July 2014

Salvatore Ruggiero

fiction

Agostino by Alberto Moravia, translated by Michael F. Moore

You may consider Agostino a paean to Freud's childhood analysis. It couldn't be more of a Freudian love story if the character killed his father and married his mother. But that shouldn't keep you from this deceptively simple tale that almost asks to be read as an allegory of fascist Italy.

Agostino -- written in 1942 during Mussolini's reign -- is the story of the thirteen-year-old titular character spending a summer with his widowed mother in a coastal Italian town. At first they share some quality time together. Agostino enjoys his mother's company, not wanting anyone else to get in the way of that. And he rather succeeds in the beginning, ridding them of one boat-rower "suitor." It's quite idyllic for Agostino. That is until a man asks his mother to go on his boat with him -- and she agrees. Agostino spends a couple of outings as their third wheel until the jealousy can be taken no more, a backhand slap hits him across the face, and he goes and finds new people to hang out with -- starting with a young man who is playing cops and robbers and hiding in Agostino's house.

These new people are a group of lower class boys who like to steal and hang around their fifty-something pedophilic gang-leader. There's disgust with and yet curiosity about him that keeps these kids around this slimy man. This group teaches him about what his mother is doing with this boatman, actions literally behind Agostino's back. It teaches him homosocial behaviors and reckless attitudes. It also proves to him that there is a crucial difference and intense cruelty between what actually happens in life and what people think has happened. All of this climaxes when Agostino -- who truly wants to be seen as a man, not a boy -- decides that with another boy they are going to visit the local brothel.

Moravia's bildungsroman is told in rather non-florid prose, with a straightforward goal for its protagonist. The growth of the protagonist is what we get to analyze and comment upon. Agostino's innocence starts as such:

He rowed with deep pleasure on the smooth, diaphanous, early-morning sea, and his mother, sitting in front of him, would speak to him softly, as joyful and serene as the sea and sky, as if he were a man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy. Agostino's mother was a big and beautiful woman still in her prime, and Agostino was filled with pride every time he got in the boat with her for one of their morning rides. All the bathers on the beach seemed to be watching, admiring his mother and envying him.

Agostino and his mother -- in the former's mind -- are like golden gods that have deigned to descend here on the shores of this beach. And Agostino is excited thinking that people are envying him because he gets to spend time with his mother, alone. He hasn't yet figured out the lens should be the other way around, which happens when he is told of what happens when the usurper boatman Renzo takes his mother out on the boat:

Agostino noticed [gang member Sandro's] strong tanned legs, which seemed enveloped in a cloud of gold dust. More blond hairs escaped from his groin, poking through the holes in his red swimming trunks. "It's very simple," [Sandro] said in a strong clear voice. And speaking slowly and illustrating his points with gestures that were effective but might be considered vulgar, he explained to Agostino something he seemed to have always known and, as if in a deep sleep, forgotten... Two of [the boys in the gang] said, "Let's show him how to do it," and fell to the burning sand in each other's arms, shuddering and rubbing against each other.

The beautiful and sexualized boy Sandro breaks the illusion of his mother, the self-imposed illusion that Agostino "seemed to have always known" and yet had "forgotten." And this is what Moravia perhaps does best this story: He continues to prove that we as the readers know a whole lot more about the world than Agostino knows at this point. We know rather early on why his mother is with this boatman. We know that the boat ride he's to take with the gang-leader will lead to molestation. We even know how the last episode, at the brothel, will end. This lack of knowledge on Agostino's part is much to his detriment.

This realization on the mechanics of sex -- between his mother and her lover, and later the attempt by Saro, the pedophile, to get intimate with Agostino -- leads our protagonist to start to objectify his mother with a demeaning glance. He begins to feel a separation of his selves, the former, which knew nothing, and the present, which has this slight understanding of the world around him. Instead of the pride he got with taking trips with his mother and the attention she showered on him, he feels that she is "provoking and pursuing him with her maternal immodesty" and that on the beach she "blended into all the other naked flesh, while at home she appeared singular and excessive... The innocent fervor his mother's kisses and trusting sleep used to calm at night was replaced by the burning, shameful indiscretion that was magnified in the dead of night and seemed to feed his impure fire." This is all summed up by the fact that he starts to refer to his mother as "only a woman," a mantra that leads him to the brothel.

Agostino wants to dominate. He wants to prove himself a man in the heteronormative way. He wants acceptance from everyone but only in innocent, na´ve terms. He wants to be seen as an adult. And yet he's anything but at this point. Anyone but Agostino -- the narrator and the readers included -- knows this.

Such an interest in Freud, also emphasized by the translator's note at the end of this edition, and such a reliance on strong sentences and a hint of allegory allows Moravia's tale to come in and out like a summer breeze on the beach: welcome when it comes and just as easily wisped away. Yet it is a thoughtful tale on the issues and evils of growing up presented bleakly and unforgivingly, making this work worth the trip.

Agostino by Alberto Moravia, translated by Michael F. Moore
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590177235
128 pages