Agostino by Alberto Moravia (tr. Michael F. Moore)

First published in the mid-1940s, Alberto Moravia’s novella, Agostino, is a striking portrayal of the passing of a young boy’s innocence over the course of a seemingly idyllic summer.

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Thirteen-year-old Agostino and his widowed mother are spending the season at a seaside resort in Italy. As the story opens, we can see how Agostino looks up to his mother, a strong, attractive and serene woman who remains in the prime of her life. He enjoys spending time by his mother’s side catering to her every need as the pair soak up the sun and swim in the sea.

Agostino would see the mother’s body plunge into a circle of green bubbles, and he would jump in right after her, ready to follow her anywhere, even to the bottom of the sea. (pg. 4)

One morning, a tanned, dark-haired young man appears on the beach and invites Agostino’s mother to join him on a boat ride out to sea. Agostino is convinced that his mother will politely turn down the invitation as with the others that have preceded it, but much to his surprise she is quick to accept. Left alone on the beach, Agostino feels a mix of annoyance, disappointment and humiliation at his mother’s actions; it is as if he has been abandoned at the drop of a hat.

What offended him most wasn’t so much the mother’s preference for the young man as the quick almost premeditated joy with which she accepted his invitation. It was as if she had decided not to let the opportunity slip away and to seize it without hesitation as soon as it presented itself. It was as if all those days on the sea with him she had been bored and had only come along for lack of better company. (pg. 7)

The following day the young man returns to invite the mother on another boat trip, but this time she insists that Agostino join them on the pattino. Agostino, who has always viewed his mother as dignified and serene, is surprised to see her behaving in a playful and flirtatious manner in the company of this interloper. The mother seems blind to her son’s presence; meanwhile Agostino is left feeling uncomfortable and confused by this apparent change in his mother. At one stage during the trip, the mother’s belly brushes against Agostino’s cheek and this seemingly insignificant moment (certainly in the eyes of the mother) stirs a deep sense of repulsion in the boy.

She lowered herself awkwardly onto the plank, brushing her belly against her son’s cheek. A trace of moisture from the wet bathing suit was left on Agostino’s skin and a deeper warmth seemed to evaporate the moisture into steam. Although he felt a sharp stab of murky repulsion, he obstinately refused to dry himself off. (pg. 12)

In the days that follow this image remains in Agostino’s mind and it comes to represent the sense of revulsion he now feels towards his mother.

Shortly after this incident Agostino comes into contact with Berto, a rough, aggressive local boy who lives in an impoverished part of the town. Coming from a wealthy and sheltered background, Agostino is not used to mixing with coarse boys like Berto but events with his mother have left him in need of an escape. Agostino is drawn towards Berto despite the boy’s savage nature, a quality that becomes apparent when Berto picks a fight with him.

He was not so much frightened as bewildered by the boy’s extraordinary brutality. It seemed incredible that he, Agostino, whom everyone had always liked, could now be hurt so deliberately and ruthlessly. Most of all he was bewildered and troubled by this ruthlessness, a new behavior so monstrous it was almost attractive. (pg. 22)

Berto introduces Agostino to his friends, a collective of streetwise working-class kids presided over by a local boatman, Saro. The boys have been watching Agostino’s mother and her new admirer, Renzo; they know Agostino has been playing the ‘third wheel’. The crude banter comes thick and fast as the boys speculate about the nature of relations between Agostino’s mother and her dark-haired friend. Once again, Agostino experiences a mix of emotions: embarrassment, confusion, but also a strange sense of gratification almost as though some of his past humiliations have been redressed.

He felt as if he should object, but these uncouth jokes aroused in him an unexpected, almost cruel feeling of pleasure, as if the boys had unknowingly avenged through their words all the humiliations that his mother had inflicted on him lately. (pg. 29)

Prior to meeting Berto and his companions, the naïve and innocent Agostino had little understanding of sex, but recent events and discussions with the gang have roused a strong sense of curiosity in his mind. He wonders what his mother and Renzo have been getting up to in his absence – something of a sensual nature he suspects – so he goes looking for clues.

The truth is, he might not have been seized by a desire to spy on his mother and to destroy the aura of dignity and respect with which he had viewed her if, on that same day, chance had not set him so violently on this path. (pg. 41-42)

Agostino’s mother, however, is blissfully oblivious to her son’s awakening sexuality. She has no awareness of the emotional turmoil unfolding in Agostino’s mind, no idea of the provocative nature of her sensual behaviour. In her eyes, he remains an innocent child.

She walked back and forth in front of him as if he weren’t there. She would pull her stockings on and off, slip into her clothes, dab on some perfume, apply her makeup. All of these gestures, which had once seemed so natural to Agostino, now seemed to take on meaning and become an almost visible part of a larger more dangerous reality, dividing his spirit between curiosity and pain. (pg. 69)

Agostino is a novella of juxtapositions and tensions. Alongside the boy’s struggle to come to terms with the maelstrom of emotions evoked by his mother’s behaviour, Moravia also exposes Agostino to another facet of sexuality through his interactions with the local gang. Even though they expose his naiveté and gullibility, Agostino longs to be accepted by Berto and his gang and he continues to seek them out. In a memorable scene, the boys are preparing to go skinny dipping in the river. While Agostino is shy and somewhat reluctant to expose his body, the other boys are eager to strip – they boast of their virility and measure one another up in the process. Presiding over events is Saro, is an utterly nasty piece of work, a man who exerts his power and influence over the boys at key moments in the narrative. The toad-like description is very apt here:

The boys, getting ready to dive in, acted out hundreds of obscene gestures, tripping, pushing, and touching each other with brashness and an unrestrained promiscuity that shocked Agostino, who was new to this type of thing. He too was naked, his feet bare and caked with cold mud, but he would have preferred to hide behind the cane, if only to escape the looks cast his way through the half-closed eyes of Saro, crouching and motionless, like a giant toad who dwelled in the canebrake. (pg. 61)

Agostino is a short but very powerful novel full of strong, sometimes brutal, imagery. The murky, mysterious waters of the settings mirror the cloudy undercurrent of emotions in Agostino’s mind. Ultimately, this is a story of a young boy’s transition from the innocence of boyhood to a new phase in life. While this should be a happy an exciting time of discovery, for Agostino, the summer is marked by a deep sense of pain and confusion. His feelings towards his mother have changed; reverence and affection have morphed into a swirling and disturbing mix.

As the novella draws to a close, Agostino seeks to insert something akin to a psychological buffer between himself and his muddy feelings towards the mother. He longs for an alternative outlet for his awakened sexuality, freedom from the dark obsessions that have tainted his summer. To discover whether or not Agostino achieves these aims, I would urge you to read this excellent book for yourself.

I bought this book on the strength of two trusted recommendations: Guy’s review and an endorsement from Scott (of Seraillon). Thank you, both.

Agostino is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.

51 thoughts on “Agostino by Alberto Moravia (tr. Michael F. Moore)

  1. lonesomereadereric

    Sounds like a strong novella and you’ve described his conflict with his mother and his peers beautifully. I’ve been wanting to read some NYRB classics and this might be a good place to start.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Eric. The relationships are really interesting as they are characterised by a mix of different emotions. Nice use of imagery here too.

      I love the NYRB Classics list – there’s always something interesting to tempt me. if you like the sound of Agostino, it could be a good starting point. Alternatively, if you have any interest in jazz, there’s Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn, a novel inspired by the music and spirit of Bix Beiderbecke. (Not sure if you’ve ever read any Dorothy Baker, but I think you would enjoy her novels very much!)

      Reply
      1. lonesomereadereric

        I haven’t read anything by Dorothy Baker, but I’m really interested in books set in Harlem. Thanks for the suggestion.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Very welcome, Eric. It starts off in Los Angeles but moves to NYC and the jazz clubs of Harlem, a very atmospheric novel of dark, sultry nights. I loved it! (Reviewed it the other week if you need any more info.)

          Reply
  2. roughghosts

    Jacqui, I am going to have to start avoid your reviews! It’s not fair to feed my book addiction so heartily. *sigh* This sounds like a book I would really enjoy. Ah well, on to the list it goes…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha – sorry, Joe! I think you might like this one, and it’s a good place to start with Moravia if you’ve not read him before. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I liked it very much indeed. Beguiling is a good word for it – something about this story just gets under your skin.

      Reply
  3. Séamus Duggan

    I have recently finished The Conformist and it seems to echo many of the themes of this work. The mother blithely ignoring her child’s presence and the presence of a man waiting the opportunity to corrupt youth both seem very familiar.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, that’s very interesting to hear – I hope you’ll review it, Seamus. I definitely want to try another by Moravia (once I’ve made a bit more of a dent in the piles of unread books at home). There’s also a film adaptation of The Conformist (by Bertolucci, I believe?). I’ve been trying to avoid it in case I decide to read the novel first.

      Reply
      1. Séamus Duggan

        I hope to review it, and Richard is reviewing it also. I reviewed the Bertolucci film a few years back. I found that some of the elements that I thought Bertolucci had probably added to the mix (particularly his focus on light and shade) were already there in the text. There is a controversial film adaptation of Agostino too.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, excellent – sounds like a great post in the making, especially if you’re thinking of referencing the film, too. Looking forward to it already!

          Yes, I’d noticed a reference to a film adaptation of Agostino – directed by Bolognini, I believe. I hadn’t realised it was controversial (although I guess the story has the potential to be interpreted in that way). I shall have to investigate further!

          Reply
  4. gertloveday

    Interesting in all the pieces you’ve quoted there are two psychological states clashing -‘dividing his spirit’ as one of them says. Very cleverly done in such unassuming language.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re absolutely right. I think it’s one of the fascinating things about the Agostino’s state of mind in this novel, those juxtapositions between different emotions: the balance between joy and dismay; the tension between attraction and repulsion. As you say, it’s very skillfully portrayed through unshowy language. And the imagery supports it too – all those pictures of swirling, murky waters. It’s an excellent piece of writing.

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    One thing that strikes me about your description is that Agostino’s emotions and reactions sound very realistic and believable.

    Good point about what should be a happy time being a tumultuous time instead. This also seems to be something that is often realistic about childhood.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I definitely ‘buy’ the story. It feels very true to life, absolutely characteristic of that awkward time when one is on the cusp of adulthood, and everything is changing. The swirl of emotions is very cleverly portrayed here.

      Reply
  6. MarinaSofia

    I don’t know if it’s because I read this such a long time ago, but I seem to remember a sort of hazy, dream-like atmosphere about this book – the redolent summer days about to be interrupted by burgeoning frustrations, jealousies, impotence (of more than one kind). You describe it beautifully, you really do justice to the novella.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Marina. Your memory is spot-on, that’s a great description. There is something very heady and dream-like about the atmosphere Moravia creates, and the summertime setting is important as it adds to the simmering tensions. I really feel for Agostino’s situation here…oh, the challenges of being a teenager.

      Reply
  7. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds very powerful, and not necessarily a title I would have automatically picked up. NYRB are usually reliable, though.

    Reply
  8. Guy Savage

    Glad you liked this one Jacqui, and thanks for the mention. I think the story showed well how children can be exposed to situations in which sex is a big factor and a) they don’t get quite what is going on and b) the parents can be oblivious. As you say another winner from NYRB

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I liked it very much, Guy. One of those stories that linger in the memory – thanks for putting me on to it in the first place.

      I completely agree. Without wishing to reveal any spoilers, the key scene between Saro and Agostino is pretty unnerving. There are times when you just want to shake the mother and tell her to get a grip on the situation. How could she fail to appreciate what is happening right under her nose? And her provocative behaviour only serves to exacerbate the situation…

      Reply
  9. Naomi

    My strongest reaction after reading your review is that I feel sorry for Agostino. I hope he finds a way to get back some of his innocence, or at least some of his former feelings about his mother.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      With you all the way here as I really feel for Agostino. Without wishing to say too much about how things turn out, it’s the sort of experience that could haunt a young person for several years (especially as it happens at such an impressionable age). The mother is not very attuned to the situation…it’s quite sad at times. An excellent story, though.

      Reply
  10. Scott W.

    Really nicely done review, Jacqui, and glad you liked this. As a portrait of the transformation of innocence – and of that inevitable moment in childhood when one comes to see one’s parent(s) in a different light – Agostino is hard to beat. I like your highlighting of the “mysterious waters of the settings” – there’s an awful lot of water in this novel. Having just read Contempt I at first saw little semblance between the two, but there’s a similarity in distance that emotion and psychological reflection create between the main character and the object of his devotion. Interesting too to see that conveyed in third person here (as opposed to first in Contempt).

    I couldn’t help thinking of Sabo’s “gang” of boys as like the gang that Pinocchio takes up with on the seashore in Collodi’s book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Scott. I liked it a great deal, so much so that I’m keen to read another by Moravia – Contempt is looking increasingly like a must-read. Interesting comment on the similarity between these two novels, I get the impression that this emotional distance is one of Moravia’s themes. He also seems to focus on the psychological aspects of relationships, the power a more dominant character can hold over the object of their attention.

      Water does play quite a significant role in Agostino (I seem to recall Guy mentioning it in his review as well.) Nice use of imagery too with those swirling, murky waters and the dangers lurking beneath a seemingly peaceful surface. The skinny-dipping scene reminded me a little of some of the shots in Sean Durkin’s unsettling film Martha Marcy May Marlene. Have you seen it? Another story in which a powerful man has a hold over impressionable teenagers – well worth a look if you haven’t come across it.

      I recall your post on Pinocchio, a much darker book than I had previously imagined!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I think it’s an excellent film, very unsettling at times. And it’s filmed in a way that brings a real sense of ambiguity to certain scenes, so you’re never quite sure where you are in the story. Let me know what you think if you get a chance to watch it.

          Contempt is most definitely on my shopping list – your review sealed it!

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gemma. It’s my first experience of Moravia, hopefully not the last. I liked it a great deal. Hope you get a chance to read it.

      Reply
  11. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Sounds like an excellent and poignant novella Jacqui, your choice of quotes give a real flavour of the narrative, this could be the boy alternative to #Ferrante, the author seems to have really captured the essence of the turbulent emotions that arise in the boy as he crosses over into murky adolescence. A brilliant and captivating review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. That’s a really interesting comparison! Ferrante hadn’t occurred to me at all, but I think you’re onto something there, especially the first Neapolitan novel which focuses on the girls’ childhood and adolescence. Funnily enough, Moravia was married to another Italian writer, Elsa Morante, and her novel, History, came up in the conversations when I reviewed the Ferrante series. It sounds amazing, another sweeping, turbulent portrayal of a section of Italian society. I’d like to make time for it at some point, but then I say this about so many books…

      Reply
  12. litlove

    I do love your reviews, Jacqui, because a) they are so smart and insightful and b) your shelves are a lot like mine! I’ve had Moravia’s Contempt on mine for ages (an all too familiar story!) and your review makes its chances to being read a great deal better!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Victoria. I would love to riffle through your shelves – full of treasures, no doubt! Moravia’s Contempt is looking increasingly like a ‘must-get-hold-of’ as I’ve been following some of the reviews from the recent group read (hosted by Richard of Caravana de recuerdos). It sounds quite intense, but Agostino has given me a taste for Moravia – I would be curious to hear what you think of Contempt (as and when).

      Reply
  13. 1streading

    As you know, I recently read my first Moravia (Contempt) and will now be seeking out more – Agostino included! The idea of how we see others, and how that can change, seems common to both.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent! Loved Agostino – such a seemingly simple story, but very powerful in the telling. Interesting you can see connections between Contempt and Agostino (Scott noticed some similarities too). I wonder if Agostino (alongside other early novels) might represent the genesis of some of Moravia’s themes? Either way, Contempt is well and truly on the ‘future purchases’ list now.

      Reply
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  15. Bellezza

    As you know, Contempt by Moravia was my first novel by the author. I am eager to read more of him with Boredom this July, and now your lovely review of Agostino. He seems to me, so far, to be absolutely brilliant at portraying the complexity of emotions. They’re not drawn in a straight forward way, I think, but more in a way for us to interpret what the character is feeling and what is motivations (or weaknesses) are. I’m looking forward to reading more Alberto Moravio. Those Italians, some of my favorite people! ;)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s so true. I like the fact that Moravia’s characters are not black and white but conflicted in some way. Contempt is well and truly on my list now, and it’s been fascinating to see the various reviews flying around the web over the past couple of weeks! I’m looking forward to hearing more about Boredom, too.

      In the meantime, I would certainly recommend Agostino – I think you’d enjoy it very much. Moravia wrote it a good ten years before the publication of Contempt, so it’s interesting to consider the common threads connections between the two novels. I suspect Contempt is the more complex of the two novels, but Agostino’s story has the potential to linger long in the memory.

      Reply
  16. Emma

    I loved Contempt and I have Agostino on the virtual TBR since Guy’s review.
    I’m currently reading Labor Day by Joyce Maynard and the similarities between her book and Moravia’s are incredible.
    Same situation: a 13 years old boy living alone with his mother and then a stranger comes in the mix and the mother transforms into a woman and lives the mother behind. Awakening to sexuality, new acquaintances are also in the mix.
    I’d be really curious to read Agostino not long after the Maynard. Have you read it?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, another fan of Contempt! I’m going to have to get it once I return to buying books. (After a couple of false starts and a bit of dithering, I’ve just started another #TBR20. I’m on book one right now which means another three or four months of reading from the shelves.)

      No, I haven’t read the Maynard, but I’ve seen it around and about, probably on account of the film adaptation that came out last year. The novel sounds very good – looking forward to reading your billet. Thirteen…it’s an awkward age for young boys, isn’t it? Those early teenage years can be confusing, fraught with anxiety and conflicted emotions. There were times when I just wanted to shake Agostino’s mother as she’s completely oblivious to what’s happening around her. I think you’d really like it, Emma. As you say, it could make a great comparison with Labor Day.

      Reply
  17. Max Cairnduff

    Lovely review. I do need to get to grips with Moravia. This sounds rather Zweigian, I’m reminded of his Burning Secret but the whole setup is rather Zweig, but perhaps less melodramatic.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. I’m glad I started with Agostino. Contempt sounds excellent too, possibly more intense and complex than this one, but that’s probably to be expected as it’s a later novel. Agostino’s story is very affecting – a seemingly simple narrative, but very powerful in the telling. I would certainly recommend it.

      Funnily enough, I’ve just finished a Zweig – Beware of Pity – as it’s my book group’s choice for July. The only other one I’ve read is Journey into the Past, which I liked very much – wonderful prose style. I’ll take a look at Burning Secret.

      Reply
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  21. Emma

    I’ve read it now and your review is fantastic, really giving back the beauty and the complexity of the novel. Moravia was really talented: there’s so much in less than 150 pages.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks, Emma. I loved your review as well. I think you really captured the maelstrom of emotions in the novella. This was my first Moravia, but I sincerely hope it won’t be my last. Contempt is looking increasingly appealing.

      Reply
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