Monday, December 21, 2009

Morante & Moravia: A Brand New Obsession


I will be brief...as brief as Elsa Morante's outfit in the picture to the left.

Just three books into my love affair with Alberto Moravia (Contempt; Boredom and The Conformist), I learned from my brother-in-law that if I loved Moravia, then I would really, really love his wife, Elsa Morante.

I was vaguely aware of Morante, knew that her novel La Storia (History) is regarded as a 20th century masterpiece. I also knew that both writers were half-Jewish, a fact of great consequence in Europe during the time of the Second World War.

Already, a stack of Moravia's novels awaits me, bedside; to these, I must now add Morante's works. Considering the output of both, I think my literary dance card will be full for a few months. And that's without even consulting the biographical works, which I most certainly will have to, in order to feed my voracious interest in the lives of writers who are married to each other.

I wrote last month about my penchant for burning through the complete works of a single writer, immersing myself in his or her life, supplementing their work with biographical data -- sometimes in the form of books, other times cribbed from cyberspace.

Even more fulfilling, though, is discovering a literary couple, reading him, reading her and reading about their shared life. Over the years, I have become a groupie of Paul and Jane, Diana and Lionel, Sylvia and Ted, Jean Paul and Simone, Dash and Lillian, Vera and Vlad...to name a few. (No matter that Vera didn't write; her partnership with her husband was entirely literary.)

I was even briefly obsessed with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris (who committed suicide) and found myself wondering about Stan and Jan Berenstain, authors of the Berenstain Bears series. The teenage Joyce Maynard who lived with the much-older J.D. Salinger for a while in the seventies was fascinating, if disturbing, for me to comtemplate. More recent writing couples, however -- Nicole Kraus and Jonathan Safran Foer; Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, for instance -- evoke not a shred of curiosity in me.

The literary marriage is both a glorious ideal and a total nightmare, dangling the paradoxical promise of soulmate and eternal nemesis. There is shared ambition and deadly competition. There is the clash of ego; the clamoring for all-engulfing attention. There is the desire to serve as The Muse. There is the infantile demand to be read and savored; to be held, to be heard, to be seen as one sees oneself.

And then there are the complicating factors of sex, money, children, family and overlapping circles of friends.

And success coming to one but not the other.

Though I try to enforce strict rules with myself, refraining from reading biographical information until I have completely swallowed the literary ouevre of the respective writer, sometimes I weaken and take a peek.

Usually, this is a deadly mistake as the information I discover proves so enticing that I am in grave danger of abandoning the reading of the work prematurely and diving headlong into the heart of the marriage...where I never wish to leave.

And when a photograph of the couple is glimpsed -- invariably showing them as impossibly glamorous, as in the case of this picture of Morante and Moravia -- it has the same effect as portraits of movie stars have on the young and impressionable, blinding and dazzling me, seizing hold of my imagination, making me lovesick, nearly delusional, providing me with a portal through which I can understand my own life and marriage, a context within which I can view my own life as a great dramatic work.

1 comment:

She-Ra, Princess of Power said...

beautiful column! i laughed out loud at stan and jan. love, A