Alberto Moravia; Popular Italian Writer Tackled Modern Issues in Graphic Style

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alberto Moravia, a sharp-eyed Roman storyteller who became the grand old man of contemporary Italian literature, died here Wednesday in his apartment overlooking the Tiber River. He was 82.

Moravia, a prolific and controversial figure whose literary career spanned six decades, died within a few minutes of feeling ill during his morning bath, his family said. Moravia's doctor, who had proclaimed the author fit after a physical examination Monday, said he suspected a heart attack as the cause of death. The funeral is set for Friday.

Literary and public figures journeyed in a long procession throughout the day Wednesday to Moravia's apartment to express their condolences.

Italian President Francesco Cossiga hailed Moravia as a "sharp but very sensitive narrator of 20th-Century Italian society, its contradictions, bewilderments and anxious search for values."

With his native Rome in all its splendor and scars as the backdrop for most of his works, Moravia bluntly and clearly explored sex, alienation and middle-class disillusionment in nearly two dozen novels. He was Italy's best-known author, and successful movies made from a number of his books fueled his widespread international recognition.

"In 60 years, Roman society has not changed at all. That's why people still read my books," Moravia told a visitor last year to the riverside apartment where he wrote, two-fingered on a manual typewriter, for two hours each morning.

Moravia liked to tell interviewers that, as a sickly child, he was a storyteller even before he knew how to read and write. He began his first novel, "Gli Indifferenti" ("The Time of Indifference"), fresh out of his teens, and paid to have 1,300 copies of it published when he was 21. His last work, an interview-style autobiography, "The Life of Alberto Moravia," is within a few weeks of publication.

"My life, as, I believe, everybody else's, is chaos. The only continuous line is one of literary work," Moravia said in the autobiography.

Moravia's early work outraged the church-dominated Italian society. An outspoken iconoclast, Moravia saw his work banned by Fascist authorities in the 1930s and by the Vatican in the '50s. His novels were prominent on an index of works that Catholics were forbidden to read.

"The present Pope is a hick. He is like those medieval Popes who had nothing to do with religion and much to do with politics," he told an interviewer on the eve of his 80th birthday.

Moravia was born Alberto Pincherle in Rome on Nov. 28, 1907. Childhood illness left him with a lifelong limp. As a boy, he read, thought and told himself stories while others played. He was often bored.

"When I was a child, I often put myself in a corner. At home we always spoke French, and I'd say, ' Je m'ennuie '--I'm bored. I am terribly bored in life. It is not a boast, but a biological fact. I am only uplifted by strong sensations. Like love, or travel," Moravia told an Italian interviewer.

Commenting recently on the Persian Gulf crisis, Moravia recalled his own visit to Iraq. "What is happening in Iraq doesn't surprise me," he said, "because the impression I had of Iraq was of a world that is ferocious and at the same time absurd."

Moravia was an inveterate traveler and a man who liked women. In 1986 he married Spanish writer Carmen Llera, then 32. The marriage came a few months after the death of writer Elsa Morante, from whom he had been separated for nearly 25 years. Moravia, who liked his politics left of center, served in his 70s as an independent leftist member of the European Parliament.

In his novels and short stories, Moravia was best known for writing in a graphic, readable style while describing complex emotions. "One must try to say complicated things in a clear way," he once said.

In "The Time of Indifference," Moravia assailed the decadence of the Roman middle class during the rise of fascism. Later works were influenced by a strong liking for American culture, born while he lectured for a year at Columbia University in New York in the mid-1930s.

That, his biting pen, his Jewish ancestry and his leftist politics were more than enough to rouse the ire of Benito Mussolini's ruling Fascists on the eve of World War II. In 1941, they banned a thinly disguised Moravia novel about a grotesque dictator in an imaginary South American country.

When the German army occupied Rome in 1943, Moravia fled south toward Naples, living for nine months in mountain villages. That experience inspired the novel "La Ciociara," the wrenching account of a woman and her daughter raped by "liberating" Moroccan troops while fleeing German invaders. The novel was filmed by Vittorio De Sica as "Two Women" and starred Sophia Loren, who won the Oscar for best actress of 1961.

A second powerful novel inspired by Moravia's experiences, "La Romana," told the story of a Roman prostitute's unavailing search for love in postwar Rome. Published in the United States as "The Woman of Rome," the book sold more than 1 million copies.

"I don't like my books," Moravia once said. "It's others who like them. My books have nothing new for me. . . . My success has always been a great mystery for me."

In recent years, Moravia produced a steady stream of novels, short stories, travelogues and newspaper columns. Reviews were mixed: Some critics said that he had done his best as a young man and that he had nothing more to say.

Unfazed, Moravia kept writing: "I'll carry on as long as I have the strength to write," he said last year. "I can't think of any other way to pass the time."

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