Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 29, 2018

‘Agostino’ from Two Adolescents, by Alberto Moravia, translated by Beryl de Zoete

I read this book for Italian Lit Month at Winston’s Dad, just scraping in on the second-last day of the month!

Alberto Moravia, 1982 (Wikipedia, see attribution below)

As you can see from my battered 1960 Penguin edition of Two Adolescents this book has been around for quite a while.   The price on the front cover is four shillings, but I picked it up in an Op Shop for 20c over a decade ago.  There’s no introduction, only a profile of Alberto Moravia on the back cover, and a blurb for the two short stories Agostino and Disobedience on the inside cover.  (The blurb calls them novels but at 83 and 113 pages respectively, they barely qualify as novellas).

Wikipedia amplifies the profile supplied by Penguin.  Moravia (1907-1990) was born into a middle class professional family in Rome, but suffered ill health from the time he was nine years old.  Confined to bed with TB of the bone, he became a bookish child, learning French and German and reading everything from Boccaccio to Dostoevsky; James Joyce to Shakespeare; and Molière, Gogol and Mallarmé.  After he left the sanatorium aged 18, he wrote his first novel Gli indifferenti (Time of Indifference), which was published in 1929.  Wikipedia describes this novel as typical of Moravia’s themes: a realistic analysis of the moral decadence of a middle-class mother and two of her children. 

He became a foreign correspondent but fell foul of the authorities under fascism and his books were banned. It was not until Rome was liberated in 1944 that he was able to resume writing under his own name.  He became popular and prolific, and he won various awards and was considered a contender for the Nobel Prize.

Wikipedia tells me that:

Moral aridity, the hypocrisy of contemporary life and the inability of people to find happiness in traditional ways such as love and marriage are the regnant themes in the works of Alberto Moravia. Usually, these conditions are pathologically typical of middle-class life…

This certainly seems to be true of Agostino (banned in 1941).  Agostino is a naïve middle-class 13-year old boy on holiday with his mother at a coastal resort.  (It’s not named, but it’s probably Capri because that’s where he was when he wrote the story).  He adores his mother, who is a tall, beautiful woman, and when they go boating together he feels a sense of pride each time he set out with her.

When they were some way from the shore his mother would tell him to stop rowing, put on her rubber bathing cap, take off her sandals, and slip into the water.  Agostino would follow her.  They swam round and round the empty raft with its floating oars, talking gaily together, their voices ringing clear in the silence of the calm, sunlit sea.

The have races together, and diving competitions where Agostino indulges his growing awareness of his mother’s body watching as it sinks beneath the surface, but despite his fascination he always obeys her when she tells him to turn away so that she can sunbathe in the nude.

However, the innocence of his intimacy with her is shattered by two contrasting experiences.  Firstly, a rival turns up, in the form of a handsome young man who inveigles his way into an intimacy that is even greater.  And secondly Agostino works off his feelings of having been supplanted in his mother’s affections by making the acquaintance of some rough young locals who scornfully explain to him what his mother is doing with the young man.   Always the outsider in their group because of class differences, Agostino is mocked and bullied and beaten up, but he keeps coming back for more because he feels alienated from his mother – who is so preoccupied with her love affair that she has no idea what’s going on.

Agostino is particularly offended by the transformation in his mother.  She changes from a dignified, elegant and mature woman into a silly, giggly, flirt and even the boy can see that the young man is enjoying his dominance over her.  At the same time, Agostino is curious about sexuality, and – offended by the other boys’ teasing that he has been more than a companion to Saro, the creepy Fagin-like character who is always around – he decides to try out the prostitutes he’s heard about.  This is just one of the occasions when the narrative generates fear about the risks this boy takes…

Photo attribution: Alberto Moravia, 1982, by Paolo Monti – Available in the BEIC digital library and uploaded in partnership with BEIC Foundation.  The image comes from the Fondo Paolo Monti, owned by BEIC and located in the Civico Archivio Fotografico of Milan., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48078570

Author: Alberto Moravia
Title: Two Adolescents (comprising Agostino and Disobedience)
Translated by Beryl de Zoete
Publisher: Penguin, 1960, Agostino first published in 1944, and in translation in 1947.
ISBN: none
Source: Personal library, Op Shop find for 20c.

Available from Fishpond in a 2014 NYRB edition with an introduction by Michael F. Moore: Agostino


Responses

  1. Have not read this particular novel. But discovered Moravia in my 20’s and what an awakening.
    Thanks again Lisa for your insightful and enjoyable reviews.

    • Thanks, Fay… I’m reading Disobedience now too, and it’s even better so far.
      I have The Conformist somewhere on my shelves too… one day soon, eh?

  2. Another writer of whom I have never heard. The things mothers do to sons!

    • Oh come on, she’s a healthy young widow… why shouldn’t she have a holiday romance!

      • I have no objections to sex, or nude sunbathing, of both of which I have dim memories. But not by mothers in front of their sons.

  3. […] was Two Adolescents by the Italian author Alberto Moravia.  The book consists of two stories, ‘Agostino’ and ‘Disobedience‘ written during and just after Mussolini’s dictatorship and […]


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