4 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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 Several years later, three unpublished novellas were found by chance in a suitcase in his Rome residence.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.

22 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To finish off this week’s Read This Next feature on Alberto Moravia’s Two Friends, here’s an interview from the Paris Review with the man himself:

Interviewer: You write, then—?

Moravia: I write simply to amuse myself; I write to entertain others and—and, well, to express myself. One has one’s own way of expressing oneself, and writing happens to be mine.

Interviewer: By that, you do not consider yourself a moralist, do you?

Moravia: No, I most emphatically do not. Truth and beauty are educatory in themselves. The very fact of representing the left wing, or a “wing” of any sort, implies a partisan position and nonobjectivity. For that reason, one is impotent to criticize in a valid sense. Social criticism must necessarily, and always, be an extremely superficial thing. But don’t misunderstand me. Writers, like all artists, are concerned with representing reality, to create a more absolute and complete reality than reality itself. They must, if they are to accomplish this, assume a moral position, a clearly conceived political, social, and philosophical attitude; in consequence, their beliefs are, of course, going to find their way into their work. What artists believe, however, is of secondary importance, ancillary to the work itself. A writer survives in spite of his beliefs. Lawrence will be read whatever one thinks of his notions on sex. Dante is read in the Soviet Union.

A work of art, on the other hand, has a representative and expressive function. In this representation the author’s ideas, his judgments, the author himself, are engaged with reality. Criticism, thus, is no more than a part, an aspect—a minor aspect—of the whole. I suppose, putting it this way, I am, after all, a moralist to some degree. We all are. You know, sometimes you wake up in the morning in revolt against everything. Nothing seems right. And for that day or so, at least until you get over it, you’re a moralist. Put it this way: every man is a moralist in his own fashion, but he is many other things besides. [. . .]

Interviewer: How do you account for the big empty spaces in the novel tradition of Italy? Could you tell us a little about the novel in Italy?

Moravia: That’s a pretty large question, isn’t it? But I’ll try to answer. I think one could say that Italy has had the novel, way back. When the bourgeois was really bourgeois, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, narrative was fully developed (remember that all that painting was narrative too) but since the Counter-Reformation, Italian society doesn’t like to look at itself in a mirror. The main bulk of narrative literature is, after all, criticism in one form or another. In Italy when they say something is beautiful that’s the last word: Italians prefer beauty to truth. The art of the novel, too, is connected with the growth and development of the European bourgeoisie. Italy hasn’t yet achieved a modern bourgeoisie. Italy is really a very old country; in some ways it looks new because it’s so old. Culturally, now, it follows the rest of Europe: does what the others do, but later. Another thing—in our literary history, there are great writers—titans—but no middle-sized ones. Petrarch wrote in the fourteenth century, then for four centuries everybody imitated him. Boccaccio completely exhausted the possibilities of the Italian short story in the fourteenth century. Our golden centuries were then, our literary language existed then, had crystallized. England and France had their golden centuries much later. Take, for example, Dante. Dante wrote a pure Italian, is still perfectly understandable. But his contemporary Chaucer wrote in a developing tongue: today he must be practically translated for the modern reader. That’s why most modern Italian writers are not very Italian, and must look abroad for their masters: because their tradition is so far back there, is really medieval. In the last ten years, they’ve looked to America for their masters.

Click here to read the full interview.

22 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Alberto Moravia’s Two Friends, which is forthcoming from Other Press, and which Acacia O’Connor reviewed for us.

Translated from the Italian by Marina Harss, Two Friends is a collection of three posthumously discovered Moravia novellas. You can read a sample here.

And here’s part of Acacia’s review. (If you’re not familiar with Acacia, she’s working on her MA in literary translation here at the University of Rochester with a focus on contemporary Italian literature.)

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.

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

22 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

21 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next feature on Alberto Moravia’s Two Friends, we just posted an interview with translator Marina Harss conducted by U of R translation grad student (and fellow soccer fan) Acacia O’Connor.

Here’s an excerpt:

Acacia O’Connor: Two Friends is a unique text — it’s different segments of unfinished works by the great Italian writer Alberto Moravia, rather than an even nearly complete novel manuscript — how do these different segments work together in your mind? What sorts of challenges did this text, which at times misses segments etc., present to you as a translator?

Marina Harss: I think the challenge for me was the “unfinished” quality, sorting out the repetitions in the texts, dealing with spots where I knew that Moravia would have cleaned things up. How to be respectful to Moravia while also being completely faithful to the text. Also, I found that in dealing with three unfinished texts, it was more difficult to “get into the flow” and really get to know the characters, their past and their future. [. . .]

AO: What do you think Moravia, or any author like him really, would feel or think about having these manuscripts published? And translated into English?

MH: Honestly, I think he would probably be horrified. He burned his early drafts, and these only survived because they were in a pile of papers that was misplaced during a move. Clearly, he didn’t feel the book worked, since he abandoned it to write Il Disprezzo. But people who are interested in (and love) Moravia will get something out of these fragments, and in that sense it is a tribute to the writer.

Be sure and read the full interview, and tomorrow we’ll post Acacia’s review.

OK, I’m out. Our air conditioning shut down around noon today, so it’s approximately 135 degrees in my office and my brain is melting.

20 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Two Friends by Alberto Moravia, a posthumously published set of related novellas that’s translated from the Italian by Marina Harss and forthcoming from Other Press.

The extended preview is available now and we’ll be posting a review and interview later this week.

I remember hearing about this when it came out in Italy and being very intrigued. As mentioned in the description below, these three novellas all start from a similar premise, but are completely different in execution and tone. Even though I don’t think it was intended as such, it’s an interesting experiment that shows off Moravia’s range and development as a writer.

Here’s the description from Other Press:

In this set of novellas, a few facts are constant. Sergio is a young intellectual, poor and proud of his new membership in the Communist Party. Maurizio is handsome, rich, successful with women, and morally ambiguous. Sergio’s young, sensual lover becomes collateral damage in the struggle between these two men. All three of these unfinished stories, found packed in a suitcase after Alberto Moravia’s death, share this narrative premise. But from there, each story unfolds in a unique way. The first patiently explores the slow unfurling of Sergio’s resentment toward Maurizio. The second reveals the calculated bargain Maurizio offers in exchange for his conversion to Sergio’s beloved Communism. And the third switches dramatically to the first person, laying bare Sergio’s conflicted soul.

Anyone interested in literature will relish the opportunity to watch Moravia at work, tinkering with his story and working at it from three unique perspectives.

Click here to read the preview online, and check back later for the interview and other additional materials.

24 July 07 | Chad W. Post |

Thanks to Michael Orthofer for finding this article about Moravia’s centenary and his, um, declining appeal.

in recent years the Roman novelist seems to have lost his claim to the title of most important Italian story-teller of the late 20th century, which had been attributed to him for almost 50 years. What is the reason for Moravia’s decline in the pantheon of contemporary Italian literature? Il VELINO put that question to a number of literary experts.

As Orthofer points out, the results of this survey are as inconclusive as can be expected, but I like the little cultural jabs that come through in some of these statements, like:

“That richly deserved fame that he won while he was alive is inevitably going to fade away. [. . .] I greatly doubt whether Moravia can be a model again, because his intellectual approach, I believe, is one that is unlikely to return to fashion.”

“Moravia’s fiction is an oeuvre containing a basic, radical pessimism. This negative aspect makes it more difficult for people to absorb it today.”

Intellectual, negative writers (a la Celine, a la Bernhard) apparently don’t last. Great.

Moravia wrote a ton of books, and a number are available in English, including Contempt and Boredom, and the recently translated Conjugal Love, which Other Press brought out, and which was part of Reading the World this year.

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