New translations of older works are wonderful reasons to become reacquainted with authors we love but have neglected for more contemporary voices. Alberto Moravia’s Conjugal Love, first published in 1951, is recently and beautifully translated by Marina Harss. Harss’s superb translation lends new life to an author sinfully neglected in the last dozen years.
Conjugal Love examines the relationship of a husband and wife who decide to spend the summer in the country-side of Tuscany while the husband works on a novel he is determined to write. The couple is part of the same upper-middle class Moravia has been critical of throughout his work. The husband, named Silvio Baldeschi, is a protagonist searching for meaning through an obsessive need to control and possess everything around him, including his beautiful wife Leda. When Silvio comes to the realization that his writing is not going as smoothly as he would like, Leda and he agree that they will abstain from sex until his novel is finished.
Silvio’s existential crisis is intimately entwined with his need to produce a narrative that is, above all, literary. In many ways, Silvio’s need to write is part and parcel with his need to determine his future and make his own way in life. He’s convinced himself that abstaining from sex is a necessary sacrifice. In fact, he views it as the ultimate display of love for Leda. The book opens with Silvio describing Leda as an object that must be beheld in order to be appreciated. Like the appreciation of a statue or a painting, Silvio transforms his wife into a work of art that can be gazed at from a distance. Leda is objectified beauty: a work of art possessed and whose meaning is determined by the “owner.”
The story itself would be quite interesting if Moravia explored that aspect alone. However, Moravia’s fiction is never that simple. Enter Antonio, a local barber Silvio employs to come to the villa once a day. After spending his mornings writing, Silvio begins to look forward to his daily shave from Antonio. The conversations between Silvio and Antonio begin to supplement the lack of physical activity between Silvio and Leda. Soon, however, Leda asks Silvio to send Antonio away for good on account that Antonio has inappropriately touched her. The seeds of deceit are planted and the entire relationship begins to unravel. The novel’s action speeds toward a confrontation between Silvio and Antonio, as well as Silvio and his wife Leda. Moravia’s exploration of love in this novel is as problematic and opaque as anything he has written.
Conjugal Love is a testament to Moravia’s place as one of the twentieth century’s grand masters of literature. Moravia’s fiction makes us uncomfortable precisely because he could be describing our own lives that often bubbling over with love, hate, distrust, and intimacy. Conjugal Love is a powerful meditation on what it means to not only to trust the person we love, but explores the meaning of love itself. This is a perfect summer read for those who are unfamiliar with Moravia’s work, or for those who have not approached him for some time.
Note: This is a slightly modified version of a review I originally published in World Literature Today in their September/October 2007 issue.