Alberto Moravia

CHARLES J. ROLO,who writes “Reader’s Choicein the Atlantic Bookshelf each month, is the author of two war books and the editor of the collected works of Aldous Huxley. A gifted essayist, he has written for us in times past on André Gide, Aldous Huxley, and Thomas Mann. His article on Evelyn Waugh in the November Atlantic started a new series; now he gives us his appraisal of an Italian novelist who has acquired an enormous following in this country.

by CHARLES J. ROLO

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IN ITALY more than in any other Western country, the contemporary writer has had to pass through a searching re-examination of the cultural tradition he inherited. Not joined into a nation until 1870, a latecomer to the industrial revolution, deficient in important natural resources, and burdened with a feudal class system, Italy has been ill-equipped to cope with the challenges of the modern age: for nine tenths of its population the cardinal realities have been poverty and lack of opportunity. The most important Italian writing from 1860 to 1900 — the work of Verga, for example — honestly reflected the harrowing facts of Italian experience. But under the baneful influence of D’Annunzio, and more so under the pressures of Fascism, Italian writing (with a few notable exceptions such as Svevo and Pirandello) tended to degenerate into an escape mechanism. Its progressive divorce from reality took two main lines. One was the heroic principle celebrated in the bombast of D’Annunzio. The other was a tearful, cuddly middle-class sentimentality, which idealized Italian family life and preached the virtue of submission to the status quo. The mythology of the Fascist era liked to picture Italian life as sturdily founded on “potenza e pasta asciutta — might and macaroni.” The might was a disastrous illusion, and millions were short of macaroni.

It is from this perspective that one must approach the best contemporary Italian writing, and in particular the work of Alberto Moravia. In contrast to the prevailing trend in post-war Italian fiction, Moravia does not directly engage in social criticism. “The novel,” he said, “has no other goal than the description of a particular individual and the illustration of a particular conception of life.” But the harshness of Moravia’s vision of life represents, at least in part, a savage reaction against the bombastic and consolatory falsehoods which permeated Italian culture when Moravia came of age in the late nineteen-twenties.

In the past five years, Alberto Moravia has established himself as an international literary figure of the first rank. When Time magazine referred to him as “one of the best writers in the world today,” it was voicing an opinion shared by a number of critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Moravia’s work has had a wide international appeal. His books have been translated into some twenty languages; and in the United States, his total sales have greatly exceeded those of any other Italian novelist, living or dead.

In Moravia’s fiction there is an unusual fusion of the somber modern temper with an old-fashioned respect for storytelling. His long novels — Wheel of Fortune, The Woman of Rome, The Conformist — are strongly charged with action; and even when Moravia is anatomizing a neurosis and describing every shift in its pulse, as in the novelette Luca, he is careful to sustain narrative interest: there is suspense in his psychology. His artistry reaches its peak in the short novel; in the longer novels, the plotting, especially in the later stages, is sometimes contrived or crudely melodramatic. Moravia is also a masterly writer of short stories. So far his seven volumes of stories have remained unpublished in English, but eight tales selected from them will be brought out in book form later this year.

At his best, Moravia is a superlative craftsman, He admires classical tragedy above all other literary forms, and one finds its tautness and its elegance of design in his work. His prose — firm, in the main humorless, but strong on clarity and precision — has the beauty of writing which expresses unerringly what its author wishes to express. His milieu is for the most part Italian bourgeois society; and he has documented it sharply and solidly without indulging in the naturalistic writer’s plodding accumulation of detail. In quick, easy strokes he conjures up the leisurely and monotonous rhythm of the long summer vacation at the seaside; the inert almosphere that hovers over the dining table as the family is consuming its copious midday meal; the furnishings, banal but “of good quality"; the small talk, the entrenched habits, and the conventional values.

But where Moravia excels above all is in the depth and subtlety of his psychological insight; in his ability to disclose the hidden vagaries of human nature without flattening his characters into case histories. Few writers have displayed such mastery in treating the crises of adolescence; and there is possibly no one else today who handles the domain of sexual experience with Moravia ‘s acuteness and matter-of-fact exactitude.

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ALBERTO MORAVIA was born in Home in 1907, the son of a moderately wealthy Venetian architect. Stricken by tuberculosis of the bone at the age of nine, he spent five of the next eight years in bed, the last, two in a sanatorium in the Dolomites, The disease was not fully conquered until Moravia was twenty-five, and it has left him with a slight limp.

Unable to go to school, he was educated by a succession of governesses and he became an avid reader. When he started on his first novel at seventeen, the writers he admired most were Boccaccio, Manzoni, Dostoevski, and Joyce. “Joyce,” he said in a recent letter, “may have suggested to me the time structure of Gli Indifferenti [The Time of Indiffere nee], which covers two days in the life of a single family. Dostoevski may have stimulated my tendency toward psychological and moral introspection. Possibly Manzoni gave me a predilection for simple and lurid writing. And possibly it was from Boccaccio that I acquired my taste for plot and intrigue.”

Gli Indifferenti was completed before Moravia was twenty, but no publisher would accept it until the author had agreed to pay for the first printing. The book was a sensational success: at twenty-two Moravia found himself famous — and in official quarters infamous. Although Gli Indifferenti contained no reference whatsoever to politics, its acrid picture of the Italian bourgeoisie was in flagrant contradiction to fascist mythology. The novel focuses on the disintegration of a Roman family in the late nineteen-twenties. The lives of its protagonists are rotted by false emotionalism, inertia, and illusory hopes; and the implicit theme is that there is no escape from this condition in the time in which they live. With its deft construction and its assured, merciless characterization, this furiously disillusioned book is an amazing accomplishment on the part of an author not yet twenty.

When Moravia’s second novel, Le Ambizioni Shagliate (Wheel of Fortune) was published in Italy in 1935, the censors issued a directive that it was not to be reviewed. Now out of print in this country, Wheel of Fortune revolves around the passions and intrigues of two Roman families of the upper and middle class. The Italian title, the Mistaken Ambitions, perfectly sums up the theme.

Finding the political almosphere in Italy suffocating, Moravia traveled a great deal during the thirties writing nonpolitical reportage for Italian newspapers. Most of 1935 he spent in the United Stales and in Mexico, which suggested the backdrop of his next novel, La Mascherata (The Faucy Dress Party). This is Moravia’s only humorous book — an unusual blend of opéra bouffe and psychological realism. Set in a mythical country in which a certain General Arango has emerged as dictator, it has two interlocking plots, the one having to do with the farcically atrocious ways of secret police, t he other with the atrociously farcical ways of love. As political satire the book gets nowhere in particular, but it is a caustic divertissement in which a keen eye and a shrewd hand are at work.

The novel’s reference to Mussolini’s love life was so transparent that each of the underlings in the censorship department felt he had better hand the book on to his superior; and eventually it reached the Minister of Popular Culture, who handed it to Mussolini. The Duce ordered that the novel be published. A month later, it was ordered withdrawn. Moravia was then forbidden to write in the press under his own name and he adopted the pseudonym of Pseudo. A year later, Pseudo was silenced.

During the forty-five-day Badoglio interregnum which followed the fall of Fascism, Moravia became involved in anti-Faseist journalism; and when the Germans occupied Rome, he learned that the SS intended to arrest him. He and his wife, whom he had married in 1941, fled to the battle front in the Cassino area, expecting that within a few weeks they would fall into the hands of the Allies. The weeks lengthened into eight months, during which the Moravias lived like savages in a mud hut 3000 feet up in the mountains.

Since his liberation by the American kiftli Army in May, 1943, Moravia has been extraordinarily productive, He has published eight books in Italy, bringing his lotal up to fifteen. He has written the script for the film version of two of bis books, one of them The Woman of Rome, whose heroine is portrayed by Gina Lollobrigida. He has had a play produced in Milan and has recently completed another drama. In addition, he has turned out a great deal of journalism and has acted as adviser to an Italian publisher on American and British books.

Moravia writes two or three hours every morning, seven days a week, wherever he may be. “I can write,” he once remarked, “in a hotel lobby or with someone playing the bull fiddle in the chair near me.” In the afternoons and evenings, he follows his fancy; he reads, walks, goes swimming when at the seaside, or sees his intimate friends. He is a firm believer in the Greek ideal of the wellrounded life — “My books arc part of my life, but are not so over-proportionately, and all my strength has gone inlo maintaining a sense of proportion.”

I first met Moravia in 1947 in Anacapri, where he lived for four years. Just above medium height and compactly built, he is a handsome man who bears a slight resemblance to Sir Laurence Olivier. His dark hair is graying at the temples, and there is a suggestion of severity in his square-cut, strongly modeled face, with its long thin-lipped mouth and deep-set eyes. Though essentially shy, Moravia emerges fairly readily from his shell, and he is an extremely stimulating talker. The predominant impression is of immense intelligence and controlled restlessness; of a man — to quote his friend, Robert Penn Warren — “strangely poised between the inward and the outward worlds, [whose vigor] turns inward in brooding and self-absorption, outward in curiosity, argument, joke and abrupt gesture.”

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AFTER The Fancy Dress Party, Moravia wrote two novelettes which were published in the United States in a single volume entitled Two Adolescents: The Stories of Agostino and Luca. In contrast to so many American and British novels of adolescence, which bog down in autobiographical selfpity and nostalgia for the lost paradise of childhood, these stories are told with the clear-eyed detachment of a mature adult and with an unobtrusive but telling compassion. The anguish of the youthful protagonists is revealed in all its pathos, but without the slightest trace of mawkishness.

Set against an exquisitely evocative background of summer sunshine and sea, Agostino chronicles — with an extraordinary delicacy of perception — a sheltered thirteen-year-old’s loss of innocence and the inner dramas that ensue. It is a small masterpiece which to my mind ranks with Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Luca is the story of a neurotic fifteen-year-old who, after working himself up to a total breakdown, is “reborn” through his initiation into sexual experience by a warmhearted nurse. Though decidedly less attractive than Agostino and not so perfectly proportioned, it is no less impressive in its insight and its control of the trick iesl possible subject matter.

When Moravia is asked whether a particular novel of his represents this or that, he is apt to reply a trifle? belligerently: “It is just a novel.” But one afternoon, when we were talking about The Woman of Rome, he surprised me by saying right out that implicit in it is the story of modern Italy. He added that, in his view, the great drama of twentieth-century Italy has been a disastrous attempt on the part of the intelligentsia to rush a backward nation into becoming an up-to-date modern state. “Don’t forget,” he remarked, “that Mussolini must be considered an intellectual.”

In The Woman of Rome, the prostitute-heroine and narrator, Adriana, is a beautiful, courageous girl, brought up in atrocious poverly but sustained by a cheerful disposition in which there is a blend of intense sensuality, natural goodness, and hopeful longing for a decent husband and a nice home, The two men who complete her ruin are a brutal murderer, Sonzogno, who possesses her physically more deeply than any other man and leaves her bearing his child; and Mino, a neurotic intellectual with whom she falls desperately in love because his family background embodies her idea of the good life. Adriana, in the early stages of the novel, represents the primitive Italy, uncontaminated by civilization, and Sonzogno and Mino symbolize the factors that led Italy to disaster under Fascism — the appeal of force and the unfortunate role played by the intelligentsia.

As a piece of fiction, The Woman of Rome is easy to poke fun at, since taken literally it is literally all about whoring; and its heroine, as disaster closes in on her, indulges in philosophic musings in which vox populi sometimes sounds incongruously like the vox of Existentialism. But there is much in The Woman of Rome in which Moravia’s special talents show up brilliantly—his narrative power; his skill in projecting the “feel” of Italian life; his mastery in the domain of Eros.

In order to appreciate Moravia one must be of the persuasion that sex is a proper subject for the novelist. Those who feel that the full-dress adulteries of Victorian fiction, or the fancy-dress amours of the historical romance, carry realism in sexual relations about as far as it should go will unquestionably find Moravia outrageously lacking in restraint. He displays in his fiction an unusually vibrant awareness of the erotic element in life; but his sexuality is spontaneous and forthright, free from any taint of calculated sensationalism. Just as Balzac’s work derived substance from his preoccupation with “the truth of money,” so Moravia’s work gains force and individuality from his preoccupation with “the truth of sex.”

To Moravia, as to many Italians, sex is the natural passion and pastime of mankind, and nothing pertaining to it startles or embarrasses him. I well remember his sardonic amusement over the hoopla occasioned in this country by the first Kinsey report. “An ignorant Italian peasant,” he said, “knows all these things before he is twenty.”

But there is a more specific reason, I believe, why sex occupies the center of Moravia’s stage. Like Thomas Mann or the early Aldous Huxley, Moravia is a dualist deeply conscious of a conflict between “civilization” and “nature,” intellect and instinct. Though pre-eminently an intellectual, Moravia is also a man of the Mediterranean who loves “the ocean, the mountains, strong sunlight and wine"; a man who is profoundly attracted by the Homeric age, which he sees as the “unspoiled infancy of civilization, when civilization was still developing in accordance with and not contrary to nature. Moravia most certainly is no archaist yearning for a reversion to the past, but he feels that the highly civilized modern has suffered a damaging severance from instinctual nature, which is neither “good” nor “bad” but which cannot be violated without violating life itself. Thus if sex figures so prominently in Moravia’s work, it is, I think, because it represents to him the great line of communication between the cerebral modern and elemental nature. To vary the metaphor, it appears as the prompting of Mother Earth; as a great female force which reminds man of the truth of his origins.

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THE three novels which followed The Woman of Horne are further studies of the price which modern civilization exacts; and in two of them, the problem is dramatized in terms of an intellectual man married to a deeply instinctual woman. The narrator of Conjugal Love, Silvio Baldeschi, is a wealthy dilettante whose recent marriage has proved profoundly satisfying. Baldeschi reveres instinct as the life-giving force in love and art; his wife, Leda, wishes she had more of her husband’s rationality. Baldeschi now sets about writing the masterpiece of which he believes himself capable. But his initial efforts are disappointing, and he decides that he had better abstain from love-making until the book is finished in order not to dissipate his “inspiration.” In due course, he discovers thal vanity has blinded him to his lack of talent, and furthermore that his hot-blooded wife has let herself be seduced by the apelike village barber.

Baldeschi succeeds in reconciling himself to his mediocrity. Conscious of his need for greater clarity, he forgives his wife and the novel ends on a hopeful note. Conjugal Love is one of Moravia’s best books, an altogether masterly study of the relations between a man and a woman.

In The Conformist, the focus is on the corruption of a civilized man by the distempered modern world — the Italy of the nineteen-twenties and -thirties. Marcello Clerici’s destructive impulses as a child, and a sinister experience with a homosexual whom he thinks he has killed, cause him to grow up with a harrowing sense of abnormality and guilt, from which ho seeks refuge in an obsessive pursuit of normalcy. His idea of normalcy is to be “like everybody else” —to conform rigidly to his environment. But a series of shattering experiences brings home to him that the normality he has pursued is a mirage and that his traumatic sense of guilt was unjustified, because no man can remain innocent. The story illustrates — brilliantly at first but in the end too patly — what might be called the logic of the Absurd; in his llight from anarchic impulses which, though unfortunate, were human, Clerici surrenders himself to the inhuman discipline of a dictatorship, and he is forced into the genuinely abnormal role of political spy and participant in cold-blooded assassination.

Moravia’s latest novel, A Ghost at Soon (Farrar, Straus & Young, $3.50), starts out with virtually the same situation as Conjugal Love and is a complementary treatment of the same themes. In this ease the narrator, Riccardo Molteni, sacrifices his ambitions to what he believes to be his wife s needs. After two years of happy marriage, lie decides to give up the very simple life they have been leading. He purchases the sort of home which his wife has always longed for; and to pay for it he abandons his efforts to write a great drama and gets a well-paid job as script-writer for a movie producer called Battista, a more sophisticated version of the barber of Conjugal Love. At precisely this moment Molteni notices that his wife a rather uneducated, submissive, loving creature — has become indifferent and evasive. He eventually wrests from Emilia the admission that she no longer loves him, that in fact she despises him. She refuses, however, to tell him why; and from here on the novel—in Italian more appropriately entitled Contempt — becomes a fascinating whatdunit: a complex, suspenseful, very cleverly stagemanaged drama of psychological inquiry.

Molteni has been assigned to prepare a film treatment of The Odyssey in collaboration with a German director, Reingold; and Battista, who has designs on Emilia, invites them all down to his villa in Capri. Battista has made it clear that what he wants is a spectacular, st rictly commercial film. Reingold, a pious Freudian, is determined to reinterpret The Odyssey as a drama of “ unconscious conjugal repugnance” between Ulysses and Penelope. And Molteni, revolted by both these approaches, wishes to be faithful to Homer: he sees The Odyssey as an epic of the nobility ot human effort in the marvelous infancy of civilization.

But out of Reingold’s analysis of the relations between Ulysses and Penelope, there comes to Molteni an understanding of why Emilia despises him and is beginning to respond to the advances of Battista, whom she originally found repugnant. The explanation does not lie in anything that Molteni has done but in the fact that he is a genuinely civilized man and Emilia is a primitive woman corrupted by the modern world. Since her introduction to Battista’s world, her husband’s reasonableness, his consideration for her, his lack of commercial success, have become in her eyes the mark of a contemptible weakling. Unconsciously she has come to identify honor, pride, virility, with the dictatorial attitude of the coarse tycoon, Battista. The solution, Molteni decides, is to break away from Battista and return to the simple life of their first year of marriage. But he finds that Emilia has gone off with Battista; and with a highly appropriate symbolism Battista’s mania for speeding causes a mishap on the road to Rome in which Battista emerges unscathed and Emilia is killed.

A Ghost at Noon has a flaw that is characteristic of Moravia: the connections between the discussion of The Odyssey and the conflict of the Moltenis are so neatly worked out as to seem slightly artificial. Even so, with its forceful rendering of character, scene, and mental state, the book is an impressive example of Moravia’s compact and mordant artistry.

When Moravia’s first two novels were published in this country in the nineteen-thirties, they met with a decidedly discouraging reception. Then, in 1949, Farrar, Straus & Young reintroduced him to American readers with The Woman of Rome; and the six Moravia titles published since that time have sold — in their hardand soft-cover editions — more than 2,000,000 copies.

The most important critical complaint about Moravia’s fiction has been that, as one writer put it, he keeps cultivating “a petty Inferno from which apparently there is no exit.”It has been charged that his people are heartless and helpless; that he can only write with passion about the failure of passion; in sum, that his fictional world is unremittingly desolate and disagreeable. Now undoubtedly the fact of his being an invalid throughout his youth predisposed Moravia toward pessimism. But his pessimism ceases to be a purely negative attitude when set against the Italian literary tradition and against the realities of his environment. It represents a necessary corrective to spurious optimism, “mistaken ambitions,” and consolatory cant about the nature of human existence. Moravia might well say what Gide said of himself: “To disturb — that is my role.”

In Moravia’s vision there is no romanticism, no ideology whatsoever, and no moral indignation. Nothing human is alien to him. When asked in an interview why his principal male characters were almost all unsympathetic, he replied that on the contrary all — even Clerici — were in some way sympathetic. His somber estimate of the human condition has led him not to existentialist nausea but to melancholy compassion.

What the critic called Moravia’s “petty Inferno" does have an exit. It is reached via relentless clarity and self-acceptance without complacency. To Moravia the one indisputable and reliable virtue is self-honesty. It has often been said that he is a moralist without faith in a moral order, but it would be more exact to say that he is a moralist whose theme is the danger of moral ambition. His fiction contains an unobtrusive but distinct didactic undertone, which tells us that we are never as bad as we think we are, and that we can never be as good as we think we can be — two notions which the Anglo-Saxon, imbued with moralism and meliorism, is apt to look upon as indulgent and defeatist. Moravia does not intimate that clear-eyed self-acceptance will unlock the gateway to Paradise, but simply that it enables us to make the best of Purgatory. The heroine of The Woman of Rome observes: “I have often wondered why misery and anger dwell in the hearts of people who try to live according to certain precepts and to conform to certain ideals, and why those people who accept their destiny — which is mainly emptiness, darkness and weakness — are so often gay and carefree.”

In Moravia’s Purgatory, the sun also rises and the sea brings refreshment. Its creator has a straightforward and engaging appreciation of the good material things of life — fine clothing, comfortable homes, a pastry, and a glass of vermouth. Although in Moravia the wages of fleshly love are usually unhappiness, the flesh itself remains a perennial wonder —a thing of strange, tormenting beauty. Most importantly, Moravia’s fictional universe is one in which men and women are interesting and valuable purely in themselves. Whatever the issues dramatized in his work, it is always the individual that counts. “In the modern world,”he once said, “everyone is trying to remake society. I have at heart, above all, the human person . . . with his name, occupation, age, face, body, arms, legs.”