Friday, August 17, 2007

Alberto Moravia: Contempt

Along with The Man Without Qualities and Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience, Contempt is the best novel I have read all this year so far. Like the other two this also deserves a place in the standard canon of European modernist literature (or at least deserves more mainstream success). It may not be as inventive as Joyce, Kafka or Woolf but like the other two it has profound and important things to say about how the modern world works and also about what has changed and what has been lost, perhaps forever.

It also shares some of the style of the other two. There is not much of a plot and very few events happen over the course of the story. The concern is not to tell a story but to take a situation and explore and analyse it from all possible angles. Instead of action or drama what we get is a series of essays about emotional states of the main character(s). (Musil even explicitly calls this style "essayism" in his book.)

I am finding it difficult to describe the book. It is basically narrated by a struggling screenwriter who is trying to understand why his wife suddenly became so indifferent to him, even came to despise him and feel "contempt" for him, and how their relationship broke down all of a sudden. In the course of his self-introspection we learn that the trouble started when he accepted a screenwriting job for a popular film producer. He was man of artistic ideals and wanted to do something in the theatre but to please his wife he bought an apartment and to pay off the loan he is now forced to accept this job even if it means serious compromise with his artistic principles. He only agonizes over this decision because his wife never tells him why she suddenly doesn't love him any more. He tries to think of different situations and how she could have interpreted what happened. One time he allowed the producer to take his wife in his car and while he himself took another car. So he thinks perhaps she thinks that he is prostituting her to gain favours from the rich and powerful man. We never learn if it is indeed this that is in wife's mind but it shows narrator's own self-hatred and "contempt" that he feels for himself that is perhaps reflected in his relationship with his wife. Much of the book is an analysis of this melancholy, the way he grieves over the love which is now dead, all written in the most rational and understated prose, which only serves to heighten the effect in the end.

There is also an absolutely brilliant sub-plot. The film producer's next project is a film adaptation of the Odyssey and obviously he wants to make it a film of spectacle. He asks the narrator to write the screenplay with the German director Rheingold who will eventually direct the adaptation. Now this German director isn't interested in spectacle at all. He is of course a German so unlike the sunny Italians, he is more interested in the darker interior terrain of human consciousness than in the external world of seas and mountains that constitute much of Homer's world. He says Odyssey is actually about "conjugal repugnance" and provides psychoanalytic interpretations of Ulysses' actions. He says unlike in the ancient world we can't take Ulysses' intentions at the face value. Molteni protests at this interpretation but only because he sees that this new interpretation reflects his own predicament and his own relationship with his wife. He longs for the original Odyssey but he knows that it is impossible...

And Homer had wished to represent a sea just like this, beneath a similar sky, along a similar coast, with characters that resembled this landscape and had about them an ancient simplicity, its agreeable moderation. Everything was here, and there was nothing else. And now Rheingold wanting to make this bright and luminous world, enlivened by the winds, glowing with sunshine, populated by quick-witted, lively beings, into a kind of dark, visceral recess, bereft of colour and form, sunless, airless: the subconscious mind of Ulysses. And so the Odyssey was no longer that marvelous adventure, the discovery of the Mediterranean, in humanity's fantastic infancy, but had become the interior drama of a modern man entangled in the contradictions of a psychosis.

He even says that what Rheingold is trying to do has already been done by Joyce. Joyce turned those great heroes into alienated, morose and neurotic losers.
"Well," I continued passionately, "Joyce also interpreted the Odyssey in the modern manner...and he went much father than you do, my dear Rheingold, in the job of modernization--that is of debasement, of degradation, of profanation. He made Ulysses a cuckold, an Onanist, an idler, a capricious, incompetent creature...and Penelope a retired whore. Aeolus became a newspaper editor, the descent into the infernal regions the funeral of boon-companion, Circe a visit to the brothel, and the return to Ithaca the return home at dead of the night through the streets of Dublin, with a stop or two on the way to piss in the dark corner. But at least Joyce had the discernment not to bring in the Mediterranean, the sea, the sun, the sky, the unexplored lands of antiquity. He placed the whole story in the muddy streets of a northern city, in taverns and brothels, in bedrooms and lavatories. No sunshine, no sea, no sky...everything modern, in other words debased, degraded, reduced to our own miserable stature."

Godard's film adaptation is much more aggressive on the theme of commercialism of the modern world. The book is far more subtle but even then the reader can't miss it. At the end it is clear that it is mainly the financial, commercial structures of the modern world which imprison human beings and make it impossible for him to live in harmony with his own nature, producing alienation and neurosis in the process, resulting in breakdown of relationships and contributing to general unhappiness.

Will probably write about Godard's film too sometime. Meanwhile the book goes highly recommended from my side. Absolutely essential reading...


Jabberwock said...

Nice. Have been wanting to read the Moravia for some time. Love the film.

Udge said...

Thanks for this post! I have loved Le Mépris for many years, but it never occurred to me to ask whether there might have been a novel behind it. I shall try to find this when I get back home.

Alok said...

agree about the film. the book is worthy of serious attention too.

jyothsnay said...

well-written post as expected!
"Conjugal repugnance", what a lethal space to be in, to stay unsettled with the inexplicably disenchanting silence causing so much discomfort as well as intense introspection drawn energies from the other person..that's indeed a drama!
Iris Murdoch's "The Bell" runs on a more or less similiar track...however, Dora runs away from her husband as she wants freedom, oh, a woman can never tolerate if her husband becomes too suffocatingly dependent on her! {hideous emotional dependence)

"Despair" by Vladimir Nabokov belong to this dimension to some extent!
Though I have not read Contempt, I could see the protagonist sinking into newer lows every moment with such a strong conviction...his unflappable energy to read into his wife is inability to appreciate the sacrifice he has done,i.e.winding himself against his idealogy ...Or having done so perceived huge sacrifice, dejected the man feels repugnant about self while keeping his wife as the locus poin, without identifying the problem he sleeps with, i.e. his limited ability to understand self?
am not able to resist but men are weak-minded!tey have their nonsensical logic to define their may say I am contemptuous but what I said is a fact boy
wll try to read this book!

Alok said...

wow, you grasped so much without even having the book first! great... or may be my post was very good :) yes that limited ability for self-understanding indeed is the key..

Have read neither of the two books you mentioned yet. They are already on the to-read list for long.

jyothsnay said...

:) Thank you Mr Zembla
I should explode a shower of accolades over the authors I read and those weirdly intelligent men who make my emotions run berserk....this's how my life gets rejuvenated n enriched during every season
but let me not ignore this crucial point before I could boot self out - your post is lucid, yet animated enough for one (drowned, swept over, swam across,experienced soul) to grasp hold of the slender issue