Alberto Moravia’s explicit novella of a 13-year-old boy struggling with an Oedipal complex was written in 1942, but Fascist censors banned its publication. The novella became a best seller when it was published in 1944. Michael F. Moore brings the book back to life for the enjoyment of a modern audience in his new translation. Despite its controversial subject matter including incestuous thoughts and a violent gang of teenage boys, the reader is never repulsed by the story. Instead, sympathy surrounds the characters as they grapple with adult notions of sex and wealth, and fight one another to climb the ranks of their inherent hierarchy.
13-year-old Agostino and his wealthy widowed mother are vacationing on a Mediterranean beach. Agostino feels things internally at a deep level. He is a thoughtful boy who often projects himself onto others, assuming that everyone feels what he feels whether it is humiliation or joy. He has always admired his mother. He views her as serene and strong, but he notices a change in her character around Renzo, her new love interest. Feminine clumsiness and a womanly spirit overtake her, and he is left feeling confused, unloved, and hurt. He removes himself more from his home life and starts to hang around a gang of working class teenage boys headed by Saro, a bald, fat boatman around the age of fifty. He is drawn to their roughness, but also repulsed by their violence and vulgarity.
He learns about sex from the gang as two of the boys act it out in the sand, convulsing and rubbing against each other. Agostino feels as if a part of him has always known about sex, but when it becomes explicit he feels it physically in his bones. He compares the notion to “a bright shiny object whose splendor makes it hard to look at directly and whose shape can thus barely be detected” (32). Agostino’s enlightenment is symbolized by light, but light can also cause blurred vision, or even blindness. With his newfound enlightenment concerning sex, Agostino is thrown even more into the darkness of confusion. Moravia’s simile illuminates how sex is a new shiny concept, alluring, but shrouded in mystery. More knowledge creates more concerns to dwell on, especially involving Agostino’s relationship with his mother.
After learning about sex, Agostino becomes torn between feelings of attraction and repulsion surrounding his mother. Agostino’s in-between state is often described as “murky,” or in Italian, “torbido.” This word represents a mix of light and dark, of innocence and corruption, which is reminiscent of Agostino’s experiences as an adolescent. Translator Michael F. Moore explains that Moravia’s repetition of certain words and phrases, often called “monolinguisim,” is heavily influenced by Renaissance poetry. Moravia repeats “oscuri,” which means dark, mysterious, or obscure, when referring to the sexual concepts that Agostino discovers. This obscure darkness implies the Freudian unconscious, or in other words, Agostino’s repressed sexual urges for his mother.
Agostino is miserable when forced to share a room with his mother and he cringes when she kisses him on the forehead. The only way out of this incestuous sexual confusion, Agostino believes, is to become a man. Longing for other women to introduce him to sex and love, he ventures to a brothel. But rather than uncovering sexual mysteries, or solving his confusion over his mother, he is met with a large-bosomed maid slamming the door in his face because he is too young to enter.
Nothing is resolved at the end of the novella, but this is what makes the work so compelling. The agony of adolescence is not solved overnight. Agostino ends the story as an adolescent; slightly more informed but more miserable than he began. He is a boat ride away from adulthood, but still on the dock of childhood.
By Alberto Moravia
Translated by Michael F. Moore
111 pages. New York Review Books Classics, $14.00.