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Sentimental Educations: Alberto Moravia’s Contempt and Agostino


In Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty, a louche writer named Jep Gambardella, spends much of his time strolling through the cobble-stone streets of Rome and soaking up impressions and experience, that will figure, we assume, in a long-delayed follow-up to his first acclaimed novel. He reflects on the ineffable qualities that mark good writing.

“As kids, my friends always gave the same answer: ‘Pussy’,” Jep recalls. “Whereas I answered ‘The smell of old people’s houses.’ The question was ‘What do you really like the most in life?’

“I was destined for sensibility. I was destined to become a writer. I was destined to become Jep Gambardella.”

At another point, while responding to the flattery of a beautiful, young female admirer, who quotes from his book, Jep says the sentiment he was expressing had been better written by the Italian prose master Alberto Moravia.

Born in 1907, Alberto Moravia achieved at 21 critical and commercial success with his first novel, The Time of Indifference, a cause célèbre eschewing middle-class mores. Before his death in 1990, he would publish over 40 novels, including The Conformist (1951), the adaptation of which in 1970 by Bernardo Bertolucci has the unusual distinction of being both a classic of post-war Italian cinema and of early-1970s zeitgeist.

In his recollections to the Paris Review, after Mussolini came to power, he struggled to get his books published (though Mussolini himself approved the 1940 publication of The Dream of the Lazy) and eventually fled for refuge to the Apennine mountains in 1943. He spent the war years trying to get his scandalous novels past Fascist censors:

I sent Agostino to them two months before the fall of Fascism, two months before the end. While all about them everything was toppling, falling to ruin, the Ministry of Popular Culture was doing business as usual. Approval looked not to be forthcoming; so one day I went up there, to Via Veneto — you know the place; they’re still there, incidentally; I know them all — to see what the trouble was. They told me that they were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to give approval to the book. My dossier was lying open on the desk, and when the secretary left the room for a moment I glanced at it. There was a letter from the Brazilian cultural attaché in it, some poet, informing the Minister that in Brazil I was considered a subversive. In Brazil of all places! But that letter, that alone, was enough to prevent the book’s publication.

Moravia himself spent most of the second half of the 20th century strolling along the Via dell’Oca (which means “Street of the Goose”). Anna Maria de Dominicis and Ben Johnson, in the introduction to his Paris Review interview, describe the street as “houses of working-class people: a line of narrow doorways with dark, dank little stairs, cramped windows, a string of tiny shops; the smells of candied fruit, repair shops, wines of the Castelli, engine exhaust” on one side and on the other side “the serene imperiousness of unchipped cornices and balconies overspilling with potted vines, tended creepers: homes of the well-to-do.” His fiction would explore both sides of Italy.

In an introduction to Moravia’s Boredom, William Weaver says, “Moravia was a great friend to walk with: a born Roman, he knew every brick of the city; even the most drab apartment block or the scruffiest little church could set a sparkling train of associations and memories. But, on encountering him, I would first, automatically, ask him how he was.

“’Mi annoio,’ he would usually reply, in his clipped telegraphic way.

“’I’m bored.’”

NYRB Classics has recently republished Moravia’s early novella Agostino, in a fine translation by Michael F. Moore. Agostino is a young boy who has an unusually close attachment to his widowed mother, and the novel takes place during their extended stay at a beach resort. His sensitivity and jealousy drive them apart in the first chapters of the book, a closely reworked Swann’s Way:

Agostino’s mother was a big and beautiful woman still in her prime, and Agostino was filled with pride every time he got in the boat with her for one of their morning rides.

The novel, though, soon plunges from Proust into the hard-knock fringes of the beach resort. Driven away by his mother’s interest in a “tanned, dark-haired” young man, Agostino falls in with a group of working-class boys who are inarticulate, violent, inscrutable. He is drawn to them, as a kind of foil to his predictable upper-middle-class universe:

For a moment Agostino felt happy as he swam while the cold powerful stream tugged at his legs, and he forgot every hurt and every wrong. The boys were swimming in all directions, their heads and arms breaking through the smooth green surface. Their voices echoed clearly in the still air. Through the glassy transparency of the water, their bodies looked like white offshoots of plants that, rising to the surface from the darkness below, moved whichever way the current took them.

Eventually, the privileged Agostino whose home has 20 bedrooms (an unimaginable number for the other boys) begins to beg for change. He encounters a father and son, and the father unadvisedly takes the opportunity to teach his son about the have’s and have-not’s.

“And how old are you?” the man inquired.
“Thirteen,” said Agostino.
“You see,” said the man to his son, “this boy is almost the same age as you and he’s already working.” Then to Agostino, “Do you go to school?”
“I wish…but how can I?” replied Agostino, taking on the deceitful tone he had often heard the boys in the gang adopt to address similar questions. “I gotta make a living, mister.”
“You see,” the father turned to his son again, “this boy can’t go to school because he has to work, and you have the nerve to complain because you have to study?”

Moravia maintained an interest in intellectuals who rationalize their own impulsive behaviors and others’. In stark contrast to Agostino, his later novel, Contempt, rereleased a decade ago by NYRB Classics, features a first-person narrator, a screenwriter whose disgust for movie-writing is matched only by his wife’s inexplicable contempt for him. Throughout, the narrator interrogates his wife, and by extension the mystery of attraction itself:

Suddenly, the suspicion that she no longer loved me sprang into my mind again, in an abrupt, haunting sort of way, as a feeling of the impossibility of contact and communion between my body and hers…And I, like a person who suddenly realizes he is hanging over an abyss, felt a kind of painful nausea at the thought that our intimacy had turned for no reason at all, into estrangement, absence, separation.

Since so many of his themes touch on the unconscious and taboo sexuality, it might be surprising how skeptical his novels are to psychoanalytic techniques. Throughout Contempt, Moravia satirizes a character who has embraced a very schematic version of Freudianism.

Moravia suggests that ratiocination is a poor substitute for taste. One of his great themes is how sensibility is wrecked by negotiations with other people, other classes, other individuals, and thereby reinvigorated. As the screenwriter-narrator of Contempt says of his wife when she tells him she despises him, “It was the tone of the virgin word that springs directly from the thing itself and pronounced by someone who had perhaps never spoken that word before, and who, urged on by necessity, had fished it up from the ancestral depths of the language, without searching for it, almost involuntarily.”

Both Contempt and Agostino have an almost Neoclassical form, unlike, say, The Leopard. Lampedusa and Moravia point toward two very different directions for Italian fiction, though Contempt, a bracingly austere book that harkens back to naturalism, was published in 1954, and Lampedusa’s inventive, comic experiment was published in 1958.

Though his work deeply engaged with early-20th-century social and intellectual concerns, he claimed his fiction was informed most by the big “C” Canon. In his conversation with the Paris Review, he comes across as alternately fusty and cantankerous in his observations on the Moderns. He rejects O’Neill and Shaw as major dramatists because they “resorted to everyday language and, in consequence, by my definition failed to create true drama.”

If the first chapter takes off from Proust, the last movement of Agostino is a poignant revision of the ending of Sentimental Education. In Flaubert’s novel, Frédéric and Deslauriers, after several intervening years of disillusionment and disappointment, reminisce about a youthful visit to a brothel. During the visit, Frédéric becomes embarrassed and flees into the street, and his friend follows him. They are both seen coming out, and it causes a “local scandal which was still remembered three years later.” The novel ends with the two failed romantics remarking on the story:

“That was the happiest time we ever had,” said Frédéric.
“Yes, perhaps you’re right. That was the happiest time we ever had,” Deslauriers says.

In the final pages of his novella, Moravia has the prepubescent Agostino visit a brothel with his piggybank savings. When the encounter at the brothel predictably ends badly, he goes back home and demands of his mother that he be treated like a man. It is a moving depiction of a young person’s thwarted autonomy.

“But he wasn’t a man,” Moravia writes, “and many unhappy days would pass before he became one.”

The Sublime and the Odious: On Joseph Luzzi’s My Two Italies

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Joseph Luzzi’s memoir begins with the slaughter of his pet rabbit:

I don’t know what it took — my mother’s usual two brisk whacks with a stick to the back of the skull or my father’s preferred twist of the neck in his thick fingers — but by five p.m. my pet had become an entrée. I came into the kitchen to find him splayed out, his glycerine blue eyes lifeless and coated in oil, over a bed of roasted potatoes.

The rabbit, an Easter present intended for the table, had never really been a pet, but to a young Joseph Luzzi, the bunny’s demise was just another example of the way his Italian immigrant parents were out of place in their suburban Rhode Island surroundings. While the parents of Luzzi’s friends bought frozen and pre-prepared foods from the grocery store, his parents grew their own vegetables in their backyard, where they also raised chickens, pigeons, rabbits, and a goat. They preserved much of their harvest, too: “from tomatoes and beans to peaches and pears in rows of mason jars that filled the cellar alongside the hanging shanks of prosciutto and soppressata.”

Today, the Luzzi basement would be the pride of any urban homesteader, but in the 1970s, it was something Luzzi wanted to hide: “As a kid, I had scorned all that homemade freshness, desperate for the packaged and processed, the fructose and trans fat that would help me fit in.” It was only as an adult that he realized that his parents were producing “boutique food at a bargain rate.” Now, Luzzi emulates his father’s thrift, using leftover vegetables to make ribolitta, a peasant stew. It’s a dish that his father never made or even knew, because he was from southern Italy, and ribolitta is from Tuscany, a northern region. Luzzi’s embrace of the dish is one of the many ways he has learned to marry his “Two Italies” — the rustic southern traditions he grew up with and the cultured, northern traditions he studied in graduate school and now teaches as a professor and critic.

My Two Italies is a hybrid memoir, both a recollection of personal experience and growth and a scholarly look at the long-standing divide between Italy’s north and south — the north characterized by wealth and culture, and the south by poverty and crime. For Luzzi, the divide is personally felt. As the child of parents from the Calabria region of Italy, his blood is rooted in the south, but as a scholar of Italian culture, his intellect is drawn to the north. There is also an important linguistic divide between north and south, which is complicated, but boils down to the fact that a northern dialect, Tuscan, was designated “Italian” even though, at the time of Italy’s unification in 1861, a majority of Italians spoke a variety of other dialects. These other dialects flourished well into the 20th century, and put Luzzi in the peculiar position of speaking “better” Italian than his parents, whose southern Calabrian dialect was at odds with the literary Italian he learned in school. Luzzi’s parents ended up speaking their own peculiar mix of Calabrian and Amrican English, resulting in words like uascina mascina for “washing machine,” ʼnu carru for “a car,” and u porciu for “the porch.” It was a language so unique that Luzzi had trouble remembering it after his father’s death:

After he died, I heard my father’s voice but I couldn’t fill it with words. When I forced him to speak to me in English, it sounded pedantic and prissy. His Italian, though, was no less stilted, either when I tried to revive my Calabrian or when I used the textbook grammar that was unnatural to both of us. I had so much to say but no way to say it, a reflection of our relationship during his lifetime. Without his words I lost a way of describing a world.

Luzzi’s memoir is in part a tribute to his parents. His father was a war hero who survived capture by the Nazis; his mother immigrated to the U.S. alone in order to gain citizenship for her husband and four children, and to escape the crushing poverty of Calabria. The youngest of five children, Luzzi is the only one of his siblings born in America. His decision to study Italian came out of a desire to understand where his parents and siblings had come from. At the same time, Luzzi wanted to suppress his southern heritage and to remake himself as a wealthy, cultured northern Italian. As an undergrad studying abroad for the first time, he chooses Florence, the city of Dante and Botticelli: “Florence, I believed, would enable me to upgrade from my parents’ Calabria to a calzone-free Italian lineage.”

My Two Italies helped to complicate my view of Italy. I know Italy as a tourist, and many years ago, as an undergrad studying abroad in Rome. I fell in love with the country for its beauty, as everyone does, and knew of its crimes mainly through movies and TV shows. I never bothered to ask why Italy was beautiful or corrupt, or how those two qualities might be linked. I also never peered too deeply into Italy’s contemporary history, preferring, instead, to dwell on the glories of ancient Rome and the masterpieces of the Renaissance.

Luzzi addresses these common blind spots, delving into Italy’s contemporary problems, which include economic stagnation, a low birth rate, “brain drain,” and a level of corruption second only to Greece. In a chapter on the career of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s staggeringly sleazy Prime Minister, Luzzi looks to a 19th-century poet and philospher, Giacomo Leopardi, to explain Berlusconi’s success:

Leopardi wrote that Italy’s fundamental problem was a lack of “society”: it had no sense of national community to unite its people, no public sphere that regulated conduct and taste and gave rise to sentiments of honor and shame…In Leopardi’s view, this resistance to collective thinking made Italians the most cynical of peoples…

Luzzi sees this cynicism in modern Italian voters, who “stood by idly as Berlusconi wreaked political havoc.” Luzzi also attributes Berlusconi’s rise to the very spectacle of his excess: “With his face-lifts, seaside villas, Marinella ties, sprawling estates, and near-naked showgirls, Berlusconi embodies the Italian love of surfaces.” Again, turning to literature, Luzzi quotes froma classic Italian novel, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, in which the title character observes that Italy’s great beauty is derived from “the squalor and filth of the streets around.” That is, the extravagance that we associate with la dolce vita comes at a price. Interpreting Lampedusa, Luzzi writes, “you cannot have a nation obsessed with beautiful forms without the devotion to seductive appearances devoid of moral substance.” Finally, Luzzi quotes the English poet Percy Bysse Shelley, who observed that there are “two Italies”, one “sublime” and the other “odious.”

In a discussion of the untranslatable Italian phrase, bella figura — literally, ‘beautiful figure,’ but better understood as a theatrical gesture, a “beautiful act’ — Luzzi evokes the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia in shallow waters, a disaster that was the result of the captain wanting to show off his ship and sailing too close to a small island. It was a theatrical gesture gone terribly wrong. Photographs of the half-submerged ship captured the world’s imagination: it was somehow both sublime and odious. The Italian filmmaker, Paolo Sorrentino, used the image to great effect in his Academy Award-winning film La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty). In his film, Sorrentino’s protagonist, Jep Gambardella, a washed-up writer who nevertheless lives in great style and comfort, visits the wreck. From a nearby cliff, he gazes down at the ship as if looking at his own wrecked life in need of salvage. Or, maybe it is Italy that Sorrentino’s Gambardella sees: a beautiful country run aground.

Luzzi closes his memoir with an image of his daughter, climbing the steps of Santa Croce in Florence. As eager as he is to show her the beauties of his adopted city, Luzzi is aware that she will always see Italy in a nostalgic way, that she will never understand the immigrant struggles of her grandparents, or even her own father’s struggle to reconcile his multiple heritages: “Free from the reservoirs of la miseria I had inherited from my parents, my daughter would likely stare one day at black-and-white photographs of a lost Calabrian world and wonder how on earth she was related to it.”

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