Death the Bungler

by Alberto Moravia
translated by Angus Davidson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $5.50
“Good writers are monotonous, like good composers,” Alberto Moravia once told an interviewer. “Their truth is self-repeating. They keep trying to rewrite the same book. That is to say, they keep trying to perfect their understanding of the one problem they were born to understand.”
Artists in the thralls of generalization often prove to be specifically and rather shrewdly describing themselves. Moravia, in this instance, is no exception.
It has been customary to assume that Moravia’s “one problem” was sex. Certainly his popularity in this country has depended upon a misconstruing of books like Conjugal Love and Two Women. Conditioned to expect disillusioned but expert erotica from their Italian novelists, American readers have taken Moravia to be a kind of Rossano Brazzi with typewriter, and his stories to be stylish sighs of postcoital sadness.
In fact, Moravia’s obsession is not with sex but with death. Sex is the pinch-me test Moravia characters apply to prove to themselves they’re alive. With fair regularity, it proves they’re not.
Death in Moravia’s stories is not death as the final violence, a good, clean blackout. It is death as a slow bleeding of the spirit, an endlessly graduated twilight. Moravia’s death is a bungler—a lousy shot at pointblank range, all thumbs with the ether cone—who just can’t put people out of their misery. The final agonies go on for years until they become a way of life.
Moravia’s genius is for inducing lower and lower pulse rates until it seems a mere technicality to distinguish between the living and the dead. What a parade of walking wounded limp through the pages of these short stories! Indeed, one sees the wounds, and that is nearly all. The names may change, but mostly there are no names, no faces, only a narrator’s “I,” one of the most impersonal “I’s” in literature.
It is permissible to think of the protagonists in these stripped, bonebare tales as one collective personality; certainly their author must. The only problem is to get all the thin variations to add up to even a single character. For the Moravia antihero is really a ghost of himself.
Typically he works at an ant-heap job that turns him into a set of reflexes rather than a man. (See the title story in this new collection: the title tells all.) He comes home to the absolutely standard apartment which he has dreamed of making a unique expression of himself. The more he tries, the more it turns out like everybody else’s. (See “A Middling Type”—Moravia’s titles continue to be devastating.) In a final effort at self-assertion, he makes love to his equally enigmatic wife or a mistress of doubtful loyalties. (For this pinch-me test, see almost any of the stories.)
Rather than defining him, these experiences, if they can be called that, succeed in blurring him further. We fade out on him, sitting on the edge of his bed, exhausted but restless, sucking on his cigarette as if smoke were food. Celestina, the robot girl who falls in love with a hot-water heater in a rather clumsy satire, is only the ultimate inhumanity toward which other Moravia characters are moving.
What separates them for the moment is that they think. Yet, for Moravia, thinking is also a kind of curse: it gives a man his grasp on life, then keeps him from living it. The young protagonist of The Time of Indifference (1928) , begun when Moravia was only eighteen, says: “I’ve done nothing but think, and that was my mistake.” Here, fullblown almost to decadence, is the passive wisdom of every Moravia antihero since.
Nor are Moravia’s people all that good at thinking. On the contrary, their equipment is commonly defective. “My head is like the pockets of my overcoat,” confesses the narrator of one story. “There is a little of everything in it, but everything is broken, useless and often mysterious.”
The congenital failing of the Moravia man is total or partial amnesia. His ritualistic task in plot after plot is to remember exactly who he is. He makes up for his deplorable memory by being extremely observant. He allows nothing to escape him since everything, anything, could be the master clue.
Life for him is rather like one of those picture puzzles in which the important objects are concealed within the outlines of other objects. Alas, the harder he labors over it, the more muddled he gets. “I see much more than I need to see,” complains the protagonist in “All-Seeing.” “To make up for this, however, I understand what I see less and less.”
The Moravia man seems to be born with some power of discernment missing. He is morally colorblind, as it were. Life in all its spectrum gets reduced to the single gray status of a neutrally registered impression. The perfect case in this collection is the man who witnesses a horrible automobile accident while sitting beside his wife and finds himself concentrating on the fine hairs at the back of her neck. For the Moravia man, nothing has the meaning, the significance it is supposed to have-not even words, which find “an alarming way of changing themselves into senseless sounds.”
In the end, a Moravia character discovers his only identity, his only purpose, in spying upon himself, waiting, usually in vain, for some urge, some instinct to show itself. He, the author, and the reader become three still lifes watching a still life. A Moravia story, in essence, is a man staring at himself in a cracked mirror, waiting for something to wiggle.
What the Moravia self-sleuth tracks down again and again is evidence that confirms his suspicions of impotence, of past and present paralysis. How many times have Moravia men compulsively played voyeur to their own cuckolding? There are four instances in these stories alone.
Occasionally the clue to one’s absented life is a sensation of freefloating guilt, but even here the mood is passive: “I knew nothing about the crime although I was certain of having committed it.” Finally, horror itself, the Deep Dark Secret, becomes banal. Whether one is victim or perpetrator, one becomes numbed, monstrously jaded. The scream that turns into a yawn marks the climax of almost every story.
Boredom may be the affliction, but it is also the self-defense of the Moravia man. For he has distinctly mixed feelings about confronting his missing self, about filling in what one novel termed by title The Empty Canvas. “Once I knew it,” a character in this collection asks, “what would become of my life?”
Emptiness, after all, is not the worst thing in the world to the Moravia man. Lord knows, he’s used to it. Side by side with his tentative determination to repossess himself there is a listlessness, a fatal willingness to let slip all claim to individuality and just dissolve.
The classic Moravia story begins: “I had a dream which nevertheless was not a dream. . . .” The classic Moravia ending goes like this: “I . . . threw myself down on the bed again. It occurred to me that at that very moment an infinite number of other people like me were throwing themselves on their beds and, strange to say, this thought comforted me, and, still thinking that I was doing something that so many others were doing, I fell asleep.”
The Moravia man officially hates his purgatory state—moving drugged through an “intolerable atmosphere of everyday habit,” a nightmare of “perverse moderation.” For part of each story he acts out his proclaimed need: “to feel himself alive.” But since being alive seems to consist mostly of “the capacity for feeling pain,” he gives at least equal time to being irresolute—it is actually what he is most active at. More often than not, he is tempted toward a kind of absolute noncommitment: “I longed to be a stone on the shore instead of a man of flesh and blood.” No temptation pulls him more strongly; even sex seems attractive mainly as the best recipe for instant oblivion. Between life wish and death wish, a Moravia story is one of literature’s closest toss-ups.
“Who am I?” the Moravia man asks like everybody else. The difference is that he shouts quicker and louder than almost anybody else: “Please! Don’t tell me.”
In an autobiographical fragment that might have come straight from the mouth of one of his antiheroes Moravia has written: “The things that form our character are those we are obliged to do, not those we do out of our own will.” He goes on to name Fascism and childhood illness as the two imposed circumstances that had the most influence on him. The world as concentration camp, the world as sickroom—these limbos of the half living supply the key images for Moravia’s universe.
Above all, the sickroom. Moravia suffered through childhood from tuberculosis, and remained bedridden for five years. Reading a Moravia story is a bit like staring at white ceilings. One suddenly realizes that the indifference, the fatigued irritability, the fecklessness of the Moravia man constitute the temperament of the semi-invalid. He subsists in an environment where peckish survival is one’s great achievement; where still another day is both one’s reward and one’s punishment; where just to be alive can come to seem a form of hubris.
Death in such a world is almost as languid as everything else. It is not even positive enough to be evil. Death is simply a slow-acting deepfreeze, threatening every Moravia character and story.
In an extraordinary passage, one of Moravia’s exhausted young men explains: “Life was like that, at any rate for me: a gallery of pictures through which I walked and walked, and the mere fact of looking at them took all the strength out of me, and there was no energy left for doing what my father called work.”
Still, semi-invalids have ferocious tenacity, and so does Moravia. He has been worrying his “one problem” for almost half a century. The very last lines of his book read: “I have fixed my teeth in it and I will die rather than let go.”
Bored, desperate, and elegant, he plays more and more explicitly at a kind of terrible trifling with death. “Dead? What does ‘dead’ mean?” a character asks himself. It is the puzzle at the center of all the puzzles, the ultimate Moravia question toward which everything else leads. To ask the question at all qualifies as Moravia’s own war on indifference, his personal triumph over impotence. It is as though he assumed that by answering it he might become eligible for the real question: “And alive, what does ‘alive’ mean?” But he has not got there yet.
Henry James claimed the writer “can’t be concerned with dying. Let him deal with the sickest of the sick, it is still by the art of living that they appeal to him. . . .” With a kind of brilliant morbidity, Moravia pushes James’s claim as far as it will bear to go.
Does he leave either himself or his reader room enough—life enough? By normal standards, of course not. The fact that Moravia can still manage to write at all— and that we can still read him and “know what he means”—is one of those small but alarming reminders of how much passivity most of us are accustomed to accept as normal to everyday life.