The poet and critic Randall Jarrell once defined the novel as “a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” By contrast, a novella — or nouvelle or novelette or short novel — can be perfect. To use a musical analogy, it’s a tightly structured string quartet rather than a loose and expansive symphony. In 75 to 150 pages, an author can exercise precise control over every element in his narrative and yet still have room to explore the inner lives and tensions among a small number of characters, usually no more than three or four. The novella thus permits a scope and richness that make short stories seem almost thin, little more than anecdotes or plots built around a single, short, sharp shock.
In another life, I taught courses in the short novel, regularly adjusting the syllabus because there were so many wonderful examples from which to choose. Just call to mind such masterpieces as James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” Benjamin Constant’s “Adolphe,” Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” Katherine Anne Porter’s “Noon Wine,” Camilo José Cela’s “The Family of Pascual Duarte” and, not least, Alberto Moravia’s “Agostino,” published in Italian in 1944 and now available in an excellent new translation by Michael F. Moore.
Set in a seaside town in Italy during summer, “Agostino” focuses on a 13-year-old boy and addresses the loss of childhood innocence and the confusions of growing up. Since most of its action takes place on the sand and water, it’s a beach book of sorts, albeit a very carnal and European one. The nakedness of skin, the revealing look of wet bathing suits, the rocking motions of small boats — every page feels sunbeaten, overheated, sexualized.
When the book opens, Agostino and his widowed mother — a little civilization of two — have been coming regularly to Speranza beach to enjoy the sun and a daily paddle on a boat called a pattino. Agostino adores his mamma and is proud to be in the company of this beautiful woman, the cynosure of all eyes.
One morning, though, “the mother was under the beach umbrella, and Agostino, sitting on the sand next to her, was awaiting the hour when they usually went for their row. All at once a shadow obstructed the sunlight shining down on him: Looking up, he saw a tanned, dark-haired young man extending a hand to his mother. . . . Pointing toward the shore at the white pattino he’d arrived on, he invited the mother to accompany him on a boat ride out to sea. Agostino was sure she would turn down the invitation, like the many others that had preceded it. Much to his surprise, he saw her readily accept, gathering her things — sandals, bathing cap, and bag — and jumping to her feet. She had welcomed the young man’s proposal with the same friendly and spontaneous ease that characterized her relations with her son. And with the same ease and spontaneity, she turned to Agostino, who had remained seated with his head bowed, intent on the sand sifting through his clenched fist, and told him to go ahead and have a swim by himself; she was going for a short ride and would be back in a little while.”
The next day, the young man reappears. And the next. Before long, Agostino comes to feel that he is losing his beloved mother, that she has somehow betrayed him. So one morning he takes off down the beach, where he encounters a gang of tough, brutal urchins. Their leader, however, appears to be an unsettling, middle-aged lifeguard named Saro. The boys cruelly tease Agostino, whom they nickname Pisa, and even speak openly about his mother:
“ ‘His mother is pretty,’ an admiring voice said, ‘the best-looking woman on the beach. Homs and me, we snuck under her cabin to see her getting undressed. . . . ’
“ ‘Her husband’s never around,’ a third voice remarked.
“ ‘Don’t worry. She knows how to console herself. You know who she’s doing it with? That guy from Villa Sorriso . . . the dark-haired one. He comes to pick her up every day with his boat.’ ”
Given such insulting talk, Agostino “felt as if he should object, but these uncouth jokes aroused in him an unexpected, almost cruel feeling of pleasure, as if the boys had unknowingly avenged through their words all the humiliations that his mother had inflicted on him lately.”
Later that afternoon, Agostino himself spies on his mother as she undresses in her bedroom. “She wasn’t naked, as he had almost sensed and hoped while entering, but rather partly undressed and in the act of removing her necklace and earrings in front of the mirror.” Shortly afterward, he tries to understand his new feelings. “He couldn’t say why he wanted so much to stop loving his mother, why he hated her love. Perhaps it was his resentment at being deceived and at having believed her to be so different from what she really was. Perhaps, since he couldn’t love her without difficulty and insult, he preferred not to love her at all and to see her instead as merely a woman. He instinctively tried to free himself once and for all from the burden and shame of his former innocent, betrayed affection, which he now saw as little more than naivete and foolishness. This was why the same cruel attraction that had made him stop and stare at his mother’s back a few minutes earlier was now compelling him to seek out the brutal and humiliating company of the boys. Wasn’t their irreverent talk — like his glimpse of her nudity — a way to destroy the filial condition he now found so repellent?”
The gang, meawhile, derides Agostino as a sissy, especially after he is subjected to a homosexual advance, and the young boy grows increasingly unhappy. “He found that he had lost his original identity without acquiring through his loss another.” Incestuously imprinted on his mother, Agostino resolves to break free of her image, as well as discredit the belief in his homosexuality, by using his piggy-bank savings to pay for a visit to a brothel. Just as certain aspects of Moravia’s novella recall Louis Malle’s film “Murmur of the Heart,” so its climax echoes the ironic last chapter of Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education.”
One of Italy’s greatest 20th-century novelists, Alberto Moravia (1907-1990) seems somewhat forgotten these days or only remembered for the several classic films made from his books, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” (Brigitte Bardot’s finest performance) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist.” Yet Moravia’s short novels remain powerful reading experiences, exploring class and sexual tensions, probing artistic ambition and existential angst. That he writes in a clean, spare style makes his fiction all the more inviting. Besides “Agostino,” New York Review Books has also reissued Moravia’s “Contempt” and “Boredom,” while in 2007 Other Press brought out the little masterpiece “Conjugal Love.” These are all books for grown-ups — even this tale of a troubled 13-year-old and his lonely mother.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Alberto Moravia
Translated from the Italian by Michael F. Moore
New York Review Books. 111 pp. Paperback, $14