Alberto Moravia was a leading mid-Twentieth Century Italian novelist and short story writer. Although his works were quickly translated into English, they were little read in the United States. Fortunately for interested readers, many of his books are now in print again and accessible, including his 1949 novel, The Woman of Rome.
This is a story of Adriana, a beautiful, poor, and uneducated young woman who begins as an artist's model at the age of 16. Although she dreams of a quiet, modest home with a loving husband and children, she becomes both a prostitute and a thief. As a prostitute, she is involved with a number of men with competing ideologies and interests including Astarita, a Fascist chief of police, Giacomo, a student revolutionary against the Fascists and Sozmogo, a criminal and a thug.
The story is told in the first person. Adriana is always on stage and the character of highest interest. The reader gets to know her well. The book is told in a linear, easy-to-follow style which builds to a large cresendo, for me, at the end of the first part. The second part of the book loses slightly in dramatic intensity and in construction.
As with any work of depth, this book functions on a number of levels which reject easy paraphrase or simple meaning. Many readers see the book as a picture of corruption in Rome while others see it more as the story of Adriana. I am more inclined to the second view. As far as I can tell, however, there is a strong spiritual theme in the book which sometimes gets too little emphasis in the pull of conflicting readings.
There are no less than four pivotal scenes in The Woman of Rome set in a church. Although the book is replete with sex, violence and raw brutality, it is also highly internalized. Many of its most effective moments are those in which Adriana relects (in church or out) on her life and on the course it has taken.
The German philosopher Frederich Nietxche (Adriana does not mention and would not have known of him) used the phrase "amor fati" to describe the wise person's attitude towards life. The phrase means loving one's destiny or, to use another related Nietschean phrase, "becoming who one is". The specific facts of one's life may be determined by circumstance. What is not determined is one's attitude. A person can understand his or her life and accept it joyfully, regardless of its state. It is in the acceptance and understanding that choice resides and that gives life its value and dignity.
The novel shows the attempt of a poor, but intelligent woman to find "amor fati" and to become who she is. She struggles to accept her nature and her being as a prostitute. Many of Adriana's reflections in the church are quite explicit and insightful. Adriana, alas, is no more successful than are most people in staying with her insight into herself. That, in my opinion, is the tragedy of the story which leads to the downfall of the men involved with Adriana.
The spiritual tone of the book goes well beyond Nietsche. Together with the theme of amor fati, there is a religiosity that emphasises, in the context of Western theology, God as merciful and as all-forgiving rather than God as a moralizer or judge. This God -- or self-understanding is open to all regardless of creed or station. The religion that seems to be espoused in the book recognizes the sinful, fallen nature of people and their frequent inability to change. It seems to suggest the possiblity of atonement and forgiveness offered to everyone by a turning of the heart, even if, perhaps, behavior cannot be changed. It is a powerful picture of a God of mercy and forgiveness who holds the possiblity of love out to all.
This is a first-rate or nearly first-rate Twentieth Century novel.