Agostino

It has not been easy finding a novel to read for Karen and Simon’s 1944 Club, but I eventually settled on Alberto Moravia’s Agostino which qualifies, hopefully, despite being originally published in 1943 thanks to a revised edition issued the next year. (This is according to the Afterword by translator Michael F Moore – the NYRB edition simultaneously claims it was first published in 1945!) Agostino is a slim coming-of-age story: the title character begins the novel as his mother’s shadow, happy to set out to sea each summer morning with her to swim together:

“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 the sky, as if he were a man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy.”

This pleasurable ritual is disturbed when a young man approaches his mother: “All at once a shadow obstructed the sunlight shining down on him.” Agostino is surprised when his mother accepts the young man’s invitation to take a boat trip with him; as he watches them leave together, he sees that he has been literally replaced, a rejection which feels as public as the pride he took in accompanying her previously. The next day, his mother insists that Agostino go with them, angering Agostino further:

“…as if rather than a person endowed with an independent will he were an object that could be moved about arbitrarily.”

Eventually a sarcastic remark leads his mother to slap him, and Agostino runs off. He meets another boy, Berto, playing cops and robbers, and manages to inveigle his way into Berto’s gang by offering him his mother’s cigarettes:

“He felt as if, by going off with Berto, he were pursuing an obscure and justified form of revenge.”

Berto, and his friends, are clearly both poorer and rougher than Agostino, and Moravia punctuates their dialogue with sudden outbursts of violence. This begins when Berto plays a trick on Agostino, burning him with a cigarette. In fury, Agostino charges at him, only to be quickly gripped in a headlock:

“He was not so much frightened as bewildered by the boy’s extraordinary brutality… a new behaviour so monstrous it was almost attractive.”

Berto is treated no differently when they reach the boys’ den, his newly acquired cigarettes taken from him by an older boy:

“The other boy took a step back and waited till Berto was within range. Then he stuck the cigarette pack between his teeth and started methodically pounding Berto’s stomach with his fists.”

As much as Agostino is fascinated by the boys, they are also intrigued by him: his large house (twenty rooms), his car and driver, and his attractive mother. Agostino’s newly grasped independence allows him to see his mother as an individual as well: “She’s a woman, nothing more than a woman.” He becomes aware of her sexuality at the same time as his own, and Agostino’s coming-of-age is very much sexual rather than social – although he is aware of the other boys’ poverty he finds their freedom attractive and gives little thought to the difficulties of their lives compared to his.

Agostino’s awareness of the sexuality of others is also developed through the character of Saro, who seems initially a father figure to the boys, but is also sleeping with one of them. When Agostino is invited on his boat, he cannot convince the others that he has not also been subject to Saro’s desires. Moravia conveys the confusion in his mind:

“On that day his eyes had been forced open, but what he learned was far more than he could bear. What oppressed an embittered him was not so much the novelty as the quality of the things he had come to know, their massive and undigested importance.”

This is the novel’s greatest success, the picture it paints of Agostino’s turbulence and turmoil so typical of adolescence. Partly this is due to Moravia’s ability to explore sex without moralising. He also makes no claim that during the few days the novel covers, Agostino transforms from boy to man:

“But he wasn’t a man, and many unhappy days would pass before he became one.”

Agostino is a classic coming-of-age story from a writer who is always interesting.

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9 Responses to “Agostino”

  1. Emma Says:

    I loved Agostino for its great description of adolescence, for the atmosphere of this summer in Italy and for Moravia’s precise and beautiful prose.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Glad you could find something that fitted for 1944, Grant. The dates thing is so confusing with a lot of books, so I think we should definitely allow leeway! As for Moravia, I’ve read him in the past but never this book. It’s getting a lot of praise, though – one to look out for I think.

  3. Jonathan Says:

    I really like the sound of this one. I haven’t read anything by Moravia but I’ve seen his books around on the blogosphere.

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    I’m so delighted to see such a wonderful review of this book from you. It doesn’t get nearly enough love, imho. As you say, the portrayal of the emotional turbulence of adolescence is so very vivid and convincing. Three years on, I can still visualise some of the scenes from this book in my mind – one of the signs of a good book, I think.

    I can’t recall if this was ever made into a film, but it’s certainly a story with very strong sense of visual imagery.

  5. #1944Club: round up – Stuck in a Book Says:

    […] 1streading’s Blog […]

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