About 15 years ago, at the first meeting of that curious Practical Philosophy course I discuss in 'An Autobiographical Sideglance', I met a guy who introduced me to the work of famous Italian novelist and commentator Alberto Moravia. Until then I'd ignored tattered copies in second-hand bookshops of perhaps Moravia's best known novel 'The Woman of Rome' which opens thus:


At sixteen years of age I was a real beauty. I had a perfectly oval face, narrow at the temples and widening out a little below; my eyes were large, gentle and elongated; my nose formed one straight line with my forehead; my mouth was large, with beautiful full red lips, and when I laughed I showed very white, regular teeth. Mother used to say I looked like a Madonna.


And so begins the 389-page monologue of Adriana who, in revealing herself so candidly, 'unwittingly' exposes so much about the rest of us and of our lives. At the time, I found this first-person style especially gripping. I'm not sure that it would carry me so effectively now, but it turned out to be a remarkable work which I was very glad to have read. For instance, from near the middle:


My room looked on to the courtyard, through the closed window no noise reached me from outside. I used to doze for awhile, then got up and wandered round the room, busy with some little task, such as tidying my things or dusting the furniture. These jobs were nothing more than a stimulus to set my mind working, an attempt to create an atmosphere of intense and secluded intimacy. I used to become more and more deeply immersed in my reflections, until in the end I hardly thought at all, and was content with feeling alive after so much wasted time and exhausting ways.

At a certain moment a profound feeling of bewilderment always overcame me during the hours I spent in such solitary seclusion; I suddenly seemed to see the whole of my life and all of myself from all sides, with icy clearsightedness. The things I was doing were doubled, lost the substance of their meaning, were reduced to mere incomprehensible, absurd externals. I used to say to myself: "I often bring home a man who has been waiting for me in the night, without knowing me. We struggle with one another on this bed, clutching each other like two sworn enemies. Then he gives me a piece of printed, coloured paper. Next day I exchange this piece of paper for food, clothes and other articles." But these phrases were only the first step in a process of deeper bewilderment. They served to clear my mind of the judgment always lying in wait there about my profession, and they showed me my profession as a series of meaningless gestures, similar in every way to the gestures of other professions.

Immediately afterwards a distant sound in the city or the creaking of some piece of furniture in the room gave me a ludicrous and almost hectic realisation of my existence. I said to myself: "Here I am and I might be elsewhere - I might exist a thousand years ago or in a thousand years' time - I might be a negress or an old woman, fair or short - " I thought how I had come out of endless night and would soon go on into another endless night and that my brief passing was marked only by absurd and casual actions. I then understood that my distress was caused not by what I was doing but more profoundly by the bare fact of being alive, which was neither good nor evil but only painful and meaningless.

My dismay used to make my flesh creep with fear for a few moments; I used to shudder uncontrollably, feeling my hair stand on end, and suddenly the walls of my fiat, the city and even the world seemed to vanish, leaving me suspended in dark, empty, endless space - suspended, what's more, in the same clothes, with the same memories, name and profession. A girl called Adriana suspended against nothingness. Nothingness seemed to me something terrible, solemn and incomprehensible, and the saddest aspect of the whole matter was my meeting this nothingness with the manners and outward appearance I bore in the evening when I used to meet Gisella in the confectioner's where she waited for me. I found no consolation in the idea that other people also acted and moved in just as futile and inadequate a way as I did when faced with this nothingness, within this nothingness, surrounded by this nothingness. I was only amazed at their not noticing it, or not making their observations known, not referring more often to it, as usually happens when many people all at once discover the same fact.

I thought it was strange that I was so different alone from what I was in company, in my relationship with myself and with other people. But I did not flatter myself that I was the only one to have such violent and desperate feelings. I imagined everyone, at least once a day, must feel his own life reduced to a single point of absurd, ineffable anguish - except that their knowledge apparently produced no visible effect upon them, either. They left their houses as I did, and went around playing sincerely their insincere parts. This thought strengthened me in my belief that all men, without exception, deserve to be pitied, if only because they are alive.


This is precisely the kind of narrative that energizes the mind, raises consciousness and forces one to reflect. Illusion and delusion seem to dissolve, and one senses for a moment the stark intensity of our human predicament - which in the words of a despairing yet reflective Adriana is that each of us is not only inescapably trapped but also isolated at some bleak indifferent point in an interminable void of time and space.

Like many profound aspects of existence, this kind of analysis and revelation risks sounding banal in these 'new-age' days of so called 'enlightenment'. But, I ask, what enlightenment? What has the world become? To me, what it now resembles more than anything is the wild brawling infant-school playground I remember from half-a-century ago - except as infants we didn't have B52s, helicopter gun-ships, MOABs, cluster bombs and depleted uranium shells... (I originally wrote this more than 3-years ago, and still nothing has changed! the barbaric onslaught only becomes increasingly brutal and widespread).

...Nor, as infants, did we burden the atmosphere with the exhaust of 80 million barrels of burnt oil a day. How has the insurmountable greed of a heinous 5% been allowed to pollute and tear apart our world as it is now doing - when there's all this supposed enlightenment going on? Is there nothing that us 95% can do to stop them? Excuse me...

Soon after 'The Woman of Rome' came Moravia's next most highly regarded work 'The Conformist'. This is a third-person political novel in which the protagonist is a Fascist murderer. It contains sections where the style flows in a kind of 'stream-of-consciousness' fashion not unlike that of Virginia Wolf - and one, as you'll see in a moment, I attempted (somewhat hopelessly) to emulate. Another big novel 'Two Women' is an epic tale that follows the fate of two women during WW2 and in which I soon became immersed. I recall particularly, though, his 'Two Adolescents - Agostino and Disobedience' with some affection - probably because 'disobedience' has always attracted me and represented an angle I could easily relate to. But 'A Ghost at Noon' with its scenario that parallels that great quest 'The Odyssey' was perhaps the most intriguing of all Moravia's work. But the short stories are truly masterful.

There's one superb little tale I cannot properly recall, where the plot is something along the lines of a malign character visiting his barber for a shave - only cutthroat razors in those days! - and who gradually realises, when his shave is underway and he is 'trapped' in the barber's chair, that the barber is aware that this man once cheated him. All the while the razor dances ominously around the man's throat as the barber, tightening the neck-towel and voicing reprimands whenever his victim moves, coolly relates his misfortunes to the man whose ordeal is almost unbearable to read. Curiously, I couldn't take the grin off my face all the way through - from my amused admiration of Moravia's immense skill and cunning.

Raymond Chandler - whose novels I read many years ago - said it was a good idea for a budding writer to imitate the work of those they admired. He, for instance, would take a Hammett short story and rewrite it in his own words; and even reckoned he could considerably improve a story this way.

I tried this too by attempting Moravia's style, which I much admired at the time. The result turned out nothing like it, in fact, but it did generate something rather different from what would otherwise have been possible. And just to make the attempt easier - as I saw it - I adopted a young-girl's monologue as Moravia had in 'The Woman of Rome'. In case you're interested the kind-of 'three-in-one' character portrait I ended up with can be found here: