Monday, August 26, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE TIME OF INDIFFERENCE” (“GLI INDIFFERENTI”) by Alberto Moravia (first published 1929; best English translation, by Angus Davidson, first published 1953)

There are some writers whose high international reputations I understand even if I do not like their works. And there are some writers whose high international reputations are something of a puzzle to me. I must confess that Alberto Moravia falls into the latter category. I know that Moravia (1907-90) is often regarded as the foremost Italian novelist of the 20th century, that he wrote a prodigious number of books and that he had a very wide readership, enhanced by the fact that a significant number of his works were turned into movies. His Il Conformista/The Conformist (1951) probably became best known to English speakers because of Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie version (1970). His Il Disprezzo / A Ghost at Noon (1954) is better known for Jean-Luc Godard’s film adaptation as Le Mepris / Contempt (1963). And so on.

            Gli Indifferenti (1929) was Moravia’s very first novel, getting what was apparently an inept English translation, under the title The Indifferent Ones, in the 1930s. Its definitive English translation, as The Time of Indifference, appeared in 1953. As Moravia often told interviewers [you can easily find the 1954 Paris Review interview with him on line], he wrote it between the ages of 19 and 21, partly because he had been suffering from long and debilitating sickness, an adolescent experience to which he attributed much of the alienated tone of his whole literary output. He was a mere 22 years old when Gli Indifferenti was published, partly with his father’s financial backing. The novel was a huge bestseller – quite unhindered by any censorship – in Fascist Italy. It was only later that some of Moravia’s work fell under Fascist disfavour and was banned. Gli Indifferenti has remained one of his most famous novels and is still sometimes regarded as his best.

            With severe classical unity (and in that Paris Review interview, Moravia admits being influenced by true classical tragedy), the whole action of the novel takes place, with a restricted cast of characters, in the space of two days.

A mother and her two grown children are financially ruled by the mother’s lover, Leo Merumeci. The mother, Mariagrazia, may have to sell her villa, on which Leo has a mortgage. Her daughter Carla, aged 24, wants to get away from the family’s precarious and monotonous life. Her son Michele, aged about 20, is disgusted by the life they live, by his mother’s dependence on Leo, and by his own complete deadness of feeling or “indifference”. Neither Carla nor Michele have any notable skills or talents, however.

In the course of the novel, Mariagrazia becomes jealous of Leo’s lack of affection for her, and imagines that he has gone back to his former mistress Lisa. But the fact is that the cast-off Lisa is trying hard to seduce young Michele. And the further fact is that Leo’s real objective is to seduce the daughter Carla, who thinks that marriage to Leo might give her a new life.

So lover wants to seduce daughter and lover’s discarded mistress wants to seduce son. Different handling would make this situation more like a Cocteau hothouse drama than an Italian realist novel.

The mother’s lover Leo succeeds in his aim and the daughter Carla finds her way into his bed. Spurred on by Lisa, who has failed to seduce him, Michele makes an amateurish and botched attempt to kill Leo, the man who has taken both his mother’s and his sister’s honour. Michele fails and has to face his own powerlessness over his situation.

Carla explains that she will marry Leo. Perhaps the man’s money will rescue her from terminal boredom. But at the novel’s end the mother Mariagrazia, who knows nothing of what has happened, is still under the illusion that Leo, the seducer of her daughter, is devoted to her and her interests.

Michele thinks vaguely of sleeping with Lisa as a way of killing time. His indifference is intact.

The overall tone of the novel is one of weary disgust. Moravia handles skilfully an eye-of-God technique. We get to see what each character thinks in the course of conversations, which is often at odds with what they say out loud. Gradually, however, the focus comes to rest on young Michele, who is about the same age as the young novelist was and who presumably shares the author’s outlook. It is in connection with Michele that the word “indifference” occurs most often in the novel, signalling Michele’s emotional deadness or alienation, and his full awareness that he is not reacting to family crises in the way that convention says he should. In fact he feels virtually nothing about Leo’s abuse of his mother and seduction of his sister, but he knows he is supposed to feel outraged:

But he had seen, he had felt what would become of him if he failed to conquer his own indifference. Without faith, without love, alone, he must, for his salvation, either live through this unbearable situation with sincerity and according to traditional standards, or he must get out of it for good. He must hate Leo, love Lisa, feel disgust and compassion for his mother, and affection for Carla – all of them sentiments of which he had no knowledge; or he must go away somewhere else and seek his own people, his own place, that paradise where everything – gestures, words, feelings – would have a direct connection with the reality in which they originated.” (Chapter 13)

So, like Hamlet working himself up to abusing his uncle, he has to work himself up into attempting to shoot Leo. And even then he feels impotent and silly. Here Moravia comes closest to the central idea of Cocteau’s Thomas l’Imposteur – that life is simply a matter of going through the motions by acting out a “role”. (Cocteau’s novel was published five years before Moravia’s). Another parallel occurs to me. In one lengthy sequence, Michele imagines being put on trial for killing Leo. This is almost of foretaste of Camus’s’ L’Etranger, with society apparently condemning a man for not feeling the way he should. If Moravia is an existentialist, however, then his is an existentialism that is stuck in the pointless, absurd and uncommitted phase.

In making these comparisons with other authors, however, I have probably made The Time of Indifference sound philosophically more focused and tightly structured than it really is.

The novel presents us with a hermetically sealed world (there are no other named characters apart from Mariagrazia, Carla, Michele, Leo and Lisa), which is claustrophobic apart from the occasional evocation of rainswept streets. We hear nothing of the characters’ interests or background (there is nothing about Mariagrazia’s late husband, for example) and everything centres on that dry, futile, intellectual quest for either sensual pleasure or financial security, which leads to inevitable disappointment. Typical moments include Leo’s first attempt to seduce young Carla – she has had too much to drink and proceeds to throw up. When Lisa makes her first attempts to seduce Michele, Michele can think only of a pathetic prostitute he once picked up who wept when he tried to “experiment” on her.

Of course nothing is resolved in this story and characters are condemned to live with bad faith and meaninglessness. I get this image of a tired, superior young Italian male arching his eyebrow as he sniffs at human nature and decides that men are his enemies and women are machines for masturbation.

Or am I missing an implicit social commentary? The young novelist, from his title on, is, after all, condemnatory. Indifference, deadness, is his chosen theme, so it may be irrational to berate him for it. And, though there is no political commentary whatsoever in the novel, it was published in the fifth year of Mussolini’s regime and it may have had resonance as a critique of an amoral middle class who were self-absorbed and simply didn’t care about the welfare of society at large.  They are, after all, rentiers, who don’t produce much of value. Leo Merumeci is described thus:

Of business, in the proper sense of the word, he had none; he did not work, his activities being limited to the management of his property, which consisted of a few houses, and to a little cautious speculation on the Stock Exchange. Yet his wealth increased regularly each year, for he spent only three quarters of his income and devoted the rest to the acquisition of more house property.” (Chapter 7)

Yet this implicit social critique is more background noise than the novel’s essence. We are allowed to feel disgusted at these characters and their passionless amorality, but we are taken no further than that. And that, in a nutshell, is all that the bulk of Moravia’s novels have ever delivered to me. Disgust, alienation and no sense that there are any alternatives to these conditions.

Puerile and largely irrelevant footnote: There’s this thing called Youtube, see? So when I’m putting together my notes on The Time of Indifference, I’m fooling around and I discover that I can watch on line the 1963 Italian film version directed by the competent hack Francesco Maselli. Which I proceed to do. I told you that much of Moravia was filmed, didn’t I? Anyway, I discover that it stars three dubbed American actors (Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters and Paulette Goddard as, respectively, the lover Leo, the discarded mistress Lisa and the mother Mariagrazia) and one Cuban-American (Tomas Milian as Michele), and only one real Italian (the luminous young Claudia Cardinale as Carla). On its first release, the film received almost universally bad reviews from the English language press which, among other things, objected to seeing actors whose lips were clearly speaking English having been dubbed into Italian. It is a “turgid melodrama” according to one of the film guides I have on my shelf; it is “soap opera” according to another; while the New York Times reviewer said “it takes itself so seriously and it is so bad”.  But for what it is worth, this simple black-and-white film is a faithful adaptation of the novel, with its claustrophobic housebound setting, its concentration on just the five named characters and its discreet evocations of the late 1920s. And on the few occasions when Michele walks the night-time streets, it is indeed raining, just as in the novel. Besides, a film of dialogue and action has immense difficulty in conveying the internal-ness of characters, which is essential to the novel’s impact. Also, I’m biased by the fact that at the age of 12 or thereabouts I was hopelessly in love with Claudia Cardinale, who is still my ideal of young Italian womanhood; so I couldn’t help sighing nostalgically whenever she appeared in all her pouty glory. Told you this note was puerile, didn’t I?

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