Sunday, August 12, 2007

Alberto Moravia

I think the name of Italian novelist Alberto Moravia is more familiar to film-buffs rather than fiction readers. Two of the finest European art films from the sixties (or at least two of the finest European art films in colour), Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist were based on his novels. I spent most of the day today reading his slender masterpiece of a novel Contempt. It is really very impressive. I am still not done yet. Will probably write in detail when I am finished. Watching the film I always thought Godard invented most of the stuff on his own but now after having read the book the film seems to be a very faithful adaptation. There is even a character of the German director who is said to have made "colossal films" in pre-Hitler Germany but then the narrator adds his caveat that he was "nowhere in the league of Pabsts and Langs." (In the film Fritz Lang plays himself i.e. character of the German director!).

I will probably write more about it when I am done reading. For now I found an interesting essay on his works, specially this provocative comment:

"More important, Moravia's novels offer a bracing counterpoint to today's soft-hearted and -headed fiction. Moravia sees fiction as a form of knowledge: his aesthetic suggests a creative cross between a doctor and a mechanic, with the abstractness of a metaphysician tossed in. Moravia's suave pitilessness—his self-conscious variation on the mercilessness ofMaupassant—runs counter to contemporary preferences for feeling rather than thinking, and to the associated belief that the imagination should primarily serve as an instrument of sympathy rather than scrutiny. The neglect of Moravia has as much to do with the peculiar philosophical strengths of his withdrawn perspective—particularly its fascination with the growing similarities between the human and the mechanistic—as with the usual vagaries of fashion, though they are crucial.

Moravia's mercilessness challenges the current Anglo-American rage for a more empathic, emotional brand of narrative. Chekhov's short stories are now fashionable among American writers. (James Wood, Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Ford, and Cynthia Ozick have all penned recent appreciations.) In part, this enthusiasm is based on Chekhov's wryly sympathetic observation of the unpredictability of life. For British critic V. S. Pritchett, Chekhov saw human existence as "breaking and running like a chain of raindrops upon the window. Now the drops run and pool together, presently they part, slide off on their own and momentarily catch the light in some new, fragile and vanishing pattern." Contemporary American taste runs to fiction whose patterns attempt to capture the fleeting perceptions of spontaneity, the effervescent signs of human freedom.

In contrast, Moravia's fiction mistrusts pattern, no matter how transient. The mind internalizes the perceptual expectations and habits of an increasingly commercialized and mechanized society. Moravia's plots and characters are ambivalent about repetition; half-heartedly, they treasure the pleasures of the familiar, the joys of routine. Moravia uses sensuality to explore the individual's response to the leveling political and technological pressures of modernity: sex offers a convenient intersection of nature and automation, instinct and habit, the public and private, fetish and freedom. Thus the most striking aspect of Moravia's fiction isn't its once-daring sexual focus but the cool calculated way it looks at love—or the lack of it—in the modern world."


KUBLA KHAN said...

Sontag praises Moravia profusely in her essays but I have not read him so far.

Alok said...

Oh I haven't seen that essay. I should definitely look out for it.

His novel Contempt is really very good. I think you will like it too. it is a beautiful and a deeply melancholic work. I will write in detail once I am done reading.

KUBLA KHAN said...

Alok....i see you are a movie enthusiast. But why are you a trifle shy of Bresson?
I have been watching his movies of late. I notice you like Mouchette.Any more Bresson?

Alok said...

Yes I love watching movies very much. Not shy of Bresson, I have mentioned him quite a few times on the blog. Mouchette is my personal favourite. But I also love Pickpocket and A Man Escaped (I wrote about it on the blog long time back, must be somewhere). Didn't really warm up to Balthazar or Diary of a Country Priest. I like Bergman and Dreyer more when it comes to these kinds of films. (Ordet and Winter Light for example)