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Roman Candle

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 mother: “You always treat me like a child….” To humor him, the mother replies absently: “Very well; from now on I’ll treat you like a man…. Satisfied?… Now go to sleep…it’s very late.” And Moravia concludes: “Like a man, he couldn’t help thinking before he fell asleep. But he was not a man, and a long, unhappy time would pass before he was one.”

At the end of the lazy morning on the Marina Piccola, he and Elsa and I, with a couple of other friends, shared a crammed taxi—then Capri’s only taxi, I believe—up to the piazza; and over the next few days we met casually several times, initiating a friendship that was to continue in Rome until his death some forty years later.

Though I was in awe of him (as, in those callow years, I was in awe of anyone who had actually published a book), Moravia was easy to be with. He was a good talker, a good listener, and a good observer. Unusually for an Italian intellectual at that time, he had traveled widely—Mexico, Russia, China—partly to escape from the Fascist regime, which had done its best to impede his career, and partly out of an irrepressible curiosity that kept him on the move well into his eighties. In 1994, his longtime publisher Bompiani brought out a thick (almost 2000 pages) posthumous volume of hitherto uncollected travel pieces, descriptions of England before and after World War II, the US in 1936 (and again in 1955 and 1968-1969), the former USSR, Mongolia. Even the earliest pieces demonstrate Moravia’s broad curiosity and keen observation—the two essentials of the traveler—and an impartiality that informs even his description of a cockfight in Taxco, in 1936 (Moravia was twenty-eight):

…The defeated cock was picked up by the soldier; as he unfastened the blade from the spur, blood dripped on his hands and on his white polo trousers; wiping away the sweat with the back of his hand, he made a broad vermilion smear across one cheek…he tossed the limp, dying cock under my seat; it landed with its head on the crossbar and for the rest of the afternoon its blood trickled between my feet.

Now the orchestra had resumed playing a little march, as ardent and violent as the sun that struck me through the holes in the awning, the spectators laughed and commented on the fighting, the fat man ran here and there, heavy and sweating, his eunuch face filled with joy, as he answered the questions of the fans. Also blood-stained and sweating, the soldier stood off to one side, his hand covered with galls and boils, resting on the butt of his revolver, in a pose at once martial and relaxed that reminded me of the soldiers in a famous painting by Mantegna. Then he took a little sack of tobacco and some papers from his pocket, and as his tiny black eyes looked all around, he began rolling a cigarette with his gnarled fingers. Six other soldiers came in and sat down among the spectators, their rifles between their legs. There was some brawling over a bet, I heard angry voices, I saw a hand move to a revolver: but the crowd paid no attention and went on laughing and talking….

During the afternoon six more pairs of cocks fought. In one of the fights a cock’s blade neatly sliced off the opponent’s head, which rolled in the dust amid the spectators’ shouts of joy. Another fight ended with one opponent’s running away, drowned in boos and insults. A third came to a controversial end, followed by a long debate, at last resolved by the governor amicably; though the people next to me murmured that he had favored the cock from his native city.

This rich collection, along with his several previously published travel books, especially those on India and Africa, is evidence of Moravia’s versatility: if he hadn’t become famous as a novelist, he would no doubt have become famous anyway as an unusually thoughtful travel writer.

In his fiction, however, he preferred to restrict his field and cultivate it intensely. His novels seldom move away from Italy, seldom have non-Italian characters, and for the most part deal with family situations, sex, and—most severely—with the bourgeoisie, the background from which Moravia himself came, and which, sometimes simplistically, he identified with Fascism.

The book that brought him international fame, La romana, is the story of Adriana, a Roman prostitute, told in a subtly characterized, remarkably convincing female first person, inspired, as Moravia said, by Moll Flanders. Though Fascism is only occasionally mentioned and Adriana is frank about her lack of interest in politics, the book breathes the stifling air of the regime, and Adriana’s two most important lovers are, significantly, an influential police official and an unheroic member of the underground, a renegade bourgeois, who—when he is brought face to face with Fascist brutality—caves in and betrays his comrades. The apolitical Adriana tries to allay his remorse, but guilt drives him to suicide. Pregnant by a murderer, who also dies, Adriana is alone and she reflects, “I thought about my child. I thought how he would be born of a murderer and a prostitute, but any man may happen to kill, and any woman may happen to sell herself; and what mattered was for the baby to be born safely and to grow up healthy and strong.” On its appearance, it was not the book’s politics that offended many readers, but its moral detachment, personified in Adriana; conservative critics and readers found La romana “obscene,” because it dealt frankly, though impersonally, with sex, and in April 1952 the Holy Office placed Moravia’s opera omnia on the Index librorum prohibitorum, referring to his works as “res lascivas seu obscenas.”

There is no denying that Moravia’s fiction deals with sex, never obscenely but, on occasion, almost obsessively. This was a subject Moravia also liked to discuss, but always with the clinical detachment that marks his novels. “It interests me because, through sex, a person reveals himself. It is a key that gives you access to a character,” Moravia once said to me. “Money can be another key, and some writers write about money the way I do about sex.” Moravia’s own attitude toward money was, he claimed, “of absolute indifference,” but again and again in his fiction he deals with the psychological impact and the ramifications of the extremes of poverty and wealth. Typically, in Agostino, an important episode describes the rich boy’s complex feelings when, by a fluke, he actually earns some money for the first time in his life.

Two months after his books were placed on the Index, Moravia was pointedly and unanimously awarded the Premio Strega—a prize given by an association of Italy’s most important writers and cultural figures. Though the recognition was clearly meant to apply to his whole career, the book his colleagues singled out was the collection of his short stories that had appeared a few months earlier.

The collection includes a novella that Moravia himself—agreeing with his critics—called one of his finest: Inverno di malato (A Sick Boy’s Winter), based on the crucial experience of his long illness from tuberculosis of the bone, which began in 1916, when he was nine years old, and made him practically an invalid until 1925. This illness left him permanently lame; and, along with Fascism, it was, he frequently said, a determining factor in his life. Illness denied him an ordinary adolescence and, even more, a traditional education. He spent only one year of ginnasio in a regular school, Rome’s prestigious Liceo Tasso; for the rest his education was in his own hands, and during the years he spent, bedridden, in clinics or Alpine hotels, he read constantly and unsystematically, sometimes a book a day, from Shakespeare and Ariosto to Dostoevsky, Proust (in French), Joyce, and, as we have seen, Defoe (in English).

Since he had no teachers and saw his parents seldom, Moravia was a man without received ideas—there had been no one to receive them from—and, both in his writing and in his daily life, he maintained a free, skeptical mind, immune to political creeds or intellectual fashions. While some other Italian writers and thinkers, including many future left-wing eminences, had a youthful moment of Fascist flirtation, Moravia was not attracted by the regime’s superficial allure. As he affirmed his unaligned anti-Fascism more and more clearly, his position was increasingly resented by supporters of the regime. In the summer of 1943, during the chaotic forty-five-day period between the fall of Mussolini and the occupation of Northern Italy by the Nazis, Moravia published several antitotalitarian articles in Il Popolo, an outspoken Roman newspaper.

Then, as the Germans took command of Rome, his name was high on their wanted list; informed of the danger by a friend, Moravia and Elsa embarked on a hazardous train journey bound for Naples. They never got there. Near the town of Fondi, the train stopped, and the couple had to seek local shelter. Thinking their situation would last only a few days, they fled into the mountains, with other refugees, and actually spent nine months, including an unusually severe winter, in a shed, with no heat and scant food. In the early summer of 1944, the Allied advance allowed Moravia and Elsa to reach Naples and, a few weeks later, Rome.

Characteristically, once in Rome Moravia began working immediately. He wrote a film script and newspaper articles to pay the rent, and the novel La romana. In 1947, when La romana was finished, he started work on a work of fiction inspired by his experience in the mountains as a refugee; but after about eight pages, he set the project aside, rapidly completing a number of novels and stories. He was also again able to travel. But in the mid-1950s, he came upon the pages of that unfinished wartime story and completed it, entitling it La ciociara (The Woman of Ciociaria, published in English as Two Women).

Like La romana, this novel is told in the first person, by a woman; and also like the earlier work, it mainly concerns the relationship between a mother and daughter. Cesira, the narrator, is a worldly-wise, widowed shopkeeper in Rome; as the war worsens and business vanishes, she and her teenage daughter decide to return to her native Ciociaria, the region around Fondi, where Moravia and Elsa had lived in hiding. Like the author, Cesira discovers the stern reality of rural life, the greed and deceit, but more important she witnesses and tragically experiences the casual violence and evil that war engenders beyond the battlefield itself. The rape of her daughter by a patrol of foreign soldiers sums up the war’s unmitigated violence, which is followed by a painful coda in which both mother and daughter find they can survive what they have suffered and somehow manage to resume everyday life.

Though his fellow writers awarded him the Strega Prize, Moravia was not universally admired by his colleagues. I remember in the early days of our friendship in Rome, I was surprised when some intellectuals warned me that “Moravia wrote Italian badly.” I had to bear in mind that Moravia, an admirer of the early Flaubert’s natural style and of other, equally cool French writers, after all, lived in a literary world where the presence of d’Annunzio, who had died only a decade before, was still felt, and the devotees and practitioners of la bella pagina, the bejeweled, mannered prose that flourished during the Fascist years, were still writing, many of them serving as critics for the leading Italian papers and reviews. Moravia’s steely, often merciless style was a welcome corrective, especially for younger readers and writers; but it sometimes repelled the older generation, and his international success—like that of Umberto Eco more recently—inevitably aroused envy. At the same time, his thoughtful, frank articles won him respect. In 1982, on his third trip to Japan, he visited Hiroshima:

At that precise moment, the monument erected to commemorate the most dreadful day in all the history of mankind “acted” within me. All of a sudden, I realized that the monument demanded of me that I acknowledge myself not a citizen any more of a given nation, belonging to a given culture, but, somehow zoologically but also religiously, a member of the species.

As a result of this experience, he wrote a series of reports on the atomic bomb and its implications in Japan, in Germany, and in the Soviet Union. In 1983, invited to run for the Italian Senate, he refused: “I have always thought that literature must not be mixed with politics: the writer aims at the absolute; the politician, at the relative; only dictators aim at the relative and the absolute together.” But the following year, Moravia allowed his name to be placed in the running for a seat in the Parliament of Europe: he won, receiving 260,000 votes, went to Strasbourg, and, from there, wrote a regular column for the Corriere della Sera under the heading “Corriere europeo.”

Moravia was not insensitive to criticism or to hostility, but neither one seems to have affected his writing. Stylistically, he began as he continued: the clean, cool prose of his first stories remained with him through the last novels and the last pieces of journalism. The hostility remained as well, and even some of his admirers felt that the novels of the final decade or so were inferior to the best works of his career—Gli indifferenti, Agostino, La romana, Il conformista (his dissection of the Fascist personality, which inspired a memorable Bertolucci film), La noia, Il disprezzo. The subject matter of the later novels seemed occasionally forced; the plots were repetitive in their insistent probing into private relationships, largely conjugal, and in some of the books narrative seemed to lack energy.

Moravia was, as he frequently said, a man of habit, and writing formed a fixed part of his day. In the last decades of his life when he wasn’t traveling, he would rise very early and work a number of hours, usually until about 9 AM; then for the rest of the day he would see friends, read, take long walks, go to the movies to fulfill his duties as film critic of L’Espresso and also out of interest and pleasure. His immense production was the result of his regular habits (and his longevity). He was not an impulsive writer, and he would rewrite even the most casual article several times. When I was asked on occasion to translate some short piece of his, the text would arrive, neatly typed by the author, but always with many revisions in his unmistakable, angular hand. The revisions were never sweeping—I was translating published work for the most part—but the kind of subtle sharpening that distinguishes the genuine writer.

In 1980 his third long novel La vita interiore (The Inner Life) appeared, a book that took him a full seven years to write. The only other novel to which he devoted an equivalent amount of time was his second long fiction, Le ambizioni sbagliate (1935, translated as The Wheel of Life), generally considered a failure, though as Moravia said later, “In this novel there were certainly things that were felt and authentic, but in general it lacked the spontaneous, necessary quality that Gli indifferenti had had.” Something similar could be said of La vita interiore, which—like Moravia’s opus 2 over half a century earlier—was a failure.

But La vita interiore, whatever its defects, was by no means a tired repetition. True, some familiar Moravia characters reappear in it: the middle-aged mother (adoptive mother, in this case), with a younger, cynical lover (two actually), and the daughter who matures sexually and has a listless affair with her mother’s lover(s). There were echoes of Gli indifferenti, but here the narrative is in the curious form of an interview between “I,” the author, and Desideria (the adoptive daughter). And there is a third, very intrusive presence, The Voice, an obsessive companion of Desideria, who compares herself to Joan of Arc. But Desideria’s voice—female—is that of a 1968 revolutionary and, at the same time, a sexual initiator, urging Desideria to masturbate, to essay various sexual experiences, to espouse terrorism, and finally to murder.

The physical setting is sparse. Occasionally, Desideria describes a street, an apartment, an article of clothing. But more often the action unfolds in a virtually abstract, dispassionate atmosphere. The “I” constantly makes Desideria define her terms, and so they discuss words and meaning: what is “normal,” what is real “revolution,” and other similar questions.

These semantic debates and the cold descriptions of unimpassioned sex do not make for a likeable book. The novel may not be successful, but it cannot be dismissed out of hand, first because it is an intense, nonpartisan portrayal of Italian life of the 1960s and 1970s, in which the sexual and political revolutions are seen almost as a form of self-destructive play. La vita interiore returns to other favorite themes and character types from earlier works—the dissolute mother and the sensual daughter, the lying employee, the rebel would-be intellectual—and presents them in exacerbated form. We are aware of Moravia’s mind working as he worries his ideas, nagging them and perhaps nagging the reader. To a lesser degree, the same could be said about some of the other late books—short novels like Il viaggio a Roma, La villa del venerdì (based on an idea for a film)—in which Moravia describes a marriage based on accepted infidelity.

These works may not represent the writer at his best, but they tell us something about his thoughts and situation in the last phase of his life. So does the best of his late books, the Vita di Moravia, a book-length interview conducted by Moravia’s young friend, the writer, Alain Elkann, but thoroughly supervised—edited and rewritten—by the subject himself, who frequently uses his interlocutor’s questions as a pretext to digress on something that interests him more. Thus, when Elkann asks Moravia if, in The Conformist, he uses his father’s chauffeur as a character, Moravia says curtly: “Only his name.” But then he asks Elkann:

Do you want to know how we set off for our holiday? In 1916, my father had rented a villa at Olevano Romano, seventy kilometers from Rome…. When we left Rome in the Fiat, I was dressed in a sailor’s suit, dark blue, that my mother had ordered from Paris, from the Galeries Lafayette. It was 1916, so my mother wore a wide-brimmed hat, a frilly blouse with a high neck and a skirt down to her feet. We were all clean when we set out, but white with dust when we arrived…. Going to Olevano was rather an adventure, both because it was a very rural place and because of disease. In fact, in the summer there many children died of typhus and other intestinal illnesses.

La vita interiore was not translated into English, nor were several of his late books, not just novels but also the singular Passeggiate africane (Walks in Africa) of 1987, Moravia’s final travel book, regarding his last trip to Africa.

On the morning of September 26, 1990, Moravia’s editor Mario Andreose came to Moravia’s Roman apartment, bringing the first bound copy of the autobiography-interview, Vita di Moravia. When Andreose arrived, Moravia was in the bath, shaving. Some time passed, and he didn’t emerge. Andreose entered and found the writer on the floor. Though Moravia was a few months short of his eighty-fourth birthday, and though his death was the kind elderly people hope for, it came as a shock. He had been a part of Italian life for over half a century, a voice that was heard often, never hectoring or peremptory, but always firm, somehow reassuring even when you disagreed with what he was saying.

An American publisher asked me to translate the Vita di Moravia, and I did. It was a strange sensation, as if I—not Elkann—were talking with my absent friend. But in America by that time, Moravia’s sales value had diminished, like his literary reputation; and the uneasy publishers wanted many revisions, cuts, unacceptable changes. There was bitter disagreement, then the publishing house changed hands, and no more was heard of the project.

Last fall, for a course I was teaching at Bard College, I wanted my students to read Gli indifferenti. At the bookshop, I learned the English translation was out of print. Well, then, The Conformist? Out of print. The same for La noia, Il disprezzo, Two Adolescents, Two Women. Not a single work of Moravia was available in English. I was sorry for my students: there was, I felt, a great gap in their notion of modern Italy. American readers nowadays can read Calvino, Eco, Pasolini, and several other contemporary Italian writers, but all these writers—gratefully or not—grew up in the shadow of Moravia, who did not so much serve as a literary inspiration as he was a moral guide, always ready to gamble his reputation, to risk ridicule and even his life (he was sentenced to death, at one point, by a “tribunal” of right-wing extremists). Above all, he could think with his own mind and speak with his own words, outside all political parties and factions. Moravia was a rare and invaluable mentor. Today, in the newly provincialized Italy of Bossi and Berlusconi, he leaves a void, all the more disastrous because, to the younger generation of English-language readers, it is invisible.

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