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 amorality of contemporary Italy. Moravia is considered the leader of the neorealist school of writing in Italy. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 7, and 11.)

Giose Rimanelli

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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…. (p. 39)

Moravia's first works read with the same effect as a psychology laboratory report…. 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. (p. 40)

Moravia is characterized by his majority of novels in the first person. These are also his best literary achievements. Injecting his ego into the protagonist he tends to view the world from the inside out, revealing in the process his own psyche, his own emotions and frustrations.

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.

It is a well-known fact that Moravia strives to create a vivid sense of dramatic participation through just such an element as the theatre itself. The novels all participate in a strikingly theatrical resemblance to character entrance and exit, dialogue and final cathartic release. (pp. 43-4)

Moravia's novels are repetitious on the theme of sex-money and the theme...

(This entire section contains 1627 words.)

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of sex-death (which is left ambiguous), and it should be recalled that Moravia feels that one good tune is good enough, that good writers have a truth that is self-repeating. And repetition is an essential and recurrent ideal in existentialist thinking. Marcel's fidelity, Heidegger's interest in the reaffirmation of primitive philosophical questions, the rhythm of withdrawal and choice in Jaspers or Sartre, are merely the most obvious examples of this characteristic of a philosophical approach which is interested in exploring and deepening individually-realized experiences. Moravia shares a peculiarity of existentialism in that they both deal with the separation of man from himself and from the world, which raises the questions of philosophy, not by attempting to establish some universal form of justification which will enable man to readjust himself but by permanently enlarging and developing the separation itself as fundamental and constitutive for personal existence. (pp. 57-8)

Whether or not Moravia gives place to volition in his universe, so highly psychologically and materialistically determined, is a point that is ambiguous, and Moravia has left his characters in a state of suspended animation until he finds the answer. He has certainly pertained to the first stage of existentialism; he has opened our eyes to the despairing reality of the sexual aspect of life, but he has not presented a faith by which his characters can move on. (p. 61)

[The consciousness of Being or near-Being] is the primary distinction one must recognize between the existentialists and Moravia. Moravia's characters never move out of the state of existence except to fall into the state of indifference or nonexistence. Revolt and heroism have the counterparts of indifference and pathos in Moravia.

Moravia, for some mysterious reason, is closer to Kafka than to the core-group of existentialists…. (p. 63)

[Moravia] has the appearance of a latent and ambiguous romanticist—the insatiable desire to peek, to catch a glimpse of reality. It is a romanticism in the sense that he is searching for a reality, a faith that will transcend his state of being, and he is willing to take risks and believe in diversity. In this aspect he must not be confused with Kafka's world. It is the pathetic wretchedness and the occupation with the seamy, dismal side of life that contrasts so sharply with Sartre's heroism and puts Moravia closer to Kafka. By leaving us an image of hope in La noia as an inexorable illusory drive that keeps men on an endless pursuit of an impossible transcendence, we cannot help but draw parallels with Kafka's The Castle. Thus we are left with a sense of life in Moravia's works that is tragicomic. In a world that must be both accepted and refused, personal existence can only be lived in a spirit of irony, humor, and seriousness. The world must be taken seriously and its pretensions not too seriously. The irony of the existentialist is not the mockery of the skeptic alone, nor the amusement of the spectator by himself; for Moravia, just as the existentialists, is both detached and involved at the same time.

The tragic aspect of Moravia's works is without a real moral tension, for good and evil lie submerged in the voids left by a lack of reality. In the post-1945 works Moravia is more able to use a style that can convey a lived feeling of the experience of isolation, indifference and frustration. The narrative point of view is a subjective one in La ciociara, La romana, and La noia. Traditionally, the first-person narrator in fiction has possessed a high degree of self-knowledge and has enjoyed a privileged insight into the thoughts and motives of his characters. He is omnipresent and all-knowing and takes the responsibility of interpreting in the exact light the data of experience he has amassed in front of him. In the novel La romana, the narrator is not well-equipped by traditional standards for his (her) task. Her reports of what has happened, or is happening, are not always accompanied with an awareness of the psychological motives involved. The reader is left satiated as before, but not without a greater emotional involvement. Psychology opened man's eyes to the fact that he really has very little knowledge about himself; through the use of the subjective narrative Moravia can convey this lack of self-awareness by placing an objective vocabulary along with the narrative technique. This juxtaposition in La romana keeps the reader aware of the psychological themes and the lack of awareness on the part of Adriana, simultaneously.

With La noia and the other latter works Moravia seems to be moving from the sexual, erotic theme to a new, more inclusive and integral theme: that of the sensation of existence itself. The sexual encounter takes the position of being the cardinal factor in this sensation. There is a noticeable lack of any clearly defined notion of evil, for Moravia poses no counterworld of Being to the state of indifference. There is thus a lack of moral tension, a lack of volition, and hence a lack of tragedy. The lack of passion reduces Moravia's state of indifference to a pathos.

The tragic element in the tragicomedy of existence has essentially two aspects: First, there is an element of sadism in that Moravia inflicts pain and the suffering of indifference on his characters and those who identify with his characters; Second, there is an element of masochism in the sense that Moravia himself identifies with the characters. Moravia is both a spectator and is involved in the frustrated striving to jump the gap from existence to Being. The reader is both separated from the characters and emotionally involved and thus experiences a sensation of a lack of reality, or Being. The discord between the metallic, authoritarian, objective vocabulary and the narrative method conveys the tragicomic sense of existence to the reader.

The comic aspect derives its main support from the futility of illusions and human aspirations and the absurdity of pretensions. There are two aspects to the comic element: First, Moravia indulges in innocent humor, such as the history according to boredom in the prologue of La noia. Second, there is mockery, which is satisfaction gained from the innocent humor. (pp. 64-6)

The two elements of tragedy and comedy, when combined, amount to a sophisticated "sick joke." The laughter soon dissipates, however, for the comic effect does not focus on the intrigue itself, it goes through the intrigue to the underlying sense of experience which, in Moravia's fiction, is a sense of the base and vile side of human existence. (p. 66)

Giose Rimanelli, "Moravia and the Philosophy of Personal Existence," in Italian Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 41, Summer, 1967, pp. 39-68.

Louis Kibler

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Among Moravia's works, Gli indifferenti is the best example of a novel written in advance of its time. The ideology to which it adheres is most commonly identified as existentialism, yet Moravia denies having written the novel under a conscious influence of existentialism. Gli indifferenti is exemplary also of those secret and dark sources of creativity that, as if by miracle, make coherent what should by reason be chaotic: just as Moravia was ignorant of the existential content of the novel, so is it likely that he was unaware of the original and effective technique of imagery in Gli indifferenti. Through images Moravia suggests, coherently and systematically, the contingency and chaos of objective reality. (p. 316)

Moravia has stated that the years following World War I were marked by a collapse of the traditional ethics upon which the established scale of values had been founded. The resultant crisis in the "relationship between man and reality" has been the dominating theme of his work. In Gli indifferenti [this] theme is most evident in the characters of Michele and Carla…. (pp. 316-17)

[Carla] is fascinated by the physical state of things. She seems to sense that objects conceal some secret from her, a knowledge or a reality that is denied her…. [Yet] Carla never fully understands things and her relation to them…. [Her] confrontation with existence induces a trancelike state…. Carla nonetheless in certain privileged moments perceives in objects a coherence looming so real that she can almost grasp it; yet it fades inevitably at her approach…. (pp. 317-18)

Carla's problem is [thus] her incapacity for understanding or even accepting the contingency of objective reality. (p. 318)

Michele is an intellectual, and his relation to objective reality is more complex than his sister's. He is less interested in static "thingness," more interested in movement and in the way the various phenomena of objective reality interrelate. Above all, Michele seeks the relation between his subjective reality and objective reality. He wants to use objective reality to transform his feelings into actions, to create a bond between cause and effect. And he will be satisfied with nothing less than the establishment, between these terms, of an equation having all the cogency and substance of a mathematical proportion. (p. 319)

Carla's experience with objective reality may be studied in a few privileged moments represented by single images; this is not true of Michele. For him objective reality is not for contemplation; he values it either instrumentally (as the means to achieve an end), or symbolically (as the representation of an abstract reality). Since Michele always considers objective reality in its relation with something else, it is in the relations among images that one must seek his experience and the expression of his rapport—or lack of it—with objective reality. Yet despite their different attitudes, Michele and Carla share in the anguish born from their common desires for the impossible: they are like Tantalus reaching out for a reality that recedes forever from his grasp. Michele would like for abstractions to have the concreteness of objective reality, Carla wants objective reality to have a soul. Brother and sister are victims of an existential pathetic fallacy. (p. 320)

The recurrent metaphor of the mask [in Gli indifferenti] epitomizes the deception of appearances. Although it most frequently characterizes the expression of Mariagrazia's face …, it is equally appropriate to the others; for each at times conceals his feelings, his anguish, and often his emptiness behind a mask of acceptable social behavior. And just as Michele and Carla hide themselves from others, so do they feel that a more certain and absolute reality is hidden from them. Their vision is beclouded, a veil separates them from the full perception and attainment of that reality. When they try to see, to understand, the veil is there in all its many forms.

One of these forms is rain…. But rain, like many of Moravia's images, has more than one symbolic value: it is also the objectified inability of the characters to escape from their present situation to a new life. It is as though they were trapped in an aquarium or drowning without hope of rescue in a limitless sea. The rain in Gli indifferenti, like the omnipresent clouds and fog, has a peculiarly oppressive quality. Dense far beyond its weight of water, it involves and suffocates like the veil of cloth with which it is often associated. (pp. 320-21)

Throughout the novel the efforts of Michele—and to a lesser degree those of Carla—are directed toward the achievement of a new kind of life…. Both hope to find some means that will cut through the veil that separates them from their ideal reality, something that will take them beyond the fog and the rain.

The two images most prominently associated with what Carla terms the "new life" are those of the automobile and the blade. The former appears frequently in the novel, providing a cinematic link between the theatrical scenes of the novel…. [The] auto is a mobile refuge from their immobile daily lives. With the drone of the motor and the swish of the tires on the wet pavement filling the silence …, they can give themselves over to their thoughts…. The automobile becomes a closed world, a box, as it is often called, in which the characters can explore the relations between themselves and others or the external world. (pp. 322-23)

In the car [Carla] most fully senses her alienation and her inability to control her life. The occupants of cars are like puppets, bounced about by a twentieth-century machine that they can neither control nor comprehend…. (pp. 323-24)

The automobile contains the answer to Michele's and Carla's question of where they are going—nowhere, or at least nowhere out of the closed circle of life that they have always known.

The image of the blade differs in several ways from that of the automobile. Whereas the automobile always appears as a limousine, the blade assumes various forms: knife, razor, letter opener. The automobile is associated with Mariagrazia, Carla, and Michele; the blade is relevant only to the latter. It has no function in the cyclical structure of the novel; on the contrary, to follow the evolution of this image is to trace the progress of the thought and character of Michele. Finally, the auto is equated with the lives, either actual or ideal, of the characters; the blade functions as a means to change the actual life and to achieve the ideal life: Michele regards it as an instrument for establishing a rapport with reality, for metaphorically cutting the veil that separates him from reality. (p. 326)

The image of the blade parallels Michele's changing attitude toward "sincerity" and his growing awareness of its absurd uselessness. He imagines a dagger, an instrument of violent action. He sees in the shop window a razor, ironically sharp, and understands its uselessness; finally, he touches it, and it is only a letter opener, a worthy blade for a cardboard puppet. The irony of the imagery is obvious. The automobile has returned them to their old lives, the blade has proved worthless. Michele and Carla are back, more or less, where they started…. (p. 328)

Apparently little has changed. Yet at the end of the novel there is a new sense of conclusiveness and inevitability similar to that found in tragedy. The characters, now fixed forever in an immutable condition, are fated to repeat the life common to their milieu. And in retrospect, it could have been no other way: the outcome was determined from the very beginning. These qualities—conclusiveness and inevitability—arise from three sources. First, the characters of Michele and Carla are now definite, the uncertainty with which they have moved through the novel has disappeared. Both have accepted, to a certain degree, what has been told to them by Leo, whose deceptively simple statements, phrased in terse and popular language, are the most profound in the novel…. (pp. 328-29)

The second source is irony, examples of which are common throughout Gli indifferenti…. But until that climactic scene in which Michele aims at Leo and pulls the trigger of the pistol he has forgotten to load, the irony has not weighed so heavily upon Michele and Carla as to affect significantly one's attitude toward them. The reader may become impatient with their tergiversations, but he does not despise them. As the end of the novel approaches, however, the irony bears with more insistence upon the two main characters, and the final scene is a mocking reprise of many of the images that earlier were associated with the idealistic desires of Michele and Carla. Not only are their hopes for a better life frustrated, but it seems ridiculous that they should ever have entertained such hopes at all. (p. 330)

[Through the use of irony, the] distance between the reader and the characters [has become] unbridgeable. No longer possibilities, Michele and Carla are hopeless objects of pity or ridicule; they are wooden puppets fixed in their roles, defined not by a fatalistic theological system nor yet by a determinist psychology, but by the contingency of objective reality.

Imagery is the vehicle for the most effective irony in the novel, that of the human condition as manifested in Michele and Carla. It has infused the irony with concreteness. Conversely, the significance of the imagery is intensified by irony. This interrelation gives force and richness to both. Finally, in the technique of the imagery lies the third and most original source of the novel's sense of conclusiveness and inevitability. (p. 331)

It would seem that the large number and limited variety of images found in Gli indifferenti should point toward a consistent symbolism in which the recurrence of a given image would repeat a particular idea or at least a similar one. All attempts, however, to find a constant symbolic value for an image are vain: the significance of an image varies according to its situation and usually according to the character with whom it is associated. The only certainty is that each image has at least two senses, which are usually contrary. Although the blade can be an instrument for expressive murder, its being drawn back and forth on a strop suggests futility. The automobile represents freedom and a possible escape from a stifling situation, yet it is itself a suffocating box and a means of return to the "old life." The numerous possible symbolic values of the images nullify each other; after the devaluation of objective reality through metaphor, the metaphor is in turn devalued. Objective reality remains. Una cosa è una cosa is the title of a collection of Moravia's short stories (… 1967): an object is only what it is. And like the object which it represents, the image is without absolute symbolic value. It has many relative symbolic values which are useful in discerning the attitudes and progress of the characters…. Without absolute value, however, the images in Gli indifferenti are ultimately significant not for what they symbolize abstractly but for what they are—representations of objective reality.

Although Moravia is often considered a "traditional" writer and although R. W. B. Lewis accurately calls him "one of the most incorrigibly literary novelists of his generation," Moravia has used traditional literary symbolism in an ironic and original way. A consistent symbolism has not been established, but like Michele, one has a new perspective of objective reality. The technique of imagery in Gli indifferenti is comparable, in a rudimentary way, to the phenomenological method of Husserl: consciously or otherwise, Moravia has presented the images in such a way that symbolic values are implied; the symbolic aspects are then devalued and thus placed, as it were, in brackets, i.e., outside consideration. Finally, one is left contemplating the image not as it appeared early in the novel, when it was rich and deformed with possible symbolic meanings, but as the simple and precise image of a contingent objective reality.

In Gli indifferenti the hopes of Michele and Carla are revealed by what they say and think, and by means of the images. The fictional lives of the characters end when the images prove ironic and their hopes unrealizable. That such an end was inevitable is expressed by the technique of imagery, which denies the validity of abstractions. As Moravia has stated, the "point of departure [of my novels] has been an effective and objective reality—a reality that I have sought to define and explain and reveal to myself, either so as to be mindful of it or to be free of it, either to sing its praises or to use it as an instrument of knowledge." In his first novel objective reality is also the destination. Its literary representation—the image—is an instrument of knowledge. The effect is to make one mindful of objective reality, which emerges at the end of the novel with a renewed importance and the strange fascination that it might once have held for primeval man uncontaminated by myths and abstractions. It is this new consciousness of objective reality and Moravia's use of imagery as the expression of an ideology that constitute the originality and technical artistry of Gli indifferenti. (pp. 332-33)

Louis Kibler, "Imagery As Expression: Moravia's 'Gli indifferenti'," in Italica, Vol. 49, No. 3, Autumn, 1972, pp. 315-34.

Robert Alter

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"Time of Desecration," Alberto Moravia's 21st volume of fiction, is an odd and intriguing experiment in using the erotic novel as an instrument for the scrutiny of political behavior. Though occasional allusions are made to the ideal of revolution, though Marx is once actually discussed by two of the characters, scarcely anything happens in the novel that is not explicitly, claustrophobically, steamily sexual. The effect of the book, however, is quite the reverse of the conventional erotic novel. There is nothing rousing or arousing about the relentless sequence of sexual scenes: Sex for the female protagonist is alternately a sordid means to an end and a ghastly trap; and her flat-toned narration of her erotic experiences "defamiliarizes" them by allowing no other feelings toward them to emerge.

This deliberate flattening is made easier by the peculiar narrative form of the novel. Desideria, a beautiful Roman girl who would appear to be involved in terrorism, tells the story of her life in an extended interview to an impassive, laconic questioner who serves as the author's surrogate, seeking through his questions only to understand the concatenation of events without revealing an iota of his—or indeed, perhaps her—identity, politics, social background, moral values. (p. 1)

[The] grim farce of sex, as it is enacted by Desideria and her sundry partners, both bourgeois and proletarian, is invariably a vehicle for the playing out of private obsessions, the projection of fantasies, involving epidermal contact that is never real contact, action that is chiefly symbolic….

Sex as symbolic action, sex as the arena of virtually solipsistic fantasy, becomes an eerily appropriate model for the "expressive politics" that constitutes terrorism in our era. In this regard, it is a pity that the novel's Italian title, "La Vita Interiore" ["The Interior Life"] was changed in translation, for surely one of Moravia's main points is that for Desideria and her kind revolution is an exacerbated impulse of "the inner life" that remains radically, painfully disjunct from the real world….

An industrialist may be kidnapped or murdered, a bomb set off in a crowded shop: all the act really amounts to, if one considers its essential inefficacy, is a symbolic expression of the terrorist's rage or frustration or dreams of power, like those hands and lips and members obsessively placed in strange conjunction through Desideria's sad rites of "transgression and desecration."

This is a bleak novel, more than a little airless in the stark selection of its human materials; but through it Moravia manages to tell us, with the weight of imagined individual presence that is the novelist's special realm of knowledge, something important about the pointless violence of politics in our time. (p. 32)

Robert Alter, "The Erotic Terrorist," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 1, 1980, pp. 1, 32.

Anne DuchêNe

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[Time of Desecration is] unremittingly cold, cruel, claustrophobic lubriciousness.

It is Moravia's first novel for eight years. His very first—we should remember—appeared in 1925. Several novels, in the almost uninterruptedly productive career since, have made honourable places for themselves; and many in the vast crop of short stories were legitimate and skilful peelings off the pain and panic and dissociation in modern minds.

Benign convention has accepted for a long time now that Moravia's novels have been becoming increasingly pornographic; but even the last, The Two Of Us, in 1972—chiefly a dialogue between a man and his over-large, over-active penis—was still slightly humanized by comedy, a little tenderness, and some glimpses, however unsurprising, of chicanery in the Italian film world. This new book allows no such relief….

Some wider metaphor may, loyally, be sought beyond the time-honoured écrasement of the bourgeoisie, which is really a pretty worm-eaten and hollow old statue now, and easy to knock over. The book's English title may suggest we have descended another rung or two in the Dantesque spiral since Time of Indifference (1929), one of the Moravia's better novels. The Italian title of the new novel, La Vita Interiore, from which the English publishers presumably decently withdrew, suggests Moravia may really want to lament that chaos is come again—on the basis of the nasty influences on silly Desideria, and her ludicrous reactions to them?—and darkness closing in over men's minds.

Yet on the evidence here, he is one of those engaged in putting out the lights all over Europe, and helping to rot the remaining fabric even while deploring its decay.

Anne Duchêne, "Putting Out the Light," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4029, June 13, 1980, p. 664.

Vivian Gornick

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Alberto Moravia, has now, with the publication of his new book Time of Desecration, announced that he … is finished writing novels…. [He declares] that the time is so spiritually destroyed, it is no longer possible to write. This last novel of his, he implies, will supply the final literary proof of the barrenness in which we endure, more dead than alive, without the thought or feeling necessary to the act of self-creation embodied in the writing of fiction. (p. 37)

Time of Desecration is an extraordinarily controlled piece of work, heavy-handed in its allegorical intentions, emotionally unconvincing, narrow, obsessive, ungenerous. The limits of discovery seem to have been set well in advance of the writing, and thus a mechanistic atmosphere is lent to the entire proceedings. Neither Desideria or anyone else in the book functions outside the highly contrived "self-description" imposed by the author, description remarkable chiefly for its sense of disconnection. The language is all words, not a bit of it felt life, the sex coldly obsessive, the politics an artificial creation. More than anything else in this book, one feels Moravia's distance from the people his characters are meant to represent. (pp. 37-8)

[Alberto Moravia] has been writing novels for more than 50 years. Increasingly, as the years and the novels have gone on, his emotional remoteness has come to seem more powerful than anything he writes about. Concommitantly, his usage of sex (that is, of women in a state of insatiable, dreamlike lust) has grown cold, hard, dead. The remoteness and the fierce sex worked wonderfully well in the novels of Fascist Italy for which Moravia became famous in this country in the late '30s and early '40s. He was then in strongly detailed contact with the world he was describing, and its nihilistic heartlessness was captured brilliantly inside his peculiar angle of vision. After the Fascist, however, Moravia's emotional deep freeze clearly proved to be a matter of helpless inclination. He continued to endow his characters and his situations with his special sense of repulsion and his sexual preoccupation, even though the latter began to resemble mechanical evocation rather than live fixation.

In Time of Desecration Moravia sounds as though he is sealed up in an apartment in Rome, more coldly removed than ever, peering through a pair of binoculars at the people on the street and making up clichéd stories about them. No one with any firsthand knowledge of live human beings could believe Time of Desecration tells us anything about Italians in Italy today.

Forster was dismayed by the world after the first World War, and retreated from it. But that there was a world beyond him, with flesh and blood men and women living out their lives, he never doubted. Moravia makes the fatal mistake of insisting that the men and women now alive are unreal, filled with the sexual/political disconnection that, in his work, can never seem so much vital aspect of reality as a projection of his own hatred of life. (p. 38)

Vivian Gornick, "Only Disconnect," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 25, June 18-24, 1980, pp. 37-8.


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Almost alone among established Italian novelists, Alberto Moravia has tried to adapt to present-day reality the techniques he has developed over decades of professional writing. His new novel, Time of Desecration, is an attempt to reveal the psychology of young people who are in rebellion and who are desperate enough to engage in anti-social activity. The Italian title, Inner Life, more accurately reflects Moravia's intention than the English title, for he is concerned with the private motivations of his characters and cares little about political slogans or the details of terrorist activities. (p. 34)

[Desideria] reveals herself as one caught between two worlds, each of which is filled with deceit and cruelty. The values of the rich seem to be about the same as those of the young revolutionaries she meets and who also want to make love to her. She discovers that for the most part they are just playing at revolution while living comfortable middle-class lives. Sex is more important than politics, no matter what the social context. The first half of Time of Desecration is vivid, however shocking in what it reveals. But inevitably Desideria's adventures lead to complications and these make the book murky and repetitious. New characters come into her life and she becomes compromised by them just as she is by her stepmother. The hopes she had for revolution and change become corrupted and sidetracked. Falling in with a pair of soi-disant terrorists …, Desideria has a "dream of a heroic community." But she soon comes to realize it is only a fantasy. What is real in bourgeois Italy is that revolution and eroticism are inextricably and contradictorily mingled. Each corrupts the other. Moravia explicitly defines decadence as a state in which the two are mixed together. The book ends with violence and murder, and Moravia has Desideria vanish from the novel, to remain only as a memory, like the outlines human figures left imprinted on the walls of Hiroshima when they were annihilated by the atom bomb.

Time of Desecration is an attempt to capture the inner psychology of Italy today—and by extension the Western world in general. As a piece of writing it is a tour de force. But Moravia's vision falters. At times, Desideria seems to be a moving and sympathetic character; at others, she becomes ridiculous in her various postures. Reality is often a mixture of the earnest and the comic—even the unintentionally comic—and Moravia is honest in recording it this way. At the same time, his book is not wholly convincing as a work of art since his characters act so entirely from ideology or impulse and so rarely from genuine feeling. The world is insane enough to appear comic, but it is also tragic, and this element is missing. In Italy, Time of Desecration was dismissed as being half chic, half pornographic, but that is unjust. It is a brave attempt to see life as it is during these new years of misfortune. (p. 35)

Frank MacShane, "Books and the Arts: 'Time of Desecration'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, No. 25, June 21, 1980, pp. 34-5.

Robert M. Adams

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Like other novels by Moravia, Time of Desecration is set in Rome, its central character is a woman, its action concerns the contamination of sex by money, politics, guilt, and revenge—or vice versa. The prose is precise, seemingly effortless, unmannered, a deft instrument for analysis and definition; yet the sharp outlines and primary colors in Moravia's work mask interior violence reminiscent of a Pirandello play. External description is sparse. But there are two rather striking differences in Time of Desecration. The story is told in the form of an interview—that is, in questions formulated by the narrator "I" and answered by the heroine Desideria. Moreover the heroine, in addition to (or, rather, as a subtraction from) the usual motivations of a fictional character, is subject to authoritative direction from a disembodied inner Voice, which tells her in great detail what to feel, think, and do.

The Q & A business is more obtrusive and troublesome at the beginning of the novel than later on, when one has become accustomed to it; but it's never really explained. Though occasionally ironic, "I" is generally neutral in his comments and undirected in his questioning; he accepts both Desideria and her Voice at their "face" value, rarely pushing analysis toward any possible complexities or attempting to unveil any disguises….

The Voice which Desideria starts to hear at the beginning of the novel, and which accompanies her through most of it, is specifically compared to the voices heard by Joan of Arc, but there is good reason to think this parallel is a piece of ironic indirection. The existence of the Voice itself is not at all ironic; we must accept it, as we do the convention of the interview, unquestioningly. (p. 47)

The fable … crudely reconstructed invites allegorical interpretation of a particularly bleak kind. The social order is of an unmitigated rottenness, and the revolutionary forces opposed to it (in which the Voice has urged Desideria to place her trust) are pedantic, stupid, and horrifyingly selfish. The girl is used by her inner life even more ruthlessly than by her outer one; and against its idiot excitations she is shown to be as helpless as a mouse under the stare of a cobra. In many ways she reminds us of Carla, the central figure of Moravia's youthful first novel Gli Indifferenti, who also is teased, bullied, and provoked into an affair with her mother's disgusting ex-lover. But for Carla the fantasy is that after bedding down with loathsome Leo, she will find a "vita nuova," in parodic parallel with Dante. For Desideria, the parodic parallel with Joan of Arc is undertaken without positive hope of any sort. She exists simply to be used; and that sickening sense of being used, and used up, and to no end which is not delusive, is perhaps the strongest impression the reader will take from Moravia's last novel.

Deeper and more disagreeable than any of the themes or characters in the novel is something I will refer to simply as the dehumanization of the person, which is an effect I had not noticed before in Moravia….

Adriana, Cesira, and Cecilia (protagonists, respectively, of The Woman of Rome, Two Women, and The Empty Canvas) bore themselves with an inner vitality and occasionally with a touch of nobility. Desideria is almost pure victim. There was a kind of grotesque comedy in the long-drawn-out exasperation of Leo in Gli Indifferenti; memory clings to that marvelous moment when, having carefully got Carla drunk, maneuvered her onto a bed, and stripped off her clothes, he is at the last moment frustrated by a violent attack of vomiting on her part. If one could imagine the reader for whom that scene was hilarious, one can hardly do so for the Time of Desecration.

What becomes clear from his new book is that Moravia's deepest and most persistent strain is that sense of sadness and vacancy epitomized in Leopardi's phrase "noia immortale." Boredom, weariness, loneliness, alienation—the feeling occurs as often in his little sketches, done for the newspapers, as in his full-length novels. As a rule, his people, though quick-witted, are without mental or cultural resources; one hardly recalls any of them reading a book without revulsion, listening to a concert with any attention, or looking at a picture with pleasure. It is exceptional when they pay any attention to their surroundings. Cecilia in The Empty Canvas (titled in the original La Noia) represents an exaggerated version of a condition that's common to many Moravia characters—she lives in an ordinary apartment with parents about whom there's nothing unusual, does nothing special most of the time, and recalls nothing in particular about her previous lovers—prolonged questioning elicits from her only the vaguest of trivial commonplaces.

Moravia's characters have this quality of taking a great deal—almost everything—for granted. In addition to sex, money or the lack of it is the big thing in their lives; their typical reaction is bitter resentment of those who have it. Moravia himself is the most literary of authors; his prose is rich in echoes of Manzoni, of Proust, of contemporaries like Sartre and Camus and a dozen others; but his characters are bitterly impoverished. Again, people talk of "Moravia's Rome" as one more layer of manners and mechanisms piled atop all the others—pagan Rome, early Christian Rome, Sistine Rome, Stendhal's Rome, Belli's Rome, fascist Rome. But even if this is right, it isn't a very substantial Rome that Moravia gives us; the genre stories, about cab drivers, sneak thieves, and dishwashers, have the grit and smell of the city, but his bourgeois characters seem to inhabit Rome chiefly as a stage setting. (p. 48)

Robert M. Adams, "Moravia's Victims," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 13, August 14, 1980, pp. 47-8.

Jeffrey Burke

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I began by liking Moravia's Time of Desecration. In its interview format (a pointed nod to the legendary Oriana Fallaci), an inquisitor, designated I, extracts from a young woman named Desideria the story of her early introduction to sex, politics, and terrorism….

I admire Moravia's ability to sustain an interesting story in the tiresome format of question and answer. His I is appropriately objective, curious, and skeptical, maintaining the same distance from Desideria as he interposes, by the journalistic format and tonal flatness of the writing, between the novel and the reader. The technique serves both narrative and ideology. In short, I appreciate the author's art.

It is when I come to search for the point of it all that I find myself troubled. Is it possible that Moravia intends to account for Italy's violent and confused politics by setting up the education of Desideria as a terrorist? Is there an implicit political allegory in Desideria's physical and intellectual development: bourgeois obesity (cf. pasta) to countercultural slimness (basta) accompanied by personal isolation (Italy as postwar orphan) and sexual freedom without fear of conception (papal bull notwithstanding), and leading finally, after murder, to "nothing" (Desideria's response to I's last "What happened next?")? Even if Moravia is putting this forward ironically, he has so diminished the historical complexity of his subject as to leave himself—not, as he probably intended, Desideria and her ilk—open to the charge of superficiality. (p. 91)

Jeffrey Burke, "Tear Gas Is Bad for the Complexion," in Harper's (copyright © 1980 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the September, 1980 issue by special permission), Vol. 261, No. 1564, September, 1980, pp. 90-1.∗


Moravia, Alberto (Pseudonym of Alberto Pincherle) (Vol. 11)