A Nearly Invisible City: Rome in Alberto Moravia's 1950s Fiction

Article excerpt

What does it mean to be the author of a city? Particularly in the case of Rome, a city that is the emblem of historical and mythical stratification, it is a difficult distinction to earn. Italo Calvino identifies Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana as "il romanzo di Roma scritto da un non-romano" ("the novel of Rome written by a non-Roman," Pinotti 270), whereas Alain Elkann and Dacia Maraini recognize the author of Rome in Alberto Moravia--their close friend and lover, respectively. Elkann, who co-wrote an interview-biography with Moravia himself, declares: "Tu [...] sei lo scrittore di Roma per antonomasia" ("You [...] are the writer of Rome par excellence," 11); Maraini wrote a generous homage to Moravia for the catalogue of a recent exhibit entitled "Moravia e Roma": "La mostra [...] non poteva non avere Roma come tema. Una citta legata alla vita e agli affetti di Moravia, al rapporto--di curiosita amorevole, e nel contempo di critica e insofferenza--di cui testimoniano la sua scrittura e le sue narrazioni" ("The exhibit [...] had to have Rome as its theme, for the city is connected to Moravia's life and his affections. It is a relationship--of loving curiosity and at the same time of criticism and intolerance--to which his writings and narratives testify," 8). Rome is certainly a common denominator in most of Moravia's fiction: he penned more than two hundred literary texts set in that city. The sheer quantity of Moravia's "Roman" production suggests and even encourages his identification as Rome's twentieth-century author; however, the reality of the Rome present in his short stories and novels paints an undeniably more complicated picture. As a city, Rome--a palpable, visual, urban, and architectural entity--seldom appears in Moravia's works.

One cannot deny that Rome is present in these texts, nor that Moravia names it; nevertheless, the author only rarely depicts it. As the writer himself states: "Roma e solo un fondale di teatro" ("Rome is simply a backdrop," Moravia and Elkann 30), a convenient and familiar setting where his psychological, rather than physical, dramas unfold. Moravia constructs Rome through a compilation of topical references, without those detailed or specific descriptions that could potentially detract from the characters' existential struggles with conformity, boredom, and indifference. It is as though Moravia could have replaced Rome with any other city, for he does not express an intimate, emotional connection with the locations he selects for his narratives. The reader constantly encounters a tangible distance between the author and his native city, a sort of manifestation of the themes of alienation or indifference that permeate his works. This feeling, perhaps, relates to the particular circumstances of Moravia's youth. Moravia described the isolation he suffered as a child and the limits of his adolescent experiences as they later marked his literary relationship with Rome:

A nove anni mi ammalai di tubercolosi ossea e stavo quasi sempre in casa [...]. Leggevo molto, sia a Roma che nei sanatori di Cortina d'Ampezzo o di Bressanone, dove i miei genitori mi mandarono per le cure di cui avevo bisogno [...]. Io non potevo andare molto in giro perche ero costretto a far uso di un apparecchio ortopedico.

(Costantini 20)

(When I was nine-years-old, I fell ill with bone tuberculosis and I was almost always at home [...]. I read a lot, both in Rome and in the clinics in Cortina d'Ampezzo and Bressanone, where my parents sent me to be treated [...]. I couldn't walk around much, because I had to use an orthopedic device.)

Moravia's health condition relegated him to a secluded lifestyle, which often prevented him from venturing into Rome's historical center and constrained him to dwell mostly outside the city's walls. This geographical limitation greatly influenced the way he projected, or perhaps failed to project, Rome into his literature.

Simone Casini takes a different perspective when he claims that Moravia could not reproduce Rome in his literature because he was too much a part of it. …