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Moravia’s Vulgarity

Man as an End

by Alberto Moravia, translated by Bernard Wall
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 254 pp., $5.50

The Lie

by Alberto Moravia, translated by Angus Davidson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 334 pp., $5.95

The most interesting essay in Man as an End comes in the last few pages. Moravia has been discussing large topics, Man, character, psychoanalysis, Communism, the erotic, the extreme, Machiavelli, Stendhal, Boccaccio, Manzoni, and Life. He has been strong, sometimes banal, often perceptive. But suddenly in a short essay on Verdi he gives himself away, and the effect is remarkable. The theme is Verdi’s “vulgarity.” Moravia says that Verdi in his own day was already an anachronism, a full-blooded peasant in a petit bourgeois time. Unlike Manzoni and Leopardi, Verdi is, to the limit of his genius, vulgar. With him we have “the humanist view of our Renaissance which was abandoned and betrayed by the Italian ruling class after the Counter-Reformation, but preserved by the common people in a decayed form of folklore.” In Verdi “the greatness of Italy, and the best and most typically hers that she had to give to the world, died out: that is to say, humanism.” He is a Renaissance man, Moravia says, “for his knowledge of human nature goes back to the age when man still saw himself as the end, and only himself, and nothing less than himself.”

IT IS CLEAR that Moravia, talking about Verdi, is also talking about himself. The relation cannot be pressed, because—apart from the question of scale, of genius—Moravia is not a peasant. But the values he ascribes to Verdi, in passion and knowledge, are his own values, in principle. Or at least they have been his values, until now. Humanism, anachronism, and vulgarity are the terms which enable us to understand him. In The Lie Francesco Merighi, a journalist, decorates his apartment in the style of the first half of the nineteenth century, from Empire to Louis Philippe: “perhaps out of an unconscious loyalty to the tastes of the class from which I came.” Moravia is sensitive to this loyalty. Indeed, the distress which seeps through these essays is a sense of the failure, as it seems to him, of the values of his own class: the middle class. So he turns upon them, in frustration.

There is a strange moment in The Lie when Francesco decides that since he has written a bad, artificial novel based on action, he will try to write a genuine novel based on everyday life. The fact that everyday life lets him down does not dispel the middle-class nostalgia which it incites. This nostalgia, darkening into despair, gives the tone of the essays. Officially, Moravia is trying to renew our sense of man as an end. Unofficially, it seems to me, he is trying to maintain that sense in himself, cheering himself up. He invokes a new humanism not because he dislikes the old one but because he wants to give it a new life. He speaks of man’s “sacred character” without telling us where we got it or how we deserve it. His constant plaint is that man is now treated as a means, an object: We hear of this in the title-essay and again in a conversation between Francesco and his stepdaughter Baba in The Lie. The sense of life in which man is a mere thing, “a chair, let us say, or a vase,” is the modern nightmare, a Chinese box of smaller nightmares. Moravia takes the big box for granted, he never questions its validity as a human image. “Everything, from love to the sense of the infinite, from procreation to sunlight, seems perverted and reduced to the status of a commodity, a tool, a mechanism.” Hence “the general perversion and absurdity of the modern world.” All is appetite.

AS NEWS FROM UNDERGROUND, this vision was cold even in 1946, when Moravia reported it. He gives it again in The Lie. Francesco is watching his wife Cora, who is also a procuress, as she leads one of her girls to the brothel on the Via Cassia. Looking at the people passing by, he reflects that there is nothing to distinguish them from Cora.

All these lives had in them, one way or another, something of what I could not help calling corruption but which was merely the imperceptible, unceasing, natural movement of senseless everyday life.

Francesco does not reflect that everything is yellow to the jaundiced eye. Nor does Moravia. There is no allowance in this libel for the kindness of ordinary people, the decent lives they live. This is another way of saying that good, ordinary people are not admitted into The Lie. (Indeed, they are rarely admitted into modern literature.) The result is that the flare of hope which Moravia expresses like a rhyming couplet at the end of a sonnet, is never based upon anything more than the inner relief of its expression: It is never based upon the good in life, upon a sense of the values embodied in decent people. The motto of these explosions is: spero quia impossible est. “The modern world is a nightmare from which man will wake up.”

This accounts for a certain attenuation in Moravia’s vulgarity. What the essays hint, what the new novel shows, is a retreat from the whole human world, a revulsion from daily life. Francesco speaks of “the senseless normality of everyday life,” setting this against the attraction of tragedy. But he is never aware of tragedy and the tragic meaning in life itself, in people, history, and human action. People, place, and time are never the terms in which important things happen: These happen, if they do, “in another country.” On the first page of the novel Francesco expresses a feeling of shame, the shame of having been born. Moravia says in one of the essays that when he wrote Time of Indifference he felt deeply attracted to “crime, bloody and insoluble conflict, passion, violence.” “Normal life,” he reports, “did not appeal to me: it bored me and seemed to lack flavor.” The new novel suggests that normal life now bores him more than ever. In 1949, writing of Other Voices, Other Rooms, he said that “the motive which encouraged Capote to accumulate details which build up a fantastic atmosphere, page after page, in a rich and crowded design, is a longing to evade reality by means of an impressionistic and imprecise transcription of actions, suspicions, tastes, and feelings which are purely subjective.” Other Voices, Other Rooms exemplifies “the novel of imaginary and fantastic distortion of reality seen through the eyes of a child or an adolescent.” The Lie is a novel of this kind, “evasive” to a far greater degree.

A JOURNALIST IS TRYING to write a novel. Estranged from his wife, he takes a job as a foreign correspondent so that he can stay away for eight or nine months a year. When he comes back, his wife contrives to keep him served with prostitutes so that she may, vicariously, enjoy him. To make the intimacy closer she sends along his stepdaughter Baba, fourteen years old. Francesco falls in love with Baba. The book gives the psychological results of this situation: It is, on one level, a psychological thriller, somewhat crippled by its burden of implication. But the plot, even if I were to give the rest of it, conveys only a dim impression of the novel because, by definition, meaning does not reside in the events. What happens, in any eventful sense, is only a melody offered for variation. The book is given, mostly, as a diary, in which Francesco exerts immense pressure upon the events by way of variant readings, emendation, conjecture, denial, and deletion. The book is like a palimpsest. At one point Francesco goes to see Cora’s parents. The visit is described. Then we are given a second version, partially contradicting the first. (The Sound and the Fury has a lot to answer for.) Later, Francesco visits his brother and is escorted to another room by Popi, his brother’s mistress. Popi throws an erotic scene. On the next page Francesco confesses to the reader that Popi, “that good, faithful girl,” threw nothing of the kind: Francesco made it up, it seems, in revenge for his brother’s lecherous glances at Baba. There is another occasion when Francesco wakes up after a dream of incest. To still his beating brain he picks up a book: Oedipus Rex, “in a popular translation.” Ten pages later, as if he had spotted the reader’s incredulity, he denies the coincidence; there was no book on the bedside table, he was only pretending.

These machinations are obscurely related to the idea that the novel Francesco is trying to write—the same novel, of course, that we are trying to read—is his conscience. Presumably these pages of yes and no and perhaps are his way of examining his conscience. The idea, very roughly, is to let the mind make whatever connections it makes; then to examine them to see whether they would be “effective” in the novel; and finally to retain or reject them according to the answer. Francesco sees Cora lying on the beach. Then he comes upon the carcass of a sheep. So his mind ponders the connection between the two objects. The connection is retained until Francesco decides (rightly, indeed) that it would be stale and tasteless in the novel. So he throws it away, ashamed. “I was grateful to my project of writing a novel, which had served me as a conscience and had awakened this sense of shame in my mind.” The principle is formulated later when Francesco says that conscience and the novel he is writing are “one and the same thing.” Morality becomes a problem in aesthetics, life is lived as if it were a peculiarly recalcitrant sonnet, not enough lines and too many words. The idea seems to imply that the most intractable situations in life can be resolved by translating them into formal or aesthetic terms. Or perhaps that “answers” supplied by the principles of art are more secure than those supplied by ethics or morality, and might then be translated back into “corresponding” terms of life and action. Moravia does not work this out, as far as I can see. Instead, he offers Francesco an escape from action in contemplation.

TO RETURN TO THE PLOT. If life is hateful in general and in principle, a novelist might choose to represent it in an extreme image, such as a man’s passion for his stepdaughter. This image would then be at once extreme and typical. To escape from the hateful life of fact, then, he might allow Francesco to develop a different kind of love for Baba, the love of a novelist for his character. This would be in keeping with the use of art to escape the clutches of life. The feeling, dangerously personal, would become a matter of vocation and technique. All the old intensity might remain, its venom removed in devotion to the art. In fact, this is precisely what Moravia does. Near the end Francesco says to Baba:

The love I feel for you in real life is merely a mode of action, and there can be no genuineness in action, whereas the love which will allow me to represent you in my novel begins and ends in contemplation and does not become soiled with action, with the dream of action, or with the renunciation of action.

Two pages later Francesco says that writing the novel has freed him “from the shame of having lived.”

I hope this is reasonably clear. I do not understand, however, why Francesco’s escape is possible at the end and not at the beginning. The translation of morality into aesthetics is feasible at every moment if it is feasible at any. Perhaps this is why the book gives the impression of being ingeniously rigged, and therefore no more than a thriller, however psychological. There is a splendid paragraph in Man as an End where Moravia discusses Boccaccio’s responsiveness to Chance, that “deceptive and enigmatic goddess.” Faith in Chance, he says, is a prerogative of the young, or the young in spirit, “of all those whose vitality has not yet been stultified and put at the service of some idea or interest.” Boccaccio “trusted in Chance out of excess of imagination and vitality rather than skepticism and frivolity.” It is a splendid perception, so good that I am loath to turn it back upon its author. But Moravia’s novel seems to me to put its vitality at the service of an idea, and a highly dubious idea; not from frivolity, but from skepticism. About half-way through the novel Francesco ponders the way in which things and events are transformed under the pressure of an ideological system. The characters and actions “are transformed into metaphors, are in perpetual danger of losing the weight and density of their reality and of becoming interchangeable parts of a single abstract argument.” This is Moravia’s problem as a novelist: how to preserve his saving vulgarity, his sense of the weight and density and value of things, under the pressure of an idea that threatens to dissolve the world. No longer young in spirit, he seems to have lost faith in the vulgate of experience.

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