Moravia is perhaps the only Italian novelist to attain world stature (Italian Nobel prizewinners have tended to be poets). This is undoubtedly due to his work being less Italian and more worldly than that of other Italian novelists. A period of illness as an adolescent started him on an exploration of world literature and it is apparent that he owes as much to American and Russian literature as he does to Italian. Many other Italian novelists of equal worth seem to attract less attention because – superficially at least – their themes seem very Italian. One thinks of not only Pratolini, Sciascia and Pavese but also Pasolini and Vittorini.
I once asked a noted translator of Italian literature if he had ever read Moravia. ‘I have only read one of his works’, he replied, ‘and it seemed to be exclusively about a man talking to his penis.’ If one wanted a glib, perhaps Monty Pythonesque summary of Moravia’s work this would be it. From his first novel Gli Indifferenti (Time of Indifference, 1929) to his latest, La Vita Interiore (The Inner Life) his main theme has been alienation. One of his books was even called La Noia, that useful word which exists in most European languages (l’ennui, Weltschmerz…) but not in English, which means alienation, boredom, lethargy and more. This idea of alienation has a long tradition in literature – Flaubert, Kafka and Svevo spring to mind – but is only really treated properly by first Moravia and then Camus and Sartre. Along with alienation, sex figures strongly in all of Moravia’s novels – from the seduction of Carla by her mother’s lover in Gli Indifferenti to every kind of sexual activity – masturbation, anal intercourse, troilism, lesbianism, etc – in La Vita Interiore. Undoubtedly one of the reasons for the prominence given to sex is epater la bourgeoisie. Italy is not noted for a liberal attitude to sex. The strong influence of Catholicism, the still highly prevalent machismo, the lip-service paid to the family ethic – bourgeois Christian values – are clearly anathema to Moravia, a communist and Jew.