It was the rainy, bone-chilling Roman winter of 1947. A new acquaintance had invited me to a dinner party, giving me an address near the US Embassy, somewhere behind the Excelsior Hotel. The streets were ill-lighted in those immediate postwar days of scarcity and hardship, but I managed to find the turn-of-the-century urban villa, surrounded by a small, thickly wooded garden. Inside, the house was almost as gloomy as its dark exterior. The central, clear panes of the windows were framed by strips of stained glass; the little conservatory off the salon was a dank jungle. And, like the parsimonious landlady of my pensione, my dinner hosts kept the wattage of their light bulbs to the minimum available.
There was something strangely familiar about the place; an association was somewhere at the back of my mind, but I couldn’t define it, until my hostess said: “This house was built by Alberto Moravia’s father. He was an architect.”
Then the association was clear: this could have been the house where Alberto Pincherle grew up before he took the name Moravia, or it could have been the villa of the neurotic family that was the subject of Gli indifferenti (translated as The Time of Indifference), Moravia’s first novel, written in his teens and published—to immense acclaim (and polemic)—in 1929, when he was twenty-one. In that story, a classic portrait of a feckless, materialistic Roman bourgeoisie that became a reference point for generations of Italian readers, the house, filled with bitter foreboding and sexual tensions, and the garden, rank and soggy, were vivid supporting characters, fleshing out the relentless portrait of a period. Similar houses, similar gardens were to recur in Moravia’s later books, many of which were variations on his initial theme, the rottenness of the Italian middle class. His examination of the Italian society of his time was to leave an enduring mark on contemporary Italian attitudes.
Only a few months before that depressing dinner party, on the sunniest of Capri days, I had met Moravia and his wife, Elsa Morante, for the first time, on the beach. He was not quite forty, Italy’s most famous living writer, enjoying the recent success of his brilliant novella Agostino (published, in English, with another short fiction under the collective title Two Adolescents), and soon to consolidate his reputation with La romana (The Woman of Rome), which became an international best seller. In the sober narrative of Agostino Moravia again dissected a mother-son relationship as the young protagonist of the novella made the joint discovery of sexuality (while his young, beautiful, sensuous mother became involved with a lover) and of class distinction, as the neglected boy took up with a band of working-class youth, whose sexual knowledge was far more advanced than his own. Their contempt for his innocence and their envy of his family’s wealth run through the story in a typically Moravian juxtaposition. At the end, in an attempt at confrontation, Agostino accuses his …