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Alberto Moravia’s role as a leading figure in twentieth century Italian literature resulted from his lifelong commitment to writing prose fiction in what he described as theatrical form. A prolific author of novels, short stories, essays, film scripts, travel books, and movie reviews, Moravia achieved international respect. He collaborated with other authors and noted directors on screenplays for the more than twenty of his novels that were adapted for film. For a time he coedited the magazine Nuovi argomenti and regularly contributed articles to the Milan newspaper Corriere della sera. He also wrote a weekly movie column for L’esspresso. Moravia traveled a great deal, often meeting with significant political figures and regularly interacting with other artists. As a young author, he served as a special correspondent to the periodicals Libera Stampa and later to La gazzetta del popolo. His travel writings include volumes of exceptional quality on India, China, and Africa.
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The immediate success of Alberto Moravia’s first work, Gli Indifferenti (1929; The Indifferent Ones, 1932), signaled the beginning of a new era for Italian literature. Published when he was only twenty-two years old, the novel is considered by many to have been his greatest. Moravia’s replacement of the traditionally ornamental Italian prose with unrelenting realism and his themes of ennui and despair paved the way for the development of existential literature. In the postwar years, he became the first Italian writer of the twentieth century to achieve international recognition. The consistent popularity and sale of his works contributed to his later prominence and wealth. In 1952 he received the prestigious Strega prize for a collection of short stories, I racconti, 1927-1951 (1952), selections from which have been translated and published as Bitter Honeymoon and Other Stories (1954) and as The Wayward Wife and Other Stories (1960). He received the Viareggio Prize in 1961 for La noia (1960; The Empty Canvas, 1961). Throughout the 1970’s Moravia occupied a prominent role in Italy. Political parties vied for his support and the press routinely reported his views on a variety of events and people, including his own literary achievements and personal life. In 1984 he became a Communist member of the European Parliament, planning to devote his entire tenure solely to promoting nuclear disarmament.
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Alberto Moravia was a very prolific writer, with the novel and short story his preferred forms. His most famous work, Gli indifferenti (1929; The Indifferent Ones, 1932; also as The Time of Indifference, 1953), called Italy’s first European novel, is also the first distinctively existential literature of the twentieth century. In addition to penning several translations, plays, and screenplays, Moravia wrote critical essays about drama and the cinema and adapted several of his novels—Il conformista (1951; The Conformist, 1951) and La ciociara (1957; Two Women, 1958), for example—to film. Besides his travelogues covering disparate locations and some thirty years, in the final decade or so of his life he created some delightfully irreverent children’s literature.
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In The Indifferent Ones, Alberto Moravia created the first existentialist novel. With the success of that book, Moravia emerged as one of Italy’s leading literary figures, and with the translation of La romana (1947; The Woman of Rome, 1949) twenty years later, his reputation spread to the English-speaking world. He received a number of awards for his writing: the Corriere Lombardo Prize in 1945 for Agostino (1944; English translation, 1947), the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (1952), the Strega Literary Prize for Il disprezzo (1954; A Ghost at Noon, 1955), and the Viareggio Prize for La noia (1960; The Empty Canvas, 1961). Although his fiction rarely strays far from Rome and his themes hardly vary in his many works, he created an impressive body of work that depicts the plight and struggles of modern humans regardless of geographical location.
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Though he is known primarily as a novelist, especially outside Italy, Alberto Moravia was equally productive as a short-story writer. Not available in translation until the 1950’s, Moravia’s short stories brought him considerable recognition in his own country. The majority of Moravia’s short stories appeared in collected form, usually after an initial publication in a literary journal or newspaper, in the following volumes: La bella vita (1935), L’epidema: Racconti surrealistici e satirici (1944), Due cortigiane (1945), Racconti romani (1954; Roman Tales, 1956), Nuovi racconti romani (1959; More Roman Tales, 1963), L’automa (1963; The Fetish, 1964), Una cosa è una cosa (1967; Command and I Will Obey You, 1969), Il paradisio (1970; Paradise, and Other Stories, 1971; also known as Bought and Sold, 1973), Un’altra vita (1973; Lady Godiva, and Other Stories, 1975; also known as Mother Love, 1976), and Boh (1976; The Voice of the Sea, and Other Stories, 1978). Two useful comprehensive editions of Moravia’s stories are I racconti, 1927-1951 (1952) and I racconti di Alberto Moravia (1968), though they must be supplemented by the collections published subsequently.
In addition to his fiction, Moravia also published and produced a number of plays, including dramatic versions of Gli indifferenti (pr., pb. 1948) and La mascherata (pr. 1954), as well as several original dramas: Beatrice Cenci (pr. 1955; English translation, 1965), Il mondo è quello che è (pr., pb. 1966; The World’s the World, 1970), Il dio Kurt (pr., pb. 1968), and La vita è gioco (pb. 1969). The collected edition of his plays is published as Teatro (1998; 2 volumes).
Moravia’s travel essays appeared in four collections: Un mese in U.R.S.S. (1958), Un’idea dell’India (1962), La rivoluzione culturale in Cina (1967; The Red Book and the Great Wall, 1968), and A quale tribù appartieni? (1972; Which Tribe Do You Belong To?, 1974).
Moravia also wrote a large body of polemical essays on literature, politics, religion, and other topics. These appear in Saggi italiani del 1959 (1960) and L’uomo come fine, e altri saggi (1964; Man as an End: A Defence of Humanism—Literary, Social, and Political Essays, 1965). They are collected in a comprehensive edition, along with other, previously uncollected, polemical writings, in Impegno controvoglia: Saggi, articoli, interviste (1980).
Numerous film adaptations of Moravia’s work have been made, not only in Italy but also in other countries, by some of Europe’s leading filmmakers. Among the best-known of them are Vittorio De Sica’s La ciociara (1960; Two Women, 1961), Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960), Damiano Damiani’s La noia (1964; The Empty Canvas, 1964), Jean-Luc Godard’s Le mépris (1964; Contempt, 1964), Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il conformista (1969; The Conformist, 1970), and L’amore coniugale (1970), directed by Moravia’s wife, Dacia Maraini.
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Alberto Moravia is an important figure in the history of modern Italian literature for several reasons. First, and for some literary historians most important, is Moravia’s popularity with a large, widely dispersed international reading audience. He is, by far, the most widely translated modern Italian novelist. Every one of his novels has been translated into English, for example, as well as nearly all of his shorter fiction. This international popularity is, no doubt, helped by the frequent practice of marketing his works as soft-core pornography in paperback editions, so that his work is made to appeal to an audience much wider than those who would read it solely for its literary qualities. This practice is made possible by the prominence of sexuality in Moravia’s fiction, but it would be misleading to think of this erotic content as an end in itself.
In his own country, Moravia’s reputation is based primarily upon his relation to the neorealist movement in the arts, in which he occupies a key position. The neorealist aesthetic was first defined in a critical essay published by Arnaldo Bocelli in 1930. In this essay, Bocelli used Moravia’s first novel, The Time of Indifference, as an example of the advent of a neorealist aesthetic that—in attempting to present the everyday experience of typical, representative characters in a concrete, realistic way—opposed the convention-bound formalism of the Hermetic tradition. In the eyes of the public, however, it was not so much Moravia’s first novel that established him as an important neorealist as it was the popular series of tales he wrote describing the life of the Roman working classes. These stories—most of which first appeared in the Milan newspaper Il corriere della sera—were told by lower-class characters themselves in their Roman vernacular. It was these Roman tales that brought Moravia widespread recognition as a leading neorealist and won for him the Strega Prize in 1952.
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Aillaud, Charlotte. “A Visit with Italy’s Man of Letters.” Architectural Digest 45 (March, 1988): 210. Discusses Moravia’s childhood, during which he read extensively while convalescing from tuberculosis; Moravia contends he would like to have been a painter because painting is “closer to reality than writing.”
Dego, Giuliano. Writers and Critics: Moravia. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1967. A valuable overview of Moravia’s early production, with discussion centering on his naturalistic presentation, his remarkable descriptive ability, his major theme of alienation, and his ceaseless exploration of crisis.
Haberman, Clyde. “Obituary.” The New York Times, September 27, 1990, p. B10. A brief but useful retrospective of Moravia’s life and work. Includes many quotes from the author and from those, such as the president of Italy, who have long appreciated his fiction.
Heiney, Donald. Three Italian Novelists: Moravia, Pavese, Vittorini. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968. Concentrates on Moravia as creator and craftsman, not as political thinker, psychologist, sociologist, or philosopher. Contains some discussion of characters, themes, and techniques in the short stories, which Heiney considers “models” of the novels. Notes, bibliography, index.
Kozma, Janice M. The Architecture of Imagery in Alberto Moravia’s Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. A monograph in the North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures series (no. 244). Kozma carefully examines how Moravia organizes his imagery into simple and complex forms, and into “discrete and seemingly discrete” categories. A set of appendices analyzes the imagery of women, men, war, nature, architecture, machines, the body, food, and sex. Includes a bibliography.
Lewis, R. W. B. “Alberto Moravia: Eros and Existence.” In From “Verismo” to Experimentalism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969. Lewis, describing Moravia as a minor master of the strategy of “artistic conversion, of the transformation of one set of values into another,” succinctly analyzes the “sexualization” of objects, values, and relationships in Moravia’s fiction.
Paterson, Harriet. “Mourning the Maestros.” The Independent, July 7, 1991, p. 26. A tribute to, and discussion of, four of Italy’s late, great postwar authors. Notes that the deaths of Moravia, Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, and Leonardo Sciascia signal the end of a generation who stood for the new left-wing ideal in Italy; with Moravia’s death, Paterson asserts there is no one left to make angry judgments in the country.
Peterson, Thomas Erling. Alberto Moravia. New York: Twayne, 1996. Comprehensive coverage of the life and works of Moravia. Includes critical analysis of major works, as well as information on personal and public activities. Describes the political climate in Italy and its relevance to Moravia’s life.
Rebay, Luciano. Alberto Moravia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970. This very abbreviated introduction to Moravia’s life and novels offers insight into the short stories as well; Rebay emphasizes that Moravia gladly accepted the charge of being “monotonous” in his concentration on tragic human emptiness, spiritual crisis, and sex. Supplemented by a bibliography.
Ross, Joan, and Donald Freed. The Existentialism of Alberto Moravia. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. Placing Moravia in the context of the literature and philosophy of existentialism, this thoroughly conducted analysis underscores the considerable significance of the concepts of love, suffering, and reality within this broader framework. Complemented by notes and an index.
Schifano, Jean-Noel. “A Moravian Perspective.” World Press Review 32 (August, 1985): 59-60. In this interview, Moravia discusses his collection of stories entitled The Thing, as well as his novel and play; also discusses the Catholic Church, Rome, and travel.
Weaver, William. “Roman Candle.” The New York Review of Books 45 (June 25, 1998): 49-52. Discusses the life and works of Moravia, whom Weaver befriended for four decades; notes that Moravia claimed the determining factors in his life were his aversion to Fascism and a childhood illness that denied him both a normal adolescence and a traditional education; notes how the anti-fascist stance and sexual candor of his novels antagonized both the church and the wartime government.
Wood, Sharon. Gender, Discourse, and Politics: Woman as Object—Language and Gender in the Work of Alberto Moravia. London: Pluto Press, 1990. Examines Moravia’s treatment of female characters in his works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
Wood, Sharon. Woman as Object: Language and Gender in the Work of Alberto Moravia. London: Pluto, 1990. Cogent and sensitive, this excellent study explores the relationship of language to sex and power, and to experience—both gender bound and intimately individual—in Moravia’s work. The author concludes that Moravia’s attempts at representing experience from the female perspective ultimately fail. Includes excellent, extensive notes, a bibliography, and an index.