Moravia’s Contempt - A book review

Moravia’s Contempt - A book review (Contempt by Alberto Moravia)

“An uncertain evil causes anxiety because, at the bottom of one's heart, one goes on hoping till the last moment that it may not be true; a certain evil, on the other hand, instills, for a time, a kind of dreary tranquility.”

 Italian novelist Alberto Moravia, internationally acclaimed as a kinky pragmatist whose Marxist-inspired moralism talks about the paralysis of the middle-class ego in the face of cultural and political collapse. His work is widely appreciated because of his frank portrayal of love and sensuality. Contempt (Il disprezzo), published in the year 1954, is about a self-reflexive fiction that dramatized the struggles of an increasingly isolated consciousness to realize its desires in a will-o'-the-wisp world.

The story of a screenwriter with a struggling marriage is made an offer he finally can't accept. In the course of the story, the writer's wife drifts into a sordid dalliance with the vulgar producer. The writer meditates on the reasons for the break-up and the relevance of Homer's epic today, rejecting the vulgar commercial notions of the producer and the psychoanalytic clichés of the director.

In Contempt, Alberto Moravia crafted a fervent and fiercely analytic portrayal of marital collapse and breakdown. But then, it was also more than just that in the way he mordantly critiqued bourgeois hypocrisy, provided a slyly meta-textual portrayal of life imitating art to the point of indistinguishability, and finally, also, a compelling dialectic on the porous differences between high and low art and the divergent interpretations of a classical text based on one’s socio-political standpoint. And, its radical, iconoclastic adaptation by Godard into Le Mépris also made this a rare example of a great book that was turned into great cinema. 

The novel’s narrator, Riccardo, sees himself as an intellectual and holds his artistic aspirations in great light, as he wants to be a serious theatre writer. However, to earn a quick buck to pay for bank loans he’s taken to purchase a new flat, he writes movie screenplays even though he disdains this work. The reason, ostensibly, is that his wife Emilia, who he loves intensely and  has always craved for a place of her own, and that therefore he’s compromising on his artistic integrity out of his love for her, even if he often inwardly disparages her working-class background and lack of conventional education. However, before long his fragile world comes crashing down when he realizes that she doesn’t just love him anymore, but even despises him. Meanwhile he gets a lucrative offer from brash, wealthy film producer Battista to collaborate with famous German filmmaker Rheingold on an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey at his villa in Capri; unfortunately, his intellectual inclinations are at odds with Battista’s desire for costume spectacle, while Rheingold’s dramatically revisionist take disturbs his more conventional interpretations. 

The tale, therefore, captured “contempt” along multiple lines, Emilia’s towards Riccardo’s self-centeredness, Riccardo’s towards what he considers vulgarity vis-à-vis his ideals and perhaps even Moravia’s towards the phony self-deceptions of the bourgeoisie and middle-class ego. As an aside, it also provided a whipping reflection of his own volatile marriage with the illustrious writer Elsa Morante.

Fiction must concern itself with "the appearance of re-establishing the language of reason which is universal in its own right, and hence of re-establishing a relationship of some kind between narrator and reality." For Moravia, imagination doesn't replace reason. But fiction has the potential to reconnect reason with reality. The writer's protagonist dramatizes this possibility: they are self-involved, troubled dreamers wielding therapeutic scalpels on themselves. Moravia's novels offer the serious pleasures of the diagnostic: the hope is that, by exposing forms of unreason, fiction will encourage more sophisticated, yet impulsive, understandings of the world.

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