Is Alberto Moravia a writer obsessed by appearances, and more especially beauty and ugliness? The Empty Canvas focused on an artist's fascination with a model whom he could finally only understand from the outside, while in The Conformist the central character organises his life in such a way as to hide his homosexual inclinations: he wants to appear normal and conformist to all around him - hence sharing the fascination with appearances of Fascist Italy where superficial presentation was all.
What concerns us here though is chiefly Moravia's preoccupation in the story collection Italian Tales with one's physical attractiveness or unattractiveness, and in relation to one's social status, one's chances in love and even in relation to luck. At the start of 'Poor Fish', we're informed "people never know very much about who they are, nor about who is inferior to them and who superior. As for me, I went too far in the direction of thinking myself inferior to everybody." The narrator goes on to describe his looks: "I am small, crooked, rickety, my arms and legs are like sticks...I have a narrow, yellow face, eyes of an indefinite, dirty colour, and a nose that seems to have been made for a face twice as broad as mine." In 'Silly Old Fool', the narrator insists that "...it must be observed at this point that I, without wishing to boast, can claim to be a handsome man. I am thin, of just the right height, with a pale strong face; and women say that I have an interesting expression." In 'The Caretaker' the narrator also offers self-appraisal, but this time in comparison to someone striking. "I look boorish, he looked like a gentlemen; he was handsome, very tall, dark and strong, whereas I am ugly. I am not attractive to women, whereas he had as many as he liked." In 'The Nose' the narrator describes someone else: "Adversity was written on his brow...By his nose especially you could see he was doomed to bad luck - a nose like the clapper of a bell, crooked, livid, with a lump at the end, surmounted by an ugly brown mole." Moravia is a biological determinist here of a certain type. This has nothing to do with D.N.A. fundamentals, but instead the role one can expect to play in social life on the basis of the appearance one has been given.
However, Moravia isn't always interested in conventional narrative determinism; rather he is sometimes interested in the ironically deterministic. In 'Silly Old Fool', the man who admires his own looks realises he is no longer young when he is on his way to a date with a youthful work colleague Iole and someone calls him "a silly old fool". Silly and fool are simply insults that could be applied to anybody, "but the word 'old' is a self-evident truth." By the end of the story, though, the young woman whom he assumed, after the insult damages his confidence, would no longer be interested, decides to marry a work colleague even older than the narrator. The good-looking narrator is still a man who can get the women; he merely goes through a brief crisis where he thinks he cannot.
All the stories in the collection are written in the first person, so it means that many of the physical descriptions are offered as self-appraisals, with the characters summing up their own place in the physical hierarchy. The irony of 'Silly Old Fool'resides in the narrator thinking he is too old for a younger woman while the problem is more his misplaced vanity. It is clear he is no longer a young man, but it doesn't follow that a younger woman wouldn't any longer be interested in him; he has only to adjust to no longer being youthfully attractive.
Moravia's stories are very much what the title indicates: they are tales. They end with a narrative resolution even if we may often muse over aspects of the stories that aren't developed. 'Silly Old Fool' settles for the immediate irony of a man losing his sexual confidence and regaining it again when he hears his colleague is marrying a man older still. After the silly old fool comment, and after the meeting with Iole goes disastrously wrong, "that day I swore I would never look at Iole again, nor at any other woman." After hearing of Iole's engagement, though, he noticed that "as I went along, that I was beginning to look at women again, as I had in the past; and to look at them singly, one by one, both from the front and the back." Moravia doesn't especially problematise the tale's implications: the sense of entitlement an older man might feel in relation to having younger women is left untouched. The irony rests on the narrator thinking he is over the hill and the story concluding that he can still keep climbing. There is little to indicate that Moravia has thought through the troublesome sub-texts of his argument: that maybe the narrator should accept there is a problem with an older man constantly making passes at young women, or that actually the respite he is given when he sees that Iole will marry an older man will result in still greater delusions in the years to come. Moravia ironises the story but doesn't problematise it. The narrator isn't deluded into thinking he can have younger women; he is deluded when he thinks he can't. It is as though shallow irony meets the tale with a twist: the crisis is not that of someone who must reassess his life as a formerly good-looking man no longer appealing to women, but as one who sees his confidence mildly and so easily knocked.
The sense that Moravia is telling tales rather than exploring stories could be said of many of the pieces in the collection. This may partly concern length - with almost all the stories running to around seven pages - but is hardly exclusive to it. Borges and Carver are great short story writers who can problematise within a page: 'Borges and I' and 'Little Things'are fine examples. Moravia though seems to want to tell tales here that remain within the realm of shallow irony, and so the significance lies in the first person telling and the ongoing concern with physical appearance. The pieces are interesting not as developed stories, but as brief episodes on bodily self-worth, and of the worth of others.
Now many writers would if writing in the first person make the revelation of the narrator's appearance dramatic. A character would turn round and tell the narrator he is losing his hair, or that he has bit of a belly. The narrator might look in the mirror, catch his image in a shop window, or see a picture of himself: obvious devices but still dramatic ones. The writer would make the observation external to the narrator's immediate consciousness, and create a means of mediation. Generally Moravia does not do this. But it is the nature of the past tense he utilises that means he doesn't need to do so. The stories are often predicated on the very subject of the physical. In some writers the notion of appearance proves vital to their work, and Nabokov, Bellow and Martin Amis are examples of novelists preoccupied with the way people look, yet few writers more than Moravia focus on the manner in which the physical is of such importance.
In 'Appetite', the narrator talks of his friendship with Carlo and Carlos's appearance in the present tense before moving into past tense reflection. "Carlo, his name is, and he is nineteen and already weighs well over fifteen stone. Take note of him, have a good look at him: he has a fat face all covered with freckles, he wears strong glasses, being short-sighted, and his red hair is cut in a brush." But Moravia doesn't only describe the appearance in detail, he also credits certain states linked to the person's looks. "...with his remarkable appearance, he banished all sign of gloom. If you were feeling melancholy, you have only to watch Carlo eating: my goodness what an appetite." Later the narrator says "have you ever seen a fat man crying? A thin man, when he cries, looks sincere; but a fat man looks as if he were putting it on."
Is Moravia here practicing a more general notion of the physiognomic, taking into account Montaigne's essay On Physiognomy where one's own nature comes out of one's appearance? "I cannot say often enough how much I value beauty as a quality that gives power and advantage. Socrates called it 'a brief tyranny' and Plato 'nature's privilege'. We have nothing that gives a man better credit." In keeping with the Montaigne idea, in Moravia's stories usually the appearance is the centre of the character's personality. When Moravia introduces a character and mentions their nature, it is with a full awareness that they are contained by their looks. Though we implied earlier that Moravia's characters are not so determined by their appearance that the stories cannot contain a twist, we should also remember that in 'Silly Old Fool'for example the twist is consistent with rather than contrary to the character's physical characteristics.
The same is the case in 'Jewellery', where Moravia opens his story saying "you can be quite sure that, when a woman finds her way into a group of men friends, that group, without the slightest doubt, is bound to disintegrate and each member of it go off on his own account." The beautiful young woman is Lucrezia, "and she was perhaps not yet even twenty, but she was as fully developed as a woman of thirty. Her skin was white as milk, her eyes black, large steady and expressionless, her mouth red, her hair black. She looked indeed like a statue." How can such a beauty not upset the equilibrium of the male group? By the end of the story the gang will have got rid of the jewellery they were all wearing and that they believed so important, and Lucrezia and one of the gang members, Rinaldo, will marry. The manner in which Moravia introduces the tale leaves us pretty confident that beauty will win out. Near the end of the story Rinaldo announces he has had enough of his friends, and their obsession with wearing lots of jewellery and gives his ring, his bracelet, his wristwatch and his cigarette case to Lucrezia. "None of the rest of you would ever do that...you couldn't do it." Over the next couple of days though when the rest of the gang meet up they are without their jewellery, while on Rinaldo and Lucrezia's wedding day the narrator says "I was told that, at the church, she was more thickly covered with jewellery than a statue of the Madonna." Beauty wins all, Moravia might say.
Even professions seem to demand a particular appearance. In 'The Lorry Driver', the narrator at the beginning announces: "I am lean and nervous, with thin arms and long legs, and my belly is so flat that my trousers keep slipping down: in fact I am the exact opposite of what is required to make a good lorry driver." With his co-worker, Palombi, he travels the country, working for a transport company. When doing the Naples-Rome trip a woman on the way from Naples to Rome asks them for a lift. Though they're under strict instructions to pick up no one, they concede. "Italia was a provoking girl: there is no other word for it. She had an incredibly narrow waist, and above it, a bust that stood out sharply - positively venomous it was - under the tight jumpers she usually wore, which came down to her hips." Admittedly she was not beautiful, "but she had something better than beauty; and I had proof of this during that first trip..." "...she slipped her hand into mine, and squeezed it hard, and never let go of it till Velletri, when I took over from Palombi."
Every ten days or so thereafter she would ask them to give her a lift. By the end of the story though when they stop off unexpectedly at Terracina where the woman is from, they see her with another man, a hunchback, and notice her giving him a long, lingering kiss. Palombi says what a bitch she is, explaining how they were in love, how she would hold his hand during the journey while the narrator was driving - exactly as she would hold the narrator's when Palombi drove. They later find Italia has opened her own wine shop on the Naples road called The Lorry Driver's Resort. When at the end of the story the narrator says "naturally we never stopped there, but, all the same, seeing Italia behind the counter and the hunchback passing glasses and bottles of beer to her was painful to me", one feels the melancholy of a skinny lorry driver inevitably failing in love.
What qualities the hunchback possesses are offered inexplicably, as if somehow outside the sphere of Moravia's range of perception. The narrator can't really expect very much from life given the feebleness of his appearance, but what can a hunchback offer? Moravia would seem to be not only often a physiognomic determinist, seeing that good looks take one far and ugliness occasionally and inexplicably attractive, but also perceptually narrow-minded. However, one doesn't want to offer this as an a priori criticism; better to look instead at such a limitedness as a mode of perception: narcissistic perception. When Nabokov or Bellow are fascinated in how people look, they are also equally interested in the descriptive possibilities in the narrator's gaze, the pleasure gained from describing people's appearance. Moravia doesn't seem to share that interest. Frequently his description is matter of fact. In 'Poor Fish'when the narrator says "I am small, crooked, rickety, my arms and legs are like sticks, I'm like a spider" it resembles the self-description in 'The Lorry Driver'. There isn't the literary relish evident in Bellow and Nabokov, where the narcissism rests more in the prose than in the psychology of the character offering the description. When Moravia's characters comment on themselves (and all the narrators here are male) or others, they do so plainly, as Moravia looks not for the defamiliarised brilliance of a Bellow or Nabokov, but a familiarised description. When the narrator describes himself in 'Poor Fish'or 'The Lorry Driver', or describes others in 'Jewellery' or 'The Nose', Moravia is saying this is the way the world is, this is how it functions, and to be beautiful is a huge advantage and to be ugly is usually to be without much hope or luck. When Moravia opens 'Jewellery' with the comment about a woman finding herself in a group of male friends, it has all the assertiveness of Austen's famous opening remark in Pride and Prejudice.
Certainly sometimes ugly men get lucky: as we have noted, Italia shares her life with a hunchback at the end of 'The Lorry Driver', and in 'Poor Fish' the narrator might be unattractive but he is loved. In the latter, the narrator has been humiliated by a man at the circus when the narrator's wife insists that the man's partner has been rubbing up against her husband: the man lifts the narrator up and places him on top of a small elephant. The story concludes with the - equally unattractive - wife insisting that her husband was magnificent, "He was frightened, and that was why he put you on the elephant," she says. "For her I was one thing," the narrator concludes, "for other people, another. But can you ever tell what women see, when they're in love?"
For Moravia, being attracted to ugliness, frailty and weakness falls loosely into the category of abnormal psychology, as though normal psychology is physiognomic. This normal approach is echoed in numerous psychological studies, in many a psychology manual, including Psychology (Bernstein, Scrull, Roy and Wickens). This is called the "matching hypothesis", which "states that a person is most likely to be attracted to others who are similar in physical attractiveness than to those who are notably more attractive or noticeably less attractive." When in 'The Caretaker' the narrator looks after the good-looking Mario's stolen goods, his girlfriend and baby while Mario is in prison, there is no suggestion that during this time the girlfriend might have felt lonely and attracted to the physically unattractive narrator during the months her partner was jailed. No, the narrator is ugly and the boyfriend handsome: "...it seemed as if he was the only man in the world, and that I didn't exist."
Thus to be attractive is to live in a universe with a huge advantage over other people, and occasionally Moravia characters exploit that appeal indirectly. Lucrezia in 'Jewellery' seems to use her looks to get what she wants; while the princess in 'The Go-Between' is "young and beautiful...she can't be more than twenty five or so...To look at her you'd think she was an angel...But appearances can be deceptive." The princess wants to sell her property, but she is greedy and knows she is stunning: the various potential buyers fall in love with her and she keeps upping the price. By the end of the story she has married a prince from the south of Italy, "an old stick who might be her grandfather...she says he owns half of Calabria...Like attracts like, in fact." Beauty and youth can be defeated perhaps only by immense wealth.
Frequently Moravia is referred to as a psychological writer; in 'Policing the Secret'James T. Chiampi talks of 'Moravian psychology'. but in Roman Tales the psychological usually gives way to the physiognomic, with the inner life less important than the external detail. It is often said that numerous nineteenth century writers from Balzac to Dickens were marvellous chroniclers of capitalism, of the importance of money. Moravia's minor collection indicates the importance of looks. The more psychological Moravia can be found elsewhere - In The Wayward Wife and other Stories for example. Yet there is a strange curiosity in Moravia's fascination with appearance and perhaps he would quote in his defence Oscar Wilde's oft-repeated remark: only "shallow people don't judge by appearances." Yet isn't there a sense that most of Moravia's narrators here are shallow, and the tales curious and paradoxical strength lies in the so insistent sense here that only shallow people do?"
© Tony McKibbin