Command, and I Will Obey You
The Cost of Living Like This
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands
There are times when one is as weary of the clutter of fiction as of the clutter of life: all that coming and going, those conversations and journeys and meals, all the concrete manifestations of our intent which fulfill it and at the same time spill over its edges. At such times we desert fiction and turn, according to our taste, to poetry or to philosophy, to whatever has form without too much overlay of detail. In response to such a mood as this, Wallace Stevens wrote in “Credences of Summer”:
Postpone the anatomy of summer, as
The physical pine, the metaphys- ical pine.
Let’s see the very thing and noth- ing else.
Let’s see it with the hottest fire of sight.
Burn everything not part of it to ash.
Trace the gold sun about the whitened sky
Without evasion by a single meta- phor.
Look at it in its essential barren- ness
And say this, this is the centre that I seek.
But certain fiction can accompany us even into this territory. If it is sufficiently pared down, if it moves swiftly to its moment of perception and never repeats itself, fiction can rise clear of the interestingly gravid condition that is its normal state. But only, I think, in the short story. The novel, by definition, must be opulent. Even a terse novel is encrusted with detail by comparison with a lyric poem. A short story need not be. It is like a drawing, as distinct from a painting.
So much by way of introduction to a masterpiece. For Alberto Moravia’s collection Command, and I Will Obey You seems to me simply that. Read consecutively, the stories add up to a single work: an exploration of consciousness—but that is a clumsy phrase. Try again: a series of epiphanies, a row of submarine portholes through which we look into the unexplored ocean of our inner experience…. It won’t do; I have been trying for days to think of a single descriptive phrase for this book, and at the end all I can say is that in each story the central character experiences a moment of intense perception in which the real nature of his life, or of some essential part of his life, becomes clear to him. That, as it stands, would do as a description of any good short story; but these of Moravia’s carry that tendency to its furthest limits. The stories are not realistic, or not consistently so. In some of them, the action is not in line with our ordinary notions of credibility; they are like very clear, meaningful dreams.
Sometimes the moment of perception consists of the identification of some persistent quality in the narrator’s experience. (All the stories are written in the first person.) A man recalls an ecstatic moment of his childhood, when he contemplated, with the intensity of uncorrupted vision, a bird on a bough. It seemed to him an embodiment of wildness, and …