Time of Desecration
by Alberto Moravia, translated by Angus Davidson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 376 pp., $12.95
Alberto Moravia has been quoted as saying that most novelists have just one story to tell, which they repeat over and over with different variations and colorings—with different accidents, so to speak, but always the same substance. Whether or not this is true about novelists in general, it certainly is true of Alberto Moravia. He has been telling his story for fifty years now, in narratives of many different sizes and shapes. Between the ages of nine and seventeen he apparently underwent a deplorably unproductive period, but when he was eighteen he wrote Gli Indifferenti (it was not published till three years later), and he has suffered few dry spells since. La Vita Interiore, his most recent fiction, is announced as his last; the translator has retitled it in English Time of Desecration, presumably to point up a parallel with that far-off first novel, which was published in English as The Time of Indifference. The parallel is genuine and interesting, but shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the qualities of the present book, which has strong claims of its own.
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. His interest seems to be mainly in drawing the narrative forward. Though he occasionally resorts to the old analytic trick of repeating in the interrogative the last phrase of the patient’s declarative statement, he doesn’t seem to be an analyst.
After the events described in the book, the girl is almost certain to be in the hands of the police; not even the Italian police could fail to identify her as the author of the two singularly undisguised murders that she commits. But the book does not seem to be a jail-cell confession (like Lolita). Its circumstances are undefined …