— 1945 —
Alberto Moravia New York: New York Review Books, 2014; translated from the Italian by Michael F. Moore; 102 pages
In the early days of summer, Agostino and his mother used to go out to sea every morning on a small rowboat typical of Mediterranean beaches known as a pattino
. At first she brought a boatman along with them, but Agostino gave such clear signs of annoyance at the man’s presence that the oars were then turned over to him. He rowed with deep pleasure on the smooth, diaphanous, early-morning sea, and his mother, sitting in front of him, would speak to him softly, as joyful and serene as the sea and sky,
as if he were a man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy.
“A man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy” sums it up. In this quintessential coming-of-age tale, the fatherless Agostino worships his well-to-do widowed mother, “a big and beautiful woman still in her prime.” In the casting game that readers play, it is easy to envision Sophia Loren or perhaps Penélope Cruz as this iconic figure: Madonna and object of desire.
Agostino proudly knows this:
“All the bathers on the beach seemed to be watching, admiring his mother and envying him.”
But his pride and joy will soon disappear. When a tanned, dark-haired young man arrives on the scene, Agostino must accept being replaced as his mother’s boating companion. Jilted, Agostino joins a group of local boys—tough sons of boatmen and lifeguards—and their older leader, a Fagin-like character with six fingers on each hand.
Though repelled by these boys and their coarse ways, the effete Agostino is nonetheless irresistibly drawn to them, even as they snicker and force him to imagine what his mother and the young man might be doing on the boat.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: ALBERTO MORAVIA
Born Alberto Pincherle in Rome on November 28, 1907, Moravia—his pen name was linked to a family surname—became one of Europe’s most prominent twentieth-century writers.
At his death in 1990, he was the most widely read Italian novelist and essayist of the century.
The son of a prosperous Jewish architect and painter and a Catholic princess, Moravia contracted tuberculosis at the age of eight and was bedridden for long stretches, spending two years in a sanatorium. Learning German, French, and English from governesses, he spent much of his solitude reading, devouring everything from Boccaccio to James Joyce.
“My education, my formal education that is, is practically nil,” Moravia once told an interviewer. “I have a grammar-school diploma, no more. Just nine years of schooling. I had to drop out because of tuberculosis of the bone. I spent, altogether, five years in bed with it, between the ages of nine and seventeen—till 1924.” By then, Mussolini had taken power in Italy.
Tuberculosis and Fascism, said Moravia, were the most important facts of his life. He began writing at the dawn of Fascist rule and in 1929 self-published a first novel, Gli indifferenti
(The Time of Indifference
), a story of moral decadence that became a sensation. Politically and sexually daring, his next two novels were censored or confiscated by the Fascists during the 1930s and placed on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books.
In 1941, Moravia and his wife, the writer Elsa Morante, moved to the island of Capri, where
he wrote Agostino
in the space of a month. Rejected by Fascist censors, it went unpublished. When Moravia learned his name was on a list of subversives, he and Morante fled to the mountains near Fondi, south of Rome.
After Rome’s liberation in 1944, the couple returned to the city and Agostino
was published in 1945. Moravia’s international reputation grew with a subsequent book, La Romana
(1947), a provocative story of a prostitute entangled with the Fascists. Later translated as The Woman of Rome
, it sold more than 1 million copies in the United States.
Moravia’s star continued to rise with Il conformista
, 1951), his third novel. It told of a sadistic man who becomes a Fascist assassin while concealing his sexual orientation. A story collection, I racconti
, won Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize in 1952. A few years later, Elsa Morante also won the Strega for L’isola di Arturo
The couple separated in 1961 but never formally divorced.
Moravia’s fame grew as his books, including Agostino
, were adapted to the screen in Italy and abroad. Based on his time in hiding, La ciociara
was published in 1957 and filmed under its English title, Two Women
, by director Vittorio De Sica; Sophia Loren won an Academy Award for her role in the 1961 film. In 1970, The Conformist
was adapted and filmed by director Bernardo Bertolucci.
Nominated for the Nobel Prize fifteen times, Moravia never won. He continued to write well into the 1970s and 1980s, but his later works never equaled the earlier acclaim. In 1990,
he was found dead, at age eighty-two, of an apparent heart attack in his Rome apartment.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT
A classic coming-of-age story, Agostino
is both painful and candid. It peels back the moment when a young boy is forced—quite literally—to look at his mother, and all women, in a new light.
“Like many a forlorn poet, the narrator suffers the afflictions of unrequited love,” translator Michael F. Moore wrote, “but the object of his affection, scandalously, is his mother. Rather than seek to elevate her, like Petrarch’s Laura, he is intent on debasing her, repeating like a mantra, ‘She’s only a woman.’?”
I discovered the book after reading The Conformist
and wished I had read Agostino
first. Compressed into one hundred pages, Agostino’s story pulses with raw, erotic energy as it explores two fundamental themes of twentieth-century literature: social class and sexuality. Dispensing with academic and political jargon, Moravia delves into the realms of Marx and Freud, distilling philosophical ideas into a story of an affluent adolescent’s singular summer mixing with rough boys from the working class.
Moravia rejected the flowery style that dominated classical Italian fiction. His stark language and focus on social injustice and class distinctions herald what would become the signature of Italy’s postwar, neorealist filmmakers—Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti, among them—who depicted working-class Italy in bluntly unromantic terms.
WHAT TO READ NEXT
In a career spanning six decades, Alberto Moravia was prolific. He wrote many novels, short stories, and essays on politics and literature. But an ideal follow-up to Agostino
is The Conformist
. In fact, the teenage Agostino hints in some ways at Marcello, the character who is the “Conformist” of the title.
Opening around 1920, before Mussolini’s rise to power, the novel follows Marcello from his troubled youth, in which he goes from killing lizards and a cat to committing a more serious crime. From childhood, Marcello desires to feel “normal,” which he equates with behaving in conformity with other people.
After the Fascists take power in 1922, Marcello’s quest leads him to a post in Mussolini’s regime and then to an assignment to assassinate a former professor who opposes the Fascists. Marcello’s craving to conform through unquestioned loyalty to a ruthless leader and murderous cause is very much a story of our time.
Also worthy of attention are Moravia’s postwar novels The Woman of Rom
e, a complex story of characters, including a prostitute, who must deal with the Fascist regime, and Two Women
, a wrenching tale of the horrors endured by a widowed shopkeeper and her daughter in the last days of the war.