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Book Review : A Moravian Tone in Sexual Obsession

December 18, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Erotic Tales by Alberto Moravia (Farrar Straus Giroux: $15.95)

Alberto Moravia's gallery of the obsessed has acquired a settled, almost a cozy air. He has inhabited the literary burrow that he dug so long and so completely that it fits him both as snugly and as loosely as the proverbial old shoe.

Moravia's writing could be Moravia putting out the milk bottles or Moravia lifting his head to the window and noticing that it has grown wintry outside. So a man burns for nymphets with long, muscular legs? Another is tormented by a voluptuous and indifferent mistress? That's just Moravia again, going for a walk; and we hope he wears his muffler and takes care at the crossings.

In "Erotic Tales," his latest collection, many of the stories are bleak. Reductionism has set in, and the sexual fixation of the protagonist has narrowed down from the mysterious other to a specific portion of the mysterious other's anatomy.

In one story, a nurse has a compulsion to give each of her male patients, even the dying, one very specific sexual caress, though always through the bedclothes and without involving herself further. She saw it as her nursely tribute to life. Finally, though, she is attracted to a patient, makes love to him, and he dies. She quits her job and becomes a hairdresser. "I was a good, conscientious nurse with a vice," she tells the narrator philosophically. "I became a sane, normal woman and a murderess."

Drawn Into a Menage

Despite the misogynistic implications, the story has a rueful charm. Others are much blacker. In the particularly chilly and brutal "The Thing," the lesbian narrator is drawn into a menage of women whose tastes apparently resemble hers but who, in fact, worship the virility of a stallion they keep in their stables.

Existentialist disgust, which Moravia has frequently used to exercise the vitality of his characters, overwhelms "The Thing," and a number of other stories such as "The Belt," in which a woman conceives a veneration for the belt her husband beats her with.

Elsewhere, the narrators, who speak with the characteristic Moravian tone of defiant matter-of-factness, are obsessed with women's genitalia. A grieving widower succeeds in reducing his memory of his wife to the memory of her sex, reasoning that he will be able to find a replacement for the part, as it were, more easily than for the whole.

Moravia sometimes presents sexual obsession in the form of the Devil. In the longest and most involved of the stories, the Devil takes advantage of the weakness of a brilliant scientist for very young girls, by getting one of them to offer him the standard 30-year soul contract. In fact, the scientist manages to resist the temptation, and when he does sign, it is for glory, not for sex. Meanwhile the Tempter himself becomes obsessed, and presents himself as a nymphet, only to find that when it comes to human love, or doing good, the Devil is bound to fail. The glimmer of paradox here fails to survive the pedantic and finally wearying effort to achieve it.

Sometimes, the narrator finds himself possessed of a gun, a symbol of power over the threatening life of the woman he is with. In others, he is vaguely threatened--again through a woman--by a younger man. A man and his wife share a fantasy about strangulation. A customs inspector who enjoys rifling through women's clothes dreams he is visited by himself in the shape of a woman. When he wakes up, a stranger is trying to enter his apartment.

Intimations of Death

Dreams and hallucinations become more frequent in the later stories in the collection. They are briefer and more enigmatic; they are tiny moments of submerged panic, or intimations of death.

Many of these are too fragmentary to have much effect. In one, however, Moravia manages to suggest a great deal in an ordinary incident. A man lives alone on a street on the banks of the Tiber, a street that has been closed because the bank is crumbling. It is safer, he reflects, but there is no traffic; a situation that clearly parallels his own. One day he sees a young woman furtively placing a basket over the railing. He hurries out, convinced that she has abandoned her baby. What he finds is a doll. Seeking renewal for a fading life, he encounters only the symbol of childhood, discarded to make way for a life that is flowering.

In his best work, Moravia wrote of perversity as a window in the oppressive gray walls of modern urban life. His heroes were ordinary men lit up from inside by an obsession. They presented themselves to us as grittily real, yet with a heightened mixture of danger and absurdity that caught at our imagination.

"Erotic Tales" continues to set out the author's particular variety of the Flowers of Evil. They are pressed flowers by now; their twists and ironies retain the old form but not the old vigor; the aroma is faint, almost imaginary.

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