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       Contempt, p.10

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  She was standing in the doorway with her hat still on her head and a parcel in her hand. I said at once, with a spontaneity which astonished me after so many doubts and apprehensions: “No, I’m not working...I was just wondering whether I ought or ought not to accept this new script of Battista’s.”

  She closed the door and came and stood beside me, near the desk. “Have you been to see Battista?”

  “Yes.”

  “But you haven’t come to an agreement...Doesn’t he offer you enough?”

  “Yes, he offers enough...and we have come to an agreement.”

  “Well, then...But perhaps you don’t like the subject?”

  “No, it’s a good subject.”

  “What is the subject?”

  I looked at her for a moment before replying: as usual she appeared absent-minded and indifferent, and one could see she was only speaking from duty. “It’s the Odyssey,” I answered briefly.

  She put down the parcel on the desk, lifted her hand to her head and slowly took off her hat, shaking out her pressed-down hair. But her face was blank and inattentive: either she had not understood that I was speaking of the famous poem, or—which was more probable—the title, though not entirely unknown, conveyed nothing to her. “Well,” she remarked at last, almost impatiently, “don’t you like it?”

  “Yes, I told you I did!”

  “Isn’t the Odyssey the thing one learns at school? Why don’t you want to do it?”

  “Because I don’t feel like doing it, now.”

  “But surely, only this morning, you had decided to accept the job?”

  All of a sudden I realized that the moment had come for another, and this time really decisive, explanation. I jumped to my feet, took hold of her by the arm and said: “Let’s go in there, into the living-room; I must talk to you.”

  She was frightened, more, perhaps, by the almost frenzied force with which I gripped her arm than by the tone of my voice. “What’s the matter with you? are you mad?”

  “No, I’m not mad...Let’s go in there and talk.”

  Meanwhile I was dragging her, forcibly, across the study. I opened the door and thrust her into the other room, in the direction of an armchair. “Sit down there!” I myself sat down facing her, and said: “Now let’s talk.”

  She looked at me dubiously, and still a little frightened. “Well, talk then, I’m listening.”

  I began in a cold and colorless voice. “Yesterday—do you remember?—I told you that I had no desire to do this script because I was not sure that you loved me...and you answered that you did love me and that I ought to do it. Isn’t that so?”

  “Yes, that’s so.”

  “Well,” I declared resolutely, “I believe you were telling me a lie...I don’t know why—perhaps because you were sorry for me, perhaps in order to serve your own interests—”

  “But what interests?” she interrupted me harshly.

  “The interest you may have,” I explained, “in remaining in this flat which you like so much.”

  Her reaction was such that I was struck by its violence. She sat up straight in her chair and said, in a louder voice than usual: “Who told you that? This flat doesn’t matter to me in the least, not in the very least. I’m perfectly ready to go back and live in a furnished room...It’s quite obvious you don’t know me...It means nothing to me.”

  These words gave me a feeling of acute pain, pain such as a man might feel who sees some gift, for which he has faced bitter sacrifices, despised and insultingly spurned. After all, this home of ours, of which she spoke with such contempt, represented my life for the last two years; for this home I had abandoned the work I most wished to do, I had renounced my dearest ambitions. I asked, in a thin, almost incredulous voice: “It means nothing to you?”

  “Nothing, absolutely nothing.” Her voice sounded flat and unmusical, from some unexplained passion of contempt. “Nothing...do you understand? nothing!”

  “But yesterday you said you cared very much about staying in this flat.”

  “I only said it to please you...because I thought it was you who cared.”

  I was inwardly amazed: so it was I, I who had sacrificed my theatrical ambitions, I who had never held such things to be of great importance, it was I who cared about the flat! I saw that she had now entered, for some reason unknown to me, upon the path of deceit, and I told myself that it would serve no purpose to exasperate her by contradicting her and reminding her of how much she had once desired what she now made such a show of despising. In any case, the flat was a mere detail; what really mattered was something quite different. “Never mind the flat,” I said, trying to control my voice and adopt a conciliating, sensible tone; “it’s not the flat I wanted to talk about, but your feeling towards me. You lied to me yesterday when you said, for some reason or other, that you loved me. You lied to me, and that’s why I have no further desire to work for the cinema...because I did it entirely for you, and if you no longer love me I have no reason for going on with it.”

  “But what makes you think I lied to you?”

  “Nothing and everything. We talked about that yesterday, too, and I don’t want to begin all over again. There are things that can’t be explained, but which one feels...and I feel you no longer love me...”

  She showed, suddenly, a first impulse of sincerity. “Why do you want to know these things?” she asked unexpectedly, in a sad, tired voice, looking away towards the window: “why? Let it alone...it will be better for us both.”

  “Well then,” I persisted, “you admit that I may be right?”

  “I admit nothing. I only want to be left in peace. Leave me in peace!” There was a hint of tears in these last words. Then she added: “I’m going now. I want to change my clothes”; and she rose and went off towards the door. But I caught her as she went, seizing her by the wrist. I had made this gesture more than once before: when she had risen, saying she must leave me, and I, as she passed in front of my chair, had taken hold of her by her long, slender wrist. But formerly I had seized hold of her because I felt a sudden desire for her, and she knew it and would stop obediently, awaiting my second gesture, which consisted in embracing her legs and burying my face in her lap, or in pulling her down on to my knees. All this would end in love-making—after a little resistance and a few caresses—just where we found ourselves, in the armchair or on the divan close by. This time, however, my intention was different, and I could not help being aware of it, with some bitterness. She did not resist but remained standing close beside me, looking down at me from her great height. “Really,” she said, “what do you want, I should like to know?”

  “I want the truth.”

  “You want to insist on making trouble between us—that’s what you want!”

  “Then you admit that the truth would not please me?”

  “I admit nothing.”

  “But you said it yourself—making trouble between us...”

  “Oh well, I had to say something...Now let me go!”

  She did not struggle, however, nor did she move; she simply waited for me to release her. I felt I should have preferred violent rebellion to this cold, contemptuous patience; and, as though hoping, by a renewal of the old gesture which once had been the prelude to love, to arouse in her a feeling of affection, I let go of her wrist and put my arms around her legs. She was wearing a long, very ample skirt, full of folds; and as I embraced her I felt it shrink and tighten around her fine straight legs, hard and muscular, like the ample sails of a ship round the mast. And then I felt desire for her, in a way that was almost painful because of its suddenness and because of the sense of impotent despair that accompanied it. Looking up at her, I said: “Emilia, what have you against me?”

  “I haven’t anything at all...and now let me go!”

  I clasped her legs more tightly with my two arms, pressing my face into her lap. Generally, when I made this gesture, I would feel, after a moment or two, the big hand that I loved so much being laid on my head
in a slow, tentative caress. This would be the signal of her emotional response and of her willingness to do my pleasure. But this time her hand remained dangling and inert. This attitude on her part, so different from her former one, smote deep into my heart. I released her, and taking her by the wrist again, cried: “No, you shan’t go... You’ve got to tell me the truth...this very minute...You shan’t leave the room until you’ve told me the truth.”

  She went on looking down at me from above: I could not see her but I seemed to feel her hesitating gaze on my bowed head. At last she said: “Well, you’ve asked for it. All I wanted was to go on as we are. It’s you who’ve asked for it: it’s true, I don’t love you now. There’s the truth for you!”

  It is possible to picture the most disagreeable things and to picture them with the certainty that they are true. But the confirmation of such fancies, or rather, of such certainties. always comes unexpectedly and painfully, just as though one had not pictured anything beforehand. Really and truly I had known all the time that Emilia no longer loved me. But to hear her say it had, nevertheless, a chilling effect upon me. She did not love me now: those words, so often imagined, assumed, when pronounced by her lips, an entirely new significance. They were fact, not fancy, however mixed the latter might have been with certainty. They had a weight, a size, which they had never before had in my mind. I do not remember clearly how I received this declaration. Probably I gave a start, like someone who goes under an icy shower-bath knowing that it is icy, and yet, when he feels it, gives a start just the same, as if he had never known at all. Then I tried to recover myself, to show myself, somehow, reasonable and objective. I said, as gently as I could: “Come here...sit down and explain to me why you don’t love me.”

  She obeyed and sat down again, this time on the divan. Then she said, rather irritably: “There’s nothing to explain. I don’t love you now and that is absolutely all I have to say.”

  I realized that, the more I sought to show myself reasonable, the more deeply did the thorn of my unspeakable pain sink into my flesh. My face was twisted into a forced smile as I answered: “You must at least admit that you owe me an explanation. Even when one sacks a servant, one explains the reason.”

  “I don’t love you any more: that’s all I have to say.”

  “But why? You did love me, didn’t you?”

  “Yes, I loved you...very much...but now I don’t any more.”

  “You loved me very much?”

  “Yes, very much; but it’s all over now.”

  “But why? There must be a reason.”

  “Perhaps there may be...but I don’t know what it is; I only know that I don’t love you.”

  “Don’t repeat it so often,” I exclaimed almost in spite of myself, and raising my voice a little.

  “It’s you who make me repeat it. You refuse to be convinced and so I have to go on repeating it.”

  “I’m convinced now.”

  There was silence. Emilia had lit a cigarette and was smoking it with downcast eyes. I was bending forward with my head between my hands. Finally I said: “If I tell you the reason—will you recognize it?”

  “But I don’t know it, myself.”

  “But if I tell it to you, perhaps you’ll recognize it.”

  “All right then, come on...tell me.”

  “Don’t speak to me like that!” I wanted to cry to her, wounded by her curt, indifferent tone. But I restrained myself and, trying to maintain my reasonable air, began: “Do you remember that girl who came here some months ago to type out a script for me...that typist? You caught us kissing. It was a stupid weakness on my part. But there was only that one kiss, I swear it; it was the first and the last...and I’ve never seen her since. Now tell me the truth—wasn’t it perhaps that kiss that first came between us? Tell me the truth—wasn’t that kiss the first thing that made you lose your love for me?”

  As I spoke, I watched her carefully. Her first movement was one of surprise, and of consequent denial: it was as if my supposition seemed to her completely absurd. Then, as I saw clearly, a sudden idea made her change expression. She answered slowly: “Well, suppose it was that kiss. Now that you know, does it make you feel any better?”

  At once I was absolutely certain that it had not been the kiss, as she was now insisting that I should believe. It was quite clear: at first Emilia had been downright astonished at my supposition, so remote was it from the truth; then, a sudden calculation had made her accept it. I could not but think that the true reason of her loss of love must be much more serious than that one kiss which had led to nothing. It was a reason, probably, that she did not wish to reveal because of some remaining regard for me. Emilia was not unkind, as I knew, and did not like hurting anyone. Evidently the real reason would be hurtful to me.

  I said gently: “It’s not true, it wasn’t the kiss.”

  She was astonished. “Why! But I’ve just told you it was.”

  “No, it wasn’t the kiss...it was something else.”

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “You know perfectly well.”

  “No, on my word of honor, I don’t know.”

  “And I tell you you do know.”

  She became impatient, almost like a mother with a child. “Why do you want to know so many things? It’s typical of you...Why do you want to pry into everything? What does it matter to you?”

  “Because I prefer the truth, whatever it is, to lies. And above all, if you don’t tell me the truth, I might imagine anything...I might imagine something really nasty.”

  She looked at me for a moment in silence, in a strange manner. “What does it matter to you?” she went on then. “You have a clear conscience, haven’t you?”

  “Yes, certainly I have.”

  “Then how can the rest matter to you?”

  “It’s true, then,” I persisted. “It really is something nasty.”

  “I didn’t say that. I only said that, if you have a clear conscience, all the rest ought not to matter to you.”

  “It’s true that I have a clear conscience...but that doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes even one’s conscience deceives one.”

  “But not yours, surely?” she said, with a faint irony that did not, however, escape me, and that seemed to me even more wounding than her indifference.

  “Yes, even mine.”

  “Well, well, I must go,” she said suddenly. “Have you anything else to say to me?”

  “No, you shan’t go until you’ve told me the truth.”

  “I’ve already told you the truth: I don’t love you.”

  What an effect they had upon me, those four words! I turned pale, and implored her, miserably: “I asked you before not to say that again. It hurts too much!”

  “It’s you who compel me to repeat it...It certainly doesn’t give me any pleasure to say it.”

  “Why do you want to make me believe it’s because of that kiss that you’ve stopped loving me?” I pursued, following the train of my reflections. “A kiss is nothing at all. That girl was a perfectly ordinary little fool and I’ve never seen her since. You know and understand all that. No, the truth is that you’ve stopped loving me”—now I was not so much speaking as spelling out my words carefully in an attempt to express my own difficult and obscure intuition—“because something has happened...something that has changed your feelings towards me...something, in fact, that has perhaps changed, first and foremost, the idea you had of me, and consequently your feelings as well.”

  “It must be admitted that you’re intelligent!” she said, in a tone of genuine surprise, almost of praise.

  “It’s true, then?”

  “I didn’t say it was true. I only said you were intelligent.”

  I sought about in my mind, feeling that the truth was, so to speak, on the tip of my tongue. “To put it briefly,” I insisted, “before a certain thing happened, you thought well of me ...afterwards, you thought badly...and therefore ceased to love me.”

  “It migh
t possibly have happened like that.”

  All of a sudden I had a horrible feeling: this reasonable tone of mine, I realized, was false. I was not reasonable, I was suffering, in fact, I was desperate, furious, I was shattered; and why in the world should I keep up a reasonable tone? I don’t know what happened to me at that moment. Before I knew what I was doing, I had jumped to my feet, shouting: “Don’t imagine I’m here just to keep up a bright conversation!” and had leaped on top of her and seized her by the throat and thrown her back on to the divan and was yelling into her face: “Tell me the truth...tell it once and for all. Come on!”

  Beneath me the big, perfect body that I loved so much was struggling this way and that, and she had grown red and swollen in the face; I must have been squeezing her throat tightly, and I knew that, in my heart, I wanted to kill her. I kept on saying: “Tell me the truth, once and for all,” and at the same time I squeezed with redoubled force and thought: “I’m going to kill her...but better dead than my enemy!” Then I felt her trying to kick me in the belly with her knee, and indeed she succeeded in doing so, and with such violence that it took my breath away. This blow hurt me almost as much as the phrase: “I don’t love you”; and it was in truth the blow of an enemy, an enemy who seeks to harm his adversary as much as possible. At the same time my murderous hatred ebbed, I relaxed my grip somewhat, and she struggled free, giving me a push that almost threw me off the divan. Then, before I could recover myself, she cried out in a voice of exasperation: “I despise you...that’s the feeling I have for you and that’s the reason why I’ve stopped loving you. I despise you and you disgust me every time you touch me. There’s the truth for you...I despise you and you disgust me!”

  I was standing up now. My eye, followed at once by my hand, moved towards a massive glass ashtray that stood on the table. She certainly thought I intended to kill her, for she uttered a groan of fear and covered her face with her arm. But my guardian angel stood by me. I do not know how I managed to control myself; I put the ashtray back on the table and went out of the room.

 
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