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Places of Cycling: The Writer of Rome

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The life of Alberto Moravia was, he said, forged in two periods of adversity. The first was personal: a serious illness suffered in childhood. The second was political: having to endure Fascism in Italy in the 1930s and 1940s. Moravia is one of the great Italian writers of the twentieth century, author of over 30 novels, and, during his later years, a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Born in Rome in 1907, Moravia was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone at the age of nine and was forced to give up conventional schooling. After spending three years in bed at home he moved to a sanatorium near Cortina d’Ampezzo, high in the Dolomites. There he spent a further two years convalescing, time in which he devoured classic literature and developed a love for words. At 21 he published his sensational first novel, Time of Indifference, and so began a lifelong exploration of middle-class morality, marriage, and sex

Alberto Moravia (Alberto Pincherle) reading sitting in his study. Rome, 1961. Angelo Cozzi\Mondadori Portfolio by Getty Images. (Photo: Angelo Cozzi\Mondadori Portfolio by Getty Images)

Just as Moravia’s career was getting into its stride, with positive reviews and sales for his early novels and opportunities to write journalism alongside his fiction, the rise of fascism blocked his path. Mussolini’s regime banned his novels, forcing Moravia to switch to an allegorical style that the censors found harder to punish. During the war, he hid from the Germans, with his wife Elsa Morante, also a successful novelist, in the mountains south of Rome. Politics was present in much of Moravia’s work. In The Woman of Rome, one of his first books after the fall of fascism in Italy, an idealistic young man is interrogated by fascist authorities and betrays his friends, then becomes alienated from his own belief system. Though not overtly politically active himself, Moravia felt that the very act of writing was a political act.

“Writers,” he said, “are concerned with representing . . . a more absolute and complete reality than reality itself. They must if they are to accomplish this, assume a moral position, a clearly conceived political, social, and philosophical attitude; in consequence, their beliefs are, of course, going to find their way into their work. What artists believe, however, is of secondary importance, ancillary to the work itself. A writer survives in spite of his beliefs.”

Free of the threat of censorship, after the war Moravia returned to his original cool, economical style. In books such as Contempt (1954) and Boredom (1960) he skewered the psychological complexities and disillusionment of mid-century consumer society. Several of his books were made into films, most famously Contempt by Jean-Luc Godard in 1963. In later life Moravia traveled widely, always channeling his experiences into his writing, and always returning to Rome. He died there, at home in his apartment on the banks of the Tiber, in September 1990. Alberto Moravia’s life spanned much of the twentieth century, and he was one of its greatest chroniclers.