The Italian author Alberto Moravia (1907–90) began writing his masterpiece The Indifferent Ones in 1925, when he was 17 years old. Publication came in 1929, when he was 21. The Indifferent Ones is the story of a Roman bourgeois family during the fascist regime in Italy. Moravia explicitly stated that he meant not to write a moral or satirical novel: His desire was to infuse the Italian novel with drama. A case in point is that Moravia read out loud what he wrote, and the original draft contained almost no punctuation, which he added afterward.
Moravia’s novel recalls the great 19th-century French realist writers, Greek tragedy, and the infl uence of the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The action takes place over a couple of days (adhering closely to Aristotle’s unity of time in which the action takes place in a concentrated period, usually one day). Mariagrazia, a widow, is the mother of Carla and Michele. She is sentimental, hypocritical, and ignorant of others. Her lover, Leo, seduces Carla, whom he has known since she was a child; the idea of incest is mentioned on several occasions. Carla thinks that this affair will enable her to begin a new life. Leo acts not merely from lust but also because he wishes to lay hands on the family’s villa, which he graciously offers to buy for a tiny portion of its real value. Michele is the only one of the family to realize this. He tries to act, but is unable: He suffers from apathy. His attempts to react fail: Once he manages to pitifully insult Leo; another time, he throws an ashtray at Leo but misses and hits his mother instead. Finally he buys a revolver and goes to Leo’s house to kill him, but he forgets to load his gun, cutting a pathetic figure.
Michele is the story’s moral conscience, yet he is unable to love anyone; he cannot even successfully make love to his mother’s best friend, Lisa (a former lover of Leo’s before Mariagrazia stole him away). Michele is disgusted by duplicity and inauthenticity of feelings, sentiments, thoughts, and actions. At the end, Leo proposes to marry Carla, and Michele makes a last-ditch effort to persuade his sister not to go through with it. This is to no avail: Carla tells Michele she will marry Leo, and the last scene of the book reveals Carla and Mariagrazia dressed up in masks to go to a ball, invited by another family who assumes Carla will become their son’s fiancée.
The Indifferent Ones was enormously shocking and infl uential upon its release. Though the editor demanded that Moravia contribute the necessary money for its publication, the book went through many reprints. This is all the more surprising because Moravia, gravely ill, was shuttled between various hospitals and sanitariums during the second half of his childhood. Indeed, he began writing the novel while convalescing in bed. He had had little experience of the social world, but the scenes and dialogue in this book strike one as genuine.
The style of the book is sober and direct, in contrast with the prevailing trends in Italian literature, which were oriented toward prosa d’arte (poetic prose). Italian contemporary critics’ attacks on the book tended to focus on its language, though they really meant to criticize its content. It is certainly one of the most cynical Italian novels of the first half of the 20th century. Nonetheless, this cynicism is not at odds with what is loosely called the book’s existentialism. Many readers and critics have persisted in calling The Indifferent Ones the first existential novel, though the birth of existentialism was years away. More rigorously, it would be correct to say that the theme of not knowing what to do (morally and philosophically) is repeated throughout the novel. This, however, is different from the sense of the abyss underlying one’s very step, as in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (La nausée, 1938). Moravia’s novel is fundamentally not a tragic novel—it is a tragedy manqué. There are no bullets—the gun is empty— nor is the antihero, as Michele can be called, part of a comedy of manners. The cold analysis of the characters’ motives precludes this.
Moravia was to write many more novels, stories, and travel writings, but he was never again to give such a detailed glimpse of the rottenness of hypocrisy, societal conformity, and acute indecision as he did in The Indifferent Ones.
Moravia, Alberto, and Alain Elkann. Life of Moravia. Translated by William Weaver. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Italia, 2000.
Peterson, Thomas. Alberto Moravia. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.