“My life, as, I believe, everybody else’s, is chaos. The only continuous line is one of literary work,” Moravia said in the autobiography he completed shortly before his death.
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.
In an interview conducted a few months before he died in 1990, Alberto Moravia said, “In persons of genius you can’t talk of heredity or determinism. It would be like saying Leopardi was a pessimist because he was a hunchback.” Yet Moravia, who considered the gloomy Leopardi his literary forebear, often began his life story, as in the 1954 Paris Review interview, by underscoring the osteo-tuberculosis that left him with a lifelong limp: “I spent, altogether, five years in bed with it, between the ages of nine and seventeen, until 1924.” Most of the characters of his novels and stories also arrive stunted at the source: compromised, submissive, alienated, failed. The anguish of living became his subject, and he earned recognition as Italy’s great existentialist novelist with titles like La Noia (ennui, boredom). He once said any of his books could have been so titled.
In 1941 Moravia married Elsa Morante, a novelist. They remained together until 1961.
In December 1960, joined by Alberto Moravia and later by Elsa Morante, Pier Paolo Pasolini left for India. The pretext was an international conference on the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in Bombay, but the three writers took the time to visit other Indian sites: New Delhi, Agra, Benares, Calcutta, Tanjore and Cochin. On their way back to Europe, they stopped in Kenya and Zanzibar for several days. Pasolini recorded his impressions in articles written weekly for Il Giorno (published between February 26 and March 26, 1961), later the same year gathered in a book, L’odore dell’India(Milano: Longanesi, 1961). Moravia, too, wrote several chronicles of India, published in the Corriere della sera(beginning February 19, 1961), and then gathered in Un’idea dell’India in 1962.
Moravia befriended many artists, among them Laura Betti, the singer. She recalls:
“When I arrived in Rome to make a name as a jazz singer, I started hunting for texts for my songs, and this awakened the interest of writers. I hung out in intellectual circles. One evening Alberto Moravia brought Pier Paolo Pasolini to see me. He at once aroused my interest: he just sat there in a corner watching me through his dark glasses. I went right up to him and in my best Marlene Dietrich voice asked him: “Are you afraid of me?” It was love at first sight.”
”Nowadays,” he told a French interviewer in 1988, ”I only love Rome because I used to love her, just as one loves a woman for the sake of the love that one used to bear her.”
In 1960 Moravia published “Boredom”. I borrow from Lee Rourke’s top ten books on boredom, as published in the Guardian:
“Boredom has always fascinated me. I suppose it is the Heideggerian sense of ‘profound boredom’ that intrigues me the most. What he called a ‘muffling fog’ that swathes everything – including boredom itself – in apathy. Revealing ‘being as a whole’: that moment when we realise everything is truly meaningless, when everything is pared down and all we are confronted with is a prolonged, agonising nothingness. Obviously, we cannot handle this conclusion; it suspends us in constant dread. In my fictions I am concerned with two archetypes only, both of them suspended in this same dread: those who embrace boredom and those who try to fight it. The quotidian tension, the violence that this suspension and friction creates naturally filters itself into my work.”
“If boredom in its purest form is immanence, its antidote must be one of transcendence. But with immanence comes nothingness. How can we transcend from nothing? All we have is impulse to fall back on and such impulses are invariably of a sexual nature. Most people who seek some kind of meaning through sexual encounter often become quickly disillusioned, it being an ephemeral solution, and they hastily return to their own initial immanent state of boredom. Alberto Moravia’s terse novel expertly outlines this re-circulation of boredom and transcendence via the exploits of a protagonist who fails to connect with the impossibilities of his life.”
An excerpt from the short story “The Ashtray”
The Ashtray tells the story of a woman of indeterminate age, but who, it appears, is not young any more. The story in the first person narrative begins with the woman standing in front of the mirror, her hand poised in the air, a wad of cotton-wool smeared with cleansing cream between two fingers. She has cleaned one half of her face, the left side, but is not able to make up her mind about cleaning the other half. Her brain tells her she should, but her instincts are not to finish the cleaning. She stands there looking at herself, irresolute and motionless, and through her mind pass thoughts about what she had done through the day that is about to end.
She has done a great number of things, she recalls, but brought none of them to a conclusion. She realizes her day has been like an ashtray which a neurotic smoker has filled, during many hours, with a quantity of cigarette-ends, some of them long, some of them short, some of them barely scorched. Her day has been filled with acts that she had left half, or only a quarter accomplished; and like the cigarette-ends, these acts, now that she comes to think of them, seems to her to be dead, cold, evil-smelling.
“I began the morning when the maid deposited my breakfast tray on my bed. I had intended: 1] to arrange the menu for the two meals of the day; 2] to read the newspaper; 3] to drink a cup of tea; 4] to eat a slice of bread with butter and honey; 5] to telephone to Clarice, a friend of mine, and ask her for a certain address. Instead of which, after starting a discussion about the first dish for lunch, I dismissed the cook impatiently and told her she must think about it herself. Then I poured out the tea and buttered the bread, but I drank only a sip of the first and ate only a morsel of the second because, in the meantime, I had opened the paper and had dipped – nay, had positively become immersed – in the account of a particularly strange crime.”
“Finally I also abandoned the newspaper halfway through because the telephone call came to mind. But, as I was dialling Clarice’s number, my eye fell on the alarm clock on the bedside table, and I saw it was late and that, as usual, I hadn’t time. Leaving the tea, the bread, the butter, the honey, the paper and the telephone on the bed, I rushed into the bathroom. But alas, the bathwater was now cold, it was positively icy. So I went under the shower. Suddenly the telephone rang; wet and half covered with soap I ran to it; too late, the telephone had stopped ringing. I dried myself as best as I could, made up my face and hurriedly dressed. Once I was in the taxi, however, I discovered that I had forgotten to put on any lipstick.”
Since we began by talking about completing things, let’s go back to Moravia’s woman and see what she had done with the rest of her day. Remember she had gotten into a taxi in a hurry because she was late and in the taxi realized she had forgotten to put on any lipstick. Well, she goes to a bookstore and comes out irritated, without choosing what she wants to buy, then goes to a boutique and comes out from there too irritated without making a purchase because the salesmen in both places are too solicitous of her. She then goes to a bar and after ordering a drink, suddenly rushes out of the place without drinking it and without paying for it, because she sees a young man she would love to be with passing by outside in the street. She misses him, of course. She later has appointments with two lovers, two “incomplete” affairs again, and then she comes back home. That’s where she was standing unable to gather the will required to remove makeup from the other half of her face too as the story began.
When she goes to bed, her makeup is still there on the right side of her face. Her husband to whom she tries to warm up in bed, kissing his hand passionately, points this out to her.
(my thanks to Inner Traditions for the short story.)
An existential writer?
Moravia is considered by many to be an existential writer. Those of you who wish to explore this attribute, are invited to read the thesis “An Existential interpretation of four novels by Alberto Moravia”. Enjoy it.