The Woman of Rome (translated by Lydia Holland) is the third Alberto Moravia novel I have read in recent times, though it differs from both Contempt and Boredom in having a female protagonist and narrator, Adriana. It is set in pre-war Italy under Mussolini, although this is not readily apparent: only one brief scene where Adriana enters a police station references the Fascist salute. Like Moravia’s other novels, it explores the passions which overpower even the strongest characters and in the heat of which their fate is forged.
From the very first lines our gaze is directed towards Adriana’s beauty, and her body:
“At sixteen years of age, I was a real beauty. I had a perfectly oval face, narrowing at the temples and widening 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 regular white teeth… Mother said that although my face was beautiful, my body was a hundred times more so; she said that there was not a body like mine in all Rome.”
Adriana’s mother is convinced Adriana’s body is her greatest asset and suggests that she becomes an artist’s model. Her attitude towards her beauty – that it is a saleable commodity – is revealed in the way she sells Adriana to the painter:
“’Where else will you find legs and hips and breasts like these?’ And as she said these things, she kept on prodding me, just like they prod animals to persuade people to buy them in the market.”
This, however, is only a temporary use of her looks – her ultimate aim is for Adriana to marry a ‘gentleman’ – and she warns her not to be seduced by an artist:
“They are all penniless… and you can’t expect to get anything out of them. With your looks you can aim much higher, much higher.”
Her mother hopes Adriana will learn from her own misfortune – falling pregnant with Adriana (“You were the ruin of me”) and a hasty marriage to a railway worker, whose death has left them in poverty, sewing shirts to make ends meet. She thinks of Adriana’s beauty as “our only available capital, and, as such, belonging to her as well as to me.”
Adriana (of course) ignores her mother’s advice and falls in love with the first young man to make eyes at her, Gino. Though the first thing he tells her is a quickly uncovered lie, she decides “after all, he must be a decent, honest young man, just the man I had imagined for a husband in my dreams,” They begin to see each other regularly. In a line that sums up much of Moravia’s work, she reflects:
“And we all know love is a deceptive glass that can make even a monster appear fascinating.”
Adriana’s mother is furious when they get engaged but comforts herself with the belief that they will never marry when she discovers they have slept together.
This cynical attitude towards men runs through the novel in parallel with a vision of love which is immune to such realism. The former is best exemplified by Adriana’s friend, Gisella, who also believes Gino will never marry her. Gisella introduces Adriana to a ‘gentleman’ who “takes an interest” in her, Astarita. What seems a casual day out with Gisella, her own ‘gentleman’, Riccardo, and Astarita, is in fact a carefully planned trap to allow Astarita to seduce Adriana – and, when seduction doesn’t work, to blackmail her instead:
“Come on… Otherwise I’ll tell Gino that you came out with us today and let me make love to you.”
Even as this happens, Adriana is aware that it is a turning point in her life:
“A flash of intuition seemed to light up the whole future path of my life, as a rule so dark and torturous, and reveal it straight and clear before my eyes, showing me in that single moment what I would lose in exchange for Astarita’s silence.”
Soon after, Adriana begins to live of her ‘capital’, picking up men and sleeping with them for money.
At this point, one might ask what Moravia thinks of all this. Adriana is not driven to prostitution by desperation, but by her understanding of the alternatives: the happy marriage she once dreamed of seems increasingly unlikely; slaving away for little reward like her mother, unpalatable. Adriana’s choices are limited by her poverty, a theme Moravia frequently returns to. When Gino takes her to his employer’s home (he is a chauffeur) she immediately feels inadequate – only when she is naked is she equal to the woman of the house:
“Naked, I though, I would be as beautiful, if not more beautiful, than Gino’s mistress and all the other rich women in the world.”
When she receives money for sex it gives her an almost physical pleasure:
“Once more as I took it I had the same powerful feeling of sensual complicity that Astarita’s money had aroused in me.”
Of course, the lure of wealth, and the willingness of young women to trade sex for it, is an issue which has not gone away. Perhaps also there is something of the compromises of living under Fascism in Adriana’s character. Despite her actions, she does not lose faith in love, however, and Astarita’s unrequited love for Adriana is echoed in her own feelings for Giacomo in the novel’s second half.
The Woman of Rome is a battleground between a cynical, reductive view of sexual relationships as transactions and one in which love is a passion we cannot control, both life-affirming and chaotic. Even in its conclusion it is difficult to pronounce a winner.