Alberto Morovia’s novella Agostino follows one summer in the life of a young boy who goes on holiday to the Tuscan coast with his widowed mother. At 13, Agostino is no longer a small child, but he’s not yet a man; he’s in that awkward in-between phase when children ‘wake’ up to the adult world, its rules, its inconsistencies, and its hypocrisies. It’s a phase with Agostino, not locked out of the adult world, as much as if he’s looking through a window trying to understand what he sees.
In the early days of summer, Agostino and his mother used to go out to sea every morning on a small rowboat typical of the Mediterranean beaches known as a pattino. At first she brought a boatman along with them, but Agostino gave such clear signs of annoyance at the man’s presence that the oars were turned over to him. 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 wants to be the man in his mother’s life, and for most of the time, he has that role, but his mother “a big and beautiful woman still in her prime,” gets a lot of attention wherever she goes. Agostino, proud of his mother, and also possessive, feels that they are “onstage before an audience of hundreds of watchful eyes.” Alone on the boat, his mother will sunbathe naked, and Agostino takes his role of protector very seriously–never invading his mother’s privacy as she strips.
Of course, all this idyllic time must come to an end, and the change begins when a man begins a relationship with Agostino’s mother. Literally and symbolically he’s “a shadow [who] obstructed the sunlight shining down on” Agostino. Over the course of a few days, Agostino, humiliated and sulky, witnesses changes in his mother’s personality as she flirts and shows a sort of helplessness that was previously entirely absent. Agostino notes this side of his mother that he’s never seen before, and in his turn, he begins to show new behaviours too. He resents what he sees as his mother’s betrayal, but at the same time, her relationship with the man has stirred Agostino’s developing sexuality; he’s confused by all these conflicting feelings, and then he becomes involved with a gang of local boys.
Agostino is not a typical coming-of-age novel. Agostino’s on the brink of the adult world and his experiences that summer open a window into troubling and confusing adult sexuality. Agostino sees things which he doesn’t understand, and when he becomes involved with the local boys, he’s introduced to a far more dangerous world. Author Alberto Moravia creates a languor in this story that contradicts the turbulence under the surface, and the many scenes of the ocean or the river juxtapose that languor and serenity to the unspoken dangers of sexual relationships.
For a moment Agostino felt happy as he swam while the cold powerful stream tugged at his legs, and he forgot every hurt and every wrong. The boys were swimming in all directions, their heads and arms breaking through the smooth green surface. Their voices echoed clearly in the still air. Through the glass transparency of the water, their bodies looked like white offshoots of plants that, rising to the surface from the darkness below, moved whichever way the current took them.
Agostino steps away from his mother’s love and protection, and feeling neglected, he enters the much harsher, cruel world of the local boys who all hang around the lifeguard Sero, a brutal individual who surrounds himself with the boys and creates a marginally criminal enterprise. Used to worshipping his mother, Agostino now discovers how women rate in this world of bottom-feeder males, and the company of these rough, poor children only complicates his feelings for his mother as he’s torn between protecting her image and showing the boys that he’s just like them.
While sexuality, emerging or hidden is a major force in the book, class also plays a role. Agostino, as a holidaymaker with leisure time, is clearly from a different class than the local children, and he falls back on this difference for security and power whenever he has the chance, so that we see how money spares Agostino from raw experience and simultaneously allows him bragging rights to experiences and conditions the poor children envy. In one very clever scene, Agostino has the opportunity to play a power card through a different role to another boy whose circumstances mirror Agostino’s privilege.
Morovia emphasizes the sensual and it’s no coincidence that sexual encounters occur on boats as they rock gently on the tranquil sea. This is a seemingly simple story that resonates with a sort of brutal truth. We all have to grow up and we can usually point to pivotal moments when childhood was stripped away. Agostino begins with a proud boy with complex feelings about his mother and ends with a troubled teen who understands that the treacherous world of adult sexuality awaits him.
“But the intensity of his filial vanity and the turmoil of his infatuation would linger for many years to come.”
Translated by Michael F. Moore
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18 responses to “Agostino by Alberto Moravia”
Despite having a couple of Morovia’s on my shelves for quite a number of years I have never read anything by him. This sounds interesting and may lead to me trying one of the books I have soon. The closest I’ve come is watching the film version of The Conformist, which is quite brilliant.
I’ve not seen the Conformist but it’s on the list to watch. Haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy…
This one sounds very interesting, and I’m sure I would like it. The NYRB team does such a great job in reviving hidden gems; I’m yet to be disappointed by one of their books.
Same here. Last year several NYRB issues ended up on my best-of-year list
Agostino was one of the first books I read in Italian, years ago when Moravia was still all over the culture pages and routinely considered Italy’s greatest living novelist. Now, he’s barely mentioned. I remember liking this book, but not much else about it. Your review has spurred me to pick it up again.
Interesting to hear the Italian side of things esp. since Moravia seems to be picking up steam here.
I’ve heard of Moravia but never read anything by him. I think this will be my next recommendation for the NYRB group on GR.
The group seems to do better w/shorter novels. Perhaps it’s just easier for everyone to purchase them & read them in the given time span.
Great review Guy.
As you describe it, Agostino’s personality sounds very realistic and I can imagine a boy of 13 in similar circumstances reacting the same way. Thus this sounds very good.
Yes Brian: it felt quite real. The translator’s note mentions that the author wrote this when he was 21.
I noted this title when NYRB released it, and your review gives further encouragement. I haven’t read Moravia but for a long time have been curious to read him.
It’s a short read Scott. With the translator’s note, my copy runs to 111 pages.
I’ve read quite a few of his books, some I think are outstanding – La Noia and Desideria -, some are crap, that’s why I’m a bit wary but this sounds like a good one. What I find interesting here is that it sounds so similar to Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island. Since they were lovers it could be she was inspired. I checked and her book came out in ’57, while his was written and published in the 40s.
This was published in 1929. I have another couple by Moravia in the shelf yet to read. This is my first.
I want to read this. Contempt was on my best books list for 2013. I loved everything about it; the style, the story, the setting.
Agostino reminds me of Contempt with its psychological depth and its description of Italy in the summer. He describes mundane activities (swimming, going to the beach,…) and the description lets you guess a whole underworld of emotions in the characters. Sumptuous.
Sumptuous is a good word for this one too–although there’s some disturbing stuff too. I have Contempt on the shelf.
It sounds very good indeed. Still not sure which Moravia I should start with though, this, Contempt, I may rather vulgarly decide on the basis of length…
Charles’ comments were interesting regarding his waxing attention in Italy.
Now I’ve read and it is fantastic. Highly recommended.