Archive for the ‘Alberto Moravia’ Category

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.