on Conjugal Love, a novella by Alberto Moravia, tr. by Marina Harss

moravia_0.jpgIn an interview conducted a few months before he died in 1990, Alberto Moravia said, “In persons of genius you can’t talk of heredity or determinism. It would be like saying Leopardi was a pessimist because he was a hunchback.” Yet Moravia, who considered the gloomy Leopardi his literary forebear, often began his life story, as in the 1954 Paris Review interview, by underscoring the osteo-tuberculosis that left him with a lifelong limp: “I spent, altogether, five years in bed with it, between the ages of nine and seventeen, until 1924.” Most of the characters of his novels and stories also arrive stunted at the source: compromised, submissive, alienated, failed. The anguish of living became his subject, and he earned recognition as Italy’s great existentialist novelist with titles like La Noia (ennui, boredom). He once said any of his books could have been so titled.

moravia.jpgIn the exquisite novella Conjugal Love, first published in 1949, Silvio Baldeschi, “well-to-do enough not to have to work,” tells his own story. “When I was young, these moments of crisis were frequent and I can say that between the ages of twenty and thirty, not a day went by that I did not ponder the idea of suicide.” Two things could save him, he believed: the writing of a masterpiece (he had produced some criticism, but no worthy fiction), and the love of a woman. The latter requirement is filled by Leda, previously married, with a striking but evanescent beauty, gracefulness fleetingly interrupted by crudeness, her body a “disharmony.” Encouraged by Leda to pursue his literary goal, Silvio takes her to his villa in Tuscany where he soon determines that their evening lovemaking is draining him of his morning energy to write. They decide to postpone sex until his magnum opus is completed, and from this point, the plot takes off. “I don’t think that Leda is particularly intelligent,” says Silvio, “but despite this, and because of her measured manner, her air of experience, and her judicious blending of indulgence and irony, she acquired a mysterious authority in my eyes.” Silvio sees her as his “muse” but does not seem to grasp the seriousness of her commitment to his project. “You have to work at something, like everyone else,” she says. “You can’t just do nothing and be nothing simply to make love to me, you have to become someone.” But to write is not necessarily to work if one’s basic premise is corrupt or undeveloped.

Taken at face value, Conjugal Love is an examination of the poignant nature of love between newlyweds striving to understand each other. One critic calls it “a parable of marriage.” But it is also a mythic tale about how to develop one’s creative talent. In her introduction, Marina Harss writes, “Sexuality and creation become dueling impulses in an existential struggle that seems to have no satisfactory resolution.” But sex-or-writing is not the ultimate choice Silvio faces. Having decided that both a masterpiece and a devoted wife are necessary to salvage his life, he fixates all his actions and thoughts on these two objects. The fixation, not the choice, is Moravia’s interest.

After a morning of literary productivity, Silvio relishes the daily appearance of his barber, Antonio. “His arrival was the signal to stop work for the day,” he says. “It coincided with the best moment of my day, with that explosion of indiscreet, physical happiness produced by my sense of accomplishment.” After Leda tells her husband that Antonio has committed an indiscretion while curling her hair, Silvio refuses to fire the barber. (Objecting to Silvio and much else produced by Moravia, the Vatican placed Conjugal Love and his other sexually frank fiction on its Index of Forbidden Books in 1952.)

Silvio’s novel-in-progress is entitled Conjugal Love, and following a period of ecstatic composition, his confidence in the quality of the work begins to slip. During a walk with Leda, the link between his work and his wife clarifies: “When I looked at her from behind I was frightened by the thought that she, like my manuscript, seemed to be only a sign in space.” Having completed the writing, the critic in him pronounces the draft “deficient, irreparably so.”

At this point we realize the story we are listening to is Silvio’s improved, enlightened version of his novel. We feel that a positive outcome of some sort lies ahead (Silvio tells us in the first chapter that Leda has borne three children), but the pains the narrator takes to explain his every move only reinforce his profile as narrowly cerebral. Early in the novel, Silvio says his “fundamental characteristic is a lack of depth,” and yet such are Moravia’s skills as a story-teller that his character seems to evolve through his incompleteness, rather than in spite of it.

Silvio concludes finally that his novel is mediocre: “Can it be published? Yes, surely, it could be published … and it could even, with the appropriate publicity in the literary world, achieve what is usually known as critical success, in other words, several reviews, even good ones, determined by the level of indebtedness and friendship toward the author.” With his failure to write the masterpiece, Silvio says, “I clearly perceived the weakness in my character, a combination of impotence, morbidness, and selfishness, and all at once I accepted it.” But his transformation is achieved when Leda, his idealized wife and the source of his fascination, becomes an actual person. As in his popular first novel, Gli indifferenti, Moravia seems to suggest in Conjugal Love that the successful artwork is more sturdily built than the artist.

[Published in Harvard Review 33, fall 2007.]

Conjugal Love by Alberto Moravia, translated by Marina Harss. Other Press, 2007, $14.00 paper.