An Interview with Novelist Umberto Eco on Writing and the World of the Library.  Reported by Gaither Stewart.


I
’ve 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 life—whether 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 Italy’s 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 cane—all his life he walked with a limp supported by a cane—and 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. I’m 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 ourselves—despite the idealistic philosophy according to which nothing exists outside ourselves. The thing is people don’t realize this crisis but they suffer from it anyway.”  
      To open this attempt to reflect Moravia’s chief literary theme of desperation over the crisis of man’s 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 couch corner.  
      “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 it’s not difficult, it’s not life. Communication becomes the basic problem of man. So since expressing oneself is central and fundamental, I’ve found that writing is the best therapy for nervous problems.”  
      Critics could not categorize Moravia’s 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 d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites after five years of treatment for bone tuberculosis. Five years of solitude that were to condition his entire life! “Solo col sole”—alone with the sun—as 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 literature—even if the author paid for its publication, as was the custom then in Italy—and 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’ L’Etranger and Sartre’s L’Age 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 chaos—because of his women I believe—in 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, L’Espresso. For at least the last decade of his life, Alberto Moravia was the dean of Italian literature—a 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 his work.  
      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 don’t 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 novels—Carmen 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! Moravia’s out in the world, engagé in life, still desperately grasping for reality like the characters in his literature.”  
      “It’s totally false,” Moravia told me. “I have contacts with few people. I’m 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 declined—she had a boyfriend—and I spent the evening alone. I’m in bed at 10 o’clock 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 I’m 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 don’t love each other anymore still continue to make love—I 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 man’s 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 it’s difficult for sex to be free. Few people can achieve sexual objectivity. In fact, sex in my literature is seldom erotic, rarely for pleasure. It’s 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 Moravia’s time, fiction had never flourished in Italy. Italy’s literary reputation was based on its poets from Dante to Leopardi; the first important Italian novel, Manzoni’s 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.  
      Moravia—his real name was Pincherle, born in Rome in 1907, whose father was an architect from Venice—was 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. Moravia’s 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 Moravia’s 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 Hemingway’s dead.  
      That theme resurfaced as anguish [angoscia] constantly in Moravia’s work. In La Noia [published in English as The Empty Canvas] in 1960, it was the painter’s relationship with his materials and with his woman friend. In 1934 [1986] it was desperation. Moravia: “Psychiatrists call this defect of our relationships with reality ‘de-realization.’ It’s a sickness. But there are various mediations between us and reality—like 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, it’s 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 message—man 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. I’m against suicide. I favor the Stoic idea that one must live with desperation. It’s 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 doesn’t 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 that’s the difficult aspect for this complex artist: how many people can live without illusions?  
      “Man needs his illusions. It’s 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 assiduously—Dostoevsky, Joyce, Stendhal, the French poets. He said he knew much of Rimbaud’s 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 Berenson’s 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.  
      Moravia’s critical faculties were soon directed against American writers. He was extremely critical of Hemingway’s 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 couldn’t describe them because he didn’t 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 don’t 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. He’s like Kipling in that he described men well—but not women. Hemingway’s 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.”

Moravia’s literary milieu is the bourgeoisie. All his life he professed to hate it with a passion—although 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 Moravia’s 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.  
      Moravia’s 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 Rome’s 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 reality—like 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 Moravia’s 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 Shakespeare’s 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 man’s relationship with reality—some were successful, some failures. I cite a few with their English titles—Disobedience, Conjugal Love, The Conformist, Roman Tales, A Ghost At Noon, Two Women, The Empty Canvas, The Fetish, 1934.  
     Because of Moravia’s 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 L’Uomo 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 don’t 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 table—the 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 ‘o’clock 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 mornings—he 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. “I’m thinking of dropping the column,” he said. I remembered he had told me five years earlier he would never write another novel—“Too much trouble,” he said. But he wrote four since. Meanwhile his huge old dog kept muzzling my microphone and Moravia’s shouts of “via” or “fuori”—get away—still 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 politician.  
      Besides, he’d made me promise not to make him work too hard.  
     

Gaither Stewart
Rome
January 2001

   
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.