WHETHER IT self-consciously invokes ideas or whether it whistles along, blithely mindless, fiction -- all fiction, high and low -- is about thinking. Of course the thought it encodes is rarely discursive. It is intuitive, narrative and above all sensuous; it is thought in much the same sense that a dream is thought. The stories in Alberto Moravia's Erotic Tales think -- like dreams -- about sex.

For good or ill, Moravia is Italy's senior man of letters at present. He is also an artist who is an intellectual and a rather politically inclined intellectual at that, a member of the European Parliament ("to help make . . . people aware of the possibility of anuclear end of the world") and an inveterate commentator on European politics. I last saw him at New York University during the late '70s, very much the silver-haired, high-genteel grand gentleman of Europe, addressing an assembly of intellectual conferees in an elegantly Italianate English, not on eros but the assassination of Aldo Moro. Moravia's remarks were cutting, considered, slow, hard- headed, and in their dry way, almost ostentatiously humane. They were about the link between political terror and the imagination, the erotic aspect of which is something of a Moravia specialty, as readers of his work from Two Women to the recent Time of Desecration will recall. He does not have a very happy view of what human beings do in the grip of need -- or the desire for power -- and now that the grand gentleman of Europe has produced his seemingly non-political Erotic Tales, it will come as no surprise that they are about a number of hings, mainly unpleasant, beyond mere desire.

They're a bit like mere desire itself in that respect. The stories are of course about wishing, wanting and (mainly not) having; they are also about guilt, domination, damnation, obsession, power, and self-surrender. They are not, I regret to say, particularly engaged with anything that might be called having fun, or for that matter even having pleasure. But more of that later. Sustained by Moravia's tone of genteel non-judgmental intelligence, they traffic in devils and fetishes and black ecstasies, and unfold in a haunted rhythm that turns them into dream stories.

Now, the successful creation of a dream state on the page, despite a lot of very silly talk on the subject, is very difficult to accomplish and very rarely done. But Moravia is wonderfully skilled. I can't think of any recent prose that so effectively catches dream- state: the oneiric trance, the uncanny link between strangeness and the familiar, and the true dream rhythm.

THIS IS a world of desire as dream and dream as a code for a nightmarish real life. Here people make love to horses, sell their souls (in two stories at least) to devils, and chase girls dressed as death across the Piazza San Marco. In "The Thing" an amiable Lesbian -- serenely disdainful of the "normal" world's harsh nasty phallic tyranny (that's "the thing") -- visiting a friend in another female couple, finds herself hypnotically drawn, like some Sapphic Alice, into an all- female anti-Wonderland of bestiality, domination, and a paradoxical inverted phallus worship. In "Even the Devil Can't Save the World," a nuclear physicist sells his soul to the devil, who is cleverly disguised as a saucy schoolgirl without underpants. In "The Woman in Black," a man who had been able to find satisfaction only in a quite special routine with his late wife goes looking for a substitute, and when he finds his wish come true, all cloaked in black, perversely fails to keep their rendezvous.

We are also, I am afraid, never far from the darker side of the phallic preoccupation. True, in a gentle tale called "To The Unknown God," the ruling bleakness seems to give way before a decorous account of a shy virginal nurse who consoles herself and her male patients with a mild inoffensive intimacy (just one sweet little squeeze through the sheets as she makes her rounds) -- until the story ends with a patient dead in his bed and the nurse in flight and despair. While the point of view is thoroughly cosmopolitan, it is also, not surprisingly, very masculine and Italian. The sense of damnation is quite specifically Catholic; virginity is a major trope and trouble; and even in "The Thing," a story with an all-female cast ("they were more than ever worshipers of the member . . . " though beyond "even the blind, brutal humanity of male aggression") feels to me as if written from a male point of view. The politics of the stories are much engaged in the question of masculine domination, but the perspective is not in the least feminist, I suppose because Moravia's view is really too dark for feminism's innate progressivism. All is lost, and in advance -- as in "Even the Devil Can't Save the World," where even the temptress is really male, the heavy-breathing but disguised Satanic Adversary himself.

YET FOR ALL the sex, the stories are too genteel to be urgent. And as anyone knows who's listened to other people's dreams over breakfast, their very mystery can grow dull. The stories in Erotic Tales either work or they don't, and when they don't, they are really quite yawnsome. Despite odd lapses, "The Thing" is a minor but haunting erotic tour de force. Meanwhile, some of the best things in the book are the very concentrated (four to five pages), little emblematic tales in the back of the book -- something like the very Freudian, impressive "What Use Have I Got for a Carnival" (that's the one where the guy chases the girl across the Piazza San Marco). I especially liked a story (really more political than sexual, linked to the days of '70s terror in Italy) called "In My Dream I Always Hear a Step on the Stairs."

The general view is fastidious, mildly beguiled, and thoroughly pessimistic. Nobody ever has any fun at all, or even much plain pleasure. One begins to yearn for just a little humor. As in a dream, Moravia's characters are always in the grip of some welling erotic something that fills their supine minds with an obsession beyond their power and certain to spell disaster. At best, like the Sapphic Alice in "The Thing," they escape the lethal fetishistic Red Queen and return to a life of some equilibrium, some decency. Some, not much. In Moravia's world -- at least what he shows us here -- there is no such thing as sexual liberty, leave aside fulfullment. I wouldn't want to live -- God knows -- in a world where love, dreamed or undreamed, really was what Moravia says it is. Happily, I don't believe it is. But these stories are dark warnings.