Let us review one of Moravia's translated novels and short stories to see what all the fuss was about.
In The Empty Canvas [Italian: La Noia], Dino, an extremely bored painter, lived in his Via Marguttag studio that was three doors down from Balestrieri. Although, they often briefly met and spoke, Balestrieri exuded an “extreme, almost insulting coldness” which may have been due to Balestrieri perceiving Dino as a potential rival. Dino shared that “Balestrieri's studio was continually visited by a large number of women” which included young girls. Dino was so fascinated by sixty-five-year-old Balestrieri's life that he spied upon him and learned that for ten years the elderly painter had approximately five different females per month, a new one about every six weeks which averaged two visitors of the opposite sex per day until Balestrieri died a sudden death. Rumor had it that he died while having anal sex with Cecilia, his mistress, who was no more than seventeen, but looked fifteen due to the “slenderness of her figure and the childishness of her face” and “childish lips”. However, she had a “magnificent bosom, full, firm and brown” and “curly brown hair”. The only confirmed information about Balestrieri's death was that he “had been found half-naked on the bed, and that the girl herself had run out and called the caretaker, wearing a dressing gown with nothing underneath”.
Cecilia met the elderly painter when she was fifteen at the home of Elisa, her seventeen-year-old friend. Balestrieri had been giving Elisa drawing lessons. Cecilia repeatedly requested that Balestrieri give her drawing lessons too, but to the nymphet's dismay, he refused her pleas for over three months until she “[...] resorted to a trick.” Cecilia, who had fallen in love with Balestrieri, invited Elisa to lunch and informed her that Balestrieri canceled her lesson. Cecilia went instead and she and Balestrieri made love.
Dino asked Cecilia why she had fallen in love with Balestrieri, a man old enough to have been her “father's father”. Celicia replied, “There's no reason for falling in love with someone. You just fall in love and that's that.” When pressed for a reason, Cecilia shared that Balestrieri reminded her of her father whom “she had a real passion for” and “dreamed about at night.”
Until he died, Balestrieri was constantly in “need” of Cecilia. Initially, they only made love “[...] once or twice a week, then every other day, then every day, then twice a day.”
Subsequently, to thirty-five-year-old Dino's eventual dismay, he and sixteen-year-old Cecilia began a sexual relationship. The crux of Dino's frustration came from the illusion that since Cecilia allowed Dino to consistently make love to her, as much as he wished, every way he wished, and every time he wished, that he possessed her. But it was merely a physical possession – not mental, because the indifferent, quiet and mysterious nymphet had no qualms about having multiple sexual relationships with other men which almost drove Dino to an early death.
As usual, the novel is superior to the 1963 film adaption. For example, Cecilia was played by eighteen-year-old blond Catherine Spaak instead of a sixteen-year-old actress and she was erroneously portrayed as being venal which the novel clearly showed that she was not.
“The Devil Can't Save the World” is a short story in Moravia's Erotic Tales [Italian: La Cosa]. In the story Gualtieri, an approximately thirty-year-old famous scientist, makes a Faustian bargain. Gualtieri is described as being “tall, thin, and elegant, with a charming face […] penetrating eyes set in the shadow of thick black eyebrows; silver hair; a large, hooked, imperious nose, and a proud, noble mouth.” And with “the gentlest voice and the most persuasive manner imaginable.”
In an effort to get the scientist to sign over his soul, the devil decided to disguise himself as a female before approaching Gualtieri because “it combines the temptation of success with the often irresistible temptation of desire.” The devil appeared “as a girl studying at the university”, “as a married woman at some social gathering or club”, and as a prostitute but Gualtieri displayed an “indifference” that was both “relaxed and effortless”.
However, after “beginning to despair” the devil happened upon the scientist in “the public gardens. He was sitting on a bench with a book in his hand, but the book was closed. He seemed to be watching something very intently […] With an air of profound attention he was watching a group of twelve-to fifteen-year-old girls a little further on who were playing [hopscotch] […] the game they were playing lifted their skirts bit by bit above their knees.” Consequently, the devil “had discovered not only the disguise in which to approach him but also the way to make him sign the infernal pact immediately”.
The devil “got up from the bench, went into a thicket of trees , and transformed […] into a little girl around twelve years old with a thick head of hair, slender bust and long, muscular legs.” She joined the game, but she hitched up her dress to improve her jumping but cunningly “a great deal more than necessary.” Gualtieri immediately noticed that the nymphet was not wearing any panties. He suddenly buried himself in his book, “gripping it tight in his hands.”
The devil was certain that she had “hit the bullseye of his most intimate target [on the] first shot.” And with “a typically cheeky little girl's voice” asked, “I'm collecting signatures. Will you sign my book?”
Who would have thought that a former president of PEN International would write such salacious material? Only the naive. Lastly, for some reason I was not surprised to learn from Boyd's Vladimir Nabokov, The American Years that Nabokov met Moravia. Boyd wrote that “[t]he day after Lolita's English publication, the Nabokovs set off from London for Rome.” While in Rome they “dined” with Moravia.