Tuesday 15 November 2011

Penguin no. 1357: Roman Tales
by Alberto Moravia

If you are in the habit of flirting with women, it is difficult to realize when the time for that is past and women begin to look upon you as a father or - even worse - a grandfather. It is especially difficult because every middle-aged man has, inside his head, another head: his outer head has wrinkles, grey hair, decayed teeth, lustreless eyes; his inner head, on the other hand, has remained just the same as when he was young, with thick black hair, a smooth face, white teeth, and bright eyes. It is the inner head that looks longingly at women, imagining itself to be visible to them. But of course women see the outer head, and say: 'What does he want, the old scarecrow? Can't he see he's old enough to be my grandfather?'

This is a collection of 19 tales set in the streets, parks, and suburbs of Rome in the years shortly after the Second World War. There are many references familiar to any tourist who has visited the city: the Borghese Gardens, the Piazza del Popolo, the Quirinale, and the streets of Trastevere. The stories are very short, all told in the first person by differing narrators who are working class and male. We know very little about them, usually not even their names; they describe themselves primarily in terms of their occupation and their appearance. Almost all work in poorly paid positions: they are truck drivers, taxi drivers, waiters, gardeners, caretakers; a few are unemployed and living on the threshold of homelessness, and a few are willing to contemplate crime.

In general the stories tell of commonplace events in each narrator's life, sometimes spanning only a single afternoon or evening. Taken together they provide a snapshot of the Roman working class, but they are perhaps even more interesting individually: each is a study of character, a portrayal of a small sample of the diversity of human experience, and an attempt to understand how people think, and why they behave the way they do. The overriding sense is one of unhappiness and loneliness, of people trapped partly by circumstances, and partly by their own character flaws.

These are lives constrained by something which is lacking, sometimes wealth and possessions, and sometimes intelligence, self-discipline, rectitude, physical strength, or attractiveness. They seem in general to be fairly accepting of the smallness of their lives, and they fashion their expectations and desires accordingly. For a while these desires guide every thought and action: the desire is usually for a woman, but where even that dream had been abandoned, it will be replaced by something else which is wanted just as desperately: a pair of shoes, a little peace, a temporary escape. But these tend to be individuals who are ineffective: when they fail to achieve their goal, they simply give up, submit, and continue with their lives of quiet desperation.

Even though the stories are independent, they are bound together by certain themes that recur throughout, reflecting the shared values of the class of people described. In particular, ideas about friendship are explored: the men seem to recognise in it a shared code that regulates behaviour, and brings a requirement for loyalty that exceeds all other concerns. Irrespective of any opposing inclination, a friend never takes the role of a rival, and always assists in any way required. It is a regulation consciously self-imposed, even when the cost is high. But as always there are people who take advantage of another's loyalty. A second theme is the importance of appearance, and the humiliation of being small in stature. Isolation is the price paid for being unattractive, weak, overweight, old or in any way unmanly.

It is a book about people and the isolation of existence more than it is about Rome: many of these characters, and their thoughts and philosophies, are recognisable removed from their Roman context. And for all its bleakness, it is Moravia's ability to articulate so clearly these shared human experiences, such as that in the paragraph given above, that make the book so interesting to read.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 880: The Woman of Rome
Penguin no. 1460: Two Adolescents
Penguin no. 2371: The Fancy Dress Party


  1. Very cool concept for a blog. Love this. I wanted to welcome you to What's in a Name 5. Hope you have fun with it. I hope you can use old Penguins to complete the challenge. That would be great fun.

  2. Karyn Reeves, could you please tell me the name of the translator of the Penguin book (Alberto Moravia - Roman Tales)? Thanks! I've been searching for this quite a bit.

    1. This edition was translated by Angus Davidson

  3. PS to last above. You might know there was also a "more classic" version/s with a cover/s like that of the copies of The Woman of Rome and/or Two Adolescents in the pics above. Just FYI.

  4. Many thanks! Yours crossed my last in cyberspace.



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