Shuttling around Washington in a limo -- from TV stations to radio studios to the newsroom of a great metropolitan newspaper -- Alberto Morayia gives a quick, crisp, cryptic analysis of life on the road promoting his 21st volume of fiction: "I am living among symbols."

If anything, at 72, Morvia himself is a symbol -- a character whose name conjures up steamy, quasi-pornographic literature redeemed by hanging under the banner of art. His "Woman of Rome," published in 1950, was the quintessential hot novel for high-school and college boys coping with the Eisenhower era. Vittorio De Sica's film version of his novel -- "Two Women" -- established the young Sophia Loren as an international sex symbol. And most recently in the Italian netherworld of Abbruzzi, the very same judge who labeled "Last Tango in Paris" smut declared that Moravia's new novel "Time of Desecration" was offensive enough to be banned in the land of la dolce vita.

Moravia, whom Time Magazine has called "as much a part of Rome life as traffic," seems terribly unaffected by all this.

"You can still find the book in many Italian stores," he says. "I think the police are wise enough to know they have more important things to attend to."

His fiction is filled with the strangely despairing view of Italian life that Americans have come to know through the films of Michelangelo Antonioni: the boredom that symbolizes political festering; the erotica that conveys an endless series of false havens.

"I was he says, "really the first existential novelist. My first book was published 10 years before the work of Camus or Sartre."

In person, Moravia seems less a symbol than a paradox -- anything but the torrid chronicler of eros. He does not display the demonic countenance of, say, a James Joyce, with whom he is frequently compared. He does not emanate the sensuous lust for life that drips from the screen in the films of his good friend Bernardo Bertolucci, who turned Moravia's "The Conformist" into a movie."

Moravia seems at most like a wise old college professor -- even outfitted in blue jeans, a blue shirt, red tie, tan corduroy jacket and suede desert boots. He walks with a pronounced hobble that he says come from spending five years between the ages of 9 and 17 confined to bed by a case of TB that atrophied his hip.

It was while lying in a sanitarium, at the age of 11, that Moravia discovered what would become the great passion of his life: the written word. As he read through Dostoevski's "Crime and Punishment," he could hear an inner voice speaking to him about literature, just as the protagonists of his two most recent novels hear voices that move them to action.

He also realized -- he recalls it happening at the age of 10 -- that there would be no salvation for him in the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic faith held dear by most Italians.

"Even at the age," he says, "I became an agnostic.The Catholic Church takes away all mystery, and I was too fond of the mysterious to give it up."

He had no formal schooling. His father was an architect who built what he calls "comfortable houses for rich people." But he was perplexed by the immensity of this grand undertaking, the building of a house. He was threatened even by the prospect of a rigorous education. So he decided to concentrate on what he believed could be his only true salvation, the solitary craft he was convinced he could conquer: the commitment to paper of the voices he heard his characters speaking within his mind.

"You get a view of a book based on a vague perception," he says in the clear but halting English that he first used in 1935 when as a young man he moved to New York for a year to flee Mussolini's fascism. "You guess at the character. You have an intuition of a character existing in a void, a character you must bring into the world. It is actually through the process of writing the novel that the character voices his own concerns about the theme. It is a strange, elusive thing, this business of hearing characters. Sometimes you want to change one and it just won't change. Other times you look for an old one and he's vanished -- or he even dies before you can finish him. You never really understand what you write until long after it is written."

And he adds this, ever the lonely existentialist man adrift in a sea of madness:

"A book always says much more than the writer intended to say. This is part of the mystery of the craft."

Moravia is still a mentally agile witty man. He rises each day at 6 in the Roman home on the Tiber River that he shares with his second wife, Descia Maraini, a 43-year-old feminist novelist, poet and theater director. He left his first wife -- novelist Elsa Morante who wrote the best-selling "La Storia" -- after 25 years of what he calls "happy marriage,"

"Marriage is like a flower," he says. "Sometimes it dies."

He writes every day from 8 to noon. Sometimes he works on his new novel about Germans living in Italy in 1934. Other days he writes his fortnightly piece of literary criticism or short fiction for the prestigious Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera. He also writes a weekly film review for the magazine L'Espresso -- whose views he describes as "liberial chic" -- as he has done since 1950.

"I did not like "The Godfather,'" he says. "It was much too pessimistic, And Coppola's next film, 'Apocalypse Now,' was even worse. Marlon Brando was like a cross between Benito Mussolini and a big piece of cheese."

Oddly enough, Moravia affects a presence not unlike Brando in "The Godfather": 'is hair is elegantly balding; his eyebrows fluff out; his jaw exhibits the kind of brutal immediacy that Brando achieved by stuffing his upper and lower gum with orange peels; and his hoarse, hesitating English echoes the immigrant vocal mannerism of Don Corleone.

There is also in Moravia the wonder the elderly Don Corleone exuded while playing with his grandchild in the backyard tomato patch.

"I like to visit places like Tahiti and Nepal," he says. "Sometimes I just like to sit and stare at the ceiling or go for a long walk. I like to read the work of anybody but myself."

He is constantly perplexed, he says, by critics who read what he considers too much sociology into his work.

"Sociology is a false science," he says. "If you go deep into reality these days, you must meet Freud. That's why, in Italian, the title of my new book is, "The Interior Life."

In Time magazine last week, R. Z. Sheppard explained the book in this way:

"Viola is a rich, American-born Italian who yearns to make love to her adopted teen-age daughter while being sodomized by the family business adviser. Translation: international capitalism and/or the bourgeoisie without social roots and responsibilities are oral and anal eroticists seeking to relieve their anxieties with kinks and the false security of filthy lucre."

"It is a wrong interpretation," says Moravia, sitting in the back of the limo. "I only create characters, never an analysis of society. They read all these things into my work. It is incredible, but I suppose no more incredible than society itself. Some things are hard to comprehend."

Consider this existential epiphany in 1971 at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago, where Hugh Hefner was hosting a huge party for many of his friends and writers -- including the immortal eroticist, Alberto Moravia.

In the midst of this undulating mass of bunny flesh and silk pajamas, Moravia skulks off alone to Hefner's game room, where he is glimpsed amid the electronic gadgetry of modern, carefree man.

He is alone, sitting with his head in his hands beneath a a life-size figure of a cowboy firing an electronic six-gun.