A critic of mechanization and conformity, an acute observer of the power that sex and money can bestow on their bearers, and a believer in the central role played by faith and compassion in bridging the gap between individuals, Alberto Moravia is a writer whose novels remain relevant not just aesthetically, but morally and culturally as well. His statements on overcoming isolation and dealing with the depression brought on by alienation cohere well with the novels of contemporary writers who cover the same ground, such as Haruki Murakami, David Foster Wallace, and William T. Vollmann. Like these authors, Moravia aptly portrays the emotional development of outsiders as they come to grips with their contrary nature. Also like these authors, Moravia often creates protagonists who search for redemption in relationships with the opposite gender. It is in fleshing out the emotional terrain found when men and women interact, and revealing the ways that sex and money complicate it, that Moravia soars.
A representative work in Moravia’s oeuvre is his 1960 masterpiece, La Noia. The title has been translated both as The Empty Canvas and Boredom, but the book might also be titled “Possession.” The narrator, Dino, is persistently and irrefutably locked within boredom, a condition he defines as perfect estrangement from the world around him, or in the narrator’s words “a kind of insufficiency, or inadequacy, or lack of reality.” For Dino, his estrangement from everything is the same as an inability to possess anything for he is incapable of empathy: he can only know another by owning it, yet everything Dino tries to possess slips from his grip.
The book begins with a striking image. Dino, an aspiring painter, has stared at a blank canvas for hours on end, and finally he slashes it to shreds with a knife. Dino has failed to make the canvass real for himself, so in frustration he destroys it. This blunt opening encapsulates the rest of the novel. In due course, Dino will meet a woman and attempt to project himself onto her, as he tried to do with his canvasses. In the end he will fail, but he will find that his love for the woman is more difficult to destroy than the helpless canvass he so easily disfigures.
Dino’s mother too tries to possess him. There is an understanding between them that should Dino give his mother what she wants above all else–his return home–he will never have to want for another material object. At his weekly lunch with his mother, Dino gives her just what she wants. No one is more shocked than Dino.
I paused a moment, astonished at these words which I had had no intention of uttering and which issued from my mouth for no explainable reason. . . . In spite of the amazement into which I had been thrown by my own proposal, I could not help admitting once again my mother’s capacity for dissimulation . . . I had said the thing she had been waiting to her for years; the only thing, perhaps, that could give her real pleasure; nevertheless not a sign appeared on her wooden, expressionless face.
Dino’s mother’s shocking victory is short-lived. After their lunch, Dino seizes an opportunity to flee his mother’s house, leaving a terse note that invalidates his decision to return home.
Dino’s relationship with his mother is significant because it mirrors a relationship that Dino soon enters into with the 16-year-old Cecilia. Days after Dino’s incident with his mother, another painter in his apartment building, Balestrieri, dies in Cecilia’s arms. Although there is gossip that the old man’s heart could not stand the passion of his young lover, the truth is far more complex. Days after Balestreiri’s death, Dino comes face to face with Cecilia, and they talk about the deceased painter. Cecilia explains that Balestreiri used to cry in her arms and say things to her.
“He used to say, for instance, that he couldn’t do without me.”
“Ah, then, there was a reason for his crying. He would have liked to do without you and he couldn’t.” She corrected my pedantically. “No, he simply said that he couldn’t do without me. He never said that he wanted to do without me; on the contrary, in fact, once when I wanted to leave him he tried to kill himself.”
As Dino’s mother wants to possess her son, so did Balestreiri want to possess Cecilia. The difference is that Dino’s mother, entranced by money and material objects, can wait forever for her son to return. She has attained a perverse mastery over her emotions–”good form,” as it is called in the book. Balestreiri, on the other hand, is destroyed by the mere thought of Cecilia ever leaving him.
Soon, Dino will want to possess Cecilia as well. However, that is not his first reaction to meeting the adolescent. After they finish talking about Balestreiri, Cecilia turns the conversation toward a potential relationship between the two of them, and Dino initially rebuffs her advances. Much in the same way he decided to live with his mother (and then not to), Dino spontaneously changes his mind.
At first the relationship proceeds well. Cecilia is available for as much sex as Dino wants as often as he wants it, and he mistakes access to his lover’s body for possession of his lover. Eventually, circumstances compel Dino to realize that this is not the case, and he uses more and more desperate measures to possess Cecilia. Just as at the beginning of Boredom nothing felt real to Dino because he possessed nothing, as Dino comes to understand that he cannot possess Cecilia, the bond between them fades from his reality as well. Only when he mistakenly believed that he possessed Cecilia, did he feel the love was real.
Moravia demonstrates Dino’s tortured existence by directly presenting the convoluted, circular arguments Dino regularly chases in his vain attempts to convince himself of Cecilia’s love. As Dino relates his chains of logic, we gain an intimate sense of his entrapment; he joylessly follows avenue after avenue, his frustration and desperation increasing with each dead end. By showing us Dino’s exact logic, Moravia reveals his protagonist’s deepest fears, while displaying how even the simplest things, if thought about too long, can send his susceptible mind into paranoia. Moravia skillfully keeps us wondering which of Dino’s fears are real and which are figments of his imagination, conveying a sense of the uncertainty Dino faces daily. Dino’s boredom, his estrangement from anyone he can talk to or anything he can fall back on in his moments of doubt, it key to his continual decent into depressive obsession.
Dino’s failure as a lover, and an artist, is a failure of empathy. He makes clumsy attempts to know Cecilia, even going so far as to visit her home and her family, but they all fail. Several times, he interrogates Cecilia, and tries to trick her into betraying something authentic about herself. After having sex with Cecilia, and failing to feel any sort of possession, Dino futilely tries to develop such a connection through conversation.
At the end, I asked her: “That was good, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was very good.”
“Very good or rather good?”
“Better than usual?”
“Yes, perhaps better than usual.”
“Are you happy?”
“Yes, I’m happy.”
“Do you love me?”
“Yes, you know I love you.”
These were words I had used countless times, but never with a feeling so utterly desperate.
The flat, factual, emotionless conversations Dino has with Cecilia are echoed in the language he uses to narrate his story. Dino’s sentences are very precise, sometimes even starched. He speaks in the manner of someone who has spent a good deal of time considering things and knows exactly what he wants to say. He interrogates his personal history as he does Cecilia, unable to access the emotions that lie behind the bare facts. Dino never performs, for instance, his anger; he simply explains exactly what his anger feels like. The tone remains dispassionate and defeated throughout, perhaps implying that after the events narrated in Boredom, Dino has given up, finding a degree of peace in resignation.
The blame for Dino’s failure to know Cecilia, however, cannot rest solely on Dino’s shoulders. Cecilia is a difficult person to know. Every time Dino tries to understand her feelings, she evades. When Dino asks what she believes in, it becomes clear that Cecilia believes,
“In nothing. But I don’t mean I didn’t believe in it because I thought about it, and realized that I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe in it because I never thought about it. And even now I never think about it. I think about any sort of thing, but not about religion. If a person never thinks about a thing, it means that for him that thing doesn’t exist. With me, it isn’t that I like or dislike religion, it just doesn’t exist.”
Dino and Cecilia are equally estranged from, or to use Dino’s term, bored with the world. The difference between them is that Cecilia does not notice her estrangement. Throughout Boredom, Cecilia is labeled both as a “fatal woman” and as a “dangerous woman.” This is precisely what she is. Ignorant of the damage she wrecks, she lures men like Dino into relationships with her, but fails to provide emotional sustenance. In the cases of Dino and Balestreiri, the men try in vain to possess Cecilia until they discover that there is only one way out.
Yet although Dino and Balestreiri are susceptible to the need to possess another human, most of the characters in the novel are not. Either they are like Cecilia and simply do not feel notice such a need, or they are like Dino’s mother, happily believing they possess things (usually through money) when in fact they do not. Cecilia’s failure to see any value in religion–or anything that cannot be proven–is an indictment of the bleak, materialistic world that Moravia portrayed, one in which the only things worth having are those than can be held in the hand. The characters in Moravia’s Italy are not bothered by their alienation so much as completely ignorant of it. It is a sad state of affairs. One may say that the thing which separates Moravia’s world from our own, is that now more of us are like Dino.
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