One of the beautiful things about translation, to my mind, is that it polemicizes the easy notion of the complete and whole work of art, of the perfect and sacred original. Translation is a subjective reading, a series of choices made by an individual with their own background, experience and politics. It’s a common adage that “all communication is translation.” This goes, too, for creative arts, as Michael Cunningham pointed out in an essay he wrote last fall: “Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write.”
I love Cunningham’s essay, in which he confesses that his books are not the transcendent pieces of genius he imagined them to be in his mind. I think of his words often regarding translation and find myself referring to them now again in regards to the recently translated work Two Friends, a series of unpublished novella drafts by the great Italian writer Alberto Moravia. Two Friends is an excellent example of the construction and progression that takes place in writing as well as in translation.
Moravia is a huge figure in Italian literature and culture: he began his career as a journalist (not unlike his Sergio character in Two Friends) and editor, founding literary journals Oggi and Caratteri. His first novel, Gli Indifferenti (Time of Indifference) is perhaps still his best known, though other novels, including Il Conformista (The Conformist) and Il Deprezzo (Contempt), are well-known in their film iterations under the direction of Bernardo Bertolucci and Jean-Luc Godard. His work, which dealt with the contemporary crises of belief and issues of social alienation, consistently suffered censorship under the fascist regime. Later, he won the pretigious Strega Prize (as did his wife, Elsa Morante). In the years before his death, he entered politics, serving in the European Parliament.
Knowing a bit about Moravia’s background, especially the bit about his novels being seized under Mussolini, makes Two Friends all the more interesting. Because as much as these drafts are about the relationship between Sergio and his friend Maurizio, they are also about the relationship between the individual and the fraught political environment. In these unfinished stories, Moravia draws out the respective anxieties of two young men from different backgrounds and shows us their responses to communism and the war. Rather than a history book version of events and attitudes, Moravia tells you the story of a young man whose ideals and politics are mixed up in his local and personal dramas—much like my/our big ideals and small dramas are comingled today.
The drafts of these three piecemeal novellas were discovered in 1996 in Moravia’s basement in Rome. Because the author famously destroyed all his draft materials after completing a book, scholars and those at the Fondo Moravia have naturally been very interested in these pages. What you read in this newly translated text is an organized guestimate pieced together from disordered pages discovered in a ratty suitcase, but they are extremely readable.
What I found most interesting about these three drafts are the differences between them and the progression (if progression is the right word) from the first to the third. The first centers largely around the boyhood tension and rivalry that exists between Sergio, who is from a working class family, and his friend Maurizio, who is of the decidedly more bourgeoisie set. Sergio struggles with his sense of duty and his disapproval of Maurizio who appears not to care about the politics surrounding the war.
The second has Sergio and Maurizio substantially unaltered, character-wise, but engaged in a much more plot-driven conflict: Sergio is obsessed with getting Maurizio to “convert” and join the communist party and goes so far as to offer his girlfriend, Lalla, in exchange. The conversation about sexual exclusivity (or not) and political loyalty through the addition of Lalla makes the second a much richer story.
Only in the third, however, did I feel like I heard Sergio clearly, as the perspective switches from third to first person. There’s an increased focus on the relationship between Sergio and Nella (neé Lalla) that deftly complicates Sergio’s communist fervor. Is Sergio so insistent that Maurizio become a communist because he believes so much in the cause? Or because of an unrelenting feeling of inferiority to the well-heeled Maurizio? Or because of a desire to control him, and Nella? Over the course of the pages Moravia brings out Sergio’s destructive investment and not at all disinterest in communism and shows how his politics are a mask for his insecurities and cruelties.
Two Friends gives a rare glimpse into a writers process. While the characters of Sergio and Maurizio (and the nebulous Nella/Lalla character) remain, their motives and circumstances change. By the third draft, Moravia is creating new tensions that subtly bring out concepts that are more bluntly apparent in earlier pages. The writing is unpolished and straightforward, but these pages give us a rare treat: observing the process of a writer “translating” his ideas into a story, to varying levels of success.