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Agostino 9781590177372, p.1
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       Agostino (9781590177372), p.1

           Alberto Moravia
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Agostino (9781590177372)

  ALBERTO MORAVIA (1907–1990), the child of a wealthy family, was raised at home because of illness. He published his first novel, The Time of Indifference, at the age of twenty-three. banned from publishing under Mussolini, he emerged after World War II as one of the most admired and influential of twentieth-century Italian writers. In addition to Agostino, New York Review Classics publishes Moravia’s novels Boredom and Contempt.

  MICHAEL F. MOORE is the chair of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund. His translations from the Italian include, most recently, Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi, The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi, and Quiet Chaos by Sandro Veronesi. He is currently working on a new translation of the nineteenth-century classic The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni.



  Translated from the Italian by



  New York



  435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014

  Copyright © 1945 by RCS Libri S.p.A. Milan; Bompiani 1944–2010

  Translation copyright © 2014 by Michael F. Moore

  All rights reserved.

  Agostino was first published in Italy in 1945 by Casa editrice Valentino Bompiani & C. S.p.A.

  Cover image: Carlo Carra, Pine Tree by the Sea, 1921; private collection, Rome; Mondadori Portfolio / Electa / Art Resource, NY

  Cover design: Katy Homans

  The Library of Congress has cataloged the earlier printing as follows:

  Moravia, Alberto, 1907–1990.

  Agostino / Alberto Moravia ; translated by Michael F. Moore.

  pages cm. — (New York Review Books Classics)

  ISBN 978-1-59017-723-5 (paperback)

  I. Moore, Michael, 1954 August 24- II. Title.

  PQ4829.O62A6313 2014



  ISBN 978-1-59017-737-2


  For a complete list of books in the NYRB Classics series, visit or write to: Catalog Requests, NYRB, 435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.


  Biographical Notes

  Title page

  Copyright and More Information


  Translator’s Note



  IN THE early days of summer, Agostino and his mother used to go out to sea every morning on a small rowboat typical of Mediterranean beaches known as a pattino. At first she brought a boatman along with them, but Agostino gave such clear signs of annoyance at the man’s presence that the oars were then turned over to him. He rowed with deep pleasure on the smooth, diaphanous, early-morning sea, and his mother, sitting in front of him, would speak to him softly, as joyful and serene as the sea and sky, as if he were a man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy. Agostino’s mother was a big and beautiful woman still in her prime, and Agostino was filled with pride every time he got in the boat with her for one of their morning rides. All the bathers on the beach seemed to be watching, admiring his mother and envying him. Convinced that all eyes were on him, he felt as if he were speaking louder than usual, behaving in a special way, enveloped in a theatrical, exemplary air as if, rather than on a beach, his mother and he were onstage before an audience of hundreds of watchful eyes. Sometimes she would appear in a new bathing suit, and he could not help but make a loud remark, secretly hoping that others would overhear him. Or she would send him to fetch something from their cabin, while she stood waiting on the shore by the boat. He would obey with a hidden joy, happy to prolong the spectacle of their departure, if only for a few moments. Finally they would climb on board the boat, and Agostino would take hold of the oars and push off. But the intensity of his filial vanity and the turmoil of his infatuation would linger for many years to come.

  When they were a good distance from the shore, the mother would tell her son to stop, and she would put on a rubber bathing cap, remove her sandals, and slip into the water. Agostino would follow. They would swim around the pattino, whose oars had been left unsecured, conversing in merry voices that echoed loudly over the silent sea, calm and filled with light. Sometimes the mother would point to a piece of cork floating in the distance and challenge her son to a race. She would give him a short lead and then, with powerful strokes, take off toward the cork. Or they would have diving competitions, breaching the clear smooth water with their bodies. Agostino would see the mother’s body plunge into a circle of green bubbles, and he would jump in right after her, ready to follow her anywhere, even to the bottom of the sea. He would dive into the mother’s wake and feel as if even the cold compact water conserved traces of the passage of that beloved body. After the swim, they would climb back on board, and the mother, looking around herself at the calm and luminous sea, would say, “Isn’t it lovely today?” Agostino didn’t reply because his pleasure in the beauty of the sea and sky was related, he felt, mainly to the profound intimacy of his relations with his mother. Without that intimacy, he sometimes found himself thinking, would it still be so beautiful? The two of them would dry themselves languorously in the sun, which became more ardent with the approach of midday. Then the mother would stretch out on the plank connecting the twin hulls of the boat. Lying on her back with her hair in the water, face to the sky, and eyes closed, she appeared to doze off. All the while Agostino, in his seat, would look around, look at the mother, and hold his breath lest he disturb her sleep. Occasionally she would open her eyes and say how good it felt to lie on her back with her eyes closed and feel the water rippling and flowing underneath her. Or she would ask Agostino to pass her the cigarette case, or better yet to light a cigarette and pass it to her, which Agostino would do with tremulous, painstaking care. Then the mother would smoke in silence, and Agostino would remain hunched over, his back to her but his head twisted to the side, so as to catch the little puffs of blue smoke that indicated where her head was resting, her hair radiating out in the water. Then the mother, who never seemed to tire of the sun, would ask Agostino to row and not turn around: in the meantime she would remove the top of her bathing suit and lower the bottoms so as to expose her whole body to the sunlight. Agostino rowed and felt proud of his assignment, as if it were a ritual in which he was allowed to participate. Not only did he never think of turning around but he felt as if her body, lying there behind him, naked in the sun, was shrouded in a mystery to which he owed the greatest veneration.

  One morning the mother was under the beach umbrella, and Agostino, sitting on the sand next to her, was awaiting the hour when they usually went for their row. All at once a shadow obstructed the sunlight shining down on him: Looking up, he saw a tanned, dark-haired young man extending a hand to the mother. He paid him no mind, thinking it was the usual chance encounter, and moving away a bit, he waited for the conversation to end. But the young man did not accept an offer to sit down. Pointing toward the shore at the white pattino he’d arrived on, he invited the mother to accompany him on a boat ride out to sea. Agostino was sure she would turn down the invitation, like the many others that had preceded it. Much to his surprise, he saw her readily accept, gathering her things—sandals, bathing cap, and bag—and jumping to her feet. She had welcomed the young man’s proposal with the same friendly and spontaneous ease that characterized her relations with her son. And with the same ease and spontaneity, she turned to Agostino, who had remained seated with his head bowed, intent on the sand sifting through his clenched fist, and told him to go ahead and have a swim by himself; she was going for a short ride and would be back in a little while. The young man, in the meantime, wit
h a self-assured air, was already on his way to the boat. The woman was walking behind him, meekly, with her usual languid and majestic serenity. Looking at them, the son could not help but admit that the pride, vanity, and emotion he had felt during their outings on the sea must now be in the young man’s heart. He saw the mother climb aboard the boat and the young man, his body leaning back and his feet planted firmly, pull the boat away from the shallow waters of the shore with a few vigorous strokes. The young man rowed, the mother sat in front of him, holding on to the seat with both hands, and they seemed to be chatting. Then the boat grew smaller and smaller, entered into the blinding light that the sun spread over the surface of the sea, and slowly dissolved into it.

  Left alone, Agostino stretched out on his mother’s lounge chair and, with one arm tucked behind his neck and his eyes fixed on the sky, adopted a pensive and indifferent attitude. Since every bather on the beach must have noticed his trips with his mother in the past few days, they would have remarked that today she had left him behind to go off with the young boatman. This was why he must not betray the annoyance and disappointment that he was feeling. But try as he might to feign an air of composure and serenity, he still felt that everyone could read in his face how forced and petty his attitude was. What offended him most wasn’t so much the mother’s preference for the young man as the quick almost premeditated joy with which she accepted his invitation. It was as if she had decided not to let the opportunity slip away and to seize it without hesitation as soon as it presented itself. It was as if all those days on the sea with him she had been bored and had only come along for lack of better company. One memory confirmed his ill humor. He had gone to a ball at a friend’s house with his mother. During the first dance, a female cousin who was upset at being ignored by the men consented to dance a couple of rounds with him, the boy in short pants. But she had danced gracelessly, with a long sullen face. And although he was absorbed in minding his dance steps, Agostino quickly picked up on her unkind and contemptuous attitude. All the same he invited her for a third round and was surprised to see her smile and stand up quickly, smoothing out the wrinkles in her skirt with both hands. But rather than run into his arms, she walked past him toward a young man who, looming behind Agostino, had beckoned to her to dance. The scene lasted no longer than five seconds, and no one noticed except Agostino. But he was mortified beyond measure and had the impression that everyone had witnessed his humiliation.

  Now, after his mother’s departure with the young man in the pattino, he compared the two events and found them identical. Like his cousin, his mother had been waiting for the right opportunity to abandon him. Like his cousin, and with the same breathless ease, she had accepted the first partner to come along. And in both cases, it had been his fate to fall from the summit of an illusion and crash to the ground, aching and bruised.

  The mother stayed out on the water for a couple of hours that day. From under the beach umbrella he saw her step back onto the shore, hold out her hand to the young man, and with her head lowered under the noonday sun, make her leisurely way to the changing cabin. The beach was empty at that hour, a consolation for Agostino, who was still convinced that everyone was staring at them. “How did your morning go?” his mother asked indifferently. “I had a lot of fun,” Agostino began, and he pretended that he, too, had gone out on the water with the boys from the next cabin. But she had already stopped listening and was running toward the cabin to get dressed. Agostino decided that the next day, as soon as he saw the young man’s white pattino appear on the horizon, he would find some excuse to wander off and avoid having to suffer the insult of being left behind for a second time. But the next day, the minute he started to leave, he heard his mother calling him back. “Come,” she said, standing up and gathering their things, “we’re going for a boat ride.” Agostino followed her, thinking that she intended to send the young man on his way and spend the morning alone with him. The young man was standing on the pattino waiting for them. The mother said hello and added simply, “I am bringing my son, too.” And so a very unhappy Agostino found himself sitting next to the mother, facing the young man as he rowed.

  Agostino had always seen the mother in one way: dignified, serene, and discreet. So he was bewildered, during the ride, to see the change that had taken place not only in her manner and speech but also apparently in her person, as if she were no longer the same woman. They had barely entered the open sea when the mother—in a sharp, allusive, and, to Agostino, obscure remark—began a strange private conversation. As far as he could tell, it concerned a girlfriend of the young man who had another more fortunate and acceptable suitor. But this was only a pretext and the conversation continued, insinuating, insistent, spiteful, malicious. The mother seemed the more aggressive of the two yet also the more defenseless. The young man took care to answer her with a calm, almost ironic self-assurance. Sometimes the mother seemed unhappy and even irritated with the young man, to Agostino’s delight. But a few seconds later, she would disappoint him with a flirtatious remark that destroyed this first impression. Or she would address the young man in a resentful tone of voice with a series of obscure criticisms. But rather than take offense, the young man, Agostino observed, wore an expression of fatuous vanity, and Agostino concluded that the reproach was only on the surface, a cover for an affection he could not grasp. Both the mother and the youth seemed to ignore his existence, as if he wasn’t there. She went so far with this display of neglect as to remind the young man that going out with him alone the day before had been a mistake on her part that would never be repeated. From now on the son would always be present—an argument Agostino considered offensive, as if rather than a person endowed with an independent will he were an object that could be moved about arbitrarily.

  Only once did the mother seem to notice his presence, when the young man, suddenly letting go of the oars, leaned forward with an intensely malicious expression and whispered a short sentence to her that Agostino couldn’t make out. This sentence had the power to make the mother jump up with exaggerated outrage and feigned horror. “At least show some consideration for this innocent boy,” she answered, pointing to Agostino sitting by her side. Hearing himself called innocent, Agostino shook with repulsion, as if he had been struck by a dirty rag he couldn’t dodge.

  When they were a good distance from the shore, the young man proposed that the mother take a swim. Here Agostino, who had so often admired the discretion and ease with which she usually slipped into the water, could not help but be bewildered and pained by the new gestures with which she embellished her former behavior. The young man had plunged into the sea and already reemerged while the mother was still hesitantly testing the water with her toes, feigning either fear or reluctance—it was hard to tell. She covered herself, protested, laughing and holding on to the boat. Finally she lowered a leg and a hip into the water in an almost indecent pose, and let herself fall awkwardly into the arms of her companion. The two of them went under together, and together they floated back to the surface. Agostino, huddled in a corner, saw the smiling face of the mother next to the tanned and serious face of the youth, and it looked to him as if their cheeks were touching. In the clear water you could see the two bodies rubbing against each other, as if they wanted to intertwine, bumping their legs and their hips. Agostino glanced at them, then at the distant beach, and felt embarrassed and in the way. At the sight of his frowning face, the mother, treading water, uttered a sentence that humiliated and mortified him for the second time that morning: “Why the long face? . . . Can’t you see how lovely the water is? Goodness, what a grumpy son I have.” Agostino did not reply, limiting himself to casting his eyes elsewhere. The swim lasted for a long time. The mother and her companion played in the water like two dolphins and appeared to forget him entirely. Finally they climbed back on board. The youth leapt up in a single bound and then leaned over to pull up the mother, who was imploring his assistance from the water. Agostino watched. He observed how the youth’s ha
nds, in order to lift the woman, dug their fingers into her tanned skin where the arm is softest and widest, between the shoulder and the armpit. Then she sat down by Agostino, gasping for air, and with her pointed nails she pulled at her wet bathing suit so it wouldn’t adhere too closely to the tips of her nipples and the roundness of her breasts. But Agostino remembered that when they were alone, the mother, a strong woman, had no need of any assistance in climbing back on the boat, and he attributed her begging for help and the wriggling of her body—apparently indulging in a feminine clumsiness—to the new spirit that had already caused so many and such unpleasant changes in her. He could not help but think that the mother, a large and dignified woman, was feeling her size as an impediment she would gladly be rid of, and her dignity, a boring habit that she now needed to replace with some awkward playfulness.

  Once the two of them were back on the boat, the return trip began. This time the oars were assigned to Agostino, while the mother and the boatman sat on the plank between the hulls. He started rowing very slowly, in the scorching sun, sometimes wondering at the meaning of the voices, laughter, and movements behind his back. Every so often the mother, as if remembering he was there, would reach out an arm and give him an awkward pat on the back, or tickle him under the arms, asking him whether he was tired. “No, I’m not tired,” Agostino would reply. When he heard the young man say, with a laugh, “It’s good for him to row,” he gave the oars a hard, angry tug. The mother leaned her head against Agostino’s seat and kept her long legs outstretched, this much he could tell, but he had the impression this position was not always maintained. At one point, he heard a scrambling and what seemed to be a brief struggle. The mother sounded like she was choking. She stood up, stammering something, and the boat tipped to one side. For a moment the mother’s belly rubbed against Agostino’s cheek. It felt as vast as the sky and was beating strangely, as if it had a life that didn’t belong to her or had slipped past her control. “I’ll sit back down,” she said, standing with her legs wide and her hands gripping her son’s shoulders, “if you promise to behave.” “I promise,” came the young man’s reply, with a false and playful solemnity. She lowered herself awkwardly onto the plank, brushing her belly against her son’s cheek. A trace of moisture from the wet bathing suit was left on Agostino’s skin and a deeper warmth seemed to evaporate the moisture into steam. Although he felt a sharp stab of murky repulsion, he obstinately refused to dry himself off.

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