Alberto Moravia translated from the Italian by Marina Harss

Conjugal Love

Publication Date: Jan 17, 2007

144 pp

Trade Paperback

List Price US $14.00
ISBN: 9781590512210

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.
–From Conjugal Love

When Silvio, a rich Italian dilettante, and his beautiful wife agree to move to the country and forgo sex so that he will have the energy to write a successful novel, something is bound to go wrong: Silvio’s literary ambitions are far too big for his second-rate talent, and his wife Leda is a passionate woman. This dangerously combustible situation is set off when Leda accuses Antonio, the local barber who comes every morning to shave Silvio, of trying to molest her. Silvio obstinately refuses to dismiss him, and the quarrel and its shattering consequences put the couple’s love to the test.

Excerpt from Conjugal Love

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 many as they may be. From the very first days of our married life, I took an immeasur-able 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. When we were married, my wife (later, after bearing three children, certain traits became, not exactly different, but somewhat modified) was just over thirty years old. She was tall, though not excessively so, with a face and body that were beautiful, though far from perfect. Her long, thin face had an ephemeral, lost, almost washed-out quality, like the classical dei-ties in certain mediocre old paintings, executed tentatively and rendered even more tenta-tive by the patina of time. This singular quality, an ungraspable beauty which, like a speck of sunlight on the wall, or the shadow of a moving cloud on the sea, can disappear at any moment, surely had something to do with her hair, which was of a metallic blond color and hung messily in long tresses, suggesting the fluttering of fear or flight; and with her enormous eyes, which were blue and slightly slanted, with moist, dilated pupils, whose humiliated, evasive gaze, like her hair, suggested a guarded, frightened disposi-tion. She had a large, straight, noble nose, and a wide red, sinuously drawn mouth, the bottom lip protruding over a smallish chin, hinting at a heavy, brooding sensuality. Hers was an irregular and yet very beautiful face, with a beauty, as I have said, that was un-graspable and that in certain moments and in certain situations, as I will describe later on, seemed to dissolve and even disappear altogether. The same could be said of her body. From the waist up, she was as thin and delicate as a young girl; but her hips, belly, and legs were solid, strong, and well developed, imbued with muscular and carnal vigor. But the disharmony of her body, like that of her face, was neutralized by her beauty which, like a familiar intangible melody or a mysteriously transformative light, wrapped her from head to toe in a halo of perfection. Oddly enough, sometimes, as I gazed at her, I thought of her as a person with classical contours and forms, without defects, the essence of harmony, serenity, and symmetry. Such was the extent to which her beauty, which, for lack of another word, I will call spiritual, deceived and seduced me. But there were mo-ments when this golden veil was torn away, and in those moments not only did I see her numerous imperfections, but I observed a painful transformation of her entire person.

Publishers Weekly

Italian stylist Moravia (1907–1990) had his novels The Conformist and Contempt filmed by Bertolucci and Godard, respectively; this novel, freshly translated by Harss (who provides a short note), was written in 1949.

Moravia…achieves a sly, convincing portrait in the voice of Silvio, whose love for Leda emasculates him, yet fuels his work.

Library Journal

In this brief novel, celebrated Italian novelist Moravia probes many issues, including literary inspiration, the effect of a muse on both creativity and self-discovery, and the possibilities of platonic and conjugal love.

Boasting a fluid style that is elegant yet simple, Moravia is a master of writing about men and women and their love lives.


Alberto Moravia crafts a delectably arch tale of a wealthy dilettante and his sensually neglected wife.

Washington Post

Michael Dirda
Reading Alberto Moravia’s Conjugal Love will take only a couple of hours — fortunately. For once you start this intense short novel, you won’t be able to turn your eyes away….

Marina Harss’s English carries us smoothly into Silvio’s mind, as he reflects on his art and on his wife until each gradually grows into an aspect of the other.

A short, first-person novel, such as Conjugal Love, is frequently the genre of confession and confusion, of emotional uncertainty and torment. And not just for the protagonist. The reader, unable to gain any viewpoint on events except through the narrator’s consciousness, experiences a peculiar claustrophobia, trapped in the mind of a madman — or of a poor doomed innocent en route to the slaughterhouse. Slowly we begin to suspect terrible things, but it takes a long time before we actually know.

The New Yorker

A wealthy, idle man with literary aspirations retreats to an isolated villa in Tuscany with his new wife, where they make a pact: to abstain from sex until he finishes writing a story. The only intrusion is a local barber, who arrives daily to give the husband a shave and possibly put the moves on the wife. In other hands, these would be the ingredients of farce, but Moravia, who died in 1990 and is considered one of the preëminent Italian writers of the twentieth century, delivers something at once more bitter and more tender: a parable of marriage, that odd mixture of violent devotion and legitimate lust, in which desire eventually gives way to a forced and decorous composure that captures the essential opacity of even one’s most intimate partner.

Time Out New York

Caroline McCloskey
Alberto Moravia’s Conjugal Love is a short novel whose surface clarity shellacs over its shriekingly bizarre underpinnings. When the book was published in 1951, the Italian author was well known for his moody portraits of sexuality, and this excellent new translation shows why.

All the usual Moravian themes are present and accounted for: the perverse psychosexual dynamics; the ways in which even our intimates are unknowable to us; the existential brooding on isolation and illusion—all set against the elegant tableaux of the leisure class. Silvio, with his vague aspirations and idle existence, is a classic dilettante. His ideas about love and art are initially benign, even endearing. By the book’s end, however, Silvio’s naïveté has morphed into something far more alarming. He’s not just insulated from struggle, but from reality.

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Moravia… is a master storyteller and his political commentary never overpowers his narrative. The beauty of Conjugal Love is that, politics aside, it can be read simply as a compelling tale of love and betrayal.

Complete Review

Silvio’s very open, almost confessional style—he reveals (and seems to almost revel in) warts and all—is very appealing and makes the story all the more convincing. Conjugal Love is not a happy tale, but it is a satisfying one. And very well told. Recommended.

Without Borders

Throughout his long and astonishingly productive career, Alberto Moravia never stopped exploring the erotic highways and byways. Of course, he tended to look on the dark side. Readers of his many fictions will search in vain for a life-affirming roll in the hay. Instead Moravia zoomed in on the pitfalls, power struggles, and multiple deceptions of eros. Think of him as the Beethoven of bad sex, blessed with a glittering style and the emotional temperature of an icebox. Conjugal Love is no exception to the rule.

The Washington Times

Carol Herman
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…

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