Alberto Moravia

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Moravia, Alberto (Pseudonym of Alberto Pincherle) 1907–

Moravia is an Italian novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, and film critic. In his fiction Moravia depicts a world of bourgeois decadence, peopled with characters whose response to life is alienation and indifference. His work is noted for its unsentimental depiction of sexual relationships, stressing the unfeeling, amoral qualities of man in the modern world. Considered to be the leader of the neorealist school of writing in Italy, Moravia produces prose that is spare and colloquial. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Douglas Radcliff-Umstead

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[The theater of the Italian futurists and Pirandello, in which] man is at the best a machine or at the least an impassive block of wood,… influenced the youthful Alberto Moravia in writing his first novel The Indifferent Ones…. The plot was consciously structured into two days, like two acts of a drama. The cast of characters was restricted to five figures. Indeed, as in a stage work, the author maintained a strict economy of words and gestures for the characters. There is an obvious theatricality about the novel. The characters move from a living-room to a dining-room as if the stage sets were shifted. Some of the characters hide behind a curtain to spy on others. Just as a crucial moment is about to be reached, a door opens and a maid enters to hinder an extreme solution. Although the scene is Rome, the city is but a backdrop for the theatrical action of the novel….

Of the main characters Cavalier Leo Merumeci is the most dynamic and resolute, crass but concrete. He holds a position with the Ministry of Justice and Mercy; the irony is transparent here as Leo is neither merciful nor just toward others but predatory. He is a petty capitalist, not a grandscale entrepreneur but a manipulator of property and a cautious stock exchange speculator. With his business affairs Leo is enthusiastically involved in the false relationships of the world. (p. 45)

Unlike the other characters Leo has no tormenting secret desire, and thus his activities are limited to an animal level. He never investigates his life as does his hesitant adversary Michele. The nonintellectual dynamism of a self-satisfied character like Leo can transform a man into a puppet. He turns on emotions like a machine…. (pp. 45-6)

[Mariagrazia is also puppet-like,] a walking grotesque mask…. The thickly powdered face, with all the vain efforts to conceal age, is both silly and indecisive. The widow never understands what is going on about her. Her behavior is childish. She struts about with a wounded sense of dignity which is ridiculous in a person of her licentious character…. Her movements are like those of a jerkily operated marionette…. It is as if Mariagrazia has no mind.

But the widow does have her value standards, those of a snob who has always led a life of ease and fears poverty…. Her children are at the most for her an extension of the widow's ego. Mariagrazia is a materialist in the low economic sense of the word. (p. 47)

Lisa's interest in Michele is born of a genuine desire to love and be loved. But it is a story-book or motion-picture type of love that she is seeking. Consequently her actions are artificial and excessively sentimental, like blowing a kiss to the young man as he leaves. (p. 48)

Lisa has fashioned a papier-mâché lover, a creature born of false illusions….

Carla looks like a badly made doll. Her room in the villa is full of ragged, left-over dolls as the widow has not had the funds to refurnish the house. Carla's development seems stunted like her room with its furniture for a little girl…. Unlike her mother, Carla is eager to change the mechanistic rhythm of her life…. She does not wish to remain false and ridiculous. In order to escape the familiar objects of her room—symbols of the old life—she feels that she must commit a sordid act which will ruin the old pattern of existence. (p. 49)

At the same time Carla is giving up part of her humanity to take on a puppet's nonexistence….

By giving herself to Leo, Carla proved she was capable of acting, if only in a negative manner. Her brother Michele, however, can neither adapt himself to the corrupted environment nor transform it. Michele's impotency is at the opposite pole from Leo's dynamism. This apathetic, indolent youth is frustrated every time he tries to break out of his lethargy. He is the most desperate member of the family since he suffers from a lack of feeling. Michele considers himself superfluous and useless….

[In] his introduction Michele is portrayed as an empty-headed puppet….

Michele's whole relationship with Leo is a series of attempts at increasingly violent acts of revenge. But the youth's vengeance is not motivated by genuine indignation at offended honor but by a cerebral desire to conform to accepted standards of behavior. He does not want to remain a spectator of the drama about him. Michele hopes feeling will follow upon action. (p. 50)

This youth can be only a jack-in-the-box or a buffoon. At one early moment in the novel Michele insults Leo before the other members of the family. But his manner of arguing is studied and dispassionate. Finally he apologizes and retreats, as the text indicates, like a marionette….

Michele has been called the first existentialistic anti-hero. Critics have spoken of his ennui or nausea. But his true state is one of torpor which prevents him from transforming his arid intellectual revolt into an active negation like his sister's. He considers himself caught in a puppet's passivity. (p. 51)

Moravia's The Indifferent Ones is a novel of defeat. No character completely achieves his aims. The author at first had a tragic conception of his character. But he was not able to write a tragic work as he confesses in the essay concerning the novel: "It became clear to me that tragedy was impossible in a world where non-material values no longer seemed justified and where the moral conscience had grown callous to the point that men—motivated merely by appetite—tend more and more to resemble automata." Paralyzed in the nonexistence of puppets, the Moravian characters attempt to bring themselves to life. These characters are not deformed puppets; rather it is as human beings that Moravia's characters are malformed, for consciously or unconsciously they become immobile blocks of wood. (pp. 52-3)

Douglas Radcliff-Umstead, "Moravia's Indifferent Puppets," in Symposium (copyright © 1970 by Syracuse University Press), Spring, 1970, pp. 44-54.

Louis Kibler

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[Moravia] considers himself a realist writer: … he has steadfastly defended realism against all other artistic currents. His defense is founded on humanism, on the idea of man as an end and not as a means; and among the arts, realism alone is humanistic…. (p. 4)

When Moravia speaks of reality, he is often referring to objective reality, that reality which exists independently of human consciousness and which would still have intrinsic value even if there were no men. In the novels of Moravia objective reality is most commonly evident in things, in the object experienced by Moravia's characters as a physical presence. It is simply there, contingent (in that there is no apparent reason for it to be there, but it cannot not be there) and autonomous, for it exists in a dimension different from that of human beings, lending itself to neither definition nor explanation nor possession by men. The object can have meaning but it does not have a meaning. This is the conclusion at which Dino, the protagonist of La noia, finally arrives…. Recognition of the existence of things "outside" is the first step toward creating a rapport with objective reality, which in La noia is analogous to Dino's relation with Cecilia, his enigmatic mistress whom he has tried in the past to possess completely. By renouncing possession of her …, Dino affirms the autonomous existence of Cecilia and of objective reality…. (pp. 4-5)

What a thing is cannot be explained; one can only say how it is, and even that unsatisfactorily: a thing is … a thing…. Ever since Leo in Gli indifferenti said: "La vita non è né nuova né vecchia, è quello che ê" [Life is neither new nor old, it is what it is] …, Moravia has consistently and with increasing frequency used the tautology. Since the publication of La noia in 1960, it has become the proposition around which revolves his expression of objective reality. The tautology is congruous to Moravia's predilection for word games and paradoxes. It says nothing—and everything; it turns back on itself reflecting the autonomy and contingency of the object. Certainly the tautology is not a satisfactory definition of objective reality; yet it is the only proposition conceivable because, as Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, it is undeniably true, and it does not limit reality whose limits, if any, are not known. (pp. 5-6)

[Objects] in Moravia often possess a curious vital force …. This mysterious life force is … present in the objects that appear in the story "Invischiato."… (p. 6)

The life force or Eros or, as Moravia usually calls it, nature, is also evident in less concrete phenomena such as intuition, a quality that in the Moravian scheme of nature is antithetic to reason and will. Intuition has its origin in nature; reason and will, which seek to dominate nature, are potentially anti-life forces in the service of Thanatos, the force of death and chaos. Despite its contradictions, variety, caprices, and freedom, nature is not chaotic; it possesses an unfathomable but nonetheless certain coherence manifested in the continuity of life. Among Moravia's characters, those most closely attuned to nature are women like Cesira in La ciociara … and, especially, Adriana, in La romana…. The Roman prostitute has no illusions about her life: she has a clear and apparently innate sense of what life is and of what she is, and she accepts both. For Adriana life is not abstract but concrete, neither the dream of a future paradise nor the memory of Eden lost; it is not what will be or was or ought to be but what is, here and now, in the present…. Mino is just the opposite. Having founded his life on reason and will, he can accept neither life nor himself; his destiny is controlled by the forces of death, and he ends a suicide. Adriana is Eros incarnate and, like nature, she guarantees the continuity of life: she ends her story bearing within her womb a child. Of all Moravia's characters, Adriana is the most deeply infused with the life force; in harmony with things and nature, she has achieved a total rapport with physical and non-physical objective reality.

The very form of the phrase "rapport with reality" implies a second term, that which is in rapport with objective reality. This second term is subjective reality: man's consciousness of himself as something other than and different from an object. Subjective reality is not limited by objective reality: it encompasses thought, will, emotion, memory, dreams, imagination. The central problem of Carla and Michele Ardengo in Gli indifferenti is that they cannot find outside themselves a reality that is more concrete than the amorphous and uncertain quality of their subjective realities. Theirs is the tragedy of twentieth-century man's loss of faìth in an objective reality…. (pp. 6-8)

When objective reality is limited to objects which are neither possessable nor analyzable, it is not surprising that some of Moravia's fictional characters maintain that subjective reality is the more "real" and meaningful of the two. Such is the conclusion of the narrator in L'attenzione…. (pp. 8-9)

Reality in the Moravian sense—and it is in this sense that the term will henceforth be used—is a synthesis of subjective and objective reality, a blending of the worlds of man and nature. In primitive and unsophisticated peoples the link between subjective and objective reality is intuition…. Intuition, however, has become vestigial in many contemporary men, particularly in intellectuals and those living in highly industrialized societies. The former have traditionally affirmed the supremacy of reason over intuition, even to the point of denying its existence. Considering everything from the rational point of view, most of Moravia's intellectuals have apparently lost their innate conception of man as participant in nature: they live in an abstract sphere alienated from concrete and objective reality.

The industrialized man, on the contrary, has been reduced to a mere object…. The refrigerators in [Moravia's story] "Sette figli" are more alive than the workers, who, deprived of any concept of themselves as human beings, are no longer ends but means, objects lacking the vital force of nature. Like the intellectual, they, too, have lost their rapport with reality.

The rapport with reality springs from an accord between the affirmation of subjective reality and the recognition of objective reality. It is a just appreciation of man's capacities and his limits. Moravian man is suspended—or rooted—in a kind of Pascalian balance that can easily lead to, perhaps is found in, the sentiments of religion and mysticism. Man's image of himself as a human being, life itself depends on his sense of this balance. The drama of mankind originates in the disturbance of this natural and vital equilibrium; its tragedy has its source in the denial of either subjective or objective reality, or in the separation of the one from the other. Such an act against humanity or nature leads inevitably to alienation…. (pp. 9-11)

[Death] is the consequence of alienation, and at the same time the only means by which alienated man can re-establish a rapport with reality. Life depends on an accurate perception of reality and an acceptance of that reality as it is: an acceptance of objective reality as outside ourselves and unpossessable; an acceptance of others as they are and not as we would have them be; an acceptance of oneself as a subject living in a world of people and objects. An accurate view of reality opens out onto the possibility that, among men, man can be an end, for humanism depends on an awareness of one's possibilities and of one's limitations, a knowledge of what a man is and of what he is not. Contemporary men are alienated because their view of reality is unsound and because they have assumed that an action or actions will lead to a rapport with reality. Ironically and tragically, the alienated man in his despair resorts ever more frequently and obstinately to action, which in turn creates greater alienation and deeper despair ("Uomo"…). The cycle, Moravia believes, must be broken.

The Moravian view of reality—or, as he calls it, his ideology—leads not to action but to contemplation, which is direct and hermetic communication with objective reality. In contemplation one discovers the authentic rapport with reality, as Dino does when he contemplates the tree…. (pp. 12-13)

In contemplation are realized and integrated the experiences of religion, mysticism, art, and reality; contemplation is the most authentic act possible within the limits of Moravian ideology. (p. 14)

In defining Moravian realism, certain popular conceptions of the term must be modified. First, realist art need not deal with "average" men in "normal" situations. The realism of Moravia is neither restricted to nor linked with any social or economic class…. Secondly, Moravian realism is not "objective." The visualism of the nouveau roman as practiced by Alain Robbe-Grillet is, in Moravia's view, antirealist: since objective reality is beyond cognition, any objective point of view is at the very least uncertain. Similarly, the novel written from an omniscient point of view is inherently false, for it implies that reality is objective and knowable…. Finally, as Francesco in L'attenzione comes to realize, the "authentic" novel—that which expresses reality—is not possible. Reality is here and now; art is memory…. (pp. 14-15)

[Moravia believes that the] perspective of realist art must be subjective. If objective reality cannot be known, its very existence is uncertain; and it cannot therefore fix the point of view of the novel. As Francesco discovers, however, some aspects of subjective reality cannot be doubted; here, if anywhere within human consciousness, is a reality that is certain. It follows then that the realist novel will be narrated from the point of view of a subject and, most likely, in the first person. (p. 15)

The structure of a Moravian novel is determined by his ideology, in which the various elements of subjective and objective reality exist and function in relation to each other…. Realist art, then, is a metaphor of contingent reality made coherent and meaningful to men through human intentionality and consciousness…. Moravia, as he judges from the standpoint of his own concept of reality, can thus maintain that visualism is not realist, for it attempts to exclude subjectivity. Nor is abstraction, which denies objective reality. (pp. 17-18)

Moravia's fiction is full of characters who have set misconceptions, abstractions, and absurdities as their goals and values. Michele in Gli indifferenti believes in the concrete existence of abstractions such as sincerity; Marcello (Il conformista, 1951) seeks to conform to society's idea of normality; the narrator of La noia tries to possess reality. Some mistake people for objects, and still others humanize objects by attributing to them their own feelings. The most significant ethical contribution of Moravia is his investigation of what is necessary and of what is superfluous to the human condition; in other words, he has attempted to determine what is normal in man, normal not with reference to a society or a culture but in relation to reality and human nature. (p. 20)

Even in his "surrealistic" tales, the situations which Moravia depicts are always recognizable as extensions of the present world: the stories are satirical rather than visionary or prophetic. (p. 21)

Louis Kibler, "The Reality and Realism of Alberto Moravia," in Italian Quarterly (copyright © 1973 by Italian Quarterly), Summer, 1973, pp. 3-25.

Zahir Jamal

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A finely attentive and judging engagement with the female predicament has always disinguished Alberto Moravia's work from that of conventional male well-wishers. The speaking subjects of the 30 self-portraits voiced in [The Voice of The Sea and Other Stories] make up an alertly differentiated chorus of ever more recognisable and unsettling identity. In brief, lucid accounts of harmonising or counter-pointed theme, Moravia's women interpret, with ominous detachment, their estrangement in contexts where they figure chiefly as commodities. (pp. 219-20)

Moravia's watchful prose alertly notices the bewildered, involuntary nature of these self-assertions; the puzzled, distant challenge to themselves of women who confront, behind their 'enigmatic' narrations, the strangers of their consciousness. (p. 220)

Zahir Jamal, in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 18, 1978.

Paul Bailey

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The Voice of the Sea is a collection of thirty stories—all written in the first person, and all narrated by women. Moravia's Roman ladies are a predatory bunch, maintaining a firm metaphorical grip on the balls of the men they choose to make contact with. What is interesting about them is the fact that they are curiously insubstantial, in spite of the numerous references to their bodies: those carefully described breasts and pudenda could just as well belong to some other species. Their various states of mind are set down rather clinically, so that one seems to be reading a series of case-histories. The psychological dossier is no substitute for the achieved work of the imagination.

With one exception, the monologues in The Voice of the Sea are mercifully short—the screams fade away after three or four pages. Some of the trick endings would make O. Henry's ghost blush; the contrived conclusion of the story called "Thunder and Lightning" for example, is signalled as early as the third paragraph….

Of Moravia's concern for the plight of women in present-day Italy I am not in doubt; I am convinced, too, by his contempt for the men who run his country. His message is always clear. The Voice of the Sea is a tract for the times. I expect more than tub-thumping, though, from a novelist hailed as "foremost". I expect from him those insights that Bassani so agonizingly, and with such effortless artistry, conveys in The Smell of Hay; I expect fantasy that comes without contrivance, as it does in the novels of Calvino; I expect to find the atmosphere of a city suggested with the minimum of scene-setting: Moravia's Rome could be anywhere, unlike Sciascia's Palermo, which is its unique and awful self. The Voice of the Sea is a shrill book; shrill with Message, and oddly lacking any sense of the individual life.

Paul Bailey, "Ladies of Prey," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), August 18, 1978, p. 924.

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