Two Friends, p.1Alberto Moravia
Copyright © 2007 RCS Libri SpA
Originally published in Italian as I due amici by RCS Libri
SpA, Milan, Italy, 2007
Translation copyright © 2011 by Marina Harss
Introduction copyright © 2011 by Thomas Erling Peterson
Production Editor: Yvonne E. Cárdenas
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The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
Moravia, Alberto, 1907–1990.
[Due amici. English]
Two friends = I due amici / by Alberto Moravia ; translated by Marina Harss ; edited by Simone Casini ; introduction by Thomas Erling Peterson.
1. Young men—Italy—Fiction. 2. Communists—Italy—Fiction. 3. Male friendship—Fiction. I. Harss, Marina. II. Casini, Simone. III. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Note on the Text
Alberto Moravia (1907–1980) was Italy’s most successful novelist of the twentieth century. A prolific author of fiction, theatre, essays, film criticism, and travel correspondence, Moravia remained until his death a cultural icon and presence in Italian public life. A master of the novel and short story, he created characters who typically were embroiled in problems of money and sex interrelated in ingenious plots that reveal the moral weakness of ordinary people caught in predicaments of their own making. At the same time, there are protagonists in Moravia’s tales who evoke empathy and admiration; these are humble and heroic characters who resist the alienating forces of modern society.
Moravia’s first novel, Gli indifferenti (The Time of Indifference, 1929) was a tragicomic portrait of a Roman family that many saw as an indictment of the Fascist elite, but which the author maintained was an honest picture “from within” of his own world. The precocious work depicts that world in spare, acrid prose, unforgiving in its existential rendering of a dysfunctional family that is “indifferent” to the higher values of humanistic culture. Moravia achieved great success after World War II with the short novel Agostino (1945). Based on the contemporaneous discovery of sexuality and social awareness by a pre-adolescent boy on a summer beach vacation with his mother, this was the first of a series of highly successful works that would firmly establish Moravia’s literary reputation. Equally successful was the monumental La romana (The Woman of Rome, 1947), a lengthy novel written over four months between 1946 and 1947 and based on a brief experience from ten years earlier when Moravia encountered a beautiful young prostitute who was assisted in her profession by her mother. From this point forward, Moravia was a public figure whose steady stream of novels, essays, and journalistic reportage earned him a place of prestige among the Italian people.
La romana initiated a period in the postwar years when Moravia explored the “national popular myth” in his fiction. The other great novel in this populist phase is La ciociara (Two Women, 1957). Spied on by the Fascists, Moravia and his wife, Elsa Morante, had spent from 1943 to 1945 living in a sheepherder’s cabin above Fondi, in the mountains southeast of Rome. La ciociara was conceived at this time. Moravia quickly drafted eighty pages in 1947, then put the manuscript aside in order to gain more historical distance from his subject. In the meantime he wrote four novels more purely creative in character: La disubbidienza (Luca, 1948), L’amore coniugale (Conjugal Love, 1949), Il conformista (The Conformist, 1951), and Il disprezzo (A Ghost at Noon, 1954).
After this inventive interlude, Moravia returned to La ciociara, a lengthy novel centered on a Roman shopkeeper named Cesira and her daughter Rosetta. The novel is largely faithful to external events and is an heroic chronicle of the Resistance. Also belonging to the national popular period in which the author investigates virtuous working-class characters are the short-story collections Racconti romani (Roman Tales, 1954) and Nuovi racconti romani (More Roman Tales, 1959). These stories capture the foibles and insecurities of ordinary working people in Rome; they are gems of textual economy and authentic cultural snapshots of daily life that turn around the primal emotions of love, jealousy, suspicion, fear, and joy. Here one sees the artisan Moravia, with his great attention to language and form, merge with the Roman Moravia, wryly aware of the mischief and wonder that exist in all of the city’s populace irrespective of class. While Moravia lived his entire life in Rome, he was also an avid traveler and renowned travel writer (with a special love for Africa). He symbolized the cosmopolitan and worldly side of Rome and was a wry critic of its more baroque and provincial sides. Moravia’s prose possessed an unmistakably direct and communicative quality, a fact that no doubt contributed to his broad appeal.
An astute essayist and commentator on a broad range of subject matter—from politics and literature to film and the arts to world cultures—Moravia upheld a humanistic viewpoint during a period in which humanism was under attack by ideologies on the right and left. He was a personalist and a humanist who believed in the ultimate dignity and complexity of the individual. It was precisely the personhood of the individual that was under threat and stood at the center of a modern existential crisis. In the essays of Man as an End—composed between 1941 and 1963—Moravia states that contemporary civilization has lost its moral compass, that humanity has become a means but not an end. One of the most obvious means by which this has occurred is through authoritarian ideologies that have eroded human dignity.
After World War II, the so-called communist aesthetic, as in socialist realism, was seriously considered by Western intellectuals. Moravia upbraided the communists for their notion of art as superstructure, which inevitably leads to its reduction to a form of propaganda: “Communist critics usually contrast art for art’s sake with party art. But this contrast does not really exist, for neither the one nor the other could be said to be healthy and direct expressions of a given society. Healthy and direct art is born of an encounter between society and the artist on equal terms.”1 There was also a virtuous element in the enthusiasm over communism. As Moravia states in the essay “Hope, or Christianity and Communism,” the communist movement is not driven by a rationalistic support of Marx’s ideas but is instead a kind of religious faith: “What is more important in Communism, the idea of the advent of the kingdom of freedom or the lengthy and very complicated explanations offered by Marx on the internal laws of Capitalism? Without hesitation we answer that what counts above all in Communism is the idea of the advent of freedom.”2
Harking back to the Renaissance, Moravia defended the autonomy of art: language is only a means, but art is an end. By the same token, neocapitalism’s dominance in the West had created abstract and decadent art, which was ironically similar to social
These ideas invariably find their way into Two Friends, a projected novel about a confused young man gripped by an inferiority complex who latches onto communism as a panacea for his personal problems. The Italian publication of I due amici—the title assigned by the publisher to a novel planned then abandoned by Moravia in the early 1950s—coincided with the 2007 centenary of the author’s birth.4 The typescript of three drafts of this work were found in a worn suitcase in the basement of the author’s Lungotevere della Vittoria residence in Rome; since he typically destroyed all working drafts, this discovery is of great value, especially given the finished nature of these texts, the lack of lacunae, and the sense of progression from one draft to the next.
Two Friends was written at a critical time in Moravia’s life when he was quite active but also troubled: about his marriage with novelist Elsa Morante and the reception of his recent fiction. When The Conformist (1951) received negative reviews, Moravia grew depressed, and his productivity suffered. Loosely based on the 1937 assassination in Normandy of Moravia’s cousins, Carlo and Nello Rosselli, The Conformist is the story of Maurizio Clerici, the Fascist bureaucrat empowered by the regime to carry out the assassination of his former philosophy professor, a socialist living in Paris. Critics found it difficult to relate to the tormented character of Clerici, whose repressed homosexuality, dissociation, and sadism is traced back to his childhood and his troubled family. There is some continuity here with the psychosexual-political plot of Two Friends.
Driven by moralistic impulses, Sergio Maltese is led astray by the notion that the promised liberation of his newfound ideology can somehow satisfy his personal need for love and friendship. As is true throughout Moravia’s fiction, the prose possesses an emphatic clarity about matters of indecision and doubt. The motivations of the subjects are translated through the minimal events of daily life, the gestures and pentimentos, the provisional agreements and sudden separations. Thus Sergio’s obsessive attempts to bargain with his sentiments—with his lover and his friend—for the sake of political ideology are translated into the language of material needs, desires, and lacks. In Moravia’s view, Sergio is converting his affection and esteem into a means rather than an end. Thus in his day-to-day living with his lover, the intrinsic morality of true affection is undermined by the attempts to convert it into a value, such as a new set of clothes or ultimately the desire that his bourgeois friend Maurizio capitulate by adopting Sergio’s chosen ideology of communism.
Version A begins “around 1938,” the year of the Italian Race Laws and the formation of the Rome-Berlin Axis, when Sergio Maltese, a sexual innocent, and his occasional friend Maurizio, an experienced but bored Don Juan figure, are twenty years old.5 It concludes after the fall of the Fascist regime on July 25, 1943. Sergio, the son of a government bureaucrat, is unemployed and finds himself in the grips of a “mortal lack of will.” Inert, Hamletic, apathetic, Sergio is an ardent anti-Fascist who is, nevertheless, ambivalent about what a Fascist defeat would mean for his country. His brother is fighting for Italy on the Russian front while the sons of the privileged classes, like Maurizio, have found ways to avoid combat service. The war years pass, arriving at the fall of Fascism and the Allied struggle to liberate Rome. Encountering his old friend Sergio, the dissipative, self-indulgent Maurizio invites him south to the island of Capri to wait out the end of the war (echoing an invitation made to Moravia by friend Curzio Malaparte, the author of La pelle). Sergio elects to stay in Rome, and as he drops off a copy of his first article for a new Resistance newspaper—a kind of j’accuse against those responsible for the Fascist debacle—at Maurizio’s house, an Allied bombing raid ensues, forcing Sergio, Maurizio, and Maurizio’s family into the air-raid shelter in the basement of the Villa Borghese (the Roman museum housing Bernini’s sculptures). Here one has a kind of bourgeois drama acted out in the darkness at the archetypal heart of Baroque Rome. Through the darkness, Sergio glimpses the feminine profile of Nella, a working-class woman whose name calls to mind the peasant heroine of Giovanni Verga’s early short story Nedda. In the concluding scenes of Version A (it is easy to speak of Moravia’s fiction in theatrical terms) Sergio accompanies Nella to her rented room (a seeming echo of Sonia’s apartment in Crime and Punishment), as one has a glimpse of the sexual theme that will be prominent in the other drafts. Version A succeeds in establishing a foundation, but does not yet cohere in the sort of unifying “idea” that Moravia demands of his novels.
In Version B Sergio has joined the Italian Communist Party (PCI) to free himself from the label of intellectual; it is 1945, after the war, and he is working for a pittance as a film reviewer. Nella is here named Lalla, and the relationship with Sergio has been going on for some time. The couple lives together in a dingy Roman flat on a subsistence budget, their only luxury their sexual compatibility. Moravia’s descriptions of the female anatomy are always particular, dwelling on peculiarities such as a small head or a long neck. The sexual relationship stands like an island apart from Sergio’s political obsession, which is articulated through the friendship-rivalry with Maurizio. Sergio has become a communist for selfish reasons, seeking in the Party what he lacks in his personal life. Though Maurizio had been a convinced fascist, Sergio believes he is a communist unawares, a ripe fruit ready to fall from the tree of the bourgeoisie. What is in fact ripening is the relation between Maurizio and Lalla, who admits that Maurizio has asked her to marry him and can provide her the material advantages she desires. The rivalry intensifies to the point where Maurizio proposes a deal: he will join the PCI if Sergio will let him sleep with Lalla. As Sergio dissects the offer, he wavers, sensing that a political commitment must be voluntary to be authentic. But by accepting Maurizio’s money, which he uses to buy Lalla a new wardrobe, he shows he is taking the offer seriously.
In the meantime, Lalla has befriended Moroni, a wealthy widower who takes English classes from her. Lalla, Sergio, and Maurizio set out for a weekend visit to Moroni’s country house. It is here that Version B reaches its perfunctory ending, as Lalla is drawn to the protector Moroni after his poignant confession of unending regret and undying love for his deceased wife, Laura, and after Sergio’s attempt to follow through with the “trade.” In contrast to Maurizio’s vanity and Sergio’s “love” for the Party, Moroni can offer true love to Lalla. Summarizing the outcome, Maurizio states: “We are the predestined cuckolds of history … we argue over humanity but instead it betrays us … and it betrays us because in truth we don’t love it for what it is without second ends.” Here then is the unifying idea that Moravia requires in order to proceed to the following draft. The author seems to know at this point how the eventual work will end; faithful to a heuristic method, he now recommences and focuses more keenly on developing the characters and rendering the plot less schematic.
In Version C we are again at war’s end. Sergio, now a first-person narrator, explains how he joined the Party because Maurizio called him an intellectual and a bourgeois, labels he could not deny and found odious. By joining the Party, he reasons, he could erase those labels and turn the tables on Maurizio, whose sense of superiority and condescension derive from his wealth. The extent to which Maurizio exercises control over Sergio’s psyche (though the two rarely see one another) suggests a pathological attraction whereby Sergio projects his deepest desires and fears onto the figure of the Other.
Nella, who is twenty-three to Sergio’s twenty-seven, loves him with great passion and unquestioning allegiance. Sergio meets her at her workplace, an Allied military office in newly liberated Rome. Their immediate attraction to each other results in her being dismissed from her job for inappropriate behavior. A passionate embrace ensues as the couple repairs to the closest lavatory; almost as quickly, Nella agrees to move in with Sergio. Sergio senses he is loved but that Nella cannot truly comprehend him and his political commitme
Version C has a subtler and richer narrative with more characters and mise en scène. Moroni is a small-time movie producer working with Maurizio who, when he meets Nella at a party at Maurizio’s house, offers her a screen test. But here the text abruptly ends. The cinematic theme will carry over into Il disprezzo (A Ghost at Noon), the novel Moravia will then go on to write. So too will the theme of contempt carry over, but with the tables turned, as the wife, Emilia, is overtaken by contempt for her screenwriter husband, Riccardo. In addition, one sees the first-person narration employed in Version C, which Moravia would now retain for all his future novels.
It is difficult to second-guess an author as methodical and circumspect as Moravia as to why one project is curtailed and another begun, but in the case of Two Friends one might suppose that the core idea of communism (or ideology itself) grew stale and could not support the emotional complexity that formed the basis of the author’s inspiration. This complexity was always a moral one in Moravia’s fiction, as we suggested above with reference to his essays.
Two Friends is a kind of time capsule that seemingly survived only because of an oversight; its brilliant trajectories provide the material for a classic Moravian tale, founded on human foibles and psychological material that emerges unexpectedly from the unconscious. Here one sees the author’s method of eliminating and adding, combining and substituting episodes in complete redrafts of the same project. The prose possesses an economy and vividness that make the characters seem visibly present and gripped by a tense network of common emotions. By trusting in the intrinsic life of his characters, Moravia allows them to steer the plot in the pursuit of what he once called “the absolute and moral justification of action.”6 Herein lies the debt to Dostoevsky as well who, in Moravia’s view, had revolutionized the novel by displacing its focus from the world at large onto the interiority of the individual. In Italy this change had seen its first great exemplar in Italo Svevo.
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