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.