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The Voyeur by Alberto Moravia, translated by Tim Parks (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $17.95; 185 pp.)

May 10, 1987|Susan Slocum Hinerfeld | Hinerfeld is a Los Angeles-based critic

For every voyeur there's an exhibitionist, and for every exhibitionist a voyeur": That's the lucky equation in Alberto Moravia's newly translated novel, "The Voyeur."

Moravia suggests that novels are like keyholes. Novelists are voyeurs, he says, and so, often, are characters within their narratives. Of course, readers are voyeurs as well, peering over the novelist's shoulder: Moravia is just too polite to say so.

Eduardo, this novel's narrator, lives "most of all through my eyes." He has "a natural talent" for watching. Yet he admits, "Perhaps the truth blinds me, like the headlights of a car that's running me down." "I tried to make you see," his wife Silvia says, "but it was as if you were blind." "You know what you make me think of?," his father's nurse asks. "Of the ostrich that buries its head in the sand and doesn't want to see anything." "You want the light or the dark?," asks his lover. "I want the dark," he says.

"The Voyeur" would seem to be a novel of high seriousness. Certainly it is a tale of enervation and ennui. Eduardo, an Italian professor of French literature, is immature, obsessive, a relic of the "heroic" period of student protest, perhaps near breakdown; a failure at 35. "Dodo," his women call him--he is extinct in English and asleep in French.

Eduardo and Silvia live in two rooms in his father's apartment. Silvia does not know that Eduardo's most glorious anti-materialist protest was to relinquish his mother's bequest to him of another apartment. (His chief rebellion these days is breakfasting out in a cafe.)

Now Eduardo discovers "the pretty obvious fact that having a place of your own can be an important asset for a young married couple. . . ." Is lack of a home of their own the reason that Silvia leaves him? Can he make himself ask his father for the return of his property? Think of the humiliation!

Eduardo wakes each day to the fear of atomic obliteration, a thought so terrible, he cannot think it. He also cannot think about his wife, or at least he cannot think of her in connection with his father. (The threat is double: His potent, omnipotent father, the "great man," is also a physicist.)

What Eduardo does think about is French literature. But when he teaches it, he feels a fool, the victim of his own enthusiasm. "I'm a good intellectual who isn't able to act," he explains, "who thinks things, but doesn't do them."

"The Voyeur" is funny. It is also theatrical and bedroom-farcical, a little comic book of lechery. The Oedipus characters romp in a house of mirrors. Eduardo's wife and his father: Did they or didn't they? Are they or aren't they? Will they or won't they?

Is Eduardo cuckolded or is he not? It's Pirandello: Right You Are If You Think You Are. It's also commedia dell'arte: Sex pulls the puppet strings; the ever-amorous father plays Pantaloon. Our voyeur is only a Peeping Tom, a clown, Punchinello.

Moravia's characters take themselves seriously. So, once, did their maker. But now he is 80; his narrator a callow 35. He has put only one grown-up into this book--Pascasie, the good-hearted African. She, like Moravia, is tolerant of Eduardo's nonsense: "We Europeans have discovered what we call the unconscious," he has the nerve to tell her. She calmly recommends witch-doctoring. When Pascasie has had enough, she is dismissive. "Bye now, my little voyeur," she says, deflating him for us forever.

Moravia is a fine, wise writer. There is much to learn from his book. This time, the master's tongue is in cheek, his book satyric and satiric. And what, after all, is so bad about a little lust? Pornography is in the eye of the beholder.

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