Agostino by Alberto Moravia

February 8, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

Agostino by Alberto Moravia (1945) Translated from the Italian by Marie Canavaggia

Moravia_AgostinoI’m late to post about January’s Book Club choice. It was Agostino by Alberto Moravia.  We had already read Contempt and decided to read another one. Agostino is a novella about adolescence. Agostino is 13 and he’s spending his holidays at the beach with his widowed mother. We don’t know how his father died. The war, maybe. Agostino’s mother is never named. She’s still young and attractive. At the beginning of the holidays, she’s centered on her son and he enjoys spending his time with her. They take a boat and go swimming and he’s proud to be seen in her company.

Then she meets a young man and he accompanies her to her daily boat tours and swimming sessions. Agostino becomes a third wheel and he resents his mother for it. He witnesses the change in her behaviour: she’s flirting with the young man and has attitudes he’d never seen in her. Agostino starts seeing his mother as a woman and not as a mother only.

Agostino is terribly upset not to be his mother’s first interest any longer. He needs to share but mostly, he needs to accept that she’s a woman, that her life as a woman is separate from her life as a mother. She’s no longer asexual. He notices her body and starts feeling uncomfortable in situations that were normal to him before. He’d like her to be more modest when he comes to her room. She’s unaware of his uneasiness and she should change her behaviour to take into account that her boy is turning into a young man.

This holiday forces on Agostino the separation that needed to happen. He’s growing up, it’s also time for him to have a life independent from his mother. This first attempt at autonomy is done through joining a gang of young local boys who hang out around the beach.

This will be educational on several levels. First, they don’t come from the same social background. Agostino comes from a rich family; he lives in a mansion and has no idea of how privileged he is. He takes money for granted and when he mixes with these local boys coming from poor fishermen families, he’s confronted to other social references. They don’t have the same vision of life. They don’t live by the same rules. Violence is part of their life, fighting with each other, struggling to survive and starving attention. They’re more comfortable with their bodies.

Second, they are less sheltered, more mature and more knowledgeable about facts-of-life. They will reveal to Agostino what relationship his mother has with the young man. They will make fun of his innocence but will still do his sexual education. They will be eye-opening for him and trigger his leaving his childhood behind.

13 is a delicate age with a maelstrom of emotions and thoughts. Agostino still wears short pants but his mind is moving on. He’s puzzled and innocent at first but he catches on quickly. He doesn’t have a father figure in his life and that affects his relationship with his mother. (Hints at psychoanalysis are rather obvious in the novel) It explains why he’s suddenly discovering that she’s more than a mother, that to other men, she can be a lover. He was content; this new awareness disturbs the harmony of his life. This summer is about finding a new equilibrium to go forward.

I won’t tell too much about this incredible novella. I’m amazed again at how much Moravia can pack in a hundred pages. The style is subtle and evocative. I was there, on the beach, imagining the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, the sun, the heat, the cabins on the beach, the little boats. It’s very cinematographic with short but spot-on descriptions. The quick change in Agostino is masterfully described. He’s 13, on the fence between childhood and adolescence. The invisible hand of time pushes him to the side of adolescence. That doesn’t go without scratches on his soul.

Honestly, seeing how short this is, there’s no excuse for not reading it. If you need further assurance that this is an amazing read, please have a look at reviews by Guy and Jacqui.

  1. February 9, 2016 at 1:51 am

    Thanks for the mention. I’m really glad that you liked this one–you know I have a fondness for books with people on holiday. Always a sucker for that.

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    • February 9, 2016 at 2:22 pm

      I really liked it. I’ll read other books by Moravia. His style is compact but spot on. He can say a lot in few words.
      I guess that the seaside resort atmosphere is a plus.

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  2. February 10, 2016 at 1:16 am

    I reviewed this one a while back and loved it.

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    • February 10, 2016 at 1:54 pm

      Have you read other books by Moravia?

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  3. February 10, 2016 at 10:59 am

    Terrific review Emma, and many thanks for the link to my post. I think you’ve nailed it with your commentary on the maelstrom of thoughts and emotions that Agostino is experiencing. It’s such a rich novella, isn’t it? Full of situations and events that can disturb the mind of an impressionable adolescent. Interesting you should mention the cinematic quality of the story – that’s a very good point. I’m pretty sure it was made into a film in the 1960s, but I couldn’t find a copy to watch online.

    Anyway, I’m so glad you enjoyed this book. What did the rest of your book group think of it? I’d love to hear.

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    • February 10, 2016 at 1:58 pm

      I felt like I was in a French film. Have you seen Les roseaux sauvages by André Téchiné? (Wild reeds)

      One of us didn’t like Agostino, otherwise we agreed that it’s remarkable. The masterpiece vibe comes from the ability to tell so much in 100 pages or so. In that, it compares to The Good Soldier.

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      • February 10, 2016 at 2:48 pm

        I don’t think I’ve seen that film, but the title definitely rings a bell with me. I shall have to add it to list of titles in my dvd rental account. Thanks for the recommendation, Emma. Having just looked at the synopsis, I can understand why it came to mind.

        Glad to hear Agostino was a hit with virtually everyone in the group. On the surface, it seems like a familiar story, but Moravia adds so much depth and texture. As you say, quite an achievement in a novella of this length.

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  4. February 11, 2016 at 10:41 pm

    This has been on my radar since Jacqui reviewed, especially having enjoyed both Contempt and Boredom. I’ve since picked up another two Moravias, however, so it may have to wait (short as it is!)

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  5. February 16, 2016 at 8:23 pm

    It does sound brilliant. Possibly a better introduction than Contempt or Boredom. I’ll put it on a list to pick up when I get a free slot.

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    • February 16, 2016 at 9:25 pm

      This one is everything you like: short, deep, excellent style. You can read it in one sitting. Definitely one I’d get you as a gift. (sorry, my copy’s in French, I can’t send it over)

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  6. February 17, 2016 at 7:23 pm

    I’ve only read two Moravias or three, loved one, liked one, hated one that pretty much kept me form reading him again. But this sounds amazing.

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    • February 17, 2016 at 9:57 pm

      You’ll probably like this one. And it’s short, no big risk.

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