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Love autopsy

January 4, 2014 20 comments

Contempt by Alberto Moravia (1954) French title: Le mépris

Contempt was our Book Club choice for December. (I know, this billet is late) It managed to push Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh out of my list of favourite books for 2013. Here is the opening paragraph of the 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 –of 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.

Moravia_meprisThis is Riccardo speaking and analysing the end of his marriage to Emilia. Contempt a first person narrative and it never switches to another point of view. Riccardo and Emilia have been married two years when their relationship starts to deteriorate. Riccardo is an aspiring playwright and he’s been doing odd jobs to support his wife. At the beginning of their marriage, they were renting rooms in a house as they couldn’t afford more expensive accommodation. Now, Riccardo has just bought an apartment, which changed Emilia’s status from aspiring to official housewife. She’s delighted with the new flat and her ambition is fulfilled.

When the novel opens, Riccardo has just landed an interesting contract to write a screenplay for the film director Battista. It comes as a relief since he’s struggling financially to pay the mortgage of the apartment. Just when he can stop worrying about money, Emilia’s behaviour towards him changes. Without any obvious reason, she starts distancing herself from him. He feels that she no longer loves him but he doesn’t understand why. His first move is to pressure her until she acknowledges that she fell out of love with him. Then he wants to figure out what changed her heart and he will not let go until she eventually blurts out that she despises him. He would have recovered better if she had slapped him.

Everything goes downhill from there. Relocating from Rome to Capri to work on another screenplay for Battisti won’t help. Riccardo knows that Battisti is attracted to Emilia, it was clear from the first evening they had diner together. How does his presence in their lives influence their couple?

Moravia_contemptMoravia is a fantastic writer. He combines Proust’s analytical skills with Maupassant’s style and lucidity. There is something of Swann and Odette, of the Narrator and Albertine in this relationship. Like Swann and the Narrator, Riccardo is a cerebral who feels too much. He over analyses everything, pays attention to tiny details and elaborates theories to explain Emilia’s behaviour. He breaks down her every move, her words and tries to decipher what she meant exactly and why she said this or that. As Riccardo describes Emilia, it becomes clear that they have very different interests and ambitions in life. Riccardo is an intellectual. Emilia loves her home and is content with taking care of the house. She isn’t interested in Riccardo’s job. She’s pretty, he loves her but they don’t seem to have much in common. After the honeymoon stage, how can this relationship blossom?

Like Swann and the Narrator, Riccardo is well-aware of Emilia’s limits. She’s not well-read, she’s a bourgeois and her mind bears the marks of her upbringing. But, as Riccardo says There is in love a great capacity, not only of illusion but also of forgetting.

Like in Notre Coeur by Maupassant, Moravia shows how difficult it is to love someone who doesn’t love you back or not enough. More than unrequited love, Moravia pictures the damage done by contempt. It destabilises Riccardo because it nibbles his self-esteem. Losing Emilia’s love is painful but that kind of wound heals, eventually. Arousing Emilia’s contempt shatters his peace of mind. He wonders what he did to deserve this and more importantly if she’s right.

Contempt is a fascinating read on several levels. Moravia’s style is close to perfection, lucid, matter-of-fact and yet full of emotion. He manages to build a bridge between opposite notions. The reader reads with detachment and yet reaches out to Riccardo’s pain. He explains everything with logic and yet stirs an illogic sense of dread. He’s analytical and warm. Riccardo explains:

I have noticed that the more one is overcome with doubt, the more one relies on a fake lucidity in the hope to clarify though reasoning what emotions have muddled.

He’s centred on Riccardo’s turmoil but doesn’t neglect to picture the beautiful landscapes of Capri. He manages to connect the reader to Riccardo’s inner mind and to his surroundings.

We were quickly driving down the hills to the sea among pine trees and magnolias, the blue gulf as a setting. I was feeling drowsy and exhausted like an epileptic whose body and soul have been wrecked by a violent and uncontrollable convulsion.

Very Proustian, this to-and-fro between the scenery and the emotions of a character. It reminds me of A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs when the Narrator rambles about Albertine and her girlfriends and the landscapes of Balbec.

The construction of the book is impeccable. Moravia builds the tension masterfully and plays his score of words like a gifted pianist. Cherry on the cake, his take on the place of scriptwriters in the film industry was interesting. This is a short book, my copy is only 152 pages but it encapsulates universal and profound notions in the unique story of two indivuals. As the cover of my copy recalls us, Contempt has been made into a film by Jean-Luc Godard.

Highly recommended.

PS: The opening quote is translated from the Italian by Angus Davidson. I’ve read the book in French and I translated the other quotes myself from the French. At least you have the rather long first quote to sample Moravia’s wonderful prose.

PPS: I find the English cover a bit creepy.

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