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 …