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"Reading Alberto Moravia in Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy"

This past weekend, the NY Times Book Review included this interesting essay by Rachel Donadio about reading Alberto Moravia:

In its culture as in its politics, Italy lives under the shadow of Silvio Berlusconi. With his endless legal entanglements and sexual imbroglios and his colorful manner of governing (or not governing), it often feels as if the prime minister has taken all the oxygen out of the room, the airwaves, the entire republic. “How did we get here?” is the dominant — indeed often the only — topic of conversation in Italy today.

The novelist Alberto Moravia, a 20th-­century giant whose work is generally overlooked today, offers one key to unlocking the mystery. Born in 1907, Moravia came of age under Fascism — he belonged to a generation of writers, including Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Elsa Morante (Moravia’s first wife), who found global audiences after the Second World War. In his most important novel, “The Conformist” (1951), Moravia explored the complicated links between sex and politics in a nation of cynical opportunists. The formative moment in the life of the protagonist, Marcello Clerici, comes at age 13, when he shoots a defrocked priest who has tried to seduce him. True to the novel’s title, Clerici, whose name means “clergy,” later joins the Fascist Party more out of boredom than conviction. In addition to exploring the homoeroticism of power (a theme that later captivated Pasolini), Moravia’s novel also delved into a careerism and even nihilism that he identified just below the surface of Italian society, reaching far deeper than any ideology.

Moravia died in 1990, a many-laureled man of letters. Several years later, three unpublished novellas were found by chance in a suitcase in his Rome residence. The manuscripts, which offer variations on a love story set during World War II, were most likely written in the early 1950s, between “The Conformist” and “Contempt,” a brutal 1954 account of a disintegrating marriage. Now they have been published under the title Two Friends (Other Press, $18.95), in an excellent translation by Marina Harss, offering a fascinating glimpse of how Moravia’s writing evolved. In one particularly revealing moment, the mother of a middle-class Roman family cries, “For all I care, the English can win, or the Germans. . . . I just want someone to win so we can forget all this!” Reading this today, in the long twilight of the Berlusconi era, the line is almost haunting.

Moravia (and his first wife, Elsa Morante) are both fantastic writers, and it’s great the Other Press has brought out this recently discovered series of novellas. For those interested in taking a closer look, Two Friends was one of the first books included in Read This Next, so you check out a preview by clicking here, or you can read an interview with Marina Harss. We also have a full review of the book by Acacia O’Connor.



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