April Reading Recap

I finished two books in April, but didn’t write a review of either of them.

Alberto Moravia, Boredom
Dino is a wealthy Italian man who lives in an artist’s flat, an artist who doesn’t paint. He loathes his mother’s society, but relies on her money for survival. He has also fallen for his model, the model and mistress of his late neighbor, a middle class man estranged from his family. He craves possession of this model, but her disinterest in money and class intrigues him and makes her impossible for him to actually get. To make matters worse, the tighter he clings to her, the more she slips away.

Moravia’s themes, boredom, desire, etc, are ones that I have enjoyed in other books, but this one didn’t do it for me. The protagonist, Dino, is a pompous, spoiled brat who rejects his mother’s villa ostensibly because he finds the money distasteful, but more because his mother’s sole obsession is the cost rather than the thing. He chafes when reminded that he lives on her donations, which she uses to control him much as he tries to control his mistress. He is more hipster than are hipsters and utterly unaware of his surroundings, petulant and obsessive as a child. There is a good chance that this is exactly what Moravia was going for, but I couldn’t stand Dino and therefore didn’t love the book.

Ernest Hemingway, Farewell to Arms

Hemingway’s novel about World War One on the Italian front sticks to the Hemingway schtick–war, courage, brave, bear-liquor, war-wound, jaundice, death, etc. It was a good both, but after other, later, novels, Farewell came across shallow, with none of the characters as fleshed out as they do in other books. I was less persuaded by the romance, less intrigued by the terse-yet-friendly masculinity. I enjoyed the story and was glad to have read the book for completion’s sake, but it was just not on par with the Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or To Have and Have Not. Farewell, for me, was more on par with The Garden of Eden, but for v. different reasons since the latter passed in spades where former fell short.

It is a challenging point of the semester as things come due and exams to mark are pile up. I am also neck-deep in dissertation writing. I am doing my best to write and read a little bit beyond that, though, since I believe it makes me a more rounded reading and person and it helps keep me sane. To that end, I am enjoying Albert Cossery’s Proud Beggars, but it is not as good as The Jokers.

Alberto Moravia, Boredom

“Boredom is the suspension of all relationship with reality.”

Dino, the scion of an upper–or possibly upper-middle–class family, is bored. He is a painter who moved out of his mother’s villa on the Via Appia so that he could live an apartment commensurate with his vocation, but he has also stopped painting. He lives off donations of money from his mother, who really would like him to come home and manage the family business, and loafs about, bored, smoking cigarettes all day.

His neighbor, another artist named Balestrieri, has been carrying on an affair with a model Cecilia and, after Balestrieri’s abrupt death (loved to death, as it were), Cecilia takes up with Dino. What begins in idle curiosity, sex as a distraction from his mundane yet surreal existence, escalates into Dino’s obsession with this woman, a creature that, increasingly, he is committed to parting with but who he feels he can only get rid of if he possesses her completely. But he can’t possess her. She is from a poor family, straightforward and without pretense, but also largely thoughtless and uninquisitive–one room with tables, chairs, and a couch is quite like another, the size, price or color is of little consequence. She understands the value of money and enjoys things that she can do with it, but doesn’t covet it for its own sake or envy those with more or pity those with less, since these are states that just happen. Her detachment just serves to drive Dino’s desire more, because it makes her impossible for him to possess. So he questions her: about her family, her other lovers, her past engagement, and, especially, her relationship with Balestrieri, which Dino finds himself mimicking to a distressing degree.

Throughout Boredom there is a veil between the narrative and reality. Dino is bored, which he defines as that lack of touch with reality, and yet he lives in his own little world and defies his mother’s requests for him to return to what she considers his real world, but what he considers to be yet another unreal cage. Dino seeks reality through Cecilia, but is both repelled and attracted by the way in which she seems to be absolutely in touch with it and yet not grasp reality at all.

Moravia’s Boredom (La noia), set in 1950s Rome, is not a comedy, but there is a grim humor in Dino’s hysterical antics. He is a spoiled brat, despite (or, perhaps, heightened by) his artistic pretension, but his class assumptions become ever more pronounced as he hunts in vain for the trick that will finally bind him to and thereby free himself from Cecilia.

My main observation about Boredom, after all that, is that Moravia writes really long chapters. Each chapter deals with a different episode in the relationship between Dino and Cecilia and ratchets up his desperation. Though Moravia is prone to long paragraphs, the book on the whole moved pretty quickly and picked up speed as it reached its climax, but the format also made it difficult for me to block out time to read it, what with other obligations such as my dissertation. Boredom was fascinating psychological study, but the constant tension between the story and reality and the small number of characters simultaneously ramped up the pressure in the story and made it seem like there was a bubble around these few people while reality took place somewhere else entirely–and certainly not in Dino’s head.

On a tangential note, I read the New York Review of Books edition of Boredom and am consistently pleased with their selections, the translations, and even the production value of the collection. William Weaver’s introduction to this one, while interesting in that he knew Moravia, was not particularly enlightening, but, then, after reading it, I also understand that Boredom is not a particularly easy book to capture. Next up is Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, my fifth novel of his I will have read (not counting Green Hills of Africa, which is a true story written like a novel, at least in his estimation).