Ive always envied the 20th century Italian writer Alberto Moravia because he began writing as a teenager and, according to him, wrote almost every day of his lifewhether in Rome or in Nairobi or Shanghai. As a foreign correspondent and journalist in Rome, I interviewed him three times at the acme of his maturity during the 1980s and followed him personally in his astounding career as the true man of letters until his death in Rome in 1990.
After pouring over old notes, listening to my taped interviews and re-reading my own published stories about him, I nonetheless hesitated to begin this essay about one of Italys major novelists. It was the embarrassment of choosing. I had too many materials. Then Moravia himself resolved the problem: he reappeared to me out of one of my published interviews in which I described the scene of the ivory knobbed cane, the coffee table, and the microphone.
I recall fondly the afternoon in his apartment when, to underline that the crisis of the relationship with reality is the major theme of his work, Moravia said reality can be that table and whacked the coffee table with the knob of his caneall his life he walked with a limp supported by a caneand knocked the microphone of my recorder to the floor. He laughed in embarrassment and we had trouble adjusting it again.
After a long pause to return the couch and ponder his own statement, he repeated, Yes, reality is this table. Im not speaking here of our relationship with the social world. It is more philosophical than that. I mean our relationship with an object. The problem emerges from the idea that there exists something outside ourselvesdespite the idealistic philosophy according to which nothing exists outside ourselves. The thing is people dont realize this crisis but they suffer from it anyway.
To open this attempt to reflect Moravias chief literary theme of desperation over the crisis of mans relationship with reality, I will quote myself on the occasion of one of the first interviews he gave me.
Dark clouds race above the jagged cypresses
along the crest of the hill of Monte Parioli across the Tiber River. Puddles
of water on the terracotta terrace of his apartment reflect the swiftly changing
colors and moods of a Rembrandt Roman sky that forms a continuity with the
somber natural light of the intimate salon. The restless artist uncoils carefully
from the deep couch like a jungle lion after its noonday nap, circles a stuffed
chair, prowls along a wall, adjusts a tribal mask and a book on a shelf, and
spins around cat-like before settling back down to his favorite spot in the
My obsession? he growls. Maybe! Well, yes, for I am obsessed by the need to write in order to express myself. Like my characters I suffer too from anguish, from that interior individual kind of anguish, the anguish of most men. The fundamental theme of my work quite naturally became revolt and the difficulty of relationship with reality. This too, I suppose, is obsession. Anyway life is a difficult activity. If its not difficult, its not life. Communication becomes the basic problem of man. So since expressing oneself is central and fundamental, Ive found that writing is the best therapy for nervous problems.
Critics could not categorize Moravias most famous novel, The Time of Indifference, when it appeared in 1929 soon after the 22-year-old voracious reader and budding writer emerged from a sanatorium at Cortina dAmpezzo in the Dolomites after five years of treatment for bone tuberculosis. Five years of solitude that were to condition his entire life! Solo col solealone with the sunas he described those years dedicated to reading world literature and composing his early poems. Yet with time that novel proved to be one of the greatest successes of modern Italian literatureeven if the author paid for its publication, as was the custom then in Italyand at the same time created a scandal because it departed from everything sacred in Italian letters.
The Time of Indifference is often compared to Camus LEtranger and Sartres LAge de la Raison, which it preceded.
Today, 72 years later, it reads better than most of Hemingway.
Moravia told me that his personal life was total chaosbecause of his women I believein which the only constant was his literary work. He wrote novels, short stories, articles and essays, film scripts, film critique, travelogues. For years he was co-editor of the magazine Nuovi Argomenti and had a column in the Rome weekly, LEspresso. For at least the last decade of his life, Alberto Moravia was the dean of Italian literaturea term he however claimed to detest.
Today, as in 1929, it is impossible to remain indifferent to centennial Alberto Moravia, the forerunner of European existentialist writers. The man of letters and always a man of his times, Moravia has many admirers; also those who admire him less nonetheless recognize his prominent place in Italian letters of the twentieth century and in the world of literature. Whatever the opinion, Moravia the man, the writer and world traveler, is fascinating, enigmatic, courageous and controversial.
There is a misconception that Moravia simply
exploits popular themes of sex and wealth. For most Italians his literature
is still synonymous with sex. He did write about both, which for him the artist
are the two fundamental criteria for an interpretation of existence and social
reality, the principle measures of a society that rejected the traditional
moral standards inherited by his generation. In his over 50 books Moravia
zeroes in on the absurdity of the world he lived in. Sex was the symbol of
In his lifetime that spanned most of the century, it was useless to try to scandalize open-minded Moravia the man. Nor was he affected by his notoriety. When in his last years he married his 31-year-old companion of three years, a Spanish woman, Carmen Llera, Rome was titillated by images of the old man and the vamp. Hemingway could have devoted a novel to him. Cartoonists had a field day. But the young-old man was oblivious. Why not? he said. If I dont like little girls, I adore beautiful women. He must have laughed at the cartoon of him and his young wife in bed, both reading important Moravia novelsCarmen naturally has La Noia [Boredom] and he, Gli Indifferenti [The Age of Indifference].
In his late years in the 1980s the Rome press described a ubiquitous Moravia. Gossip columns reported on a restless Moravia haunting new restaurants, opening vernissages of important painters, crowning every literary prize ceremony, or off another trip to exotic places like Yemen. His readers could then exclaim, Ah ha! Moravias out in the world, engagé in life, still desperately grasping for reality like the characters in his literature.
Its totally false, Moravia told me. I have contacts with few people. Im like Marlene Dietrich when she was crying in her room in the Hotel Excelsior on Via Veneto because no one wanted to be with her that evening. Once after a TV interview in Washington that was seen by 30 million people, I asked a women from the TV crew to dine with me but she declinedshe had a boyfriendand I spent the evening alone. Im in bed at 10 oclock nearly every night. Versace or Valentino picks me up for the opening of a fashion show or they want me for the opening of a new discoth¸que. I accept. I stay three minutes, they take a few photographs, and then send me back home. And Im in bed by eleven.
In those photographs, however, mundane Moravia is usually in the company of one or other of the beautiful young women of his life, who also frequented his bed. Sex was the metaphor of his personal life as it was of his literature. Sex and literature! For he was also married to two important women writers, Elsa Morante and Dacia Maraini.
Therefore, before moving toward desperation, I have brought Moravia on sex to the forefront, which also was the main subject of one of my interviews with him.
Sex is the most primitive means of communication, the writer about incommunicability repeated all his life. Like the woman asked if she preferred to masturbate or make love? Make love, she answered. That way you at least get acquainted with someone. While language tends to degenerate, Moravia said, sex is not worn out. Like some couples who dont love each other anymore still continue to make loveI think, in order to communicate.
In his essay, Eroticism In Literature, Moravia, after pointing out that eroticism in modern literature emerged from the liberation from pre-existing taboos and is a reacquired freedom for man, says that the writer must write about sex. If I describe a man who catches syphilis I obviously have to speak of sex. For the writer, sex is an object like any other. It also has a poetic function. If this object is at the center of my narration, I must describe it. Sex as one of mans means of communication should appear in literature. And when it appears in good literature no one is scandalized. For Moravia, however, it was not a matter of sexual freedom. Sex is only free in art. It is only free in its representation. In life its difficult for sex to be free. Few people can achieve sexual objectivity. In fact, sex in my literature is seldom erotic, rarely for pleasure. Its for communication, and subordinately, for procreation. It is a metaphor for life. Sex is a social-historical fact. Love however is outside history. There can be sex without love but hardly sentimental love without sex. Love presupposes sex but sex does not presuppose love. The happy man has both.
The Time of Indifference thrust onto the literary
scene a different kind of Italian writer: anti-provincial and European in
outlook, groping with the problems of his own life and the problems of his
age. Until Moravias time, fiction had never flourished in Italy. Italys
literary reputation was based on its poets from Dante to Leopardi; the first
important Italian novel, Manzonis The Betrothed, appeared late, in 1827.
Then, under Fascism, style continued to be all-important; observation and
critical thought were frowned upon. No wonder that The Time of Indifference
caused a scandal in that prudish and sterile atmosphere.
Moraviahis real name was Pincherle, born in Rome in 1907, whose father was an architect from Venicewas absorbed early by the theme of alienation and the impossibility of communication. That theme was to emerge years later with the French existentialists, Camus and Sartre. Moravias Michele was the first existentialist in European literature.
Inevitably his themes soon brought him into conflict with the Fascism of family values and patriotism. He had to escape that too, isolating himself in Paris and London from 1930-1935. Illness and Fascism, he said, were the two most important facts of my life.
The characters of The Time of Indifference move in a world of a tightly closed circle, unable to communicate or express themselves. As they become aware of themselves and their condition, they become apathetic and incapable of action, more complex and also more insignificant, superfluous like the intellectuals of 19th century Russian literature that the boy Moravia read in the sanatorium. Camus Meursault and Moravias Michele are direct relatives: both are indifferent and incapable of a relationship with the world, marked by skepticism, despair, escapism and panic. How modern, how 21st century, compared to Hemingways dead.
That theme resurfaced as anguish [angoscia] constantly in Moravias work. In La Noia [published in English as The Empty Canvas] in 1960, it was the painters relationship with his materials and with his woman friend. In 1934  it was desperation. Moravia: Psychiatrists call this defect of our relationships with reality de-realization. Its a sickness. But there are various mediations between us and realitylike sex. I believe we relate to reality with our bodies. One person by making love, another by a life of action like Hemingway, or another by simply speaking.
Desperation is linked to indifference, boredom, incommunicability, and anguish. Of course not everybody has it! For there are many varied things in this world. But I have always been desperate. In 1934 I wanted to show the necessity of accepting that desperation. I concluded that although I suffer from anguish, its better to live with it rather than die. I call that stabilization of desperation. In that book for the first time I wanted to send a messageman is desperate, man must be desperate. Like Kierkegaard said, if man is not desperate, he should be. But he must live with it, not die. That seems right to me. Im against suicide. I favor the Stoic idea that one must live with desperation. Its also a Christian thing. A real Christian must be desperate. To accept being desperate is not a compromise. It means to live in desperation. To accept desperation means simply not to kill oneself. It doesnt mean to live in peace. Desperation is a serious matter and requires a certain amount of play-acting as a way to live with desperation. The main thing is not to bother others.
For Moravia to live in desperation means to break through the veil and see reality as it is. Living without illusions is unpleasant, he admits. And thats the difficult aspect for this complex artist: how many people can live without illusions?
Man needs his illusions. Its difficult to live without them. The writer must not attach importance to his success! Like the man who cannot be illuded that his woman loves him!
While as a boy in the sanatorium Moravia read
assiduouslyDostoevsky, Joyce, Stendhal, the French poets. He said he
knew much of Rimbauds poetry by heart. Italian writers Leopardi, Manzoni
and Goldoni had an influence on his precocious development. Later, as a successful
writer, he associated with the writers, painters and filmmakers of his age.
He knew Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow well and once made a trip to Brazil
together with Graham Greene. He related how as a 20-year-old he spent the
summer with Bernard Berenson in Florence. A car came for him each day at his
pension to take him to Berensons villa in the hills where he read aloud
chapter a day of The Time of Indifference.
The day I finished the last chapter Berenson said, A remarkable achievement.
European writers after World War II were enamored of the fresh and invigorating American literary voice. For some years, Moravia and other European writers seemed outdated. Moravia, the existential novelist of alienation, seemed rooted in the past. That soon changed when in Europe anti-Americanism became fashionable.
Moravias critical faculties were soon directed against American writers. He was extremely critical of Hemingways decadence. Quite naturally their relationship with women was central. Conceding that at least in his literature Hemingway respected women, Moravia pointed out that the American writer couldnt describe them because he didnt know them.
His dialogues influenced me at the beginning of my writing career. But not his life. I once spent a month in the same places Hemingway did in Tanzania. If his descriptions of nature are marvelous, he was an insufferable paternalist with Africans. When I read of how he treated Africans I felt only irritation. A real colonialist. Not to speak of animals! He loved dead animals not live ones. Then after he killed one, he examined it closely and exclaimed, What a magnificent cadaver! I call him an aesthete of action. Perhaps he had sexual problems, I dont know. He had a conception of courage based on guts. Life however is not made up of guts, but of other things. His was a Boy Scout conception of life. Like that of Kipling. He was quite decadent. He felt nature deeply but behaved badly with men. Hes like Kipling in that he described men wellbut not women. Hemingways only interesting woman is Brett, who is marvelous even if she is a slut. That lack in Hemingway made him an incomplete writer.
Actually Hemingway is not a novelist but a poet. I translated into Italian his story The Killers that I see as a poem, in both style and composition.
Finally, I would say to those critics who consider me an enemy of Hemingway that he wrote some beautiful books up until the Spanish Civil War. His best are The Sun Also Rises, Farewell To Arms, and 49 Stories. Green Hills Of Africa is pretty good. After that he only repeated himself.
Moravias literary milieu is the bourgeoisie.
All his life he professed to hate it with a passionalthough he was part
of it. In his work the proletariat and the intellectuals hovering around the
fringes of his bourgeois world are his instruments for dissecting and analyzing
that world. The working class yearns for the Eden of the bourgeoisie while
the intellectuals like Moravia and his Michele who live within that world
are suffering in their alienation. Since there is no escape, their angoscia
can only grow. On the other hand his Rome proletariat seems artificial. Critics
have written that his Rome proletariat is a negative, forced sympathy, originating
in Moravias fierce hatred for the bourgeois class.
In the interviews with me, Moravia explained that he was not class conscious when he wrote The Time of Indifference. He himself was of the bourgeoisie. In his 1945 essay Ricordo degli indifferenti, he writes: Art is an interior matter. I wrote that novel because I was inside the bourgeoisie, not outside it. He said that he only became aware of his repugnance for that class after writing the book.
Moravias bourgeoisie must be understood in moral terms, not economic. It is a lifestyle. He states quite clearly that it is better to be rich than poor. Moreover, bourgeoisie must be understood in European terms. It is not the American Middle Class. The term originated in a century of social revolution in Europe terminating in the Russian Revolution.
Uncertain in his artificial idolization of the proletariat as the natural opponent of the hated bourgeoisie, Moravia gravitated toward Communism, as did most of his liberal generation in Europe. Yet he soon negated the practice of Communism. He wrote that, A shadow of coercion suffices to cause poetry to dissipate. The Communists will have to conquer the whole world before they can have an art worthy of the name.
You see, he said that afternoon in his apartment on Romes Lungotevere, culture is a very general thing. Some people think that only books record culture, but everything is culture. Art, however, is special in that it is an anti-social activity. Art can never be social since it is the subconscious of society. It must express the unexpressed. All other aspects of society are expressed. Many, like the police and judiciary, are repressive. Art is the only activity that is not repressive since it expresses the subconscious. Art is also distinguished by its non-utility.
Aesthetics may play no role in itself. However if a society produces beauty then one may say that it is partially successful. Nor do I think that tradition is of particular importance. It is simply a reality, like nature. And must be taken seriously. Ezra Pound felt tradition strongly, but always as a realitylike a vase of flowers. Tradition should not be idolized or become a fetish.
To close this chapter I would add that the writer is certainly not always an artist. Some are commercial like most films today. The difference between the commercial writer and the artist is fundamental.
Because of his treatment of the life under
Fascism, The Woman of Rome [La Romana], published 20 years after
The Time of Indifference, is one of Moravias main novels. Critics
of the period considered it the culmination of two decades of work and a clear
re-statement of his various themes. Here his interpretation of life is the
social representation of society as a whole, not just the bourgeoisie. Yet
its characters, too, are victims of Moravian alienation and desperation. To
criticism of the death of all his characters at the end of the novel, he simply
cited the precedent of Shakespeares Hamlet.
For Moravia, in this novel, it was the bored indifference of the Italian people as a whole that facilitated the birth and 20-year survival of Fascism, the same political indifference that marks Italian society today in the face of a modern form of reactionary extremism.
In the post-war until his death Moravia churned out his novels, forever dealing with his theme of mans relationship with realitysome were successful, some failures. I cite a few with their English titlesDisobedience, Conjugal Love, The Conformist, Roman Tales, A Ghost At Noon, Two Women, The Empty Canvas, The Fetish, 1934.
Because of Moravias predilection for plot and theatrical techniques, film directors discovered his works and several became films. He said that his ambition was to apply to the novel the principles of the unities of time, place and action because I felt a strong need to exert a strong hold on reality, which continually seemed to escape and melt away.
My books might seem cinematographic, he said at the time LUomo Che Guarda [literally the man who peeps] appeared, but the conversion of book to film is complex. A great lover of the cinema, for years the film critic for Espresso Magazine and an intimate friend of Pasolini, Moravia said he felt discomfort when he saw film versions of his books. The fact is a book is the work of one artist, a film of another. A writer cannot ask a film director to be faithful to his book. He can only ask him to make a good film. No artist can be forced to be faithful. Actually I dont believe a film can be faithful to a book. The aim of the filmmaker is to express himself, not be faithful. As a rule, few great films result from books.
Literature and cinema have one thing in common: duration. Unlike theater where everything happens in one place and in a couple hours, cinema and literature move in time. But despite this similarity, film images cannot say the same thing as words. Words are ambiguous. When you write the word table you mean this table or many tables. But the film image is of one precise tablethe one you see. Then, the novel has the past tense. In the cinema even flashbacks are in the present tense: if you see Caesar passing the Rubicon, he is passing it in that moment. Only words can attempt to express the inexpressible. Words have nuances that cinema images can never have.
Despite his claim that he works every morning
from 7 to about one oclock and sees people in the afternoon, the
interview about cinema and literature took place in late morning. The telephone
rang several times and I had to tell him each time since he was hard of hearing
and conversations were shouted. I began to suspect he asked people to call
morningshe liked the interruptions. They were an escape. The doorbell
rang and it was difficult for him to rise from the couch. It was a messenger
from Espresso to pick up his column. Im thinking of dropping the
column, he said. I remembered he had told me five years earlier he would
never write another novelToo much trouble, he said. But
he wrote four since. Meanwhile his huge old dog kept muzzling my microphone
and Moravias shouts of via or fuoriget
awaystill today ring out on the old tape. Moravia was getting jumpy.
It was almost time to meet his young wife for lunch in a Rome restaurant,
the Carmen that people suspected was having an affair with a prominent Lebanese
Besides, hed made me promise not to make him work too hard.
Gaither Stewart. a native of Asheville, North Carolina, has lived most of his life in Europe. He served as Italian correspondent for the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad and wrote for publications in various countries. Recently, he lived over a year in Mexico to research and work on a novel that takes place in Italy and Mexico. He recently returned home to Rome.