Contempt, p.1Alberto Moravia
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23
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A RUTHLESS PSYCHOLOGY informs the writing of Moravia’s middle period. Coming back to him after a decade and more, I am struck above all by the fierce dispatch of his storytelling, and then by its cruel determinism, a quality that generates so powerful a sense of pathos that it prompts sympathy with even the most unsympathetic of protagonists. Only a page or two into anything Moravia wrote, I find myself thinking: this is an aggressive, even dangerous author—one who is not afraid of taking risks with my sentiments.
Though very different in their range and scope, Moravia’s novels have certain key elements in common. There is the hyper-conscious protagonist whose lucid reflections revolve remorselessly around feelings and events that will remain forever obscure. There is a profound melancholy that will never quite be placed but is such as to make every event, every memory, pregnant with possibly unwelcome explanation. A heavy cloud of menace looms over the most trivial of encounters: what appalling truths are perhaps about to be revealed, what terrible mistakes will be made? However domestic and apparently innocuous the scene, no sooner has Moravia’s cool rational voice begun to describe it than we are filled with an irrational apprehension.
Yet in sharp contrast to these gloomy and disturbing emotions, Moravia’s narratives also possess an exhilarating spirit of comedy and even farce. In their rapid, often grotesque concatenation of events, his stories cannot fail to entertain, indeed are often most amusing when most they disconcert. And if they push credibility to the limit, and sometimes beyond, this doesn’t mean they preclude a sense of recognition on the part of the reader. It is time to say a word or two about the fictional mode Moravia works in. Is it, or is it not, realism?
Beginning his writing career in the late 1920s, thoroughly conversant with French, English, and German, Moravia was certainly aware of modernism and its many experiments. Yet he made use of none of them. His icily analytic, ever-precise prose never thaws sufficiently to allow for the poetic representation of consciousness we find in Joyce or Woolf, let alone the kind of impassioned participation that characterized Lawrence’s work, though his subject matter of isolation and alienation has much in common with that of his English counterparts. Nor, despite living through the 1980s, would Moravia ever stray into the area of magical realism. All the same we cannot quite think of his writing as strictly realist either, or at least not in the way that the writings of Graham Greene or Anthony Powell, or indeed those of Italian contemporaries like Cassola and Pavese, are realist. In their different ways, despite opening in a determinedly realist fashion, each of his novels gradually generates an aura of the surreal, in turns farcical and nightmarish. How so?
A melancholy, alienated, disturbingly lucid individual seeks to identify the source of his unhappiness, perhaps in some primary experience from infancy, perhaps in his relationship with mother or wife; a Freudian anxiety fuels his reflections. Such is Moravia’s modern man. He reaches certain conclusions, decides on a certain course of action. Then an accelerating series of events, in the course of which both the characters around him and the protagonist himself are seen to act in the most unpredictable, though somehow inevitable and pre-determined, of ways, makes a mockery of all his reflection, all his yearning for comprehension and control. Sex and sensuality are all important here: just married to one woman, a man is declaring his passion for another; or a devoted wife is suddenly, inexplicably cold, or is making lesbian advances toward another woman. The libido, at once our most vital and our most biologically determined quality, capriciously tosses out surprise after surprise, confirming the hero’s confusion and ridiculing the rational, would-be dispassionate voice in which the story’s extraordinary events are being recorded. It is here, in the collision of reason with bewilderment, of lucidity with enigma, that Moravia demands and gets recognition from his readers. The real as we experience it, he insists, does have this surreal, oneiric, often farcical quality. Given his talent for combining melodrama with high seriousness, it is hardly surprising that so much of his work has been filmed.
In an interview late in his life, Moravia spoke of Contempt as “one of my best novels, because at once profoundly felt and completely invented.” The story of a tortuous and distressing marital crisis, the autobiographical “feeling” behind the book no doubt came out of Moravia’s difficult relationship with his wife Elsa Morante, herself a brilliant writer, but as passionate and volatile as Moravia was determinedly cool and analytical. In the same interview, Moravia confessed: “There were days when I wanted to kill her. Not to split up, which would have been the reasonable solution, but to kill her, because our relationship was so intimate and so complex and in the end so vital that murder seemed easier than separation.” The genius of Contempt was the creation of a plot that would allow us to explore such a complexity in all its contradictions and conundrums—its intense and bewildering emotions—without ever feeling that we have properly understood it, just as the protagonist will never even begin to understand his wife.
It would be foolish, in conclusion, to pretend that Moravia was anything but the most profound of pessimists. Love, in his novels, is almost always something suffered rather than enjoyed. Whether at its most promiscuous, passionate, or conjugal it rarely relieves a gnawing sense of alienation, so that his characters frequently find themselves staring at each other in varying states of wonder and perplexity. Yet his work is enlightening. In his combination of obsessive reflection and dreamlike unfolding of plot, he creates a convincing and entirely personal vision of the world which compels us to turn the pages to the end, leaving us afterwards with a mental construct at once so consistent and so elusive that the reader will be brooding over it and reconsidering it for weeks—in my case years—to come. I ask no more of a book.
DURING THE FIRST two years of our married life my relations with my wife were, I can now assert, perfect. By which I mean to say that, in those two years, a complete, profound harmony of the senses was accompanied by a kind of numbness—or should I say silence?—of the mind which, in such circumstances, causes an entire suspension of judgment and looks only to love for any estimate of the beloved person. Emilia, in fact, seemed to me wholly without defects, and so also, I believe, I appeared to her. Or perhaps I saw her defects and she saw mine, but, through some mysterious transformation produced by the feeling of love, such defects appeared to us both not merely forgivable but even lovable, as though instead of defects they had been positive qualities, if of a rather special kind. Anyhow, we did not judge: we loved each other. This story sets out to relate how, while I continued to love her and not to judge her, Emilia, on the other hand, discovered, or thought she discovered, certain defects in me, and judged me and in consequence ceased to love me.
The less one notices happiness, the greater it is. It may seem strange, but in those two years I sometimes thought I was actually bored. Certainly, at the time, I did not realize that I was happy. It seemed to me that I was doing what everyone did—loving my wife and being loved by her; and this love of ours seemed to me an ordinary, normal fact, or rather, to be in no way precious—just like the air one breathes, and there’s plenty of it and it becomes precious only when it begins to run short. If anyone had told me, at that ti
At the end of those two first years of married life our situation at last improved: I got to know Battista, a film producer, and for him I wrote my first film-script—a job which, at the time, I considered to be merely a stopgap, particularly in relation to my more exalted literary ambitions, but which was fated, on the other hand, to become my profession. At the same time, however, my relations with Emilia began to change for the worse. My story, in fact, begins with my own first beginnings as a professional script-writer and with the deterioration of my relations with my wife—two occurrences that were almost simultaneous and, as will be seen, directly linked together.
Looking back, I am aware of having preserved a confused memory of an incident which appeared at the time to be irrelevant but to which, afterwards, I was forced to attribute a decisive importance. I see myself standing on the pavement of a street in the center of the town. Emilia, Battista and I had dined at a restaurant and Battista had suggested finishing the evening at his house and we had accepted. Now we were all three in front of Battista’s car, a very expensive red car, but with a narrow body and only two seats. Battista, who was already sitting at the wheel, leaned over and opened the door, saying: “I’m sorry, but there’s only room for one. You’ll have to find your own way, Molteni...Unless you’d rather wait for me here: in that case I’ll come back and fetch you.” Emilia was beside me, in her black silk evening dress, the only one she had, a low-necked, sleeveless dress; and over her arm she was holding her fur cape: it was October and still warm. I looked at her, and for some reason noticed that her beauty, usually so serene and placid, had in it, that evening, a new kind of restlessness, almost a disturbed look. I said gaily: “Emilia, you go on with Battista...I’ll follow in a taxi.” Emilia looked at me and then answered slowly, in a reluctant tone of voice: “Wouldn’t it be better for Battista to go on, and for us two to go together in the taxi?” Then Battista put his head out of the window of the car and exclaimed in a joking way: “You’re a nice sort of person, you want me to go all alone.” “It’s not that,” began Emilia, “but...” and then I suddenly noticed that her beautiful face, usually so calm and harmonious, was now darkened and, one might say, distorted by an almost painful perplexity. But in the meantime I had already said: “You’re right, Battista; come on, Emilia, you go with him and I’ll take a taxi.” This time Emilia yielded, or rather, obeyed, and got into the car. But—a further sensation that comes back to me only now, as I write about it—once she was seated beside Battista, with the door of the car still open, she looked at me with a hesitating glance, a glance of mingled pleading and repugnance. I took no notice of my own sensation, however, and, with the decided gesture of one who closes the door of a safe, I slammed the heavy door. The car moved away, and I, feeling very cheerful and whistling to myself, started off towards the nearby taxi stand.
The producer’s house was not far from the restaurant, and normally I should have reached it in a taxi, if not quite at the same time as Battista, at any rate very shortly afterwards. But what should happen, when we were half way there, but a mishap at a crossroads: the taxi ran into a private car, and both sustained some damage; the taxi had a fender scratched and bent, and the side of the other car was dented. At once the two drivers got out and faced each other, arguing and swearing, people collected, a policeman intervened and with some difficulty separated them, and finally names and addresses were taken. All this time I sat waiting inside the taxi, without impatience, in fact with a sensation almost of happiness, because I had had plenty of good food and drink and at the end of dinner Battista had proposed that I should take a share in the script of one of his films. But the collision and the subsequent explanations had lasted perhaps ten, perhaps fifteen minutes, and so I arrived late at Battista’s. As I came into the sitting-room I saw Emilia sitting in an armchair, her legs crossed, and Battista standing in one corner in front of a bar on wheels. Battista greeted me gaily: Emilia, on the other hand, asked me, in a plaintive, almost melting, tone, where I had been all that time. I answered lightly that I had had an accident, realizing at the same time that I was adopting a tone of evasiveness, as if I had something to conceal: in reality it was simply the tone of one who attributes no importance to what he is saying. But Emilia persisted, still in that strange tone of voice: “An accident...what do you mean, an accident?”—and then I, surprised and perhaps even a little alarmed, gave an account of what had happened. This time, however, it seemed to me that I went into too many details, as though I were afraid of not being believed; and I was, in fact, aware of having made a slight mistake, first by being reticent and now by being over precise. Emilia, however, did not insist further; and Battista, full of laughter and affability, put down three glasses on the table and invited me to drink. I sat down; and so, chattering and making jokes—especially Battista and I—we passed a couple of hours. Battista was so exuberant and gay that I hardly noticed Emilia was not so, at all. In any case she was always rather silent and retiring, because she was shy, and so her reserve did not astonish me. I was only slightly surprised that she did not take part in the conversation at least with glances and smiles, as she usually did: but she did not smile or look at us; all she did was to smoke and drink in silence, as though she were alone. At the end of the evening, Battista talked to me seriously about the film in which I was to collaborate, telling me the story, giving me information about the director and about my fellow script-writer, and finally inviting me to come to his office next day in order to sign the contract. Emilia took the opportunity of a moment’s silence, after this invitation, to rise to her feet and say that she was tired and wanted to go home. We said good night to Battista, we left the room and went downstairs to the ground floor and out into the street, and we walked along the street to a taxi stand, without speaking a word. We got in and the taxi moved off. I was wild with delight at Battista’s unhoped-for proposal, and I could not help saying to Emilia: “This filmscript comes just at the right moment. I don’t know how we should have got along without it. I should have had to borrow money.” Emilia’s only reply was to ask: “How much do they pay for a script?” I told her the amount and added: “So our problems are solved, anyhow for next winter”; and as I spoke I put out my hand and took Emilia’s. She allowed her hand to be pressed and did not say any more until we arrived home.
AFTER THAT EVENING, everything went, as far as my work was concerned, in the best possible way. I went next morning to see Battista, signed the contract for the script, and received my first advance of money. It was, I remember, a film of little importance, of the comic-sentimental type for which, serious-minded as I was, I did not imagine myself to be cut out, but which in fact showed me, as I worked on it, that I had an unsuspected vocation. That same day I had a first meeting with the director and also with my fellow script-writer.
While it is possible for me to indicate exactly the starting-point of my career as a script-writer, which was that evening at Battista’s, it is very difficult for me to say with the same precision when my relations with my wife began to deteriorate. I could of course point to that same evening as the beginning of this deterioration; but that would be what is called being wise after the event; and all the more so because Emilia gave no sign, for some time afterwards, of any change in her demeanor towards me. The change certainly took place during the month which followed that
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