Boredom, p.1Alberto Moravia
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
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IN THE ROME of the late 1950s, if you lived—as I did—in the area around Piazza del Popolo, and if—also like me—you spent a lot of your time idly strolling the endlessly fascinating streets or staring into inaccessibly costly shops’ windows, it was almost certain you would run into Alberto Moravia, whose apartment was in the nearby Via dell’Oca. For a long period then the famous Italian novelist suffered from a persistent form of sciatica, and his doctor advised him to take daily walks. Dutifully, he walked, alone, without destination, but with the grim decision of a man who is taking an unpleasant medicine. His was no stroll, no saunter. He proceeded at a fairly brisk pace, while his unmistakable, uneven gait—a grave form of tuberculosis of the bone had left him lame since childhood—gave his movements a rollicking, even jaunty quality.
He did not seek company, but, if you offered it, he amiably accepted; and as I seldom had compelling appointments or urgent errands in those days and as I loved walking in Rome, I would often fall in beside him and spend an hour or two with him, trading literary or political gossip. In those still-postwar years, before the great boom of mass tourism and the economic (and hence automobilistic) explosion, Rome was a great city for walking and Moravia was a great friend to walk with: a born Roman, he knew every brick of the city; even the most drab apartment block or the scruffiest little church could set of a sparkling train of associations and memories.
But, on encountering him, I would first, automatically, ask him how he was.
“Mi annoio,” he would usually reply, in his clipped, telegraphic way. Moravia sometimes seemed not to talk but to blurt. “I’m bored. Mi annoio. Voglio morire.”
I never believed Moravia really wanted to die (and he would express the wish in an offhand tone, as if saying “I could use a cigarette”); but I did believe he was bored, and boredom—like idleness, its sister vice—was something he disliked, even feared. Talk dispelled that fear, and for the rest of our afternoon there would be no mention of dying, not of his dying, at least.
I knew Moravia before I knew his works. My knowledge of them developed as my friendship with him developed, and I read many of his works as they appeared, enjoying each one with the special zest of novelty and revelation.
Other Italian acquaintances of that time—especially older ones—tended to be critical, or rather, hostile. Moravia scrive male. How many times I heard this accusation!—Moravia writes badly—from dim literary hangers-on, marginal gentlemen and ladies of letters, some of them smudged with the ash of a Fascist past. Then and there, I was mystified. Though I was not really in a position to judge, Moravia’s prose seemed fine to me. It took me a while to realize that these critics were intellectual as well as political nostalgics, looking back with a certain yearning to the heyday of sumptuous, d’Annunzian prose (and perhaps also to the Duce’s own inimitable, orotund rhetoric). I soon learned that to accuse a writer of writing Italian badly is a literary cliché, and I have heard the same charge laid against a whole Olympus of modern writers: Svevo scrive male, Silone scrive male, Eco scrive male.
Male or not, Moravia wrote, and—after the gagging Fascist regime—he wrote copiously. The end of the war coincided with the publication of Agostino, a novella that has deservedly become a classic; then came The Woman of Rome, which brought him international fame, and some much-needed income; and then a dazzling series of novels—Conjugal Love, The Conformist, Contempt, Two Women—not to mention a steady, impressive production of shorter fiction and a wide variety of occasional pieces: reviews, travel articles, film scripts. The immensely fertile decade and a half, after the end of the war and the regime, accounts for the major portion of his finest work. Before the war, following his successful debut with The Time of Indifference in 1929, he had struggled for seven long years to produce his flawed second novel, Mistaken Ambitions; now, in the free, exhilirating air of the new Italy, he was irrepressible.
In 1960, he published this novel, La noia, in which he and his old enemy, boredom, came boldly to grips. In his work, and also in his conversation, Moravia was fond of analyzing; his novels sometimes read like explications. He had a habit of asking his interlocutors—and himself—a rhetorical question, then answering it. Years later, speaking at a Yale conference about Pasolini, Moravia referred to his late friend as Italy’s great modern “civil poet.” Then, typically, he asked: “What is a civil poet?” And then, equally typically, he answered his own question with acute and arresting originality.
Similarly, in La noia, before getting into the complexity of the story, he defines his (or his stand-in protagonist’s) concept of noia, boredom. “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.... For me, therefore, boredom is not only the inability to escape from myself but is also the consciousness that theoretically I might be able to disengage myself from it, thanks to a miracle of some sort.”
Dino, the bored narrator of Moravia’s novel, is a direct descendant of Michele, the adolescent antihero of The Time of Indifference; but with the added emotional baggage of his greater experience (and the author’s). Michele’s clumsy, botched murder attempt is reflected in the anticlimactic violence of Dino’s conclusion.
Similarly, Cecilia—Dino’s rather sullen but patient mistress—is related to Adriana, the woman of Rome, and to many other female characters in Moravia: rationally immoral, strange compounds of honesty, resignation, and independence, anomalous products of the working class, without bourgeois hypocrisy or ambition, women of frank sensuality but also clear-eyed and, in their way, courageous.
In defining the moral and intellectual boundaries of Cecilia, Moravia exploits—as he did with the protagonists of The Woman of Rome and Two Women and of many stories—his gift for portraying a typically Roman caste, a step or two above poverty, but not yet middle-class: people who can use money, and have a practical attitude toward the transactional possibilities of sex, and yet who can also exhibit an absence of envy that would seem to make their situation the more lamentable.
In real life, in conversation, Moravia evinced a wonderful sense of humor. As he told stories, his own infectious laughter often interrupted him. His fiction is not generally considered humorous; but there are times, in La noia, when it is hard to suppress a smile, especially when the curious Dino subjects Cecilia to one of his interrogations, questioning her implacably about her family, her home, her friends, her past lovemaking. For all his desperation, Dino is, finally, a great comic creation. At times, the reader may wish that Moravia had written a sequel to this novel, telling the same story but from the point of view of Cecilia, seeing her lover as a weird, middle-class eccentric, a compulsive asker of, to her, pointless questions.
British and American publishers, having acquired the rights to La noia, must have balked at the idea of publishing a book entitled Boredom. Wouldn’t that be begging for trouble? So they, or perhaps the translator Angus Davidson, came up with a more alluring title: The Empty Canvas. But make no mistake: this is not a book about painting, or even about not painting; it is about noia. Many people who are not translators—and they include some editors—are convinced that every word in a given language has an exact, or nearly exact, equivalent in a second l
In recent years, too, a silence has surrounded the work of Moravia and his finest contemporaries—at least in the English-speaking world—but there are signs (and this reprint of La noia is one) of a rekindled interest. And new readers will now be able to discover that, whether in the original or in Davidson’s translations, Moravia scrive benissimo!
I REMEMBER PERFECTLY well how it was that I stopped painting. One evening, after I had been in my studio for eight hours, painting for five or ten minutes at a time and then throwing myself down on the divan and lying there flat, staring up at the ceiling for an hour or two—all of a sudden, as though at last after so many feeble attempts I had had a genuine inspiration, I stubbed out my last cigarette in an ashtray already full of dead cigarette butts, leaped cat-like from the armchair into which I had sunk, seized hold of a small palette knife which I sometimes used for scraping off colors and slashed repeatedly at the canvas on which I had been painting, not content until I had reduced it to ribbons. Then from a corner of the room I took a blank canvas of the same size, threw away the torn canvas and placed the new one on the easel. Immediately afterward, however, I realized that the whole of my—shall I say creative?—energy had been vented completely in my furious and fundamentally rational gesture of destruction. I had been working on that canvas for the last two months, doggedly and without pause; slashing it to ribbons with a knife was equivalent, fundamentally, to finishing it—in a negative manner, perhaps, as regards external results, which in any case had little interest for me, but positively, in relation to my own inspiration. In fact my destruction of the canvas meant that I had reached the conclusion of a long discourse which I had been holding with myself for an interminable time. It meant that I had at last planted my foot on solid ground. And so the empty canvas that now stood on the easel was not just an ordinary canvas which had not yet been used; it was a particular canvas that I had placed on the easel at the termination of a long job of work. In effect, I thought, seeking to console myself against the sense of catastrophe that was throttling me, this canvas, similar in appearance to so many other canvases but for me fraught with meaning and consequence, could be the starting point from which I could now begin all over again in complete freedom, just as if those ten years of painting had not gone by and I myself were still twenty-five, as I was when I had left my mother’s house and had gone to live in the studio in Via Margutta in order to devote myself in complete leisure to painting. On the other hand, it might well be—in fact it was highly probable—that the empty canvas now flaunting itself on the easel was the outward sign of a development no less intimate and no less necessary but entirely negative, a development which might lead me, by imperceptible stages, to complete impotence. That this second hypothesis might well be the true one appeared to be borne out by the fact that 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; it was rather like a deposit of lime in a spring which, in the end, blocks the passages and brings the flow of water to a complete standstill.
It may be opportune at this point for me to say a few words on the subject of boredom, a feeling which I shall have reason to mention frequently in the course of these pages. However far back into the years I probe in memory, I recall having suffered always from boredom. But it is important to understand what I mean by this word. For many people boredom is the opposite of amusement; and amusement means distraction, forgetfulness. For me, boredom is not the opposite of amusement; I might even go so far as to say that in certain of its aspects it actually resembles amusement inasmuch as it gives rise to distraction and forgetfulness, even if of a very special type. Boredom to me consists in a kind of insufficiency, or inadequacy, or lack of reality. Reality, when I am bored, has always had the same disconcerting effect upon me as (to use a metaphor) a too-short blanket has upon a sleeping man on a winter night: he pulls it down over his feet and his chest gets cold, then he pulls it up on to his chest and his feet get cold, and so he never succeeds in falling properly asleep. Or again (to make use of a different comparison) my boredom resembles a repeated and mysterious interruption of the electric current inside a house: at one moment everything is clear and obvious—here are armchairs, over there are sofas, beyond are cupboards, side tables, pictures, curtains, carpets, windows, doors; a moment later there is nothing but darkness and an empty void. Yet again (a third comparison) my boredom might be described as a malady affecting external objects and consisting of a withering process; an almost instantaneous loss of vitality—just as though one saw a flower change in a few seconds from a bud to decay and dust.
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. For example, I may be looking with some degree of attentiveness at a tumbler. As long as I say to myself that this tumbler is a glass or metal vessel made for the purpose of putting liquid into it and carrying it to one’s lips without upsetting it—as long as I am able to represent the tumbler to myself in a convincing manner—so long shall I feel that I have some sort of a relationship with it, a relationship close enough to make me believe in its existence and also, on a subordinate level, in my own. But once the tumbler withers away and loses its vitality in the manner I have described, or, in other words, reveals itself to me as something foreign, something with which I have no relationship, once it appears to me as an absurd object—then from that very absurdity springs boredom, which when all is said and done is simply a kind of incommunicability and the incapacity to disengage oneself from it. But this boredom, in turn, would not cause me to suffer so much if I did not know that, although I myself have no relationship with the tumbler, such a relationship might perhaps be possible, that is, because the tumbler exists in some unknown paradise in which objects do not for one moment cease to be objects. For me, therefore, boredom is not only the inability to escape from myself but is also the consciousness that theoretically I might be able to disengage myself from it, thanks to a miracle of some sort.
I mentioned that I have always been bored, let me add that it is only in fairly recent times that I have succeeded in understanding with any measure of clarity what boredom really is. During childhood, and later too, during adolescence and first youth, I suffered from boredom without explaining it to myself, like someone who suffers from continual headaches but never makes up his mind to consult a doctor. Especially when I was a child, boredom used to assume forms that were entirely obscure both to myself and to other people, forms which I was unable to explain and which others, not infrequently my mother, attributed to upsets in my health or other similar causes—just as the crossness of infants is often attributed to their cutting teeth. During those years, I would suddenly stop playing and remain motionless for hours on end, as though in astonishment, in reality overcome by the uneasiness inspired in me by what I have called the withering of objects; the obscure consciousness that between myself and external things there was no relationship. If at such times my mother came into the room, and seeing me dumb and inert and pale with distress, asked what was wrong with me, I answered invariably: “I’m bored,” thus explaining a vague and
I will pass quickly over the disasters caused by my boredom during adolescence. At that period it was my worst trial at school and was attributed to so-called “weaknesses,” in other words to a congenital incapacity in one subject or another, and I myself accepted this explanation for lack of any more valid one. I now know for certain, however, that the bad marks which fell upon me thick and fast at the end of each scholastic year were due to one cause only—boredom. Indeed I felt acutely, with my customary deep distress, that I had no relationship whatever with all that enormous jumble of Athenian kings and Roman emperors, of South American rivers and mountains in Asia, of Dante’s hendecasyllables and Virgil’s hexameters, of algebraical processes and chemical formulae. All these unending pieces of information did not concern me, or concerned me only in order that I might establish the fact of their fundamental absurdity. But I did not boast, either to myself or to others, about this purely negative feeling that I experienced, in fact I told myself that I ought not to experience it, and I suffered from it. I remember that this suffering, even then, inspired in me a desire both to define and to explain it. But I was a mere boy, with all the pedantry and ambition of a boy. The result, therefore, was a project for a universal history “according to boredom,” of which, however, I wrote only the first few pages. My universal history according to boredom was based on a very simple idea: the mainspring of it was neither progress, nor biological evolution, nor economic development, nor any of the other ideas usually brought forward by historians of various schools; it was simply boredom. Burning with enthusiasm at this magnificent discovery, I went right to the root of the matter. In the beginning was boredom, commonly called chaos. God, bored with boredom, created the earth, the sky, the waters, the animals, the plants, Adam and Eve; and the latter, bored in their turn in paradise, ate the forbidden fruit. God became bored with them and drove them out of Eden; Cain, bored with Abel, killed him; Noah, bored to tears, invented wine; God, once again bored with mankind, destroyed the world by means of the Flood; but this in turn bored Him to such an extent that He brought back fine weather again. And so on. The great empires—Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman—rose out of boredom and fell again in boredom; the boredom of paganism gave rise to Christianity; that of Catholicism, to Protestantism; the boredom of Europe caused the discovery of America; the boredom of feudalism kindled the French Revolution; and that of capitalism, the revolution in Russia. All these fine discoveries were noted down by me in a kind of summary, then I began with great enthusiasm to write the true and proper history. I do not remember exactly, but I don’t think I went any further than a highly detailed description of the atrocious boredom from which Adam and Eve suffered in the Garden of Eden, and how, precisely because of this boredom, they committed their mortal sin. Then I grew bored with the whole project and abandoned it.
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