lunes, 25 de mayo de 2015

Contempt

Contempt [Il disprezzo] (NYRB Classics, 1999)
by Alberto Moravia [translated from the Italian by Angus Davidson]
Italy, 1954

For a no nonsense, stripped down character study about an imploding marriage with virtually no show offy writing other than the occasional extravagant simile and, OK, some masterful psychoanalytic meta engagements with the Odysseus/Ulysses of Homer, Dante, Joyce and Freud, one of the things I most liked about immersing myself in the sea of Contempt's flat prose and suffocating interiority was watching the author heedlessly row himself out as far from shore as possible and then seeing if he could return without crashing onto the rocks of novelistic banality.  Heroic?  Not exactly.  However, it's probably a measure of Moravia's success in the realm of the "boudoir drama" (142) that even Madame fucking Bovary has a more uplifting ending as concerns the "conjugal repugnance" (141) theme!  Whatever, while I suspect that this quick reading but somewhat humorless novel is all too successful a neorealist-like downer for me to ever consider rereading without Technicolor happy pills in hand, two things that make me hedge my bets on that front are Moravia's ironic mean streak in selecting a writer as the poster boy for a self-absorbed intellectual emotionally impotent in the face of his true feelings for another human being (Riccardo Molteni on his wife Emilia: "And so, between us, there was a silence that was only broken from time to time by some quite unimportant remark: 'Will you have some wine?  Will you have some bread?  Some more meat?'...It was, then, a silence that was intolerable because perfectly negative, a silence caused by the suppression of all the things I wanted to say and felt incapable of saying" [116-117, ellipses added]) and a couple of profoundly moving hallucination scenes near the end which touch on the rational and the irrational at the heart of loving somebody while conjuring up the fabled wine dark sea of Homer in primal opposition to modern man's more prosaic and less poetic realities.  Powerful and perceptive but maybe not the perfect book to read if you're currently sleeping alone or have ever lost the girl (or guy) of your dreams to those capricious goddesses known as "Fate."

Alberto Moravia (1907-1990)

39 comentarios:

  1. "..one of the things I most liked about immersing myself in the sea of Contempt's flat prose and suffocating interiority was watching the author heedlessly row himself out as far from shore as possible and then seeing if he could return without crashing onto the rocks of novelistic banality."

    Now that is a sentence! But he doesn't go crashing does he? Moravia is unflinching in his treatment of the character, in his difficult relationship with romantic love. He cares nothing for the discomfort of a reader and shows no sign of throwing a life preserver as we drown in the contempt, no sign of succumbing to "novelistic banality." I especially appreciated that verbalized love becomes "carried on by means of allusions" and yet the first person narration is so suffocating in its comprehensiveness.

    I feel like I enjoyed the other two Moravia novels I've read more but have a profound appreciation for what he has done here. Just not the cheeriest read for a holiday weekend. Maybe I should have thought that through a bit more? The transition from Contempt to neighborhood barbecue is interesting. One looks at love suspiciously over chicken and potato salad.

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    1. Frances, your final line seals the deal as one of the greatest comments ever. Laughed my ass off at that! As far as Moravia not going crashing onto the rocks of banality despite or because of his "unflinching treatment" of the narrator, I guess what surprised me about that most is that he was so uncompromising that it almost seemed as if Contempt was set up with an OULIPO-like constraint of writing the most sparing, most unadorned narrative possible. The hallucination scenes are an obvious exception as are the meta references equating writing and filmmaking with the script of one's lived life--as you touch on so well in your own post--but I found this a subtle and understated work in terms of the writing even though the Molteni character is a bit much much of the time: an interesting paradox! Glad to hear where Contempt stands among your other Moravias read to date; I look forward to watching Godard's take on the book and to returning to Moravia's Il conformista very soon. Cheers!

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  2. I just have to say Richard. I love reading your commentary as I so enjoy your writing style. This review is no exception.

    "Meta engagements with the Odysseus/Ulysses of Homer, Dante, Joyce and Freud" sound irresistible me. Combining them with a thoughtful look on relationships or the erosion of relationships is even more appealing.

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    1. I've actually been mulling over whether I really want to continue blogging or not of late, Brian, something I mention here because your very kind words about the writing on the blog came at a particularly gratifying time for me. Thanks so much for sharing that--I only hope future posts won't let you down! As far as the Moravia novel goes, the Odysseus/Ulysses stuff was not only a nice surprise but a key to my enjoyment of the text. Really imaginative and fresh application of the ancient material to a 1950s Italian setting. Cheers!

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    2. I have to echo Brian's comments - I enjoy your reviews immensely; they are an absolute treat to read!

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    3. Thank you so much, Jacqui--that means a lot to me. Now if I can only manage to keep my ego in check for the day, ha ha!

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  3. Succinct and gorgeous as always (Madame fucking Bovary more hopeful, oh dear!). It occurs to me, after I've written my too long post, that contempt is such an excellent title. Contempt for so many things, but most particularly for the weakness that is Riccardo Molteni. Probably at age 27 he couldn't help much of it, but goodness, I suspect I liked him less than Emilia did.

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    1. Thanks, Bellezza. Not used to having the "gorgeous" description applied to my handiwork, but I'll certainly take the compliment, my friend! I didn't "like" Molteni either and he's certainly responsible for almost all of the bad things that occur to him in the novel, but I think one of the many interesting things Moravia does w/the character from a psychological standpoint is to take a contemptible figure and show us how much of his flaws are due to his feelings of powerlessness (emotional, economic, etc.). Even though this doesn't excuse his actions, I have to say that I sympathize with Molteni a fraction of a per cent to the extent that I sometimes feel more comfortable with books than humans. Emotions, such treacherous things!

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    2. Exactly! How is it that you can nail in a comment what escapes me in a post?! I was quite intrigued with his powerlessness, in tandem with what I saw was weakness. Not sure which comes first, but what an interesting psychological conundrum. There were times I definitely sympathized with him, too; his feelings were so raw, and Emilia was so adept at sidestepping the issue. She was like a cat with a mouse, making him guess what hurt her when they both should have been open from the start.

      One of the things I liked best about this novel was how it made me look at marriage, which can be so complicated.

      And, don't give up blogging. Maybe blog less, if that suits you, but you add important thoughts and important titles of which I'm constantly learning. Sometimes, if I don't comment enough it is because I feel foolish in the face of such erudition.

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    3. Bellezza, other people often leave comments that I wish I had thought of during the writing of a post; in fact, I just assumed that that was part of a great blogging tradition!

      I'll probably follow your blogging recommendation about carrying on but dialing things back although I'm not sure how I could really blog much less these days when I've only been posting once or twice a month of late. Anyway, thanks for the support and the encouragement and the laugh over my supposed "erudition"--you're much too kind!

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  4. Richard, consider devoting a post to the hallucinations. And I remain anxious for your The Conformist review.

    I never read Moravia, so I have nothing against him, but my image of him is forever tarnished by Sciascia's hilarious parody in Equal Danger.

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    1. Oh, that's Moravia? Yeah, Sciascia is brutal.

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    2. I'll consider that request, Miguel, but at least one of those scenes would be hard to talk about without giving away the entire reveal of the ending so no promises. Maybe I'll see how Godard appropriates and/or avoids those scenes in his film adaptation, though. Have forgotten most of Equal Danger so I'm not sure that I would have ever realized/remembered/whatever that Sciascia was going off on Moravia without your comment. Fortunately for me, I have room for both writers in my library--no need to take sides!

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    3. I wish more writers were as brutal as Sciascia, Tom. Speaking of which, you guys are reminding me that it's probably an excellent time for another title by the Sicilian!

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  5. Well, this does sound intense - intense and immense! I rather wish I'd crashed my moratorium on book buying to snaffle a copy of Contempt to join the party. Still, I have read Moravia's Agostino, and I'm sufficiently intrigued by the prospect of Contempt to add it to the ever-expanding wishlist. (I plan on reviewing Agostino, but it'll probably be a week or two before my post goes up.)

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    1. I want to and intend to read more of Moravia, Jacqui, but it's not like Contempt was an all-time fave for me or anything like that. Intense? Definitely! Look forward to your eventual post on Agostino and hope you'll consider reading M's Boredom w/Frances and Bellezza and me (and hopefully others) sometime in July.

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  6. "Humorless"? No, Comtempt is a comedy! I keep laughing from scene to scene. Moltoni clumsily attempts to psychoanalyze the world to find what is so wrong with it that it can't love him: that's good stuff.

    And I agree with everyone who's already said that your posts are well-written, amusing and would be missed.

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    1. I get that Molteni is clumsy/hapless enough to provide some unintentional humor, Scott, but I just didn't feel that comedy vibe you describe. Emilia's exit scene isn't exactly a punchline either! Will read your post before long to see if I can better understand your reading of the novel, and sorry I'm late getting around to that but I'm super busy with work these days. Thanks very much, by the way, for your closing comments--didn't mean to provoke a "pity party" for myself based on my comment to Brian above, but on the other hand it's always nice to feel one is appreciated even for a cranky guy like me. Cheers!

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    2. I guess nobody but me sees Moltani as a clown in the way Beckett's characters are often clowns. An unfortunate clown, an angry buffoon. Black comedy, yes, but I can't take him seriously because he's such an obvious idiot. Like Hamlet and Laertes boxing in Ophelia's grave: what a couple of maroons, as Bugs might say.

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    3. Moravia certainly pushes the envelope throughout w/Molteni's status as "an obvious idiot," so I think it's great that you've proposed this alternative reading of the character/novel that some of us others might have missed (I'm reminded of Tom's occasional celebration of Kafka as a wacky comedic writer, in fact). In any event, the matter of tone will certainly provide food for thought as I move on to other Moravia novels (maybe he's a little more slippery than I've given him credit for in Contempt).

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  7. Contempt sounds great and even more so as I'm enjoying The Conformist at the minute. It'll be a while before I finish, let alone manage a blog post though. Life and a lack of inspiration has been getting n the way of blogging recently (how inconsiderate). However, I've decided that as the blog is mine I can leave it and return to it in my own time. I hope that you keep Caravana on the road, however regularly or irregularly. I, among many it seems, would miss the exotic and ever interesting wares.

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    1. I'll take advantage of a rare Thursday day off to return to The Conformist tomorrow, Séamus, so we might be on a more similar schedule than you might think to finish that one off in tandem. In the meantime, thanks very much for your comments about the future of the blog and likewise to you re: the mighty Vapour Trails (your "leave it and return to it" timetable sounds pretty damn sensible). On a totally unrelated note, I'm happy to tell you that today I just bought tix to see Stiff Little Fingers for my first time ever in July. Super excited about that!

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    2. Hah. I still have a buzzing in my ears from seeing SLF 20 years ago (or more?). Saw them a few times and enjoyed them each time. I remember going to see them in London and been taken aback to see so-called scum-punks take out their credit cards to collect their tickets. At the time having a credit card seemed somewhat remark-worthy... None of us had them anyway.
      My daughter is twenty-one on Friday and we're hosting a party on Saturday so have been desperately trying to get house and garden in shape for the past month. Just about succeeding, I think. (The scenes where Marcello goes back to his parents house seemed a bit too familiar, at least the garden!) I'm really enjoying The Conformist so far. Canetti's Crowds and Power would be an interesting parallel read, I've been thinking. (This seems to be the way my mind is working at the moment, expanding ideas for blog posts beyond my ability to finish them..)

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    3. Thanks for that great SLF anecdote, Séamus, Very amusing about the punk credit card scene! A friend of mine from California who's seen the band relatively recently says that they've still got the energy live, so between you and her I'm increasingly excited about the show. Also geeked up about seeing Wire this coming Tuesday and Paul Weller in a few weeks and...and (lots of good shows coming up). Please send birthday greetings to your daughter for me and hope all your hard work getting things ready for the party pays off. Glad to hear you're enjoying The Conformist so far. Cheers!

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    4. Have you listened to Wire's new album Richard? It's up with their best, I think, and that's saying something. I saw them a couple of years back and they were great. Intense and focussed. And harsh.

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    5. Unfortunately, Pink Flag is still the only Wire album I own. Time to rectify that or to at least listen to some other ones by them. Thanks for the rec. In the meantime, what you say about that set of theirs a couple years back sounds pretty great. More and more excited about the show!

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    6. Richard - in regards to the credit card story above - How about this?! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BmHShEjAJA What a load of bo**ocks.

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    7. Séamus, that's about the most outlandish spoof video I've ever seen--only it appears to be real! "Turning rebellion into money" wasn't the Sex Pistols' lyric, I know, but that credit card idea is just nuts. Totally funny form of "rebellion" from that "anti-establishment" poseur!

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    8. I'm finally starting to get somewhere with Conformist post - hoping to have it finished this week. How about you? Do you want to set a date for a joint posting?

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    9. I've been reading some other books this month (long story), so I think it's best you post when it's convenient for you and I'll do a "response" post "eventually." Sorry about my poor timing; however, some fun personal stuff has also led to a voluntary reduction in my overall reading time this month. Cheers!

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    10. Not a problem Richard. In fact, fun personal stuff sounds like what life should be about...

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    11. I appreciate your understanding, Séamus. It's just too bad it took me seven years to come to the same conclusion!

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    12. Finally posted on The Conformist. I am now officially blogging at a 'geological' rate. http://theknockingshop.blogspot.ie/2015/07/the-conformist.html Now on to my #SpanishLateMonth posts.

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  8. I've never read Moravia, and from the sound of it, perhaps I shan't. Film is good though.

    Keep the posts coming. What real difference is there anyway between not-blogging and putting up a post once a month? That's what I think about my blog anyway.

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    1. I really like Bertolucci's adaptation of The Conformist and the third or so of the novel that I've read so far. I prefer the feel of that novel to Contempt at this point in time, but I realize that's rather vague! Thanks, by the way, for the encouragement to publish erratically rather than not at all. The logic behind your question/suggestion is tough to argue with, and yours is certainly one of several favorite blogs that I'd personally much want to see continue on with a measly post or two a month than not at all.

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  9. I'm a little worried that I didn't realise how depressing the novel is until I read your (excellent) review - what does that say about my world view?
    (And from now on it will always be Madame fucking Bovary to me!)

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    1. Thanks for the compliment on the review, Grant, and more importantly for the laugh over that Flaubert reference--glad to be of [expletive deleted] service! Scott of six words for a hat also didn't find Contempt as depressing a novel as I did if I understand him correctly, so you aren't or weren't alone on that matter regardless of your world view. :D Cheers!

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  10. Richard - I've waited to comment until I could get my own hideously late post up (finally!), but I certainly wish my writing about the book could have been as succinct and thoroughly enjoyable as yours. Let me bluntly echo the other commenters: please do not stop blogging. You have an imitable style that brings immense pleasure - not to mention that it's one of the few places where I make the effort to exercise my minimal comprehension of Spanish, because it's worth making that effort.

    I did not find Contempt quite as depressing as you did. I side with Scott in finding a lot of the scenes to be comic, mostly funny-notfunny rather than funny-haha (though there are a few of the latter too). One might argue that even Emelia's death has comic elements - her head literally whipped around by the speed of the brutal new shiny materialism swerving to avoid the ox-drawn cart of the past. I like the way that Moravia takes some scenes and makes literal certain modern metaphors, such as the sex between Riccardo and Emelia being literally mechanical. And then heck, set anything on Capri and I can eat it up.

    Moravia will probably never be a favorite writer for me; the worlds he creates are intended to make one uneasy, and do. But he's certainly an enormously talented writer, so I'll likely read more - in small doses.

    Thanks for organizing this!

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    1. Scott, thanks so much for your unduly kind words about my blogging "style." I fear you're being far too generous regarding my writing, but I appreciate the sentiments/support all the same. As far as Contempt goes, as I mentioned over at your blog, I'm willing to concede the point that Moravia was a little more caustically "humorous" than I had felt at the time I was reading the novel. Don't think I'd extend that concession to the death scene you mention, but there's certainly an irony present in the way you describe. Moravia as an "enormously talented writer"? I think I'd agree, but I'm curious whether he has the soul to go with the cool cynicism in some of his other novels. Thanks so much for reading along with us; your post might have been my favorite one on the novel of all, which is saying a lot because there were other terrific ones. Cheers!

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