- Series: New York Review Books Classics
- Paperback: 128 pages
- Publisher: NYRB Classics; Main edition (July 8, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1590177231
- ISBN-13: 978-1590177235
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.
NYRB ed. bio
I have dozens of NYRB editions I’ve never read, proving I’m better at collecting and hoarding than reading. Mostly I buy them at Half Price Books – which somehow manages to snag an extraordinary number of them, most mint unread – though occasionally I spring for full price at other stores and on Amazon. I love their covers, and the range of works and authors is staggering. They’re magnetic; I cannot not buy them.
Yes, it’s a compulsion. But admitting it makes it better, right?
Shuffling through my collection looking for something short enough to finish in the course of a lazy Sunday afternoon, I ran across a NYRB title by Italian author Alberto Moravia. It was short, at 102 pages, and the cover blurb was appealing, if a little discomfiting.
Agostino is the story of a 13-year old boy’s budding adolescence and sexual awakening, as well as the simultaneous and horrifying realization the madonna-figure mother he adores is also a sexual being.
“All of these gestures, which had once seemed so natural to Agostino, now seemed to take on meaning and become an almost visible part of a larger, more dangerous, reality, dividing his spirit between curiosity and pain. He repeated to himself “She’s only a woman” with the objective indifference of a connoisseur. But one moment later, unable to bear his mother’s unawareness or his own attentions, he wanted to shout, “Cover yourself, stop showing yourself to me, I’m not who I used to be.”
An only child, Agostino has been spoiled by his widowed mother’s attention. While he’s always perceived her as beautiful, coming into adolescence he notices her curves and pretty face are feminine and attractive, and not just to him. When a handsome man begins spending time with her, he witnesses his formerly strong, independent mother becoming not just silly and girlish but seductive and sensual, adding to his sense of shame and embarrassment.
Escaping the sight of his mother and her lover, he turns to a group of boys whose rough behavior both shocks and attracts him. Though they ridicule and attack him, the hurt is less terrifying than dealing with what’s going on at home :
“He was not so much frightened as bewildered by the boy’s extraordinary brutality. It seemed incredible that he, Agostino, whom everyone had always liked, could now be hurt so deliberately and ruthlessly, a new behavior so monstrous it was almost attractive.”
The more he associates with them the tougher he becomes, yet he never quite loses his core self, never succumbs to the almost evil and definitely menacing natures of the other, wilder boys. His outside hardens, but inside he’s the frightened little boy who needs his mother. It’s a massive internal struggle, a necessary rite of passage from childhood through to the loss of innocence.
Agostino is tortured and unhappy, restless and alone. No matter where he goes, he feels out of place. At 13 he’s a child, yet not, at the same time. Alberto Moravia writes with great immediacy and passion, earning the empathy of the reader. One cannot help but feel for Agostino in his plight.
“Who knows if by walking straight ahead, along the sea, on the soft white sand, he wouldn’t reach a land where none of these awful things existed. A land where he would be welcomed as his heart desired and be able to forget everything he had learned, and then relearn it without shame or offense, in the sweet and natural way that had to exist … “
It is, as I wrote earlier, a discomfiting book. I couldn’t help sometimes finding it so, no doubt because I’m the mother of two boys. While not a prude, there are some things I’d rather not think about, and this novel manages to hit a spot I’d prefer to leave be. Knowing and accepting your children experience such awakenings is one thing, being hit in the face with it is quite another.
I don’t want to give the impression this is a graphically sexual book. It is not that. It addresses the issues without flinching, but things are kept at arm’s length. There are no inappropriately sexual scenes, no graphic nudity or incestuous innuendos. Not at all. What I see in it that provokes distaste lies solely in me, not in the book. Perhaps it’s a puritanical streak, I don’t know. It just is.
Agostino is beautifully written, and clearly shows what a brilliant writer Moravia was. I’d read more of his books, no hesitation, and NYRB has published both his novels Boredom and Contempt.
Next time I’m at Half Price Books who knows? Maybe I’ll pick them up.
And two or three other NYRB titles… Just maybe.
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