When asked about the first existentialist novel of the 20th century, many of us would point to Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Nausea” (1938). Whilst Sartre is world-famous for his literary achievements and novel ideas, very few acknowledge the importance of a book which was written nine years before “Nausea” here in Italy - Alberto Moravia’s literary debiut “Gli indifferenti” (1929).
If we trust that the author is honest with us, at the time of writing the novel Moravia knew nothing of existentialism and after the novel had been published he claimed he merely tried to resolve his own problems without realising they were at the same time the problems of the century.
“Gli indifferenti is a forerunner of the existentialist novel. In it the existentialism is instinctive, spontaneous, unsystematic, it only becomes thought out and elaborated in the subsequent work of the author; but it is not limited to what generally termed the climate, the atmosphere of a work, but underlies the whole novel and lays the foundations for all the essential themes, so as to make it the first narrative work of it in any literature” [Falconi, “Vent'anni di Moravia”].
The Ardengo family presented in the novel comprises Mariagrazia and her children: Carla and Michele. The mother is selfish and narcissistic, and only cares about getting back her lover, Leo. The adolescent sibligns are both deeply dissatisfied with their boring, mediocre lives. However, they are so absent-minded and weak-willed that they turn out to be unable to change it. Carla’s only act against her mother - giving in to the seduction of her mother’s former lover Leo - does not come from her conscious decision, but is a passive act of letting Leo do with her what he wants despite an obvious immoral element aspect to his action. Michele is used to being treated as an immature youngster with no voice, and when he finally decides to affirm his independent voice by attempting to kill Leo, his brave act turns into a farce because he forgets to load the gun before shooting. “[Carla and Michele] are incapable of any positive action and yet they are urged by the torment of a necessity for choice which, nevertheless, cannot find support in any definite moral criterion, where the criterion of sincerity is rejected. (…) All their attempts at choice appear condemned at the outset to the most radical failure, so that no escape seems possible other than death or a passive acceptance” [Scaramucci, “Moravia tra existenzialismo e freudismo”].
Leo, a cynical man whose only needs are the primitive desires of sex and money, is the only protagonist who knows exactly what he wants and always achieves it. His brutal needs are always fulfilled, and whilst doing so he only thinks about himself. Tragically, Leo is the only “successful” character of Moravia’s novel precisely because he is not detached from the reality like the others.
The problems the writer touches upon in his debiut novel concern one’s inability to communicate with the others, to be true to oneself, and to live and make decisions according to a coherent system of moral values. Moravia presents a complete collapse of the relationship between man and reality, and detachment from traditional ethics, which comes from being unable to establish any kind of relationship with the real world which seems obscure or, worse, ceases to exist. The titular “indifferenza” is thus visible in the lack of any meaningful action that would be done truthfully to one's feelings and desires, and the lack of honesty between the characters. The narration is played in between the two narrative dimensions: the dialogues and the internal monologues, the first expressing opinions that the other character want to hear and the society demands, the latter showing the reader what the protagonist really thinks.
“Poveri di spirito (ma ricchi di denaro), i borghesi dipinti da Moravia testimonano dell'impossibilitá della tragedia nel mondo capitalistico. Ma mostrano soprattutto di saper creare una commedia che torna a vantaggio dei loro concreti interessi, proprio perché sembra colpire i loro inesistenti ideali. Tragedia mancata, 'Gli indifferenti' é in realtá una commedia grottesca pienamente riuscita” [Tessari, “Alberto Moravia”]. What is at the root of the characters’ consciousness is the failure to establish a relation with other people and the real world. This is a result of all the other failures they went through: failure to make decisions, to do what one wants to do, or to tell the truth instead of communicating with lies. Eventually Carla and Michele find it impossible to go on living like they do, since it is impossible to either be faithful to oneself and remain totally alienated from reality, or to inauthentically yield to external demands of the society, but unfortunately they are unable to change their situation. At the end of the novel it becomes clear that the characters have failed to shake off their inertia and change anything in their lives, and their failure is existential. This mechanism, aptly presented to us by Moravia, expresses the modern crisis of man and begins the topics explored later in 20th-century existential novel.
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