The Voice of the Sea

By the time of the publication of The Voice of the Sea in 1976, Alberto Moravia had been writing for almost fifty years. This particular collection consists of thirty short stories, all written from the point of view of a woman, and almost all no more than six or seven pages long. As early as 1959 Moravia had spoken about the influence of writing as a journalist on both the concision of his work, and his use of the first person:

“This narrow limit suggested to me a form of highly concentrated narration, rapid and direct. To obtain these effects and that technique, I made use of the spoken language in the first person…”

(quoted by Giuliano Dego in Moravia, 1966). The brevity of the stories necessitates that characters are depicted quickly and the first person allows this, often within the opening paragraph, where the narrator will outline some essential facet of her personality. In ‘The Virgin and the Drug’, for example, we are told:

“Renunciation, prohibition, impediment, denial: this was my life.”

In ‘Inside and Outside’ the narrator begins by apportioning her success with men to her voice, before confessing:

“However, you must know that, apart from my voice, nothing in me comes from ‘inside’, everything comes from ‘outside’.”

This, in turn, creates a confessional tone, an intimacy between narrator and reader. There is no space for unreliability. Characters look back at their past in honest appraisal: one is “a silly girl” at sixteen, marrying a man in his forties because “he had been so obstinately insistent” (‘A Smell in the Nose’); another reflects that, at eighteen, she was oblivious to her good looks:

“…so serious and well conducted that I did not even know I was beautiful.” (‘The Discovery of Discoveries’)

The characters are similarly honest in appraising their appearance, whether it is to announce their beauty, or point out their flaws. In the previously mentioned ‘Inside and Outside’, the narrator describes herself as follows:

“In fact, with my harassed face, dark and slightly twisted, my green rather prominent eyes, my big mouth full of over-white teeth, my thin leggy figure but with a great bosom coming down to my waist – with all this I consider myself to be genuinely ugly.”

Duplicity and doubleness feature in many of the stories, duplicity largely as the result of affairs, conducted by both men and women. In the opening story, ‘Queen of Egypt’, the narrator tells her husband about a friend who is sleeping with an elderly man and then passing his monetary gifts onto a younger man she is in love with. The joke, she feels is on the husband – the woman is her, and she has even warned him of this by declaring that all women are “false, untruthful, treacherous, faithless and insincere” when it comes to men. We then see these relationships enacted in the hours that follow, and, perhaps as a result of telling her husband the story, she begins to reconsider. In ‘Madness’ we see things from the opposite point of view: the narrator has a breakdown when she sees her married lover with his wife. She then uses this to prevent him from visiting her, “alleging ups and downs in my illness,” a situation that goes on for years while she sleeps with other men:

“And so there began, for me, a double life, or rather, a life divided into two parts, one of which was real with its reality denied, the other unreal but claimed to be the only real one.”

Such doubleness reoccurs frequently. ‘The Superbody’, for example, begins, “For some time my husband might be said to be dividing my person into two distinct parts.” It will not surprise you to learn that “the first begins from the neck upwards, the second from the neck downwards.” A division also created by beauty, but differently, occurs in ‘The Most Terrible Thing in Life’:

“The beauty which is a mere professional requisite of my job as an air hostess seems to change its character and function as soon as I descend from heaven to earth.”

In ‘Mind and Body’ the division takes place between two sisters, one of whom makes the decisions while the other enacts them – one is the mind, one is the body. Doubleness, Moravia seems to be suggesting, is part of being a woman. As the narrator of ‘The Other Face of the Moon’ tells us:

“I am two persons in one or, if you prefer, I am a double-fronted person, that is, with two faces, like the moon. And like the moon, I have one face which is known to all and always the same, and one face which is unknown not merely to other people but even, in a sort of way, to myself.”

The question for many readers will be how successful is Moravia in presenting his female characters? – a question that can only really be answered by female readers. Luckily there are not too many scenes where the narrator is gazing into a mirror, and when she is, it is often to the purpose of the story – as in ‘The Discovery of Discoveries’ where the ‘mirror’ is a shop window, and she is admiring a skirt. Clothes are often used to aid Moravia’s attempt to enter the minds of his speakers – almost as if he is getting in costume. In ‘Judith in Madrid’ the story begins:

“There is nothing more squalid than a pair of holed and torn tights in the most intimate party of one’s body.”

In ‘The Apartment’ the narrator dresses in the clothes of a prostitute she has met the night before: “How the female body changes according to the clothes it puts on!” Psychological insight or fetish, each reader must decide for herself, but, overall, The Voice of the Sea felt less dated than some of Moravia’s novels from the same period. And if one story isn’t pleasing, it is soon time for another.

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6 Responses to “The Voice of the Sea”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Sounds very intriguing, Grant, with several of the stories exploring different facets of identity or personality. Maybe some of these women feel they need to present different fronts or faces to the world, depending on the situation? I’m wondering if it might be a comment on society’s expectations of women at the time?

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Interesting that you found this perhaps less dated than others of his books, and also that the focus is one women characters. I might be tempted to try it if I fancy reading him!

  3. Simon T Says:

    An author I’ve seen often and never read – this does sound interesting. I do love a very short short story.

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