Conjugal Love (L'Amore Coniugale) by Alberto Moravia, 1949

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CONJUGAL LOVE (L'Amore Coniugale)
by Alberto Moravia, 1949

To call Silvio, the narrator of Alberto Moravia's Conjugal Love, a writer would be something of an exaggeration, and to his credit, this comfortably off, cultivated, middle-aged Italian gentleman would himself be the first to admit it. He suggests that he is better described as a "dilettante," and though the very word is to some degree redolent of an era that is passing, if not already gone, it only serves all the better for a man whose general intellectual diffidence extends to a certain incapacity for coping with the paraphernalia of modern life. Of his sensitivity and intelligence he harbors no doubts, and he is educated and well read, but he is the victim of a highly developed talent for criticism, especially self-criticism, that undermines his creative faculties. He recognizes that he has some literary skill but suffers from an acute sense that when he brings himself to putting pen to paper, everything he writes is irredeemably shallow. When Silvio first presents himself in the story, he is wrestling with a problem that seems to be different, although, as we soon come to realize, it is in fact intimately linked with his problems as a writer. He is trying to make sense of his relationship with his second wife, who also has been married before. In her early thirties, Leda puzzles and at the same time fascinates, both physically and intellectually, and his ambiguous appraisal of her constantly changing appearance and his comments on her limited intelligence and inadequate education reflect certain unresolved tensions in their apparently ill-matched marriage.

The couple begin to come together as he devises for her benefit a program of reading and study so that she will be able to better understand his intellectual and literary interests, and she proves, to his satisfaction, to be a willing pupil and makes surprisingly good progress. After a while Silvio explains to Leda about his unfulfilled ambition to write a significant book. She at once falls in with his plan to go away to Tuscany to spend the summer in a crumbling villa where he hopes he will be able to write without distraction. Since his work goes forward only slowly, however, he begins to wonder whether sexual relations with his wife are exhausting his literary creativity. The couple resolve, after some discussion, to stop sleeping together until Silvio has finished his story, and after this he persuades himself for a while that his work is starting to come along well.

Silvio, typically enough, has very sensitive skin and is also so unhandy with a razor that he has to arrange for a barber to come every day to shave him in his own home. The local barber's name is Antonio, and it is not long before Leda starts complaining that he is making sexual advances. At first Silvio pays little heed, then his suspicions begin to grow until at last he finds he can no longer endure the close physical contact necessarily involved when the heavily built, perspiring Antonio leans over his body to lather his face and shave him. Exploding with rage, Silvio orders the barber to leave and never return. One night a little later he decides to seek out his wife and show her what he has been writing. But she is not in her room, and venturing out into the countryside, Silvio discovers her making wild love with Antonio. The denouement is quite unexpected, though it makes good sense, given Silvio's character. He and his wife calmly discuss what can in hindsight be seen as his unsuccessful experiment in overcoming writer's block, and in a relaxation of attitudes he discovers how, with Leda's sympathetic support, he can improve his work, by turning ideas and experience to good account through patient development and revision.

Conjugal Love, divided into 16 short chapters that each focus on part of the action, is a remarkable example of first-person narration. That it should be related by Silvio, a would-be writer beset by an almost pathological tendency towards self-analysis and whose responsiveness to situations, whether real or imaginary, is acute and immediate is entirely plausible. He is equipped temperamentally and technically for the task of presenting the story and, more importantly, making it even more gripping by his analysis of it. We cannot resist the invitation to participate in his struggles to make sense of experience. The fact that Leda always remains a more distant figure, seen only through the filter of her puzzled husband's personality, is entirely appropriate, too, since readers are thus able to share Silvio's feelings as he tries to understand this woman he has married but only partially knows. Beginning with several pages of Silvio's attempt to analyze Leda's outward appearance, the story moves on through a description of the couple's rather unusual life together towards a realization of psychological depths and fundamental urges. The setting needs no more than sketching in, for it is recognizably realistic and, to some degree, conventional, with the villa serving very conveniently as a writer's hideaway. Antonio and Angelo, a peasant who provides Silvio with unwelcome information about the barber's notorious womanizing, are seen only from the exterior, as crude peasant types belonging to a social world that is not only different but also quite abhorrent to urban sophisticates.

The initial situation captures the attention, and while the couple are in the villa, tension rises on two levels as Silvio struggles to complete his book and gradually loses patience with Antonio. After so much analysis of motives and responses, Silvio's ill-tempered dismissal of the barber makes a considerable impression. Then comes the scene of the adultery, the effect of which is enhanced because the consequence is not at all what most readers would have expected, despite a hint in the very first paragraph. Though it would, of course, be a critical impropriety to identify the author of the story with its first-person narrator, who also happens to be a writer, Moravia brings to this artfully constructed story not only his remarkable technical skills and the insight into the psychology of relationships between the sexes for which he is renowned but also his experience of the traumas of literary creation. Although a story, not fictionalized autobiography, Conjugal Love is outstanding as a portrayal of the writer and his abnormal states of mind when engaged in his demanding and lonely task.

—Christopher Smith