OK, I take it back. In my last post I dissed the Amazon.com “100 Books” list for being provincial, in particular too narrowly restricted to the Anglophone world, but when I tried to think of foreign-language titles that belong on the list, I found myself rather at a loss. The problem is that, for a list that is not supposed to feel like homework, it is not reasonable to ask people to read something in the original, and translations are…well, imagine if you could approach Van Gogh only through copies in watercolor, or Mozart only through settings for gamelan ensemble. Someone reading Junot Diaz in Russian or Mark Twain in Japanese would certainly learn something about American culture, but the pleasure to be obtained would hardly be of the same kind as one might get from reading them in English. Anyway, if I could add a couple of translated works to the list, they would probably be the Odyssey and Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table.
Most of the foreign books that I have enjoyed are books that I at least took a stab at reading in their own language, and quite a bit of the pleasure I got from them was the sense of accomplishment in being able to visit their world as more than a tourist. I’m afraid, though, that this has a distorting effect on my taste; since I am not really a fluent reader of any foreign language, I have gotten more pleasure out of things that I can read without agonizing over every sentence and looking up every third word. I am probably much more grateful for the clarity of Candide, Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo, and “In the Penal Colony” than I would be if they were written in English, and conversely, I would probably be a big Hemingway fan if I had had to learn English as a foreign language.
So I was pretty chuffed when I found, in the BGL’s very meagre Italian collection, Il viaggio a Roma by Alberto Moravia. According to his Wikipedia page, Moravia was known for combining simple, common vocabulary with complex syntax, and this is a pleasing combination, since even complex syntax in Italian is not an instrument for crushing the reader’s will as it is in German, while looking up words, odious under the best circs, is a real hassle when you can’t see.
Sadly, the joy of comprehension has its limits. Here’s the setup: Mario, a an idle ‘student,’ has lived in Paris since the age of five, when his mother left home and husband in Rome and took him with her. She has since died, but Mario has not seen or heard from his father until now, fifteen years later, when Dad sends him a ticket to come back to Rome. Mario decides to take the flight, on which he first snuggles up to the boobs of the woman sitting next to him, then discusses with her the childhood of Guillaume Apollinaire. Upon arrival at his childhood home (Italians are, I think, forbidden by law to change apartments), M is confronted with a long-repressed memory of seeing his mother screwing his father’s business partner on the living-room couch. M and Dad sit down for a long chat about Mom’s sexual habits, which even they recognize is a slightly odd ice-breaker.
Mario now finds himself obsessively drawn to the couch and consumed with jealousy of the business partner. He thinks back to a few months ago, when he succeeded in freeing himself from a similar jealousy: He was having a casual fling with a certain fellow student, and when she stood him up, he flew into a rage and demanded to know if she had been making love to another man. She answered Yes, she was with Paul, and they had indeed made love.
A queste parole mi ero gettato su Monique, l’avevo roveschiata sul divano, le avevo strappato lo slip, l’avevo penetrata, avevo eiaculato quasi subito, e tutto questo in pochi istanti e in silenzio….E io avevo avuto nettissima la sensazione che questa specie di stupor aveva cancellato dal corpo di Monique il corpo di Paul, e che il mio seme aveva lavato via il seme che Paul aveva versato nel ventre di lei. Pur giacendo sul corpo della ragazzina con gli occhi chiusi come se mi fossi assopito, avevo cercato di analizzare e di definire questa mia curiosa sensazione di obliterazione e di purificazione. ….Monique a questo punto aveva confermato senza volerlo la mia riflessione….
“Adesso non sono più di Paul. Sono di nuovo tua.”
At these words I had thrown myself on Monique, turned her over on the couch, ripped off her slip [correction: panties] , penetrated her, ejaculated almost immediately, all this in a few moments and in silence….And I had had the very precise sensation that this sort of rape had erased Paul’s body from Monique’s body and that my semen had washed away the semen that Paul had poured into her womb….And even lying there on the girl’s body, with eyes closed as though drowsing, I had tried to analyze and define this peculiar sensation of erasure and purification. …At this point, without meaning to, Monique had confirmed my conception….”
“Now I am no longer Paul’s. I am yours once again.”
This edifying example gives Mario the idea that if he can find a woman to substitute for his mom and screw her on the couch, then he will exorcise his jealousy towards the business partner.
So…WTF WTF WTF? Somehow one expects the news that the narrator is a rapist to be, you know, its own thing, not a detail buried in an aside and exiled to the past perfect, completely subordinate to the question of how to dispel a fit of incestuous jealousy. What are we supposed to think? Is Moravia so far gone that this is just another data point in the portrait of a rather mixed-up bourgeois kid, or is Il viaggio a sort of Lolita in which the reader must fight through the narrator’s seductive and self-serving rhetoric to see him for the monster he is? On the one hand, the book was published in 1988, which is a bit late for Neolithic attitudes to gender, at least in a respectable cultural space. On the other hand, 1988 arrived a lot later in Italy than in some places. On the third hand, Moravia’s long-term partners included a couple of famous women writers, Elsa Morante and Dacia Maraini,; could he have been such a clueless creep? If I had to make the call, I’d go with the creep theory rather than the Lolita theory. Moravia wouldn’t be the only writer to trivialize rape (see Hijuelos, Oscar, and I’m sure others I’ve been spared the acquaintance of).
In some ways, the most troubling thing about the whole passage is Monique’s response—astonishingly, she has interpreted the ‘sort of’ rape in exactly the same way as Mario. Could this really happen, are there women who would react thus to a sexual assault, or is this a manufactured masculine slander? The answer would affect, in opposite directions my opinion of Moravia and of his culture, but either way, I don’t think I want to spend another six hours letting Mario tell me all about his theories and adventures. Guess I’ll go back to something more provincial.