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Agostino by Alberto Moravia

February 8, 2016 12 comments

Agostino by Alberto Moravia (1945) Translated from the Italian by Marie Canavaggia

Moravia_AgostinoI’m late to post about January’s Book Club choice. It was Agostino by Alberto Moravia.  We had already read Contempt and decided to read another one. Agostino is a novella about adolescence. Agostino is 13 and he’s spending his holidays at the beach with his widowed mother. We don’t know how his father died. The war, maybe. Agostino’s mother is never named. She’s still young and attractive. At the beginning of the holidays, she’s centered on her son and he enjoys spending his time with her. They take a boat and go swimming and he’s proud to be seen in her company.

Then she meets a young man and he accompanies her to her daily boat tours and swimming sessions. Agostino becomes a third wheel and he resents his mother for it. He witnesses the change in her behaviour: she’s flirting with the young man and has attitudes he’d never seen in her. Agostino starts seeing his mother as a woman and not as a mother only.

Agostino is terribly upset not to be his mother’s first interest any longer. He needs to share but mostly, he needs to accept that she’s a woman, that her life as a woman is separate from her life as a mother. She’s no longer asexual. He notices her body and starts feeling uncomfortable in situations that were normal to him before. He’d like her to be more modest when he comes to her room. She’s unaware of his uneasiness and she should change her behaviour to take into account that her boy is turning into a young man.

This holiday forces on Agostino the separation that needed to happen. He’s growing up, it’s also time for him to have a life independent from his mother. This first attempt at autonomy is done through joining a gang of young local boys who hang out around the beach.

This will be educational on several levels. First, they don’t come from the same social background. Agostino comes from a rich family; he lives in a mansion and has no idea of how privileged he is. He takes money for granted and when he mixes with these local boys coming from poor fishermen families, he’s confronted to other social references. They don’t have the same vision of life. They don’t live by the same rules. Violence is part of their life, fighting with each other, struggling to survive and starving attention. They’re more comfortable with their bodies.

Second, they are less sheltered, more mature and more knowledgeable about facts-of-life. They will reveal to Agostino what relationship his mother has with the young man. They will make fun of his innocence but will still do his sexual education. They will be eye-opening for him and trigger his leaving his childhood behind.

13 is a delicate age with a maelstrom of emotions and thoughts. Agostino still wears short pants but his mind is moving on. He’s puzzled and innocent at first but he catches on quickly. He doesn’t have a father figure in his life and that affects his relationship with his mother. (Hints at psychoanalysis are rather obvious in the novel) It explains why he’s suddenly discovering that she’s more than a mother, that to other men, she can be a lover. He was content; this new awareness disturbs the harmony of his life. This summer is about finding a new equilibrium to go forward.

I won’t tell too much about this incredible novella. I’m amazed again at how much Moravia can pack in a hundred pages. The style is subtle and evocative. I was there, on the beach, imagining the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, the sun, the heat, the cabins on the beach, the little boats. It’s very cinematographic with short but spot-on descriptions. The quick change in Agostino is masterfully described. He’s 13, on the fence between childhood and adolescence. The invisible hand of time pushes him to the side of adolescence. That doesn’t go without scratches on his soul.

Honestly, seeing how short this is, there’s no excuse for not reading it. If you need further assurance that this is an amazing read, please have a look at reviews by Guy and Jacqui.

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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