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The Kingdom of Moravia
Alberto Moravia's kinky, subversive realism is back in print.

Bill Marx

In the 1940s and '50s, Italian novelist Alberto Moravia achieved international acclaim as a kinky realist whose Marxist-inspired moralism detailed the paralysis of the middle-class ego in the face of cultural and political collapse. Before and just after World War II, Moravia analyzed the blight of fascism; during the Cold War era he explored the spiritual costs of capitalism. What distinguishes Moravia from most other writers of politically inspired fiction, however, is that he was a popular novelist, his wide appeal rooted in his frank depictions of love and sexuality. Like Ignazio Silone, Moravia bore historical witness to the century's horrors, but his fiction's sleek dovetailing of Marx and Freud exposed the West's inertia through the tortured curbs and caprices of the libido. The marketability of sex made the subversiveness of his critique palatable: Moravia's books sold more than one million copies in the United States during the buttoned-up 1940s and '50s.

More recently, Moravia has disappeared from the literary scene, having been pigeonholed as an old-fashioned leftist and/or a dated letch whose books now seem as titillating as flat champagne. In 1955, Charles Rolo, the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly, hailed Moravia as "an international literary figure of the first rank." But when the writer died, in 1990, at the age of 83, literary critics in this country were virtually silent, while commentators in Italy held his popularity against him. Moravia isn't entirely forgotten: over the years a few of his novels have been adapted into successful films, from Luigi Zampa's The Woman of Rome to Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist. Nonetheless, Moravia the novelist is invisible in the United States. One of his translators, William Weaver, delivered the bad news four years ago in the New York Review of Books: none of Moravia's books in English translation were in print.

But Moravia deserves our attention—something that new and reissued volumes of his books from Steerforth Press (selections in the Steerforth Italia Series) and New York Review Books could bring if the books are read as more than period pieces. Both small publishers recognize that Moravia remains one of the twentieth century's smoothest and most entertaining poets of paralysis, of the genial ennui generated by the triumph of materialism over humane values. His sardonic analysis of alienation, leavened with curiosity about cultural alternatives, generated much first-rate journalism, including travel writing, film reviews, and literary criticism. More important, Moravia's novels offer a bracing counterpoint to today's soft-hearted and -headed fiction. Moravia sees fiction as a form of knowledge: his aesthetic suggests a creative cross between a doctor and a mechanic, with the abstractness of a metaphysician tossed in. Moravia's suave pitilessness—his self-conscious variation on the mercilessness ofMaupassant—runs counter to contemporary preferences for feeling rather than thinking, and to the associated belief that the imagination should primarily serve as an instrument of sympathy rather than scrutiny. The neglect of Moravia has as much to do with the peculiar philosophical strengths of his withdrawn perspective—particularly its fascination with the growing similarities between the human and the mechanistic—as with the usual vagaries of fashion, though they are crucial.

Moravia's mercilessness challenges the current Anglo-American rage for a more empathic, emotional brand of narrative. Chekhov's short stories are now fashionable among American writers. (James Wood, Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Ford, and Cynthia Ozick have all penned recent appreciations.) In part, this enthusiasm is based on Chekhov's wryly sympathetic observation of the unpredictability of life. For British critic V. S. Pritchett, Chekhov saw human existence as "breaking and running like a chain of raindrops upon the window. Now the drops run and pool together, presently they part, slide off on their own and momentarily catch the light in some new, fragile and vanishing pattern." Contemporary American taste runs to fiction whose patterns attempt to capture the fleeting perceptions of spontaneity, the effervescent signs of human freedom.

In contrast, Moravia's fiction mistrusts pattern, no matter how transient. The mind internalizes the perceptual expectations and habits of an increasingly commercialized and mechanized society. Moravia's plots and characters are ambivalent about repetition; half-heartedly, they treasure the pleasures of the familiar, the joys of routine. Moravia uses sensuality to explore the individual's response to the leveling political and technological pressures of modernity: sex offers a convenient intersection of nature and automation, instinct and habit, the public and private, fetish and freedom. Thus the most striking aspect of Moravia's fiction isn't its once-daring sexual focus but the cool calculated way it looks at love—or the lack of it—in the modern world.

Moravia focuses on the cultural crisscross of soul and machine, or at least our tendency to turn ourselves into machines even at our most intimate moments. And he makes the reader aware that stories are linguistic machines as well. In his recently published autobiography, Life of Moravia, the author claims that metaphor is "a lock that, instead of a steel case, has a case of glass so that you can see all the mechanisms in movement." If metaphor is a transparent puzzle, then his voyeuristic fiction explores reality by way of a kind of epistemological espionage. Fiction is a game of spying on the regulative formulas of thought: the wheels within wheels of sentences, the cogs and pulleys of desire, the mind looking at itself as if it were a safe it desperately wants to crack. His books are saturated with mirrors, windows, diaries, memories, travels, dreams, narcissism, and gazing.

Books discussed in this essay

The Time of Indifference(1929)
Alberto Moravia (translated by Tami Calliope)
Steerforth Press, $16 (paper)

The Woman of Rome (1947)
Alberto Moravia. (translated by Lydia Holland, revised by Tami Calliope)
Steerforth Press, $16 (paper)

The Conformist (1951)
Alberto Moravia (translated by Tami Calliope)
Steerforth Press, $15 (paper)

Contempt (1954)
Alberto Moravia (translated by Angus Davidson)
New York Review Books, $12.95 (paper)

Boredom (1960)
Alberto Moravia (translated by Angus Davidson)
New York Review Books, $12.95 (paper)

Life of Moravia (1990)
Alberto Moravia and Alain Elkann (translated by William Weaver)
Steerforth Press, $27 (cloth)

In 1929, at the age of 21, Moravia established himself as a world-class literary writer with The Time of Indifference, a novel whose caustic denunciation of middle-class fumbling in the face of fascism yanked the Italian novel out of d'Annunzio's gauche Gothicism and into the more fragmented and agonized perspectives of modernism. The Time of Indifference establishes the bedrock of the author's mental melodrama: modern consciousness as a numbed Prufrockian animal, its busy lifelessness portrayed with austere poignancy.

A terminally bored family throws itself at the mercy of a slick parasite, Leo, who is making love to both mother and daughter while fleecing them in the bargain. The son, Michele, is acutely aware of what's happening, but can't act on his indignation. His morbid egotism, combined with his acceptance of a passive social role, is far too strong. Moravia slips in and out of the minds of five characters, but he makes Michele the most acutely aware of his ineffectuality:

his indifference was a flat white screen on which sorrows and joys passed like shadows without a trace. And this inner inconsistency was reflected back to him and communicated to him by his external world: everything around him was weightless, worthless, as fleeting as the play of light and shadows.

The novel highlights contrasts—the light and dark of film images, the good and evil of morality—only to smear them away. The archetypal Moravian scene is starkly chiaroscuro, a cross between an operating table and a movie set:

Under the three-branched chandelier, the white bulk of the table shone with three slender slivers of light; the plates, the carafes, the glasses—it was all exactly like a block of marble barely scratched by the stonecutters. There were some darker stains: the wine was red, the bread was brown, a green soup steamed up for the bottom of the bowls; but that blinding white abolished them, as it were, and shone immaculate between the four walls on which, in contrast, everything—furniture and paintings—was lost in a single black shadow.

Moravia's prose gives off the feeling that the narrative could drift into darkness at any time, like a camera lens suddenly snapped shut.1

Michele can't bear the fact that "the deception and abjection that filled his own soul was what he saw also in others, always. Impossible to scour from his eyes that discouraged and impure film that interposed itself between him and life." As the critic Nicola Chiaromonte rightfully claims in his fine essay on Boredom, Moravia's novels and stories "are not naturalistic, or even realistic narratives, but repeated demonstrations of the unbearable reality of the dead world, a world in which consciousness is both awake and inert." Michele is aware of the film that interposes itself between him and life—this acknowledgment of the mechanisms of despair protects him from amoral complacency but also torments him. The modern mind attempts to cleanse itself, to "scour away" what it believes to be painful impurities, to think its way out of irresolution. At its best, Moravia's fiction is an artful, if necessarily risky, solipsistic surgery: the living part of the mind methodically attempts to slice away its own dead tissues, the cerebral celluloid that interposes itself between thought and action.

The problem is that Moravia's characters can't remove the film, the mental screen that separates them from the world. Frustrated that he is observing life rather than living it, Michele does not have the assurance of the traditional values or community that would help him protect spontaneity from the rigidity of fascism.

Moravia found his ideal commonwealth in the world of peasants, whom he thought remained close to their natural instincts, their vitality uncorrupted by urban capitalism. This romanticism of the lower classes had autobiographical roots; during the 1930s Moravia was branded an anti-fascist writer by the government and was condemned by the Vatican. He fled Rome to live among companionable farmers and write under pseudonyms, an experience he later said made him "disrespect the Italian ruling class, which wanted both fascism and war." His postwar novels are beautifully crafted character studies, meditative examinations of individuals either resisting or succumbing to authoritarian rigidity, which Moravia sees as reducing life to a brutal and repetitive unreality.

The Woman of Rome, for example, is told from the point of view of a beguiling and iron-willed prostitute. Moravia's skillful chronicle of the moral education of Adriana, an impressionable and essentially kind woman, remains potent, its naturalism complicated by excursions in voyeurism. The Conformist presents a compelling—if overly tidy—vision of political power nurturing latent psychopathology, the brutality of fascism internalized.

The sexual flavoring of these novels, as much as their depiction of the appeal of authoritarianism, made his popular reputation in America and then ruined it. In the immediate postwar period Moravia's racy plots—mitigated by his anti-fascist credentials and agile realism—commanded enormous critical respect. Our novelists shied away from the more abstract (and radical) aspects of Moravia's anti-commercialism, but they drew on his concern that civilization was diluting our natural instincts by weakening the will and attenuating the links between love and sexuality. The centrality of sexuality in his fiction, particularly the eroticism in The Woman of Rome, helped weaken the grip of Puritanism in American literature. Moravia's gritty tale of a prostitute who attains a sense of morality after servicing a succession of lovers paved the way for the more explicit depiction of suburban sexuality in the novels of John Cheever, John Updike, and Richard Yates.

Beginning in the 1960s, critics and readers increasingly wrote off Moravia as old-fashioned. To be sure, Moravia changed with the times: Contempt and Boredom initiated a move to more self-reflexive fictions that dramatized the struggles of an increasingly isolated consciousness to realize its desires in a will-o'-the-wisp world. But the clarity of his writing and the schematic neatness of his plotting—once hailed as a welcome riposte to the complexities of modernism—came off as quaint. His approach to sexual fantasies was too tasteful to compete with the counterculture. His concentration on female sexuality was condemned by feminists as patronizing or retrograde macho. And with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Moravia was dismissed as a musty relic of the postwar era, whose meticulous analysis of fascist disaster and alienation was of little interest to a generation that needed footnotes to be reminded of the crimes of Stalin, let alone those of Mussolini.

In the 1960s, Moravia no longer celebrated the vitality of the working class or cohesiveness of the peasantry, but dissected the smug bourgeoisie, especially the discreet smugness of the intelligentsia. In that sense Boredom, and Contempt—along with the unjustly out of print The Lie (1966) and The Voyeur (1986)—probe the same debilitating mental wounds, the same misfiring of erotic and creative urges, that Moravia excavated more than thirty years earlier. But circumstances had changed. In 1929, The Time of Indifference's picture of the middle class as dangling in a void anticipated postwar existentialism. In his later novels, Moravia made his indecisive men more self-conscious about their failure to act in the world.

In Contempt, a screenwriter with a floundering marriage is made an offer he finally can't accept: writing a screen version of The Odyssey. In the course of the story, the writer's wife drifts into a sordid dalliance with the vulgar producer. The writer meditates on the reasons for the break-up and the relevance of Homer's epic today, rejecting the vulgar commercial notions of the producer and the psychoanalytic clichés of the director.

Boredom is Moravia's most succinct exploration of the quiet desperation at the heart of the automated human.A non-representational artist, Dino Balestrieri, finds himself suffering from a soul-freezing "malady of objects" that snaps his visceral connection with the world around him, leaving him unable to love his model, Cecilia. An anguished disillusionment with art and romance eventually brings illumination, charted by Moravia with a charity, and clarity, that suggests Dino is saved when he realizes that—given his alternately helpless and bullying treatment of Cecilia—his paralysis is rooted in a convoluted parody of the Oedipus complex. In Moravia, comedy often takes the form of characters perceiving that their minds are filled with the spoofs of ideas, the Xeroxes of originality. Boredom, with its suffering artist as Adam and his phlegmatic model as Eve, is one of Moravia's funniest meditations on the origins of middle-class funk.

In these books, the effort of Moravia's narrators to understand their sluggish condition expands into meditations on the source of modern discontent. "It is for this reason that first person novels often have some sort of resemblance to essays," Moravia argues in his essay collection Man as an End (1962), "and readers who can find all the immediate and dramatic representation they want at the cinema demand more and more that the novel should be an essay, a mediated reflex, an indirect representation." Both Contempt and Boredom are splendid examples of the romanzo-saggio, or essay-novel—works in the same modernist tradition as the open-ended and speculative fiction produced by Pirandello, Robert Musil, and Joseph Conrad. In these tragicomic hybrids, the critical, self-questioning dimension of existence predominates, leading to writing where discursive thought is fused with (or breaks up) storytelling in an attempt to create the living conditions in which thought is entangled. For some critics, the romanzo-saggio falls between two stools: it is neither exacting philosophy nor complex fiction. But Boredom, in particular, is a successful comedy of cogitation because, in the tradition of Moravia's favorite, Dostoyevsky, ideas are dramatized rather than preached, and a streak of satire undercuts the earnest interludes. The Italian writer's ability to stretch realism without breaking it contrasts with the contentment of so much contemporary American fiction, which depicts psychic drift without daring to speculate on its causes.

The paradoxes of Moravia's thought and long career—left-wing rebellion rooted in middle-class values, the novel as a fount of voyeurism and moral awareness—are explored in Life of Moravia, an engaging autobiography completed just before the author's death. The book takes the form of a long interview of Moravia by journalist Alain Elkann. Moravia's answers to Elkann's questions range from trenchant observations on Italian artists and politics to intriguing comments on writing and literature. Once again, Moravia tells the legendary tale of how—suffering from tuberculosis and confined to his bed at the age of eighteen—he wrote The Time of Indifference and published it to acclaim three years later. For the rest of his creative career, Moravia grappled with coming up with another book as artistically successful as his first. Life of Moravia is essential for anyone interested in Moravia's fabled conversation, an entertaining combination of the impish and the ironic, though it does not make a strong case against the charge that the author's fiction has become dated. Moravia's interlocutor (and wide-eyed fan) Elkann doesn't put his subject on the spot, asking, for example, how political fashion may have constrained his artistic and philosophical judgments. How else to explain Moravia's knee-jerk condemnation—launched from the left—of Giuseppe Lampedusa's novel The Leopard, a conservative masterpiece? Neither does Life of Moravia tackle the charge that Moravia recycled themes and situations ad nauseam in his work, a damaging weakness for a sworn foe of the formulaic.

Yet that repetition in the author's writing is not surprising. Moravia is genuinely obsessed with the regularity we build around ourselves, the malevolent hydraulics of the psyche. What makes this fixation on fixation so compelling is that, with each return to his topic, Moravia delves deeper into the ideas shaping his characters' spiritual and emotional paralysis. Moravia builds his narratives out of a limited number of primal situations; his figures examine, with skepticism and dogged determination, the reasoning that underlies their compulsion toward an imprisoning fantasy.

In other words, Moravia thinks art escapes the mechanical by accepting that it is more than a little mechanical itself. In the Life of Moravia, the writer presents us with his unusual version of James Joyce's epiphany, which he calls "illumination." It is "a rational operation of dizzying speed. If you have a fan at home, and you turn it on, at a certain point you won't see the blades anymore, you'll see something of a blur. Now, illumination in reality is a fantastic acceleration of rationality." Unlike many contemporary writers, who wall off thought from the imagination, Moravia sees reason serving as a necessary, though makeshift, bridge between our internal fabrications and a harsh reality.

In Man as an End, Moravia argues that the modern novel should be revelatory rather than didactic. Fiction must concern itself with "the appearance of re-establishing the language of reason which is universal in its own right, and hence of re-establishing a relationship of some kind between narrator and reality." For Moravia, imagination doesn't replace reason. But fiction has the potential to reconnect reason with reality. The writer's protagonists dramatize this possibility: they are self-involved, troubled dreamers wielding therapeutic scalpels on themselves. Moravia's novels offer the serious pleasures of the diagnostic: the hope is that, by exposing forms of unreason, fiction will encourage more sophisticated, yet impulsive, understandings of the world. •


Bill Marx's reviews appear regularly on WBUR, Boston's National Public Radio station. He reviewed Robert Cabot for the Summer 2000 issue of the Review.


1 Tami Calliope's new translation is more staccato than Angus Davidson's earlier version, published in 1953. The 1950s version makes Moravia go down smooth, but the results can be awkward. For Davidson, the passage trails off into "shining immaculate between four walls where, by contrast,everything—both furniture and pictures—was blurred in one single blackness."

Originally published in the April/May 2001 issue of Boston Review



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