Alberto Moravia (1907-1990) was one of the most important, and certainly the most prolific, of modern Italian authors. His keen moralistic approach focuses mainly on the iniquities of bourgeois society.
Alberto Moravia was born Alberto Pincherle on November 28, 1907, in Rome, the son of a well-to-do architect. Stricken with osteomyelitis at the age of nine, he was in a hospital in Cortina d'Ampezzo until 1925. During these years he studied French, English, and German, became a voracious reader, and started writing fiction at the age of 11.
Moravia's first published novel, Gli indifferenti (1929; The Time of Indifference), was an immediate success. The following year he went abroad as a journalist for various newspapers, an activity which thereafter always accompanied his creative writing. He lived in Paris and London and visited the United States and Mexico (1935), China (1937), and Greece (1938). In the early 1940s he lived on Capri with his wife, the novelist Elsa Morante. Since his relations with the Fascist regime had more and more deteriorated over the years, Moravia went into hiding after Mussolini's return to power in July 1943, and he spent some nine months among peasants and shepherds near Fondi. After the war he returned to Rome.
Moravia held several literary awards, including the Strega (1952) and Viareggio (1961) prizes. In 1952, the year his collected works began to appear, the Roman Catholic Church put all his writings on the Index. Moravia's works have been translated into 27 languages.
After the appearance of his first novel, Moravia worked toward broadening the spectrum of his moralistic canvas without any discernible evolution, and his works may be called variations on one theme, the caustic portrayal of the disintegration of middle-class mores as revealed through the prism of sex. His critics called him to task for being a novelist who not only believes in simply representing a given reality without any pretense of modifying it but also does not entertain the slightest thought of an interpretation. For Moravia, "an intellectual is nothing else than a witness of his time."
At the root of the modern malaise of alienation, Moravia sees a complete lack of rapport with reality. Of the two possible approaches to objectify this crisis of rapport, critical realism and experimentalism, as he calls them, he opts for the former and its "objective and in a sense scientific representation of the phenomena of the crisis in all its psychological and social aspects."
Gli indifferenti is characteristic of his approach, recording with impassibility two days in the life of a Roman family. As a rather candid and unfavorable picture of certain strata of Roman society, it originated a social polemic, albeit unintended by its author, and after a fifth edition the publisher was advised not to undertake a sixth.
The long novel Le ambizioni sbagliate (1935; The Wheel of Fortune) in a sense depicts the same subject matter within the framework of a precise structure. The story is divided into three parts, each representing a single day in the life of its characters seen at intervals of one month. Against the desolate background of accepted defeat, ambition is analyzed as one of the basic and destructive drives behind human egoism.
L'imbroglio (1937), a collection of five long stories, centers on the familiar theme of man's incapacity to achieve love. La mascherata (1941; The Garden Party), written in the satirical and surrealist vein of the stories contained in I sogni del pigro (1940), and L'epidemia (1944) satirize dictatorial government.
The short novel Agostino (1944) belongs to the best of Moravia's fiction. Its subject matter being the discovery of evil and sex, the novel minutely analyzes the feelings of a young boy who discovers sex in his mother. La romana (1947; The Woman of Rome), a novel in first person narrative that established Moravia's fame abroad, is an absorbing inquiry into the psyche of Adriana, a Roman prostitute. At the center of the plot stands the existentialist issue of choice. La disubbidienza (1948), treating the discovery of sex by a 15-year-old, pursues the issues raised in Agostino on a higher level (these two novels were published in English as Two Adolescents).
II conformista (1951; The Conformist), which some critics consider Moravia's worst novel, is on the surface the story of a man who embraces fascism to become "normal." In a deeper sense, however, it should be seen as a comment on the modern tendency to abandon rationalistic and individual positions and to seek the protection of great collective myths. L'amore conjugale (1951; Conjugal Love) and II disprezzo (1954; A Ghost at Noon) portray a relationship between husband and wife that falters because of the husband's excessive concern with his profession. The short-story collections Racconti romani (1954; Roman Tales) and Nuovi racconti romani (1959; More Roman Tales) represent a specific aspect of Moravia's approach to reality. La ciociara (1957; Two Women), considered his contribution to neorealism, depicts the violence of war as he experienced it during the time of his hiding.
La noia (1960; The Empty Canvas) is a tightly constructed work that harks back to the topic of Moravia's first book. It is a tribute to the existential malaise as well as a sum total of his other fiction. L'attenzione (1965) is perhaps his most differentiated and intricately constructed novel. Besides being concerned with the problem of "authenticity" of man's being and his actions, it is a novel about the inability to write a novel which—in the end—is written nevertheless in the form of a diary.
Moravia's plays include II mondo è quello che è (1966), in which a professor divulges his language therapy during a holiday in a country villa that ends with the death of one of his "pupils"; L'intervista (1966), representing an interview between an envoy from the moon and the minister of propaganda of an imaginary state on earth; and II dio Kurt (1968), laid in a German concentration camp in Poland in 1944. Throughout his career Moravia also wrote travel literature, such as Un'idea dell'India (1961), and criticism, the most important of which was collected in L'uomo come fine (1964; Man as an End).
Despite the negative criticism Moravia received in his later years, he continued to write. He wrote 1934 (1982), a story set in the middle of the Fascist era. The novel La Cosa (released in Italy in 1983), was released in the United States a few years later under the title Erotic Tales. Two of his better known works were Time of Desecration (1980) and The Voyeur (1987). He died in Rome at the age of 82, on September 26, 1990.
Discussions in English of Moravia's work are Dego Giuliano, Moravia (1966), and Donald W. Heiney, Three Italian Novelists: Moravia, Pavese, Vittorini (1968). Recommended for general background is Sergio Pacifici, A Guide to Contemporary Italian Literature from Futurism to Neorealism (1962). His obituary appeared in the September 27, 1990 edition of the New York Times.