The Empty Canvas, p.10Alberto Moravia
After that day Cecilia came to see me, at first a couple of times a week, then every other day, and finally, after we had known one another for a month, almost every day. Cecilia's visits took place always at the same time of day, lasted always for the same length of time, and were spent always in the same way; so that to describe one of them is to describe them all. Cecilia, then, would announce her arrival with one single ring at the bell, a ring so brief that it often left me uncertain as to whether I had really heard it; but it was just this uncertainty that made me know it was she. I would go and open the door and Cecilia would throw her arms round my neck and we would kiss. I wish to say at this point that Cecilia, so expert in the sexual relationship, did not know how to kiss. It may be that the kiss is a symbolic contact, so to speak, in which the pleasure is more psychological than sensual, and psychology, as will be seen, was not Cecilia's strong point; or it may be, more simply, that Cecilia did not know how to kiss me, that is, that our relationship was not of the kind that can express itself with kisses. Certain it is that Cecilia's lips were inert, cold and formless, like those of a little girl who has been running with the wind in her face and hastily embraces her father. Moreover Cecilia's double nature, at the same time that of a child and of a grown woman, was revealed during the moment of the kiss. While, in fact, she thus offered me a mouth which was lacking both in eagerness and in abandonment, a mouth which failed to open in response to mine or to insinuate itself into mine, at that same moment I would feel her straining against me with her body in a forward curve, and then, with her groin, dealing me a strong, sharp blow that seemed to proclaim the urgent, inarticulate quality of her love. This first kiss lasted only a short time, since I found no pleasure in it and broke it off almost immediately. Cecilia would then disengage herself from me, put down her bag and gloves on the table, walk over to the window and pull the cords of the curtains, and finally undress, always in the same way and in the same place, between the divan and an armchair upon which she placed her clothes as she took them off.
I had met Cecilia in July, when she was wearing the summer clothes which I have already described—a light, puffy blouse and a wide, short skirt like a ballet-skirt; later on, with the autumn, as soon as it began to be less warm, she wore a long, loose, green woollen sweater and a black skirt, very tight, which reached to her knees. In the first place, then, Cecilia would slip this sweater over her head, pausing a moment with her arms raised and her head muffled and hidden, and then, with a gradual, energetic movement, always the same, she would pull off the sweater and throw it down, inside out, on the armchair. She was now in her skirt only, naked to the waist, because, indifferent to the rough contact of the wool against her skin, she wore nothing underneath her sweater. She used to say, with little trace of vanity and as though establishing an incontestable fact, that her bust would stay up without any support; but I always thought she did this out of calculated coquettishness, with the intention that her magnificent bosom should appear, or rather burst forth, the moment she took off her sweater. The sight of her bosom did not in any case dispel the feeling of immaturity that emanated from her; ample and in full beauty, it did not seem to belong to the slender torso from which it rose. This impression was especially remarkable when Cecilia turned round: all I could see then was the thin, white, bony back of an adolescent girl; and the breast that was visible between her arm and her side, beneath her armpit, looked, when seen in this way, as if it were composed of a warmer, darker, more adult flesh than the rest of her body.
After taking off her sweater, Cecilia would turn slightly on her hip and, bringing her hands together at her waist, unhook and lower the zip fastening of her skirt. The skirt fell to the floor and, with an impatient movement like the movement with which she had snatched her sweater from over her head, she would stamp her feet on it a couple of times before picking it up and placing it on the armchair. Now she was quite naked; or rather, she was still wearing what I may call her most intimate trappings: the suspender-belt round her hips, the triangular veil of the slip over her belly, the stockings on her legs. These trappings, however, were by this time all crooked and in confusion, as though Cecilia, in undressing, had deprived them of all functional purpose: the slip appeared to be crumpled and rolled up, the suspender-belt had two of its four garters undone and was hanging slantwise to one side; of the stockings one was up and the other was dangling below her knee. The disorder was feminine and warlike; and it was curiously out of harmony with the childish, expressionless innocence of her face. In truth, Cecilia always seemed to have a two-fold character, to be a woman and a child at the same time; and not only in her body but in her expression and her movements.
This two-fold character found particular expression in the contrast between the upper and the lower parts of her body. There are differences of weight which are apparent to the eye even before they are verified by the hands. An object made of lead, for instance, appears to the eye of an observer to be without any doubt heavier than some other object, of equal dimensions, made of a lighter material. Now Cecilia's body, from the waist downwards, did indeed appear to have the consistency of something made of a very dense, very heavy material. How solid, for example, was the attachment of the legs to the groin compared with that of the arms to the armpits; how different from the delicate thinness of the torso was the vigorous curve of the lower back, the superabundant muscularity of the loins, the massive compactness of the thighs. Adolescent from the waist upwards, grown woman from the waist downwards, Cecilia gave rather the idea of one of those decorative monsters which are depicted in ancient frescoes: a kind of sphinx or harpy, a boyish torso grafted with grotesque effect on to a powerful belly and legs.
The manner in which Cecilia conducted herself during love-making also reflected the contrast between the two sides of her nature, the childish and the womanly. I have often thought about this; and I have come to the conclusion that Cecilia had no feeling, and possibly, even, no real sensuality, but merely a sexual appetite of which she herself was not entirely conscious although she submitted passively to its urgency. In my arms she would adopt the position of a child obediently opening its mouth to the spoon held out by its mother: only in her case the mouth was her sex and it was her lover who fed her. The poetical, childish fragility of her round, pale face was in continual contrast with the hardness, the exigence, the avidity with which she worked upon herself and upon me, with the object, so it seemed, of bringing me to the point of orgasm and deriving her own pleasure from it to the very last spasm. The movements of her belly which, as the embrace acquired rhythm and force, became more and more frequent, had the strength and regularity of some unharnessed mechanism which neither she nor I had the power to arrest. Languid at first, scarcely perceptible," indolent as it were, in the end these movements seemed truly like those of a piston rising and falling with an automatic, indefatigable force. But all this time her face would remain inert, relaxed, calm, with no curiosity in it and no passion, more childish than ever with the big eyelids lowered and the small mouth half-open; and just a faint redness in the top part of her cheeks served to indicate that Cecilia was not asleep but wide awake and alive to her own sensations.
This dissociation, so to speak, of Cecilia's mind during love-making was especially noticeable at those moments when she suddenly, and apparently without reason, bestirred herself from the avid, mechanical passivity which I have just described and started to return my caresses. Procreative love, as we may call it, is always chaste; hardly ever chaste, on the other hand, are the amatory techniques by means of which lovers endeavour to excite one another. But the way in which Cecilia applied herself to my body was absolutely chaste just because it was so curiously automatic and unconscious. All of a sudden, in the middle of an embrace, she would sit up and bend forward, with her mouth on my belly as though she were browsing; but this sudden impulse had something somnambulistic about it; it was almost as if she had abandoned herself to it in a dream, that is, in a state
After the orgasm, which shook her body several times like a minor epileptic fit but did not disturb the apathetic stillness of her face, Cecilia would lie exhausted beneath me, one arm behind her head and the other lying limp on the divan, her face turned towards her shoulder and her legs apart, as they had remained after the embrace. For a second, almost immediately after I had withdrawn myself from her, she would smile at me, and that, perhaps, was the best moment of our love-making. The smile, a very sweet smile, in which the sweetness of appeased desire seemed to ebb and die away, did not however belie the childish ambiguity I have already noted: even while she was smiling at me, Cecilia did not look at me, or rather she did not appear to see me; so that she seemed to be smiling not so much at me as at herself, as though she were grateful to herself for having experienced pleasure rather than to me for having caused her to experience it. This smile, impersonal and solitary as it was, was nevertheless the last phase of our embrace, that is, of the communication, the almost fusion, of our two bodies. Immediately afterwards there were two of us on the divan, separate from each other, and it became necessary to speak.
At this point I would realize, however, that her sexual appetite—which, even if it did not seem to concern me directly, yet made use of me for its gratification—was succeeded by indifference. When I say indifference I do not by that mean an attitude of coldness or detachment. No, Cecilia's indifference towards me, immediately after we had made love, was simply a complete lack of contact very similar to the thing which caused me to suffer so much and which I called boredom; only that Cecilia, unlike me, not merely did not suffer at all but did not even appear to be conscious of it. It was, in short, as though she had been born with the detachment from external things which to me seemed an intolerable change from a very different original state; as though what to me seemed a sort of sickness was, in her, a sane and normal fact.
And yet, as I said, it became necessary to speak. The recent intimacy of physical love inspired in me a desire for another and truer intimacy of the affections which, as I knew, could be achieved only through the spoken word. So I tried to start a conversation with her; or rather, since Cecilia never carried on a conversation but confined herself to answering questions, I interrogated her about herself and her life. In this way I came to know that she was an only child, that she lived with her parents in a flat in the Prati district, that her father was a tradesman, that she had been educated by the nuns, that she had a few girl friends, that she was not engaged to be married—and a few other things of the kind. Told in this way, these may seem summary pieces of information such as might be provided about any girl of Cecilia's age and position; but they were in truth the only facts I succeeded in obtaining, and then only with great difficulty. Cecilia certainly did not appear to wish to conceal anything from me; if anything, she seemed to be ignorant of a great deal of what I asked her, or at any rate to be incapable of describing things or defining them in detail. It might have been thought that she had never stopped to look round, to observe herself and her own world, so that, in asking her these questions, I was putting her more or less in the situation of someone who is being interrogated about persons and things to which she has never paid any attention. There is a game that consists in showing to someone, for the space of one minute, some illustration or other; and then asking him to name all the objects which are represented in it. In this game, which puts a person's power of observation to the test, Cecilia would certainly have obtained the lowest possible marks; for she appeared never to have seen or observed anything, although she had lived not for one single minute, but for years, in front of the illustration of her own life. Her information, furthermore, was not merely generalized but also inexact; as though these few things—the only daughter, the parents, the tradesman father, the education by the nuns, the girl friends—were by no means clearly established in her mind, as indeed nothing can be which has never aroused our curiosity even though close to us and easily observable. And even when it happened that she gave an exact reply, she left me equally in doubt, because of the cold, generic, colourless way in which she expressed herself, which seemed to be the result of an unconquerable inattentiveness.
So, in the end, since Cecilia's family and background did not interest me very much, I fell back, of necessity, upon Balestrieri, whom, as I have already remarked, I felt to be connected in some obscure way with me and with my relations with Cecilia. In point of fact, even when she was speaking of Balestrieri, Cecilia's laconic manner was never modified; but this did not discourage me; on the contrary, her reserve on the subject of the old painter inspired me with a passionate desire to know more about him, always to know more. Actually, when questioning her about the past and about Balestrieri, I felt, as I very soon realized, that I was questioning her about her future and about myself.
Two months had passed since the day when Cecilia came into my studio for the first time, and I was now beginning to wonder how it was that Balestrieri had been able to entertain so violent a passion for her; how it was, in fact, that Cecilia had come to play the part, for him, of the 'fatal woman'—using those two words in the full sense of baleful predestination which they ought to have and normally do not have. I found it difficult to believe because, apart from her noteworthy sexual capabilities—which in any case she had in common with a great many other girls of her age—Cecilia seemed to me insignificant in the highest degree and therefore incapable of arousing a passion as destructive as Balestrieri's. The clue to this character of hers, so devoid of interest and of pretexts for taking interest in it, was provided, as I have already hinted, by her colourless, summary manner of expressing herself. I have often reflected upon the spiritual quality of which this manner was evidence, and I have come to the conclusion that it revealed a great simplicity. Not, however, the simplicity of common sense, which has always something open-hearted about it; but rather the troubled, enigmatic, incompetent simplicity of that kind of psychological amputation of which reticence, even if unconscious and involuntary, is the result. Cecilia continually gave the impression not so much of lying as of being incapable of telling the truth; and this not because she was untruthful but because telling the truth would have implied having a relationship with something, and she did not appear to have any relationship with anything. To such a degree that, when she really told a lie (and it will be seen that she was perfectly capable of doing so), one had the impression, almost, that she was saying something true, even in a negative way, simply because of the grain of participation, that is, of truth, which any lie contains within itself.
How, then, had Balestrieri managed to fall so desperately in love with her? Or rather, what had occurred between them to turn Cecilia's very insignificant character—precisely because of its insignificance, perhaps—into a cause of passion? I knew it was never possible to make judgements about other people's love affairs; but after all I had taken Balestrieri's place in Cecilia's life; I myself, in fact, had taken the drug of which Balestrieri spoke in reference to Cecilia; and I could not help wondering continually, with a feeling of fingering mistrust, as with a danger foretold but belated in appearance, why the drug itself should not be having any effect upon me.
So I questioned Cecilia at length and, so to speak, gropingly, without myself knowing exactly what it was that I wished to learn from her. This is an example of one of these conversations. 'Tell me, did Balestrieri never say why he loved you?'
'Ugh, the usual question! Always Balestrieri. . .'
'I'm sorry, but I simply must know ...'
'I don't know what. Something to do with Balestrieri
'No, he loved me and that was that.'
'I haven't explained myself rightly. Love has no reason, it's true, one loves and that's that; but the quality of love, that has a reason. One loves without reason; but if one loves with sadness or with joy, with calm or with anxiety, with jealousy or with confidence, there's always some reason behind it. As for Balestrieri, he loved you with—how shall I describe it?—with a kind of mania. You yourself have shown me that. For him you were a vice, a drug, something he couldn't do without—those are his own words. But why this mania?'
'I don't know.'
'You're not a woman who could inspire a passion of that kind, at least so it seems to me.'
'So it seems to me too.' This was said without a shadow of scorn or irony, but with humility and sincerity.
'If I may say exactly what I think, now that I know you better, I simply cannot understand Balestrieri and his passion. If not precisely disappointed, I am surprised. After what you told me of your relations with Balestrieri, I imagined you to be a terrible woman, of the type that can ruin a man. Instead of that, you seem to me a very normal girl. I'm sure you would make an extremely good wife.'
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes