Translated by Lydia Holland
(Steerforth Italia)Alberto Moravia, Bertolt Brecht, and Jean Genet are of a family. They all came out of the violence of WWII. They turn proletariat ethics on its head with their heroes --- pimps, whores, hustlers, and murderers. Genet's virtues were thievery, treachery, and sodomy. Brecht's main characters were small-time thieves and grifters. Moravia's city is peopled with pretenders, murderers, corrupt officials, and prostitutes.
A Woman of Rome is a re-issue of the 1949 novel of the life of a woman in the streets of Rome. When we first meet Adriana, she is a poor sixteen-year-old, modelling for various artists.
One weekend two friends take her, along with the high official, Astarita, to a small fishing village. They eat, and then, with methodical scheming, get Adriana into bed with the police chief. On their journey home,
I felt Astarita's hand brush against mine and noticed he was trying to put something into it, a piece of paper, perhaps. I imagined that he had scribbled something to me because he did not dare to address me, but when I glanced down I saw that it was a banknote folded in four.
The insult implicit in this is mitigated immediately:
The feeling I experienced at that moment bewildered me and, no matter how or when I have received money from men since, I have never again experienced it so clearly and so intensely. It was a feeling of complicity and sensual conspiracy such as none of Aristartia's caresses in the restaurant bedroom had been about to rouse in me. It was a feeling of inevitable subjection that showed me in a flash an aspect of my own nature I had ignored until then. I knew, of course, that I ought to refuse the money, but at the same time I wanted to accept. And not so much from greed, as from the new kind of pleasure that this offering had afforded me.
Moravia places not only money but the sensual pleasure of money into the hands of a girl who --- heretofore --- had lived off the pittance she made modelling:
I slipped the note from my right hand into my left. I felt strangely thrilled, my face was burning and my breathing labored. If Astarita had been capable of guessing my feelings at that moment, he might have imagined I loved him. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
§ § §
This is the beginning, and quickly Adriana develops a sensuality designed to please her clients. But it is one that carries her beyond the usual passion in bed, into a lovemaking which, at times, can subsume a whole room:
The floor was covered with rugs and in the middle of the room stood the table with the carafe. I stretched myself out on the rugs, my head and breasts under the table; then I pulled Gino down by one arm, forcing him to lie reluctantly on top of me. I threw my head back, shutting my eyes, and the ancient smell of dust and fluff in the carpet seemed as sweet and intoxicating as if I were lying in a field in springtime and the smell was the scent of flowers and grass, not dirty wool.
In her lover's guise, she becomes as a piece of furniture --- providing the ultimate pleasure for her love:
Gino lay on me and his weight made me feel the delightful hardness of the floor, and I was happy because he did not feel it and my body was his bed...
And yet...here is another passage with the same student Gino, the Gino she loves despite or because of the fact that he is distant, cold, unemotional, always analyzing, always analyzing. His icy personality has captured her; yet it leads, too, into a despair of ultimate fantasy --- one that takes the reader into one of the most gorgeous passages in all of contemporary literature:
He got in the bed beside me. I turned toward him to embrace him, but he pushed me away wordlessly and curled himself up on the edge of the bed with his back to me. This gesture filled me with bitterness and I, too, hunched myself up, waiting for sleep with a widowed spirit. But I began to think about the sea again and was overcome by the longing to drown myself. I imagined it would be only a moment's suffering, and then my lifeless body would float from wave to wave beneath the sky for ages. The gulls would peck at my eyes, the sun would burn my breast and belly, the fish would gnaw at my back. At last I would sink to the bottom, would be dragged head downward toward some icy, blue current that would carry me along the sea bed for months and years among submarine rocks, fish, and seaweed, and the floods of limpid saltwater would wash my forehead, my breast, my belly, my legs, slowly wearing away my flesh, smoothing and refining me continually. And at last some wave, someday, would cast me up on some beach, nothing but a handful of fragile, white bones. I liked the idea of being dragged to the bottom of the sea by my hair. I liked the idea of being reduced one day to a little heap of bones, without human shape, among the clean stones of a shore. And perhaps someone without noticing it would walk on my bones and crush them to white powder. With these sad, voluptuous thoughts I finally fell asleep.
§ § §
Adriana is a whore, and she is a good one. She tells us that early on, "I had taken up a very hard profession --- the simulation of passionate love for men who actually roused the most contrary feelings in me..." She tells us the way she accomplished what every prostitute must accomplish with every man --- that is, satisfying them, despite her own feelings: "I quickly learned to pick out at first glance the one good or pleasing aspect in each man that would make intimacy bearable."
Moravia has magically created a woman with an enveloping personality, one that makes her assume good in those who are least good. By this means, Moravia paints her almost as a saintly figure, one who can say to herself, when finding out that her first love is cheating on her,
I suppose he had been weak rather than wicked, carried away as he was by desire, and that the fault, if fault there was, lay with my beauty, which made men lose their heads and forget all their scruples and obligations.
We've all heard the cliché of the saintly whore with the heart of gold. In the hands of Moravia, it stops being a cliché, takes another form. She pulls all men into her, sees them all with a dispassionate warmth that leads us to believe that perhaps she is one of the divine, a Mary Magdelaine, the Sweet Mother of Jesus, our Lady of the Streets. Her forgiveness is what sets her apart; no, better --- it is her clear ability not to judge those who deceive and steal from society, or, at times, from her.
§ § §
And what scoundrels they are! Gino --- her true love --- is a radical student during Mussolini's reign, busying his days with secret meetings and pamphlets --- but the moment he gets caught by the police, with little remorse, he turns traitor, reveals the names of all his co-conspirators.
And why not, she says. What's wrong with treachery? Should a whore, or a whore's gigolo, be a man of virtue? In the midst of a political upheaval where the thieves and murderers are entrenched at the top of the state, can we have any value system at all? If a political system ennobles the least virtuous, then where does that leave virtue?
Adriana is just joining the crusade. Her first act of thievery, like the first moment she receives money for making love with a man, gives her a "sensual pleasure."
I had a feeling of discovery, rather than of temptation --- now I could do anything, even steal. I opened my bag and put the compact into it; being heavy it slipped right down into the bottom among my loose change and keys. In taking it, I felt a kind of sensual pleasure, not unlike the sensation accepting money from my lovers caused me...I seemed to be obeying the logic that now governed the course of my life. I thought I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.
The Woman of Rome might have been subtitled "The Education of a Woman." And it is an education that has no limits. She finds out that one lover has beaten a man to death:
Sonzogno seemed to have transferred to me his hatred of his victim and I was not even sure that I condemned him. I actually seemed to understand what had happened so well that I felt I, too, might have been capable of the same crime. How well I understood his phrase: He said something to me that made me lose my patience!...I understood him so well, I had penetrated into him so thoroughly, that not only did I no longer fear him, but I even felt a kind of horrified attraction for him...
"Aren't you sorry?" I asked. "Don't you regret it?"
"It's done now," he replied.
I looked at him intently and was surprised to find myself nodding my head in approval at his reply.
This is the man with whom, earlier, in the moment of sexual excitation,
I experienced a moment of acute, anguish, one of the worst of my life. Fear stiffened my limbs, which drew back and shuddered uncontrollably at the contact of his peculiarly smooth, sinuous, writhing body; but at the same time I told myself it was ridiculous to be afraid of him at such a time, and I tried with all the strength of my mind to overcome my fear and give myself to him fearlessly like a cherished lover. My fear lay not so much in my limbs, which still did as I bid them no matter how reluctantly, but more intimately in the depths of my womb, which seemed to close and reject his touch with horror. At last he took me and I felt a pleasure made black and atrocious by fear. I could not restrain a long, wailing cry in the dark, as if the final embrace had been the embrace of death, not of love, and that cry the cry of my life departing from me, leaving behind a tortured, spent body.
Moravia knows the heart of women as acutely as Flaubert or Tolstoi. As with Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Memoirs of a Geisha, one wonders how a man --- I almost said "a mere man" --- can penetrate, and penetrate so deeply, the heart of woman.
It's not mere knowledge. The author has incorporated in his world the soul of women, he has become woman --- and in this transformation, he makes Adriana such that we, too, become her. At the same time, the men he creates are perfect. We should think of Moravia as a chess master, one who not only plays beautifully, but carves the various pieces as well: Gino the small-time thief and chauffeur, Sonzogno the hood, with his " muscles of steel," Giacomo the intellectual student revolutionary, Astarita the police official. All of them are swept up by this whore, all reacting to her in a different way, all smitten by her, all destroyed by her.
Since she is so young --- sixteen when we first meet her --- we get to grow into her new life as she does. It's a bildungsroman for a woman of the streets, and it's a heart-stopper for the rest of us. For instance, I remember thinking, when I got to page 370, "What a pickle she's got us into!" Sonzongo is looking to kill her because he thinks she ratted on him to the police; Gino is hiding out in her apartment because his revolutionary activities which might well get the both of them killed; the police chief might do them all in, or save them all, depending on his whim. And I am so involved in her life that I am thinking, "I don't want to read any further, it's too agonizing." Then, "I can't stop." And I go on. All night.
Moravia is one of those writers we've heard about all of our lives. You're always meaning to read him if you get a chance but you don't get a chance. Then Steerforth Italia reissues this one and there I am, stuck someplace, and it's the only book I brought along in the book bag --- so I start in, reluctantly, reading it and soon enough I forget where I am, who I am, why I am what I think I am, for now I am her.
There are writers who know their characters and then there are writers who get inside their characters and turn them inside out for you and the writing is so powerful that you think that maybe the author is a worm, a heart worm, one that burrows into the deepest part of woman-soul. And since, as in this case, he's a natural story teller, such a good one --- you don't want it to end; but the plot is so hairy, so fraught with disaster, and you find yourself not wanting these people to get hurt, even the cads; but, then again, they are hell-bent on getting hurt, for it's life; and like life, there is pleasure and greed and love and despair and scheming and stealing and whoring --- all of which can come to no good. And at the end, you say Whew! And you want to turn around and read the whole goddamn thing all over again.
--- Carlos Amantea