Sunday, 16 January 2011

Penguin no. 1460: Two Adolescents
by Alberto Moravia

This volume contains two short novels, each concerning a different teenage boy. The two stories share a common theme: they explore the inner turmoil the boys experience as they move beyond childhood. Central to both is an awareness of  the decay of the affection they had previously felt for their parents. In Agostino, the first and shorter of the stories, Agostino is a 13 year old boy and we enter the story at the point this decay begins. In Disobedience, Luca is 15, and all his former regard for his parents is gone.

Agostino is an earlier story. It was written during the Second World War, but its publication in Italy was originally banned by the Fascists. The story begins with Agostino enjoying a beach holiday with his mother. They are wealthy, and we can see that his childhood has been pampered and protective. Agostino is innocent and naive. He admires his mother, is proud of her dignity and beauty, and jealously guards her company. And so he feels great resentment when a young man begins to pay her attention, and even greater resentment and incomprehension when his mother encourages it. He feels betrayed; he perceives the difference in her behaviour but cannot understand it: she becomes a coquette, feigns a kind of frailness, and he recognises that her affectionate gestures towards him now seem staged, a show for the benefit of others. His idealised conception of her is challenged, and his regard for her begins to ebb.

He begins to engage in small acts of rebellion, and these bring him into contact with the lower class boys who frequent one of the far off beaches. In the process his innocence is completely stripped away. He is exposed to mindless violence and cruelty, bullying and teasing, and the attentions of a pederast. More importantly, he hears the way the boys talk about his mother, and he begins to see her as she really is: not only his mother, but as a woman, and the object of others' sexual desire. He knows what he must do to banish this image, but enactment is thwarted by his young age Adolescence is revealed as a type of purgatory into which he has entered, but from which there is no escape until sufficient time has passed.

Disobedience is the more compelling of the novellas. There is very little action; the entire focus is on Luca's state of mind, and this deteriorating state of mind is bound up with a rejection of his parents and their values. He remembers a time when he loved them unquestioningly, when they provided the very definition of goodness and perfection. But something, possibly illness or mental strain, triggers a rebellion that takes the form of a strike, a decision to disobey every impulse that binds him to life, and ultimately to reject life and to choose death. There is nothing his parents can do, any intervention by them pushes him further along the path  of rebellion. The answer that will save him must come from somewhere else.

The language and imagery used throughout the narrative suggest the experience is a religious one. We see this in the description of his childhood conception of his parents, and in the ideas of religious ecstasy, renunciation and martyrdom which are bound up in his withdrawal from life. There is also references to life as a journey, and to adolescence as a dark tunnel. The question throughout is whether he will survive the journey through the tunnel and emerge back into the light.

Also by Alberto Moravia:
Penguin no. 2371: The Fancy Dress Party
Penguin no. 880: The Woman of Rome
Penguin no. 1357: Roman Tales

2 comments:

  1. I don't know this writer at all, so have no background in which to place him, but reading this reminds me of a conference I was at some years ago where we were discussing the difference between the way in which children and young adults are portrayed in books in the UK and in books that stem from continental Europe. Our main conclusion was that UK books tended to always leave some ground for hope, whereas those from continental writers didn't necessarily do that. Although we were concerned with books aimed at children and I suspect that this isn't, I wonder if there isn;t something similar going on here.

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  2. This is the second book I have read by Alberto Moravia, but the last one I read in Rome, and I could go out each evening and see the life described in the book enacted on the streets; it was inevitable that I would love that book. His focus seems to be on characterisation, and analysis of the internal life. I would be interested in a male perspective - is the emotional torment of adolescence described common, or is it specifically Italian, and bound up with what appears to be a family-based culture?

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