12 November 2016

On Contempt

Contempt by Alberto Moravia, tr. Angus Davidson (New York Review Books, 2004)


As I came into the sitting-room I saw Emilia sitting in an armchair, her legs crossed, and Battista standing in one corner in front of a bar on wheels. Battista greeted me gaily: Emilia, on the other hand, asked me, in a plaintive, almost melting tone, where I had been all that time. I answered lightly that I had had an accident, realizing at the same time that I was adopting a tone of evasiveness, as if I had something to conceal: in reality it was simply the tone of one who attributes no importance to what he is saying.

By his own direct (or indirect) and conscious (or unconscious) admission, the narrator of Alberto Moravia's frustrating novel was unreliable. He did, and did not, ascribe truth to what he was saying. In fact he said a lot, and what he said betrayed all his surface feelings, so truthful and sensitively conveyed his whining was almost comical and pitiful. Perhaps it was half-meant to be a comedy, half-meant to be a tragedy.

Riccardo Molteni was the unfaithful narrator, and Contempt was the story of his realization of his wife's contempt of him. Emilia fell out of love for him, gradually and suddenly. She came to detest him. Our puzzled narrator was slowly coming to grips with this reality unfolding in front of him without his full participation at first because of his seeming apathy or lethargy or self-delusion. He would easily come across as a buffoon were it not for the perfectly controlled voice held in suspension, telling of his wife's conjugal disaffection in a roundabout way.

Molteni's profession was on point. He was a movie scriptwriter, and so his dramatic situation needed to be told with a bit of suspense, with a bit of flair, an emphatic withdrawal at first of the full blast of meaning before a marital bomb explodes on his face.

And now, as if my eyes had been at last opened to a fact which was clear and yet, till that moment, invisible, I was conscious that this communion might no longer exist between us, in fact, no longer did exist. And I, like a person who suddenly realizes he is hanging over an abyss, felt a kind of painful nausea at the thought that our intimacy had turned, for no reason at all, into estrangement, absence, separation.

Our character was helpless on the page: half-dreaming, half-awake, and clueless. To be fair, the initial symptoms of a wife's love lost were not entirely lost on him. He was not completely surprised when his wife finally broke up with him.

What anchored his endless complaints on the page was the fervor of his folly combined with an intellectualized denial of an intellectualized love. His blind adherence to the romantic notion of constancy was meant to be shattered and witnessed in its full, pathetic glory. The reader was a hapless participant in the awkward affair, forced to observe a private struggle against mechanical passions and manipulated emotions.

The labor and capital of the filmmaking business were hardly to blame, but they sure played a part in the dissolution of his marriage. The writer was enslaved to write something commercial so he could earn a lot of money to pay for his finances. In the process, he neglected the essential connections in his life, which likely contributed to Emilia's estrangement with him.

Working together on a script means living together from morning to night, it means the marriage and fusion of one's own intelligence, one's own sensibility, one's own spirit, with those of other collaborators; it means, in short, the creation, during the two or three months that the work lasts, of a fictitious, artificial intimacy whose only purpose is the making of the film, thereby, in a last analysis (as I have already mentioned) the making of money.

Sacrifices had to be made at the altar of the silver screen. Molteni was practical enough not to be entirely dazzled by the trappings of commercial work, and he knew that to be consumed by "the prospect of the cash" and by the routine and repetition of commercial storytelling could constitute a failure of the imagination: "and indeed the mechanical, stereo-typed way in which scripts are fabricated strongly resembles a kind of rape of the intelligence".

Moravia was a connoisseur of narrative suspension: of suspenseful deferment of confrontations, of manufactured escape from reality. Molteni thrived on self-deception, always on the brink of a deferred insight or revelation in order to deny the bitter pill of truth. But once his marriage plot unraveled, and his life turned upside down, we could be sure he had an apt metaphor, something violent, to bring to his condition.

I was, in fact, convinced now that Emilia could no longer love me; but I did not know either why or how this had come about; and in order to be entirely persuaded of it I must have an explanation with her, I must seek out and examine, I must plunge the thin, ruthless blade of investigation into the wound which, hitherto, I had exerted myself to ignore.

He certainly could bring out the dramatic push he needed to investigate (or rather dissect) the plot of his marriage. All the philosophical noise and intellectualized discourse only served to heighten his odyssey into a cog in the wheel of cash economy. 

I was still half-way through the novel and still could not decide whether I need to find out what happened during the island interlude in Capri and whether Molteni's further spiraling out of control is worth all the drama behind it. The reader could not be blamed for being ambivalent towards a forgetful narrator intent on overanalyzing his version of a kollosal divorce. The screenwriter was shrewdly setting up a scene where all lost hopes converge and the light of his life fades to black. Awakening readerly Schadenfreude: maybe it was his writerly strategy to elicit sympathy for belaboring the point of missed connections, missed signals, and conjugal distrust.


  1. Hello Rise - I'll be curious to read any additional thoughts you may have if you get to the end. That reader ambivalence is so strong given the repulsiveness of the narrator and the situation, but a year on I still can't get this novel out of my head - such an affecting portrait of an intellect trying to rationalize itself in the face of a reality to which it is oblivious.

  2. I agree with you, Scott. It's hard to shake off. I have been intermittently reading it for a year or so, not totally committed to abandoning it. There's an infectious quality to the tone. Sometimes I look forward to reading it. Sometimes I completely dread it.

  3. I read post 2 before post 1 and liked the ideas the book had given rise to. I also find myself liking the idea of a book that both attracts and repulses, and my own experience of Moravia was positive enough to make we want to read this for myself, even in the face of your ambivalence...

  4. That openness to the book's nuances is exactly the spirit required to approach the book's repulsive characters.

    Happy Holidays to you, Séamus!