The literature of Alberto Moravia has been made into some of the most prominent cinematic gems of European cinema. During the surge of film adaptations in the 60’s and early 70’s, the Italian author was at the height of popularity. Boredom (or The Empty Canvas), published in 1960, explores an artist stuck in ennui. Constructing his narrative with frank sexuality, does Boredom still hold relevancy today or, like the contemporary opinion, is Moravia old hat?
Dino has always been “bored”. Not in the sense that he has nothing to do, but rather a disconnection from the outside world. Since childhood, neither people nor objects could rouse Dino to take any significant interest. Even after departing from his mother’s wealthy estate to become a penniless painter, Dino could not find substance.
While musing over his frustration one afternoon, a young girl, Cecilia, walked under Dino’s window. Returning daily, the 30-year old painter noticed the teenager was visiting the neighboring apartment, where the 64-old painter Balestrieri lived. After his neighbor’s sudden death — supposedly in the arms of the young girl — Dino tracks down Cecilia. The two soon begin a sexual relationship, but will Dino be able to break his boredom?
After critics began to write off the author, Bill Marx points out, Moravia moved to more self-reflective fiction. Dino’s ramblings, resembling the essay driven romanzo-saggio style, hinder any chance of progress. These lecture length thoughts of the disconnected artist, where Moravia truly finds his stride, oscillate between comic and sadness. It’s easy to pity Dino, but empathy is another question:
Two months had passed since the day when Cecilia came into my studio for the first time, and I was now beginning to wonder how it was that Balestrieri had been able to entertain so violent a passion for her; how it was, in fact, that Cecilia had come to play the part, for him, of the ‘fatal woman’-using those two words in the full sense of baleful predestination which they ought to have and normally do not have. I found it difficult to believe because, apart from her noteworthy sexual capabilities – which in any case she had in common with a great many other girls of her age – Cecilia seemed insignificant in the highest degree and therefore incapable of arousing a passion as destructive as Balestrieri’s. The clue to this character of hers, so devoid of interest and of pretext for taking interest in it, was provided, as I have already hinted, by her colorless, summary manner of expressing herself…Cecilia continually gave the impression not so much of lying as of being incapable of telling the truth; and this not because she was untruthful but because telling the truth would have implied having a relationship with something, and she did not appear to have any relationship with anything. When she really told a lie (and it will be seen that she was perfectly capable of doing so), one almost had the impression that she was saying something true, even in a negative way, simply because of the grain of participation, that is, of truth, which any lie contains within itself.
Moravia is reminiscent of fellow Italian Nanni Moretti’s nervous character, who has been coined as the ‘Italian Woody Allen.’ Despite the grave imagery in Boredom, it’s difficult not to laugh at the excessive anxiety between the binding. Like Moretti and Allen, the comedic surface is thin enough to see the author’s intent:
I said to myself, for instance: ‘Now Cecilia and her friend are in some retired corner of the Borghese Gardens and Cecilia is doing with him what she has done so many times with me: she is kissing him awkwardly and coldly, with her childish lips, and at the same time is giving him her customary hard, eager push in the belly with her groin.’ And immediately afterward I thought: Why do I think all these things and why do I suffer? Obviously because I saw them together. And am I then forced, in spite of myself, by the sole fact of having seen them together, to be jealous on her account and to suffer?
With a main character detached from the outside world, Moravia can examine sexuality from a distance. “The 19th century novel told all, even better than us, except eroticism. On this it was silent, it didn’t have the problems to speak on sexual nature. Freud gave us these tools-not the terms, but liberated the language. Before Freud, eroticism was naughty”, the author explains in an interview. With essay driven dialogue along with Freud’s sexually liberated lingo, Moravia wraps his thesis: the connection between sex and money.
Boredom gave me the same sensation of angst as Catcher in the Rye. Despite the age difference in Salinger’s Caulfeild and Moravia’s Dino, a confused, bitter solipsism runs through both characters. Saying that, I was disappointed to hear the Italian author wrote uncannily similar narratives of impotent artists through most of his career. Having not read any other works from Moravia, perhaps he is blessed with the Fassbinder theory of repetitive success – “Every decent artist has only one subject, and finally only makes the same work over and over again. ”
What we learn from Moravia is unlearning. The ability to examine what the author calls “illumination” — the rapid reasoning in society — and peer into a more lucid, albeit distant, psyche. “A writer who was constantly trying to get to the bottom of the human imbroglio”, Anthony Burgess once said about Moravia. Whether the tools of soul excavation in Boredom are comical or cutting, Morarvia writes them with ease, and most important, relevancy.