Contempt, p.12Alberto Moravia
I don’t know what I was hoping for: what had occurred in the restaurant should have made me understand what I ought to expect. At first Emilia tried to withdraw herself, with quite a good grace and in silence, from my embrace; then, when I persisted and, taking her chin in my hand, tried to turn her face towards mine, she thrust me harshly away. “Are you crazy?” she said. “Or are you drunk?”
“No, I’m not drunk,” I murmured; “give me a kiss.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” she answered with honest indignation, thrusting me away again. After a moment she went on: “And then you wonder that I tell you I despise you ...when you behave like this...after what has happened between us.”
“But I love you.”
“I don’t love you.”
I felt ridiculous, but in a distressed kind of way, like someone who realizes he has been forced into a position which has the double disadvantage of being both comic and irreparable. But I was not yet disposed to consider myself beaten. “You’re going to give me a kiss; if you won’t do it for love, I’ll make you do it,” I muttered in a voice that was meant to be brutal and masculine. And I threw myself upon her.
She said nothing this time, but she opened the door, and I fell forward on to the empty seat. She had jumped out of the car and run away down the road, despite the rain which was now falling very heavily.
I paused for a moment in astonishment, confronted by this empty seat. Then I said to myself: “I’m an idiot,” and I too got out of the car.
It was raining really hard, and when I put my foot to the ground I felt myself plunge up to the ankle in a puddle. Exasperated, I called out: “Emilia...come on, come back here and don’t worry. I won’t touch you.”
From some point that was indistinguishable in the darkness but not very far off, she answered: “Either you stop it, or I walk back into Rome.”
I said, in a voice that trembled: “Come along, I promise anything you wish.”
It was still raining heavily; the water was running down between the collar of my coat and my shirt-collar, wetting the back of my neck in a disagreeable fashion, and I felt it trickling over my forehead and the sides of my head. The headlamps of the car lit up only a small stretch of the road, together with a fragment of ruined Roman brickwork and a tall black cypress, truncated by the darkness; and, strain my eyes as I might, I was unable to see Emilia. Disheartened, I called again: “Emilia. Emilia...” and my voice ended on an almost tearful note.
At last she came forward out of the darkness into the beam of the headlamps, and said: “Do you promise you won’t touch me?”
“Yes, I promise.”
She went over and got into the car, adding: “What sort of a joke is this? I’m soaked through now...and my head’s dripping. Tomorrow morning I shall have to go to the hair-dresser.”
I got into the car too, in silence, and we started off at once. She sneezed, then, a couple of times, very loudly, in a vindictive way, as if to let me see I had made her catch a cold. But I did not take up the challenge: I was driving now as though in a dream. An ugly dream, in which I was really called Riccardo and I had a wife who was called Emilia and I loved her and she did not love me, in fact, she despised me.
I AWOKE NEXT morning languid and aching, and with a deep and pervading sense of repugnance for what awaited me that day and the days following, whatever was destined to happen. Emilia was still asleep, in the bedroom; and I lay idle for a long time in the half-darkness, on the divan in the living-room, slowly and disgustedly regaining full consciousness of the reality which sleep had made me forget. Turning things over in my mind, I realized that I had to decide whether I would accept or refuse the Odyssey script; I had to know why it was that Emilia despised me; I had to find the way to win back Emilia’s affections.
I have said that I was feeling exhausted, languid, inert; and this almost bureaucratic manner of summarizing the three vital questions of my life was, fundamentally, as I immediately realized, nothing more than an attempt to deceive myself with regard to an energy and a lucidity that I was very far from possessing. A general, a politician, a businessman will try, in this way, to get a close hold on the problems he has to solve, to reduce them to clear-cut objects, easily handled and lifeless. But I was not a man of that type; on the contrary. And, as for the energy and lucidity which I pretended to myself I possessed at that moment, I felt they would fail me completely once I passed from reflection to action.
I was well aware, however, of my insufficiency; and as I lay on my back on the divan with my eyes closed, I became conscious that, as soon as I attempted to formulate a reply to these three questions, my imagination no longer rested on the firm ground of reality but soared away into the vacant heaven of aspiration. Thus in imagination I saw myself doing the Odyssey script as though it were nothing at all; reaching an explanation with Emilia and discovering that the whole story of her contempt for me, in appearance so terrible, sprang in reality from a childish misunderstanding; and finally being reconciled with her. But, as I thought of these things, I realized that all I had in view was the happy conclusions which I longed to achieve: between these conclusions and the present position lay a gaping void which I was totally unable to fill—to fill, anyhow, with anything that had even the slightest quality of solidity and coherence. My ambition—to put it briefly—was to solve the problem of my present position in accordance with my highest desires, but I had not the least idea of how I should contrive to do it.
I dropped into a doze, no doubt, and then suddenly awoke once more and caught a glimpse of Emilia sitting at the foot of the divan, in her dressing-gown. The living-room was still in semi-darkness, the shutters being lowered; but on the table, close to the divan, a small lamp was burning. Emilia had come into the room, turned on the light and sat down near me without my noticing it.
Seeing her sitting there at the end of my bed, in a familiar attitude that reminded me of other, very different awakenings in happier times, I had a moment’s illusion. Sitting up in bed, I stammered: “Emilia, do you love me?”
She waited a little before answering; then she said: “Listen, I’ve got to talk to you.”
I felt suddenly cold; and I was on the point of answering her that I didn’t want to talk about anything, and would she leave me in peace because I wanted to go to sleep. But instead, I asked: “Talk about what?”
“About us two.”
“But there’s nothing to be said,” I replied, trying to overcome a sudden anxiety. “You’ve ceased to love me, in fact you despise me...that’s all there is to it.”
“No, I wanted to say,” she announced slowly, “that I’m going back to my mother’s—today. I wanted to tell you before I telephoned. There, now you know.”
I had not at all foreseen this declaration, which, after all, considering what had happened the day before, was perfectly logical and to be expected. The idea that Emilia might leave me had never entered my mind, strange though that may seem; I thought that she had already reached the farthest limit of her hardness and cruelty towards me. And yet, here was that limit being passed at one bound, in a fashion that was totally unexpected. Scarcely understanding what she meant, I stammered: “You mean to leave me?”
For a moment I was silent; then, all at once, I felt an urgent need for action, driven on by the very sharpness of the pain that pierced me. I jumped from the divan and went, in pajamas as I was, to the window, as though I intended to push up the shutters and let in the light; but then I turned back and shouted in a loud voice: “You can’t go away like that. I don’t want you to go.”
“Don’t talk like a child,” she said in a reasonable manner. “We’ve got to separate; it’s the only thing now for us to do. There’s nothing left between us two—at least as far as I’m concerned. It’ll be better for us both.”
I do not remember at all what I did after she had spoken these words: or rather, I remember only a few sentences, a few movements. As though in th
“But I don’t want you to go,” I repeated for the last time, stopping in front of her; “I don’t want you to.”
“Why don’t you want me to? Be logical.”
I don’t know what I said, and then I went to the far end of the room again and thrust my hands into my hair and pulled it. Then I saw that, in the state I was in, I was quite incapable not merely of convincing Emilia but even of expressing myself. I managed, with an effort, to control myself, and I went and sat down on the divan again and, bending forward and taking my head in my hands, asked: “When do you intend to go?”
After saying this she rose to her feet and, taking no further notice of me as I sat hunched up with my head in my hands, went out of the room. I had not expected her to do this, just as hitherto I had not expected any of the things she had said and done; and for a moment I was astonished and almost incredulous. Then I looked round the room and felt a strange sensation, chilling in its exactness: the separation had already taken place and my loneliness had already begun. The room was the same as it had been a few minutes earlier, when Emilia was sitting on the divan; and yet, I realized, it was already quite different. It was, I thought, as though it had lost a dimension. The room was no longer the one I had been accustomed to see, knowing that Emilia was there; it was already the one I should be seeing for an unknown length of time, in the knowledge that Emilia was not there and never would be there again. There was a deserted look in the air, in the aspect of all the things, everywhere, and, strangely, this look did not go out from me towards the things but seemed to come from the things back towards me. I did not think all this so much as become aware of it in the depths of my dull, aching, dazed sensibility. Then I found I was crying, because I felt a sort of tickling sensation at the corner of my mouth, and, when I put up my finger, found my cheek was wet. I heaved a deep sigh and began to weep openly, violently. In the meantime I had risen and walked out of the room.
In the bedroom, in a light which, after the semi-darkness of the living-room, and being in pajamas with my face bathed in tears, seemed dazzling and intolerable, Emilia was sitting on the untidy bed, listening at the telephone; and from a single word I knew that she was speaking to her mother. I thought I noticed that her face wore a perplexed, disconcerted expression; and then I sat down too, and, taking my face between my hands, went on sobbing. I did not very well know why I was crying like this: perhaps it was not only because my life was ruined, but because of some more ancient sorrow that had nothing to do with Emilia or with her decision to leave me. In the meantime Emilia was still listening at the telephone. Her mother was evidently making a long and complicated speech; and, even through my tears, I saw a disappointed, angry, bitter expression, swift and dark as the shadow of a cloud over a landscape, pass across her face. Finally she said: “All right, all right, I understand, we won’t talk about it any more”; but she was interrupted by another long speech from her mother. This time, however, she had not the patience to listen right to the end and said suddenly: “You’ve told me that already, all right, I understand, good-bye.” Her mother said something more, but Emilia repeated her “good-bye” and hung up the receiver, although her mother’s voice was still audible through it. Then she raised her eyes in my direction, but without looking at me, as though dazed. With an instinctive movement I seized her hand, stammering: “Don’t go away, please don’t...don’t go.”
Children believe that tears have a decisive value as a form of sentimental persuasion; and so, in general, do women and persons of feeble and childish spirit. At that moment—like a child or a woman or other feeble creature—although I was weeping from genuine sorrow, I cherished some kind of hope that my tears would persuade Emilia not to leave me; and this illusion, if it comforted me a little, at the same time aroused in me a feeling almost of hypocrisy. It was just as if I were weeping on purpose, as if I intended to make use of my tears in order to blackmail Emilia. All at once I was ashamed; and, without waiting for Emilia’s reply, I rose and left the room.
After a few minutes Emilia followed me. I had had time to recompose myself as best I could, to wipe my eyes, to put on a dressing-gown over my pajamas. I had sat down in the armchair and was automatically lighting a cigarette which I did not want. She also sat down, and said at once: “Don’t worry...don’t be afraid. I’m not going away.” But she said it in a bitter, despairing, apathetic voice. I looked at her: she kept her eyes lowered and appeared to be reflecting; but I noticed that the corners of her mouth were trembling and that her hands were occupied in turning back the edge of her dressing-gown, a gesture that showed she was disturbed and perplexed. Then, in a suddenly exasperated voice, she added: “My mother doesn’t want me. She says she has rented my room. She had two already; now she has three and the whole house is full. She says she doesn’t believe I’m really in earnest...that I ought to think it over. And so I don’t know where to go. No one wants me...and I shall be compelled to stay with you.”
I was struck by this last phrase, so cruel in its sincerity; and I think I gave a violent start, as if I had been stabbed. I could not help exclaiming, in resentment: “Why do you talk to me like that? ‘Compelled’...What have I done to you? Why do you hate me so?”
Now it was she who was crying, as I perceived, although she was trying not to show it, by hiding part of her face with her hand. Then she shook her head and said: “You didn’t want me to go away. Well, I’m staying. You ought to be pleased, oughtn’t you?”
I got up from the armchair, sat down beside her on the divan and took her in my arms, although I was conscious, at the first contact, that she withdrew and resisted me. “Certainly I want you to stay,” I said, “but not in that way, not ‘compelled.’ What have I done to you, Emilia, that you speak to me like that?”
“If you like, I’ll go away,” she answered; “I’ll take a room somewhere...and you won’t have to help me except just for a short time. I’ll get a job as a typist again. And as soon as I find work, I shan’t ask anything more from you.”
“No, no,” I cried. “I want you to stay. But, Emilia, not ‘compelled’ to stay, not ‘compelled.’ ”
“It’s not you who compel me,” she replied, still weeping, “it’s life.”
Once again, as I clasped her in my arms, I felt a temptation to ask her why it was that she had ceased to love me, why, in fact, she despised me, and what had happened, what I had done to her. But now, perhaps as a
She kept her head turned sideways all the time, as if to avoid seeing me. Then she asked, in a somewhat comforted tone of voice: “And when should we be going?”
Contempt by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes