A Truth Universally Acknowledged
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a young woman enters into a male peer group, the bond will be weakened and the group dispersed. Alberto Moravia's 'Jewellery' doesn't quite open with such Austenesque assertiveness but it's decisive nevertheless. Moravia was always more commercially successful than other novelists of his famous generation, one that stretches liberally from Pavese to Calvino, Primo Levi to Bassani, Buzzati to Vittorini, and this bed-ridden boy, born in 1907, became a boy wonder: the tubercular child learnt English, French and German and read broadly, publishing his first novel in 1929 (Time of Indifference) with the help of a loan from his father. It was successful and the success continued, with many of Moravia's books turned into films, including adaptations of The Conformist, The Empty Canvas, A Ghost at Noon and Two Women.
The opening line of 'Jewellery' goes: "You can be quite sure that, when a woman finds her way into a group of men friends, that group, without the slightest doubt, is bound to disintegrate and each member of it go off on his own account." What we have here is tale rather than a story if we accept that a story is a modern thing, even a modernist thing, and the tale still beholden to older forms of storytelling that insist on a tighter structure, a clearer throughline and the illustration of its opening premise. Another way of looking at the tale is to see it as an announcement, perhaps a pronouncement, in story form: a way of telling you something by showing you something. Many of the stories that accompany Moravia's in The Penguin Book of International Short Stories do not possess that certitude, or at least play radically with its premises. Whether it is 'Fat' or 'First Love, Last Rites', 'One Arm' or 'Suicides', many of the stories possess a hesitancy in the telling, as though the story cannot quite be told within ready narrative parameters. Other stories within Daniel Halpern's vast collection are very much tales, like Abdeslam Boulaich's 'Cowardice', RK Narayan's 'Naga' and to some degree Chinua Achebe's 'The Sacrificial Egg', even if the overall emphasis in the collection is on the technically modern. But these exceptions usually emphasise religiosity and superstition in cultures that are still in contact with more fundamental notions of thought. Moravia's can seem such a light story because it isn't so primally suggestive, while still taking the form of a certain type of fable. It is in fact part of a collection called Roman Tales, all the stories are short, and usually to the point, even if many of Moravia's other books and stories elsewhere are much more modern in their exploration of character, emphasising neurosis, perversion and indecision.
Yet here Moravia wishes to demonstrate a truism in fictional form, and thus the characters are always secondary to the point being made. Here we have a group of working-class men living in Rome who all have a bit of spare cash. Tore has a garage, the Modeti brothers a meat-brokering business, Morganti has a pork butcher's shop and Rinaldi a bar. The narrator has a few things going, including trading in resin. They love to eat and none of them weigh less than twelve or thirteen stone. But with little it seems to spend their money on once good food has been covered and trips taken, jewellery becomes the thing to buy. Tore starts it: "he came in one evening to the restaurant wearing a wristwatch of massive gold, with a plaited gold strap nearly an inch wide." Soon enough though the others are doing the same as they all buy rings. In time, the gang are buying cigarette lighters, medallions, more rings and bracelets.
Here we have a homosocial environment with feminine overtones. "with that ring on his small, fat finger and that watch on his stumpy wrist, he [Tore] almost looked like a woman." These are big, soft men at a time when Italy was becoming prosperous and where there is no suggestion any of them fought in the war. The collection came out in 1954 and Moravia tells us all the characters were under thirty. This was the era of 'il boom economico', a post-war economic miracle in Italy, where, Frederic Spotts and Theodor Wieser note, "the material standard of living had vastly improved for the great majority of the population. (A Difficult Democracy: A Survey of Italian Politics) But the story is only tangentially about this wealth; more importantly the story has its premise to fulfil.
If the men are presented as boys, Lucrezia is shown as a twenty-year-old woman who has the aura of a mature one. "...She was as fully developed as a woman of thirty. Her skin was as white as milk, her eyes black, large, steady and expressionless, her mouth red, her hair black." She looked indeed like a statue..." She is going out with, Rinaldo, the bar owner, and we might in Moravia's description contrast it with how he describes Tore on the previous page, who has a "...flat flabby face, two little pig-like eyes, a nose that looks as if it were made of butter and a mouth like a purse with broken hinges." There is no indication any of them are in shape and the contrast with a woman made of stone is pronounced. At first, she is Rinaldo's employee and, on that first evening when she joins them, the men are more careful than usual, with Tore even eating his fruit with a knife and fork, and everyone determined to avoid bad language.
"She wore no jewellery, not even earrings..." the narrator tells us but before long she is telling Rinaldo what to do. Only after a couple of nights working for him and joining everyone for dinner, she says "Rinaldo, I feel tired...will you take me home now?" Everyone else looks at each other; "already she was talking to him familiarly and calling him by his Christian name?" Where will all this end, we might wonder, and Moravia has few surprises for us. Why would he when he has given away the ending at the beginning? Sure enough, Rinaldo chooses Lucrezia over his friends, even no longer respecting the people with whom he has for some time been hanging out. "You're a bunch of swine...eating with you makes me sick." Rinaldo even tells them what would have been obvious to an onlooker: "with all that jewellery on you, you look like one of those women you know who I mean...all you need is some scent."
In functional terms, Lucrezia is the interloper who transforms the environment, a mode often used even in modern literature, including, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Wise Blood and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "John Gardner once said that there are only two plots in all of literature: You go on a journey, or the stranger comes to town." (Quote Investigator) Or as Gardner more specifically says, "as subject, use either a trip or the arrival of a stranger" to get your novel going. (The Art of Fiction) The first quote is an exaggeration of course and the second a limited demand but common enough, and classical enough, for Moravia's story to feel conventional in its telling. Lucrezia is someone whose acceptance the gang resists but whose force is stronger. Not that it need to be very strong at all; the gang's slothfulness means that anybody with a bit of will and purpose is likely to change the milieu and so this is exactly what happens in 'Jewellery'.
The gang turn against each other and to the victor the spoils. Tore accuses Rinaldo of wearing as much jewellery as any of them and so he starts to take off his ring, bracelet, wristwatch and even his cigarette case, dropping them into Lucrezia's lap. Rinaldo has thus proved his point and how unattached he happens to be to the material items he was apparently before enamoured by. "None of the rest of you..." he says, "would ever do that...you couldn't do it." Tore weakly replies that Rinaldo can go to hell but it seems that he is now ashamed of all these rings and yet furious at Rinaldo's insults. When Rinaldo continues abusing Tore and the others as he leaves with Lucrezia, Tore calls him an imbecile and Lucrezia an idiot. Rinaldo pounces on Tore and the fight is broken up.
In the final paragraph, Moravia covers a vast enough period that it feels like a postscript. In the first couple of meetings after the argument, the rest of the gang meet but they are wearing less jewellery than before. Within a few weeks the group has ceased to exist, and a while after that the narrator hears that Rinaldo and Lucrezia are married. At the wedding, she supposedly was "more thickly covered in jewellery than a statue of the Madonna." The story then ends on Tore. The narrator says he saw him in the garage a short time ago and "...he had a ring on his finger, but it was not of gold and it had no diamond on it: it was one of those silver rings that mechanics wear."
The story is now complete. The group has been separated and one of its members now married. The jewellery that early in the story seems to indicate a pampered, indulgent masculinity becomes before the end properly placed on a female body. Anybody who knows Moravia's work more generally will be aware that the writer is often drawn to what would have been called at the time dissident sexuality, no matter the sexism evident in the conclusion here. We have bisexuality in The Conformist, adultery in Conjugal Love, fetishism in the openly titled story 'The Fetish'. As Margaret Brose says, "In the modern age, sex is necessarily triangulated - a means not an end. Thus our dominant modes of sexuality are narcissistic, voyeuristic, sado-masochistic: all mediated, all inauthentic. A Moravian protagonist inevitably looks to the sexual, the economic, and the linguistic domains as fields of potential conversion." ('Alberto Moravia: Fetishism and Figuration'.)
In the tales, however, the priority rests in the title: in telling a story whose contained form is more important than a broader psychological and sociological exploration. The characters in 'Jewellery' aren't carefully delineated but broadly sketched: we are told what they do and what they look like but little more. The story is as we've noted one of the Roman Tales but the emphasis rests on the latter more than the former: Moravia gives us little sense of the city, and we have no idea which district in Rome they are living in, though they take trips to Ostia and Ladispoli. We can assume the neighbourhood isn't rich even if the characters are within their milieu comfortably enough off. But this is broad stroke class analysis, nothing that need get in the way of the story's pace and purpose. After all, if it is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman entering a male environment will disperse the group, wouldn't a closer analysis risk dispersing the tale as well?
© Tony McKibbin