🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
Agostino 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.
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.
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.