Friday, 29 December 2017

Book Review: Boredom by Alberto Moravia German we often say that money doesn’t make happy, and in fact, ever again scientific surveys confirm that people living in rich countries are less likely to consider themselves happy than people in economically less favoured parts of the world. To me it suffices to observe passers-by in the streets. It’s pretty rare to come across a smile among the mass of stern and cold faces. Admittedly, I may get to see only inscrutable masks destined for strangers, but still many seem to feel truly miserable for one reason or another. The Italian classical novel Boredom by Alberto Moravia portrays a young painter who could live without worries or cares because he has a rich mother, and yet, he often feels miserable because the reality of things and people sort of passes him by. Even painting no longer helps, when he meets easy-going Cecilia and stumbles into a troubling sexual relationship.

Alberto Moravia was born Alberto Pincherle in Rome, Italy, in November 1907. Due to illness, he attended school only for a few years. As from 1925 he worked as a journalist and published first short stories, while already working on the novel Time of Indifference (Gli indifferenti) that appeared in 1929 and got some attention from critics. Other novels followed, notably The Fancy Dress Party (La mascherata: 1941) that was seized and Agostino (1944) that was banned by the Fascist regime. After World War II, the prolific author brought out his most famous works, namely the novels The Woman of Rome (La romana: 1947), Conjugal Love (L'amore coniugale: 1947), The Conformist (Il conformista: 1947), Contempt (Il disprezzo: 1954; also published as A Ghost at Noon), Two Women (La ciociara: 1957), Boredom (La noia: 1960; also published as The Empty Canvas) and the short story collection Roman Tales (Racconti romani: 1954) that earned him repeated nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Noteworthy among his later books are The Two of Us (Io e lui: 1971), Time of Desecration (La vita interiore: 1978) and Erotic Tales (La cosa e altri racconti: 1983). Alberto Maravia died in Rome, Italy, in September 1990.

Ever since his childhood thirty-five-year-old Dino suffers from a special kind of Boredom that makes everything and everybody feel unreal to him. Ten years earlier he exchanged his comfortable room in his wealthy mother’s Roman villa for a humble studio to devote himself to painting and to escape Bohemian life that he identified as cause of his suffering. However, he keeps living off the modest monthly allowance that he accepts from his mother. One evening he slashes his current picture-in-progress into ribbons in a rage and when he puts an empty canvas on the easel he suddenly knows that he’ll never paint again. The other day he learns that the elderly painter living three doors further on died. Finding the studio door ajar, Dino takes the opportunity to have a look at his paintings of naked women. The teenage model Cecilia whom he has known from sight already for a while surprises him and, driven by impulse, he invites her to his studio although he no longer paints. Rumours have it that the elderly painter died making love to the girl and Dino longs to know the truth. As it turns out, she doesn’t care if he makes her picture because she wants sex. Sexual desire has the better of him and thus begins their affair. Ever again he interrogates her about her relationship to the late painter and as is her nature, she answers his questions evasively and in few words. Soon he begins to get bored and she turns unreal to him, but then he accidentally sees her meeting another man. Finding that she betrays him restores her elusive reality. Alas, it also makes him suffer and he longs to detach himself from her again possessing her entirely, be it through his mother’s money, marriage or even murder.

The protagonist as first-person narrator sets out to explain the depths of the strange kind of Boredom that has been tormenting him all his life and that becomes the driving force in his relations with his easy-going young lover because to end his suffering once he tries to fend it off, once he seeks to bring it about. In truth, his is a story of alienation from the world that results from his lack of true purpose in life. Although I can’t find a flaw in the story’s logic, some of the reasoning doesn’t appear particularly plausible to me. Maybe the author felt the same and therefore thought it wise to emphasise repeatedly that the ultimate cause of the protagonist’s suffering was his boredom, not love, nor jealousy as may seem more likely given the circumstances. In addition, I experienced both lovers as rather artificial and one-dimensional characters notwithstanding that the story requires Cecilia to remain shapeless and dull. The author’s writing style is remarkably simple, plain and concise which includes the language. Even though Italian isn’t my mother tongue, I had no problem at all reading the original edition instead of a translation and took great pleasure in it.

It was first of all the title of the novel from 1960 not its fame that tempted me to read Boredom by Alberto Moravia. I was curious to find out what the celebrated Italian author had to say about this rather unpleasant state of mind and how he would manage to fit its passivity and general revulsion into a plot. Admittedly, I didn’t expect a story about love and jealousy mingling with the character study of a wealthy young Roman drifting aimlessly through life. Overall, it turned out to be a rather engaging and entertaining, on occasion even mildly amusing read, not least because the author limited himself to the essential both regarding the plot and the workings of the protagonist’s mind. I even enjoyed the sex scenes because to me they felt quite elegant telling everything necessary without being too explicit or even pornographic. And since I liked the novel, I gladly recommend it.

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  1. I can see how the title lured you in. I am a person who is easily bored. My mother took it for laziness. I am glad you enjoyed the novel.

    1. Yes, some people equate boredom with laziness. I noticed that too.

      The other day I heard an expert - psychologist, teacher, educater, or something - say that a child who never gets bored will never be creative. To me this sounds quite logical. After all, why think out something new, when you are surrounded by all kinds of entertainments and you just need to choose.


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