The Time of Indifference

The Time of Indifference was Alberto Moravia’s first novel, published in 1929, and translated by his usual translator into English, Angus Davidson, in 1953 (a later translation was produced in 2000 but that, too, is out of print). The product of a cynical young man, its younger characters, brother and sister, Michele and Carla, find themselves trapped in the corrupt world of their mother, Mariagrazia, her lover, Leo, and her friend, Lisa, uncertain how to react or whether to react at all. The novel takes place over only a few days, much its tension originating in the question of whether Leo will be successful in seducing Carla and replacing the mother with the daughter. The attraction is purely physical, as Moravia makes clear, drawing an explicit link between Leo’s desire for Mariagrazia, already satisfied, and Carla:

“The lust he thought had been assuaged for that afternoon reawoke, the blood mounted to his cheeks, and he wanted to cry aloud from desire.”

Of course, Carla objects, but as she pushes him away “a kind of resignation seemed to have taken possession of her…

“…why should she refuse Leo? Virtue would merely throw her back into the arms of boredom and the distasteful trivialities of everyday habit…”

She sees sleeping with Leo as “the only epilogue her old life deserved” as she looks to break free from her mother and “her unchanging quality of life.” Neither character convinces themselves that they are in love but both continue towards the moment they will sleep together (Leo enthusiastically, Carla almost despondently) with a desperate inevitability for entirely selfish reasons, and with little thought for Mariagrazia, who is already a neurotic, jealous woman, allowing Leo to trick her out of the villa she lives in in order to retain his affection (which she has already lost). Only Michele is aware that, while Leo wants them to hand over the house as payment for the mortgage he has loaned them, they would be better putting it on the market, but he, too, is in a state resignation:

“He made an effort to appear cold and tense although he felt nothing but indifference.”

More than once in the novel he thinks he should show anger towards Leo but the sentiment is abstract and it tails off quickly if he demonstrates it at all. (At one point it is compared to “seeing someone drowning, and looking on without moving a finger.”) He remains similarly unmoved by Lisa’s attraction to him, a parallel to Leo’s seduction of Carla:

“…she allowed her imagination to depict Michele as being madly in love but shy, an inexpert youth to whom she would give herself with expert joy.”

The scene where she attempts to seduce him is one of many in the novel where one character completely misreads another. For example, when she tells Michele that Leo is his mother’s lover he reacts with “a look of assumed horror” which she takes at face value. At one point Michele has to bite his lip so as not to laugh.

Moravia accomplishes an almost constant irony by revealing the thoughts of his characters throughout – often he will precede what they say with what they want to say. This creates an atmosphere of hypocrisy by highlighting their frequent dishonesty, as well as undermining them by revealing their delusions – Mariagrazia, for example, believes Lisa to be her rival in Leo’s affections. Michele begins the novel with his ideals to some extent intact but paralysed by a feeling of powerlessness, telling Lisa:

“You’re all like that… Mean, sordid. Love, for you, just means going to bed.”

But by the novel’s end he, too, has been corrupted, as he considers how he can use first Lisa, then Carla, to extort money from Leo:

“Leo would give the money as before, but, in consideration of Carla’s untouched youth and beauty, he would be asked for a sum twice or three times as much as would have sufficed for the middle-aged, corrupt Lisa. Every article has its price.”

While indifference may be the defining feature of its youthful characters, the novel does not feel like the work of an indifferent author. The domestic corruption on show is a condemnation of the previous generation who think only of themselves and leave their children with little choice but to assert themselves in a similar manner.  Its rage can be felt in the fact that Maragrazia is as ignorant on the final page as she was on the first.

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4 Responses to “The Time of Indifference”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Good find Grant!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    It sounds quite nuanced and accomplished for a first novel. (As an aside, I love how you seem to be able to find a Moravia to fit almost every year year in the Club – good work!)

    Now that you’ve read quite a lot of Moravia, which of his books would you say are closest in style to Agostino? I loved the mood and atmosphere of that novella and would love to read another in a broadly similar vein.

    • 1streading Says:

      Luckily Moravia wrote for so long and so frequently there is usually something! I would say the best place to start with Moravia is the three NYRB novels of which Agostino is one – they probably are among his best. Agostino has been published with another novella as Two Adolescents but I haven’t read its companion story yet.

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