Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Reading group: The Fancy Dress Party by Alberto Moravia

Doug suggested this book (as an antidote, he said, to the grimness of our last choice), a farce about a dictatorship purportedly in an ex-Spanish colony 'on the other side of the ocean', but clearly satirising that of Mussolini. The fancy dress party of the title is the focus of a series of intrigues and counter-intrigues involving the social, sexual and political interests of representatives of various levels of a society under dictatorship. The social prestige of Duchess Gorina, who is holding the party, would be hugely boosted by the presence of the dictator, Tereso, a man who would normally shun such parties. Understanding his weakness - he has no luck with women - she plots to entice him with a beautiful young widow, Countess Fausta Sanchez, with whom they know he is in love. The cold-hearted and corrupt Fausta has her own motive: she will become Tereso's mistress purely in order to secure a government contract for her brother. Meanwhile, the Chief of Police, worried about becoming dispensable to Tereso now that Tereso's reign is comfortably established, affects prior knowledge of a plot to assassinate Tereso at the party, and sets about faking a situation in which bombers will be caught red-handed, a plot involving an agent provocateur, a naive revolutionary and a spurned lover of Fausta's.

Being a political farce, the book is more or less the sum of its convoluted plot plus straightforward and clear political notions, the corruption of dictatorships in particular and of politicians in general, and the way that human venality poisons politics. Fittingly for a political satire, it engendered more discussion in our group about the issues it raised, and their relevance to politics today, than about itself. Doug noted that, as was to be expected, there is little psychological exploration, although, as I said, the psychology of the characters (and thus of the strata of society they represent) is explained and pinpointed clearly, in a mode that is 'tell' rather than 'show'. John said he thought that in this respect the book was quite brilliantly written at the start - it's a plain, punchy prose that somehow manages to skewer the characters in very short spaces of prose, and everyone agreed. He said that, however, he felt the book later fell off, the satirical tone giving way to out-and-out farce, as if Moravia had lost interest before the end, and others, including me, thought the same. I said that I had hoped to be surprised by an unexpected turn of events at the end, but there was no great twist or revelation, and others agreed.

We commented on the original Italian title, La Mascherata (The Masquerade) which we thought much more fitting than that of the English translation, since the characters are engaged in much wider masquerades - political and sexual - than the Duchess's fancy-dress party. The concept of a masquerade is also relevant to the book itself and its publication history. Presumably because it was masquerading as a light-hearted comedy, it was originally personally passed by Mussolini for publication, although, presumably because the target of its satire was subsequently recognised, it was later banned in Italy. Another point we found of interest was Moravia's declaration in his Paris Review interview that the writer of a novel should have no overt political agenda; he is then reminded of this book by the interviewer, and admits that it is the one book in which he set out specifically to make a social criticism.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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