The Books of My Numberless Dreams

For the month of January

Posted on: January 31, 2008

January turned out to be psychological fiction month. The novels by Pierre Jean Jouve, Jean Rhys, Ana Clavel, Graham Greene and, most recently, Alberto Moravia, were all about their characters changing psychological states, whether they went from fairly good to bad or vice versa, were conflicted from the beginning, or started off questionably and descended from there. In some the writer charts the character’s life from childhood to the end of their life and/or the novel, for others he is already an adult: cynical, bruised, fatalistic, ironic.

Greene, in A Burnt-Out Case, had the plainest prose, a subdued, determinedly unflashy style which had an inviting simplicity he used to great effect. Dramatic, emotionally and thematically high stakes scenes were more memorable for the contrast. It often undercut Queery’s melodramatic pessimism, giving his sincere lamentations an adolescent, angsty tone I couldn’t help but chuckle at and to which the pragmatic monks and motivated yet cynical Dr. Colin responded in a patient (and in the doctor’s case sometimes impatient), no-nonsense manner. What it did best was to lay every character bare, warts and beauty spots, bulky egos, not presented all at once, but readily detected if one made the effort. A Burnt-Out Case was one of two in the lot that was written in the third-person.

So was Ana Clavel’s but in Desire and Its Shadow it provided little distance between her protagonist Soledad and the reader. In that respect she fell in with Pierre Jean Jouve Paulina 1880 and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea as intense, heady, emotionally charged and dramatic with a perilous edge. Clavel is at the headiest, steamiest end of the spectrum not only because her novel was more erotic but because she never departed from Soledad’s perspective and also seemed to be less in control of the novel’s intricate structure. Jouve, at the other end, switched narrative perspective, adopted different tones from the formal and distant, to the fervent, to resigned and subdued, and was master at every moment.

Wide Sargasso Sea fell in-between. In the novel’s three parts Antoinette Mason dominates the first and last and shared space with Rochester in part two. I’m tempted to conlude that that was done in deliberate contrast to her complete silence in Jane Eyre in which she is nothing but a monstrous, threatening figure. Wide Sargasso Sea‘s imagery had a more primitive, mythological strain that strongly recalled Daphne du Maurier’s “The Pool”, a short story. Antoinette, her mother and a few servants live on an ill-kept estate. The description of the grounds provoke images of an overgrown post-fall Eden from which the inhabitants weren’t expelled because remaining there was punishment enough. Antoinette never has the giddy monologues of Jouve’s young Isabella or Soledad’s extravagantly imaginative, adventurous inner world. What struck me most about her story was the ever-present tinge of melancholy, her quiet acceptance of isolation and rejection. And, of course, the reader who knows Jane Eyre is aware from the first word of her fate.

Moravia’s The Ghost at Noon (Penguin title), translated by Angus Davidson, is different specimen. It felt the most modern, closer to my reality because, although set in post-WWII Italy, Riccardo and his wife Emilia live in the city (Rome), drive cars, worry about the rent and similar mundane details. A Burnt-Out Case was modern too but set at a leproserie in Congo; Querry was a retired architect who, among other things, wrestled with the attention garnered because of his famous reputation, and though its all played out on a moral plane which is arguably something Moravia’s novel does as well…Riccardo, as a character, started out closer to the ground.

The Ghost at Noon is quieter too. I’m not sure what I mean by that, precisely. The main plot is the marriage’s breakdown and how in connection to that his perception of himself, his ideals, his entire world view changes, deteriorates, cheapens. Written solely from Riccardo’s perspective we are constantly privy to his thoughts and he is always thinking. In the middle of a conversation he will mentally break off to describe a memory that does not immediately appear connected to his present moment. So that all of those changes I mentioned are primarily presented and processed in his mind. The other novels are like that to a much lesser degree. Moravia creates this hyper lucidity by not depicting practically no significant external action. There is nothing to deflect our attention, no talking statues, ridiculous egotistical expatriates, trips to different islands that end in a cold attic. The single dramatic even that occurs near the end of the novel is overshadowed by one of Riccardo’s strangely realistic hallucinations during a boat trip that happened right before.

Riccardo himself is a rather impotent character, too, one who can only manage to adjust to or (try to) rebel against changes towards which others push him. That probably contributes to the novel’s quietness as well because, though he occasionally acts out, his more typical reaction is a bitter, brooding resignation.

The couple first lived in a lodge-house while Riccardo ekes out a living as a film critic at a second ranked newspaper and minor freelance assignments. What he really wants to do is write for the theatre. He sees himself as a prototype of the starved, refined intellectual who shuns the easy money of conventional trash and bourgeois lifestyle in lieu of something more elevated.

I had looked upon myself as an intellectual, a man of culture, a writer for the theatre — the ‘art’ of theatre, I mean — for which I had always had a great passion and to which I felt I was drawn by a natural vocation. This moral image, as I may call it, also had an influence on the physical image: I saw myself as a young man whose thinness, short sight, nervousness, pallor and carelessness in dress all bore witness, in anticipation, to the literary glory for which I was destined.

His wife was supportive, loving, and made the best of their living situation despite a deep desire to live in a place of their own, a desire Riccardo ascertains is closer to a passion near equal to theirs. She never expressed anything but a “modest displeasure” on occasion but he detects the issue’s importance to her and rents a flat beyond their means. The increase of financial pressure is partly relieved when Riccardo meets Battista, a film producer, around the same time and is hired as a script writer.

Riccardo starts out as a very sympathetic character. The poor guy seems to be trying his best and is so bewildered by his wife’s abrupt change in behaviour. He abandons his dream in order to fulfil hers, a move that embitters his world view to the point where he joins a political party solely out of discontent with his poverty and envy for those better off — an occurrence to which he never thought such a cultivated man as himself would be reduced. But there’s a scene in the first chapter, Riccardo’s memory of a dinner outing with Emilia and Battista, that establishes a sceptical distance which grows on the fuel of contempt. (That’s a much better title choice, btw.) It starts out irrationally, perhaps. The reader from the outset already know she’s going to read about a marriage in disarray due to the synopsis; in the moment it is less clear for Riccardo that he should have heeded his wife’s reluctance to travel with Battista in his two-seater while he hitched a cab (per Battista’s suggestion, of course). Doubt creeps in nevertheless and my responses become more and more mixed until I thought he deserved to be a cuckold (and worse).

To some extent its unfair because Emilia’s sudden contempt for her husband really does come out of nowhere. That’s obscured at the beginning because of that dinner outing scene and Riccardo’s subsequent attempts at reasoning out precisely where everything went wrong. One is prone to look for reasons and the reader, a little ahead, jumps to the same conclusions he does, ones that are initially rooted in concrete causes and eventually branch out until there appears to be no point to it at all. The first blatant sign that Emilia’s feelings have changed is on their first night in their new flat: she refuses to sleep with him on rotation of silly excuses (you snore, you wake up too early, we go to bed too late, the open shutters let in too much noise…). At that point Riccardo had yet to meet Battista. Throughout the novel, each time he confronts with a different or more fine-tuned reason for her feelings he sharply assesses her physical reactions, the light in her eyes, the way she turns her head, her hands, to know whether she’s being truthful.

Alongside this is an intriguing look at the film making business, intriguing because Moravia is rather scathing about the entire process and I have a mental association with Moravia and films. (I did not know why until I googled and saw that Jean Luc Godard and Bertolucci had adapted two of his novels for the screen, one of which I’d seen. )Riccardo becomes embittered by his job as a script writer because it offers no artistic control — all due is given to the director and he and the producer have final editing power — or satisfaction because he does made-to-order projects on committees in which he is usually the most talented (he says).

His second job from Battista, purported to be more serious fare, is an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. The neo-realist films currently being made, Battista opines, are too depressing, too fatalistic, not really “healthy” films for the populace. Look at the Anglos and their Bible movies — the Bible, now, there’s a “healthy” book and what is the Mediterranean people’s Bible? The Odyssey! He wants Riccardo to bring out the “poetry” of the book which amounts to a lot of spectacle, adventure, and bikini clad sirens. To help with the inspiration he and the director should stay at his Capri villa. (They both assume that Emilia is a recipient of the invitation.) The German director Rheingold, on the other hand, has treated the epic to a thoroughly Freudian analysis which, as he so accurately describes it, “takes it to pieces and then put it together again according to our modern requirements”. (Did you shudder at that? Me too. Laughed and shuddered.) It is all simply an inner drama of “conjugal repugnance” where Ulysses creates every excuse to avoid returning home to Penelope and everything in the epic is a “symbol of Ulysses’ subconscious”. He always speaks of it in private to Riccardo, in Rome and in Capri, as he intends to humour Battista until things move into his territory (the studio).

On a basic level the situation works as satirical take on film adaptations of literature, especially modern psychological takes on centuries old myths. (I found the approach similar to the recent take on Beowulf which Michael Drout expounded on in his review.) Of course, it doesn’t matter to Rheingold that he had to change part of the story for it to fit into his theory — that’s what it takes to make such “universal” texts relevant to contemporary audiences.

Things get more complicated when viewed in relation to Riccardo’s situation. And it becomes intimately so because Rheingold’s analysis of Ulysses’ character sounds strikingly similar to Riccardo himself. Instead of having Penelope’s suitors show up when Ulysses return they will instead be the indirect reason for his departure. Penelope is outraged at Ulysses’ mild, “civilized” response to the Suitors gestures. He does not want to cause a scandal and besides he knows that Penelope will be faithful so why should he make a fuss. Besides the gifts are nice so why don’t they just be reasonable about it. Penelope, characterised as the virtuous, traditional woman moved by blood and instinct rather than intellect — very similar to the way Riccardo thinks of Emilia — is first incensed at this and then contemptuous of such an unmanly response. So Ulysses leaves for the Trojan war — something a reasonable man would not voluntarily do if it was not necessary, per Rheingold — and on his reluctant return, to regain her favours, he resorts to the uncivilised act of violence.

I’m still juggling how to look at this. It’s tempting to take this as an inadvertently accurate take on the Molteni’s marriage, which I did for a while, until one recalls that Emilia’s contempt, or at least the first sign of change, occurred before the Battista problem appeared. Another part of Rheingold’s analysis was that for outsiders civilisation can look corrupt, ascribing this to Penelope, but that point fits Riccardo’s world view better. And in any case, isn’t this a critique we’re supposed to be making fun of? Things become even more entangled when one considers that Moravia’s novel itself could fit rather neatly into such a theory. Riccardo had stereotyped Emilia into that salt of the earth, peasant stock and there is Battista with his money, sports car and brutish physique.

In final answer to Rheingold’s Ulysses Riccardo recited lines from Dante’s Ulysses.

¹‘O brothers who have reached the west,’ I began,
‘Through a hundred thousand perils, surviving all:

So little is the vigil we see remain
Still for our senses, that you should not choose
To deny it the experience – behind the sun

Leading us onward – of the world which has
No people in it. Consider well your seed:
You were not born to live as a mere brute does,

But for the pursuit of knowledge and the good.’

It’s a poignant moment not only because he abandoned his ideals but that, there in Sunny Capri on Battista’s hospitality, a man who he respects but considers his intellectual inferior and the antithesis of his ideals, that he may not have possessed such strong ones in the first place; and worst of all is the probability that his last effort to regain them will be futile.

¹Taken from the bilingual edition of The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation by Robert Pinsky.

8 Responses to "For the month of January"

I studied ‘A Burnt Out Case’ in my first year as an undergraduate and I’ve always been surprised that it isn’t better known than it is. Mention it here and all but the most ardent Greene fans will most likely not even have heard of it, let alone read it. Thanks for mentioning it. I think I might make it my next choice for one of my book groups.

Isn’t that something? It was actually my first Greene novel which I chose to start with over the more popular Third Manand…another one the name of which I’ve forgotten. I picked it up for a song — 25 cents at a campus book sale.

So you’re very welcome. It wasn’t anything like what I expected from Greene but I really enjoyed it.

[…] Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case has a somewhat similar theme and plot: a famous Catholic architect abandons a successful life in […]

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