Posts Tagged ‘1947 club’

The Woman of Rome

October 21, 2016

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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.”

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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.

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A View of the Harbour

October 13, 2016

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The loneliness which seeps through Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour like damp sea air may not be as ingrained as that to be found in the novels of Jean Rhys – these, are after all, people with appearances to keep up – but it would be fair to say that few characters in the novel experience much in the way of happiness. The friendship at its centre, between old school friends Beth and Tory, is built upon a betrayal; its other characters live in the desperate isolation best exemplified by Mrs Bracey, unable to leave her house and living only through what she sees and hears of others:

“Bored, she was, frustrated; not only her body but her mind, her great, ranging, wilful imagination… the brilliance, the gossip had gone from life.”

She complains that her daughter, Iris, who works at the local pub, the Anchor, “don’t give a crumb of it away. Thinks I’m being nosey.” Iris, meanwhile, is dreaming of a better life: “in her mind Laurence Olivier kept opening the saloon door and coming into the bar.” In the Anchor the running joke is the landlord’s assertion that, “It’s been quiet to-night,” every night.

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Mrs Bracey and Iris are typical of the novel’s characters, lives on hold, watching out for a better future like a ship on the horizon, in a town which has all but closed down:

“The Waxworks exhibition looked sealed, windows covered with grey lace; next door the second-hand clothes shop was having a lick of paint; the first coat, salmon pink, framed the display of dejected, hanging frocks; shutters covered the Fun Fair…”

(Even the lick of paint feels like a cry for help). Only Tory and Bertram, a retired sailor who has come to the coast to paint, make any attempt to influence their fate. Tory’s loneliness is palpable since the departure of her husband, Teddy, with a younger woman:

“That house maddens me. I shall let all the clocks run down, I think, so that I can’t hear them ticking.”

She finds herself beginning an affair with Beth’s husband, Robert – that they have previously avoided each other (“We don’t…hit it off”) perhaps speaks of some suspected attraction. Tory puts up some resistance but, as Robert says, “too late.”

Bertram, meanwhile, ingratiates himself with most of the other characters, even going as far as to spend time with Mrs Bracey. For a while it seems he may take up with Lily Wilson who, like Tory, is husbandless (in her case a widow) and fears going home alone each night (though having to go through a roomful of waxwork killers might make anyone a little nervous):

“As the days went by it seemed to Lily Wilson that her very happiness was staked upon Bertram… No longer did she fear the light failing and all those wretched thoughts about the future…”

As with most characters in the novel, Lily’s dreams falter and fail in the realm of reality; unable to bear a return to her lonely existence she instead sacrifices her reputation, leading Bertram to comment later, “Well, I compromised myself there… If all I hear of that girl is true.”

The only character who achieves any degree of happiness is Beth, seemingly oblivious to much that is happening around her as she types her latest novel. Her writing, however, seems as much as burden as a joy:

“Even if she wished to be released from it, as she sometimes did which, she knew that she could not. The imaginary people would go on knocking at her forehead until she died.”

This may sounds rather gloomy and depressing, but that takes no account of the wit and brio with which Taylor writes. While she is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, she frequently raises a sardonic smile in a way that is similar, though not as detached, as Muriel Spark. A View of the Harbour may well be her most accomplished novel as she skilfully recounts its numerous stories, blending and contrasting with precision and rarely a word wasted. It also has my favourite ending (nothing to do with the plot) as Teddy appears in his yacht, catching sight of the town and thinking, “Nothing has changed.” This view from the harbour, in a novel where watching plays such an important role, reminds us that, whatever we’ve seen, we haven’t seen it all.

Nightmare in Berlin

October 11, 2016

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If I could have read any book published in 1947 for Karen and Simon’s 1947 Club I would probably have started with Jean Giono’s Un roi sans divertissement or Jose Saramago’s Terra do Pecado. Unfortunately neither seems to have been translated into English (if you know differently, let me know), but fortuitously another previously untranslated work from that year has recently appeared: Hans Fallada’s Der Alpdruck. Nightmare in Berlin (translated by Allan Blunden) is Fallada’s penultimate novel, written shortly before Alone in Berlin, which was also published that year.

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Jenny Williams (author of Fallada biography More Lives Than One) has described it as “The book that cleared the way for Alone in Berlin,” and we see something of that in the novel itself which is largely autobiographical and makes reference to the central character, Doll’s, crisis of faith regarding his writing. We can find an accurate summary of the novel in the notes on Fallada’s life provided at the back:

“Marriage in Berlin to the 22-year-old Ursula ‘Ulla’ Losch, who also has a history of morphine addition; because of the ceaseless air-raids they…move out to [Ulla’s] wooden chalet in Klinkecken, on the outskirts of Feldberg; when the war ends Fallada is made mayor of Feldberg by the occupying Red Army; in August the couple suffer a breakdown and are hospitalised; they return to their apartment in Berlin-Schoneberg which is partly destroyed, partly occupied by others…”

Much of what Fallada writes in Nightmare in Berlin is therefore almost contemporaneous with events around him. The novel begins with Doll and his wife Alma awaiting the arrival of Russian troops after the SS pull out of the town. As other villagers consider hiding in the woods, Alma announces:

“We’re not going anywhere, and we’re not hiding anything away; my husband and I are going to welcome the long-awaited liberators at the door of our house!”

Doll, however, is not feeling so optimistic: yes, he is pleased at the defeat of the Nazis, but at the same time he despairs for his country:

“…he knew, at least in theory, that ever since the Nazi seizure of power and the persecution of the Jews, the name ‘German’, already badly damaged by the First World War, had become progressively more reviled and despised, from week to week and month to month. How often had he said to himself, ‘We will never be forgiven for this!’”

He has a recurring dream (or nightmare) in which he is trapped at the bottom of a bomb crater:

“He was lying at the bottom of a huge bomb crater, on his back, his arms pressed tightly against his sides, lying in the wet, yellow mud. Without moving his head, he was able to see the trunks of trees that had toppled into the crater, as well as the facades of houses with their empty window openings, and nothing behind them.”

This sense of helplessness pervades the novel, a helplessness which is exacerbated by the Dolls’ use of morphine. Despite the threat of an occupying army Alma ventures out to “replenish her supply of gallbladder medicine,” going as far as to ask one of the Russian soldiers to open the chemist’s shop for her.

Morphine addiction also haunts their return to Berlin, as we see when Doll finally finds a doctor to see his wife (who has injured her leg). She refuses to go into hospital but is happy instead to be treated with morphine at home:

“The effect was immediate: no sooner had the needle gone in than Doll saw the relaxed, almost happy, expression spread across his wife’s face.”

Soon they have numerous doctors coming at different times in order to receive more and more of the drug.

After each of these periods of addiction Doll regrets the time wasted in what he calls their “bed-graves.” This fear of addiction may explain the inclusion of a lengthy detour which recounts Doll’s confrontation with Dr Wilhem, a vet reduced to alcoholism.

While addiction may not characterise every survivor, Fallada paints a vivid picture of life in the aftermath of the war. Doll has to come to terms with the fact they are little more than beggars:

“Now the Dolls, too, were down and out, with only a small suitcase to their name, homeless, dependent on the help of friends, strangers, maybe even public assistance.”

Every time they meet an old friend they discover that each of them is so eager to tell the story of their misfortunes they have no patience to listen to the other. Fallada is particularly good, as he is in all of his novels which I have read, at detailing the minutia of hope and despair, the small victories and defeats which characterise a life of struggle. This, more than anything, gives the novel its dramatic force.

Nightmare in Berlin may not be as great a novel as Alone in Berlin, but it is a powerful testament of the time in which it was written. That strength is also perhaps its weakness, mined from life in reaction to the fear Doll expresses that “Maybe I’ll never write another book. Everything looks so bleak.” Even its last few pages, however, contains many wonderful moments, from Doll’s nurse, Truller, who asks everyone leaving the hospital, “And if you should hear anything – you know what I mean – you’ll let me know at once?” in reference to her missing son, to the young girl Doll spots in the street:

“Her dress appeared to have been made from a couple of flour sacks. When the wearer made it she still retained a little bit of hope, despite her wretched circumstances; she had added some crudely embroidered decorative trims and a little white collar, as if to say, ‘I’m young, you can still look at me, even if I’m only wearing a dress made from old sacking!’”

And, of course, we can enjoy Doll’s friend and fellow writer, Granzow’s, remark that “one day you’ll write the book that everyone is waiting for!”