In moving from Contempt to Boredom in my relationship with Alberto Moravia I can’t help but feel I am that I am following the path of a love affair he might have described. As with Contempt, Boredom’s male narrator seeks to understand the woman who loves him, the desperation of his efforts being inversely proportionate to his success. Dino is thirty-five years old and proclaims himself bored with life. He has abandoned the wealth of his mother (unless he is in need of a handout) and taken up the life of an artist, only to find himself equally unfulfilled:
“…slowly but surely boredom had come to be the companion of my work during the last six months, until finally it had brought it to a full stop on that afternoon when I slashed my canvas to tatters.”
Boredom, Dino goes onto explain, has haunted him throughout his life:
“The feeling of boredom originates for me in a sense of the absurdity of a reality which is insufficient, or anyhow unable, to convince me of its own effective existence.”
Having given up painting, Dino instead takes up with Cecilia, the seventeen year old mistress of his recently deceased neighbour and fellow artist, Balestrieri. It is fair to say that it is not love at first sight:
“In the first place, I am not given to such adventures… In the second place, the girl did not attract me… Finally, there was a third reason…and that was the feeling of nausea that assailed me every time I imagined myself approaching her, speaking to her, and – inevitable consequence – making love to her.”
When she first visits Dino in his studio he spends his time neither painting her nor making love to her, but instead questions her at length about her relationship with Balestrieri – “I realised I was cross-examining her almost like a policeman” – something that will characterise all their future conversations, for shortly after this they will become lovers. Of course, Dino is soon bored and planning to end their relationship, until one day she fails to turn up at the appointed time. Suddenly he is less certain of her love for him (there is no question in his mind that he feels little for her):
“Certainly the fact that she had given herself to me and had shown that she found pleasure with me might be equivalent to a declaration of love. But it was also possible, as I at once realised, that it meant nothing at all.”
From that point on, Dino becomes increasingly obsessed with Cecilia. Rather than loving her it is as if he wishes to possess her, not simply in a physical sense but in obtaining an understanding of her superior to her own self-awareness. This explains his endless questioning, and his irritation with Cecilia’s vague replies. This is, of course, simply not possible and he becomes increasingly frustrated.
Boredom was first published in English under the title The Empty Canvas (unsurprisingly it was felt that the title Boredom was not an ideal selling point) and this image occurs throughout. Until he sees her naked, Dino cannot match her “slender and childish” figure with that of Balestrieri’s paintings – “It’s not possible, I can’t believe it!” This clearly prefigures his inability to truly see her, something echoed in the image of the empty canvas itself. Shortly before the affair begins, he dreams of painting a young woman:
“Finally, after a very long sitting, the picture was finished and I moved back a step or two so as to contemplate it at leisure. To my amazement, the canvas was empty, blank, clean; no female nude was visible upon it, either drawn or painted; I had certainly been working, but I had done nothing.”
Later, Dino himself links the canvas with the relationship:
“I said to myself that if I perhaps could manage to cover the canvas that still stood prominently on my easel I would have, if nothing else, a further reason for parting from Cecilia.”
He cannot because “in reality I had at that moment only one relationship… with any object of any kind, and that was my relationship with Cecilia.” In his attempt to convince himself of Cecilia’s reality (or rather, to make Cecilia convince him) in order to assuage his boredom, he fails to see that it is caused by his own inability to look beyond himself. The novel works perfectly as a monologue because that is how Dino sees his life. Even when questioning Cecilia about herself he is searching only for the answers that will satisfy him. Once again Moravia shows himself the master at portraying the deluded male who thinks he can understand the heart of a woman using his superior intelligence as a collector might use a pin on a butterfly.