Alberto Moravia Moravia, Alberto (Pincherle) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Alberto (Pincherle) Moravia 1907–1990

Italian novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, playwright, scriptwriter, travel writer, editor, and journalist.

Moravia is one of the foremost literary figures of twentieth-century Italy, certainly the most widely known internationally. His use of existentialist themes, based on mass indifference and the selfish concerns of the bourgeois world, predate the writings of Sartre and Camus. In his exploration of the human relationship with reality, Moravia presents a world of decadence and corruption in which humans are guided primarily by their senses and where sex is valued over love. These themes have been repeatedly explored and reworked in all of Moravia's writings.

Moravia's sensibility was shaped in part by a painful battle with tuberculosis that left him bedridden and isolated during his adolescent years. He spent the time reading and writing avidly and then achieved major success with his first novel, Gli indifferenti (1929; The Time of Indifference). The novel depicts sex as the basic psychological principle and most significant activity of modern humans. In a world of isolation and apathy, the characters in The Time of Indifference use sex (or money, or politics, in ways that relate to sexual obsession) as a means toward achieving happiness, but are doomed because their sex is loveless. The novel drew praise for its psychological insights and its portrayal of a world approaching total disillusionment.

As an antifascist during Mussolini's regime, Moravia came precariously close to being labeled an enemy of the state. In the fiction he wrote at this time, he depicted people using others as a means of self-satisfaction but cloaked what could be seen as allusions to fascist politics in allegory and satire. During this time he traveled extensively as a journalist. He was forced to flee Rome in 1943, living for several months among peasants in rural Italy. His fiction became more socially conscious and Marxist-oriented at this time. In the long short story Agostino (1947), widely regarded as a classic of the genre, an adolescent becomes aware of sexuality and also the plight of the lower classes in a story of deep psychological probings and social implications.

During the 1950s Moravia turned from Marxism, advocating instead intellectual solutions to world problems. He began writing "essay novels" in which ideology plays as important a role as the story itself. He also abandoned use of an objective, third-person narrator in favor of first-person narration in order to depict the world subjectively. The two volumes of short stories that make up Racconti romani (1954 and 1959; Roman Tales), contain many of Moravia's best works. Because of his repetitive themes and his journalistic style of writing, many critics have concluded that Moravia is most effective when writing within the short story framework.

Moravia's concerns in more recent years have been the dehumanizing effects of society and technology, the human psyche, and the breakdown of communication. With the recent novels La vita interiore (Time of Desecration, 1980) and 1934 (1982), Moravia again concentrates on the obsessive qualities of politics, money, and sex. Time of Desecration examines mod-ern day terrorism while 1934 takes place during Mussolini's regime at the time of Hitler's rise to power. The critic Stephen Spender views 1934 as a brilliant work, especially in its contrasting of Germany's active and Italy's passive acceptance of totalitarianism.

That all of Moravia's work is essentially an extension of themes presented in The Time of Indifference has led to contrasting critical opinion of his oeuvre. Some critics judge him an artist of limited range who has contributed no stylistic or structural innovations to the novel or the short story and who covers the same ground over and over. Most critics, however, appraise Moravia as an artist who is exploiting the full potential of his concerns, using classic storytelling devices to present the preoccupations of modern human beings. Indeed, Moravia's work displays many of the leading schools of thought of the twentieth century: existentialism, Marxism, psychology, phenomenology, and the role of the artist. Moravia himself is oblivious to charges of monotony, believing that all artists must pursue the single problem they are born to understand.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 7, 11, 18 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

First, and foremost, Moravia is a storyteller and human behavior is at the core of his fictional world. Though at times the writing is tedious, a little contrived, or a little too polished, it is always very much alive. At his best, Moravia emerges as a rare cynical genius who illuminates his world with a penetrating psychic understanding. Indeed, his insights are handled with the depth and subtlety of a master psychologist. As his characters reveal their needs; our own necessities are disclosed. To understand Moravia fully is to lose our "intolerance"; he makes us aware, conscious, knowing. We cannot escape facing the challenge to be compassionate and different. In Moravia's work it is always the individual that counts. (pp. 151-52)

Moravia's view of life emerges as essentially tragic. His great fear is that man has become a machine, an automaton or "thing," more fearful still, a means. "The use of man as a means and not as an end is the root of all evil." He has said, "Man is automatically not to be happy, that is the human situation." However, it is out of this very morbidity, this unflinching courage in portraying man as he is, that Moravia's vision becomes heroic. Faced with the absurdity of life, an absurdity which equals suffering, his characters nevertheless survive. Man can rise above adversity…. Man does not have to be destroyed by circumstances; he has the inner resources to conquer defeat and avoid destruction. Whatever the horrors, man can survive.

Over and over Moravia uses crime and brutality to illuminate man's absurd condition. Violence and crime make man aware of the other extreme he is capable of through love; hence, a higher existence is revealed. Compassion, that capacity to feel sorrow, solidarity, sympathy—to suffer, not only for your own predicament but for that of others—is the key to Moravian love. To be willing to assume the sorrows of others and to suffer because of (and with) others is the challenge which Moravia would demand us to accept. Instead of the old pity and terror of literature, the existentialists present us with anguish and radical solidarity.

Moravia has gone beyond the bleak, sordid vision of [his first novel] Time of Indifference. In subsequent works his perception has deepened and matured. Out of this intense vision we sense a true empathy for the condition of modern man. This growth toward understanding and compassion is that factor which earmarks Moravia's greatness; he has gone beyond the existential nausea of Time of Indifference to existential compassion in the later works.

The author has made the statement that, "The writer's task is to perfect the one problem he was born to understand." Certainly, he himself has taken this task seriously. Over and over in his desolate, gloomy, ironic world, the central theme that emerges is the relationship between man and reality. Further, as Moravia's world is a carnal one, his characters most often establish their own reality through a relationship with the opposite sex. As this is accomplished, all other relationships fall into proper perspective…. Moravia's preoccupation with the sexual motif is not carried to the point of abuse as some critics feel. He, himself, is willing to clarify this motif.

My concentration on the sexual act, which is one of the most primitive and unalterable motives in our relation to reality, is due precisely to this urgency; and the same can be said of my consideration of the economic factor, which is also primitive and unalterable, in that it is founded on the instinct of self-preservation that man has in common with animals … sex in the modern world is synonymous with love.

Who can deny that love is a very frequent subject in the literature of all times and all...

(The entire section is 1572 words.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Albert Camus suggested that suicide was the only philosophical question, and Alberto Moravia's new novel ["1934"] centers on a character who thinks of little else. More precisely, he wonders whether suicide is the only solution to despair or whether despair may not, as he puts it, be stabilized, accepted as "the normal condition of man … as natural as the air we breathe." "What did I mean by 'stabilize'? Somehow, imagining my life as a Nation, to institutionalize despair, recognize it officially … as a law of that same Nation."

Lucio is a young Italian hanging about Capri, peering into the melancholy eyes of Beate, a German woman he has met there. He is a student of literature, a translator of Heinrich von Kleist, the German dramatic poet whose short life ended in a double suicide, and he sees in the girl's "unhappy and stubborn look" not only a trace of moody German Romanticism but also "the sorrow of the world." Sure enough, Beate is contemplating suicide and would like to make Lucio a partner in a pact. High tragedy and silliness mix here—"It's all bad literature," Lucio thinks—and there are wry, awkward jokes…. Then Beate leaves Capri with her husband and is replaced in Lucio's pensione by her twin sister, who is also her moral opposite, full of sauciness and life. After that the plot takes a couple of fancy twists it would be unkind to reveal. (p. 11)

In 1934, the time of the novel's title and action, Mussolini had been in power for 12 years and Hitler for one. Hitler speaks on the radio and is heard by eager German holidaymakers—"He was not a concise speaker," Lucio laconically says—and word of the Night of the Long Knives reaches Capri by telephone. We are meant, I take it, to connect what Lucio calls his "psychological adventure" with the larger shifts of history. But how? Beate says her husband "horrifies" her, because "his hands are stained with blood." Does she simply mean that he is a Nazi and she is not? Or has she more specific violences...

(The entire section is 826 words.)

John Shepley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Durer's famous angel, Melencolia, has a way of alighting in some unexpected places. One of these is the first page of Alberto Moravia's new novel [1934] …, where the symbol of intellectual depression turns up as a passenger on a boat from Naples to Capri…. If [the narrator Lucio] can plausibly contrive the suicide of his novel's hero, he thinks, there will be no need for him to follow suit: "I would save myself through writing."

The sight of the woman on the boat overturns this resolution. Lucio embarks on a prolonged flirtation with her, endures the insults of her husband and pursues the couple (who turn out to be Germans) to a pensione in Anacapri. So attuned is he to the...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

Joshua Gilder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Alberto Moravia's The Conformist, perhaps his most famous novel, was in many ways a convincing portrait of fascist psychology, but I for one never understood what lesbianism had to do with it all…. Still less could I make out in Moravia's last novel, Time of Desecration, what mother-daughter incest, troilism, and sodomy had to do with terrorism in present-day Italy. Now 1934 returns us to the lesbian-fascist nexus (again with incestuous overtones), and in a subplot we hear about two sodomitical Trotskyites in pre-revolutionary Russia. Don't Christian Democrats ever get kinky?

Moravia's earlier stories were often brilliant little studies of erotic compulsion. But the erotic...

(The entire section is 344 words.)

Stephen Spender

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The contrast between the Italian and the German temperament is a central theme of [1934]. Since in 1934 both countries were under dictatorships that distorted the way people behaved, the contrast is seen ultimately as one between different styles of playacting: Mussolini-style fascism, which for the Italians was a matter of rather superficial conformism, and Hitler-style Nazism, which for the Germans demanded a total submergence of all individuality within the party, and which dragged the Italians down with it. Lucio and Beate are both opposed to the dictatorial regimes of their countries. Yet when Lucio is greeted by Herr Müller raising his arm vertically in the Hitler salute, he gets a sign from Beate and...

(The entire section is 1113 words.)