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Alberto Moravia at the Canvas

by Michael McDonald

Alberto Moravia
Simone Casini, ed.
Milan:Bompiani, 2008, 414 pp., Euro 19,00

"In the works of every writer with any body of work to show for his effort", Alberto Moravia once told the Paris Review, "you will find recurrent themes. I view the novel, a single novel, as well as a writer’s entire corpus, as a musical composition in which the characters are themes, from variation to variation completing an entire parabola; similarly for the themes themselves." The notion that a novelist has but a few central insights that he frames and explores in slightly different ways from one book to another may not be true of "every writer", but it was certainly true of Moravia. The latest confirmation comes in the form of the posthumous publication of I due amici, an abandoned story that, if completed, would have constituted the nineteenth official novel of the Roman writer's body of work.

Moravia specialized in composing requiems for the death of traditional humanism, his central themes being the reduction of man to the status of a commodity, one "thing" among many, and the psychological suffering that occurs as a result. In a word, alienation: external and internal, all-pervading and inescapable, conveyed in the stark titles of his novels: Gli indifferenti, La disubbidienza, Il conformista, Il disprezzo, La noia. His work consists of a series of variations on the myriad ways in which modern men dehumanize themselves and others, as articulated in different, but essentially analogous emotional registers: indifference, refusal, conformity, contempt, boredom. The notion of friendship strikes a distinctly discordant note in the midst of such threnodies. But the title I due amici was chosen by its editor, Simone Casini—the one false note in an otherwise superb job of restoring, revising and presenting this important work—and it is impossible to imagine Moravia distilling the essence of this dark tale into a title bearing overtones, no matter how ironic, of solidarity and sociability.

As with most novels by Moravia, I due amici is set in Rome, on this occasion in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and its main character is a man struggling to overcome the sfasatura (bewilderment) that he experiences both within himself and in relation to Italian society at large. Also as usual, the plot centres on the corruption of love and sex by money and politics as filtered through that peculiar mixture of Freudianism and Marxism that Moravia made all his own. Twenty-seven-year-old Sergio Maltese is a communist intellectual who works as a low-paid journalist. He meets and becomes sexually involved with Nella (who, depending on the draft, may go by the name Lalla), a lower-class woman three years his junior. Their love is spontaneous and pure and yet such happiness as it provides is continually undermined by the stultifying nature of their poverty and by Sergio’s constant dissatisfaction with his life.

The classic Moravian anti-hero, Sergio is burdened by a sense of his own inferiority and by the continual intellectualization of his failures. As the story begins, he is obsessed by his fledgling membership in the Communist Party, which he had hoped would end his anguished condition. Instead he finds that nothing has changed and that he remains just as incapable of justifying his actions as before. Worse still, his embrace of the political is causing a growing feeling of contempt to seep into his relationship with Nella, who is intellectually incapable of understanding, let alone sharing, his vision of a classless society and who lives only for sensual pleasure. Into this unstable situation, Moravia introduces a third character, Maurizio, an old (or recent, depending on the textual variation) bourgeois friend of Sergio's. Tall and handsome, rich and self-assured, he is also a political reactionary who, although disillusioned about the fall of Fascism and Italy’s defeat in the war, is nevertheless capable of describing to Sergio, without the least trace of embarrassment, how much he loved not simply Mussolini, but Hitler as well. Being his exact antithesis, it is only natural that Sergio should find Maurizio odious, the very embodiment of the decadent political class that led Italy to ruin and stands in the way of the Communists' assuming power. And yet Sergio is simultaneously attracted to Maurizio for reasons that remain obscure.

All of which leads to the novel’s decisive moment when Sergio hatches a plan to convert Maurizio to Communism. If only he can make his will triumph over that of his adversary's, and thereby secure Maurizio's "soul" for the Party, perhaps this will be the life-transforming act that will validate his existence. But while Maurizio professes to acknowledge the force of Sergio's Marxist dialectics, as well as the bankruptcy of his own class values, he refuses to convert on rational grounds alone; he demands something more: that Sergio allow him to sleep with Nella.

Far from being repelled by the idea, Sergio ponders it at length. Indeed, he becomes so drunk with an inner feeling of power—now that he has finally discovered "the winning argument" that will enable him to triumph over Maurizio—that he fails to consider why Maurizio, what with all of the other beautiful women at his disposal, should be so anxious to sleep with Nella.

But embracing the idea of sacrificing Nella to Maurizio and acting upon it are two different matters, especially for a passive self-doubter such as Sergio. The days pass and nothing changes. Still, just as before, Sergio and Nella continue to have a hard time making ends meet. Life together in their drab furnished flat becomes increasingly argumentative and restless. As a result, Sergio feels compelled to borrow money in secret from Maurizio, an action that not only humiliates him in front of his old adversary but also makes him blame and despise Nella all the more. When Sergio returns home, Maurizio's money in hand, only to find that Nella has sneaked off to a party, he becomes enraged and resolves to force the "puttana" out of his life and into Maurizio's bed.

The perfect occasion arises several days later. But will Nella allow herself to be used in this way? And is Maurizio genuinely serious about wanting to bed her in the first place? Or could he have his own ulterior motives for placing Sergio and his much-vaunted communist convictions in such a sordid predicament?

Moravia began I due amici at the end of 1950, immediately following the completion of Il conformista, and it would appear he intended the story of Sergio Maltese to serve as the political counterpart to that of Marcello Clerici ("Il conformista"). In that novel, Moravia had attempted a philosophical demonstration of the sexual origins of right-wing political commitment, “the Fascist temperament”, as R. W. B. Lewis pithily put it, “as rooted in homosexual trauma". In I due amici, Moravia demonstrates the philosophical origins of left-wing political commitment, the communist temperament as rooted in feelings of inferiority, a willingness to use others as a means to larger ends, and, possibly, its own latent homosexuality. (What, otherwise, is one to make of Sergio's "obscure" attraction to Maurizio?) Moravia is at his best as a novelist when he keeps his theoretical assumptions firmly in check and deploys his considerable narrative skills. Such, alas, was not the case either with respect to Il conformista or with this story.

To be sure, Moravia's prose is as clean and precise as always. He is able to bring Sergio, Nella and Maurizio to life with a few deft strokes. He also succeeds in creating one memorable, Felliniesque scene when Sergio and Nella attend a party at Maurizio’s home. Farcical, grotesque and psychologically disturbing, it demonstrates the truth of Nicola Chiaromonte's observation that there is no one equal to Moravia "in seizing the moments in which reality, piercing through the mist of velleity and pretense, begins to 'exist' and to take on the meaning of its own overwhelming existence". But apart from this scene, one is left mostly with essay-like ruminations and schematic political dialogues, the relentlessness of which begins to drain away what little weight and density the characters possess.

Potential buyers of I due amici need to be aware that what Casini has packaged and presented to the reading public as a posthumous Moravia novel is not a single, albeit incomplete, manuscript, but rather three successive renderings of the same story, each roughly a hundred pages long. But therein lies part of the book’s particular attraction. In the Paris Review interview, Moravia switched metaphors from music to painting when he discussed his compositional method: "Each book is worked over several times [as with] painters centuries ago, proceeding, as it were, from layer to layer. The first draft is quite crude…although even then, even at that point…the form is visible. After that I rewrite it as many times—apply as many 'layers'—as I feel to be necessary". Moravia methodically destroyed the drafts leading up to each of his completed novels. But here, owing to the fact that he moved house, and that he, or someone, ended up packing the drafts in suitcases that were left in storage and only recently discovered, we are able to see Moravia at work, applying the successive layers of paint to his canvas.

In the first draft—"Redazione A"—we find the beginnings of a fragmentary prologue in which Sergio Maltese’s background assumes many of the biographical details of Moravia’s own life. "Redazione B" is a more rounded and nearly completed novella told in the third person. Then comes the final version, "Redazione C", in which Moravia undertakes a profound stylistic shift from the third to the first person—an expedient that was to characterize nearly all of his fiction from that point onwards.

Il conformista was savaged by the critics when it appeared in 1951, and Moravia must have recognized that the Communist-dominated Italian literary world would be even more unforgiving of I due amici. As he later admitted to his good friend Enzo Siciliano, the disastrous reception afforded Il conformista had shaken his confidence in his ability to write political novels dealing with concrete historical circumstances; this undoubtedly led him, eventually, to put the work aside. Henceforth, Moravia would devote his considerable talent to portraying the very personal and individual stories of Italians whose inner lives would, in his eyes, be disfigured by the neocapitalism of Italy's boom years.
McDonald Portraits by Rhoda Baer
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