Classics Club #2: Alberto Moravia’s Contempt
Yes, I know, what can I say? I read fast, especially when books are as good as the ones I have chosen for the Classics Club.
All I knew about Alberto Moravia’s famous novel Contempt before I started reading it was what I saw in the Amazon reviews I’d glanced through. Here is one example:
Told from the perspective of a neurotic egotist, the narrator accounts how he “sacrificed” his literary writing career to debase himself in the tawdry task of writing screenplays so that he can afford to lavish his wife with a bigger more opulent living quarters. The narrator convinces himself that not only does his wife not appreciate his “sacrifice,” but that she no longer loves him. It’s horrifying to read this narcissist’s account of his marital disintegration because you begin to realize that he is projecting his own lack of love toward his wife (a pefectly fine, loving woman) and you realize that he is so emotionally arrested that he is incapable of loving anyone.
Now that I have read the book, I have no idea how it is possible for this reviewer to have arrived at this interpretation of the novel. To me, Contempt is the perfect response to everybody who insists that the patriarchy invariably benefits all men and hurts all women. The novel demonstrates that the patriarchal model rewards people of both genders who conform to the traditional gender roles and punishes those who depart from them.
(There will be spoilers, so I’m putting the rest of the post under the fold.)
The novel’s first-person narrator Riccardo Molteni is a deeply flawed human being. However, the kind of emotional abuse that his wife Emilia subjects him to is so unjustified and wrong that the novel is painful to read. Of course, we are dealing with an unreliable first-person narrator, but even so, the horrifying treatment by a deeply patriarchal woman of a man who is not as traditional as she’d like him to be is evident.
Riccardo works hard to offer his wife a lifestyle she thinks she deserves. Emilia, however, doesn’t work (even though before getting married she was a professional woman with a career of her own). She is so invested into her high-class aspirations that Riccardo even employs a live-in maid because Emilia cannot possibly be expected to clean a one-bedroom apartment on her own. She spends all day sulking about some vague grievances against her husband that she never verbalizes no matter how much he begs her to reveal what is wrong.
All Emilia tells Riccardo is that she despises him because he is “not a real man.” Soon we discover what a real man is like for Emilia. Riccardo finds out that Emilia is carrying on an affair with a rich, powerful and brutal Battista. Somehow, she blames her husband for the affair she is having and poor Riccardo is beside himself, trying to explain to Emilia that it is not his fault that she’s cheating.
Riccardo does not live up to the image of a “real man” Emilia holds dear. He doesn’t make a lot of money, he is sensitive, artistic, and insecure. Riccardo also is very respectful of Emilia sexually. For him, sex with an unwilling woman is unconscionable. For the “real man” Battista, female bodies exist to be possessed whether women are willing to have sex with him or not.
I’m very impressed with this novel and I’m now sorry that I didn’t put more books by Moravia on this list. Of course, I can always add more books to the list as I go along. The Classics Club has turned out to be a brilliant idea.