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The Literary Life

Rediscovering Alberto Moravia

After his death, the great Italian novelist Alberto Moravia (1907-90) fell out of print in the United States: inexcusable. Fortunately, his period of eclipse has now ended, for two venturesome independent publishers, The New York Review of Books and Steerforth Press, have magnanimously reissued his finest novels in handsome paperback editions.

The first I read was Boredom. What lover of difficult, numb prose could resist that title's amuse-bouche of anomie? I would have been content had Boredom actually been boring. However, this monologue of an aristocratic dilettante, a playboy erotically obsessed with a vacant-minded model, is hypnotic, its mise en scène straight out of La Dolce Vita: In Moravia's world, all the men are doomed, and all the women are beautiful.

My curiosity piqued by Boredom, I consumed, serially, the rest: Contempt, Two Women, The Woman of Rome, The Time of Indifference, and The Conformist. Each has the psychological intensity of D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers or Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, but Moravia conveys melodrama through the unlikely vehicle of an arid style, grounded in ennui. Indeed, Moravia's narratives are as objective and clinical as any in modern European fiction, whether by existentialists (Albert Camus) or practitioners of the nouveau roman (Marguerite Duras). Unlike them, Moravia harnesses his big themes--Free Will versus Fate, Love versus Duty, the Crowd versus the Individual--to suspenseful plot. The style itself, as in the thrillers of Patricia Highsmith or Georges Simenon, embodies a detached, philosophical stance, and yet it also advances the narrative with a minimum of fuss.

The stories usually involve bourgeois Italian families, failed political ideals, intellectual sons on the verge of moral dissolution, and virginal daughters turning into prostitutes. The greatest of his prostitute novels is Two Women, which De Sica adapted into a film starring Sophia Loren. Moravia's Neorealist sensibility seems as much filmic as novelistic, and so his books lent themselves to cinematic treatment--often with sexpot stars. Gina Lollobrigida appeared in the movie version of The Woman of Rome; Brigitte Bardot dominated Godard's Contempt; Dominique Sanda garnished Bertolucci's The Conformist. Sex composes the quintessential Moravian delirium.

In a great scene from Boredom, the narrator makes love to his mistress, Cecilia, after bedecking her with his wealthy mother's banknotes: "I threw myself upon her and covered her body, and the banknotes that covered it, with my own body. Cecilia showed at once that she had expected the game to end in this way, clinging closely to me with her arms and legs, while the banknotes, horribly dirty and incongruous, crackled and slithered between our two ardent, sweating bodies. Other notes had become scattered around us on the bed covers, and yet others on the pillow, among Cecilia's hair." Moravia's post-Freudian candor assumes that sophisticated readers forgive the id, and aren't shocked by its exactions.

Moravia's plots originate in his dramatic life; the themes of danger, precocity, paralysis, and disaffection predominate. Born in Rome to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, he suffered from tuberculosis as a child, and published his first novel (The Time of Indifference) at the astonishing age of 21. During World War II, he hid in the mountains outside Rome with his wife, Elsa Morante (a travail he fictionalizes in Two Women). Like the novels of W.G. Sebald, Moravia's epics communicate what Europe lost when Fascism arrived; they are masterful portraits of resistance, but also of callow accommodation. Reading Moravia, I sink into self-interrogation. Am I the sort who joins the Resistance, or the sort who becomes a collaborator? Do I have the temperament to become a prostitute? Must I murder for my ideals?