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Moravia’s Victims

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. It’s obvious that the Q & A form must interfere to some extent with the reader’s sense of being immediately present at the events of the story. What the form contributes is much less clear. The “I” in particular doesn’t very satisfactorily justify his place in the book. To the extent that he simply voices the reader’s questions or nudges the story along, “I” is neutral, and there are even moments when he is an active source of exasperation. As often with hosts of interview programs on television, he fails to ask crucial questions or push the subject toward recognition of some avoided truth. The smoothness of the interview reflects doubt on the turbulence of the emotions being described. Whether he does much or little, many readers may wish this interviewer away.

The Voice which Desideria starts to hear at the beginning of the novel, and which accompanies her through most of it, is specifically compared to the voices heard by Joan of Arc, but there is good reason to think this parallel is a piece of ironic indirection. The existence of the Voice itself is not at all ironic; we must accept it, as we do the convention of the interview, unquestioningly. But since the peculiarities of the Voice have something to do with Desideria’s special circumstances, which are by no means commonplace, some preliminary explanations are in order.

Desideria is described as the adopted daughter of a wealthy Italian-American woman living in the Parioli (that is, the upper-bourgeois and resident-foreigner) district of Rome. The story begins when Desideria is twelve; the death of her adoptive father having taken place nine years before, the adoption itself goes back at least ten or eleven years. The natural mother had been a prostitute; Desideria is very conscious of this fact, and in moments of hate for her adoptive mother, dreams of becoming a prostitute herself, making a lot of money, and renouncing the adoption.

There are reasons for her hatred. In addition to being rich, the adoptive mother is idle and dissipated, with special addictions to lesbianism, intercourse à trois, and buggery. Desideria is first traumatized when she accidentally intrudes on a scene where her mother is being sodomized by her business agent Tiberi, while the naked governess Chantal looks on. Shortly thereafter, Desideria, who had been grossly fat, goes on a crash diet, and becomes not only slender but beautiful. Almost at once, she begins to hear the Voice, directing her to follow a bawd, whom she fantasizes to be her natural mother, to her house, where she must show her readiness to undertake prostitution. But instead, under the urging of the Voice, she tries to murder the mother-bawd, and contemplates suicide. These are apparently tests which she must pass to qualify for the continuing attention of the Voice.

At about this time, her adoptive mother begins to make lesbian advances toward Desideria, while Tiberi attempts repeatedly to sodomize her. Both these predatory elders meet with some success in their advances, but only separately and one at a time, and the particular objective of the mother remains the three-way experience.

If ever there was a girl in trouble, it is evidently the youthful Desideria. A proper Voice, if vouchsafed to anyone, might be expected to offer some directives, inspired if not necessarily sensible, and to authenticate itself in some way. Unfortunately Desideria’s Voice, though she assures us that it is omniscient, appears to the reader (and occasionally even to the narrator-interviewer) inordinately foolish; and the only sanction with which it enforces obedience to its commands is the threat that it will go away. Why this is not a consummation devoutly to be wished, we are not told.

In any case, the Voice dictates a program for Desideria, by now a mature young lady of perhaps fifteen. She is to embark on a systematic career of symbolic transgression and desecration. It is dictated to her, and she proceeds mechanically to follow it. Some of the specifications are easy. To desecrate literature, it suffices to tear a leaf out of a copy of I Promessi Sposi and wipe herself with it; to desecrate religion, she need only urinate on the church floor during mass.

On the other hand, desecrating money is not so easy; the Voice will not be satisfied with tokens here, she must steal a lot of money, and give it to those who are trying to destroy the present system. She has to desecrate sex some more by performing, or at least showing herself ready to perform, acts of prostitution; and she has to show her contempt for human life by murdering, or at least trying very hard to murder, someone, i.e., anyone. It is a heavy program for a schoolgirl already hard pressed to fight off the advances of a couple of elderly, lustful perverts. But with the help of the Voice, Desideria sets about working off her checklist, and in due course makes very good progress—not particularly toward destroying the social order, but toward satisfying the vituperative and passionately ideological Voice.

The Voice is violently doctrinaire in politics and unscrupulous but generally misguided in advising Desideria about using the slimy types whom her mother attracts; it makes her wretchedly unhappy, but reassures her of her own identity—which it persistently betrays. Ultimately (to foreshorten a long development), Desideria is forced to choose between joining a group of terrorists and taking part in an orgy with her “mother” and one of several lovers. With fine impartiality, she proceeds to shoot both the bloated money-man Tiberi (who wants to marry her in order to sodomize her more regularly), and Quinto, the oafish prole from the “Milan group,” who has had her somewhat shopworn virginity, and now wants to abuse her further in his own macho, working-class way. Erostrato the paid stud, police spy, and unprincipled liar is allowed to live on, simply by not being killed off; so also with Viola, the perverted “mother,” who has evidently been the core of the infection. Desideria, having done all the killing that’s needed to make her point, ends her story by walking off in the darkness toward San Giovanni Laterano, and declaring her utter nullity.

The fable thus crudely reconstructed invites allegorical interpretation of a particularly bleak kind. The social order is of an unmitigated rottenness, and the revolutionary forces opposed to it (in which the Voice has urged Desideria to place her trust) are pedantic, stupid, and horrifyingly selfish. The girl is used by her inner life even more ruthlessly than by her outer one; and against its idiot excitations she is shown to be as helpless as a mouse under the stare of a cobra. In many ways she reminds us of Carla, the central figure of Moravia’s youthful first novel Gli Indifferenti, who also is teased, bullied, and provoked into an affair with her mother’s disgusting ex-lover. But for Carla the fantasy is that after bedding down with loathsome Leo, she will find a “vita nuova,” in parodic parallel with Dante. For Desideria, the parodic parallel with Joan of Arc is undertaken without positive hope of any sort. She exists simply to be used; and that sickening sense of being used, and used up, and to no end which is not delusive, is perhaps the strongest impression the reader will take from Moravia’s last novel.

Deeper and more disagreeable than any of the themes or characters in the novel is something I will refer to simply as the dehumanization of the person, which is an effect I had not noticed before in Moravia. There is, for example, a scene which might come from the Marquis de Sade, in which Tiberi forces Desideria to lean out a window and shout, “Down with the revolution!” while he sodomizes her from behind. For the moment, her vita interiore enables her to pervert the pervert by crying (to nobody in particular), “Long live the revolution!” It’s the emptiest of all possible gestures; she doesn’t know what the revolution is, and the minute she catches a realistic glimpse of it, she detests it.

At best, the image of an abused child shouting her protest into the vacancy while she submits, unnecessarily and humiliatingly, to the ultimate indignity leaves, as it were, a deep bruise on the mind. Adriana, Cesira, and Cecilia (protagonists, respectively, of The Woman of Rome, Two Women, and The Empty Canvas) bore themselves with an inner vitality and occasionally with a touch of nobility. Desideria is almost pure victim. There was a kind of grotesque comedy in the long-drawn-out exasperation of Leo in Gli Indifferenti; memory clings to that marvelous moment when, having carefully got Carla drunk, maneuvered her onto a bed, and stripped off her clothes, he is at the last moment frustrated by a violent attack of vomiting on her part. If one could imagine the reader for whom that scene was hilarious, one can hardly do so for the Time of Desecration.

What becomes clear from his new book is that Moravia’s deepest and most persistent strain is that sense of sadness and vacancy epitomized in Leopardi’s phrase “noia immortale.” Boredom, weariness, loneliness, alienation—the feeling occurs as often in his little sketches, done for the newspapers, as in his full-length novels. As a rule, his people, though quick-witted, are without mental or cultural resources; one hardly recalls any of them reading a book without revulsion, listening to a concert with any attention, or looking at a picture with pleasure. It is exceptional when they pay any attention to their surroundings. Cecilia in The Empty Canvas (titled in the original La Noia) represents an exaggerated version of a condition that’s common to many Moravia characters—she lives in an ordinary apartment with parents about whom there’s nothing unusual, does nothing special most of the time, and recalls nothing in particular about her previous lovers—prolonged questioning elicits from her only the vaguest of trivial commonplaces.

Moravia’s characters have this quality of taking a great deal—almost everything—for granted. In addition to sex, money or the lack of it is the big thing in their lives; their typical reaction is bitter resentment of those who have it. Moravia himself is the most literary of authors; his prose is rich in echoes of Manzoni, of Proust, of contemporaries like Sartre and Camus and a dozen others; but his characters are bitterly impoverished. Again, people talk of “Moravia’s Rome” as one more layer of manners and mechanisms piled atop all the others—pagan Rome, early Christian Rome, Sistine Rome, Stendhal’s Rome, Belli’s Rome, fascist Rome. But even if this is right, it isn’t a very substantial Rome that Moravia gives us; the genre stories, about cab drivers, sneak thieves, and dishwashers, have the grit and smell of the city, but his bourgeois characters seem to inhabit Rome chiefly as a stage setting.

An interesting and revelatory story—not really so much a short story as a sketch—called “Measurements,” in The Fetish, serves itself to help us to measure Moravia’s mind and temperament. Giacomo is an architect separated from his wife. He takes a little flat somewhere in Rome, and continues his routine, which amounts to work and solitude. But he is fascinated by the view out his window over the rooftops; he stands at the window by the hour, analyzing the way the structures have been put up, a piece at a time, and trying to estimate the dimensions of the various rooms. His details are meticulous; the overall impression is of a hopeless muddle. He is reminded of a passage in the autobiography of his namesake, Giacomo Casanova, who was imprisoned in the Venetian dungeon known as “I Piombi.” Looking out the window of his cell, Casanova measured mentally the route of his escape, over the tiles and down the drainpipes, to freedom—physical liberation and, ultimately, erotic bliss. The contrast between his own motives and those of Casanova crushes Giacomo; for him there is no escape. He thinks briefly of writing to his estranged wife, represses the idea as ridiculously sentimental, and starts to make an architectural drawing of the building across the way.

Though it is less than six pages long, the story is a paradigm of the Moravia hero trapped in the prison of this world and dying to his own desires. Desideria too is trapped in the world, but also dominated in her vita interiore by a raging, imperious jailer utterly indifferent to her person. Between two such mill-stones any aspirations to human freedom seem bound to be crushed exceeding small.

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