July 9, 2014

Review: Agostino

Agostino By Alberto Moravia
Translated by Michael F. Moore
Available now from NYRB Classics (New York Review of Books)
Review copy

Whenever a new NYRB Classic comes out, I pay attention.  I basically regard the imprint (and the Children's imprint) as lists of books I should be reading.  I rarely come across an NYRB classic that doesn't have something to offer me.

What drew me to AGOSTINO?  Perhaps it was the promise of a Tuscan seaside (even in Fascist-era Italian).  The eponymous Agostino travels there with his mother.  When they arrive, he loves her in an uncomplicated fashion.  But when she takes a lover (although Agostino is too young to realize that he is a lover at first), Agostino starts to feel like a third wheel, and starts to see his mother in a more complicated light, as her own person, as a woman.

Then he meets a group of boys, slightly older than him, who bully the naive young Agostino for not knowing about sex, for not knowing what his mother is doing, for not knowing to beware of predators.  There is also the resentment, for the boys are working class and Agostino is quite rich.  They lack the privilege of being sheltered.

AGOSTINO is short, and written in a fashion that approaches, but doesn't quite reach stream of consciousness.  The book's rhythm is quick, but the unusual style causes the eye and mind to linger a bit longer over the prose.  There are some odd quirks to the storytelling, such as Agostino's mother usually being referred to as "the mother" rather than his mother. The translator's note from Michael F. Moore mentions that this is deliberate, due to the Italian using an ambiguous construction.

Despite the fact that the narrator isn't even a teenager, AGOSTINO is not a children's story.  It is meant to be read by an adult, by a reader who has the perspective and knowledge Agostino is just starting to realize exists.  It is an interesting reading experience.

I found myself being left cold by AGOSTINO.  I can admire the construction of the novel, and that Agostino's growing Oedipal obsession with his mother is supposed to be troubling.  Agostino longs to be a man, but how can he when the most information he gets about being a man is scrambled and delivered by cruel boys?  It is an intriguing portrayal of sexual awakening, but one that stuck me as more as surreal than psychologically incisive.  At the same time, I kind of feel like I want to read it again.

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