Two Friends, p.2Alberto Moravia
Walter Benjamin has written of “the most European of all accomplishments, that more or less discernible irony with which the life of the individual asserts the right to run its course independently of the community into which he is cast.”7 Moravia’s opus exemplifies this phenomenon, and Two Friends is no exception. It is ironic first of all—in Moravia’s view—that so many Italians were tolerant of authoritarian ideologies, such that the nation seemed poised after the fall of Fascism to forgive the regime and repeat its errors (there having been no systematic attempt to remove former Fascists from positions of power in the postwar era). There is irony in the commonplace assumptions about the social classes, in the physical descriptions of interiors and settings, and in the precise, often unflattering descriptions of the human figure. There is a parody as well of normal sexual behavior. Scenes of lovemaking are bold but not prurient; the reader is not titillated, but exposed to a kind of ritual carried out by the lovers—in a garret or a public building, or even while fully clothed on a streetcar ride—to satisfy their animal needs. There is irony too in the fresh and sullen beauty of the Moravian heroine; the descriptions of the woman at her humble toilette suggest the paintings of Courbet or Vuillard. Lastly there is the self-irony by which Moravia instills in his protagonists the gist of his own personal crises. The author experienced an existential malaise throughout his adult life, whether it is called indifference, boredom, or contempt. Distrustful of the autobiographical direction in modern fiction, he succeeded in retaining the personalist core of his deepest presentiments and forged them into an exquisitely disinterested fiction.
Two Friends comes at a pivotal point in the author’s career when the subject matter of his fiction and the mode of narration itself are shifting. It also coincides with a time of great debate concerning the social function of literature, in particular the novel form used to reflect the struggle between the social classes. If Moravia had respected the work of Zola and Verga in this regard, his inclination was not naturalistic but was founded on the interior reality and contradictions of the individual. Two Friends represents a heuristic key to understanding this phase of Moravia’s fiction; it is a phase when the Roman author is still committed to the working-class myth seen in La romana and I racconti romani (which will conclude with the publication of La ciociara) and yet has adopted a first-person narrator and inserted ample discussions of political ideas into the text, anticipating the Moravian essay-novel of the 1960s.
THOMAS E. PETERSON
1 A. Moravia, Man as an End: A Defense of Humanism, trans. Bernard Wall (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965), 133.
2 A. Moravia, La speranza, ossia Cristianesimo e Comunismo (Rome: Documento, 1944), 38.
3 A. Moravia, Man as an End, 127.
4 Alberto Moravia, I due amici. Frammenti di una storia fra guerra e dopoguerra, introd. and ed. Simone Casini (Milan: Bompiani, 2007).
5 The Leggi razziali denied Italian citizenship to Jews and prohibited them from positions in the government or in the professions of education and banking. Marriages between Italian citizens and Jews were banned.
6 A. Moravia and A. Elkann, Vita di Moravia (Milan: Bompiani, 1990), 271.
7 W. Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, introd. and ed. P. Demetz, trans. E. Jephcott (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 73.
The numbers that appear in the margins indicate the numeration of the original typewritten pages in the so-called Dossier Number 6 [“Incartamento 6”] at the Fondo Alberto Moravia. The few that come from Dossier Number 4 are indicated with an asterisk.
The marking “[…]” indicates a break in the text; “<…>” indicates an addition.
The marking < in the right margin indicates the existence of an alternate version of the text, to be found in the appendix.
Fragments of a Story Set During the War
and the Postwar Years
[…] The woman, a widow, lived alone in her tiny apartment.
Maurizio usually went to s
The woman felt that she had heard enough, and
she sent Sergio away, with the pretext that Maurizio was so late already that he would probably not come at all.
That same evening, when Sergio was having dinner with his family, Maurizio called. Sergio came to the phone, thinking that his friend wanted to make an appointment for the next day. But instead, Maurizio said: “What did you say to Emilia? What ideas have you gotten into your head?” He sounded irritated, but there was something else as well. Sergio thought he heard contempt in his voice. He answered vehemently: “Nothing that wasn’t true.” At the other end of the line, Maurizio’s voice pressed on, more violently: “Indiscreet and voluble as usual … There are things one just shouldn’t do … You don’t visit your friend’s lover in order to speak ill of him … You have no manners … It’s completely crazy.” Hearing these words, Sergio felt flames of anger and shame sweeping over him. He responded brusquely, “I only said the truth … Leave me alone, why don’t you? Good-bye!” and quickly slammed down the receiver.
Later, reflecting on this phone conversation, Sergio realized that he hated Maurizio, though he also felt a trace of regret. Despite their rivalry, Maurizio was still the only friend who mattered to him. He realized that the woman had drawn him into a kind of trap, and, as he reconstructed their conversations, he also realized that she had constantly tried to undermine his friendship with Maurizio. Still, Maurizio had been too quick to offend him and even, it seemed, to bring about a break between them. After lengthy and painful consideration, Sergio decided that he would not call Maurizio back. It was up to Maurizio, who had been so quick to insult him on the slightest pretext, to take the first step toward a reconciliation.
Maurizio, on the other hand, regretted his phone call almost immediately. But partly out of pride, and mainly out of fatuousness and selfishness, he did not want to take the first step. He was convinced that
Sergio was somehow inferior to him, and that Sergio knew this; and he was convinced that his friend’s sense of inferiority would drive him to take the first step. Vaguely, and not in so many words, he sensed that he was not so sorry to lose Sergio. In recent times, Sergio had been overly critical and had made it quite clear to Maurizio that he disapproved of certain aspects of his personality. Maurizio was troubled by these criticisms, and it did not help that he had to admit that many of them were true. There was an additional factor that persuaded him not to seek a rapprochement with his overly candid friend.
Even though he was still very young, Maurizio had already developed a Don Juan–like attitude—he could not tolerate a serious bond with a woman, and preferred to pursue many light, inconsequential affairs rather than devote himself to a singular, deep relationship. For some time now, this woman’s attachment had been an inconvenience to him, especially because his l
and responded that evidently, if he spoke to her in this manner, he was more attached to Sergio than he was to her. This was the reaction that Maurizio had been hoping for with childish shrewdness. Quickly, and with a certain coldness, he told her that she was right; he was more attached to Sergio than to her. The woman, who until then had flattered herself with the idea that she held Maurizio through the power of sensuality, responded brutally that he should go back to his dear Sergio and leave her alone. Maurizio immediately got up and left.
Once he was in the street, he breathed a great sigh of relief. Without much difficulty, he had managed to free himself of a relationship, one which might have been difficult to extricate himself from under different circumstances. Regarding his friend, he once again reflected: if Sergio called, all the better, and if not, tant pis. Maurizio’s cynical nonchalance had another cause as well: he was interested in another, much younger woman, who was receptive to his advances. He climbed into his car and went directly to her place.
The days passed and the two separations became definitive. Sergio did not call, and Emilia was unable to reach Maurizio; he had ordered that whenever she called she should be told he was out. She wrote him a letter, called again, wrote another letter, and then resigned herself to the situation and found another lover. Sergio didn’t call. Maurizio continued down the path he had laid for himself. The girl who replaced Emilia was herself replaced, and on it went. Maurizio was twenty years old and thought only of love.
Sergio was also twenty years old, but he had other
things on his mind. Whereas Maurizio rushed headlong down the path suggested by his senses and his youth—a path unencumbered by ambition, material struggles, scruples, or emotional aspirations—Sergio found himself, because of the ambitions, emotional aspirations, oppressive material struggles, and scruples that constantly tormented him, in the difficult situation of a traveler seeking a path through a desert or a forest never before visited by man. He had no precise vocation, only a certain intellectual attitude toward life and a facility for writing; he was poor, and his dreams for the future were vast but vague. Youth did not inspire in him the same joyful, fulfilling vigor felt by Maurizio; if anything, his youth inspired a continual discomfort and struggle between contradictory emotions and purposes. He was extremely serious and felt seriously about everything he did, read, loved, discussed, or experienced. And yet he was not able to free himself—despite all his seriousness—from a constant feeling of insecurity and impotence, in other words from what is usually referred to as an inferiority complex. This complex had many elements, all of which seemed to converge toward something that he was unable to identify but was obscurely aware of. He felt socially inferior to Maurizio and Maurizio’s circle; he felt inferior to the women he pursued; and he felt inferior to so-called men of action. To Sergio, action required innumerable profound, subtle reflections which usually resulted in inaction, out of fear or shyness. Instinctively, he sought an explanation for his frame of mind, but he might never have pinpointed it if Maurizio had not revealed it to him by chance, with cruel carelessness. It was a few years after their break. Because they lived in the same city, they often crossed paths. Whenever this happened, Sergio was stone-faced, embarrassed, filled with unspoken reproaches
and a feeling of irritated impotence mixed with a secret attraction. Maurizio—to whom Sergio was simply one acquaintance among many—treated him with the jovial, indulgent condescension one affects with old schoolmates with whom one has lost touch. During these casual encounters, he would greet Sergio with jokes and quick repartee, aggravating his friend’s sense of inferiority and ill-concealed rivalry. These meetings, which usually took place on the street or in cafés or other public places, were always very brief. After inquiring about work and life, Maurizio would depart with a joke and a smile, leaving Sergio to feel unhappy and wonder in vain why, given that there was no longer real friendship between them, he even bothered to stop and talk to Maurizio.
On one of these occasions, Maurizio was sitting in his car, parked on an elegant street. As Sergio—gloomy and sloppily dressed—walked toward him along the sidewalk, Maurizio called out casually: “Well, how is the intellectual doing today? What have you been up to?”
The word “intellectual” had an unpleasant ring to it, but in some strange way Sergio knew it to be tinged with truth. He heard himself say, almost resentfully: “Who are you calling an intellectual?”
“Why, you of course,” Maurizio said, smiling.
“Me?” Sergio repeated, as if the word sounded strange applied to him. “So you consider me an intellectual?”
“Of course,” Maurizio said, smiling, “otherwise, what are you?” He laughed, adding, “See you later, Sergio … Got to run … Good luck.” He turned on the ignition and drove off.
Sergio ruminated on Maurizio’s words for a long time. On the one hand, he realized that the word “intellectual”—like the word “bourgeois” and many
others—had been degraded over time to the point that it now had a decidedly negative connotation. On the other hand, he could not help but recognize that despite Maurizio’s coarseness and ignorance, he had done something that Sergio, with all his education and subtlety, had never been capable of: he had defined him in a single word. Wasn’t he in fact an intellectual? And how had he managed not to realize this before? After that meeting, he reflected often on his appearance and his state of mind, and each time was forced to recognize that Maurizio’s jocular, off-the-cuff epithet fit him perfectly. To begin with, he had the physical attributes of the intellectual: he wore glasses and was on the small side, and often wore a serious expression on his unshaven face; his clothes were frayed and worn, his pockets full of slips of paper, his shoes covered in mud. Not to speak of his personality and his attitude: he was educated, intelligent, and versatile enough to quickly scribble an article on almost any subject, or write film reviews—as he did, for a second-rate newspaper—but not dedicated enough to be a professional writer, dependable and serious. As he saw it, the word “intellectual” was a kind of cliché, and in fact Maurizio was someone who often expressed himself in clichés. And yet, it was true that Sergio’s appearance and personality fit the cliché; here was the proof that clichés are often based on realities and behaviors that are actually quite common. In the end, he realized that he was an intellectual precisely because it displeased him that he should be seen as one by others. But no matter how he tried, he could not free himself of this displeasure, or accept Maurizio’s epithet with indifference or, better yet, with pride. He did not know why it displeased him so much; in part it was of course because he saw being an intellectual as something completely negative. But more important, it displeased him because it was Maurizio who had de
It was just before the start of the war, sometime
around 1938, and, like everyone around him, Sergio was suffering from the suffocating weight of the tempest, heavy with war and destruction, which was gathering over Europe’s skies. In his case, the suffering was redoubled by his feelings of impotence and lack of confidence. Though he was opposed to all dictatorial regimes, he feared that his opposition was not strong enough, or decisive enough, or based on reasons that were sufficiently well founded or convincing. He envied the Fascists, for whom the choice was so clear, and he also envied Maurizio, to whom these events were clearly and uncomplicatedly indifferent. One day when they bumped into each other in the street, Maurizio had said: “Why get upset … what can we do about it? And if we can’t do anything, why get upset?” Sergio envied the few resolute anti-Fascists he knew, Communists and the like, because their attitude was as clear as that of the Fascists. But he was not able to distill his doubts and disgust into an unambiguous attitude, a plan of action. Even though he hated Fascism, he felt that it had wormed its way into his blood, not in the form of political allegiance, but rather as a kind of torpor and mortal passivity, like a poison that slowly intoxicates and weakens the body. He was confronted once again with his feeling of impotence, but this time it not only affected his personal life but encompassed the destiny of the nation and humanity as a whole. This thought paralyzed him and infused him with a kind of deadly inertia. Later he would remember this period as a nightmare he had experienced with his eyes open, like a dream where all is a blur and nothing happens and yet one is overcome by a sense of unjustified and terrifying oppression from which one does not have the will or strength to free oneself. In addition, for some reason during that period he was not commissioned to write any of the articles that normally kept him afloat; and to make matters worse, most of his few friends had left the city, either because they had been drafted or for other reasons.
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