I’ve never read anything by Alberto Moravia, though I feel as if I’ve known his work for a long time. His books have served as the basis for at least two important works of world cinema: Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). Looking at online resources, I see a number of his books have been made into films that I haven’t seen, including this book, Agostino (1945; tr. from the Italian by Michael F. Moore, 2014), which comes out from NYRB Classics next week.
Thirteen-year-old Agostino begins the story as a rather pampered child who is deeply attached to his widowed (and beautiful) mother. Despite the fact she is widowed, she and Agostino are well off, spending this particular summer at a seaside resort in Tuscany. When we first meet Agostino, he’s rather smugly rowing his mother around on their small boat (his annoyance at the presence of a boatman becoming so disruptive the boatman was finally dismissed).
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 the sky, as if he were a man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy. [. . .] All the bathers on the beach seemed to be watching, admiring his mother and envying him.
Agostino feeds on the envy of others, though he is physically shaken when he feels tinges of envy himself. One day, his mother meets a man, and Agostino feels absolutely bereft.
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.
Perhaps worse, he feels that “everyone had witnessed his humiliation.”
Strangely, though — and it’s in these dark, psychological touches that this book shines — this humiliation transforms Agostino into a kind of self-pitying martyr. When one day the man does not show up to take the mother and Agostino on the boat, Agostino is surprised to find within him “an empty disappointment”: “the humiliation and repulsion of the daily outings had almost become his reason for living.”
When the man finally does arrive, Agostino feels masochistic joy, and runs away. It’s at this moment, early in the book, that the boy meets a group of local adolescents. Here, Agostino’s deep psychological tangle begins to unwind, but it’s not a safe environment. As he begins to understand his mother’s relationship with the man, he also begins to understand his own lust. He is repulsed, drawn in, and at every turn he is subject to the cruelty of these other boys who, though not particularly experienced, do know more than he does about such things.
His repulsion at being near his mother led him to spend more and more time at Vespucci beach. But the other, different torments that awaited him there made it no less hateful than home.
It’s a dark coming-of-age story, filled with mortifying set-pieces, in which the protagonist fails to come of age. He loses himself instead:
So he found that he had lost his original identity without acquiring through his loss another.