Monday, April 6, 2009

Have contempt, will pack

What if you find out that your wife detests you? How long does it take before you discover that you only have aversion for your "better half"? Do you get out of the relationship? Or do you do whatever it takes to make it work? These are some of the questions explored in Alberto Moravia's darkly atmospheric novel Contempt.

Set in postwar Italy, Contempt centers on Riccardo Molteni, an Italian screenwriter married to Emilia. At first, everything was perfect in the couple's married life, even though Riccardo's work can only pay for a room where the couple spends their free time and evenings. Emilia, who was once a typist and who comes from Italy's lower-income families, is determined to make the room as comfortable for her husband. Riccardo, however, knows that Emilia secretly wishes a house of their own, and it is this knowledge that causes feelings of insecurity in him.

Things appear to change for the better when Molteni is offered to write a screenplay by his friend, Battista. The money coming in allows Riccardo to make the first payment for an apartment, where the couple immediately move to. It is at this stage when Emilia develops contempt for Riccardo. Suddenly, for reasons undisclosed yet, Emilia refuses to sleep with Riccardo in the same room, barely talking to him when he's around. And when Riccardo accepts another screenwriting job, which would enable him to make future payments for their apartment, Emilia's derision for her husband only increases.

Reading the first half of the novel makes you think that it is Emilia who is shortchanging their relationship. However, as the novel progresses, you see that Riccardo is the one to blame for the fallout. One time, Emilia sees Riccardo kissing a female clerk and then treating the episode as just trivial. You get to observe how Riccardo is ultimately the one destroying the relationship with his indecisiveness, his inherent passivity, and his apparent lack of respect for his wife. Without thinking about it, he even forces his wife to the whims of Battista, which turns out to have disastrous consequences on the couple. In the end, when Riccardo discovers that Battista and Emilia are having an affair, you feel that Emilia is probably better off with any one except Riccardo.

Moravia even injects parallelism into his story. Riccardo's next job is to write a screenplay based on Homer's The Odyssey. Interestingly, Riccardo, Battista, and the German director have different takes on how the screenplay should be developed. Battista, the film's producer, wants the movie to be spectacular with all the latest special effects, fancy costumes, and over-the-top performances; The Odyssey is an adventure story after all. The director, on the other hand, tells Riccardo that Homer's work is about the failed relationship between Ulysses and Penelope, which somehow eerily mirrors the situation between Riccardo and Emilia. In the director's version, Homer chooses to take on different adventures so that he delays his coming home to Penelope.

Moravia's prose is full of the stream of consciousness of Riccardo. We get to know how convoluted Riccardo's way of thinking is. Contempt is not for those who want to read novels where a lot of things are going on. Most of the time, you simply read about Riccardo's thoughts. Still, the narrative is quite compelling and it makes you discover for yourself why the character of Riccardo is one of the most detested in postmodern Italian fiction.

Read this book if:
  1. You don't want to read another love story.
  2. You love reading about other people's thoughts.
  3. You feel that your partner's not that into you.