Roman Tales, by Alberto Moravia
By Alberto Moravia
Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. 229 pp. $3.75.
When Alberto Moravia’s complete works were put on the Index in 1952, a close friend and literary colleague visited Moravia and jokingly told him that he had better pack up and leave the country, since now at last he was officially out in the cold. Moravia replied: “I’ve always been there. In fact, I’m so far outside that I’m more deeply inside than all the rest of you.”
This anecdote is worth recounting, not only because it points up Moravia’s acute self-awareness—from the inception of his career he has been, for the Italians, an irregular, a provoker of scandals, though at the same time (perhaps just because of this) he has progressed inexorably to the position of their most widely read serious writer—but also because it helps shed some light on the vogue which his novels and short stories now enjoy abroad, particularly in the cosmopolitan centers where artistic reputations are made and destroyed in our day.
For there is no doubt that, in the years since the war, Moravia has risen to a prominent place among what might be called the new group of international writers, a group which includes such diverse figures as Graham Greene, Albert Camus, Angus Wilson, and Jean-Paul Sartre. In contrast to the preceding generation of Mann, Malraux, and Silone, this group’s creative work is characterized by a distinct lowering of the cultural and political temperature, accompanied by a febrile, exacerbated emphasis on the plight of the overborne individual, that harried, flesh-bound, doomed creature who is so often the protagonist of their heavily hopeless, world-weary dramas. This is, in fact, a Manichean literature, which lays the chief blame for the despair and confusion of modern life on man’s “natural” limitations, and adopts this perspective either, as in Greene, because of an avowed religious distaste for soiled human flesh, or, as in Sartre on the basis of an over-sophisticated rationalization of a penchant for the ugly and demeaning.
Now, though he has evident points of contact with this general view of things, Moravia, being an Italian, has always found it difficult —the very colors and pleasures of Italian life deprive him of this solution—to accept the world-rejecting premises on which these other writers base themselves. In all his writings he has continually wavered between a grudging admiration for the healthy insensitive man who can act with indiscriminate gusto, and an ill-concealed contempt for the morbidly introverted, problem-racked intellectual who cannot act at all. The hothouse stagnation of Italian cultural life under Fascism undoubtedly contributed greatly to heightening his concern with this particular problem; indeed, one often feels that it does not matter to him what the action might be—a sexual conquest, a shrewd business deal, a point of pride upheld despite overriding circumstances—so long as man’s whole being is engrossed in it, so long as he achieves a mastery that sweeps aside all moral and conventional obligations; all those preoccupations which Moravia would call his “doubts.”
It is for this reason that the prostitute in The Woman of Rome can be regarded as Moravia’s true heroine, a kind of tenderly cynical queen of the sensual life who with almost miraculous tact (the tact of the body) is able to understand her situation, her driven lovers and herself, and yet is not paralyzed by this knowledge. She also represents a partial solution of Moravia’s struggle with his own contradictory terms of instinctively healthy nature and sickly self-doubting intellect—a resolution which opts for the realistic wisdom of the Italian folk as embodied in Adriana, the wise, good, and beautiful whore. One might say that the very fact that Moravia could fall back on his people’s “wisdom” in order to solve, however inadequately, his most personal conflict, is what ultimately distinguishes him from the other members of this loosely associated group of international literary men.
Moravia himself has always prized his position as a lone wolf on the prowl inside his deeply traditional culture (perhaps because he is part Jewish), performing with courage and intelligence his role of modernist spy, recorder of all those grating, oppressive, often furious encounters which, even in outwardly idyllic Italy, human relations seem to produce in our time. Indeed, these most recent stories show him pushing more deeply inside his own culture, yet managing to keep open the line of communication with his international audience. It was not an easy feat. To begin with, these are profoundly Italian short stories, written on the model of the brutally comic, action-paced, straightforward tales of Boccaccio and Sachetti. Furthermore, Moravia is also consciously following in the footsteps of G. G. Belli, the great 19th-century Roman poet who established the genre of a dialect literature in the mouths of “the people,” a form almost inevitably “local” and, therefore, innately provincial.
In fact, like his predecessor, Moravia has set out in his own mordant fashion to celebrate his city and its people in an epic work—more than two hundred of these Roman Tales have already been published in Italy—“a monument to a town of always solemn remembrance.” Yet, unlike Belli, he has not imprisoned himself in the dialect’s lower depths but has availed himself only of its lexicon and rhythms, its verve. Belli was a religious spirit bent on self-abnegation and tormented by an anti-clericalism which derived more from melancholic, romantically darkened anguish than from any political program; and his protest was, for a Roman, truly romantic, because it raised a serious doubt about the Pope’s capacity to solve all the final questions. Moravia would not dream of presenting his protest in such terms; his mind is not distantly touched by metaphysical broodings. He has, in short, an attitude that comes perilously close to that of the average sensual Roman: the Pope takes care of all that, while we, who must live from day to day, are confronted by the unadorned realities. To the Roman the apparent is the real, there nakedly before him, illuminated by the blinding sunlight and enclosed in the snug circle of his city’s immemorial backdrop, and whatever shadows and uncertainties might exist stand outside the well-lighted stage on which he plays the tragi-comic game of facing up to an existence whose rules and penalties are all known and accepted.
Planting himself solidly on this philosophy of his fellow citizens, Moravia has had the inspiration to use his first person, poker-faced yet zestful Roman masks for the purposes of picaresque comedy. And it is precisely here that he hits on the modern note, highlighting all those abrupt, inconsequential, enraged, or simply loony juxtapositions and clashes which the bewildering rip-tides of ever-increasing Americanization and “left” politics have set whirling in Rome since the war. Clearly it is not sex, as some critics maintain, that is the dynamic center of the Moravian world, but rather the part that sex, or hunger, or money, or any of the “realities” plays in providing the propulsive force that gets his characters going. For years Moravia’s black imagination has yearned for the freedom of the picaresque, thinking of it as a way out of his claustrophobic, self-hating “bourgeois” situation, and now he has finally found the form that suspends all his unresolved moral problems—the folk wisdom he relies on has its own answers to them—and permits him to indulge in those sweeping, instinctive gestures which the suffocating milieus of his novels about the upper classes always denied to him.
For Moravia this is, of course, a liberation and a great step forward. But one can observe how limited a conquest it is at all those points where the well-labeled “game” of his secluded, almost pastoral society does not keep pace with Rome’s helter-skelter rush toward modernization. There is a nostalgic air about Moravia’s portraits of the unemployed, desperately scrounging characters who figure so importantly in these stories; they are not the casualties of a callous industrial system, but rather the scapegrace vagabonds of a highly mannered literature. It would seem that being a lone wolf is a game that also has its penalties.