- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2007

CONJUGAL LOVE

By Alberto Moravia

Translated from the Italian by Marina Harss

Other Press, $14, 142 pages

To read Alberto Moravia’s “Conjugal Love” is to be transported to the lush landscape of 1930s Tuscany. But the pleasure that comes from this amazing little book rests squarely with Silvio, the beguiling protagonist who leads readers to the story’s central conceit: He and his wife have agreed that they will not have sex until the young dilettante completes writing his masterpiece

On one level this is a book about the lures and limits of love and work. On another, one remains aware that this is a new translation of a book written in the late 1940s by a man who came of age in Mussolini’s Italy. As Marina Harss, the book’s translator, writes in her spellbinding introduction:

“Fascism was a crucial experience for Alberto Moravia, which left a lasting though not always explicit mark on his conception of society and human relations. He wrote his first novel, Gli Indifferenti (The Time of Indifference) in 1929, (twenty years before Conjugal Love), at a time when Mussolini was consolidating his power. It dealt with two themes which would return again and again in his novels and stories: the moral apathy of the bourgeoisie, and the crucial role of sexuality in human relations.”

She goes on to offer a rare glimpse of the translator’s task in making decisions about meanings and word choice. What she writes is so incisive, she almost steals the show from the novel itself:

“The focus of Silvio’s obsession eventually becomes what he perceives as his wife Leda’s dual nature, the contrasts ingrained in her character and her appearance: on the one hand, an instinctual sensuality, and on the other, a civilized remote beauty, which she expresses in an attitude toward him that he describes as buona volonta.

“This phrase appears over and over in the novel, always with slightly different connotations. It could be translated as ‘concern,’ ‘goodwill,’ ‘generosity,’ ‘empathy,’ ‘benevolence,’ consideration,’ and doubtless in countless other ways. Finding a suitable translation became my own obsession”

She settled on “kindness.”

Ms. Harss thus launches this book in an important way. This is a novel filled with acts of kindness. Nevertheless, before Silvio and Leda can enjoy the kindnesses each brings to the marriage, they first have to get over the early bump in the union when they take to the country so Silvio can write.

This book is Silvio’s recollection of that time and torment, and he draws readers in first by deflecting attention away from himself. He says,

“To begin with I’d like to talk about my wife. To love means, in addition to many other things, to delight in gazing upon and observing the beloved. And this means delighting not only in the contemplation of the beloved’s charms, but also in her imperfections, few or as many as they may be. From the very first days of our married life, I took an immeasurable pleasure in observing Leda (for that is her name), and I loved studying her face and her person down to the smallest gesture and the most fleeting expression.”

The couple’s time in the Tuscan countryside is defined by lovely meals, teas, long walks and daily lovemaking. It is Leda who first makes the proposition regarding sexual abstinence and Silvio decides it’s the right thing to do. The first few days he finds easy and even invigorating. Soon things begin to go downhill.

The rub is two-fold. It turns out Silvio really isn’t a very good writer and Leda is a passionate woman. When the barber who shaves Silvio makes a pass at Leda, the young couple’s lives, their marriage, the writing, their world threatens to unravel.

Because readers learn on the first page of the book that Leda and Silvio have three children, one knows that nothing that will transpire will have fatal consequences for the union. Nevertheless, this is a book about feelings and obligations made all the more acutely necessary when the world beyond the central union is not an entirely good or kind place.

Having said this, the book is simply a thrilling read. Its sensual core is reminiscent of certain foreign films of the 1960s. This should not be surprising since some of Moravia’s other books (“The Woman of Rome,” “The Conformist,” “Contempt” and “Two Women”) were made into criticallly acclaimed films by Bernardo Bertolucci and Jean-luc Godard.

And it is a book that is at turns poignant and funny. When the defining conflict of the book is about to come to pass — one for the sake of the book I will not give away — the young marrieds find themselves at a silent stand-off. Silvio has given Leda his finished book to read, and she is clearly not enthusiastic. He tries to break the ice by mentioning how he would write the dedication. Leda is unmoved:

“She was a million miles away. I pulled my hand away and fell into a pensive silence as I looked out of the window at the trees in the garden. I thought that one of us should break the silence, but nothing happened. She said nothing, and her silence seemed definitive, as if she were lost in her own thoughts and had no desire to, or so it seemed to emerge from them. To hide my disappointment, I tried to appear jovial: ‘You know what one writer said? ‘To my wife, without whose absence this book would never have been written …’

“She smiled faintly and I quickly added, ‘But our case is the exact opposite … without your presence I would never have been able to write it.’”

Read this terrific book. It will make you want to say something kind to someone you love.

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