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Victims of Politics

1934

by Alberto Moravia, translated by William Weaver
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 297 pp., $14.50

Moravia’s latest novel is haunted by German ghosts: Dürer, Kleist, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kafka, and the voice of Hitler, which is heard through loudspeakers. Lucio, the narrator, goes to Anacapri after taking a degree at the University of Munich with a thesis on Heinrich von Kleist. He has brought his German dictionary with him, since he is translating Kleist’s famous novella Michael Kohlhaas into Italian. He is also writing a novel in which the hero, obviously a self-portrait, commits suicide. Lucio has suffered “from a form of anguish that consisted, precisely, of hoping for nothing.” His mind “frequently played with the solution of suicide…as the logical, inevitable outcome of lack of hope.” However, the 98 percent of him that is not mind, but, like the rest of us, animal, opposes the solution of suicide, though this is “not strong enough to dispel despair.”

One of the most brilliant strokes in this novel about relations in the Thirties between Italians and Germans is that Moravia never reveals whether his Italian narrator and hero is serious or not, and doubt about the seriousness lies in his being Italian.

At the opening of the novel, Lucio is on a ship approaching the island of Capri. Storm clouds above the sea remind him of Dürer’s engraving Melencolia, and it is with this concept that he observes, and meets the gaze of, a German girl standing on deck, together with her husband. He thinks that there is a kind of dialogue between their eyes, and that she is telling him that she is in a state of despair, which she also recognizes in him.

After this visual encounter, Lucio becomes obsessed with the idea of secretly pursuing Beate, as he finds she is called. The pursuit is at once serious and farcical, a sequence of comic scenes of which perhaps the most bizarre is that in which, hidden behind a cliff at the side of a cove, Lucio observes Alois Müller, the girl’s husband, taking photographs of her in the nude, in the pose of Botticelli’s Venus. This performance is for his benefit, as Lucio realizes when Herr Müller sarcastically calls to him to come out of his hiding place and photograph Beate himself.

Meanwhile Lucio has established communication with Beate, first by secretly passing to her a copy of Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, with the last two lines of one poem underlined—“But every pleasure wants eternity—/ Wants deep, deep eternity.” She replies by leaving on the beach a volume of Kleist’s letters. Lucio is at first puzzled by the significance of this. Then he remembers the famous last letters of Kleist, which flowed “through countless twists and turns, toward an unconscious and inevitable destination: suicide.” Moreover, a double suicide: of Kleist together with his mistress, Henriette Vogel, who was afflicted with incurable cancer. Beate, he concludes, thinks that she has discovered in him a companion for such an end.

Lucio does not altogether reject this solution to his own despair. He is ready to do anything that serves the cause of his love for Beate, but for him suicide is not the wished-for end of his anguish. He wishes, rather, to “stabilize” his despair. He comes to realize the difference between Italian resignation and German histrionics or German seriousness: “Kleist was not my model; I wasn’t German; against unrestrained German romanticism, it seemed to me I should stick to wise, even if dreary, Mediterranean stoicism.” All the same, he does not seem to care very much: if Beate insists on joint suicide, he is, he thinks, ready to oblige.

The contrast between the Italian and the German temperament is a central theme of this novel. Since in 1934 both countries were under dictatorships that distorted the way people behaved, the contrast is seen ultimately as one between different styles of playacting: Mussolini-style fascism, which for the Italians was a matter of rather superficial conformism, and Hitler-style Nazism, which for the Germans demanded a total submergence of all individuality within the party, and which dragged the Italians down with it. Lucio and Beate are both opposed to the dictatorial regimes of their countries. Yet when Lucio is greeted by Herr Müller raising his arm vertically in the Hitler salute, he gets a sign from Beate and raises his arm horizontally in that of the Italian fascists.

The point surely is that all personal values, even those of the opponents of totalitarianism, are falsified by such dictatorships. Toward the end of the book there is a wonderful scene—half farcical, half terrifying—in which the German guests at the pensione in Anacapri where the Müllers and Lucio are all staying are assembled in the lounge to listen to the radio broadcast of a message from Hitler. This happens to be the speech he made after the execution of Roehm and other storm-trooper leaders, who were killed along with a good many old regime German nationalists with whom Hitler seized the opportunity to settle scores. One of the guests, a professor whom Lucio mentally names the Landsknecht, is opposed to the practice of dueling among German students, which was known as Mensur. His opponent, another professor, to whom Lucio has secretly given the nickname Winter Apple, considers Mensur an example, not understood by foreigners, of “a special sense of honor.”

Landsknecht, whose appearance reminds Lucio of an engraving of a knight by Dürer, while opposing Mensur, does so on nationalistic grounds, maintaining that he does not believe dueling “indispensable to the German sense of honor,” of which it is “a characteristic expression.” The Landsknecht professor leaves the room, and there follows a discussion among the German guests questioning his loyalty to the regime. In the course of this, Beate is asked what she thinks, and she makes the reply, which deeply disturbs Lucio, that it is obvious that Landsknecht is “an intellectual.” There follows a discussion among the Germans of what an intellectual really is. This causes Lucio to think:

Then it occurred to me that, like Beate, the professors also were terrorized and therefore pretended feelings and expressed opinions that they were far from feeling and having. The professors, too, were obviously intellectuals, if only because of their profession; but now, after [Beate’s] reply, they seemed to vie with one another in repelling from their persons the infamous accusation. If I hadn’t had other concerns, perhaps I would have been amused, however bitterly, seeing all those men, who had spent their lives among studies, try to make this forgotten, insisting that there were two cultures, one “healthy,” “constructive,” or “German,” in short, and the other “decadent,” “destructive,” or, in other words, “Jewish.”…I was thinking that in a regime of terror it’s impossible not only to distinguish truth from falsehood, but also to distinguish the truth of falsehood, if I may be excused a play on words again, from the truth of truth. Who could say, for example, that the Landsknecht himself wasn’t a provocateur who should be guarded against, by simulating the most orthodox conformity? At this point I must admit that I wasn’t the least bit sure all this was true; but the very fact that I thought it seemed to me typical of the ambiguous and disassociated condition that is characteristic of every society based on fear.

Here is the political certainty of this novel, which is ambiguous in many other respects. The year 1934 is the year of the falsification of everyone’s values, the dissolution even of his or her personal identity, the destruction of personal relations. Lucio discovers that in his love for Beate he is forced into the role of playacting when—Beate and her husband, Herr Müller, having returned to Germany—they are replaced by Beate’s twin sister, Trude, and her mother. Trude is in every way the opposite of Beate: instead of being doomed and intellectual, she is frivolous and vulgar, indeed obscene. Beate was anti-Nazi, just as Lucio is antifascist (despite, as we have seen, his having given at a sign from her the Fascist raised-arm salute).

Beate, in their one snatched conversation, has told Lucio that she destests her husband because “his hands are stained with blood.” Trude talks with religious fervor of the bliss of submerging one’s identity in the party. She contrives a situation in which Lucio exposes his penis in order that, before making love to him, she may discover whether he is circumcised. It would be blasphemy against the party for her to sleep with a Jew. But after all this, she reveals to Lucio that in fact she is not Beate’s twin. She is, in fact, Beate. Nor is her mother her mother. Both of them are actresses who have been playing roles in order to teach a lesson to Lucio whom, in his harassment of Beate and her husband, they take to be, like all Italians who go to resorts in order to seduce girls, a Casanova.

The reader, like Lucio, may disbelieve all this, except that at the end the story takes a tragic turn, which is perhaps evidence of the truth of one relationship—that of Beate/Trude with the fellow actress who has been playing the role of her mother. The morning after Hitler’s speech Paula and Beate telephone Germany, and learn that Beate’s husband is one of the victims of the Hitler purge of Roehm’s followers. On hearing this, they go to a place called La Migliara and commit suicide by swallowing cyanide tablets which Beate has stolen from her husband. Thus the German lesbian couple achieve the double suicide which is the logical conclusion of Kleist’s double suicide with Henriette Vogel.

To convince the reader a story such as this, with a plot so full of seeming improbabilities, has to be a tour de force, written with great virtuosity—and Moravia succeeds triumphantly in this (he is also beautifully supported by his translator, William Weaver). The reader has to be kept not just looking forward while following a story which, like the one of Kleist that Lucio is translating, seems always to be thrusting him on, but also looking back so that every new and unexpected turn of events elucidates what has happened before. For instance, when Trude explains that she is really Beate and has no twin sister, the reader has mentally to reinterpret Beate’s behavior from the moment when Lucio first sees her on the ship going to Anacapri. When he does so, he finds that everything Beate has done, which perhaps he took at face value, is indeed elucidated by the revelation that she has, in the opening scenes of the novel, been acting a role. The difficulty produced by the narrator, of course, is that the reader does not know what to believe. And this is the truth of the book: that within the external situation of the Italian fascist-German Nazi relationship it is impossible to accept as authentic virtually anything people do.

This is underlined by a curious episode—the relationship between Lucio and a character extraneous to the rest of the action, a Russian refugee, a woman of middle age, who sleeps around with waiters, sailors, everyone who will have her. Lucio goes to her with the intention of working off some of his repressed sexual energy reserved for Beate. In fact, at the last moment (a very depraved one) Sonia rejects him, saying that there is something about him that is cruel and that scares her. She then tells him her story: she was a Russian revolutionary who disobeyed orders to kill her lover, a double agent. The episode, which took place when she was twenty-seven, killed her, she says. She is really a living corpse. The character and her situation underline what must certainly be taken as the moral of Moravia’s book, but Sonia seems superfluous to the story of Lucio and Beate/Trude. The insistence on political truth intrudes on the truth of the imagination.

Another episode that seems extraneous occurs in the penultimate chapter when Lucio visits the famous art dealer and collector Shapiro, who is Sonia’s employer, in order to discuss with this wise and famous art historian the problem of his despair. The evocation of Bernard Berenson, very exactly described, is wholly enjoyable, even though it has little to do with the rest of the novel. Shapiro/Berenson’s advice to Lucio illuminates Berenson’s cynicism more than Lucio’s despair. It is, quite simply, “Get rich.” He then launches into a description of his Latvian childhood that Moravia must surely have heard from Berenson himself.

The episode of Sonia is perhaps too politically schematic, identifying Russian communism with Italian and German fascism; and that of Shapiro/Berenson is perhaps too journalistic. Nevertheless, 1934 is a wonderful invention. It starts with Kleist and Kafka and never loses its sense of them; but it is also a book in which fantasy, reality, and some deep truth about how personal relations are disfigured by the loss of freedom are all fused with Italian bravura.

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