ROME -- Alberto Moravia, a sharp-eyed Roman storyteller who became the grand old man of contemporary Italian literature, died unexpectedly here yesterday in his apartment overlooking the Tiber. He was 82.
A prolific and controversial figure whose literary career spanned six decades, Mr. Moravia died within a few minutes of first feeling ill during his morning bath, his family said. His doctor, who had proclaimed him fit after a physical exam Monday, said he suspected a stroke as the cause of death.
In becoming Italy's best-known author, Mr. Moravia explored bourgeois sex, alienation and disillusion, using his native Rome as a backdrop for most of his nearly three dozen novels. Movies made from a number of his books won acclaim that went beyond literary circles, and earned him international recognition.
"In 60 years, Roman society has not changed at all. That's why people still read my books," he told a visitor last year to the riverside apartment where he wrote, two-fingered on a manual typewriter, for two hours each morning.
He liked to tell interviewers that, as a sickly child, he was a storyteller even before knowing how to read and write. He began his first novel, "Gli Indifferenti" ("The Time of Indifference"), fresh out of his teens, and paid to have 1,300 copies of it published when he was 21. His last work, an interview-style autobiography, "The Life of Alberto Moravia," is within a few weeks of publication.
His early work outraged church-dominated Italian society. As an outspoken iconoclast, he saw his works banned by fascist authorities in the 1930s, and by the Vatican in the '50s. His novels were prominent on an index of works that Roman Catholics were forbidden to read.
"The present pope is a hick. He is like those medieval popes who had nothing to do with religion and much to do with politics," he told an interviewer on the eve of his 80th birthday.
In "The Time of Indifference," the author assailed the decadence of the Roman middle class during the rise of fascism. Later works were influenced by a strong liking for American culture born while lecturing for a year at Columbia University in New York in the mid-1930s.
That, his biting pen, his Jewish ancestry and his leftist politics, were more than enough to rouse the ire of Benito Mussolini's ruling fascists on the eve of World War II. In 1941, a thinly disguised novel about a grotesque dictator in an imaginary South American country was banned by the fascists.
When the German army occupied Rome in 1943, Mr. Moravia fled south toward Naples, living for nine months in mountain villages. It was that experience that inspired the novel "La Ciociara," the wrenching account of a woman and her daughter raped by "liberating" Moroccan troops while fleeing German invaders.
The novel was filmed by Vittorio De Sica as "Two Women," and starred Sophia Loren in an Oscar-winning role.