Agostino by Alberto Moravia

Sexual awakening…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

agostinoAgostino and his widowed mother are staying at a Mediterranean beach resort for the summer. As we meet them, thirteen-year-old Agostino is still a child, devoted to his mother, rather infatuated by her and proud to bask in the admiration she attracts as they spend their days on the beach or swimming from the rowboat they take out each day. But when his mother becomes involved with a young man, Agostino’s feelings turn to a jealousy which he barely understands.

This is a haunting and rather melancholy coming-of-age tale of Agostino’s sexual awakening and troubled realisation of his mother as a woman and a sexual being in her own right. As he ceases to be the sole focus of his mother’s attention, the cosseted Agostino drifts into a sort of friendship with a gang of poor, rough boys and the rather frightening man who seems to have some control over them. The boys mock Agostino’s innocence and resent his privileged life, and he is both fascinated and fearful of them. It is these boys who tell Agostino about sex and force him to realise the nature of his mother’s relationship with her lover. And as he grows more aware of his mother’s sexuality, Agostino’s infatuation turns almost to an Oedipal-like obsession.

From the 1962 film of the novella
From the 1962 film of the novella

Although I enjoyed reading this novella, I wasn’t totally convinced by it. The mother, who is never named, seems to see Agostino as a much younger child and constantly, though seemingly unconsciously, flaunts her sexuality at him. Saro, the man on the beach, seemed to be there only to provide another form of sexual threat and awakening for Agostino and the whole relationship between Agostino and the gang felt unreal. His almost masochistic acceptance of the bullying of the gang didn’t ring true for me, and the gang’s seeming dependence on Saro was given no solid foundation to make it believable. I’ve seen other reviews talking about a surreal feeling to the whole novella, but for me ‘unreal’ is the more apt word. I felt Moravia pushed the whole Freudian aspect so far that the whole thing began to feel too contrived. And Agostino’s innocence was all a bit too much – it wasn’t just that he was sexually unaware; he seemed to have no real idea or experience of how people interact on any level.

Alberto Moravia
Alberto Moravia

There’s an interesting afterword from the translator, Michael F Moore, where he puts the novella in the context of Italian literature and explains some of the stylistic elements of Moravia’s writing. Certainly the writing and word choice was what worked best for me – Moravia uses repetition of certain words and phrases to build a lush and somewhat dreamlike atmosphere, and his constant references to the fleshy physicality of the mother serve to focus the book firmly on sex rather than its gentler and more civilised sibling, love.

An interesting read, certainly, but in the end its failure to convince me completely meant that I found it more of an intellectual experience than an emotional one.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYRB Classics.

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55 thoughts on “Agostino by Alberto Moravia

  1. FictionFan – I always appreciate your candid reviews; I really do. And I agree that sometimes themes are just pushed too hard. When that happens, the story stops being compelling and starts feeling contrived. Still, it’s an interesting look at very dark possibilities…

    • It is interesting, and of course it’s always hard to think oneself back to the time of writing – the themes were probably not as familiar to a contemporary audience and so perhaps he couldn’t risk being too subtle…

  2. Great review! Interesting. I might feel bad for the kid. Maybe. Just maybe. Look at those eyebrows! That must affect how he thinks just slightly.

    I must admit, the story reminds me of one that I watched a while ago…I think it was very old. And it had something to do with a beach. I can’t remember. This is what happens when one gets older than the mountains. Was there any fighting or viciousness?

  3. I haven’t heard of this before, but it sounds interesting. It’s a shame when themes are pushed so far that the book begins to feel contrived as it can ruin your enjoyment of the book. The plot does sound interesting though!

    • I haven’t seen that one but looking at a plot summary of it, yes, there are definite similarities. I think this one is possibly a bit darker and more humorless, though.

  4. Ah, you reply to Margot was what I was going to raise – the time of writing. Back in nineteen hundred and frozen to death when i was a moderately bright young thing my best friend at Uni was Italian, and I got introduced to (in translation) many Italian writers. I think in our more ‘knowing’ age its is difficult to unthink knowingness, and given this was written in the 40s and in a Catholic country………….No NO FictionFan, by the time I came across his writing, when i was at Uni he was already a very well established literary lion and ‘classic twentieth century writer@

    • Yes, it’s always an issue deciding how much allowance to make because of different standards – I’ve just been trying to deal with similar issues in my Hemingway review – coming soon, if I can ever actually finish the pesky thing. I think I’ve started it about 6 times now, and I’m not at all sure why I’m finding it so difficult! Except that I keep finding I want to go off into a rant about the ‘lost generation’ and while fun, it doesn’t add much to the review…

    • Hmm…sometimes I think I need someone to read my reviews before I post them! I see why you think I sound tepid, but actually I quite enjoyed the novella (I go by the Amazon rating, where 4 stars means ‘I liked it’). The quality of the writing was fine – very good in places, the translation worked well, and though I found both the mother and the gang unconvincing, I still found them interesting. A bit like Lord of the Flies – I never found it believable either, but I liked it for other reasons. I thought the way he got the sexuality and sensuality over was good, and I liked the the way he made it all about fleshiness and scent etc rather than romantic love.

      Maybe I was just in a more than usually whingy mood when I wrote it… 😉

      • Maybe it’s me who’s having the whingy day. That’s the trouble with words. They gambol about in someone’s head, never knowing how they’re going to be interpreted. Partly because they don’t care. Maybe if words had a “dog in the fight” they’d be more interested in being precise. No, it’s just us humans who run about misunderstanding each other while the words get away scot free.

        • Yes, they can be pesky little blighters. Sometimes I reckon they move around after they’ve been written – often when I go back to look at a perfect paragraph it’s become all jumbled and error-ridden. There ought to be a law against it…

          I think I maybe forget to praise stuff in classics because I assume they should be good – therefore the criticsm comes out unbalanced…maybe. I shall pay more attention in future…maybe. 😉

  5. As I read your review, I realised that I have in fact read this, away back in the dim and distant past -it didn’t do much for me then, and I doubt I would like it any better now. The TBR is safe!..BUS.

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