Alberto Moravia’s Contempt is a story of two competing dreams. In it, Riccardo recounts the collapse of his marriage from two years of what he describes as perfection to irreconcilable division. The novel is his attempt to chart the decline, to identify the turning point, and to understand why it all went wrong. We are, of course, limited to his point of view – even when his wife, Emilia, is allowed a voice, she deflects his questions and refuses to explain herself on, or in, Riccardo’s terms.

Riccardo seems, at first, the perfect husband: loving, attentive, and, above all, concerned with providing Emilia with the kind of life he feels she wants. To this end, after two years of living in a room in a lodging house, he leases a flat:

“In doing this I did not, however, experience the joyful feelings of a man preparing a home for his bride; on the contrary I was anxious and seriously distressed because I did not know in the least how I would manage when, a few months later , the time came to pay the second instalment. At that time, in fact, I was so desperate that I had almost a feeling of rancour against Emilia who, by the tenacity of her passion had in a way forced me to take this imprudent and dangerous step.”

In order to allow his wife to fulfil her dream of owning a home (in fact described as “more a reason for living than just a dream”) Riccardo gives up his own dream of becoming a dramatist to write for the more financially rewarding film industry, ensuring that he can keep up with the payments on the flat. In retrospect, he pinpoints the night he is commissioned by film producer Battista as the moment when his marriage begins to sour, but is it his sacrifice or Emilia’s which causes this? On the night in question, she reluctantly accepts a lift in Battista’s car, leaving Riccardo to follow on alone:

“I suddenly noticed that her beautiful face, usually so clam and harmonious, was now darkened and, one might say, distorted by an almost painful perplexity.”

Despite this observation, Riccardo insists, perhaps concerned not to offend Battista, just as he insists she accompany him to future meetings despite her reluctance. Her agreement is not enough for Riccardo, however: he not only requires her to to attend, but to do so as a matter of her own choice:

“At the last moment, when she was ready to go, I would ask her, once more and for the last time, if she really disliked coming with me – not so much because by now I was doubtful of her answer, as in order to leave her no doubts about her freedom of decision.”

This is an interesting insight into Riccardo’s need to control Emilia, and not only to control her actions but her thoughts and feelings. When she tells him she still loves him, he simply believes she is lying in order to retain the flat; when she says she cares nothing for the flat, he again cannot believe her:

“I saw that she had now entered, for some reason unknown to me, upon the path of deceit, and I told myself it would serve no purpose to exasperate her by contradicting her and reminding her of how much she had once desired what she now made such a show of despising.”

Whenever Emilia contradicts his understating of her, he dismisses it. Thus when he forces her to admit that she feels contempt for him (a result of endlessly arguing she does not love him anymore) he is as much frustrated by her refusals to explain as by her revelation – in fact, we sense he cannot believe her without access to her reasoning, perhaps because on this occasion he cannot provide his own: “it was quite impossible that Emilia could have a reason for ceasing to love me.”

Battista invites Riccardo (and, of course, Emilia) to stay in his villa in Capri and work with director Rheingold on a script for a film version of the Odyssey, a story which Moravia uses to echo Riccardo and Emilia’s relationship. It is there that events play out to their conclusion.

Contempt is a forensic examination of the failure of a relationship but one where much of the analysis is ironic and the reader must remain awake and aware to see where the cracks are truly forming. Contempt was my first experience of Moravia, but it won’t be my last. Thanks to Richard and Frances for encouraging me to read the novel, and for enlightening me with their wonderful reviews.


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11 Responses to “Contempt”

  1. Bellezza Says:

    This was my first foray into Moravia (I was going to type Molteni!) too, and I am quite intrigued by his writing. It was almost deceptive, in that I was assuming Riccardo was “right” for quite some time, until finally believing Emilia in her despising him. I must say, from a woman’s perspective, I wouldn’t be very enamored of a man who wouldn’t listen to my outright begging (when she pleads with him not to continue to ride with Battista toward Capri). He refuses to see anyone else’s point of view until it is too late, and then as you say, he cannot believe the truth.

    I do hope you read Boredom in July. I’m looking forward to it already, and now I feel a bit more prepared for Moravia’s style. Truly, one does need to keep one’s eyes open to all the layers of meaning,

    • 1streading Says:

      Looking back, I can’t believe I was taken in by Riccardo for so long – I certainly sympathised with him for the first half of the novel – he seemed so plausible and Emilia so irrational! It was quite a different experience looking back from the perspective of the whole novel.
      I enjoyed my first experience of Moravia tremendously so you may well find me reading him again in July!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Great review, Grant, and nice use of quotes to support your points. I think I’m going to have to read this at some stage. It sounds more psychologically complex and layered than Agostino which he wrote a good ten years earlier.

    • 1streading Says:

      I didn’t know that – it would certainly be interesting to compare them. As a writer I hadn’t read before I didn’t give much thought as to where Contempt fell in his writing career – I would definitely recommend it, however.

  3. Richard Says:

    Thanks for the kind words and for reading along with the gang, Grant, I like that you stressed how much of the “forensic examination” is ironic even though with Molteni being such an erratic and unreliable narrator, it wasn’t always easy for me to pinpoint where Moravia was making sport of the character or just displaying the character’s self-deceit or lack of awareness or lack of trustworthiness. Hope you’ll consider reading Moravia’s Boredom with us in early July. Cheers!

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks due entirely to you for spurring me on to read a very interesting writer I had previously neglected.
      You’re absolutely right, it isn’t always easy to decide how Moravia wants us to react to Riccardo’s narration – it may even be a demonstration of the inability of any two people to fully understand each other – Riccardo’s refusal to accept this is part of the problem.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I do love the idea that the narrative persuades until slowly you start to question it. Unreliable narrators are normally so obviously unreliable, they rarely persuade for even a page let alone a fair chunk of the book.

  5. Scott W. Says:

    Nice review, Grant – I especially appreciate your highlighting the very obvious but still easy to forget point that we as readers are forced to see everything – even Emelia’s interior thoughts – through the exceptional unreliability of Riccardo’s narration. It would be interesting to re-write the novel from Emelia’s point of view. As Max notes above, there’s an element of persuasiveness in Riccardo’s narration that becomes more and more unreliable as the novel goes along, even though he fairly broadcasts it in the first line. Still, he’s able to sound so persuasive, until you keep running up again and again against the rocks of his own self-deception.

  6. Boredom | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] moving from Contempt to Boredom in my relationship with Alberto Moravia I can’t help but feel I am that I am following […]

  7. The Woman of Rome | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] the third Alberto Moravia novel I have read in recent times, though it differs from both Contempt and Boredom in having a female protagonist and narrator, Adriana. It is set in pre-war Italy under […]

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