Alberto Moravia (1907-1990)
Translated from the Italian by Michael F. Moore
The transition into adolescence can bring feelings of confusion and uncertainty, the sudden awareness that one is no longer a child, but not yet an adult: the games played with other children only a short time before feel uninteresting, if not inane, while forays into the adult world leave one struggling to understand rules of behavior that seem complex and arcane. Toss in the suddenly raging hormones, and it’s a wonder anyone makes it through.
In Agostino, author Alberto Moravia tells the story of a thirteen year-old boy abruptly entering this period. The title character’s father has died sometime before the story opens, but his family is well-to-do and so living comfortably; he has no siblings, living alone with his mother. As the novel opens, Agostino and his mother are spending their summer holidays at the sea, where they have their own house near the beach. Extremely close and affectionate, he and his mother spend their days lounging together in the sun, and each morning the two of them take a paddle boat out onto the water, where far from shore they swim and enjoy having the sea to themselves. Agostino looks forward to these daily trips, in which he has his mother all to himself; since the death of his father, Agostino’s mother has turned away any potential suitors, giving Agostino her undivided attention.
This blissful time for Agostino comes to a jarring end in the middle of the summer, however, when his mother suddenly accepts the invitation of a handsome young man to join him for a paddle boat ride. Agostino’s childhood innocence comes crashing down around him as he not only loses the exclusive attention of his mother, but also awakens to the recognition of his mother as a beautiful, desirable woman. Complicating matters, this realization awakens his own sexuality and, more critically, transforms his childish feelings of affection for his mother into a more disquieting direction for him.
Attempting to escape the physical proximity to his mother and so have space to work out these unexpected developments in his feelings, he ends up involved with a group of local boys, mostly older than himself. The boys in the group come from poor, working class families, and their coarseness and roughhousing, precisely the opposite of the children he has known in his life up to this point, both repel and attract him. He finds it difficult, however, to completely assimilate himself into their world of often brutish and thievish behavior. In his desire to achieve manhood, without precisely knowing what that destination entails, he gains little traction from observing either his mother’s world, or that of the group of local boys with whom he hangs out, and gradually becomes unmoored from any point of stability.
The focus of this short but affecting novel remains on Agostino; Moravia only somewhat generically develops the other characters, whether Agostino’s mother, or the group of local boys. Even with Agostino, we learn little or nothing about his past, his interests or his life in general. For Agostino the unexpected break with his childhood occupies him completely, and so also Moravia in telling the story.
In his young, main character, though, Moravia creates someone with whom the reader can empathize. Agostino is not someone you want to take by the shoulders and give a good shake to wake from a whining, self-centered pout. Rather Moravia’s story highlights the quite real complications of adolescence, and the loss of innocence that growing up entails. Any sensitive soul who has questioned their place among humanity when confronting the ugly and inhumane behavior sometimes present in the world will identify with Agostino’s feelings, when, out on a boat ride with the boys where he is the butt of their nasty jokes and coarse behavior, he realizes that
[his] sense of oppression and silent pain was made more bitter and unbearable by the fresh wind on the sea and the magnificent blazing of the sunset over the violet waters. He found it utterly unjust that on such a sea, beneath such a sky, a boat like theirs should be so full of spite, cruelty and malicious corruption. [It] created between sea and sky a sad unbelievable vision. There were moments he hoped it would sink. He thought he would gladly die, so infected did he feel by their impurity and so ruined.(66)
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