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The glitter and cynicism of Rome under Mussolini provide the background of what is probably Alberto Moravia’s best and best-known novel — The Woman of Rome. It’s the story of Adriana, a simple girl with no fortune but her beauty who models naked for a painter, accepts gifts from men, and could never quite identify the moment when she traded her private dream of home and children for the life of a prostitute. One of the very few novels of the twentieth century which can be ranked with the work of Dostoevsky, The Woman of Rome also tells the stories of the tortured university student Giacomo, a failed revolutionary who refuses to admit his love for Adriana; of the sinister figure of Astarita, the Secret Police officer obsessed with Adriana; and of the coarse and brutal criminal Sonzogno, who treats Adriana as his private property. Within this story of passion and betrayal, Moravia calmly strips away the pride and arrogance hiding the corrupt heart of Italian Fascism.
'The Woman of Rome' ('La romana' – Italy, 1947; USA, 1951) by Alberto Moravia
I can't begin a review this book, which I first read in 1978, without some discussion of prostitution. 'The woman of Rome' is the first-person narrative of a street walker. Not quite the lowest rung on the Roman pay-for-sex ladder, it asks on the cover of the 1951 US edition, Was She Good - or Was She bad? It will come as no shock to anyone that sex is a commodity bought and sold on the market. And yet, while the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s flourished, prostitution remained largely underground. Why was its liberation limited to bigger and brighter red lights districts? The answer seems to be that with marriage no longer the only outlet for lust, the new shame of paying for sex was Inadequacy. On the level playing field of 'free love', anyone resorting to a prostitute was not considered up to the task of attracting a mate. Then it turns out, in kiss-and-tell biographies published since, a good proportion of the 'dolly birds', 'groupies' and 'free-love hippies' on the scene were all the time selling their companionship in one way or another - as were many gay and straight men - through clubs, contact magazines and what have you. Nowadays prostitution is, like, the new rock'n'roll.
'The Woman of Rome' was written just post-World War Two, while the sexual revolution was barely in its gestation period. It is set in 1936, in Mussolini's fascist Italy, a time and place of much give-and-take in private morals. Would it be true to say, therefore, that a different moral code should be applied when reading it? Should we look very differently on Adriana, 'The Woman of Rome', than on a trafficked Asian woman of 2013? According to her own account, Adriana's family has lived in the city for seven generations. The daughter of a seamstress and (deceased) railway worker, at the age of 21 she discovers her chauffeur 'fiancé'/lover is already a husband and father. She is raped by a high official in the fascist police. Thereafter, thwarted of her marriage dream and in order to escape a life of drudgery, she decides to go on the streets. She does so, moreover, with the support and approval of her mother. A great conundrum is the extent to which Adriana enjoys her sex work and considers it wholesome. Having lost her virginity to the chauffeur, and being raped with the collusion of a friend who is already a prostitute, the life she turns to holds little horror for her; she has a healthy appetite for sleeping with men, young or elderly, strange or familiar. Nor do visits to church and the confessional persuade her there is very much morally wrong in her work. Some of her clients are old and uncouth, others knock her about a bit, and yet she always manages to find some aspect of them attractive enough to be an enthusiastic participant in the bed act. All this would be hard to credit, and harder still with the stark realism of the writing. Somehow, though, Adriana is not a fantasy figure, even in the way she finds sexual fulfilment with both casual clients, and the men she gets deeply involved with. Firmly rooted in her time and setting, it's somehow even possible to picture her life as charmed and idyllic. For Adriana is discerning about who she sleeps with; she only works when she feels in the mood; and she scorns the attitude of her friend Gisella, who forever haggles over money with her clients. Unlike her friend, 'The Woman of Rome' takes a special kind of pride in her profession, as she calls it, never claiming to be anything she is not. The novel sets Adriana's life against the political situation of the day when she reminds us that 1936 was the year Italy brutally invaded Abyssinia. In revenge for the chauffeur's lies, she has stolen a valuable compact from his employer. It is a small crime but sets off a chain of tragic events that involves all her men: the cheating ex-lover Gino; Astarita, the fascist policeman who is madly in love with her; a psychopathic murderer, Sonzogno; and the student Mino, an anti-fascist with whom she in turn has fallen in love. Her relationship with Mino is scarred by the masochistic acceptance, even enjoyment, of the pain he brings her. He doesn't return her love and neither does he pay her to sleep with him. Nevertheless, she risks everything to help him, even when he lets her - and everyone else - down. No matter how strong Adriana's love for Mino is, she admits it is the brutal Sonzogno who possesses her most completely - a feeling she maintains even in the face of his evil intent. Being the lover of all these men, Adriana takes a little from each. Her positive attitude, although she herself feels suicidal at times, continuously asserts itself and in her way, given that a disastrous war is just around the corner, she comes to represent the spirit and beauty of the Italian people. I can't help wondering if Moravia wasn't writing from some personal experience in pre-World War Two Italy, as Adriana's voice is so vivid and full of little twists of character. At the same time, the portrayal of a prostitute, without ever stooping into sentimentalism, is so strong and vibrant, Adriana transcends those around her. There are weaknesses in the novel's other portrayals, particularly Astarita's unprobed obsession with the lowly prostitute, but in a way this enforces her otherness, as nobody really deserves her. Though Moravia was supposed to be an atheist, it would be difficult to read this book without drawing some comparison with the Madonna. In fact there is Adriana's meeting with the mysterious and Christ-like Father Elia and then her – apparently rejected – prayer to the Virgin. There is, at least, a supra-religious statement here regarding the imminent birth of the fatherless child.
As to me, reading the book again after thirty-five years, I am confirmed in my admiration for this kind of writing. Like the two-part film 1900 by Bertolucci (which I saw around the same time I first read the book) it is pellucid (a term the translator chooses twice), stark, super-real and romantic in a detached way. It's easy to fall in love with Adriana, and to maintain a sense of proportion. She is both a fictional character (someone that can't be possessed) and, aw shucks, a prostitute (ditto). I don't think a man could write a book like 'The Woman of Rome' today without receiving a lot of flak – or peppering it with graphic sex. More pertinently, these days it's less credible for an author to paste an uneducated person's voice over a complex narrative. You're going to have to find some clever angle to give it spin. Without all our post-modern clutter, the pulse of this book is strong and inspiring. We could do with a return to writing of this sort.
Note on the text:
The translation in my (lovely old paperback) copy, by Lydia Holland, seems reasonable except for lapses in tense, which frequently attribute habitual behaviour to characters Adriana has just met, as in “he used to...”, or “he would...”. There is also an inconsistency in the plot, when Adriana invites Astarita to visit her the night after Mino reappears, which is a tantamount promise to sleep with him; then six weeks pass before their next meeting. Given Astarita is madly in love with her, it seems rather far-fetched. Perhaps this is also down to a fault in translation - a missed nuance, perhaps - as the action is otherwise delicately plotted?read more
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