Celebrating Moravia at 100

Thomas E. Peterson

A Focus on (the) Character

Alberto Moravia (1907-1990) was one the great novelists of the 20th century.  Born in Rome as Alberto Pincherle, Moravia’s father was a Jewish architect and painter born in Venice; his mother was a Catholic from Ancona, on the Adriatic Sea.  Stricken at age nine by bone tuberculosis, his school attendance was irregular and finally ended in 1920.  His painful isolation during the early years had a definite impact on his psychological and artistic development.  Convalescing for lengthy periods, he had tutors and read widely in Italian, French, German and English; his readings included Balzac, Proust, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Moliere, Rabelais, Defoe, Stendhal, Cervantes, Gogol and, among the Italians, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Goldoni, Manzoni, Verga, and from the Roman classics, Apuleius and Petronius.  On his centenary it is apt to remember Moravia among other novelists born in the 20th century before World War I (Steinbeck, Sartre, Canetti, Beckett, Durrell, Vittorini, Camus) and in his particular Italian context where he enjoyed the status of a prominent public intellectual.  Moravia was too young to participate in the rage of modernism and the avant-garde, generally seen to end around 1930.  His generation was born into a different sort of crisis, destined to experience two world wars, one in childhood and one in adulthood.  It was the generation of the existentialists.             

To return to the years of Moravia’s formation is more difficult than one might expect.    In 1907, Italy was stagnating in a prolonged post-Risorgimento crisis.  This was the Giolittian period, when, north and south, rich and poor, remained divided sectors in a nation bound more by its enmities and resistances than higher values.  Fierce rivalries divided the factions of the ruling Liberal party from each other, and all of them from the Catholic Church, which remained hostile to the government.  Few Italians truly identified with the nation or saw it on a path to egalitarian democracy.  These and other factors, including rampant poverty, mounting rebellions on the nationalist right, and the failed incursion into Libya, led Italy into World War I.  The war in turn paved the way for the rise of Fascism, which seized power in 1922.

Moravia’s first novel, Gli indifferenti (The Time of Indifference, 1929), was written in longhand with scant punctuation and published at his own expense.  It is set in Rome, in a family of the author’s own upper bourgeois background.  The book is structured like a tragedy that turns abruptly turns into tragi-comedy once the main character, the twentyish Michele, fails to load his pistol before attempting to kill the roguish Leo, a fiftyish ex-lover to his mother and current suitor of Michele’s younger sister, Carla.  The sordid treatment of the theme of erotic love, in combination with that of financial exploitation and avidity, is central to the novel.  In it one sees the author’s ability to create characters enmeshed in complex psychological relations and to expose their confused motivations.  Indifference amounts to a scathing critique of bourgeois normality accomplished by a faithful adherence to analytical description of the most trivial and meaningless of daily events.  Moravia had read much theatre and had chosen to emulate the Aristotelian unities in staging what amounts to a conventional story of lust and deceit.  Behind the well-mannered appearances of the Ardengo family there is corruption and decay.  The irony of this façade of a family in the stage of imminent breakdown, aided by the moral weakness and unconscious errors of its members, suggests the influences of Luigi Pirandello--Italy’s consummate dramatist of the absurd--and Italo Svevo.          

The seeming lack of moral virtues in Moravia’s characters was addressed in 1953 by Giovanni Cecchetti:  “Moravia’s characters do not live their restlessnesses, their grim agendas, but they submit themselves supinely to them, they are lived by them.  Imprisoned in the cage of instinct, they see its bars, but this very vision confirms them in the ineluctability of their destiny.  They are disarmed and their awareness of it generates sadness in them.  And sad they are, these men and women, incapable of joy and of smiles, bent over themselves to examine themselves, without every managing to see themselves.”[1]  Cecchetti’s description establishes an important point about some of Moravia’s characters, but in retrospect they constitute a more varied and nuanced, and a more virtuous group than is suggested by this description.          

There was in Moravia a sense of the Zeitgeist:  by absorbing the spirit of the times and translating it into stories rich in irony and realism, he became in the words of Renato Poggioli –also born in 1907--“the most powerful writer of the rich generation of contemporary Italian novelists.”  Poggioli adds the following aperçu:  “Moravia’s attitude is that of a man who is both a cynic and a moralist:  his realism is ironic and lucid, and produces always the impression that reality is stranger than fiction.  His characterizations and plots aim at showing what one could call the ‘pre-established disharmony’ of this world, the absurdity of life and the foolishness of man.”[2]           

Moravia’s insistence on the character, and on the disorder of the world as it emerges through the character’s crisis of will, is unique among the Italian novelists of his day.  He was writing realistic novels a decade before the birth of neorealism and doing so without any deference to the verismo of Verga or the “art prose” and aestheticism of D’Annunzio.  As Moravia addressed reality–in particular urban, middle class reality–he probed more deeply into the psychological interiority of his characters than the naturalistic adherence to external reality would have allowed.  Among recent authors, the only Italians one can cite as sources are Svevo and Pirandello, the former for his careful attention to the emotional life of his protagonists, and the latter for his irony and humor, and his tragi-comic view of life.  Either of these masters practiced a form of the essay-novel; in contrast to these cosmopolitan and content-based novels of ideas, poet Gabriele D’Annunzio was writing novels that cultivated the language of the Italian lyric transposed into the ambience of the bourgeois drawing room.  In his novel Il piacere (Pleasure, 1889), an aestheticist hero is enveloped in the world of the senses, specifically the extravagant and hedonistic world of the Roman baroque.  Here it is useful to consider, in contrast, Moravia’s own view of Rome, his home city, and the life of its upper classes.          

Whether in the Rome or Stendhal or that of Moravia’s youth, “[Roman] society was composed of foreigners, nobility, a tradition-bound populace, and a restricted middle class of traders and middle-men.”[3]  All this was destined to change, first under the fascists and then under the Christian Democrats after World War II.  And yet, “the class psychology has undergone very few changes”; there was still in 1956 an idle and corrupt nobility and a prevailing “indifference” or “lack of participation” which resulted in “the all-embracing unreality of life in Rome” (ME 161).  Rome, only the national capital since 1871, preserved the same indifference and lassitude among its entrenched nobility and the bourgeoisie as was observed by Stendhal in 1827; meanwhile, among the working class Rome possessed the qualities and cuisine of a rural sheepherding town.  The first major physical change in the face of Rome was the destruction by the fascists of poor neighborhoods in the historical center near the monuments and ruins of antiquity, and the construction of tenement housing in the slums of the periphery. 

In the year in which Indifference was published, 1929, Mussolini and Pope Pius XI signed Lateran Pacts, putting an end to fifty years of non-communication between the Catholic Church and the Italian state; in the same year, Moravia’s cousins, the socialist liberals Nello and Carlo Rosselli founded the anti-fascist organization Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Freedom).  The Stock Market crashed and led to the Great Depression, as pessimism swept through America and Europe.  The Rossellis were eventually tracked down by fascist hitmen in France in June, 1937, and assassinated; Moravia’s family residence was searched by authorities.  In the period 1935-1939 Moravia traveled to the United States and Mexico, China and Greece.  In 1939, a year after the Italian Race Laws went into effect, Moravia’s works appeared on the Ministry of Public Culture’s list of works by Jewish authors.  His 1941 novel La mascherata (The Fancy Dress Party), a satire of a military dictator in Central America, was confiscated by the regime.   He now assumed a pseudonym for his journalistic work.  Having long been spied on by the regime, in 1943 Moravia escaped from Rome before being arrested; he and his wife Elsa Morante resided in southern Latium until the Nazi-Fascists were driven out of Rome in 1944. 


Man as an End         

WHEN I WAS ASKED TO DISCUSS MORAVIA'S IMPORTANCE today, I thought immediately of the seminal book of essays L’uomo come fine e altri saggi (Man as an End, 1965), written between 1941 and 1964.  The book serves as a hinge between the early and late career and is the ideal vademecum for a study of the author’s ideas.  The combined literary and moral focus of Moravia’s critical prose distinguishes it from the specialized and technical essays of academics, as it does from the topical essays of literary journalists.  The central thesis of Man as an End is that contemporary culture has lost its moral compass, that humanity has become a means but not an end.  Moravia’s goal is to depict the erosion of human dignity in a mass culture dominated by authoritarian ideologies on the one hand and consumerist neocapitalism on the other.

After World War II, the so-called communist aesthetic, as in socialist realism, was seriously considered by Western intellectuals; thus a perspicuous opposition to such conformism in art was called for.  Moravia pointed to the irony of communism’s adoption of a classicist style–“But communism is not satisfied with imposing a specific ideological content, it also wants a specific style” (ME 127).  He argued convincingly that the support by Western intellectuals of the notion of art as superstructure was misguided and destructive of the larger humanistic goal.  Moravia was not averse to Marx’s analysis of society and the need for a redistribution of wealth.  But he saw the heavily conceptual apparatus of Marxist ideology as deterministic and self-defeating in the artistic and literary realm, where it was manifest in Zdhanovism.  A supporter of the importance of ideology in the political life, Moravia did not support ideological regimes that imposed their will on the imaginary and artistic endeavor.  Harking back to the Renaissance, he defended the autonomy of art:  language is only a means, while art is an end.  By the same token, neocapitalism’s dominance in the West had created abstract and decadent art, which was ironically similar to socialist art:  “They both withdraw from reality whose real needs are study, patience, humility, sincerity, sense of truth, and disinterestedness” (ME 127). 

The earliest essays of Man as an End are literary in nature and are unprecedented in Italy as synthetic studies of the novel form by a novelist.  In “The Man and the Character” (1941) Moravia states that the ethical force of the novel depends for its success on the character:  “The character is not the fruit of a more or less minute and precise observation, but the form taken by moral judgment” (ME 67).  Moravia defines the genre of the novel during the 19th century as character, but sees that definition currently “threatened with complete elimination” (ME 67).  The fault lies with naturalism, which caused the whole process of portraying objective reality or “truth” in the novel to become mechanical and lifeless; it is the merit of Dostoevsky and Proust to have rejected the naturalistic conception, replacing it with “a kind of character who was avowedly lyrical and autobiographical” (ME 69).           

In “Notes on the Novel,” Moravia calls Dostoevsky as the “father of the ideological novel”:  “not only is his ideology ambiguous and contradictory but his relationship with his ideology is ambiguous and contradictory too”; this gives the Russian’s novels a “hypothetical character” much to Moravia’s liking (ME 170-71).  What Moravia uses as a criterion for successful fiction is whether the reader is able to adapt the story to his or her life; if so, the metaphors at work are successful; if not the work falls flat, being “abstract and conceptual”:  “Hence it is up to the novelist to dig his own ideology out of themes underlying his own experience and not from cultural and religious traditions.  From History in fact, and not history already past” (ME 173).  Thus the weakness of historical novels, such as Manzoni’s Promessi sposi (The Betrothed), is due to their attempt to recreate a history already past; because of its lack of ambiguity, The Betrothed “is constantly in danger of being judged as a work of propaganda rather than of metaphor” (ME 173).  In contrast, there is praise for the “metaphorical novels” of Stendhal, such as The Red and the Black–for their ability to capture History in the now, in the making of it, laden with emotion and nostalgia.          

Moravia rejected “traditional humanism” as an anachronistic set of linguistic and moralistic conventions employed as ends in themselves by the clerical and intellectual classes.  The humanism he proposed rejected this “anti-humanism” as having contributed to the fetishization of art and the dedication to action at all costs (and thus the avoidance of contemplation).  Moravia’s solution is simple:  “If man wants to rediscover an idea of man and break out of the slavery into which he has fallen, he must be aware of his being as man and, to attain this awareness, he must abandon action for contemplation once and for all” (ME 59).           

In one of the longer essays of Man as an End, “Boccaccio,” Moravia demonstrates how the author of the Decameron handled this problem of action and contemplation in order to arrive at a own genuine humanism.  Moravia stresses the key role of action in that author, as opposed to the psychological dimension of interiority or character description.  Boccaccio’s “indifference to the ethical factor” allows for the rich presence of deceit and sadism as themes in the Decameron.  Regarded as “a contemplative writer in love with action” (ME 145), Boccaccio’s expansiveness in time and space was undertaken in pursuit of this passion.  In addition he possessed a very modern appreciation of chance events: “chance and mischance are beautiful alike, to be caressed and wondered at with feelings of lascivious desire.  All ends up in beauty” (ME 152); “Chance, that deceptive and enigmatic goddess, puts the more lovable and younger human faculties to the test first and foremost” (ME 154-55).  These factors along with Boccaccio’s “longing for invisibility” (ME 143) are reminiscent of Moravia’s own fiction; in either case there is a contemplative author who shows no sign of empathy or identification towards the character.  The point I would make is that Moravia has drawn an arc backward from his day to the origins of Italian literature, basing his realism on observation of the complexity of the human psyche and not on the sorts of mythic-lyric-political forms of empathy practiced by the neo-realists, who tended to heroize peasants and workers for the sake of ideological positions.


           The Italian Conversation          

IN THE EARLY NOVELLAS, SUCH AS “The Tired Courtesan,” “The Imbroglio” and “The Wayward Wife,” Moravia portrayed a series of adolescent protagonists whose passivity and lack of confidence are recognized and exploited–emotionally and financially--by savvier counterparts, leaving them in a worse crisis than before.  Much of this vulnerability and naïveté, and fear of unscrupulous manipulation, flowed out of Moravia’s own experience.  He was a secular writer who exposed the moral shortcomings of largely middle-class protagonists whose emotional lives and material livelihoods seemed to be in a precarious balance when not pitched against one another.  As he matured, Moravia understood that the possibility of the novel in which an individual character develops felicitously in positive tension with the social institutions (as in Stendhal and Flaubert) was gone; but he also realized that the aesthetic experimentation of the modernists, whose novels focused on the destructive impact of social history on the development of the youth–who became “homeless, narcissistic, regressive”–was no longer a viable option.[4]  A confirmed realist, Moravia applied himself to the treatment of love and sexuality as viewed through the prism of social class and the facts of material existence, including the institutions: of marriage, family, church, job and state. 

The harshly negative assessment of the psycho-sexual problematic grew more nuanced and hopeful in the three novels of social initiation written in the dopoguerra:  Agostino (1945),  La romana (The Woman of Rome, 1947) and La disubbidienza (Luca, 1948).  Here the characters are not defeated by society but given the opportunity to respond to the perils that confront them by employing their wits and cultivating their loves:  Adriana, the young prostitute in The Woman of Rome; Agostino, the pre-adolescent whose uncanny discovery of sexuality and differences of social class is conditioned by his love for his mother; and Luca, the sickly and disobedient teenager who discovers love and then, fast on its heels, the death of the lover.  These characters are remarkable because of Moravia’s pitiless focus on their confrontations with adversity, and on their irrepressible instincts, of sexuality, love, personal power and matters of the spirit.             

About The Woman of Rome, Poggioli wrote:  “[Moravia] is a master of the socio-psychological portrait:  he is at his best when drawing the figure of the upstart who is a social climber, of the outcast who conquers his or her place among the ‘happy few’.  Such is the case with the protagonist of his novel, La Romana, describing at the same time with detachment and gusto an Italian Molly Flanders, against the background of Twentieth Century Rome.”[5]  While critics have criticized Moravia’s decision to have Adriana speak and reason in the standard Italian language rather than dialect, the author did not base his realism on such literalist assumptions; his drafting of a modern morality play endows his character with all the linguistic complexity necessary to communicate her psychological depth.  Another criticism is that Adriana’s character is somehow a stereotype of ‘natural’ female sexuality as found in Zola or Rousseau; but this ignores the problem of a first-person retrospective narration that reveals the paradoxes of Adriana’s character, her experience of sadism during her search for love with her diverse clients, and her Christianity and the “chastity” attained in her relationship with Giacomo–an anti-fascist political organizer in 1937-- in their repeated lovemaking. 

Moravia recognized the major importance of the sexual factor in art: by this he meant to accentuate the consciousness of sexuality, not the banality of the physical act.  In the repertory of his fictional characters sexuality stands for the tension and miscommunication at the basis of many human relationships.  If sexuality is a universal motivation in the psyche, so is the economic drive.  Thus in Moravia’s plots, money is an emblem of personal power and control, and stands alongside the figurations of sexual desire and deceit.  Money, like sex, is not important in itself, but for what it represents psychologically and ethically. The obscure algebra that connects the erotic and economic impulses exists as a form of knowledge:  only by dealing honestly with the baseness of sexuality in the sphere of human motivations does one allow for its opposite to loom on the horizon of human possibility.       

Moravia brought the “Italian conversation” into the world of letters and vice versa, giving literary form to the elusive and intangible suchness of the day-to-day, the personal attractions and aversions, the mysterious instincts that condition one’s moral and material life.  Introducing a 1961 compendium of realistic writers from the Italian regions over the centuries, Moravia asserted that realism is the same as humanism, and that both are forms of courage; the opposite of realism, therefore, is equivalent to cowardice.[6]  As an example of such cowardice one need only look to the “fetishism” that arose in the 19th century and which pervades today’s society.  Rather than proposing man as an end, this society substituted such fetishes as power, money, efficiency, production, the nation, and race.  Western culture lost its moral compass, allowing humanity to be a means not an end. 

Moravia understood that the process of novel-writing had changed in the late 19th century, in the experiences of naturalism and symbolism, and then had changed more radically in the work of such modernists as Conrad, Rilke, Musil, Joyce, Mann, and Kafka–all named by Franco Moretti as having written critical “late Bildungsromans” in the period 1898-1914.  Moretti’s analysis of the rise and fall of the ‘novel of formation’ is pertinent to Moravia’s own involvement in this sub-genre, beginning with the portrait of youth in Indifference.  Among the modernist novelists named above, one thinks especially of Joyce, whose Ulysses had provided Moravia with a concrete example of how to observe and record the simple events that occur in the course of a day.  One also thinks of Proust, from whom Moravia absorbed the lesson of the ‘novel of memory’ based on the minute analysis of events, but seen through the lens of the past.  Moravia’s preoccupation with realism carried him, paradoxically, into a period of metafiction.  By his own estimation, by the mid-1950s reality in the novel was only to be found in the relation of the writer and himself.  In the novels Il disprezzo (Contempt, 1954), La noia (The Empty Canvas, 1960), and L’attenzione (The Lie, 1965), the creative problem of the artist and writer results in a new kind of realism in which invasive ideologies must be confronted and overcome.  Behind the struggles of these three male protagonists one can see Moravia’s own defense of language and the word within a literary culture that he found to be lacking in disinterestedness and objectivity.  In short, the problems of alienation denounced in Man as an End continued to be addressed in fiction through the problem of narration itself.

It was against this widespread alienation or male di vivere (evil of living) that poet and Nobel Prize winner Eugenio Montale (1896–1981) had also asserted himself, through negativity, as a force of resistance.  The humanism of Montale was found in his responses to contingencies that paradoxically arose to illuminate his life and relationships.  Moravia too sets out from a radical negativity, but in the domain of prose.  This much he has in common with Montale:  a stoical and metaphysical curiosity about the nature of existence and the dark conviction that, while only love can repair the brokenness of the world, in actuality this love is more often negated than fulfilled.  The redemptive image of love is refined by Moravia in a number of works, but, notably in The Woman of Rome and then La ciociara (Two Women, 1955).  Here he focuses on the idea that love for the other is attained only once the subject (or protagonist) exercises self-love.  In these two novels the epiphanies occur amidst an authoritarian regime with its personal violence and cruelty, and during wartime with slaughter and rape.  The fundamental reality that one can gather from the examples of Adriana and Mino in The Woman of Rome, and from Cesira, Rosetta and Michele in Two Women is that human beings suffer and that all humans stand as equal in this regard before death.


          (Re)reading Moravia Today         

IF ONE OF THE BENEFITS OF GREAT LITERATURE is that its value grows over time, it is also true that the culture industry has a way of consuming the past in order to reduce its most genuine icons to the data of an information society.  The bending of time or its acceleration in the post-Cold War era, seems to present cultural historians today with an almost arbitrary view of literary history, detached from national traditions or identities, not grounded in geography or dialect, unrelated to the truth, save the post-modern ‘truth’ that the foundations of knowledge of been eclipsed.  Such a world is alien to a concrete thinker and realist such as Moravia, who enjoyed for decades the reputation of being a balanced and authoritative commentator on Italian culture.  To grasp Moravia’s humanism today requires that one adopt, in Kenneth Burke’s terms, a “perspective by incongruity”:  one must look across the arc between two different eras.  Yet that is precisely what Moravia did in his essays and fiction (as seen in the cited example of Boccaccio); by excavating history as experienced, laden with nostalgia, pathos and equivocation, he provided a model for the modern Italian novel.  In our current ‘reality’ of globalization and the theatricalization of the day-to-day, it is perhaps suitable to undertake a rereading of the Moravian oeuvre

Ever faithful to himself and to the society that knew him, Moravia was a cultural ambassador, an outspoken opponent of nuclear arms and Italy’s first representative to the European Parliament.  Heagonized over the tendency of mass society to avoid the ambiguities and moral complexities of great literature.  He was infinitely curious about other cultures and literatures, and traveled extensively throughout his life.  He wrote a weekly column on cinema for the Espresso for many years and wrote hundreds of pieces of travel reportage, especially from Asia and Africa.  When I heard him speak in 1980 at U. C. Berkeley, he came into the room with the desire to learn about this place and these people.  One was quickly engaged by his modesty, aplomb and wit, his frankness and understatedness, his tendency to make a few simple points, to elaborate on them, and then to shrug his head back to weigh the silence with his audience.  Moravia entered into a conversation with his audience, trusting in the linear development of his topic, without ornament or flourish, but also trusting in the synthetic force of his thought, founded as it was on a strong ethical sense; as he wrote, “No human activity can be independent of ethics” (ME 15).  Entering into this American lecture hall, Moravia appeared as intrigued and cautious to encounter our American academic “tribe” as he might have been on a visit to a remote village in Africa.  The probing intelligence, and the humility, as he confronted the cultural divide, were part of his humanism, and were predicated, it seemed, on his painful awareness of human frailty.

In the title essay of Man as an End, Moravia wrote: “Christianity made suffering the corner-stone of its whole moral and religious system.  By accepting on behalf of all men to expiate man’s sins on the cross–that is, by accepting to suffer for the whole of mankind–Christ purified, unloaded and freed men from sin” (ME 50).  This Christianity has been lost, says Moravia, and, though more suffering has been seen in the 20th century than ever before, man has become a means and not an end, and suffering has lost its purifying flame.  In our present day of media saturation and quasi-theocracy, is not the Moravian problematic of missing love, of man as a means instead of an end, of estrangement and alienation, still upon us?


1 G. Cecchetti, “Alberto Moravia,” Italica 30, 3 (1953): [153-167]155.

2 R. Poggioli, “Italian Literary Chronicles, III:  Some 1948 Books,” Italica 25, 4 (1948): 322.

3 A. Moravia, Man as an End [henceforward abbreviated as ME], trans. Bernard Wall (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965), 156.

4 F. Moretti, The Way of the World.  The Bildungsroman in European Culture , trans. Albert Sbragia (London: Verso, 1987 [2000]), 232.

5 R. Poggioli, “Italian Literary Chronicles, III:  Some 1948 Books,” Italica 25, 4 (1948): 322.

6  P. P. Pasolini, Scrittori della realtà dall’VIII al XIX secolo (Milano Garzanti, 1961).