ALBERTO MORAVIA (born Alberto Pincherle in Rome in 1907) is one of Italy's foremost living writers. His first novel, The Time of Indifference (1929), was a scandalous success, in part because its portrait of corruption among Roman burghers challenged the Fascist self-image. Mussolini personally cleared Moravia's third novel, The Fancy Dress Party (1941), for publication, only to recognize himself too late in the book's preposterous dictator. Moravia spent part of the war in hiding near Rome. In all he has published more than 20 volumes of fiction, essays, travel books on China and Africa--John Updike rates him "one of the best travel writers in the world"--and film criticism. His own stories have been filmed by Jean-Luc Godard (Contempt) and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist).

As his new novel opens, the narrator, Lucio, finds himself in a despair so profound he doesn't know if he can live with it. Lucio is 27, a budding writer, and a devotee of Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), whose work he studied at a German university. After a brief but splendid career as a writer of antiheroic plays and riddling stories, Kleist committed suicide with his mistress: she had cancer of the uterus, he something like cancer of the id.

As Lucio travels to Capri for a vacation in the summer of 1934, he worries that he will emulate Kleist's ending. But he also thinks it might be possible to stabilize his despair, which he considers normal for the human condition. "What did I mean by 'stabilize'?" he asks. "Somehow, imagining my life as a Nation, to institutionalize despair, recognize it officially, in other words, as a law of that same Nation; all this thanks to an awareness that would allow me to create an unshakable balance between despair and desire." He plans to achieve this awareness by writing a novel about a suicide, using the book as "a lightning rod" for his self-destructive impulse.

An encounter with Beate, a striking, blas,e German redhead, on the boat to Capri causes Lucio to change his plan. Though she is traveling with Alois, her loutish husband, Lucio is convinced that quite soon she will be the love of his life. On the island Lucio takes a room in the same pension as the Germans and trails them. One day he follows the couple to the beach. When they go in for a swim, he is astonished to see that the book Beate has left on a rock is the collected letters of Kleist.

Lucio finally manages to exchange a few words with Beate, who explains that she and Alois are returning to Germany in the morning and that in any event a love affair is impossible. She promises, though, that he'll adore her identical twin Trude, who is available and on the way to Capri with their mother. Lucio begs her to come to his room that night. She agrees on condition that he do a "certain thing" with her--something she's hinted at by leaving the Kleist book for him to find. Back at the pension Lucio comes to the staggering realization that what Beate has in mind is a Kleistian double suicide. As the day wears on, the prospect becomes less terrifying--indeed, all but inevitable.

Beate doesn't keep the rendezvous, but the arrival of Trude--a lusty contrast to her reserved, melancholic twin--distracts Lucio. They make unorthodox love in a rowboat, and she impishly parries his questions about Beate. There is something unnerving about these antipodal twins, and the novel's second half centers on Lucio's efforts to discover what it is. By a quirky turn of events, the outcome hinges on the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler's murderous purge of his storm troopers in Bavaria.

Like many of Moravia's novels, 1934 is suffused with a bleak outlook that finds its apotheosis in Lucio's despair. His terse prose and abstemious narrative technique depict a society bereft of faith, characters stymied by some universal treachery, and a sexuality that serves--with mixed success--as the only mode of escape from listlessness. The Moravian paradox is that his stories proceed with an energy and achieve a shapeliness that belie this desolation.

In Lucio's novel-within-the-novel, he ascribes a political motive to his protagonist's suicide, but Lucio claims that his own suicidal impulse is "pre-political," with the Fascist dictatorship supplying at most an extra reason. Yet despair in the context of Fascism seems not so much normal as endemic. Whatever the origin of its central emotion, 1934 is a masterly novel--suspenseful and disturbing, both complex as a chess-match between peers and limpid as a Sophoclean drama. CAPTION: Picture, Alberto Moravia. Copyright (c) By Jerry Bauer.