Command, and I Will Obey You, in Bestsellers, July 15, 1969, p. 161.
[In the following excerpt, Archer regards the stones collected in Command, and I Will Obey You as experimentations that might be developed into lengthier works .]
[The short stories collected in Command, and I Will Obey You] by the master of living Italian novelists, suggest themselves as experimentations, as "kernels" which might be developed into lengthier plots, though doubtless they are meant to be an end in themselves. In "The Chase," one of the best, a husband compares his wife's personality with his boyhood memory of a bird hunted by his father. The intangible yet powerful quality of wildness which emanated from the bird had made such a lasting impression on the boy that years later, recognizing something of the same quality in a young woman, he married her only to see this elusive inner vitality fade away as their marriage settled into daily routine. One day, glimpsing a flash of her vanished spontaneity as his wife was leaving their home, he followed her in his car as she took a bus across town. Walking from the bus with gazelle-like grace, she seems to have regained completely this former wildness. Her rendezvous with a man of whom the reader obtains no clear impression hardly surprises the husband who follows them until the couple pause in a dark doorway to abandon themselves to an interminable embrace. The narrator manages to stifle his impulse to assault his rival and carry off his wife in triumph, realizing instinctively that to gratify his most natural revenge would, like the slaughter of the bird of his boyhood, only destroy this treasured quality in the woman he loves. Of course a summary of such stereotyped events gives no hint of how the writer has transmuted them into something beyond mere narrative.
On the other hand, "The Judas Tree," concerning an ineffectual polyp-like son and his unimaginative father is as disappointing as some others. The title-story of this translation as well as "A Thing is a Thing," (title-story of the Italian original) seem to fall among the less interesting, less representative of this writer. Purpose is not clear in the tale of a news interview with a celebrity; one story is told by a dog; while several begin or end or revolve about the chore of apartment-hunting. In "A Middling Type," for instance, the hero or antihero learns that in furnishing his apartment he has duplicated the décor contrived by the previous tenant and that his predecessor had also anticipated him in attracting the girl working in a shop across the street by means of identical mirror manipulation! Revealing this to him, the girl brands him as "middling," unaware of the trouble he had taken to secure a dwelling calculated to mirror a distinctive personality.
In his novels and longer short-stories, Mr. Moravia has long been known for the elegance with which he treats sex, primary theme of his fiction. But unlike many of his peers, this writer has strongly emphasized his characters' universal need for sympathy and understanding, in addition to the physical embrace which they all gratify with unremitting regularity. If dalliance be indispensable to the people who stroll along the avenues of Mr. Moravia's Rome, it fails by itself to satisfy them unless complemented by that elusive sympathy craved consciously or unconsciously by them all, though even with this boon achieved, not all are able to reciprocate with their partners. This aspect of Mr. Moravia's work is absent from these vignettes, partly because of their brevity. Compared with his writing as a whole, these sketches seem to be light relaxations indulged in for the fun of it, pyrotechnics that may for author (and/or reader) afford perspectives on certain phases of the more serious work.
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SOURCE: A review of Command, and I Will Obey You, in The Saturday Review, August 23, 1969, p. 41.
[In the review below, Bergin finds the stories collected in Command, and I Will Obey You pleasant, amusing, and educational, but not likely to affect Moravia's stature as a writer .]
The first thing that will strike the reader contemplating Command, and I Will Obey You by Italy's most fertile storyteller is that all of the items in the collection are of the same length—none shorter than six pages, none longer than eight. This suggests that they were originally written for the "third page" (always dedicated to matters of literature and art) of an Italian newspaper; Moravia among his other distinctions is a terzapaginista without rivals. Only a uniquely competent craftsman could go on week after week meeting the strict requirements of this kind of literary Houdinism. There is no more skilled technician than Moravia active today in the world of letters, with the possible exception of some writers of detective stories, with whom he has, as a matter of fact, a certain affinity.
But is this kind of expertise enough? Ever since Moravia's first glittering success forty years ago critics have been watching his progress with a combination of admiration and suspicion. Is there anything more to his art than scintillant competence? Can we chart any development in his work, any broadening of range or deepening of perception over these four decades of inexhaustible output? Assessing his work as a whole, Donald Heiney has remarked with justice that to some at least the Moravian pattern "may seem . . . monotonous, the mechanical repetitiousness of a writer who has succeeded in popularizing certain psychological and philosophical ideas latent in the atmosphere of his time." To which we may answer that "the mixture as before" is not necessarily a bad prescription for a writer if the mixture itself commands our respect. We may admire in Moravia, as in Somerset Maugham, the coiner of that wry phrase "autocriticism," the persistent vitality of inspiration, the enduring sharpness of observation and the consistent skill in depicting what the eye takes in.
The present collection, however, may have some surprises for those who are familiar with Moravia only as a kind of dispassionate, half-cynical chronicler of the sordid with an eye to realistic and quasi-pornographic detail. Such is the Moravia of Woman of Rome, The Conformist and indeed most of the novels which have made him famous; it is also the Moravia of the Roman Tales. But the stories of Command, and I Will Obey You are for the most part the product of the "surrealistic" Moravia, already operative in The Lazy Man's Dreams of thirty years ago.
Most of them, although given a precisely placed Roman background, might be called mini-fables. A realistic setting is used as a springboard for commentary on human values; the commonplace and banal substance is warped and caricatured to make a point that is essentially moralistic. "A Middling Type" points up a sad kind of determinism in the trajectory of unimaginative humanity, "All-seeing" is an allegory of complacent passivity, "You Know Me, Carlo" tells us something about the tentative nature of human associations; there are other titles the "lessons" of which are less obvious, but in all cases there is something behind the story. Perhaps the most malicious and in its ironic way the saddest tale of all is "Don't Let's Be Dramatic," wherein a recently bereaved husband hastens to replace his wife with a casual stranger. Most of the stories are told about—and by, for Moravia's intent calls for the use of the first person—middle-class or lower-middle-class Romans; but, to cite the two extremes of the spectrum, one recounts the love affair of a computer and in another a brindled boxer tells of his discovery that "the world is a bone."
Command, and I Will Obey You is a good mixture; it is not likely to add to Moravia's stature but it will not detract from it either. And the reading will be pleasant, amusing and perhaps educational.
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SOURCE: A review of Command, and I Will Obey You, in Studies in Short Fiction, Fall, 1971, pp. 646-48.
[Here, Fantazzi faults Moravia's contradiction between style and subject matter in Command, and I Will Obey You.]
The Moravia of this slick, finished collection of tales [Command, and I Will Obey You] bears many traits of resemblance to the Trigorin of Chekhov's The Seagull. In contrast to the restless young writer, Trepliov, the older and established Trigorin is merely the facile manipulator of a métier, for whom life has become an indifferent source of subject matter for his art. The resulting transcription inevitably becomes dull and inauthentic. Moravia, like Trigorin, is a pro, whose studied expertise is too much in evidence. One has the impression that, although fully aware of his lapse into the formulaic and even procrustean shaping of reality, he knows that it is too late for him to try anything else. Already enshrined as a modern classic by his Milanese editor, Bompiani, with an edition of his complete works in the press, Moravia can well ignore the shafts of the younger avant-garde writers, floundering about in their experimental search after new forms. Their criticism is invariably directed against the unchanging, realistic mode of narration, the dead-weight of nineteenth-century realism, to which the Roman writer is committed. The contradiction between style and subject matter is flagrantly evident in the present collection. Nothing, or very little, really happens in the set of stories before us, but the mechanical succession of non-events and nonpersonages is masqueraded in a style and syntax that pretend to narrate facts or happenings of some significance. The most irrational behavior and unusual circumstances are formulated and documented in a dry, matter-of-fact "linguaggio bianco" (Moravia's own term), as if they were the most ordinary and natural of occurrences. Thus, to use but one example, the protagonist of "The Stammerer" analyses his malady with singular introspection:
After only two months of matrimony, I began to stammer and, at first, I could not manage to understand why. Later, thinking it over, I discovered the reason for this sudden stuttering: I could no longer succeed in speaking normally with my wife because, at the very moment when I opened my mouth to utter the words, I already felt tired and disgusted with what I was about to say or rather with the way in which I would say it. I had much to say to Fausta, and more every day; but I was repelled by the procedure by means of which, whether more or less consciously, I arranged the words in phrases. This procedure appeared to me to transfer the meaning from the feeling I wished to express to the verbal instrument which I made use of to express it; and, in turn, the instrument and by now inaccessible feeling.
In their original guise these very brief sketches occupy a few columns of Milan's Corriere della sera, sharing this third-page space with writers of a more confessedly journalistic mould, like Indro Montanelli. Taken in occasional doses, they are eminently digestible, but when transferred from their natural habitat to the pages of an anthology, they are much less appealing. There is a certain consistency in the tone and scope of this collection, in which Moravia forsakes the shacks and tenements of the outskirts of Rome for the bourgeois dwellings of the Parioli district, as he had done in The Fetish. The prevailing theme is the ambiguous relationship and increasingly thin dividing line between persons and things, with the latter often assuming the greater importance. The original Italian title, which the translator, Angus Davidson, did well in altering for the English adaption, was Una cosa é una cosa, "A Thing Is a Thing." Things, in all their external thingness and anonymity, become foreign and even inimical to man and his purposes, and man reduced to a state of chosisme people this strange world of Moravia's creating. It is the world that Rilke had so acutely forseen, in which personal objects have lost their identity: a hat is no longer a hat, a chair no longer a chair, but only vague appurtenances existing out there in a separate Dasein. Entranced and enslaved by the confused jumble of impenetrable objects around them, Moravia's hapless, robot-like personages wander about, out of contact and out of focus victims of amnesia, hallucinations, and idle day-dreaming. In a story entitled "Signs," a man has the feeling that something unusual has happened to him, but he does not know what it is. The usual scenes around him seem to be trying to tell him something, but he cannot decipher the message. Meaningless coincidences seem to bear some hidden meaning. At the gas station the gas pump is painted green, the attendant's uniform is green and the car being serviced is green, all of which makes him suspicious, although the color that really bothers him is the red of the bloodstains on his shirt. In "All-seeing" the protagonist is possessed of extraordinary sense powers that enable him to see several things at the same time, but in compensation he understands less and less of what he sees. His vision seems to penetrate the glossy, metallic surfaces of things only to be deflected in another way, since he is not able to focus his attention on any one of the sense impressions invading his consciousness. In these instances of perverted perception the meaning is clear. With the various elongations and extensions of our senses which the modern world seems to provide, reality comes tumbling in upon us with greater intensity, but very little registers. The more we try to concentrate our attention on things, the more strange and absurd they become, as in the act of staring at a familiar word and suddenly seeing nothing but a meaningless arrangement of letters.
For my part, people are still more interesting than things. It is difficult to become absorbed in stories in which words tyrannically exercise their own power over reality, buttons flash secret messages, and a piece of waste paper shouts out its existence, silencing the human beings around it. The voyeurism that Olga Ragusa detects in Moravia's fiction is unfailingly present in many of the stories, as well as certain well known obsessions of the Roman writer. In "Why, Who Said So?" a lifeless husband has dreams of death, but is resuscitated watching the positive, vitalistic movements of his wife taking a cold shower and inviting him to dance before their unmade bed. Adalberto, in "The Judas Tree," overwhelmed and exhausted by the very fact of existence, cannot force himself to do anything more than be supinely alive. "You kill me, Sofía, by the sole fact of being there, of existing; and you want me to give you a kiss into the bargain: impossible." Moravia has not lost his touch in the depiction of the mature female physique and the awakening of sexual desire, as in "The Sister-inlaw," or, by contrast, in the crude detailing of the flabby, sagging flesh of late middle-age. In general, too many of the tales are but a servile and implausible filling out of a mechanistic menu of the story line served up in the first paragraph, almost in the manner of a Euclidean theorem and demonstration. There are very few surprises in wait for the reader. To borrow a dichotomy used in one of the best stories, "The Chase," there is a tame and a wild side to things. The tame is defined as something predictable and dependent, "like a hen about which one knows everything in advance." So in the majority of these stories, the action follows tamely along behind a pre-conceived and pre-announced subject.
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SOURCE: "Unfaithful to 34 Women," in The New York Times, March 6, 1973, sec. L, p. 39.
[In the following assessment of Bought and Sold, Broyard faults the stories as "hackneyed, mechanical and unconvincing. "]
A masochistic woman provokes her husband to violence and wonders whether, one day, she will die of joy. A neurotic mother insists that her Marxist son wants to murder his father and sleep with her. The wife of a rich man sells herself to strangers because her original "purchaser" no longer desires her. A woman about to commit suicide, for reasons not given, is interrupted by a telephone call inviting her to a party. Her dog barks at her leaving and she gives him the fatal barbiturates instead. A successful career type "hasn't time for love," so her unsuccessful twin sister acts as her stand-in. A pair of lovers try to eliminate platitudes from their conversation only to discover that they are an integral part of their lives. A couple separate because she loves provincial festivals and he doesn't. A bourgeois housewife projects orgies into an empty flat that faces her window. A beautiful, untalented girl doggedly tries to write and only after repeated failures accepts her body as her talent. An idle husband enacts meaningless rituals of family life to give his existence a pattern. Another woman who had been bought by her rich husband finds at his death that she is too wealthy to be bought again and is now condemned to loneliness and frustration.
This is the sort of thing Alberto Moravia writes about in Bought and Sold—and one wonders why. In his stories, these themes are even more hackneyed, mechanical and unconvincing than they sound in one-sentence summaries. His women—all 34 stories are narrated by women—are not characters, but questionable psychological or sociological generalizations. It is highly improbable that so many women would so completely accept their husbands' evaluations to the point of being traumatized by them. Italy may still be a male-oriented country, but not every husband is a hypnotist.
Bought and Sold has a sour taste. The author is like a Maupassant without humor or charm. His women are not so much unhappy as peevish, and instead of suffering their situations, they explain them. And unfortunately, a good many of these explanations are in an identical tone of voice. Here again, as in his novel A Woman of Rome, Mr. Moravia has his characters speak in his style instead of their own. In a foreword to the earlier book, he gave it as his opinion that it would bore the reader to be subjected to the limited vocabulary of a woman of the streets. A more male-chauvinistic mistake would be hard to imagine. And, besides, here we have 34 women, from different milieus, so we can only infer that the author considers them all incapable of expressing themselves, except as a ventriloquist's dummy. Perhaps his insistence on his own style would be more understandable if it was indeed superior to what we might expect of his women—but it is, if anything, anonymously pedestrian.
In many of the stories, one feels a metaphor awkwardly hovering on the heels of the characters like an importunate beggar—but the author is so suffocatingly literalminded that he rarely ascends from the particular to the universal. And even here, in such claustrophobically close quarters, the stories are unconvincing. Women never were that docile and one-dimensional, even in feudal Italy. And, as for the men, one is reduced to defending them as oppressors: surely their cruelty, their lusts, their selfishness should have stimulated them to gestures less stodgy and second-hand.
As the best-known writer of serious fiction in Italy today, Mr. Moravia might be supposed to reflect something of the mood of his country. Since the stories themselves make very little individual impression, one is forced to fall back on a statistical analysis of their themes. The most recurrent of these are that Italian men depersonalize their women; that when they are physically beautiful, Italian women are at the mercy of their bodies; that, contrary to folklore, sex in Italy is a bleak business; that love is rare and communication between the sexes at a minimum.
It may seem rash to contradict a writer of Mr. Moravia's reputation—especially on the subject of his own society—but one can answer only for oneself and say: I don't believe you. The stories do not ring true—in fact, they don't ring at all—and that is the only way we have of judging them.
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SOURCE: "The Short Stories," in Alberto Moravia, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1974, pp. 115-24.
[In the following essay from her book-length critical study of Moravia, Cottrell discusses the realistic, surrealistic, and satiric nature of Moravia's short stories.]
The early short stories, written between 1927 and 1952, are for many critics and readers some of [Alberto] Moravia's finest works. They fall into two general categories: the neo-realistic stories which include the collections La bella vita (1935), L'imbroglio (1937), L'amante infelice (1943), the stories published with L'amore coniugale (1949), and a few separate pieces. The second category is made up of satiric and surrealistic tales, principally those of I sogni del pigro (1940) and L'epidemia (1944). Nevertheless, Moravia regularly combined characteristics of both types in all his stories including his later ones. As the distinguished Italian critic Francesco Flora has pointed out, when Moravia is naturalistic and realistic in the details and framework of his story, the content is fantastic or nightmarish in its events; and when Moravia works in the surrealistic dimension in structure and detail, the content of the stories is realistic.
With the two volumes of Racconti romani (1954 and 1959), Moravia moved into a new phase of short-story writing, one in which plot, brevity and lower-class protagonists are the outstanding features. Later, with L'automa (1964), Una cosa è una cosa (1967), and Il paradiso (1970), the earlier distinctions between neo-realistic versus surrealistic and satiric tend to become more blurred as the stories all become fragmentary and dreamlike within their realistic world.
Several of the early stories were collected in a thick volume and published in 1952 under the simple title of I racconti (in English, selections from the Racconti volume may be found in Bitter Honeymoon and in The Wayward Wife and Other Stories). More often than not, these early stories are captivating and memorable psychological sketches of a character caught in a well-defined situation that has just reached a point of crisis. We watch as the protagonist struggles with himself during a critical moment in his life, most frequently to be beaten down by his experience. Only rarely does a character seem to get control of his situation and gain the upper hand for even a brief moment. In this respect, these early pieces faithfully reflect Moravia's cruel fictional world where almost everyone seems to lose except vulgar or brutal people. It is a world where no one wins anything—if winning there is—except at the expense of someone else, by fraud, trickery, deceit, torment, cruelty, or an act of violence.
Like so many small versions of situations and themes of Moravia's novels and novellas, these stories deal mainly with the author's view of middle-class life as dehumanized and meaningless, and with the loneliness of the individual in a society controlled by the rich middle class. The struggles with self against guilt or sexual desire, against feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness which often lead to the temptation of suicide are at the heart of the moment of crisis in the stories. And the drama is played out in an atmosphere of a stifling enclosure where there are no windows that open to the outside. A great many stories are about adolescents or inexperienced adults, although there are several which are concerned with the theme of aging and which have protagonists who note with panic the inexorable approach of middle age.
The earliest of Moravia's stories, "Cortigiana stanca" ("Tired Courtesan") and "Delitto al circolo di tennis" ("Crime at the Tennis Club"), both date from 1927. "Cortigiana stanca" is the story of a young man who struggles with the conflict between his sexual desires and the financial necessity of giving up his aging mistress. He spends a tormented afternoon and evening with her, unable to accept what he must do, while she bemoans her own fate and chronic lack of money. Finally he slips from her bed while she sleeps and goes to the movies, telling himself: "To the devil with Maria-Teresa," thus affirming his youth and banishing his torment with a devil-take-all attitude. "Delitto al circolo di tennis" is a tale of violence about a society ball and the systematic torture by a group of young men of an aging, unattractive countess who would like to appear young and beautiful. At the height of their cruelty and excitement, one of the young men hits the countess on the neck with a bottle and she dies instantly. After a moment of panic, they decide to return to the dance, pretending that nothing has happened, and to dispose of the body later. Thus Moravia exposes in this story the hypocrisy, violence, corruption, and inhumanness which he saw about him.
Perhaps the best known and most admired story is "Inverno di malato" ("A Sick Boy's Winter"), which dates from 1930. Sickness, the anguish of adolescence, and the clash of middle-class and lower-class life are the threads with which the delicate fabric of this story is woven. It also contains a number of autobiographical elements. Girolamo, a middle-class adolescent who suffers from tuberculosis of the leg bone, is being treated in a sanatorium in the mountains. His roommate, a lower-class, middleaged man named Brambilla, seconded by a staff attendant named Joseph, torments him incessantly during the eight months they are together. Girolamo decides that he must experience the sexual delights he has so often heard about from Brambilla (who has frequently teased him because of his innocence), and so he seduces a willing fourteen-yearold English girl, Polly, who is also a patient. Thereafter, Girolamo's condition worsens, as does Polly's, and eventually their sexual relationship is discovered. Despised by Brambilla instead of admired as he had hoped, and tormented by guilt and shame, Girolamo no longer sees any hope in the future. At the end, still far from cured, he is left alone to continue his therapy.
The compassion of the author for his character, so evident in "Inverno di malato" is rare in Moravia's other works. And yet, this story is typical in many ways of Moravia's subsequent fiction: the intellectual middle-class protagonist is pitted against a vulgar, dominating rival; there is an unsatisfying sexual relationship with a female who is a hybrid of an innocent child and a provocative sensual creature; the protagonist is unable to act (here because of his age and illness), and he is excruciatingly lonely in his tightly closed world.
Succeeding stories of this early period take up the themes of the above three, with an occasional foray into a Balzacian type story (such as "L'avaro") or into Flaubert's world ("La provinciale"). Many of the stories which date from the 1940s bear the imprint of war on Moravia's traditional themes. Thus "Andare verso il popolo" ("Going to the People"), 1944, shows the literal stripping of a young middle-class couple by peasants who had lost everything to the Nazis and who now were forced to rob or die of hunger and exposure; "Ritorno al mare" ("Back to the Sea"), 1945, portrays the alienation of an ex-fascist government official who is despised by his wife after the fall of the fascists, and who so despises himself that he can do nothing except walk into the sea and drown himself. "L'ufficiale inglese" ("The English Officer"), 1946, gives a glimpse into the life and emotions of a woman who struggles against her sexual tendencies but succumbs to them each time a man moves to pick her up on the street. And "II negro e il vecchio dalla roncola" ("The Negro and the Old Man with the Bill-Hook"), 1948, tells of a young man who attempts to seduce his date on the beach only to see her led off, not entirely unwillingly, by a huge Negro soldier. When the young man runs away in fright, the girl is rescued by an old fisherman who silently menaces the soldier with a bill-hook until he backs off.
Unfortunately, several of the stories from the original collections (some of them very good ones) do not appear in the Racconti edition. But not even all those from the Racconti collection have been translated into English. Thus a number of Moravia's best stories remain unavailable to the English-speaking reader.
Other stories which have not been available in English are the surrealistic and satiric tales. In 1944, these were reissued in a single volume containing the fifty-five stories from I sogni del pigro (A Lazy Man's Dreams) and L'epidemia (The Epidemic), which was used as the title of the new volume. These are in general much shorter pieces than the neo-realistic stories, and many contain sharp political satire in addition to the usual social satire. But there are also brief, incisive psychological studies, and miniature philosophical tales.
Some interesting representatives of the above types include the title story, which is a surrealistic and satiric parable of fascism. A number of people suddenly begin to stink from the head. At first they are somewhat troubled by it, but later their stench becomes perfume to their own noses. Another bitingly satiric story entitled "Primo rapporto sulla terra dell' Inviato speciale dalla luna" (First Report on Earth of the Special Envoy from the Moon) is a discussion by a middle-class man of poor people and how perverted they are since they obviously do not like the better things of life and prefer filth, discomfort and rotten food. "Il coccodrillo" (The Crocodile) is a strange story about a new fashion of the rich—the wearing of a crocodile on one's back. Despite the obvious discomfort she witnesses in the faces of wearers and the fact that she finds the whole thing senseless, a middle-class lady decides that she, too, simply must have her crocodile. One of the most striking psychological tales is "Il mare" (The Sea), a study of the problem of guilt in adultery, which is here symbolized by the tide that floods the bedroom where the adultery is about to take place, besmirching the woman's family photographs. The tide slowly ebbs when the adulterous intentions of the would-be lovers have been abandoned.
On the philosophical level, "Antico furore" (Ancient Passion) is a story about Lucretius who is portrayed as being oppressed by boredom (noia). When it is time for him to die, he expires in the throes of passion after drinking a love potion, thus rendering back unto nature the love he had found. "I sogni del pigro" (A Lazy Man's Dreams) shows life as a dream for a protagonist who finds reality too unsatisfying. Because of his laziness he finds it easier to fantasize his life away rather than to take action. Thus Moravia has portrayed an intellectual who has managed to come to terms with life—such as those terms are.
Beginning with the 1954 volume of Racconti romani, Moravia's short stories become more fragmented and considerably shorter. This is understandable when one considers that almost all of them from this point on were written for newspaper columns. Following the development of the stories through the fifties and sixties, one can note Moravia's increasing concentration on the dehumanization of modern life and the alienation of the individual.
The Racconti romani are published in two volumes: the 1954 collection consists of sixty-one stories, and the Nuovi racconti romani of 1959 contains sixty-nine stories. (Selections from the two volumes were translated into English as Roman Tales and More Roman Tales.) All of the tales were originally published as a regular feature in the Milan daily, Corriere della Sera, beginning in 1952, and charmed readers all over Italy, but especially the Romans themselves. Each of these brief sketches has a Roman lower-class male narrator who tells of some personal drama from which he can often draw a moral. Thus an ambulatory fruit seller in "Il concorenza" (Competition) understands, after spending months in prison for having tried to beat up a butcher, that the butcher won the girl both of them were courting because he was the stronger competitor. In "II naso" ("The Nose"), the narrator has a friend whose nose seems to spell ill-fortune. He can thus only blame himself when he and his friend land in prison after a thwarted burglary attempt, for he had failed to follow his instincts and avoid contact with that ill-starred friend.
The tales tell of attempted crimes, happy outings that turn sour, relationships that become sources of torment, couples who break up, friends who betray friends, ventures that fail—in short, they tell of people getting their comeuppance in life whether it be deserved or not. None may be said to end happily, although occasionally a narrator seems to gain some relief from an unbearable situation. By that time, however, he has of course paid for whatever he gets.
Although Moravia was still using in his tales the same kinds of crisis situations he had written about previously, the old psychological problems look like remnants from an earlier evolutionary phase. The struggles with self are now played out on a preconscious level with an individual aware for only a fleeting anguished moment of what is going on within him. Having been acted upon rather than acting, a narrator ends his story with a shrug of his shoulders and continues on his way. Although the tales cannot be read in any great number at one time, they provide, especially for a foreign reader, fascinating glimpses of what is presented as the everyday life of the little people who live in Rome.
The next three volumes of short stories Moravia published are all far more forgettable than the previous ones. The themes and problems they deal with are essentially the same, and no new insights into them are incorporated. Moreover, these brief sketches of psychological anguish are more fragmented, less satisfying variations on Moravia's usual subjects.
L'automa (The Fetish and Other Stories) is a collection of forty-one stories published in 1963. The title story of the Italian edition is typical of the others in the volume and, as far as Moravia's ideas are concerned, is also one of the most revelatory. (The title for the English translation was taken from another, less appropriate story.) In "L'automa" ("The Automaton"), a middle-class man, described by his wife as a good provider, husband, and father from whom one need fear no surprises, feels vaguely dissatisfied with himself and his life. One Sunday he idly puts a record on his automatic turntable. For the first and only time the mechanism fails to function properly and ruins the record. Shortly after that he takes his wife and two small children on a Sunday outing. As he drives along, he notes a number of things which seem interesting, but their significance escapes him. Then suddenly he has a sense of illumination in the form of a desire to drive the car off the top of a hill into the abyss. He struggles to resist the temptation and stops the car only to be overcome immediately by a feeling of closeness and stagnation whereas he had experienced a sense of clarity and light just a moment before. When he had mentioned the record player incident to his wife, she had jokingly answered that "machines sometimes get sick of being machines and want to show they're not machines."
According to the stories in L'automa, people are becoming increasingly like machines because they are being forced to act like machines, although they may occasionally rebel for a brief moment. Furthermore, human communication is steadily breaking down, and people treat each other more and more like objects. The result is the greater alienation of the individual.
The 1967 collection, Una cosa è una cosa, illustrates even more explicitly the message of L'automa (twenty-seven of the forty-four stories of Una cosa è una cosa were translated into English under the title, Command and I Will Obey You). All of these short pieces are related by first-person male narrators (except for the last, Kafkaesque story which has a dog as a narrator). The title story, "A Thing Is a Thing," bears witness to Moravia's increasing interest in the problem of language, and his love of tautologies which becomes a mannerism in his works of the sixties. In this story, a man begins to see his wife as merely one of the many objects around him that crowd in on his mind demanding attention. Agostino tried to see his mother as "nothing but a woman," but the narrator here goes one step further and sees his wife as nothing but a thing. At the end, he slips out of their bedroom where she is crying hopelessly because of his treatment of her. "Il mostro" ("The Monster") explains how a person can act in a robot-like manner without being aware of what he is doing. And "Celestina," another story, tells the tale of a robot—a computer born of a middle-class couple—who falls in love with a water heater and gives birth to a monster.
Il paradiso (Paradise and Other Stories), 1971, consists of thirty-four very brief stories recounted by women of both the lower and middle classes. Many of the tales are unbelievable, some are grotesque, and others puzzling or simply outrageous. Sexual psychopathology is the norm in this collection. One finds, for example, a woman who purposely enrages her husband so as to be beaten almost to death in order to achieve a special kind of orgasm. Another plays at being a prostitute one afternoon a week in order to see herself as an object; but when her clients try to get what they have paid for, she pretends to have a heart attack. She is thus able to sell herself without giving herself. And one girl, while waiting on the street to meet her boyfriend, turns into a whore; we later discover that it was all a daydream she had while riding in a car with her boyfriend. In another story a girl engaged to a young man decides instead to marry his father because she is so strongly attracted to the father's prodigious ugliness.
The usual Moravian themes are there, but apart from the eccentric sex, one is most struck by the writer's transparent tricks, the worn-out narrative devices, and the melodrama that prop up these stories. It is a sure sign that this mine has been exhausted and that it is time, once again, for Moravia to try to move on to new fields. Since the early nineteen-fifties, it is apparent that Moravia has had only one purpose in writing his short stories, only one tune to play: the dehumanization of the individual and his increasing alienation from life.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6665
SOURCE: "Moravia's Luca Mansi and His Dreams of Transcendence," in Italica, Vol. LIII, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 8-28.
[In the following essay, Cerreta applies Jungian psychoanalysis to the interpretation of Luca's two dreams in La Disubbidienza.]
After E. Sanguineti's exhaustive and illuminating commentary on Moravia's La Disubbidienza [in Alberto Moravia] it would seem that additional remarks based on a psychoanalytical approach would not contribute to any significant expansion of our understanding of this novel. This would be particularly true if we were to restrict ourselves to Freudian psychology which is the foundation on which Sanguineti's work rests. However, in spite of its soundness, Sanguineti's analysis, by glossing over Luca Mansi's two dreams, unexplainably leaves unanswered some very important questions, especially for a follower of Freud. I hasten to add that in this deficiency the Italian critic does not stand alone. Yet, in all fairness, it should be stated that the oneiric contents of the novel did not escape Sanguineti's scrutiny entirely, for he does make mention of the "delirium" in chapter xiii. To this he assigns a pivotal position in the structuration of the story, which, he points out, bears a resemblance with the earlier Gl'Indifferenti in the fact that, like the latter, a dream serves to divide the narrative in two parts: "In mezzo, l'una e l'altra volta—un sogno." Since Sanguineti does not elaborate further on this dream, we are justified in assuming that its significance to him was no more than structural.
The second dream to which allusion is made is the one occurring shortly before Luca is initiated into sex by his nurse in chapter XV. The dream is about a tree, first barren and then in full bloom, which the dreaming Luca comes to identify with himself. Some attention has been attached to this dream by Ross and Freed [in The Existentialism of Alberto Moravia, 1974] who, after quoting in full the passage describing it, state that it "might be interpreted as a hymn to the totality of Moravia's life-view" and as "a summary of the lyric existential reality." As the avowed purpose of their monograph is to individuate the existential components of Moravia's fiction, one might agree with Ross and Freed that in Luca's dream "we feel the rush and joy of life pulsating in our veins, I-thou." Basically sound as these remarks may be from an existentialist standpoint, they do not give us any clue that the authors have intuited any particular psychological meaning in the dream elements. If this had been the case, there might have been some further elaboration. In fact, there is no attempt on their part to relate the dream with Luca's neurosis and then with the general sense of the novel.
Thus, although a certain role is recognized for both dreams in the novel, neither Sanguineti nor Ross and Freed feel compelled to explore them in greater depth. Could it be that they and all other critics who have ignored these dreams have failed to understand them? Or could it be that in pursuing a purely Freudian line of thought some may have been unable to decipher them and also make their sense mesh with the rest of Luca's story? In my opinion both dreams contain elements that are not impervious to analysis and deserve a careful study. Accordingly, it is my theory that by changing the psychoanalytical line of attack from Freudian to Jungian, these dreams may be made to yield their secrets. This procedure, supported by whatever corroborative evidence can be drawn from the fields of primitive religion, anthropology, and myth, may well prove to be the more fruitful course. At the same time I realize that such an approach may not answer all the questions that might be raised concerning Moravia's text. In this regard it might behoove us to keep in mind Jung's own cautionary injunction about the psychology of literature: "A great work of art is like a dream; for all its apparent obviousness it does not explain itself and is never unequivocal."
As readers familiar with La Disubbidienza will recall, Luca's existential malady, anatomized with such richness of detail in the first twelve chapters of the book, culminates in a serious and crucial physical illness. By informing us that its inception coincides with the start of winter (the winter solstice) and that its resolution comes with the vernal equinox, Moravia invests this infirmity with the emblematics of a "symbolic death." The long wintry months of Luca's illness terminate with a delirious dream, from which he will awaken eventually, healed in both body and mind. Like most dreams, whether of a delirious nature or not, its contents are manifestly incoherent and seemingly refractory to any normal probing. Upon closer examination, however, we discover in it elements which are symptomatic of a psychological crisis in which certain contents of what Jung calls the collective unconscious are pressing for recognition. As J. Campbell, in a paraphrase of Jung, has put it:
Dreams are the natural reaction for the self-regulating psychic system and, as such, point forward to a higher, potential health, not simply backwards to past crises. The posture of the unconscious is compensatory to consciousness, and its productions, dreams, and fantasies consequently are not only corrective but also prospective, giving clues, if properly read, to those functions and archetypes of the psyche pressing at the moment for recognition.
Specifically, the crisis in which Luca is portrayed is one stemming from puberty, a very difficult period of adjustment for the young who must learn to relinquish their old infantile ways in order to assume the responsibilities of a more mature person. The spiritual "wasteland" in which we see Luca wandering confusedly during the first twelve chapters appears to us like an impasse from which he is incapable of escaping. The atmosphere that pervades the earlier scenes of the novel conveys a sense of constriction or confinement (reflected at the interpersonal level in the objectification of Luca at the hands of his parents, the governess, his teachers, and society in general). This sensation the young hero strives to transcend in the first part of the story, but with no success.
In accordance with the psychological situation described, we might expect that in Luca's dream there might be happenings whose symbolism could be related with crises of transition. These symbols, as Henderson tells us, "point to man's need for liberation from any state of being that is too immature, too fixed or final. In other words, they concern man's release from—or transcendence of—any confining pattern of existence, as he moves toward a superior or more mature state in his development." As we shall see in the brief analysis that follows, Luca's delirious dream contains numerous symbols of transcendence and ascension, which point back to the condition from which he unconsciously is trying to emerge and point prospectively to a goal of restored psychic equilibrium.
In his first dream, Luca is frightened by the appearance of several monster-like creatures and other strange visions. At first he is besieged by corpulent animals who push their snouts up over his body to his head. Green, finger-like excrescences, perhaps from a plant by the wall, seem to stretch threateningly toward him like tentacles. His bedroom floor is covered with dark water, from which black snakes rise periodically, only to be seized by a purple colored bird that swoops down on them with preying thrusts. From a crack in the wall a glistening swarm of insects crawls forth to form a seething, repulsive blanket on his bed. From the medicine bottles Luca sees pop out bald and hunchbacked homunculi, while other dwarf-like creatures break forth from egg shells. Luca's glance is then drawn to a saintly-looking, bearded monk on one side of the room, while at the opposite end a woman, her swollen abdomen obscenely exposed, looks lasciviously at him. The monk, who unfurls a long tongue which is reminiscent of the kisses of the governess, looks approvingly in the direction of the woman, whose belly now bursts at the navel, and from it issues a feminine knee followed by a leg, "come di qualcuno che stesse chiuso nel ventre e si dibattesse per uscire." As the delirium draws to a close, Luca has the peculiar sensation of wending his way through these hallucinations as if he were a traveler in a dark forest, lost yet certain of finding a way out:
Ma tutto il tempo, pur soggiacendo agli incubi del delirio, aveva la sensazione di farsi strada tra le allucinazioni, come un viandante tra i tronchi e le tenebre di una foresta, verso un'apertura che non poteva mancare . . .
When the happenings in Luca's delirium are re-examined in the light of the symbolism provided by Jungian psychology, we cannot help but notice that the notions of containment and rupture, or, of restriction and transcendence constitute their common denominator. In this respect, important clues are such words as "uscire" and "apertura" (or their variants) along with images of darkness followed by light and of escape from a belly, an egg, a bottle. The dwarfs breaking through the eggshells or popping out of bottles and the knee bursting out of the woman's navel share in the common note of "rupture" and thus may be read as symbols of transcendence. Such an interpretation is re-enforced by Luca's perception of himself travelling through a dark forest "verso un'apertura," an image to be echoed in the last lines of the book in the train issuing from the tunnel, thus effecting a neat correlation of meanings and symbols all pointing to the idea of transcendence.
Along with these images associated with transcendence there are others in the same dream which do not seem to be related with this notion, namely those of insects, snakes, stagnant black waters, the bird, etc. But, as is often the case, appearances can be deceiving. Ultimately even these components of the dream, though not in themselves symbols of transcendence, are connected with it, as we shall soon see. Actually, as symbols these elements are related with Jung's process of individuation involving the rapport of the Ego with the Self and the need for compensation in consciousness by reestablishing contact with the collective unconscious and its archetypes.
Within the framework of this psychological theory, insects and snakes are considered chthonic creatures and are identified with the animal or instinctual side of man. These telluric creatures are similar to the stagnant waters with which they share the symbol for the collective unconscious or the anima or feminine side of man. On the other hand, the bird in the dream, is the traditional emblem for the solar, intellectual and masculine aspect, and is regarded as the symbol of consciousness. It is quite patent, then, that a catalog of the contents of Luca's delirium would end in a dual classification of the visions, depending on whether they pertain to the anima or the animus archetypes of the unconscious. Indeed, the action we witness in the dream could be viewed as the psychic regeneration described by Jung presented in a visual dramatization.
As Jung informs us, the individual in crisis has need for a revitalization of psychic energy, which can be accomplished by a return to origins, a descensus to the deep. The need for such renewal manifests itself at crucial moments over the entire period of an individual's life. Primarily these crises occur in conjunction with a person's passage from one stage to another. In Luca's case the crisis is that of puberty. What Moravia has described in this novel is the psychological distress that this change produces in his young hero. Luca's existential difficulties, as presented in the first twelve chapters, stem from the fact that in the first part of his life he was attached to the original family group and that now he must learn to take the decisive steps into life alone. For such radical changes, which require an increase or regeneration of psychic energy in order to face the new challenges, primitive society prepares the individual through its rites of passage. The pattern of such rituals is reflected in the movements taking place within the psyche, whereby man's Ego consciousness performs an inward descensus to the collective unconscious in order to correct extreme polarities and restore the equilibrium of psychic forces.
This movement of the Ego would seem to be duplicated in the dream by the image of the bird (the symbol of consciousness) which swoops down to snatch the snakes (symbols of the telluric) from the waters, which stand for the unconscious, the Self. Thus the Ego, by conjoining itself with the lower, chthonic nature of man, renews the contact that had been severed in the Ego-Self axis as demonstrated by Edinger. This scene of regeneration as enacted by the bird and the snakes acquires at the same time the significance of transcendence, since the revitalization of energy permits the individual in crisis to transcend the impasse in which he has been stranded. The monk in Luca's dream suggests by his vocation and saintly appearance that he is a personification of the masculine principle. Since he would normally be associated with asceticism, the condition of being withdrawn from the world, he would be opposed to the worldly, telluric, and sensual side of man. Yet his own configuration is ambivalent, for it combines the masculine principle of the religious vocation and the feminine aspect as evidenced by the tongue he unfurls in a manner reminiscent of the governess. This equivocal representation, which borders on the hermaphroditic, also points to a reconciliation of polarities or opposites, the extremes of the anima/animus archetypes. By smiling benignly at the female navel on the opposite wall, the saintly monk seems to be signaling to Luca his approval of the feminine principle, for which room must be made in his psyche so that it can be restored to good health. Thus, in still this other element of the dream, the symbols point to a reconciliation of opposites, a condition the psyche can arrive at only by the return of the Ego to the collective unconscious.
That such an interpretation of the facts is plausible can be verified by a multiplicity of examples in Jungian literature dealing with this subject. For the present it will be sufficient to refer to Henderson's essay on the symbols of transcendence. Here the water and earth creatures we have described are related figuratively to the depths of the Ancient Earth Mother:
They are the symbolic denizens of the collective unconscious. They bring into the field of consciousness a special chthonic message (somewhat different from the spiritual aspirations symbolized by the birds). Other transcendental symbols of depths are rodents, lizards, fish, and snakes, which are the commonest symbol.
At the time he falls seriously ill, Luca, like all individuals in crisis, is torn between opposing psychic forces, and is "stuck" in a static situation. In order to cope with the reality of the world in which he must live as an adult, he must become "unstuck" from his infantile status. This temporary stage of constriction of psychic energy, brought on by the demands of the transition to be made, is transcended through his "symbolic death," his psychological "descensus ad inferos." When Luca awakens from his delirium, he is well on his way to both physical and spiritual recovery. Now a new and pleasant world unfolds before his eyes. At first he realizes that the furnishings of his bedroom had been distorted in the nightmarish visions. Then he begins to behold in an entirely new light the outward reality which had seemed so senseless and absurd before his illness: "una luce nuova, serena, pulita, familiare, amabile e, per così dire, appetitosa." The order and meaning of things, which he had previously sought in vain, become apparent to him in his renewed state of consciousness: "nulla più appariva . . . assurdo e privo di funzione." All this is a result of the re-establishment of order and meaning within his own psyche.
Another beneficial acquisition accruing from this rebirth is Luca's changed attitude toward reality, which derives from the new acceptance of himself as a human being. The inner peace or harmony makes it possible to accept the outer world. This is the meaning we are to attach to the scene in which Luca beholds his reflection in the mirror: "Egli si accorse di provare amore per quel viso di adolescente che lo guardava con occhi trasognati . . . " This "amore" which Luca experiences here should not be confused with the notion of narcissism which Sanguineti and other Freudians hastily press into service as their commentary. This complacency seems to be instead more in line with the Pauline agape-love, the unselfish love of which Erich Fromm speaks in his well-known essay [The Art of Loving, 1956], or even the benevolentia mentioned by Ross and Freed. The latter lend support to my thesis as they argue, albeit in existential terms, against the solipsism of the mirror episode, emphatically contrasting it with Sartre's description of the mirror in La Nausée. To this we can add that Luca himself is aware that his self-acceptance is the most important part of his "conversion," which is evidence that no narcissistic overtones are implied in the episode: " . . . e gli parve l'aspetto più importante di questo cambiamento."
Luca's acceptance of himself makes it possible for him to accept the outer world. The change is most aptly expressed by Moravia as an "appetite" or a hunger for objects, a term which stands in counterpoint to the "nausea" experienced by the boy in the earlier chapters of the novel, and dramatized by his regurgitation on the locomotive. In the epilogue to La Noia, where a similar "conversion" takes place, Moravia explains that this kind of appetite means an acceptance of things in themselves and not for any particular use, for only thus can a subject have a healthy rapport with reality. And just as Dino there can finally "contemplate" the tree outside his hospital room and think of it and his friend Cecilia as entities to be loved without any compulsion to use or possess them, so now Luca can view the outside world with detachment. This new attitude on his part—which Ross and Freed call benevolentia—is a direct benefit of the psychic renewal and growth of the protagonist, and will characterize his future actions vis-à-vis his nurse, in the days immediately ahead, and later toward life in general, as is hinted in the closing lines of the book.
In Luca's death-wish, which culminates in his "symbolic death," was implicit a desire to dissolve old forms so that the new "Adam" could be born. What we have witnessed, therefore, is the scenario of an initiation rite, of a rite of passage. In this novel, which is pre-eminently about initiation, the same ritual or pattern of the monomyth described by Campbell has a way of occurring over and over again, though with variations of episodes or images. Thus the same initiation pattern structures the next two major episodes in the novel: Luca's bath scene and his night of love with his nurse.
It is surprising that few if any critics have cared to comment on Luca's bath as a baptismal rite; yet the conclusion that this is another initiation rite, intimately linked with the ritual immediately preceding it (the "symbolic death" of Luca's illness), is inescapable.
As in all initiation rites, the symbolism connected with the waters of baptism implies a dissolution of forms (the initiand must want to die to be reborn), but this time through purification and a regeneration of life by virtue of the life-creating power of the liquid element. The waters, as Eliade asserts [in The Sacred and the Profane, 1959], are also the element from which the cosmos was created, from which all life comes, and they are also our Magna Mater, the principle of wholeness and totality. In Luca's bath scene Moravia carefully highlights those actions and things which charge the episode with ritualistic meaning. Significantly, at this point in the youth's convalescence, his parents continue to remain in the background, taking no role in the action about to take place. Thus the bath is not prepared by the boy's mother, but by his nurse. Since what occurs in baptism is a rebirth, and birth requires a mother, Luca is assisted and guided by his second mother ("seconda e più vera madre," he will call her in the final chapter), who is equivalent to the godmother of Christian baptisms and to the mystagogue who guides the heroes of the monomyths.
Purification and renewal are the key concepts we associate with baptism. To convey the idea of newness acquired by the immersion in the lustral waters, Moravia does not deem it abhorrent to insist on the repetition of the adjective "nuovo" with which he qualifies the objects connected with the rite. Thus Luca uses new slippers, new towels, a new bathrobe, a new cake of soap. We are told also that Luca takes his first steps ("i primi passi") as if he were a small child, and that his first bath is a new step on the road to recovery. In this manner Moravia shows us that this bath is also an initiation rite and that through it Luca is born a "new man."
Besides being purified and renewed, Luca acquires new energy from baptism, specifically that of sexuality. This is evident in the state of excitement produced in the convalescent by the nurse's lingering massages. However, the desires aroused in Luca are not permitted at this time to achieve fulfillment. Moravia, by postponing the sexual union of the pair, reveals once more his psychological expertise. For, by putting off to a later date the sex act, he has succeeded in underlining for the reader the importance of the psychological change in Luca. The change here has to do with a new attitude toward sex, which is part of the new attitude toward reality in general. Earlier in the novel Luca had been sexually aroused by the governess. If that union had taken place, it would have been merely a lustful act, and what is more, performed with a person who was prone to "objectify" Luca like his parents—in other words, a person incapable of an "I-thou" relationship. When Luca makes love to his nurse some days later, the reader is better prepared to view him as more mature and with an understanding of love as benevolentia. In retrospect, then, the nurse's refusal at this time to take advantage of Luca's aroused state because of his weak condition, will be evidence of benevolentia on her part and thus a redeeming feature in her characterization.
Prior to this culminating experience, that is, a few hours before his assignation with the nurse, Luca has his second dream. As we shall see, its symbolism aligns it with the delirium and with the meaning of the initiation scenarios already encountered. This time Luca dreams of a tree, frozen and barren, on a cold wintry morning. As the sun comes over the horizon, the tree gradually comes to life, its sap starting to course through its limbs and the first leaves budding forth in what is suddenly a spring day. Then the dreaming Luca realizes that the tree is himself, and thus by this equation Moravia gives us a capsule version of the story of La Disubbidienza: the death and rebirth of its young hero.
So far as I know, no attempt has been made to interpret this dream. All we have are some all too brief remarks by Ross and Freed: "Like a tree, man too springs from the earth and is nurtured by it." In primitive religion and in Jungian psychology the tree is rich in symbolism. According to Eliade and Campbell, the tree can be viewed as phallus, cosmic pillar, tree of life, or axis mundi. In all these instances it is considered the point in the cosmos where the heavens, earth, and the subterranean world are joined. Through this axis vivifying energy makes its irruption into the world in the rites of initiation. In Jungian psychology, the tree stands pre-eminently for the human psyche. An ancient tree or plant represents symbolically the growth and development of psychic life, as distinct from instinctual life, commonly symbolized by animals, as we have already remarked in connection with the earlier dream.
As in primitive religions the tree stands as an axis of intercommunication between the three realms of the cosmos, in Jungian analysis it is the symbol of the link of the conscious with the deepest layers of the collective unconscious, from which new energy is drawn up to revitalize the psyche at moments when compensation is required. Once more, therefore, we are confronted in this novel with an oneiric content that can be interpreted religiously and psychologically, with a resultant clarification of the meaning attached to Luca's psychodrama. Restated in psychological terms, this psychodrama involves a movement from a pristine state of wholeness or Ego-Self identification (the totality experienced as a paradisal state by Luca within his family prior to his "falling into consciousness" resulting from his discovery of the parental "vault" and the secrets of middle-class economy) through a subsequent period of alienation and guilt, followed by an ultimate return to the initial state of wholeness after a self-immolation. The reintegration, or return to totality, involves not only his family, but also all of reality, the world in general.
Eliade lends weight to this view, for he asserts that to dream of trees or of tree-like objects is to desire the reestablishment of the pristine unity of worlds, to return to the wholeness of the original paradisal state. Since man is now in a fallen state, and exists in profane time, he can reacquire the sacred, that is, he can reverse time, through his rites, especially those of initiation, in virtue of which he can transcend the present and himself as well. This transcendence of the earthly, of the material, and of the human is central to the shamanic rites. In the latter, transcendence has as its material expression the tree or pole, as axis, by which the shaman can effect his spiritual ascent to the sky. The tree in Luca's second dream points to this scenario of the regenerative process as Moravia depicts it. Luca's movement from his original "stuck" position to a higher psychic level corresponds to transcendence as understood in Jungian psychology and in Eliade's accounts of primitive religion.
The tree, placed at a midpoint between the heavens and the subterranean, joins the solar, masculine principle of reason with the telluric, feminine, instinctual energies, just as the Ego mediates between the forces of the collective unconscious and the extremes of consciousness. The arboreal symbol is merely another way of expressing the need for a renewed psychic equilibrium. Since the tree in the dream is transformed from a withered and barren appearance, this might be taken as a statement that the psychic transformation has been accomplished and that Luca, at this point, is psychologically prepared to establish his contact with reality. This, as we soon discover, takes on the form of another rite, the sex act itself.
In the monomyth described by Campbell, the hero's ultimate adventure is the hierogamos, the holy marriage with the Queen Goddess of the world. This can take place at the "center" of the cosmos or in another center, the dark recesses of the heart. This Goddess is the goal of every hero's quest; to him she is a mother, sister, mistress, bride, and in her he finds the bliss once known. The bliss once known of all heroes, and of Luca in particular, is that Edenic state enjoyed in prelapsarian times, before the rupture with his parents occurred. This bliss is also the sense of totality or wholeness which Luca will gain through his physical union with his goddess, the nurse, and through her, with the world.
The symbolism of the love scene which has Luca and his nurse as its actors is driven home by Moravia as he evokes at every opportunity its ritualistic nature. Thus, while the nurse, the priestess of this rite, undresses with studied gestures, Luca perceives that a ritual is unfolding: "i gesti prestabiliti di un suo rito sconosciuto." Shortly thereafter we are apprized that Luca sees the nurse in her role as priestess in a mysterious rite: " . . . ebbe il senso preciso che lei lo prendesse per mano e l'introducesse, riverente, in una misteriosa caverna dedicata a un rito." In the final chapter Luca will recall this experience as "una iniziazione definitiva" not only into physical love—which it is—but also into the more general love for things, again corroborating the ritualistic and mythical aspects inherent in that embrace, as amply illustrated by Sanguineti.
The initiation into sex enables Luca to enter into a healthy and meaningful rapport with outer reality, in a manner reminiscent of the "conversions" of other Moravian heroes portrayed as initially alienated. Concerning his own "conversion" Luca reflects that henceforth he will look at the world with "new eyes": "Con i nuovi occhi che gli si erano aperti dentro quella notte" (emphasis mine). The language is metaphorical, but it is clear that the new eyes stand for the new sight of the psyche, which has been renewed by the descensus. Though this descent to the depths may easily be any one of the initiation rites already enacted, in this particular case the referent seems to be Luca's union with the nurse. This can be construed not only from the reference to "quella notte," but also from the fact that Moravia immediately adds that the nurse was responsible for his rebirth: "Seconda e più vera madre, l'infermiera l'aveva fatto nascere una seconda volta, dopo che era morto nel suo desiderio di morte."
In these words we have once more the confirmation that beginning with Luca's illness, we have witnessed a series of initiation rites, all of them presided over by the nurse, in her role as guide, godmother, lover, and second mother. In this final rite, marking Luca's entry into the world through sex, the wording is such that we cannot help but draw the conclusion that Moravia wishes to emphasize a "regression to the womb." "Ricordò," he says of Luca in the last chapter, "che al momento dell'amplesso, egli aveva provato ad un tratto il desiderio forte di entrare tutto intero nel ventre della donna e rannicchiarsi in quelle tenebre calde e ricche con tutto il corpo, come vi si era rannicchiato prima di nascere" (emphasis mine).
The words I have italicized in this quotation spell very clearly the urgent desire experienced by the hero to regain the fetal condition. As we learn from comparative religion, the return to the womb motif is inherent in almost all initiation rites. To return to the mother or to the womb is merely another manner of symbolizing the return to the origins and to the pristine state of wholeness and containment. According to Jung, this regression constitutes a descent of the Ego to the primal, fecundating waters of the collective unconscious, from which beneficial contact it must re-emerge if the individuation process is to continue. For consciousness to remain entrapped within the collective unconscious is tantamount to death for the Ego similar to that of the hero devoured by the Terrible Mother. Luca's spiritual health is predicated upon his issuing victorious from his encounter with the Mother. Expressed in these terms, this regression should not be interpreted in the negative sense given to it by Sanguineti, who maintains that Luca thereby comes to accept life peacefully by learning to live and feel like a fetus.
At this point, by way of a brief digression, it behooves us to inquire as to the reason Moravia has chosen such a flabby, rather obese, middle-age woman to lead the young Luca into the mysteries of love: "i fianchi non tondi ma quadrati, con larghe placche di carne impressa nel velo della camicia; il dorso vasto e spesso; le braccia mature." In fact, it was Francesco Flora who questioned the validity of the nurse and her role. Apparently the point that is missed in this connection is that in creating the scene Moravia had in mind the myth of the Earth Mother: "Ma era il viso dell'infermiera o quello di una deità salita dalla terra per darsi a lui?" Aside from the fact that Earth Mothers are traditionally represented with exaggerated breasts and thighs, symbolizing their fertility aspect, here it is also a matter of the regression to the mother (or womb) in an intiation rite wherefrom the hero will rise regenerated.
Luca's embrace, therefore, is equivalent to a "return to the mother," to the original place of containment, to the bliss or paradise once lost as a consequence of the "fall." This does not imply, as already noted, a fetal condition, which can be deleterious to the development of consciousness, but simply the renewal of contact with the vital sources of psychic energy which a neurosis had interrupted. A neurosis very similar to Luca's has been described by E. Neumann [in The Great Mother, 1972]:
A psychic depression, for example, is characterized by an abaissement du niveau mental, by a loss of libido in the consciousness, expressed in lack of enthusiasm and initiative, weakness of will, fatigue, incapacity for concentration and work, and in "negative" contents, such as thoughts of death and failure, weariness of life, suicidal leanings, and so on. Often, however, this psychic process also becomes visible; that is to say, it appears in the familiar symbolism of the light, the sun, the moon, or the abyss, hell, monsters. A deep psychological analysis then reveals the irruption of an archetype, e.g., the Terrible Devouring Mother, whose psychic attraction is so great because of its energetic charge that the ego complex, unable to withstand it, "sinks" and is "swallowed up."
Since Luca's Edenic state had been shattered by his acquisition of knowledge (the knowledge of the bourgeois economy so distasteful to Moravia's heroes), he experiences a sense of alienation and guilt very much like Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. According to Neumann, to be forced from a state of containment like this is traumatic for the individual, who experiences the change as rejection:
In reality we are dealing with the existential fact that the ego and individual that emerge from a phase of containment, whether in a gradual and imperceptible process of development or in sudden "birth," experience the situation as rejection. Consequently, we find a subjective experience of distress, suffering, and helplessness in every crucial transition to a new sphere of existence. Wherever an old situation of containment ends or is ended, the ego experiences this revolution, in which an old shell of existence is burst, as rejection by the mother.
Ultimately, the story of La Disubbidienza can be restated as Luca's quest for a wholeness, originally enjoyed in prelapsarian times. The rupture from this totality is experienced thereafter as a rejection by the mother and a nostalgia for the paradise lost. The quest to recover the lost bliss will lead to experiences involving the mother or anima image by way of projection. These images are reflected in both the governess and the nurse, although the former resembles more the Terrible Mother because of her aggressive and destructive aspects. We are reminded by Jung:
The anima is an archetype that is always present. The mother is the first carrier of the anima-image, which gives her a fascinating quality in the eyes of the son. It is then transferred, via the sister and similar figures, to the beloved.
As has been observed before, Luca is not unlike other Moravian heroes who, after a struggle with their peculiar kind of alienation come to accept life on its own terms. In La Noia Dino emerges from his bout with death reconciled with reality, which he is able to contemplate without his previous compulsion to incorporate it. In La Disubbidienza a similar change has occurred and, in accordance with this, the emphasis in the final chapter is on Luca's gentle surrender to the flow of life, conceived as a stream or current reminiscent of the stream in H. Hesse's Siddhartha, where a similar serenity about life is also the final conquest.
The train which takes Luca to the Italian Alps (his being carried into the train is symptomatic of his newly acquired submissiveness) is no longer the symbol of a life against which man, in his despair, cries out without being heard. With its rhythmic pulsations on the track-ties, the train speaks to Luca in a new language, an indication that communication with the world has been restored: "il frastuono delle ruote gli sembrò una voce monotona ed esaltata che ripetesse sempre le stesse parole . . . " Luca understands this is the rhythm of life itself pressing forward and that to let the train take him is to abandon himself to the flow of life. This surrender, it should be noted, is not to be construed as Sanguineti's negative "abbandono della lotta." Sanguineti's argument here is that this final surrender by Luca contradicts Moravia's original intention to solve his problem in a positive way. In rejecting this opinion, I suggest that we try to see Luca's new attitude as consonant with the existentialist's refusal to find a rational explanation for all the realities of life and to reconcile all the world's absurdities, an irrational response to the excessive, authoritarian rationalism of the positivistic age.
Thus, the final mood with which the book closes is one of acceptance and hope for the future. This is reflected even in the landscape, which makes its fleeting yet appealing appearances during the journey to the North, whereas in the earlier parts of the novel it was depicted as sombre and gray, in correspondence with Luca's state of depression. Hope is also implicit in the train's upward progress, as it climbs to the higher elevation of the Alps.
This ascent, we should not fail to note, is a physical expression of the spiritual tenor of this final part of the narrative and recalls to mind other ascensions, namely those symbolized in the two dreams and in Luca's initiations. The image of the train entering the darkness of the tunnel and issuing into the light of day restates in a different form the same notion of transcendence. With the exit from the tunnel image we can associate the symbols of liberation usually pertaining to ecstatic experiences. Such a reading, which stresses the liberation aspect of transcendence, is also in keeping with the existential humus peculiar to Moravia's writing. At the start of the story, we noticed that Luca's existential problem stemmed from his realization that others viewed him as an object, his existence predetermined by parents and society. Now, as a consequence of his rebirth and new outlook, he feels liberated in his newly gained status as an "être-en-soi."
As has been made evident in the preceding pages, the paradigm observed by Moravia in structuring this story is that of the hero cycle. It proceeds from alienation to regeneration achieved in a "symbolic death" (or descensus ad inferos) and to an eventual reintegration into society and life. The proper interpretation of Luca's dreams is most important if we wish to penetrate the significance of the novel in all its psychological aspects. When analyzed as symbols of transcendence and ascension, the oneiric contents of both dreams are in perfect accord with the general thrust of the novel, and are confirmed by the meanings inherent in the images with which the story ends. Even the final words of La Disubbidienza reiterate this motif: "Poi, con un altro fischio, il treno riuscì nella luce del giorno ... " We seem to hear in these words the distant echo of the closing lines of Dante's Inferno, which mark the end of a descensus and the beginning of a transcendence.
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SOURCE: A review of Erotic Tales, in The Times Literary Supplement, December 20, 1985, p. 1464.
[In the following review, Mars-Jones faults the collected stories in Erotic Tales as "morbid and facile."]
The Italian title of Alberto Moravia's [Erotic Tales] has no pretensions to eroticism: it translates as The Thing And Other Stories. The translator, or whoever it was that came up with the more selling title, can't altogether be blamed. There is in many of these stories a heavy sexual preoccupation, though Moravia can be cleared of any charge of seeking to provoke undue enjoyment.
"The Thing," once the title story and still in first place, shows Moravia at his most lurid and trivial. It portrays the relationship between two women called Diana and Margherita. Here's Margherita:
She was standing under the portico of the villa with her legs apart, her hands on her hips. Tall and thickly built with a chequered shirt, big-buckled belt, white polo pants and black boots; I don't know why—perhaps it was her arrogant pose—but she reminded me of Diana's father that time we saw him in the country on his farm. I looked her in the face. Under the round mass of dark, kinky hair, her unusually low forehead came down like a helmet on two small, sunken and penetrating eyes. The tiny snub nose and pouting but thin-lipped mouth made me think of the snout of certain large apes. In short, she was a giantess, a female freestyle wrestler, the kind you see on television grabbing each other's hair, kicking each other in the mouth, bouncing with both feet on the stomach of their opponents.
Wow. An arrogantly posing freestyle wrestler with strong overtones of ape and of her own dear Dad. It's not hard to work out what Diana sees in her.
The reader waits in vain for this preposterous fantasy to be subverted—for a voice like Alasdair Gray's narrator in 1982, Janine to silence imaginary objections with "Shut up . . . there must be at least ONE lesbian like this in the world." Not a bit of it. It turns out that Margherita, above and beyond her physical appeal, has a specific technique for binding Diana to her: she forces Diana to pleasure a beautiful blond pony.
In theory, "The Thing" is saved from offensiveness by its being narrated by another gay woman, Ludovica, who is telling the story in a letter to her absent lover Nora: "Yes, Diana and her girlfriend had got together not to love each other like we do, no, but to adore in the pony the eternal phallus, symbol of degradation and slavery." "The Thing" contains good lesbians as well as bad ones, so it must be a balanced piece of work, right? Well, no. Quite apart from the second-person narrative showing an ineptness startling in so experienced a writer ("Your mother, an attractive, worldly widow ... " and so on), the descriptions of non-perverse love-making have a queasy tone that can't entirely be the translator's contribution: things close convulsively on cheeks like traps of muscular flesh, people tuck into love food.
But what shows "The Thing" up as a piece of insulting ludicrousness is its final paragraph. Margherita takes a shine to Ludovica, seeing in her a winning addition to the perverted gymkhana. She suggests that Ludovica replace Diana. Ludovica refuses. But as the coda of her letter admits, the offer had its charms. "I was almost tempted to give in to her. I would have done so precisely because she was repugnant, because I did find her, as you put it, horrendous, because she did want me to take Diana's place .. . ". The status quo is comfortably reinstated, since the good lesbian turns out to have her own niggling weakness for pony-worship.
Moravia doesn't explore sexuality so much as go in for perfunctory diagnostics. Only one story treats erotic life in anything approaching three dimensions, and that is "The Belt" A woman wakes up one morning still smarting from a social humiliation inflicted on her by her husband the night before. She strikes him and taunts him, aware that she is somehow leading him on to beat her with his belt, originally a present to him from her, with a tender inscription on its buckle. On previous occasions that he has whipped her with the belt, she has let out a thin querulous moan quite at odds with her normal voice: "Even while I'm making it, this sound amazes me because I sense in it a whole part of myself that I feel I don't know." This morning, though, her husband resists her provocations.
In turn that morning she pays calls on her mother, her father, and a mechanic with whom she has had an intermittent affair. She needles them all, trying to provoke them to some definitive act. This destructive pattern becomes human when she describes how her father once saved her from drowning: since she was hanging on to his neck so tightly that she was endangering them both, he had to knock her out with a punch before he could do any lifesaving. That punch thereafter symbolizes for her a saving violence, an outrage within a disaster which makes survival possible. All morning she tries to detonate a similar discharge.
Defeated, she returns home, and finds that her husband has hung the belt on a nail by the bed. She finds this at first terrifying, then purely repugnant. It occurs to her it may be no more than an affectionate warning; and finally she finds it comforting, since now that the belt's status has in some way been dramatized, she and her husband can at least talk about it over lunch. For once, Moravia presents sexual behaviour not as pure negative appetite but as a complex symbolic negotiation, in which apparently destructive impulses may constitute a kind of victory.
Montaigne, in his essay prompted by some lines of Virgil, proposes that for moderation's sake an old man should dwell on lascivious thoughts and cultivate sexual obsessiveness—raking through the ashes for whatever heat remains—just as a young man should train himself away from having a one-track mind. Moravia, now well on in his seventies, may be attempting a similar project by focusing so narrowly on erotic life; but the results, however revivifying to the writer, are likely to strike the reader as both morbid and facile.
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SOURCE: "The Upper Middle Classes are Restless," in The New York Times Book Review, January 5, 1986, p. 6.
[In the following review, Cancogni faults the stories in Erotic Tales as lacking "that playful self-consciousness, that narrative delight and that titillating suggestiveness" that would justify the collection's title. ]
A lesbian's obsession with what she euphemistically calls "the thing" enslaves her to a pony. A nurse's morbid fascination with what she somewhat blasphemously terms "the Unknown God" leads her to the unwitting murder of one of her patients. A widower's desperate search for his lost wife eventually brings him to the realization that what he really wants, after all, is what his wife shares with thousands of other women of the same age and build: "While it's impossible to replace a face, the genitals, on the other hand, have certain physical similarities, are interchangeable." A woman longingly caresses the belt with which her husband—in an excess of refined sadism—no longer whips her. A pedophilic scientist sells his soul to a devil who is disguised as a provocative little girl. According to Alberto Moravia, a writer is someone who is not afraid to knock down taboos to venture into unexplored territories.
To this day, Mr. Moravia, now in his late 70's, remains the most widely read and filmed Italian novelist, one of Italy's major export commodities. Of course, there is a reason for this. From his very first book, Gli Indifferenti of 1929 (translated into English as The Time of Indifference), Mr. Moravia has been the spokesman of his age, a committed ideologist of the various traumas and malaises that have affected modern society, with particular emphasis on the upper middle class (generally represented by the Roman bourgeoisie) and its complex sexuality, which he sees as a symptom of the fundamental alienation of modern man.
The original Italian title (borrowed from the first tale) was La Cosa, and, as we shall see, there were good reasons for it. Why has it been translated, or rather transformed, into Erotic Tales? To what extent, in fact, are the tales in this collection erotic?
If one accepts Roland Barthes's definition of the erotic as suggestively sketched in The Pleasure of the Text—"It is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces or, rather, the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance"—if one accepts this, none of the 20 tales in the collection are, strictly speaking, erotic.
The first six tales, all fairly long, deal quite explicitly with different forms of sexual obsession. Nothing is suggested, nothing is left to the imagination. No room for eros or desire. As the title of the first story clearly indicates, sex is "The Thing," at worst an object, at best a fetish. In any case, sex is reified, named, that is to say, mechanized, deeroticized, theorized.
The first story could be read as an antifeminist treatise. Even lesbians, it tells us, are obsessed with The Thing, the Phallus. The second story is a more delicate variation on the same theme: if woman does not want to become a murderess, she must maintain a relationship of mystic veneration with the male member. In this phallocentric universe, women are either reduced to their sex (the "thing" the inconsolable widower of the third story yearns to recover) or pulverized out of existence—which amounts to the same thing, as the fate of the devilish female in "The Devil Can't Save the World" shows. In either case, men end up alone, meditating under the stars.
The remaining 14 tales (all much shorter than the first six) are not openly concerned with sex; they deal with other "things," other obsessions, other dysfunctions, from a morbid interest in guns to the nuclear extermination of ants; from the fear of stuttering to the need to strangle. Only the objects change—the characters remain essentially the same (down to the descriptions of their features), as do their problems, and the plots of their stories are mostly built around more or less obsolete literary stereotypes: the mask, the devil, the painter (confronting the reality of his painting), the double, the dream within the dream, the epistolary narrative, the perpetually elusive line between fiction and reality. Unfortunately, however, neither the expressionistic style nor the ideological import of the stories allows any of these literary ploys to transcend its station and soar into the more rarefied, atmosphere of parody. Though the English translation lends a lighter gait to Mr. Moravia's thick-ankled prose, the language of these stories remains pedestrian: they are written (and read) without pleasure. In other words, they lack that playful self-consciousness, that narrative delight and that titillating suggestiveness that would justify the title of Erotic Tales. Rather, the starkness of their style, the recurrence of their themes, the scabrous, nightmarish quality of their vision and their ill-concealed moralism would better fit under the generic rubric of case histories.
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SOURCE: A review of Erotic Tales, in Studies in Short Fiction, Summer, 1987, pp. 315-16.
[In the following review, Cushman finds the first six longer stories in Erotic Tales explicit rather than erotic, and the remaining fourteen shorter stories skimpy and unconvincing.]
Erotic Tales seems to demonstrate that even grand old men of Italian literature sometimes get horny. For almost sixty years Alberto Moravia has been Italy's chronicler of modern urban life, his novels and stories filled with characters driven by lust, greed, and ambition. Of the twenty stories in this mistitled collection, only the first six are specifically sexual. But these stories are very specifically sexual and have lust enough for the entire volume. Erotic Tales, written in a style both matter-of-fact and dreamlike, provides the opportunity to read quietly lurid stories about bestiality, incest, pedophilia, and sadomasochism while managing to remain more or less respectable.
Some of these stories can be accused of being phallocentric. In "The Thing," the thing in question belongs to a pony. Two lesbians "adore in the pony the eternal phallus, symbol of degradation and slavery." In "To the Unknown God," the unknown god in question belongs to male patients in a hospital. A nurse named Marta likes "to stroke a patient's penis lightly through the sheet for a reason that's got nothing to do with vice." But Moravia does give equal time to both sexes in his fetishizing of genitalia. (I thought I'd never say that in print.) In "The Woman with the Black Cloak," a bereaved widower goes to Capri, fantasizing that he will meet his dead wife or someone like her:
All he has to do, he thinks, is find a blonde woman between twenty and thirty, shapely but not fat, with very white, oval buttocks. They will become lovers: one day he will ask her to stand up against a railing, bend forward and lift her dress up over her waist. Then he will stretch two fingers down between her buttocks and separate the lips of her vulva like two petals of a flower and for just a moment before penetration he will once again have the open wound before his eyes.
The main character in "The Devil Can't Save the World" is obsessed with the pudenda of pre-pubescent girls. The characters in these stories are helpless before the compulsions that drive and control them.
The fourteen much shorter stories that complete the book are about guns and ants and dreaming, stutterers and painters and the devil, blocked memory and the urge to strangle. These negligible stories are skimpy and unconvincing and seem, well, anti-climactic after the six long, highly sexual stories.
Moravia said in a recent interview that he is interested in "the very close relationship that sex has with other human activities. My fiction doesn't describe sex but rather describes this relationship: for instance, the relation between sex and politics, between sex and power, between sex and social class, between sex and culture, and so on." Erotic Tales must be something of a departure, for the first six stories are insistently devoted to conveying the nature of sexual compulsion. If Moravia can be taken seriously (and I rather doubt that he can), he seems to be saying no more than that we are very much slaves to our passions.
The translator (or more likely, the publisher), not Moravia, labeled these stories erotic. That adjective doesn't really seem to apply to tales that are explicit rather than suggestive, grim rather than playful, portentous rather than mysterious. But forgive me, it's been a difficult year, some of these stories gave me a bit of a buzz anyway.
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SOURCE: "'La Faccia da cameriere': An Existential Glance at Two of Moravia's Waiters," in Homage to Moravia, edited by Rocco Capozzi and Mario B. Mignone, Forum Italicum, 1993, pp. 97-111.
[In the following essay, LeBlanc explores the existential significance of two waiters in Moravia's "Pensatore" and "Le Sue giornate."]
Jean-Paul Sartre has left us some memorable characters. There is the ontologically stricken Roquentin of La Nausée, the existentially redeemed Mathieu of Les Chemins de la liberté, and the disturbingly condemned trio of Garcin, Inès and Estelle who appear in Huis clos. But in addition to these fictional heroes and/or anti-heroes who inhabit the world of Sartre's belles lettres, there is another figure who may be nearly as well-known and certainly as important in terms of the overall perspective of Sartrean thought, although he appears only briefly in one of the author's non-literary, daunting and difficult philosophical works. The café waiter, from the often anthologized "mauvaise foi" chapter of L'Être et le néant, survives among Sartre's leading dramatis personae because of the importance of the concept he is marshalled forth to illustrate. Appearing in such English language texts as Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre and Existential Psychoanalysis, the chapter on bad faith is often the only exposure that the casual reader of Sartre gets to the dense complexity of the philosopher's lengthy phenomenological examination of being. Hence, the relative notoriety of the anonymous employee of the Café Flore or the Deux Magots in the early '40s, plucked from the everyday environment of a writer who was searching for an exemplary figure through which to illustrate his notion of mauvaise foi.
Alberto Moravia, in his Racconti romani (a collection published in 1954, ten years after the French edition of L'Etre et le néant), presents two more waiters who are of some exemplary importance for an existential inquiry. They are Alfredo, "[II] Pensatore," and Gigi, the star of the tale entitled "Le Sue giornate": two working class types from Moravia's Roman world who . . . embody quite extensively, and certainly more dramatically, the abstract conceptual trappings of Sartrean mauvaise foi. Not that I wish to propose that the French philosopher exercised any overt influence on the work of the Italian writer. Connections between Sartre's brand of existentialism and that of Moravia's fiction have been often suggested, but usually dismissed—a phenomenon most easily attributed to Moravia's own disavowal of any Sartrean philosophical roots. Furthermore, as Giose Rimanelli observantly puts it: "Whether or not Moravia gives place to volition in his universe, so highly psychologically and materialistically determined, is a point that is ambiguous" ["Moravia and the Philosophy of Personal Existence," Italian Quarterly, 1967]. Indeed, more often than not, Moravia's protagonists seem to be the unlucky victims of a cruelly ironic fate, their best efforts to improve their lot yielding results that are nearly the exact opposite of what they initially set out to achieve. Whether or not these failures (which, by the way, are far more pervasive in the densely narrative Racconti than in the more slowly-developing and descriptive novels) are intended by Moravia to be somehow attributable to willfulness and/or some kind of self-induced psychological blindness [i.e. bad faith] on the part of his characters is difficult to ascertain, although the ironic distance that one senses between the author of the tales and their "heroes" suggests the plausibility of such a reading. Determinism has no place in Sartre's universe, of course, except insofar as one might embrace such a notion in an effort to deny the responsibility of one's freedom. But it is, in fact, precisely at this locus of determinism as denial, of deterministic causality as mauvaise foi, that "Il Pensatore" and "Le Sue giornate" yield their most cogent existential messages. Whether or not Moravia is a writer of Sartrean bent is a moot point, for the two camerieri of the Racconti romani serve nonetheless as excellent case studies and paradigms for the further development of the theory first set forth by Sartre with the introduction of his own garçon de café.
"Il Pensatore," like most of Moravia's formulaic Racconti romani and Nuovi racconti romani (one hundred thirty tales in all), begins with a first person narrator introducing himself. He is a waiter at the Trasteverine restaurant "Marforio," whose name, the reader later discovers, is Alfredo. Alfredo describes himself as "[un] cameriere dentro come di fuori . . . ero proprio un cameriere perfetto." He attributes his virtual embodiment of waiterly perfection to his "testa vuota e sonora come quelle conchiglie che si trovano in riva al mare e il verme che ci stava dentro da chissà quanto tempo è morto." In other words, Alfredo's head merely echoes the demands of his customers, without evaluating them. He passes no judgement, hears no insult, registers no complaint: "Insomma, non pensavo niente." More exactly, he maintains, "avevo la testa congelata come l'acqua di certi laghetti di montagna che a primavera, sotto il sole, da ghiaccio che era ridiventa acqua e un bel mattino ricomincia a muoversi e ad incresparsi sotto il vento." The reason for this discarding of one metaphor for another, which the narrator deems more precise, will become apparent as the story progresses. As for any outward appearance of waiterliness, Alfredo recalls the words of one of his customers: "Ma guarda quel cameriere lì che faccia di cameriere che ci ha .. . quello per esempio non potrebbe essere che cameriere . . . è nato cameriere, e morirà cameriere . . . ". Alfredo provides his own gloss of the patron's observation:
Come poi sia la faccia da cameriere, vall'a sapere. Probabilmente la faccia da cameriere è proprio la faccia che piace ai clienti: i quali non hanno da avere la faccia da clienti perchè non hanno da piacere a nessuno, mentre i camerieri, se vogliono continuare a fare i camerieri, hanno da avere proprio la faccia da camerieri.
In short, Alfredo looks and acts like a waiter, echoing faithfully the words and wishes of his customers, wearing the appropriate facial expression, and thus playing perfectly the role that satisfies all the customers' expectations.
Sartre's waiter plays a role as well. The philosopher's description of the anonymous figure reads as follows:
His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tightropewalker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game .. . he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things . . . he is playing at being a waiter in a café.
Sartre's waiter is aiming at an ideal: the essence of waiter. We must be careful here, however. The "us" to which the waiter's behavior seems a "game" is also a kind of ideal, or at least a specially limited group, for it comprises Sartre, the observing phenomenologist, and his readers, together engaged in an act of philosophical inquiry. This is not the usual lunch crowd. While it is true that the server's voice and eyes, undoubtedly like those of Moravia's Alfredo, are solicitous, it is unlikely that they are "too solicitous for the order of the [average] customer." Such an excess of solicitude could hardly earn the waiter any acclaim as a "cameriere perfetto," as Sartre himself seems to suggest as he continues:
[T]he waiter in the café plays with his condition in order to realize it. This obligation is not different from that which is imposed on all tradesmen. Their condition is wholly one of ceremony. The public demands of them that they realize it as a ceremony; there is the dance of the grocer, of the tailor, of the auctioneer, by which they endeavor to persuade their clientele that they are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor. A grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer. Society demands that he limit himself to his function as a grocer, just as the soldier at attention makes himself into a soldierthing with a direct regard that does not see at all, which is no longer meant to see, since it is the rule and not the interest of the moment which determines the point he must fix his eyes on (Being and Nothingness).
Thus, the role that the café waiter must play and that he must attempt to "realize" is not a part along the lines of Hamlet, Virginia Wolf, or perhaps that of some older family member who was a waitperson before him. Rather he must aim for the being of a rock, or more precisely, as Sartre puts it, an "automaton," displaying the "quickness and pitiless rapidity of things": being-in-itself. The "faccia da cameriere" is a face whose eyes do not really see, or at least do not seem to see beyond the world of the waitercustomer situation, like those of "the soldier at attention . . . [who] makes himself into a soldier-thing." Clearly, if a waiter appears "too solicitous" to the customer, he is a bad actor and will fail to persuade the customer to suspend his/her disbelief. He will cease to be perceived as a being that is in-itself, betraying the reality of his being-foritself—a free consciousness. Hardly a "cameriere perfetto."
It is this smooth reflecting of the patrons' expectations of a waiter qua waiter-in-itself that is the key to Alfredo's initial success.
"Basta," Alfredo concludes, utilizing the word that often marks the transition between the protagonist's introduction and the commencement of the intrigue in Moravia's highly structured tales, "per un anno filato non pensai mai nulla ed eseguii gli ordini che mi davano i clienti." Then things begin to change, or rather Alfredo begins to change. He begins to "think." As he phrases it: "Comincio una sera, proprio come il ghiaccio che, al sole, si squaglia e ridiventa acqua che si muove e scorre," repeating the melting ice metaphor. A particularly boorish customer complains harshly that Alfredo has brought him the wrong dish, a mistake that the relentlessly recording brain of the waiter par excellence could not possibly have engendered. Alfredo reacts:
[I]nvece di limitarmi, come al solito, ad echeggiare le sue parole, mi sorpresi a dirmi: "Ma guarda che faccia di caprone ci ha questo cornuto." Non era un gran pensiero, lo riconosco, ma per me era importante perché era la prima volta che pensavo da quando servivo nel ristorante.
The waiter's consciousness shakes itself awake with an insult, one that is aimed at a customer's face. Moreover, the birth of thought for this self-proclaimed waiter/robot arises in response to what he regards as an insult on the part of the customer. Alfredo begins to exceed his limits as a waiter ("invece di limitarmi"), at least for himself. He returns from the kitchen with the irate customer's revised order: "[P]ensai di nuovo: 'Tie' .. . e che tu possa strozzarti.' Un secondo pensiero, come noterete, anche questo non è un gran pensiero, ma, insomma, un pensiero." As narrator, the waiter marks this event with further clarification of what he intends by "pensare": "Da quella sera cominciai a pensare, voglio dire che cominciai a fare una cosa e a pensarne un'altra, che è poi, credo, quello che si chiama, appunto, pensare."
Alfredo's silent, cerebral rebellion continues for some time. About one customer he thinks: "'Ci hai baffetti, bella mia . . . te li scolorisci, ma si vedono lo stesso'"—about another: "'Cretino, scemo, morto di fame, ti si possa seccare la lingua, li mortacci tuoi'"—about another: "'In faccia a te, brutto scemo.'" It is noteworthy that much of this abuse is directed at the diners' faces. It is also noteworthy that the waiter's thoughts seem to be out of his control: "Era più forte di me, mi bollivano continuamente nella testa, come fagioli dentro una pentola."
Unfortunately for Alfredo, this sudden mania for silently speaking his mind begins to intensity. Soon, in fact, his deprecatory comments to customers are no longer silent: "Ora, tutto ad un tratto, scoprii che queste frasi non le finivo più con la mente bensì con le labbra, seppure in tono più basso, anzi bassissimo, in modo da non essere udito." As is the case with his thinking per se, the narrator intimates that this quiet mouthing of derogatory phrases is somehow beyond his control. All of a sudden, he "discovers" that he is speaking.
From this moment on in the tale, as the reader might suspect, the protagonist's tumble from the professional pinnacle of "cameriere perfetto" becomes more and more rapid. It is a short step for Alfredo from this lip-synching of what he thinks to clearly spoken verbal abuse ad alta voce. One evening, his comment "'[c]he faccia da burino,'" directed as usual at one of the restaurant's patrons, is overheard by the customer's companion, who, in the throes of uncontrollable laughter, repeats Alfredo's words to her not-so-amused friend. The fellow confronts Alfredo with an accusation that the waiter fervently denies, although he cannot restrain himself from murmuring once again: "'Sì, proprio una faccia da burino.'" Alfredo's boss steps in finally to appease the customer and to serve warning to the waiter that further such behavior will not be tolerated.
"Ormai non pensavo quasi più: parlavo . . . Intanto il padrone non mi additava più ad esempio, anzi mi guardava storto." Alfredo, as waiter, continues his decline, a fall from ontological grace that reaches bottom one evening when he must serve a table of ten rowdy revellers, who, in addition to other behavioral traits that irk Alfredo, "[d]avano .. . del tu a tutti." Being addressed with "tu" is particularly provocative to the waiter, who "cannot help" but mumble "beccamorto" more than once to the gentleman at the head of the table, as well as referring to the women present as "galline." Once again Alfredo's superior intervenes, but this time, while leading the waiter away by the arm, he addresses Alfredo with "tu"—a pronouncement that draws still another "beccamorto" from the cameriere's now uncontrollable lips. After his dismissal, Alfredo finds himself in the street, still in the grasp of the verbal devil that seems to have possessed him: "le labbra mi si muovevano mio malgrado, senza che potessi impedirlo." In the end, he dubs a policeman "beccamorto" and is jailed. Oddly enough, as the story concludes after his release from prison, Alfredo's head is once again "congelata" and, after he narrowly escapes being crushed by traffic, the words of an angry motorist ring through the exwaiter's benumbed mind: "la mia testa eccheggiava fedelmente, tale e quale come un anno prima: 'Morto di sonno . . . morto di sonno . . . morto di sonno . . . '".
In what way is the waiter of Moravia's tale in bad faith? And what does Sartre's philosophical text tell us about Alfredo's plight?
First of all, it is important to note that "Il Pensatore" is in some ways an allegory of the birth of consciousness, the eruption of the for-itself into the undifferentiated density of the world of things—the in-itself. The narrator's use of the melting ice metaphor is telling. Sartre, in his discussion of the slimy (le visqueux), suggests that the relationship between solid ice and water is emblematic of the dynamics between in-itself and for-itself in human reality. Speaking of the slimy, the philosopher remarks: "it represents in itself a dawning triumph of the solid over the liquid—that is, a tendency of the indifferent in-itself, which is represented by the pure solid, to fix the liquidity, to absorb the for-itself which ought to dissolve it" (Being and Nothingness). Of course, it is not the slimy that is at work on the allegorical level of "II Pensatore," but rather its reverse: liquid at first threatens to and later actually does consume solid. In fact, this onset of free consciousness, of for-itself, is so intense that the liquid is in danger of becoming vapor (Alfredo's thoughts "bollivano"). The waiter, by thinking and soon thereafter acting (not in his capacity of robotic waiter-thing, but as a free subjectivity), exceeds the limits of his role. This overt demonstration of subjectivity through a display of consciousness is troubling to his clientele, as I remarked earlier, even setting aside for a moment the insulting content of this subjective overflow. Glancing once again at Sartre's discussion of the scripted ceremony of one's condition, we read: "There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition" (Being and Nothingness). Alfredo, through his hostile, verbal escape from his condition as passive waiter-object for the Other, becomes an in-itself runs amuck in the eyes of his customers and boss: an object undermined by freedom, a being that is human, all too human.
What's more, the focus for this ontological attack is, not surprisingly, the diners' faces. The waiter's look is no longer one "which does not see," his face no longer a "faccia da cameriere." Rather, Alfredo now responds as a person who is being ordered about by others for whom he has little respect. His look is one that uncovers an ontological truth and he communicates this knowledge through his unabashed speech. For Sartre, it is the Other's look that reveals to us our being-for-others, our status as object in the world of the Other—a conscious object, to be sure, but with a limited control of our beingin-the-world nonetheless:
[I]n order for me to be what I am, it suffices merely that the Other look at me. It is not for myself, to be sure; I myself shall never succeed at realizing this being-seated which I grasp in the Other's look. I shall remain forever a consciousness. But it is for the Other . . . Thus for the Other I have stripped myself of transcendence . . . Strictly speaking, it is not that I perceive myself losing my freedom in order to become a thing, but my nature is—over there, outside my lived freedom—as a given attribute of this being which I am for the Other (Being and Nothingness).
Alfredo, when he is a "good" waiter, play acts the role which his customers expect to see in him. He becomes what he is for the Other. When he later turns on them, he attempts to lay waste to their transcendence, to reduce them to what they are for him—a reality totally outside their control: they become rude customers. It is the diner's face that he strikes at, that "faccia da cliente" that is not necessary as long as the "faccia da cameriere" does not see, but that becomes a look to be reduced to an ontologically fixed status, a look to be neutralized by a waiter who has had enough of his customers' faces. Even the chorus of "beccamorto" that Alfredo intones at the climax of his rebellion bespeaks the underlying object of his aggression. A "beccamorto" handles the dead: others with faces that no longer look, that betray the in-itself that the corpses have become. Moreover, the initial element of the compound—"becca"—metonymically suggests a bird's face void of human consciousness (and thus of ontological threats), as well as providing a signifying link between the "beccamorto" at the head of the table of ten and the "galline" who dine with him.
Alfredo ends up in prison. Having uncontrollably busted out of his role as waiter, he can no longer be a waiter. In fact, he is dismissed. Then, unable to maintain the role of the respectful citizen, he is quickly dismissed from that stage as well. In allegorical terms, it can be said that the policeman who arrests Alfredo functions as the Other, whose relentless look constantly reminds us of the limitation that the Other's existence firmly imposes on our freedom through its engendering of our being-for-others: "the Other's existence brings a factual limit to my freedom" (Being and Nothingness). It is perhaps for this reason that Alfredo decides to readopt his passive role-playing upon being released from prison, seeing the radical impossibility of living otherwise. Words echo in his head once again, but the repeated "morto di sonno," with which the narration comes to a close, serves as a reminder that Alfredo's consciousness is not really dead, but only sleeping. Sartre maintains that: "Nothingness [which consciousness brings into the world] lies coiled in the heart of being—like a worm" (Being and Nothingness). The "verme" in the "conchiglia" (which is Alfredo's head) may once again come to Ufe.
Which brings us to the question of Alfredo's bad faith. In truth, he decides to readopt the passive persona of echoing automaton after his release from prison. From a Sartrean point of view, how could such a transformation be accomplished otherwise? Furthermore, Alfredo's overall attitude towards his behavior—the attributing of his performance of waiterly duties to some kind of machine-like nature and his repeated assertions that his sudden "thoughtful" conduct, which threatens to undercut his role as waiter, is somehow beyond his control—is suspect. Returning to Sartre's garçon de café (whose shoes the narrative "I" now envisions himself filling), we read:
In vain do I fulfill the functions of a café waiter. I can be he only in the neutralized mode, as the actor is Hamlet, by mechanically making the typical gestures of my state and by aiming at myself as an imaginary café waiter through those gestures . . . What I attempt to realize is a being-in-itself of the café waiter, as if it were not just in my power to confer their value and their urgency upon my duties and the rights of my position, as if it were not my free choice to get up each morning at five o'clock or to remain in bed, even though it meant getting fired. As if from the very fact that I sustain this role in existence I did not transcend it on every side, as if I did not constitute myself as one beyond my condition (Being and Nothingness).
Thus, Alfredo's initial assertion that "per un anno filato non pensai mai nulla" indicates not so much an inability to think or an absence of thinking, but instead a denial that he thinks. As if it were not his free choice to passively echo the orders and rude comments of his customers or to angrily call them "beccamorto," Alfredo convinces himself that he actually is a dead-headed automaton (provided, of course, that we accept his narrative as sincere). He is denying his transcendence of the role he plays and conferring on his profession the existential status of the in-itself, which overcomes him as ice overcomes the liquidity of water. Later, as he beings to lose his grip on this bad faith notion of what he is, the threat of having to acknowledge his free transcendence of his situation is repulsed by a further denial that this transcendence is at all within his control (i.e., chosen). Alfredo replaces one bad faith attitude with another: at first, he treats his free choice as if it were a contingent fact; later, he treats his inability to preserve this first attitude as another contingent fact. The symptomology of the second stage of this neurotic sequence is highlighted by the narrator's signal use of the phrase "non potei fare a meno di" four times during his relating of this period of "thinking." This repetition suggests the phrase's function as a neurotic tic, which seeks to mask the truth of the narrator's existential condition with a thinly (but effectively for him) veiled bad faith falsehood.
After this somewhat lengthy examination of "Il Pensatore," our perusal of the second waiter story in Moravia's collection will be far less expansive. This is necessarily so, given the point of view of this study, for, as far as the existential analysis of the attitudes of the two waiters is concerned, "Il Pensatore" and "Le Sue giornate" are in many ways the same story. Gigi, the first person narrator and protagonist of the latter tale, could easily be an older, more advanced version of Alfredo, a waiter who has resurrected from his state of "morto di sonno" and for whom the "ghiaccio di lago" has permanently melted. His conduct, however, remains nonetheless marked by bad faith.
Gigi is a cameriere at an unidentified Roman café. He begins his tale, true to Moravia's short fiction formula, with a brief presentation of himself and the particular crisis that will provide the intrigue for the narrative which follows. In question here is the protagonist's reaction to the hot and oppressive Mediterranean wind, the scirocco: "Ai romani, dicono che lo scirocco non fa nulla: ci sono nati. Ma io sono romano . . . eppure lo scirocco mi mette fuori di me." As in the earlier story, the reader is presented with an opposition of inside/outside ("mi mette fuori di me") and a being which is in delicate balance between the two. In "Il Pensatore," the narrator describes himself as a "cameriere dentro come di fuori," whose ontological status both inside and outside will be put into question, his perception of his role shifting and cracking like the frozen lake that begins to thaw in the heat of the spring sun and "sotto il vento." In "Le Sue giornate," it is again heat and wind that, according to the narrator, lead to a destabilization of his persona as he perceives it, a turning inside out of his being. Gigi continues:
La mamma che lo sa, quando la mattina vede il cielo bianco e sente l'aria che appiccica e poi mi guarda e nota che ho l'occhio torbido e la parola breve, sempre si raccomanda, mentre mi vesto per andare al lavoro, "Sta' calmo . . . non ti arrabbiare . . . controllati." La mamma, poveretta, si raccomanda a quel modo perchè sa che in quei giorni, c'è il caso che io finisca in prigione o all'ospedale. Lei le chiama "le mie giornate." Dice alle vicine: "Gigi, stamani è andato via che aveva una faccia da far paura ... ah già, ci ha le sue giornate."
Already the reader can foresee events similar to those which occur in "Il Pensatore," and once again these forthcoming incidents will be provoked by the effect of some outside circumstance on the narrator's "character." In this case, it is the weather that will drive Gigi beyond the limits of the role he plays for other, that will put him "outside himself," as if he did not choose to constitute his beingfor-others in this way. Furthermore, he reveals this change in comportment through his look and his speech, his "occhio torbido e la parola breve": a change of attitude that is written all over his face, "una faccia da far paura"—hardly a "faccia che piace[rà] ai clienti."
Unlike Alfredo, who suddenly undergoes a mysterious transformation that seems to be both beyond his control and entirely unforeseen, Gigi knows exactly how he will react to the scirocco: "Sebbene sia piccolo, mingherlino e sfornito di muscoli, nei giorni di scirocco mi viene il prurito di attaccar briga o, come diciamo noi romani, di cercar rogna." As in Alfredo's case, however, this destabilizing attack on his attitude towards others manifests itself initially as a thought—a malicious thought that is often aimed at another's face:
Giro guardando gli uomini, sopratutto i più forzuti, e pensò: "Ecco, a quello con un pugno gli romperei il naso . . . quell'altro, vorrei vederlo saltare a forza di calci nel sedere .. . e questo? un paio di schiaffoni da gonfiargli il viso" (my emphasis).
It is not until the third paragraph of the story that we discover that Gigi is a waiter. Although he seems far more aware of the tenuous balance and psychological ramifications of the interpersonal logistics that his profession demands, Gigi, like Alfredo, understands the importance of playing the waiter role well, of aiming for the realization of his being as a waiter-thing, whose eyes look, but do not see:
Per colmo di disgrazia, ho scelto il mestiere che non ci voleva: il cameriere di caffè. I camerieri, si sa, devono essere gentili, qualunque cosa avvenga. La gentilezza per loro è come il tovagliolo che tengono sul braccio, come il vassoio sul quale portano la bibita: uno strumento del mestiere.
Clearly, Gigi is far more sensitive to having reduced himself to an object for others and he is far more willing to admit his desire to turn the tables on his customers than is Alfredo. He also seems to imply that controlling his retaliatory impulses is within his power, although the temptation to surpass the limits of his role shows itself on his face: "Con la mia sensibilità, la minima osservazione, il minimo sgarbo mi mette in furore. E invece, mi tocca ingoiare, inchinarmi, sorridere, strisciare. Ma mi viene un tic nervoso sulla faccia che è il segnale della mia bile." With the arrival of the scirocco, however, he will restrain his retaliation no longer, but will attribute this release of his grip on himself to a deterministic cause: the wind itself.
"Basta," Gigi concludes, signalling the tale's transition from its opening description to the plot itself. Outside of the nervous tic that manifests itself on his waiter's face, Gigi manages to control himself on the job, apparently having learned, unlike the more naive Alfredo, that a failure to do so could result in his dismissal. But armed with the scirocco as an excuse, it is in the Roman streets that the waiter will seek to do unto others what he feels they have been doing unto him. Feeling insecure about both his role as a café waiter and the slightness of his physical stature, Gigi awaits the opportunity to attack both verbally and physically a large, impolite stranger.
What happens is as follows. On the way to the tram which will take him to the café, a "thought" of the kind that obsessed Alfredo enters the mind of Gigi: "Una frase, sopratutto, mi ronzava nelle orecchie: 'Se non la pianti, ti faccio mangiare il tuo cappello.' Dove l'avevo sentita? Mistero: forse lo scirocco me l'aveva suggerita in sogno." It is perhaps the wind that causes this insult to echo in the mind of this hot-head, a further reinforcement of the excuse that will allow Gigi to make some randomly chosen other eat what the waiter wants him to eat. A robust and rude fellow on the warm and sticky tram addresses Gigi with "tu" and the waiter puts his plan into action. After shouting his prepared phrase "in faccia" and calling his antagonist "beccamorto," just for good measure, Gigi and the other man are separated by several bystanders who, as Gigi anticipated, take the side of the smaller man against the bully. Gigi escapes unscathed, apparently pulling off against an anonymous brute in the street what Alfredo was unable to manage against his boorish customers in the restaurant.
Arriving at work, the waiter boasts of his exploits, an account embellished to suit Gigi's own manufactured self-image, and "perfino il mestiere quel mattina [mi] piaceva." Near closing time, however, the man from the tram and a tough-looking companion show up, by chance, in the nearly deserted café and threaten to give Gigi "una mancia" as soon as the waiter gets off. Fear overcomes the protagonist and, in an effort to escape the beating he is sure to receive at the hands of the two surly patrons, he runs off with the café's cash box, knowing that he will be arrested by two carabinieri whom he spies patrolling the street. In effect, this is what takes place, although Gigi's boss "che aveva riavuto i soldi, da quel brav'uomo che era, si raccomandava: 'Lasciatelo, è stato un momento di follia'." The waiter will hear nothing of this reprieve, however, for: "meglio in galera che all'ospedale."
Both of Moravia's waiters are in bad faith. Both regard their own transcendence, their own freely chosen acts, as contingent phenomena which are beyond their control. Both deny to some extent the responsibility for their acts, although it is clear that the waiter in the second tale is more aware of his own free contribution to the situations in which he becomes entangled. Alfredo denies that his inability to remain in his role as the "cameriere perfetto" is within his control; Gigi blames the scirocco for his childish attempts to be tougher and less servile than his size and profession seem to allow.
It is interesting that both waiters end up in jail. Prison presumably cures Alfredo of his thinking, at least until the next time the ice, which is his somnolent consciousness, begins to creak and melt. Gigi escapes the physically painful consequences of his ill-advised shenanigans by being locked up as well. They both pay for the reckless exercise of their freedom with incarceration, which, ironically enough, allows them to escape the very situations that their hyper-extended being-for-others helped to create. This seemingly paradoxical outcome of the two tales is not inconsistent with the Sartrean notion of bad faith, however. As Sartre points out: "A person frees himself from himself by the very act by which he makes himself an object for himself.. . The goal of bad faith, as we said, is to put oneself out of reach; it is an escape" (Being and Nothingness). If Moravia's characters fail to escape themselves by hiding from their freedom behind a waiter's mask, a "faccia da cameriere" that suggests a being that is nothing but a waiter—that is, a waiter-in-itself without the existential freedom of consciousness—then perhaps the more concrete restriction of their physical freedom behind a jailhouse wall represents a last ditch attempt on their part to continue living a lie to themselves, to deny the freedom of their choices: the strategy Sartre terms bad faith.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3095
SOURCE: "Moravia and the Middle Class: the Case of 'Seduta spiritica,'" in Homage to Moravia, edited by Rocco Capozzi and Mario B. Mignone, Forum Italicum, 1993, pp. 141-50.
[In the following essay, Moss examines the non-class-specific alienation present in "Seduta spiritica."]
Moravia began to write about the middle class in 1927 with the short story "Cortigiana stanca," his first attempt at fiction to be published. It tells of the end of a depressing relationship between a woman and her younger lover who can no longer afford to keep her in the style she is used to and whose energy is absorbed in trying to "dominare il malessere che l'opprimeva." Hard upon its heels Gli indifferenti (1929) was also set in a middle-class milieu and dealt with similar problems, as was the case for other stories of the period such as "Inverno di malato" and "Fine di una relazione." But any analysis that sees this early fiction as a conscious attempt by Moravia to present a critique of middle-class life is necessarily conditioned by a retrospective view of the writer's ideas and literary production. The fact is that at stage in his development Moravia knew no other milieu than the bourgeois one he portrays and the sense of defeat, emptiness, futility and inertia which informs his early work represents a view of life in general not a judgement aimed specifically at the life style of the bourgeoisie. It represents, in other words, no elaborate consciousness of social divisions or class differences or of the shaping of man by history and environment. As Giancarlo Pandini has it, "i personaggi si muovono in un quadro privato."
Only later, when political experience, travel and observation of injustice in society have broadened the writer's consciousness, will we be able to see Moravia's fiction as consciously expressing or reflecting any kind of social or political commitment. This starts to be seen in Le ambizioni sbagliate, the less than successful long novel of 1935, but more especially in the Racconti surrealistici e satirici, first published in 1940 and 1944 and mingling stories of idiosyncratic or ordinary individual lives with message-bearing tales which often carry a powerful cutting edge. Examples of the latter are "L'epidemia," under which title the collection was later published, and more especially "Primo rapporto sulla terra dell Inviato speciale' della luna" where the moon visitor on earth simply cannot bring himself to believe that "foglietti di carta colorata o . . . pezzetti di metallo in forma tonda," money that is, can possibly be the real reason for the "diversità così enormi" in the way the different classes live. "Strano paese," he is forced to conclude, Overt class analysis, or at least juxtaposition, is also the hallmark of stories not part of this collection such as "Andare verso il popolo" (1944) and the short novel Agostino (1944) considered by some, for its delicate many-facetedness, to be the finest example of Moravia's fiction.
Anti-Fascism and growing sympathy with the working-class cause will lead Moravia in the immediate post-war period to concentrate much of his creative energy on writing not so much about the middle class, whether in terms of individual portrayals or to offer a social critique, as about characters and situations from proletarian life with the indignities, discomforts and oppressions inherent therein. So emerge La romana (1947), La ciociara (1957) and, more significantly in the context of the present study, the short stories of Racconti romani (1954) and Nuovi racconti romani (1959). These stories present a vivid gallery of characters, events and circumstances based on the writer's imaginative observation of the life of the capital, peopled in the main by "gente che vive in modo precario, in mezzo a mille difficoltà, a mille preoccupazioni, ricorrendo ad infiniti espedienti per chiudere la giornata in modo proficuo." Yet it would not be fair to say that these "racconti" have an explicit class bias or ideological message, even when, as in a story like "Romolo e Remo," they portray working-class poverty in its direst form. Remo, for whom "l'urgenza della fame non si può paragonare a quella degli altri bisogni," is shown tricking an expensive meal out of his old army friend Romolo who himself lives with his family in "miseria completa, assoluta." This tale, told in tragicomic vein, has an ambivalence towards its material which has led one critic to talk about Moravia's "negative sympathy" for the working class.
But to what extent does class sympathy or ideological commitment provide a key at all? To grasp the nature of these stories (and indeed of Moravia's post-war racconti in general) it is perhaps useful to consider that the writer had to say in 1958, in a piece he wrote entitled "Racconto e romanzo," in which he attempts to define the difference between the two genres. In a novel, he says, the characters "hanno .. . un lungo, ampio e tortuoso sviluppo che abbina il dato biografico a quello ideologico e si muovono in un tempo e in uno sgazio che sono insieme reali ed astratti, immanenti e trascendenti." Those of a short story, however, "son colti in un momento particolare, ben delimitato temporalmente e spazialmente, e agiscono in funzione di un determinato avvenimento che forma l'oggetto del racconto." They are "personaggi non ideologici, visti di scorcio o di infilata secondo le necessità di un'azione limitata nel tempo e nel luogo; .. . un intreccio che tragga la sua complessità dalla vita e non dall'orchestrazione di una ideologia purchessia." As literary theory goes, this is by no means an unchallengeable view and indeed many of Moravia's earlier stories are, as we have seen, informed precisely by that "ideologia" he here claims can form no part of the short story. But it is, I believe, a view that sheds a good deal of light on the forms Moravia himself gives to and the methods he uses in his own short stories, starting with the Racconti romani and going right through his collections over the following two decades (L'automa, Una cosa è una cosa, Il paradiso, Un'altra vita, Boh). If over this period he moves from working-class to middle-class settings for his stories, throughout his characters remain caught in that "momento particolare" and are never presented through any kind of ideologically slanted vision but "in funzione di un determinato avvenimento che forma l'oggetto del racconto." Any class-specific conclusions to be drawn from these stories are largely in the eye of the beholder and are far from being the explicitly present feature which they could be in earlier stories and which they are quite definitely in the longer works of the period such as Il conformista, La ciociara and then La noia. La noia is especially significant in that it marks the writer's return to his "existentialist" roots but with the added dimension now of a conscious critique of bourgeois society, a focus to be carried on with varying degrees of narrative success in later novels such as L'attenzione (1965), lo e lui (1971) and La vita interiore (1978).
That the distinction between "racconto" and "romanzo," theorized by Moravia, seems to hold with respect to his own fiction helps, I believe, in a correct interpretation of the "lone" short story entitled "Seduta spiritica" which was first published in 1960. This story did not and has never appeared in any volume of Moravia's collected "racconti." It was delivered by Moravia to Dina Rinaldi and Leone Sbrana, for inclusion in Racconti nuovi, a collection of short stories by various Italian writers of which they were the editors. It then appeared in another anthology of Italian short stories, Novelle del Novecento, published in Britain in 1966 and later brought out in the United States. This anthology has gone through several reprints since its first publication (the most recent in 1988) and, being widely read by aspirant and practicing Italianists in the English-speaking world, has for many been the way in which Moravia's writing was introduced to them. And the only critical word which, so far as I know, has been written on "Seduta spiritica" appears in the introduction to Novelie del Novecento where its editor, Brian Moloney, states: "Moravia's 'Seduta spiritica' is a satire on middle-class gullibility." He goes on to say that the story is representative of the theme of "the corruption of the bourgeoisie," which recurs often in Moravia's work.
It is hard, particularly for non-specialists, not to be influenced by cold print, especially when what they are reading is written by an expert whose views on a writer are based on far more than just a single story in an anthology. And my own experience of teaching and receiving reaction on Moravia is that readers of the stories in this anthology have rarely failed to be influenced by the judgement Moloney passes on "Seduta spiritica." Since this judgement is clearly at variance with Moravia's own literary theorizing on the nature of the short story and since this story has found itself in a formative role in introducing Moravia's fiction, a useful purpose seems to me to be served in taking a close look at "Seduta spiritica" and seeing if what we find in it bears out the interpretation Moloney provides for his readers. And if we find that it is not primarily about an aspect of what we have indeed seen to be one of the writer's common themes, "the corruption of the bourgeoisie," how does this story fit (or does it fit at all?) into the main areas of concern to be found in Moravia's fiction?
"Seduta spiritica" has neither characterization nor complexity of plot. It tells, in a first-person narrative, the story of an individual who arrives for a social gathering at the home of someone he does not know having been invited by a third party. He quickly realizes he has made a mistake and come to the wrong house but he resolves to stay and perhaps amuse himself at the expense of his hosts who have taken him for a medium about to conduct a seance. As things get more difficult, however, he decides to slip away. There is little "action" therefore and much of the story's flavour, attraction and readability lies in its depiction of milieu and the people in it. The house is described as the property of "gente ricca ma senza gusto, piena di quei mobili dorati fabbricati in serie che rimangono nuovi e stranieri fino al giorno in cui vengono rivenduti al rigattiere." The living room is "sfarzosamente illuminato" with ugly furniture "in stile Luigi quindici," the women are "ingioiellate" and the guests all wear "goffi vestiti." They are wealthy middle-class people, "professionisti e burocrati" as the narrator calls them, and from the way they are described it is easy to be drawn into empathy with the narrator's obvious distaste for their world and their life style. Even more so when with mocking terms like "solennità" and "ansiosi e compunti," to render their bearing and their attitude he tells us of their preparations for some strange ceremony of whose nature he is still unaware. Up to this point a reading of the story as "a satire on middle-class gullibility" would seem justified, but what happens after and in fact constitutes the bulk of the narrative, will, as we shall see, militate against such an interpretation.
As soon as he realizes the nature of the ceremony (i.e. that it is a seance), the narrator's attitude changes: "Allora provai una curiosa sensazione; come di vergogna per l'impulso di giuoco che mi aveva guidato fino a quel momento." He no longer feels like playing some kind of trick on these people but comes to reflect on the fact that, in their attempt to communicate with the supernatural, they are "degni piuttosto di rispetto che di scherno." He then goes on to compare his own situation with that of an explorer in a tropical forest who comes upon a native tribe engaged in a totemic ceremony. The explorer would not find the sight laughable and, despite the fact that the narrator's experience is taking place in a modern city, why should he laugh? Why after all should these people be denied their magic rites, their culture, any more than "negri seminudi"? This makes him begin to revise his position and a further analogy he now uses enables him to see them in a truly favourable light. He thinks of how a typical group of Italians thrown together socially would normally behave. They would be discussing economics or politics, each would be trying to outdo the other by talking as loudly as possible ("strilli" is the word used to describe the noise they would be making) and none would be listening to what the others had to say. Here, instead, he sees "facce tese e attente," here he sees people in genuine communion who do not feel the need to display their egos, even if it does take belief in some kind of magic to unite them in this way: "Così, riflettei, non ci voleva meno del soprannaturale, sia pure quello dei tavoli giganti, per riunire gli uomini e far tacere i loro egoismi."
At this point the tasteless decor and everything else that seemed to symbolize the defects of these people fade from the narrator's view as he is struck by the realization that what truly unites these people is not a belief in the supernatural at all but something that lies "fuori della casa," to be precise "la presenza della notte primitiva" and "il terrore di questa notte." The sentence in which he makes this discovery reads:
E per un momento i brutti mobili in stile Luigi quindici, i goffi uestiti, la luce elettrica, le pareti stesse della sala scomparuero dai miei occhi e io avvertii fuori della casa la presenza della notte primitiva, tenebrosa e infinita, e capii che ciò che riuniva quelle persone era il terrore di questa notte.
I have quoted it in full for it seems to me to be the very kernel of the story, the passage from which its fundamental meaning can be drawn. Twice in quick succession the word "notte" is used, qualified in the first case by words emphasizing negative features easily associated with it ("primitiva, tenebrosa e infinita") and connected in the second to the even stronger and more significant "terrore." This image of the dark night, fathomless and fearinspiring, replacing as it does concerns which are now made to seem trivial by comparison, points neither to a continuing desire on the part of the narrator to amuse himself at his hosts' expense nor to some kind of supernatural explanation as I have sometimes heard suggested, but to a statement of the dark terrifying alienation which the world outside means to man and his need to find some means of communing with others in order to escape from it. The shouting and not listening of people talking "economia e politica" has told us that everyday social intercourse precludes real communication between human beings. But here these believers in magic, for all that what they do may on the surface seem worthy of mockery, are managing by shared activity to overcome the alienated individualism which informs modern society and which inspires a profound feeling of terror in all those who are part of it, including, as we shall see, the narrator himself.
With this discovery the narrator decides he must find a way out of the situation which will be honorable both for himself and his audience. He does so by getting them to agree to put out the lights so that the skeptic he claims to know is present can leave. Then, since he is the skeptic, he is the one who slips away. But the story does not end here. On leaving the house he sees "una figura di uomo che guardava incerto al numero, sul pilastro," the real medium. He directs him in and then he goes off, as the final words of the story tells us, "nella notte"—"io mi allontanai nella notte." If further evidence were needed of the story's central point, it is here in this final "notte." This close presses home the theme present in the key sentence quoted earlier of life outside the walls of the house being dark and full of terror. And it is in this terror that man in modern society, symbolized now by the narrator, must live unless he can find the communion with others inherent in some kind of shared purpose or commonly-held belief. So the character who began the story as the superior being who could look down on others for their conformism, bad taste and gullibility, ends it as the unfortunate outsider, the one not lucky enough to be able to enjoy the unselfconscious association with others which would rescue him from the alienation and solitude of a hostile atomized environment.
This analysis makes it difficult to accept the view of the editor of Novelle del Novecento that "Seduta spiritica" reflects the concern found in Moravia's fiction with "the corruption of the bourgeoisie." The story seems to provide little evidence that the writer's concern is to put across a specifically class-based or ideological message. What Moravia does rather is to create a vividly drawn situation (I have already suggested that a good deal of the literary attraction of this story lies in its mocking depiction of milieu) in which believable interaction can take place between characters aiming at what the writer has elsewhere referred to as "la ricerca dell'assoluto." The principal aspect of that "assoluto" reflected here is the alienation of man in a world which presents itself to him as frightening and incomprehensible. To reduce this story's point to a criticism of middle-class values is both to relativize it and to see it in the shadow of Moravia's longer fiction of the Sixties which undeniably has a clearly delineated class-based dimension but whose genre, as far as Moravia is concerned, allows it to.
This non-class-specific alienation of "Seduta spiritica" links it to many of the other short stories of the time, in particular those collected in L'automa (1963), Both the theme of tormented noncommunication and the form in which it is expressed are echoed by stories such as "L'automa," "Il viaggio di nozze," "L'angoscia" and "La testa contro il muro." But, perhaps more importantly, "Seduta spiritica" also takes us back to Moravia's starting point in "Cortigiana stanca" and Gli indifferenti where the overwhelming sense of spiritual emptiness carried no conscious ideological implication. If Moravia was, as some critics have suggested, the father of European existentialism, then perhaps we can say that it is in his short stories especially that the echo of existentialism continued to be heard throughout the writer's long literary career.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4594
[In the following excerpt from his book-length critical study of Moravia, Peterson examines the author's youthful protagonists, particularly Agostino and Luca of Two Adolescents.]
SOURCE: "Tales of Adolescence," in Alberto Moravia, Twayne Publishers, 1996, pp. 35-54.
Discussing the large number of youthful protagonists in great literature, Moravia [in Vita] states, "The reason is simple and clear: the young person marries the maximum of passionate vitality with the maximum of ideals. Then there was a kind of revolution beginning with the 19th century, for which the narrator attributed a particular importance to what I would call the initiation of adolescence, and the age of the protagonists was lowered. In this sense my four novels of adolescence are four novels of initiation." With the exception of Indifference, these novels of initiation were written in the early 1940s: Agostino, La romana (The Woman of Rome), and La disubbidienza (Luca). A noted psychoanalytic critic has also called them "a trustful trilogy," given their positive approach to the problems of puberty. Certainly with these successes Moravia had dealt with the psychological problems of maturation with great subtlety and élan. Each work concerns the conflict of a soul struggling to break away from a social mechanism that seemingly restricts it by callousness, oppressiveness, and indifference. Although the youths these stories document are of differing ages, genders, and social backgrounds, together they constitute a definition of a type, the Italian adolescent. In fiction such a definition benefits from poetic ambiguity just as it depends on the introduction of realistic yet surprising contingencies that test each character's development. Whether relating a phantasm in his character's imagination or the symptoms of a genuine trauma, the solitude of privilege or the sexual frankness of the poor, Moravia is concerned with the psychosexual development of individuals in a stratified society. By rejecting the sensual vocabularies of decadentism (with its exalted concept of the self) and naturalism (with its suppression of modernistic interiority), Moravia actually arrives at a newly private and vulnerable brand of sensuality, without precedent in the Italian 20th century.
The thematic continuity that these works share was announced in "The Sick Boy's Winter," when the boy Girolamo, his stay in the sanatorium drawing to a close, sees his roommate Brambilla discharged and his passionate kissing of Polly fade to a memory: "Victimised as he was by others, Girolamo actually felt guilty, and was only too willing to identify himself with his oppressors" (Bitter). The fears that accompany one's sexual maturation, at times regressing into sadomasochistic inclinations, are presented as a natural part of adolescence. While in "Winter" the boy enjoyed attention, even derision, as a break in the daily monotony, in the short novel Agostino (1944), Moravia's first novel in which psychoanalytic themes are clearly inscribed, a more ambiguous and culturally weighted portrait of the same type of boy is given.
Agostino is a 13-year-old boy of the Roman bourgeoisie on a beach vacation with his widowed mother. The third-person narration follows him through a series of new experiences that constitute thresholds in his young life. At the outset Agostino is fully enveloped in the Oedipal bond: absorbed in his mother's affection, he knows nothing of sexuality or of social classes. There is a totality of intimacy in his contact with the mother and a childish rivalry-jealousy when she begins to be courted by a young man. When Agostino hears himself called "innocent" on a boat ride with the two, he wants to be freed of that label, which he doesn't understand, even as he disapproves of his mother's affectations ("feminine awkwardnesses") in front of the man.
One day, when the suitor, Renzo, is late in arriving, Agostino makes a sarcastic remark and draws a mild slap from his mother; this leads him to venture out and meet a boy named Berto, who introduces him to his band of friends. This group of lower-class boys congregates around a 50-year-old pedophile named Saro, who rents boats at the seashore; Saro has six fingers on each hand, a feature that repulses Agostino and is used symbolically in the story as an incidence of the Freudian uncanny.
The rough-and-tumble group includes Horns, a slender black boy who enjoys giving favors to Saro; Sandro, whose tan, lean body is not so working-class as the others'; and Tortima, the boaster who taunts Agostino and leads him on his last adventure. The insults Agostino receives from this group are an important part of his awakening, or loss of innocence, a process that begins when he steals his mother's cigarettes for Berto, who then tricks him and burns his hand. When he meets the group, Agostino is mocked for his ignorance of sexual matters. The boys churlishly act out the love act on the ground, to which the fair-haired Sandro adds a friendly explanation so that Agostino can picture sexual intercourse. The boys refer to his mother's shapeliness, causing Agostino's vision of her to be suddenly less pure. Here again he is called an innocent ("innocentino") by one of the boys. To console him the unctuous Saro asks him to store the cigarettes in his cabin, a place that Agostino finds homey. It is only now that we discover that his father is dead, an issue of critical importance.
After returning home at noon (in the "blinding sunshine"), he gazes through a doorway at his mother's half-clad body, sensing fascination, mystery, and shame at this discovery of her womanhood.
Precipitated in one moment from respect and reverence to their exact opposite, he would almost have liked to see the improprieties of her unconscious nudity develop before his eyes into conscious wantonness.
Is the adolescent innocent? To that autobiographical question St. Augustine answered no in the Confessions (I, 19: "Istane est innocentia puerilis? Non est"), a text that may have influenced Moravia's naming of his protagonist.
Later that day Agostino accompanies Saro on a boat ride to meet up with the gang at a place called Rio. Once under sail, Saro tells Agostino to lie down and holds his hand. The boy clenches in fear. When asked if he knows any poetry, he holds Saro at bay by reciting Giosuè Carducci's "Le fonti del Clitunno" ("The Source of the Clitunno") and then "Davanti a San Guido" ("In Front of San Guido"), both staples in the Italian schools. The first is an animistic account of the myth of Rome, the second a melancholy recollection of the poet's distant youth. We are to assume that Agostino recites 272 lines of poetry; in the hyperbole, and the irony of the poems' topics, we sense Agostino's warding off of a dreaded event. In its unreality this curious textual inscription reinforces the otherworldliness of the destination, the beach at Rio. When they arrive Agostino is mocked for what he has not in fact done: yielded to Saro. As the naked boys cavort in the waves under the watchful eye of Saro—compared with a frog—Agostino wanders off into the water of the lagoon, separate for a moment from the confining structures of society, whether that of his privileged upbringing, the enclosure of his mother's beach house, or that of the unruly band, whose worldly knowledge he both desires and fears.
Agostino walked about for a little, naked on the soft, mirroring sand, and enjoyed stamping on it with his feet and seeing the water suddenly rise to the surface and flood his footprints. There arose in him a vague and desperate desire to ford the river and walk on and on down the coast, leaving far behind him the boys, Saro, his mother and all the old life.
As he swims alone under the late-afternoon sky he is nearly carried away by the current, a sign of the danger of this illusory environment where he has formulated, for the first time, his desire to escape: from his mother's world and that of the boys.
To comprehend Agostino's anxiety, let us focus on the obsessively repeated detail of Saro's 12 fingers, a monstrosity that, from the boy's perspective, embodies the uncanny. The uncanny (unheimlich), as Freud theorizes, is a complex phenomenon arising from the subject's encounter with something fearful that becomes repulsive; it is both "unhomely" (savage, untarne) and "concealed" or "recondite" (which is also a meaning of "homely," its opposite, since domestic privacy depends on secrets). The occurrence of the uncanny is tied by Freud to "the old animistic conception of the universe, which was characterized by the idea that the world was peopled with the spirits of human beings, and by the narcissistic overestimation of subjective mental processes." When it is experienced by adults the uncanny is a return of primitive ideas that civilized people have surpassed (such as the evil eye); for children this ghastly sensation represents "repressed infantile complexes revived by some impression," the result being that the psychical reality—the belief in the physical existence of the repressed material—is "over-accentuated" with respect to the "physical reality." By means of the uncanny a boy's castration fear, or "morbid anxiety," may be translated into the "fear of damaging or losing [his] eyes," the attraction-repulsion to the maternal womb, or "the belief in the animation of lifeless objects." Several of these elements are present in Agostino.
Though Agostino has held the seducer at bay in the sailboat, the boys do not believe his denial. He is humiliated until he actually admits to the perverse act: he is innocent, yet he knows not of what and thus senses he is guilty (whereas the taunting boys sense he is naive). Although Saro's hand seemed to him like an animal trap, an obvious castration symbol, as days go by Agostino is continually drawn to the Bagni Vespucci; he alters his dress, donning his most worn clothes, and, when the opportunity presents itself, assumes the role of rower for Saro, a masquerade that allows him to step out of his own social class. One sees Agostino's childhood fears of the monstrous manifest in Saro's familiarity and grotesqueness, and his reaction to it, from his first entry into Saro's homely cabin to his boat ride to his pretending to be Saro's assistant, a seasoned boathand.
The social aspect of Agostino's adventure is the product of difference and tension: between his old, well-to-do friends and his new, disadvantaged ones; between Saro, the voyeur who enjoys watching the naked boys cavort, and Renzo, the young suitor who has invaded his home; and, finally, between the woman he would imagine making love to and his mother, whom he now perceives against his will as a sexual creature. This tension forces the boy into an awareness of his social class and his psychosexual identity. A key moment in this incipient rationality is marked by Agostino's unsuccessful attempt to alleviate the sense of guilt raised by his discoveries: "At first he had unconsciously tried to break loose from that affection by an unjustified dislike, but now it seemed to him a duty to separate his newly won reasoned knowledge from his sense of blood relationship with someone whom he wanted to consider only as a woman" (emphasis mine).
When Agostino begins to neglect his appearance in order to resemble his "friends," he gains their provisional acceptance. The fact that his mother now seems to be "a woman like any other" is disconcerting and forces him to reforge his filial love in a new, unknown form. When the suitor appears one evening inside the beach house, Agostino's sanctum has been symbolically penetrated. As he interrupts their passionate embrace at the piano where the mother has been playing, Agostino requests permission to break his piggy bank, an animistic symbol of his childhood; though he says he wants to buy a book, he actually wants to go to a prostitute.
Through the open window a street lamp lit up its pink belly and great black smiling mouth. He turned on the light, picked up the money box and flung it on the ground with an almost hysterical violence. It broke at once and from the wide opening poured a quantity of money of every description.
He then lies to his mother again, saying he would like the money from her so as not to break the bank. Again she consents. When he and Tortima go to the bordello in a wooded area near the beach, Agostino is turned away as Tortima enters with the money. Agostino then looks into the mysterious house and sees a woman, bare-breasted, for a long moment, a vision he later transfers to his mother when she tucks him into bed, a vision of woman he will carry with him for the "unhappy" years to come.
As in the most acclaimed Moravia, the intellectual supports of the story never overshadow its immediacy, particularly as regards the internal dialogue of Agostino and the empirical description of the action and settings. The economy of the text—more a novella than a novel, written in a concentrated flurry in 1941—is attributed by Carlo Emilio Gadda to "its page alleviated 'of all verbose baggage' in the 'intrinsic and pure union of the report (referto)' implying a 'sober, firm technique' [which is] precisely for that reason 'somewhat sad'" [I viaggi la morte, 1958]. Gadda identifies three affective levels or types of Eros in Agostino's consciousness: the Oedipal love; the sympathetic emulation of the boys he meets from the lower class, in search of "narcissistic models"; and his exposure to the homoerotic in the "monstrous" person of Saro. I would object slightly to Gadda's comment and recommend that one consider as well the intensely lyrical, if lexically parsimonious, component of heroic and passionately poetic passages, which are neither sad nor austere. . . .
[Early critical] reaction reflects the historical prejudice of a period in which the types of complexes Freud associated with the uncanny were considered deviant. Yet the familiarity one feels with the boy Agostino attests to another, more positive interpretation, consonant with the birth of reason. This is indicated by the symbolic name of the Bagno Speranza (Hope), the site of parental authority from which Agostino sets out, to oscillate between that place of wealth and stasis and the Bagni Vespucci, a site of mundanity, the lower class, and threatening sexuality. This horizontal axis is then traversed by a vertical axis between Rio, the dream-like site of Agostino's incipient self-consciousness and desire for annihilation, and the pinewood where he seeks to accomplish his sexual initiation. At Rio he is involved in an illusion: "He gazed at the dark, remote horizon which enclosed the utmost boundaries of sea and shore and forest and felt drawn to that immensity as to something which might set him free from his bondage. The shouts of the boys racing across the shore to the boat roused him from his melancholy imagining." In the pinewood, beginning with the boys' "delicate" gathering of mushrooms (an adjective that contrasts with their former gruffness, against which Agostino felt himself to be too "delicate"), what Agostino experiences is a delusion, a disappointment that contains within it a realistic and rational hope for the future.
And with the undergrowth began their hunt for fungi. It had been raining for a day or two and the leaves of the undergrowth were still glistening with wet, and the ground was damp and covered with fresh green shoots. In the thick of the bushes . . . there were the yellow fungi, glittering with moisture; sometimes magnificent single ones, sometimes families of little ones. The boys put their fingers through the brambles and picked them delicately, holding the head between two fingers and taking care to bring the stalk away too, with earth and moss still clinging to it. Then they threaded them on long, pointed sprigs of broom.
As in the adventure-romance genre, the pinewood (or forest) is a symbolic site of intricate interweavings and challenges to the hero to accomplish brave deeds. It is here that the poles of Agostino's earlier meanderings (Bagni Speranza—Bagni Vespucci), symbolically standing for hope and exploration, are again grouped as a single evil to leave behind in time. In this sense Agostino's denial of entry to the bordello is comedic; he has crossed an important threshold in his development (about which there is nothing unsavory in the sense suggested by Saba).
The short novella Due cortigiane (Home Is a Sacred Place, 1945; also in The Wayward Wife and Other Stories, trans. 1960) features an adolescent, Giacomo, who lives in a boarding house and passes the time in a side-walk café, sipping beer and ices, watching people as he tries to defeat his loneliness. One evening he risks an encounter with two apparent prostitutes in the otherwise empty bar. They do not resist his approach but disagree between themselves over what story to tell Giacomo or even what their names are. After switching to a cavernous Roman bar where they drink much wine, Giacomo's unresisted advances become physical. They agree to an expensive ménage à trois. Though the older sister resists, saying, "Home is a sacred place," they have nowhere else to go, and Giacomo offers to pay them the price of a hotel anyway. On the tram ride to the apartment, the younger sister, who is from Milan, raises some eyebrows by her risqué comments to Giacomo, causing an argument to flair up between the sisters. Once they have reached the apartment and the preliminaries begin, the boy's imagination runs wild, only to see the girls' quarrel abruptly bring the evening to an end. The sentence "Home is a sacred place" takes on an ambiguous value: home is where the sisters use Giacomo to advance their habitual quarrel. "Home" is where sexual repressions and frustrations come to a head but are not resolved. . . .
Begun 10 years earlier, the short novel La disubbidienza (Luca) was not completed until 1948. Its protagonist, Luca, is an older Agostino with more complicated psychological difficulties. From his childhood refusal to participate in family picnics or in his schoolmates' soccer game, to his denials of his beloved possessions (a stamp collection given to a schoolmate, his whole library and toy collection sold for a pittance), to his eventual refusal of food and virtually all attention, Luca is plagued by a complex of victimization, which in social terms represents his rejection of his parents' bourgeois existence. The condition worsens until a governess arrives in his home with his cousins (due to his aunt's illness) and virtually seduces him before falling ill. She is distanced from the boy by the parents, but he comes to know of her death and plunges into a gyre of desperation that nearly results in suicide. There will be a second woman, however, who is Luca's angel of salvation.
From the novel's start, Luca is able to identify a logical structure to his "disobedience," a word he knows well because of his mother's frequent scoldings. He thence decides that "by starting to be disobedient again on a more logical, higher plane, he was merely rediscovering an attitude of mind which was native to him but which he had lost." He sees disobedience as an activity with its own rules, "a cruel, destructive sort of game, but a game none the less, because it was carried out on a disinterested experimental plane." The progressive disillusionment with his parents is concretized in the adolescent's consciousness in a symbolic scene witnessed through a door ajar (a gaze reminiscent of Agostino's and of many Moravian protagonists to come): Luca sees his mother and father greedily shoving stocks and bonds into a family safe situated behind the reproduction of the Madonna where Luca had always kneeled to say his evening prayers. Money is revealed as the parents' object of worship, and Luca finds that he no longer loves them.
Luca is given an allowance and is frequently surprised by gifts of his favorite kinds of toys. But eventually he rejects the money, as well as the other possessions, because they have been "imposed on him" as substitutes for genuine love.
Had they been things already dead, abandoned by the love which had in the past made them alive—as in a sense his parents were—their destruction would have been useless. But the contrary was true; and the rules of this bitter game of disobedience admitted no exceptions.
Yet there is an exception: the governess, whose very ordinariness attracts him, whom he wants to reject because he is fond of her but cannot. In caring for his younger cousins, she is ever present and physically inviting. One afternoon the group is playing hide-and-seek in the dark, and Luca "finds" the governess; when he silently begins to caress her face and his hand moves slowly downward, she presses it "frenziedly" to her breasts. He then calls out that he has found her, ending the encounter. In the following game the governess seeks him out in the dark and kisses him:
Even in this kiss—the first of his life—he recognized an ambiguous quality, at once agreeable and disagreeable. . . . Like the edges of a deep wound, these lips seemed inert and lifeless, forced to spread themselves more by the pressure of the two faces against each other than by any voluntary movement.
After the long and passionate kiss the governess asks Luca to visit her at home on Sunday. He remains ambivalent up to and including that day. She represents his first opportunity to violate his parents' hypocritical and rigid code of conduct, a difficult task. He wanders in his hesitation to the park, the earlier ritual site of his dismay, where he had buried the money earned from the sale of his books, having shredded it and placed it in a jar (in imitation of his favorite story, Poe's "The Gold Bug"). Instead of going to the governess he lingers in the park, watching the feeding of the lions, sensing in them a parallel condition to his carnal desire for annihilation:
Luca shuddered at the thought of that piece of flesh, once part of a living animal and now a mere dead, shapeless lump, and, remembering how he had once been told that death in the jaws of a wild beast was almost painless owing to that strange, unconscious pity on the part of the beast itself which takes special care to break the victim's spine, he thought he would like to die in that way—to be seized, killed, devoured. The idea attracted him because in such a death there was a fascinating rathlessness, more complete than in any death at the hands of a man because unconscious and innocent.
Now fearful he will not be able to resist her, or his own attraction-repulsion to sexuality, Luca is shocked and perplexed that the governess, no longer needed by his aunt, has herself fallen ill; when he visits her two weeks later, she is dying and he is not allowed to see her.
Luca now finds normality contemptible. The hope he had associated with the governess, whose father is a high official, is quashed; instead of enjoying a lover's rendezvous he now visits the graveyard, "a place of convention and show in which any mystery was already discounted in advance." But there is mystery, rather, in the enduring memory of the governess, which now seems to him a spur to continue in his methodical self-sacrifice, "the obscure but spontaneous religion of his life." Luca senses that his absurd, ordinary daily life of habits will fall away like a snake's skin and free him of his crisis; he feels this change is imminent as his professor calls on him to read from Dante's Purgatorio. While reading aloud to his class the episode of Buonconte da Montefeltro, Luca is taken violently ill, so great is his empathy with that character whose soul was saved by a prayer to the Virgin Mary before dying in battle ("He was describing the death, not of a character from Dante, but of himself). As he stops reading before the line "then covered and wrapped me with its spoils" ("poi di sua preda mi coperse e cinse" [Purgatorio 5. 129]), his identification with Buonconte's spiritual condition is complete. The classroom reading of a canto from Dante is thus raised from a pedagogical exercise to a potentially epiphanic realization. But before the awakening (or salvation) can take place, Luca must pass through insomnia and death-longing. The power of the literature, which makes him ill, is equal to the strength he will presumably gain by overcoming his hypersensitivity. If we are to see him as Buonconte, whose soul was desired by the devil (and whose father, Guido, is in Hell among the fraudulent counselors), it is essential to appreciate that he, too, is contended over by forces of good and evil, an allegory that Moravia here redefines, making the teacher himself into the maleficent influence: "He was one of those teachers who despise their profession and teach in a condescending, detached manner, though with scrupulous care, as if they wished it to be understood that they could do better if they chose."
After he undergoes the horrible nightmares of delirium, Luca is ill for three months. The nurse he met at the apartment of the dying governess is called to attend him; reminiscent of the nurse in "A Sick Boy's Winter," she tells him he must "obey": just as she is unaware of Luca's accumulated resentment of authority, he is aware of her class difference. He will obey and eventually be enveloped in her warmth and sexuality, as she is in his: she bathes him and grows flushed at his nudity, asking him if he would like it if she stopped by his room that night. He assents and that night the two make love; the situation bestows subjectivity not only on Luca but on the nurse, whose affection for him is reciprocated. The sense of mystery and of the sacred that is Luca's awareness of women becomes the equivalent of Buonconte's prayer: a means to emerge from the hell of self-denial. The nurse herself is revealed, in her effortless seduction of Luca, as both vulnerable and desirous.
In Luca one has a typical Moravian series of events that documents an increased state of anxiety and crisis in the protagonist: vomit on the train, renouncing the stamp collection, the books, and the toys; the frustrated, then tragic, episode of the governess; the precipitous absorption in a reading of Dante, resulting in delirium. Despite the mechanical quality of the progression, it is compelling, as critics have confirmed. The concluding episode with the nurse may be seen allegorically: as the fever breaks and Luca is healed and mentally calmed, what has occurred is both sexuality between equals and sexuality between unequals—two lovers but also an Oedipal acceptance into the maternal womb. This combination of myth and reality casts Luca into a state of exaltation over this unique visitation by his angel and nurse. His attitude has changed: "all things would have a meaning for him and would speak to him in their own mute language." In his difficult crossing of the threshold into manhood, Luca has accomplished far more than a "specular" return to the womb. He has come to terms with his irrational anger, his disaffection and dissociation, his persecution complex and loneliness, and has reconciled himself to the death of the governess, which he sees religiously as a kind of sacrifice. Unlike Michele, of whom he is a distant incarnation, the younger Luca experiences a catharsis; he passes from the understanding of sacrifice (first acquired through his adventure novels) to a genuine sense of altruism and wholeness, as complemented by his increased sociopolitical awareness.
Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517
Ferdinando, Alfonsi, and Sandra Alfonsi. An Annotated Bibliography of Moravia Criticism in Italy and in the English-Speaking World (1929-1975). New York: Garland, 1976, 261 p.
Baldanza, Frank. "Mature Moravia." Contemporary Literature IX, No. 4 (Fall 1968): 507-21.
Praises Moravia's artistic restraint, honesty, and range of appeal.
Cottrell, Jane E. Alberto Moravia. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1974, 166 p.
Offers a comprehensive introduction to Moravia's fiction.
Dego, Giuliano. Moravia. Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1966, 120 p.
Analyzes the social issues raised in Moravia's fiction.
Freed, Donald, and Joan Ross. The Existentialism of Alberto Moravia. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972, 172 p.
Comprehensive analysis of Moravia's novels and short stories from an existential viewpoint.
Golino, Carlo L. "Alberto Moravia." The Modern Language Journal XXXVI, No. 7 (November 1952): 334-40.
Praises Moravia's style and ability as a writer.
Hughes, Serge. "Notes on Moravia." The Commonweal LI, No. 15 (20 January 1950): 418-19.
Comments on Moravia as an artist preoccupied with moral problems.
Keene, Francis. "Moravia, Moralist." The Nation (New York) CLXXVI, No. 21 (23 May 1953): 438-40.
Defends Moravia as a true moralist and writer devoid of fakery.
Kibler, Louis. "The Reality and Realism of Alberto Moravia." Italian Quarterly XVII, No. 65 (Summer 1973): 3-15.
Examines Moravia's sense of realism in his major works.
Kozma, Janice M. "Say it with Flowers: Imagistic Representations of Women in Alberto Moravia's Prose." Italica LXX, No. 3 (Autumn 1993): 376-87.
Examines the presentation of women as plants, flowers, food, and animals in Moravia's work.
Lancaster, Charles Maxwell. "Fantasy in Moravia's Social and Political Satire." Forum Italicum II, No. 1 (March 1968): 3-12.
Praises Moravia's racconti and romanzi for its insight into the spiritual vacuum of contemporary man.
Lewis, R. W. B. "Alberto Moravia: Eros and Existence." The Picaresque Saint, pp. 36-56. London: Lippincott, 1956.
Views the sexual perspective in Moravia's fiction as honorable.
Pacifici, Sergio J. "The Fiction of Alberto Moravia: Portrait of a Wasteland." Modern Language Quarterly XVI, No. 1 (March 1955): 68-77.
Asserts the value of viewing Moravia's work as an ever-continuing whole and defends the writer against critical attack concerning his frequent usage of like themes.
Peterson, Thomas Erling. Alberto Moravia. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996, 170 p.
Comprehensive critical introduction to the life and work of Moravia.
Rebay, Luciano. Alberto Moravia. Columbia Series on Modern Writers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970, 48 p.
Concise introduction to Moravia's major novels and short stories up to The Lie.
Rolo, Charles J. "Alberto Moravia." Atlantic Monthly CXCIV, No. 2 (February 1955): 69-74.
Praises Moravia as a superlative craftsman in the tradition of classical tragedy.
Ross, Alan. "Drag." London Magazine (September 1975): 109-11.
Notes the indifference of Moravia's characters in his works.
Slaymaker, William. "Holograms of Humanity: The Negative Reality of Alberto Moravia's Postwar Novels." South Atlantic Review XLIX, No. 2 (May 1984): 80-95.
Notes the positive elements in Moravia's dark portraits of human lives.
Warren, Robert Penn. "Moravia, a Modern with a Long Literary History." Chicago Tribune (29 January 1950): 6.
Comments on Moravia as a modern writer in the western literary tradition.
Additional coverage of Moravia's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 25-28; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 33; Contemporary Literature Criticism, Vols. 2, 7, 11, 18, 27, 46; DISCovering Authors: Novelists Module; and Major 20th-century Writers.