Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"this conjugal repugnance" in Alberto Moravia's Contempt.

The thing you should know first about Contempt is that it's a comic novel, and I am reminded of the tone of Fellini's films from the 1950s (particularly Le notti di Cabiria). An insecure young married man who thinks he is better than what life gives him reads the world through his own self-doubt and secret knowledge that he's actually not much like his imaginary perfect self. He tries to convince himself that the world is contemptible because he is certain that the world holds him in contempt. Blind to his own unpleasant character, he rubs everyone the wrong way and blames them for the friction. That's Moltoni, the protagonist.

Despite what you may read on the NYRB website, Contempt is not really a "diagnosis of a modern marriage in collapse." The author himself tells you this during the middle of the novel, where the married life of Homer's Ulysses is discussed. The protagonist's marriage is not in collapse so much as the protagonist has not developed the ability to see the world as it is. There's a splendid irony in all of these scenes where the meaning of "The Odyssey" is argued. Rheingold (more about that name in a minute), a German film director now working in Italy, is collaborating with our hero Moltoni to write a film script for a new version of "The Odyssey." Moltoni, who spends nearly every waking minute attempting to psychoanalyze his wife in order to find out why she no longer loves him, maintains that the strength and beauty of "The Odyssey" lies in the way Homer believed in the natural, real world, and how the story of Ulysses returning home to Penelope after ten years is told in an unironic, non-metaphorical manner. Ulysses says what he means, and is trying to get back to the wife he loves. Rheingold, who is blunt and all surface as a personality, reads Homer through the lens of Freud; he argues that Ulysses left Ithaca in the first place to get away from Penelope, that it took him ten years to get home because he did not want to get home, and the whole of "The Odyssey," the monsters and gods and storms at sea, are all imaginary, are the dreamlife of Ulysses as he works through his marital issues. Contempt, you see, is Rheingold's "Odyssey," with Moltoni as Ulysses. Sorry, spoilers.

Moravia's prose is elegant and mostly unadorned (with the important exception of his writing about the sea during the "Odyssey" sections, where Moravia gives us lush, poetic prose reminiscent of Homer), but that does not mean Contempt is a simple narrative. There is a lot going on here, and there are several levels of symbolism, though they all seem to point to the unmasking of Moltoni as an unreliable narrator. Take the name of the German film director as an example. "Das Rheingold" is of course the first part of Wagner's "Ring" opera cycle, and central to the plot of Wagner's "Rheingold" is a dwarf smith who loses all faith in love, steals the property of the gods and then goes on to enslave his fellow smiths. "Rheingold" as a character name points to this theme shared by "The Ring" and Contempt: the subhuman craftsman, unaware of his own ugliness, is rebuffed by women and turns against the world, etc. I pause to consider that some of Moravia's symbolism in the middle of the book might be a bit heavy-handed. Maybe.

I should also mention that Contempt is not a novella; by my calculations, it's about 85,000 words long, making it a good proper novel. In the NYRB edition it's printed on 250 pages in very small type; any other publisher would probably use a larger font and wider leading and the novel would be 350-400 pages long.

And yet, even being a full-length novel, Contempt is a quick read. The writing is straightforward and direct, and has a great deal of forward momentum. I found myself reading it in great long chunks of 75 pages or so. Moravia really pulls the reader along at a swift pace, through a story with few actual plot points. Which is to say, this is a page-turner that does not rely on plot at all. That's some trick.

I still have about 50 pages of the book to read. Tomorrow (hopefully, if there's time) I'll post the excerpts I've marked in my copy that diagram some of the cracks in Moltoni's self-contradictory narrative.

A curious reader should go here for more about Contempt.

Bonus trivia: The Italian title of the novel is Il disprezzo. "disprezzo" is related to "prezzo," Italian for "cost" and also for "damage," a subtlety of meaning not present in the English title.

13 comments:

  1. I just now read, during lunch, all but the final chapter (seven pages or so). I confess myself disappointed that Moravia felt it necessary to explain all of the above-mentioned symbolism to the reader around page 215. The big reveal about Emilia's attitude regarding Battista was also telegraphed to the reader from about page 40 onward. Still, a really fine book even if it violates the rule against authors explaining themselves.

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  2. I know that one can call the novel comic, certainly it is wonderful satire, but...I also found it tragic. It's such a tragedy to me that the couple can not see themselves clearly, nor can they communicate clearly, nor can they rise above what Moravia terms a "misunderstanding". If the demise of their love, and their whole marriage can be seen as a misunderstanding to me that is comedy bordering on tragedy. I felt sorrow at the weakness of Riccardo in every aspect of his life; I suppose others could simply scorn him.

    I have seen many names for this novel; "a diagnosis of modern marriage in collapse", but also amazon had something about a story of a modern day Ulysses and Penelope. I did not see that connection as closely as Rheingold wanted to draw it.

    The title Contempt for me was brilliant. It applies to so many things: contempt for marriage, for young beauties, for screen writers/producers/directors, for living life bravely.

    My post became more a summary of the novel than an analysis, to my chagrin. I wrote it right after I read it, which was just yesterday. But, I will thinking about it for a long time. To me, there are many facets in Moravia's story.

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    1. I mean comedy in the way that, maybe, Beckett wrote comedies. Or maybe Byron's "And if I laugh at any mortal thing, 'Tis that I may not weep." Perhaps I'm too old and cynical to really feel the tragedy of Contempt. Though I read often through the lens of "what's the writer doing?" instead of "what's this book like?"

      Yes, the contempt goes in all sorts of directions here, doesn't it? And I agree that this is a complex novel with a lot going on. I'm so happy I jumped in on the read-along.

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    2. That Byron line applies perfectly.

      I'm happy I jumped in on this, too; how wonderful to share thoughts on a book we've all read recently. One of the treasures of blogging, to me.

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  3. Wish I'd read this now. This, on top of Richard's post and other comments, has me thinking there are many angles, which sounds like fun. However, I am reading The Conformist which I am really enjoying. It manages the same trick of managing to be easy to read without relying on plot.

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    1. It's funny that I've never heard of Moravia until lately. He was Big News in Italy while he was alive. There's a good interview with him on the Paris Review website that was published just before Contempt came out. The novel's not mentioned, but you get a good idea of who Moravia was in the mid-fifties. I might pick up The Conformist. I keep hearing good things about it.

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    2. ...and, Frances, Richard and I will be reading Boredom this July. It would be interesting to read another one as a group, if you feel like picking up another Moravia. Whom, incidentally, I had not heard of until lately, either.

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    3. I've enjoyed all the internet group reads I've done, but in July I'll probably be reading Dumas or Proust. So we'll see if I have time for Boredom.

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  4. Who deserves most credit for the prose you so highly praise: Moravia or the translator? And isn't that always a problem with translations?

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    1. Moravia. A lot of people find translated texts to be problematic, but I just ignore all that fussing. Without the original author/text, the translator has nothing to contribute.

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  5. Your Rheingold info is very useful, Scott, as is your point about the descriptions of the sea often being more poetic than the mostly unadorned prose elsewhere. Thanks again for reading along with us and providing a different slant in your post.

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    1. Thanks for suggesting this book as a group read. All the comments/conversations around the internet have been interesting. It's funny how many ways there are to experience one book.

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  6. Scott - a terrific take on Contempt and its "comedy." I too found it comic, and some of the scenes were absolute howlers of a kind of combined atrocity and hilarity. There must be a name for that. Not many writers can pull that off. As you note, "there's a lot going on here," and I fear I've only begun to get at it on this first read. Many thanks for illuminating the Rheingold element; I'd been reading so much Italian literature set in and around the war that I naively assumed Moravia must simply be trying to say something about German's recent relationship with Italy. That's the kind of gem that makes participation in a group read all the more worthwhile. Interesting too your observation about Rheingold being "all surface" - Molteni describes him as "a mask," and Goddard, in his film version, obviously ran crazy with that.

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