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Alberto Moravia: Gli indifferenti (The Indifferent Ones; The Time of Indifference)

The twenty-one year old Moravia had to subsidise publication of his first novel with a loan from his father. He was very surprised when it turned out to be successful, though it did attract some negative criticism for its overt sexuality and negative portrait of Roman high society. The story is very simple. There are just five main characters, all living in Rome. The action takes place over a few days and it is about that oldest of stories, a family squabble.

The core is the Ardengo family. Mariagrazia is the mother and has two children, Michele and Carla. Her husband is dead. She has a friend, Lisa. The fifth character is Leo Merumeci. The first four are all at a critical point in their lives and are dreaming of better things. Only Leo has his feet firmly on the ground. Mariagrazia and Lisa are getting old and they know it. They want one last stab at happiness. Leo had been Lisa’s lover many years ago but dumped her for Mariagrazia. Mariagrazia is looking for two things from Leo. Firstly, she wants to rekindle their love affair. Secondly she wants Leo’s financial assistance (he is a financial adviser). She will be disappointed in both. Lisa is hoping to have an affair with Michele but she does not realise that he has nothing but contempt for her. Carla has realised that nothing is happening for her either as regards a career or her love life. She is hoping that an affair with Leo will make her happy. Michele wants to become someone and make something of himself, in other words to cease to be an indifferent. Leo knows full well what he wants – an affair with Carla and to foreclose the mortgage on the Ardengo villa. Leo gets what he wants. The others do not.

The bored bourgeois novel is now such a staple of modern fiction that it is difficult to image the impact of this novel. It was the precursor of the novels of existentialism and alienation that would be found in the novels of such writers as Camus and Sartre. It still made an impact on me many years later, even though I read it after having read Camus and Sartre. It gives a very powerful portrait of a bourgeois family going nowhere, focusing on material matters only and ending up without the material and without anything else. Carla may marry Leo but you know that this is not going to be a marriage made in heaven. Alienation – the idea that we are detached from the real world and slip into this indifference – is, of course, one of the key themes of twentieth century literature. This novel makes this point abundantly clear.

Publishing history

First published 1929 by Alpes
First English translation 1932 by Dutton