Contempt – Alberto Moravia (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #48)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  The posts have been a bit too occasional, the challenge is taking me forever! I’m hoping this post will see me starting to build momentum again. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books.

Contempt (Il disprezzo) by Alberto Moravia (1954 trans. Angus Davidson 1999) is a novel with a title that instructs the reader regarding the attitude to take to the narrator: Molteni is truly contemptible.

He is married to the gorgeous Emilia and at first they are very happy together, despite their poverty, as Molteni tries to make a living as a writer and earn enough to keep them in their modest home.

“Thus I never had so much to complain of as I did during the time when in truth – as I later came to realise – I was completely and profoundly happy.”

Gradually however, things start to unravel. They meet Battista, a crass, vulgar film producer. A seemingly innocuous event occurs but from this time Emilia starts to treat Molteni coolly. And so over the course of this short novel we see the disintegration of the marriage, the causes of which are entirely apparent to the reader but remain elusive to Molteni as he is so utterly self-absorbed.

He’s a terrible snob: he looks down on his wife for being less educated than him and has dreams of being a great writer. He feels his scriptwriting is beneath him yet he doesn’t really excel at that either, trying to write a film version of The Odyssey for co-producers with very different ideas. He’s so busy being intellectual that life is passing him by and he has no idea how incredibly stupid he is.

He has a degree of insight into abstract concepts, such as his decision to become a Communist, but is unable to translate it into meaningful action:

“Usually, in simpler, less cultivated people, this process occurs without their knowing it, in the dark depths of consciousness where, by a kind of mysterious alchemy, egoism is transmuted into altruism, hatred into love, fear into courage, but to me, accustomed as I was to observing and studying myself, the whole thing was clear and visible…yet I was aware the whole time I was being swayed by material, subjective factors, that I was transforming purely personal motives into universal reasons.”

The irony when he claims “I would never have become a Communist if I had not bought the lease of that over-expensive flat” completely passes him by.

And of course, he is completely blinded to the person he shares his life with. Emilia become progressively unhappier throughout the novel, which Molteni barely acknowledges, being so wrapped up in himself:

“Her beauty had about it a look of subjection, of reluctance, the cause of which I was at a loss to identify.”

It’s a short novel so I can’t say too much about plot, except things come to a head when the couple holiday with Battista in Capri, changing their lives irrevocably. Contempt shows how intellectualism and artistry carry a danger of relentless self-focus; coupled with Molteni’s material concerns, he loses all sight of people and human feelings, only realising where true meaning lies when it is too late.

I couldn’t have spent too much longer with Molteni but as a short, sharp novel, Contempt works well and has plenty of food for thought.

To end, the trailer for Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), which was inspired by Contempt:

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“I am my own muse, the subject I know best.” (Frida Kahlo)

Last week I wrote about Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West. Although she was Virginia’s muse, Vita was not a voiceless entity to be moulded by the artist, but an accomplished author in her own right. This week, I thought I’d look at the work of some famous muses: Vita, and also Zelda Fitzgerald.

Vita Sackville-West

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (1931) begins with the death of Henry, Lord Slane, former Prime Minister and Viceroy to India. Deborah, Lady Slane, who has been married for 70 years since the age of 17, seems to be bearing up remarkably well.

“Mother was a changeling, they had often said politely, in the bitter-sweet accents reserved for a family joke; but now in this emergency they found a new phrase: Mother is wonderful. It was the thing they were expected to say, so they said it, several times over, like a refrain coming periodically into their conversation and sweeping it upwards on to a higher level. Then it dropped again; became practical. Mother was wonderful, but what was to be done with Mother? Evidently she could not go on being wonderful for the rest of her life.”

Although she loved her husband, Lady Slane is released by his death. She did not want to be a political wife or a society hostess, or any of the other roles she had to adopt to support her husband. She had wanted to be a painter, but instead followed the Victorian ideal and got married. Her husband was happy for her to paint watercolours as a becoming hobby, but the idea of a professional artist wife was ridiculous:

“He was not to blame. He had only taken for granted the things he was entitled to take for granted, thereby ranging himself with the women and entering into the general conspiracy to defraud her of her chosen life.”

Aged 88, Lady Slane decides that the time has come to go her own way at last:

“I have considered the eyes of the world for so long that I think it is time I had a little holiday from them. If one is not to please oneself in old age, when is one to please oneself? There is so little time left!”

This means she will not live alternately with each of her offspring who are all fairly dreadful in their own way. Instead she will move to a small house in Hampstead with her French maid who has been with her for the whole of her marriage, and they will live quite simply. (Much to my relief, having read the horrors of the moving-between-adult-children option brilliantly portrayed in Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven)

She ends up creating a little enclave of elderly men around her. Mr Bucktrout is her eccentric, paternalistic landlord; Mr Gosheron her decorator; and Mr FitzGeorge a man who has loved her from afar for years. They are all rather strange individuals, and all in sympathy with one another.

“But at Hampstead, thanks to Mr Bucktrout and Mr Gosheron, the proper atmosphere had been at last achieved. It was modest; there were no aides-de-camp, no princes, but though modest it was warm, and affectionate, and respectful, and vigilant, and just as it should be.”

Sackville-West has plenty to say in this novel, most obviously about the limited choices available to women, especially in regard to their professional lives:

“She supposed she that was not in love with Henry, but, even if she had been in love with him, she could see therein no reason for foregoing the whole of her own separate existence. Henry was in love with her but no-one proposed he should forego his.”

In this way, it has been seen as a fictional companion to A Room of One’s Own. However, it is also an appeal for allowing for different kinds of life and for respecting inner life as much as outward achievement. Lady Slane is ostensibly doing nothing, and wonders if the contemplative life is in fact running away from things. She decides it isn’t:

“for in contemplation (and also in pursuit of the one chosen avocation which she had to renounce) she could pierce to a happier life more truly than her children who reckoned things by their results and activities”

All Passion Spent is a wonderful novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s beautifully written and has something to say, but it is never didactic. It is warm, witty, has fully-realised idiosyncratic characters and of course, Sackville-West’s sharp wit. A great read.

“For the first time in her life – no, for the first time since her marriage – she had nothing else to do. She could lie back against death and examine life. Meanwhile, the air was full of the sound of bees.”

Secondly, Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save Me the Waltz, written in a clinic in 6 weeks following a breakdown. It’s practically impossible to read this without thinking of Zelda’s life. She and her husband F Scott Fitzgerald were seen as emblematic of generation perdu and her husband labelled her ‘the First American Flapper’. Save Me the Waltz is barely disguised autobiography as Alabama Begg marries an artist, David Knight, and the celebrated couple move around Europe after the First World War. Sound at all familiar?

The novel was dismissed by critics on its release but has been reclaimed by some scholars in recent years who argue the novel is well-written and Zelda has been overshadowed by the acclaim granted her husband. I think I fall somewhere between these two camps. I thought Save Me the Waltz was desperately overwritten:

“the swing creaks of Austin’s porch, a luminous beetle swings ferociously over the clematis, insects swarm to the golden holocaust of all hall light. Shadows brush the Southern night like heavy, impregnated mops soaking its oblivion back into the black heat whence it evolved. Melancholic moon-vines trail dark, absorbent pads over the string trellises.”

There are loads of passages like this. Fitzgerald loves a simile and she layers image upon image without them really adding anything to one another. A few pages on is this:

“The lids of her mother’s blue eyes rose in weary circumflex as her sweet hands moved in charity through the necessities of her circumstance.”

At this point I was at page 29 and wondering if I should give up. As I say, it’s difficult to read this separate from Zelda’s legend but I’m pretty sure that even if I didn’t know about her, this writing would still strike me as coming from someone with something to prove, desperate to be a Good Writer.

But I’m glad I persevered. Fitzgerald seemed to get into her stride later into the novel; similes became more coherent, the use of Big Clever Words lessened and she got on with the story and some interesting observations:

“Alabama and David were proud of themselves and the baby, consciously affecting a vague bouffant casualness about the fifty thousand dollars they spent on two years’ worth of polish for life’s baroque façade. In reality, there is no materialist like the artist, asking back from life the double and the wastage and the cost on what he puts out in emotional usury.”

Alabama decides to train as a dancer as the Knight’s marriage starts to disintegrate. It’s hard not to read it as Zelda’s take on her relationship with Scott and it’s sad:

“They had thought they were perfect and opened their hearts to inflation but not to alteration.”

Of course the main interest in reading Save Me the Waltz is that it was written by Zelda Fitzgerald, and that  it is her life with Scott thinly-disguised. Yet I think it shows unfulfilled promise. It’s not a great novel but it has excellent moments. I felt if she had only had an editor take an artistic, nuturing interest in her, someone who would advise, guide and mentor, Zelda Fitzgerald could have become the accomplished writer she so clearly wanted to be.

“Alabama swung off in imitation of some walk she had once admired. ‘But I warn you’ she said, ‘I am only really myself when I’m somebody else whom I have endowed with these wonderful qualities from my imagination.”

To end, I recently saw a repeat of a documentary where Marianne Faithfull described becoming Mick Jagger’s muse as “not a high self-esteem choice”. She survived, she’s laughing and she’s still working, even if her voice these days is a bit of an acquired taste. Take it away Marianne:

“Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?” (Ernest Gaines)

Although June was Pride month, in London it culminated with a Pride parade during the sunny weekend just gone, so this week’s post is two novels involving LGBT+ themes.

The first thing that struck me on picking up Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928) is that Penguin Classics have managed to disprove what I had previously taken to be an absolute truth: that film tie-in covers are always repulsive. Apparently not when Tilda Swinton is involved (credit also to Billy Zane’s arms):

Orlando is a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, and the novel is full of references to her: her family, history, homes, lovers. As Orlando, Woolf makes Vita someone who is not bound by the laws of time, or by gender. At the start of the novel, Orlando is a young man living in Elizabethan England. I took Shakespearean Studies for my MA and I enjoyed Woolf poking fun at the nobleman poets of the time:

“He was describing, as all young poets are forever describing, nature…Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural apathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces. The shade of green Orlando now saw spoilt his rhyme and metre…one drops the pen, takes one’s cloak, strides out of the room, and catches one’s foot on a painted chest as one does so. For Orlando was a trifle clumsy.”

The oak tree on Orlando’s estate is a recurring motif, as Orlando writes throughout their life the epic poem The Oak Tree:

“To the oak tree he tied [his heart] and as he lay there, gradually the flutter in and about him stilled itself; the little leaves hung, the deer stopped; the pale summer clouds stayed; his limbs grew heavy on the ground; and he lay so still that by degrees the deer stepped nearer and the rooks wheeled round him and the swallows dipped and circled and the dragonflies shot past, as if all the fertility and amorous activity of a summer’s evening were woven web-like around his body.”

He is popular in the Elizabethan court and romances a Russian princess named Sasha (based on Vita’s lover for many years, Violet Trefusis). Sasha ultimately breaks his heart and Orlando retreats from court, but is later and ambassador to Turkey for Charles II. While in Constantinople he falls asleep for several days and wakes quite altered:

“Orlando had become a woman – there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatsoever to alter their identity.”

This change enables Woolf to make several pointed comments about gender roles:

“For women are not (judging by my own short experiences of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline.”

Ultimately though, Woolf is not interested in preaching. Orlando is an enjoyable romp through the centuries with plenty of sly digs at writers of the past and satirising of British society through the ages. It’s also about the difficulty of writing, both biography (Woolf-as-biographer addresses the reader directly to highlight these difficulties) and fiction as Orlando struggles with The Oak Tree and takes centuries to finish it (I enjoy Sackville-West’s writing but apparently Woolf didn’t rate it much).

For me, Orlando isn’t Woolf at her best, but I don’t think it was intended to be; she referred to it as ‘a writer’s holiday’. However, like all her writing, it is multi-layered and lends itself to re-reading. For all its complexities it’s a surprisingly easy read and can be whizzed through if you’re not stopping to read footnotes to catch all the allusions 🙂

Secondly, The Spell by Alan Hollinghurst (1998). This was a lesson to me to keep an open mind. If I didn’t rate Hollinghurst as a writer I would never have picked up this novel from the description on the back, taken from The Times review: “Alex drops a tab of ecstasy, provided by young Danny, and embarks on a bewildering voyage of self-discovery in a drug-fuelled London club scene”. To me, that sounds like an incredibly tedious premise for a novel. Thankfully, it seems The Times book reviewers were as inept then as they are now* and this is not what the novel’s about. What The Spell is about is dealing with the pain of heartbreak, and the awkward negotiations of intimacies when you’re male and British and don’t say what you feel.

Alex is nursing a broken heart when his ex-partner Justin invites him to spend the weekend with him and his new partner, Robin. Robin’s son Danny is there and Alex and Danny start a relationship. Alex is conservative; he works for the government and lives a quiet life. Danny is several years younger and completely different:

“He took in the jumble on the mantlepiece, but didn’t study the the curling snapshots too closely for fear of cutting himself on the grins and glints of Danny’s world. He had an impression of life as a party, as a parade of flash-lit hugs and kisses, in a magic zone where everyone was young and found to be beautiful.”

Robin is also negotiating his relationship with Danny and Hollinghurst captures the pain and guilt of the divorced parent:

“Even though the marriage had broken up eighteen years ago, Danny’s visits still left Robin with an aftertaste of disappointment, of adulterated sweetness; sometimes they had been anxious charades of the life they might have led together, but played out with an eye on the clock and a mawkishness which shifted from one to the other.”

Over the period of their relationship, as The Times review mentioned, Danny introduces Alex to London nightlife:

“He could easily argue the feeling away as the elation of drink and dancing and the company of a thousand half-naked men. Though the men were beautiful, it was true, in the cascades and strafings of coloured light.”

The Spell isn’t Hollinghurst’s most sophisticated novel but it’s simplicity makes it touching. It’s a look at a period of time in four ordinary, connected lives, written before he went onto the broader scope of The Line of Beauty and The Stranger’s Child. It’s about how we deal with pain, both big (bereavement, heartbreak) and small (the tiny hurts we cause one another each day). The final image is one of friendship, and as this endures, one of hope.

To end, the theme of this year’s London Pride was #PrideMatters. It’s about the importance of Pride as people who are LGBT+ still face discrimination and abuse. A pretty depressing state of affairs in 2018. And I am struck yet again at how audacious Jimmy Somerville was in making this video 34 years ago:

*Not that I read the Murdoch rag but instead base my opinions on the much more reliable source of Twitter. I saw Matt Haig’s tweet about their review of his latest book which showed all the nuanced understanding of mental health that you’d expect 😦

“It is not possible to have perfection in life but it is possible to have perfection in a novel.” (Elizabeth Taylor)

Today is Elizabeth Taylor Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, which gave me a chance to read the last two novels I had of hers remaining in the TBR (thankfully I’ve not yet read all her work – roll on the end of the book-buying ban…).

Firstly, The Sleeping Beauty (1953), which tells the story of Vinny, a man who is a reliable shoulder to cry on for all his female friends.

“It was his business to be loved – a mission created afresh with everyone he met – and he was always conscious of another’s coldness.”

When Isabella’s husband dies, he is down to visit her at her coastal home like a shot.

“ ‘You are welcome to follow me to the ends of the earth’ Vinny seemed to be assuring people when he was introduced.”

Vinny should be seen as a model of compassion, but instead Taylor’s sharp eye shows him as vain and very much driven by his own needs. Isabella’s son Laurence, courting a young nursemaid staying at a local B&B, doesn’t take to him as he thinks he has plans to marry Isabella. The thought crosses Isabella’s mind too, and she finds comfort in planning how she will turn him down. What neither of them know is that firstly, Vinny is already married (though separated) from his wife Rita “[who] had, in fact, a great distaste for the truth and was forever tidying it up or turning her back on it.” and secondly, that Vinny has fallen in love at first sight with Emily, who he saw on the beach.

“When they had gone from view, he turned back to the room, and found it dark now, and very small.”

Emily is a blank canvas in many ways, perfect for Vinny’s romantic sensibility.

 “Nearing fifty, Vinny felt more than ever the sweet disappointments only a romantic knows….the imperfectly remembered and the half-anticipated. Past and future to him were the realities; the present dull, meaningless.”

Emily has been in a car accident and her heart was broken when her lover subsequently dumped her, unable to cope with her changed appearance. She is still beautiful, but in a strange way, as Vinny’s mother observes:

“anything passive she abhorred, and Emily’s dead-white skin, her lack of expression, about which Vinny had found no words to forewarn her, no heart to explain or discuss, annoyed and repelled her. She could sense Emily’s life drifting by in an incurious desuetude.”

The Sleeping Beauty has a determinedly unromantic male lead, and a beauty whose awakening is for his benefit not hers. Taylor shows how we attempt to construct our lives around our desires and how that can cause pain rather than delight for ourselves and those we love. She is very funny (such as Isabella and her friend Evalie being avid racing gamblers, hiding this from her son, who is also betting and hiding it from his mother) but overall the tale is unsettling. If the romance will result in happily-ever-after for any of those concerned is left for the reader to decide.

“ ‘Oh, I am nothing without you,’ she said. ‘I should not know what to be. I feel as if you had invented me. I watch you inventing me, week after week.’”

Secondly, Angel (1957) a hilarious portrait of a writer supposedly based on the romantic novelist Marie Corelli. Angelica Deverell decides before she’s even left school that she’s going to be a romantic novelist. This is despite not liking love, or novels:

“Until now she had thought of love with bleak distaste. She wanted to dominate the world, not one person.”

“She had never cared much for books, because they did not seem to be about her”

Angel is one of the most rampant egotists ever committed to paper. She is a terrible writer without life experience, knowledge or taste to draw on, and yet she is hugely popular – her readers don’t care about her error-ridden purple prose. Her fame insulates her from the world and so she is able to continue her entirely ego-driven existence, never bothering to look beyond herself for anything. She is physically astigmatic but psychologically myopic to the point of blindness.

Maybe I’m lacking compassion but I didn’t find Angel remotely sympathetic. She is appalling. The pathos comes through her mother: baffled by her daughter, and yanked from her home by Angel’s material wealth. I found this passage heart-rending:

“At a time of her life when she needed the security of familiar things, these were put beyond her reach. It seemed to her she had wasted her years acquiring a skill which in the end was to be of no use to her: her weather-eye for a good drying day; her careful ear for judging the gentle singing sound of meat roasting in the oven; her touch for the freshness of bacon; and how, by smelling a cake, she could tell if it were baked: arts, which had taken so long to perfect, now fell into disuse. She would never again, she grieved, gather up a great fragrant line of washing in her arms to carry indoors.”

Amazingly, Angel does have people who care about her, repugnant as she is. Theo, her publisher, takes a paternalistic attitude and worries she will never get what she wants:

“Love, which calls for compliance, resilience, lavishness, would be a shock to her spirit, and upset to the rhythm of her days. She would never achieve it, he was sure. For all the love in her books, it would be beyond her in life.”

Nora is a devoted friend and lives with Angel for the majority of their lives, even during Angel’s marriage to Nora’s feckless brother Esme:

“ ‘I read one of your books.’ he said, sounding as if it were rather a surprising thing to do.

She blinked, jolted by what he had said. She always supposed that everyone had read all of her books and had them nearly by heart, that they thought about them endlessly and waited impatiently for the next one to appear.”

Her marriage is held together through Esme’s lies and Angel’s unrelenting capacity for self-delusion, despite the fact she doesn’t enjoy the honeymoon:

“Greece was especially disappointing. It was nothing like her novels.”

 Angel is an astonishing character study and the story of one writer’s life. What is most astounding is that the grotesque Angel is apparently not too far from real life; apart from the fact that she was probably gay and more interested in the esoteric, Marie Corelli seems to have been very much like Angel. Certainly like Corelli, Angel refuses to acknowledge her waning star following the First World War when people don’t want overwritten romances anymore.

Angel never has an epiphany, she remains resolutely vain, deluded and solipsistic until the end. The novel is a comi-tragedy, carefully balancing absurd excess with sharp-eyed psychological insight.

“She went to the Royal Garden Party in violet satin and ostrich feathers with purple-dyed chinchilla on her shoulders; amethysts encrusted her corsage and mauve orchids were sewn all over her skirt where they quickly wilted. Glances of astonishment she interpreted as admiration.”

 “Arrogant and absurd she had been and remained; she had warded off friendship and stayed lonely and made such fortifications within her own mind that truth could not pierce it”

Ultimately, Taylor treats Angel kindly:

“I am frightened, she suddenly thought. But there was nothing to be frightened of; not even poverty now. I have come such a long way, she told herself, and done all that I wanted and there is nothing to fear.”

In life and in fiction, I like people who walk to the beat of their own drum. Angel certainly does this. I think the reason I couldn’t stand her is because she is so utterly self-focussed. She has zero interest in other people or in the world. Taylor is such a skilled writer that her horrible main character does not detract from the joy of this novel. The comedy is gentle; although we laugh at Angel it is in disbelief rather than cruelty. There is also enough reality and pathos through the characters that surround her to ground the novel away from Angel’s delusions.

Elizabeth Taylor is such a wonderful writer. Any novel of hers is an absolute masterclass in astute, humane, witty style. The fact that she is an Underappreciated Lady Author is an absolute travesty.

To end, I saw a documentary recently about female singers and Annie Lennox was part of it, looking bloomin’ amazing in every shot. Here she is singing about an angel: