Archive for the ‘Alberto Moravia’ Category

Lost Books – The Lie

April 22, 2019

Writing in the Guardian of his admiration for the now largely neglected (in the UK at least) Italian writer Alberto Moravia in 2011 (“It’s hard to think of a writer who has been more perceptive about the disappointments of conventional sex and marriage”), John Burnside describes his first encounter with Moravia’s work – a lurid 1970s Panther edition of The Lie, originally written in 1965 and translated by Angus Davidson a year later. Sadly, The Lie does not seem to have been reprinted since, and so it was the very same edition that I read when I discovered that 1965 was the chosen year for Karen and Simon’s biannual book club.

Though the novel’s title is singular, it applies in numerous ways, beginning, perhaps, with the lie on which the narrator, Francesco, bases his marriage to a working-class woman, Cora, believing that her origins make her more ‘genuine’:

“…a myth had taken shape in my mind, the myth of the working-class as the sole depository of all that was genuine in the world.”

He marries Cora when she is reluctant to move in with him, becoming step-father to her young daughter, Baba. After a few years together, however, he finds his feelings for Cora have changed:

“Not merely did I no longer desire Cora, not merely did I no longer find anything attractive or significant in those working-class characteristics which had made me fall in love with her; but I also felt an unreasoning aversion which expressed itself mainly in an uncontrollable, acutely painful, spasmodic uncommunicativeness.”

He withdraws from Cora and Baba’s life completely, aided by his work as a journalist which requires he visit other countries for months at a time, “living in my own home like a stranger who rents a room.” It is only a number of years later, as the novel proper begins (what has happened previously is told in a Prologue) that he decides to “go from non-involvement to involvement” again after receiving a letter which claims that Cora is a procuress. He initially confronts Baba, now twenty-two, with this allegation, who not only confirms it is true but goes on to tell him that her mother attempted to prostitute her when she was fourteen. She is able to tell him the story as she feels as if it happened to a different person:

“The Baba of fourteen years who was led by the hand by Cora to her house was a different Baba from the one who, let us suppose, sat her school-leaving certificate two years ago.”

At the end of this conversation Baba makes Francesco promise that they will live as a family again – not only will he act as father to her but as a husband to Cora:

“I mean that during meals you’ll talk to her naturally and kindly, and that, apart from meals, you won’t avoid her and you’ll show yourself affectionate.”

Much of the novel is concerned with Francesco’s investigation into Cora’s other life, and, in particular, the events surrounding Baba when she was fourteen. He is suited to this role as his conversation generally consists of a relentless series of questions – perhaps as a result of his background as a journalist. However, he is also to some extent investigating his own past, and what he knew about Cora when he married her. Moravia is sometimes regarded as out-dated because of the attitudes of his male characters to women, but it is clear that Francesco cannot simply be read as a mouthpiece for Moravia as, though he is (sometimes pompously) reflective, he also lacks self-knowledge.

The novel is also driven by the tension of Francesco’s attraction to Baba, an attraction which both is and is not incestuous. Francesco is aware that his desire is partly created by his role as father-figure, and this is what makes it unreliable:

“…at the very source of your feelings for Baba, and of the physical relationship you might have with her, there is nothing frank or genuine, but something unreal, false, non-genuine in fact, and that is the idea of paternity. This idea is an illusion, but you have need of it in order to love Baba…”

It is such forensic examinations of sex and sexuality which make Moravia both an unfashionable and interesting writer. We can also see here that Francesco and Baba create a lie with their relationship, of which they can only afford to be half-aware.

Lying is also tackled in the form of the novel itself, which is presented as a diary which “has been kept that it may afterwards be used for creating a novel.” We learn that Francesco wrote a previous novel which he destroyed because if its “unmistakeable air of falseness, of unreality, of artificiality.” The diary is intended to allow Francesco to write from reality, though it also influences his behaviour: at one point, referring to his attraction to Baba, he says:

“The temptation is strong, almost irresistible, but each time I manage to control myself in this way: I think of my diary.”

Yet at the same time Moravia makes it clear we cannot trust the diary as Francesco admits on more than one occasion to inventing passages, firstly when he claims to find a copy of Oedipus Rex by his bedside after speaking to Baba on the night he read the letter:

“It’s not true, in fact, that when I woke up suddenly during the night after my conversation with Baba I found Oedipus Rex in a popular translation on my bedside table, opened it haphazardly and lit upon some lines that seemed to me to be adapted to my situation.”

Later he will create entire scenes for the diary, including a seduction of Baba. Though these are admitted to, it is clear that the diary cannot be regarded as truth:

“So, in some cases, I amputate or disguise or actually supress; in others, I develop, I dilate, I reconstruct…”

The Lie is not Moravia’s best novel, but, driven by both Francesco and Moravia’s compulsion, it is an intense, compelling affair deserving of rediscovery. As John Burnside lamented eight years ago:

“Moravia is neglected nowadays, which is a great pity, for this rare combination of moral purpose and artistic integrity once placed him among Europe’s finest writers.”

Though there have been some US publication of his work, most recently by New York Review of Books Classics imprint, his last UK publication seems to have been in 1993, and he is long overdue a revival.

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Agostino

October 21, 2018

It has not been easy finding a novel to read for Karen and Simon’s 1944 Club, but I eventually settled on Alberto Moravia’s Agostino which qualifies, hopefully, despite being originally published in 1943 thanks to a revised edition issued the next year. (This is according to the Afterword by translator Michael F Moore – the NYRB edition simultaneously claims it was first published in 1945!) Agostino is a slim coming-of-age story: the title character begins the novel as his mother’s shadow, happy to set out to sea each summer morning with her to swim together:

“He rowed with deep pleasure on the smooth, diaphanous, early morning sea, and his mother, sitting in front of him, would speak to him softly, as joyful and serene as the sea and the sky, as if he were a man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy.”

This pleasurable ritual is disturbed when a young man approaches his mother: “All at once a shadow obstructed the sunlight shining down on him.” Agostino is surprised when his mother accepts the young man’s invitation to take a boat trip with him; as he watches them leave together, he sees that he has been literally replaced, a rejection which feels as public as the pride he took in accompanying her previously. The next day, his mother insists that Agostino go with them, angering Agostino further:

“…as if rather than a person endowed with an independent will he were an object that could be moved about arbitrarily.”

Eventually a sarcastic remark leads his mother to slap him, and Agostino runs off. He meets another boy, Berto, playing cops and robbers, and manages to inveigle his way into Berto’s gang by offering him his mother’s cigarettes:

“He felt as if, by going off with Berto, he were pursuing an obscure and justified form of revenge.”

Berto, and his friends, are clearly both poorer and rougher than Agostino, and Moravia punctuates their dialogue with sudden outbursts of violence. This begins when Berto plays a trick on Agostino, burning him with a cigarette. In fury, Agostino charges at him, only to be quickly gripped in a headlock:

“He was not so much frightened as bewildered by the boy’s extraordinary brutality… a new behaviour so monstrous it was almost attractive.”

Berto is treated no differently when they reach the boys’ den, his newly acquired cigarettes taken from him by an older boy:

“The other boy took a step back and waited till Berto was within range. Then he stuck the cigarette pack between his teeth and started methodically pounding Berto’s stomach with his fists.”

As much as Agostino is fascinated by the boys, they are also intrigued by him: his large house (twenty rooms), his car and driver, and his attractive mother. Agostino’s newly grasped independence allows him to see his mother as an individual as well: “She’s a woman, nothing more than a woman.” He becomes aware of her sexuality at the same time as his own, and Agostino’s coming-of-age is very much sexual rather than social – although he is aware of the other boys’ poverty he finds their freedom attractive and gives little thought to the difficulties of their lives compared to his.

Agostino’s awareness of the sexuality of others is also developed through the character of Saro, who seems initially a father figure to the boys, but is also sleeping with one of them. When Agostino is invited on his boat, he cannot convince the others that he has not also been subject to Saro’s desires. Moravia conveys the confusion in his mind:

“On that day his eyes had been forced open, but what he learned was far more than he could bear. What oppressed an embittered him was not so much the novelty as the quality of the things he had come to know, their massive and undigested importance.”

This is the novel’s greatest success, the picture it paints of Agostino’s turbulence and turmoil so typical of adolescence. Partly this is due to Moravia’s ability to explore sex without moralising. He also makes no claim that during the few days the novel covers, Agostino transforms from boy to man:

“But he wasn’t a man, and many unhappy days would pass before he became one.”

Agostino is a classic coming-of-age story from a writer who is always interesting.

The Woman of Rome

October 21, 2016

woman-of-rome

The Woman of Rome (translated by Lydia Holland) is 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 Mussolini, although this is not readily apparent: only one brief scene where Adriana enters a police station references the Fascist salute. Like Moravia’s other novels, it explores the passions which overpower even the strongest characters and in the heat of which their fate is forged.

From the very first lines our gaze is directed towards Adriana’s beauty, and her body:

“At sixteen years of age, I was a real beauty. I had a perfectly oval face, narrowing at the temples and widening a little below; my eyes were large, gentle and elongated; my nose formed one straight line with my forehead; my mouth was large with beautiful full, red lips, and, when I laughed, I showed very regular white teeth… Mother said that although my face was beautiful, my body was a hundred times more so; she said that there was not a body like mine in all Rome.”

Adriana’s mother is convinced Adriana’s body is her greatest asset and suggests that she becomes an artist’s model. Her attitude towards her beauty – that it is a saleable commodity – is revealed in the way she sells Adriana to the painter:

“’Where else will you find legs and hips and breasts like these?’ And as she said these things, she kept on prodding me, just like they prod animals to persuade people to buy them in the market.”

This, however, is only a temporary use of her looks – her ultimate aim is for Adriana to marry a ‘gentleman’ – and she warns her not to be seduced by an artist:

“They are all penniless… and you can’t expect to get anything out of them. With your looks you can aim much higher, much higher.”

Her mother hopes Adriana will learn from her own misfortune – falling pregnant with Adriana (“You were the ruin of me”) and a hasty marriage to a railway worker, whose death has left them in poverty, sewing shirts to make ends meet. She thinks of Adriana’s beauty as “our only available capital, and, as such, belonging to her as well as to me.”

1947-club-pink

Adriana (of course) ignores her mother’s advice and falls in love with the first young man to make eyes at her, Gino. Though the first thing he tells her is a quickly uncovered lie, she decides “after all, he must be a decent, honest young man, just the man I had imagined for a husband in my dreams,” They begin to see each other regularly. In a line that sums up much of Moravia’s work, she reflects:

“And we all know love is a deceptive glass that can make even a monster appear fascinating.”

Adriana’s mother is furious when they get engaged but comforts herself with the belief that they will never marry when she discovers they have slept together.

This cynical attitude towards men runs through the novel in parallel with a vision of love which is immune to such realism. The former is best exemplified by Adriana’s friend, Gisella, who also believes Gino will never marry her. Gisella introduces Adriana to a ‘gentleman’ who “takes an interest” in her, Astarita. What seems a casual day out with Gisella, her own ‘gentleman’, Riccardo, and Astarita, is in fact a carefully planned trap to allow Astarita to seduce Adriana – and, when seduction doesn’t work, to blackmail her instead:

“Come on… Otherwise I’ll tell Gino that you came out with us today and let me make love to you.”

Even as this happens, Adriana is aware that it is a turning point in her life:

“A flash of intuition seemed to light up the whole future path of my life, as a rule so dark and torturous, and reveal it straight and clear before my eyes, showing me in that single moment what I would lose in exchange for Astarita’s silence.”

Soon after, Adriana begins to live of her ‘capital’, picking up men and sleeping with them for money.

At this point, one might ask what Moravia thinks of all this. Adriana is not driven to prostitution by desperation, but by her understanding of the alternatives: the happy marriage she once dreamed of seems increasingly unlikely; slaving away for little reward like her mother, unpalatable. Adriana’s choices are limited by her poverty, a theme Moravia frequently returns to. When Gino takes her to his employer’s home (he is a chauffeur) she immediately feels inadequate – only when she is naked is she equal to the woman of the house:

“Naked, I though, I would be as beautiful, if not more beautiful, than Gino’s mistress and all the other rich women in the world.”

When she receives money for sex it gives her an almost physical pleasure:

“Once more as I took it I had the same powerful feeling of sensual complicity that Astarita’s money had aroused in me.”

Of course, the lure of wealth, and the willingness of young women to trade sex for it, is an issue which has not gone away. Perhaps also there is something of the compromises of living under Fascism in Adriana’s character. Despite her actions, she does not lose faith in love, however, and Astarita’s unrequited love for Adriana is echoed in her own feelings for Giacomo in the novel’s second half.

The Woman of Rome is a battleground between a cynical, reductive view of sexual relationships as transactions and one in which love is a passion we cannot control, both life-affirming and chaotic. Even in its conclusion it is difficult to pronounce a winner.

Boredom

July 31, 2015

boredom

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.

Contempt

May 27, 2015

contempt

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.