Current Theme: Sex and Seduction
Writing is a solitary process, we know. It requires varying degrees of isolation – physical, emotional and intellectual. Enter Alberto Moravia and his dark and erotic novel of love and betrayal, Conjugal Love. Mamma Mia, we got some trouble here.
Take the protagonist, Silvio Baldeschi, for instance. A well-off Italian cad who is in love with his wife, Leda, and also in love with the idea of being a writer. Silvio is an all-or-nothing type of fellow who decides that in order to pen his masterpiece, he and the Missus ought to spend some time in his immense villa in Tuscany. To be honest, I can’t say I wouldn’t also think this a good idea if I were rich and “born to a life of leisure”. But, much to Silvio’s disappointment, that luxe villa does not actually improve his writing. Yearning to be the romantic ideal of a tortured writer, Silvio concludes that the one thing he enjoys, making love to his beautiful wife, is the very thing he must sacrifice to succeed as a writer. A man can only have one obsession at a time. At least, Moravia wants us to believe that:
Obsessions either become fixed, like an abscess, maturing slowly and eventually leading to a terrible explosion, or, in healthier cases, eventually find an appropriate expression. For several days I continued to make to my wife at night and spend the days thinking that I could not work because I had made love to her. I must point out that this obsession in no way affected my affection for my wife or my physical transport; when we made love I forgot my fears and almost convinced myself that in that moment of desperate vigor, that I was strong enough to succeed both in love and in my work. But the following day the obsession would return, and the following night I would seek out love in order to console myself for failure in my work and recapture the ephemeral illusion of inexhaustible vigor.
Of course, the only option here is stop having sex with your stunning wife in order to fulfill your needs as a writer. Can’t you just smell the betrayal cooking? That’s where the unassuming Antonio the Barber enters the picture. Oddly enough, Silvio has delicate skin and needs Antonio to come to the villa every day to shave him. Antonio is not very attractive and apparently of no threat to Silvio, so Silvio uses him as a quasi-therapist. Then, one day after Leda requests Antonio to curl her hair, Leda claims that he was “inappropriate” and should be fired. Silvio is indignant because of his sensitive skin. Where else is he going to find a barber is this small village that will come this house every day? But like in all small towns, some third party gossip convinces Silvio that Leda was correct about Antonio:
So, this Antonio was a libertine, and it was quite possible that he had attempted to seduce my wife. Now I realized that this mysterious Antonio who did not seem particularly passionate about his work, or loving toward his family, or interested in politics, was no mystery at all. Antonio was a third-rate Casanova, a mundane erotomaniac. And his unctuous, circumspect manner was that of a man who, as he put it, was popular with women because he was discreet.
One can guess what happens from here with this unlikely love triangle. Here is the most intriguing part: even after Silvio witnesses Leda’s betrayal, he still doesn’t consider it the most egregious betrayal. It still comes down to his writing:
I picked up the first page and began to read. I read the entire story without stopping, only glancing at her once in a while as she listened, serious and attentive. A I read, my first opinion was confirmed: the story was a decorous bauble and nothing more. But with this decorousness, which earlier had seemed a pointless detail, now, I’m not sure why, acquired a greater relevance than I had imagined. Still, this slightly less negative impression did not distract me from my greatest preoccupation, which was my wife. I wondered what she would say when I finished reading. I thought that she might take one of two possible paths. She might exclaim, “Silvio, what do you mean, it’s a wonderful story!” or she might admit that the story was mediocre. The first was the path of indifference and betrayal. By making me believe that the story was good, while knowing(as she surely would) that it was not, she would have clearly demonstrated that she meant to lead me by the nose, that between us there was only a rapport of falseness and compassion. The second was the path of love, her own kind of live, built out of kindness and affection. I anxiously wondered what path she would take. I decided that if she said that the story was good, I would cry out, “The story is a failure, and you are a whore!”
There you have it. The ultimate betrayal is to lie about his work. That would prove she didn’t truly love him, not the fact that she cheated with the barber. I love the Italians!
But if you are looking for slim, intense psychological novels that illuminate the truths found in the smallest moments, Moravia is surely one to read. With the Italian flair for drama and complete dedication to love, Conjugal Love delves into the depths what intimacy and illusion mean in the context of husband and wife. Bravo.