Alberto Moravia (né Pincherle, 1907-1990) was the Italian writer best-known and best-selling in North America and northern Europe in the 1950s and 60s, not least for screen adaptations of three of his novels: “Two Women” (1962, directed by Vittorio De Sica in which Sophia Loren won a best actress Oscar), “Le Mépris”/”Contempt” (1963, based on The Ghost of Noon, directed by Jean-Luc Godard with Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance), and “The Conformist” (1970, directed by Benardo Bertolucci, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Stefania Sandrelli).
After a bed-ridden childhood and years in a tuberculosis sanitarium, Moravia’s first novel Gli indifferenti (The Time of Indifference, 1929) was a huge success in Italy. He spent the last part of WWII hiding in the mountains with his wife, novelist Elsa Morante. Both of them were half-Jewish. His probing books about fascism (The Ghost at Noon,1934) and “collateral damage” to women of the war (Two Women) were followed by a masterpiece of artistic alienation, La Noia(1961, initially published in English as The Empty Canvas, more recently published with a literal translation of its (uncommercial!) title, Boredom).
Moravia was a very prominent public figure and ambassador of Italian culture (fluent in English and French) to the rest of the world, including Africa and China. The “generation of ’68” considered him too old, too popular, and I’d say too rationalist, and his reputation on this side of the Atlantic went into eclipse. His fascinating memoir (in the form of an interview with Alain Elkann) languished a decade before being published in English and all of his books fell out of print.
Life of Moravia was published in English in 2000 and a number of his novels are back in print. His current situation somewhat resembles that of Diego Rivera. That is, Frida Kahlo used to be known primarily as the wife of Diego Rivera and Elsa Morante (1912-1985) as the wife of Alberto Moravia, but now Rivera is more often treated as the husband of Kahlo and though lacking some of the cult ardor of Kahlo, Morante has more of a cult following than Moravia, so that Moravia seems to be of interest more as the husband of Morante than for his own work.
I read a lot of Moravia when I was young and his books were at the forefront of frankness about eroticism (though lacking in graphic sex) and the Frankfurt School/Marcuse attempt to blend Marx and Freud was prominent. Moravia’s work was put on the Roman Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books in 1952, which hurt sales in Italy but probably increased them in the US. I didn’t read any for decades, but during the past decade read 1934 and Boredom. But I have to admit that it was quotations of and references to Life of Moravia in Lily Tuck’s biography of Morante, A Woman of Rome that led me to get the book.
Tuck’s portrayal of Morante owes even more to Life of Moravia than I realized. Morante is a very vivid character – an extremely difficult and tempestuous woman – in Life of Moravia. Moravia was able to resist the temptations of memoir revenge not only to her but to others, notably Carlo Gadda, who behaved very badly toward him, classifying them as great writers.
He also has interesting things to say about many other cultural and political figures, including Bassani, Bellow, Bertolucci, Brancati, Callas, Calvino, Castro, Ceausecu, Chirico, Croce, Eco, Godard, Landolfi, Carlo Levi, Montale, Nehru, Pasolini, Pirandello, Saba, Silone, Sartre, Svevo, Tito, Visconti, fascism and communism in various incarnations, the Chinese “cultural revolution” (which he also witnessed) and the Moro affair (kidnapping and murder).
The book provides especially interesting background to the writing of A Time of Indifference, Mistaken Ambitions, Agostino, and The Conformist.
Though Alain Elkmann did not ask tough question, Moravia batted down quite a few of them (“No!…). Interviewing historical figures the interviewer should have the dates in mind or on paper rather than leaving the ordering of events to the memory of the interviewee. Whether during the interviews or later, the dates were checked, but Moravia had a better recollection of chronology than anyone I’ve ever interviewed. And he was forthcoming, often expounding for pages without further prompting.
Moravia was famed as a conversationalist, but I still wonder how much of the book he wrote rather than extemporized orally. Whatever the blend, the book is a very interesting memoir filled with acute observations of many subjects. The more a reader knows about 20th-century Italian literature, the more s/he is likely to enjoy the book, though I have to say that there were interesting sketches of persons of whom I had not previously heard.
Moravia comes across as someone who tried his best to write books that would absorb the reader and to question materialism, dialectical or other. After going to Hiroshima, he became an anti-nuclear-proliferation activist and accepted election to the European Parliament to push that cause. As an early anti-Fascist, an even more fervent anti-Nazi, and a consistent anti-Stalinist, Moravia received a lot of abuse and his life was in danger more than once.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is Moravia’s appreciation of comic novels. For him a “classic” is a work he wants to reread and his favorites, reread many times were Rabelais, Cervantes, Dickens, Gogol, Carroll, the James Joyce of Ullysses, and (!) Dostoevsky (The Double, in particular)… but not Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet.
He does not say anything about Guy de Maupassant whose unblinking gaze at pretensions of various sorts seems a precursor, more than Italo Svevo, whom Moravia recognized as his forerunner as a writer about existence. And though mentioned several times, there is no portrait in words of Leonard Sciascia, and no mention at all of Giuseppe di Lampedusa (great Sicilian writers in whom I am particularly interested). There is quite a bit about Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was a close friend of both Moravia and Morante, a frequent traveling companion to Africa and Asia and someone with whom Moravia was in daily contact until Pasolini’s murder in 1975.