Thoughts Under an Indolent Sun

There is no point to this piece, dear reader, so you should politely excuse yourself now.

I completed reading a novel by Alberto Moravia, Boredom. He is an author who embodies the modern-day author whose work has only one common requirement: the work cannot stand alone. The body of work needs to be taken in as a whole, instead of one artifact speaking for the man. Whether this is good or bad is up to you, dear reader, to decide. But the orientation of the novelist is not readily legible without acknowledging that fact and, even, placing him at the headwaters–along with Italo Svevo–of the Italian untouchables. Untouched by war, untouched by compassion and untouched by Italian upheaval following 1945. Boredom stands alone, but only weakly. His quality grows as you read him. But unlike modern writers he is not modern, and thus the typicality of his work is instead prophetic. He wrote what he could. The rest would be left up to others, perhaps those like Calvino, perhaps not. For that I admire him whereas some modern writers, given everything, still refrain.

Here is a nice quote from the Paris Review, which interviewed him: “Writers, like all artists, are concerned to represent reality, to create a more absolute and complete reality than reality itself. They must, if they are to accomplish this, assume a moral position, a clearly conceived political, social, and philosophical attitude; in consequence, their beliefs are, of course, going to find their way into their work. What artists believe, however, is of secondary importance, ancillary to the work itself. A writer survives despite his beliefs. Lawrence will be read whatever one thinks of his notions on sex. Dante is read in the Soviet Union.” The Art of Fiction VI: Alberto Moravia. Paris Review, (6), 16-37.

What a restricted view of agency! We cannot help but read Dante, Lawrence and Moravia. What an interesting thought.

The main plot of the book is a lazy, narcissistic artist who comes from a rich family and falls in love with a girl. A simple plot but like most ‘psychological’ reads there are many moving parts. What struck me as I read the book was a phrase. Not from the book but nevertheless speaking straight to the core theme: knowledge. To possess in the act of love (and be possessed), to know. Deep in the prehistory of Greek there was a word root constructed of a k or g, an n, and a vowel. The words springing from this root all have to do with reproduction, both sexual and intellectual: generate, gonad, know, ignorant, and forty others. In the King James Bible a husband knows his wife and begets children. Modravia seeks to split this unity apart. The main character, the rich but ineffective artists, ‘knows’ his love–Cecilia–physically throughout the book. But he does not ‘know’ her intellectually. Fascinating tension. The tension propels the book.

I have no idea where that phrase is from but I have it written down on a piece of paper. I did not need the paper because the phrase is caught in my mind. But the paper looked good in the light of a sun too indolent to hold itself up. So I picked the paper up and wrote down the phrase. I’m reminded of Chuck Wachtel’s poem: “…Have Each Left an Impression There Like the Slender Scar Left by a Salamander in a Piece of Rapidly Cooling Igneous Rock.” I enjoy the implicit, and now explicit, comparison between my brain and an igneous rock. It checks out.

In Modravia’s novels there is the insistence that writing is an exposure of the spirit. But his writing is very stern: we are not looking at the spirit. A cold, callous look that reminds me of Joan Didion. We detect the moral and spiritual character of Modravia’s characters through the shadows they leave up on the world. Interest can free us from the weight of reality but even when we reach the “reality more than reality” we will leave an imprint. A gap in the world that will go noticed but disregarded by a world composed of an unpleasant mixture of apathy and ignore. ‘I do not know and I do not care,’ the world says. The spirit that his writing seeks is a necessary counterbalance to the dreary weight of our times, especially those burdened by the extra cross of middle-class life. We have, in effect, brutalized our senses and it is time we wake up.

He is not much different in this respect than say, Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (“In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous whole…”). But likely that is why I focused on the point in the first place. I drawn connections when I can. Otherwise, their works are radically different. On one hand near myth on the other a form of blunt realism.

A taste of the book:

The details of her figure seemed by some miracle to be more visible than usual, in fact to be visible on their own account–visible, that is, even if I did not look at them and examine them–the light, crisp, brown mass of her hair, more like the intricate, untamed fleece of the ground than a combed head of hair; the motion of her neck, which could not be seen because it was hidden, but which could be felt, at the same time querulous and graceful; the movement of her long, loose, hairy green sweater around the bust which I knew to be naked underneath it, with the full, firm breasts and their delicate points exposed to the friction of the rough wool; her short, narrow black skirt which displayed the rotundities of her hips, shifting and undulating at every step her whole body, in fact, seemed to attract and swallow up my glances with the avidity with which the dry earth swallows the rain. But beyond these outward appearances which leaped to my eye, I realized that for the first time after a long period I was enabled to perceive a reality–how shall I describe it?–a reality of second degree, that is, something which gave a soul to these vivid, emphatic forms. Finally I understood what this reality was: in every part of that body in movement there was, as it were, an unconscious, involuntary force that seemed to urge Cecilia forward, as if she were a sleepwalker with closed eyes and darkened mind. This force drew her away from me and consequently made her real to me.

The Italian shows through the translation; the Latinate inversion of the syntax. Perhaps recalling something of John Milton’s Paradise Lost ect. Surely there’s a bit of his, and Latin’s, much less Italian’s ability to create magnificent sentences. Lengthy. Joseph Heller always had an eye for them. In my mind I equate them to the bookish equivalent of a single shot in a movie or show. Hard to do correctly but when done well, like in True Detective, the page sings.  Here the page’s dulcet tones say enough good things about the book.


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