Contempt by Alberto Moravia


“The less one notices happiness, the greater it is.”

How interesting that Moravia’s Contempt, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina should begin with the concept of happiness. It is a place to start, to be sure, for a novel about marriage. But, how often is it the place to end?

Riccardo Molteni’s marriage to Emilia quickly falters within the first few pages of the novel. A script writer without much money, he is determined to provide a home for her; perhaps unwisely he rents a flat which he cannot afford, causing him to associate with film producers and directors for work when he would prefer to write for the theater.

Emilia’s enthusiasm for her home depicts the only joy we see from her in the entire novel. Before it is even furnished, she unreservedly displays her affection for her husband on the dusty floor. But, is she loving her husband or what he has provided?

The kiss over, in a very low voice that was like an inarticulate breath and yet was melodious, melting, she murmured in my ear–or at least so it seemed to me–that I should take her; and meanwhile, with all the weight of her body, she was pulling me down towards the floor. We made love on the floor, on the dusty tiles, under the sill of the window I had meant to open. Yet in the ardor of that embrace, so unrestrained and so unusual, I was conscious not only of the love she felt for me at that time, but more particularly of the outpouring of her repressed passion for a home, which in her expressed itself quite naturally through the channel of unforeseen sensuality. In that embrace, in fact, consummated on that dirty floor, in the chilly gloom of the empty flat, she was giving herself, so I felt to the giver of the home, not the husband.

How surprised he is when not long after, she takes the pillow from their bed to the divan in the living room where she wants to sleep alone. Emilia contends that she cannot sleep with the early morning light coming in through opened shutters, with his snoring, with him next to her in bed. No matter what compromise he is willing to make, she insists on this new arrangement. And then comes fully half of the book which involves Molteni obsessing about his wife not loving him any more.

We do not know why she doesn’t love him any longer, but frankly, I didn’t find much affection for him either. He seemed paranoid and weak, whining endlessly about her not loving him as she once did, and therefore he could not love his job.

Then I understood that, during the last month, I had been seeking all the time to accustom myself to an intolerable situation, but that I had not, in reality, succeeded: I could not endure to go on living in that way, what with Emilia who did not love me and my work which, owing to her not loving me, I could not love. And suddenly I said to myself: “I can’t go on like this. I must have an explanation with Emilia, once and for all..and if necessary, part from her and give up my work as well.”

But, Riccardo does not readily get an explanation from Emilia. Nor does he give up his job. Instead, he puts up with Emilia’s indifference just as he succumbs to the will of Battista, a film producer who invites Riccardo, Emilia and Rheingold, a German director, to his villa in Capri. Battista is a large, loud, dominating man who manipulates situations to get what he wants, which happens to include the affections of Emilia.

Battista and Rheingold plan to make a film of The Odyssey, particularly the story of Ulysses and Penelope. Battista feels that it should be an adventure film; Rheingold wants it to take on a psychological perspective. Moravia draws an apt parallel between Ulysses and Penelope, and Riccardo and Emilia, through Rheingold’s point of view.

“Penelope, being proud and dignified, in the antique manner, would like to refuse their (the suitors) presents, would, above all things, like her husband to turn the suitors out. But Ulysses, for some reason that we don’t know, but that we shall easily find, does not wish to offend the suitors.

Penelope conceives a deep contempt for him. She feels she no longer loves him and tells him so…Ulysses then realizes, too late, that, by his prudence, he has destroyed Penelope’s love.”

It is a parallel story in many ways, but Riccardo does not destroy Emilia’s love by his prudence. I think instead that he destroys it by his timidity. Neither of them are willing to speak to each other in a straightforward way; neither of them tells the other what he is really feeling.

Our relationship had never been clarified right down to the bare truth, it had always been carried on by means of allusions.

Their situation rises to an enormous misunderstanding, in which the only way Riccardo’s anxiety is even slightly appeased is through his dreams of how he wants it to be. Twice Emilia comes to him as his wife; the first to be kissed on the beach where she is sunbathing, the second when she seems to be sitting in the same boat he is rowing the afternoon she has promised to leave him.

But the tragedy lies in the face of reality, that our hopes for love do not a happy marriage make. Only one of Riccardo’s last laments rings true for me, “The ambiguity which had poisoned our relationship in life continued even after her death.”

Some favorite quotes:

…thought is always more fallible, even in its apparent preciseness, than obscure, confused feeling.

But I loved her, and love has a great capacity not only for illusion but also for forgetfulness.

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.

I read this novel with Frances and Richard who hosted it, as well as Ally, Grant, Scott, and Scott G. F. Bailey.