Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A factory to manufacture sorrow

You may well doubt words themselves, but there is often no mistaking the tone of voice in which they are uttered.
I had occasion recently to read Alberto Moravia's The Woman of Rome, in Rome. This was a marvelous reading experience, for several reasons, and I am definitely motivated to read more Moravia on its basis, quite apart from the enticement of the several of his novels issued by NYRB Classics.

I anticipate a surge in this novel's popularity due to its being featured in a near-final episode of Mad Men. That was certainly a factor in my choice to read it at this time. It is currently hard to come by in print, but it's readily available electronically. I hope for an NYRB edition, but at 336 pages, it's a little longer than their average publication.

The Woman of Rome shows up poolside in 1970; one fully expects Don Draper to make a play for its reader. So I was a little surprised to discover that the novel dates back to 1949, appearing in English the same year (if my copyright page is to be trusted, but the date of Italian publication varies around the web — either 1947 or 1949). The story centers around a prostitute, so it's easy to interpret the bathing beauty as a simple symbol of Don's temptation.

But really, The Woman of Rome is about Don Draper. Don is Adriana, both of them saddled with expectations, both realists in their way even if they are mostly deluded. They are fully in themselves but not of themselves.
I can remember that when I found myself in the street, among the crowds, on a fine and cloudy day of that mild winter, I felt with better certainty that my life, like a river that has been artificially turned from its course for a brief period, had begun once more to flow in its usual direction, without change or novelty, after an interruption caused by my hopes and the preparations for my marriage. Perhaps this sensation was due in part to the fact that in my bewilderment I was looking around me with a gaze shorn of its original bright hopefulness. The crowd, the shops, the streets, appeared to me, for the first time in many months, in a pitilessly objective light, neither beautiful nor ugly, neither interesting nor dull, but just as they were — as they must appear to a drunkard when his state of intoxication is past. But more probably it derived from my realization that the normal things of life were not, as I had supposed, my plans for happiness, but the exact opposite — I mean, all those things that are inimical to planning and programs are casual, faulty, and unforeseen agents of disillusionment and sorrow. If this were true, as I thought it must be, I had undoubtedly begun that morning to live again, after a state of intoxication lasting several months.
Adriana is desperately trying to rise above her circumstances, to break out of a cycle but condemned to it.
I climbed the steps, pushed aside the heavy covering over the door, and entered, putting a handkerchief on my head. While I dipped my fingers in the holy water stoup, I was struck by a scene carved around the edge of the stoup — it showed a naked woman, her hair streaming in the wind, her arms raised as she fled, pursued by a foul dragon, with a parrots' beak, that was standing upright on its hind legs like a man. I seemed to recognize myself in that woman and thought how I, too, was fleeing just such a dragon, that the course of my flight was circular, like hers, but that as I ran around in circles, I sometimes found I was not fleeing but was following a desire and gaily pursuing the ugly beast.
Adriana works as a nude model when she falls in love with Gino. They are engaged to be married but it turns out that Gino is a good-for-nothing liar and a cheat, so that's the end of that. Adriana is very realistic about her assets and her prospects. Before you know it she's a prostitute; she likes the money, and her mother likes the money too, although they never really speak of it.
I was not at all ashamed; I only felt an occasional sense of servitude and betrayal of my own nature.
Adriana's relationship with her mother is central to this novel, and that complex relationship appears to have been Moravia's starting point. Mother is always there, complaining about eyestrain and a shortage of sewing work, she's always there in the background, in the next room, or waiting for Adriana to return home, or trying to keep out of the way. Adriana's character is formed by this and the expectations set on her. (Note, the Wikipedia entry on this novel gets a key point wrong: Adriana's mother is not herself a prostitute, although she certainly encourages Adriana to cash in on her looks.)
I had always loved the Madonna because she carried a baby in her arms and because her baby, who became a man, was killed; and she who bore him and loved him as any mother loves her son and suffered so when she saw him hanging on the cross. I often thought to myself that the Madonna, who had so many sorrows, was the only one who could understand my own sorrows, was the only one who could understand my own sorrows, and as a child I used to pray to her alone, as the only one who could understand me. Besides, I liked the Madonna because she was so different from Mother, so serene and tranquil, richly clothed, with her eyes that looked on me so lovingly; it was as if she were my real mother instead of the mother who spent her time scolding me and was always worn out and badly dressed.
Then there's the police chief who offers to keep her. Adriana doesn't like him much, but she comes to rely on him for advice and favours. Meanwhile she falls in love with a politically active student. She's still working and encounters some unsavoury characters. There is theft and murder, thuggishness and underground pamphleteering. All the characters and storylines are threaded together quite nicely.

If it's not clear, I loved this book. Adriana is a wonderfully drawn, complex character. According to the promo copy:
One of the very few novels of the twentieth century which can be ranked with the work of Dostoevsky, The Woman of Rome also tells the stories of the tortured university student Giacomo, a failed revolutionary who refuses to admit his love for Adriana; of the sinister figure of Astarita, the Secret Police officer obsessed with Adriana; and of the coarse and brutal criminal Sonzogno, who treats Adriana as his private property. Within this story of passion and betrayal, Moravia calmly strips away the pride and arrogance hiding the corrupt heart of Italian Fascism.
The story is not, to me, obviously political. I needed to be reminded about Italian Fascism. The novel reads very smoothly and could easily be set anytime over the last century. Reading the story in Rome leant it an extra golden hue, and brought to life the streets, the bars, the shops. Ultimately I found it to be a very introspective novel, about what we demand of life and how unfairly it can treat us.
My room, which was always full of cigarette smoke, seemed to me like a factory working day and night to manufacture sorrow, without a moment's break; and the very air I breathed had by now become a thick gelatinous mass of sad, obsessive thoughts.

The Paris Review
Alberto Moravia, The Art of Fiction No. 6
On the writing process:
I had intended it to run to no more than three or four typescript pages, treating the relations between a woman and her daughter. But I simply went on writing. [...] It was a case, simply, of my thinking initially that I had a short story and finding four months later that it was a novel instead.
On the psychology of his characters:
For the psychology of my characters, and for every other aspect of my work, I draw solely upon my experience; but understand, never in a documentary, a textbook, sense. No, I met a Roman woman called Adriana. Ten years afterward I wrote the novel for which she provided the first impulse. She has probably never read the book. I only saw her that once; I imagined everything, I invented everything.
On writing novels, generally:
I do not foresee a time when I shall feel that I have nothing to say.

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