Conjugal Love, p.12Alberto Moravia
I saw her standing there, still and silent, and with an air of incredulity at the sound of words so different from those she expected. Then, with a note of violence still lingering in her voice, she exclaimed: 'Whatever d'you mean?'
'I'm telling you the truth,' I replied calmly; 'I was deceiving myself. . . . While I was writing the story it seemed to me a masterpiece, but it's really an abortion . . . and I'm nothing but a hopelessly mediocre person.'
She passed her hand across her forehead and then came slowly and sat down beside me. It was clear that she was making an effort to take over the unexpected, difficult role that was being forced upon her; and that she had the utmost difficulty in doing so. 'But, Silvio,' she said, 'how can that be possible? You were so certain.'
'Now I'm certain of the exact opposite,' I answered, 'so much so that for a moment I almost thought of killing myself.'
As I said this I raised my eyes and looked at her. And then I realized that, the whole time, even while I had been talking about my story, I had been thinking of her. Little did it matter to me, now, that the story was bad; but I could not help feeling a sharp stab of pain when I noticed the traces of her affair with Antonio which were visible all over her. Her hair was disordered, its curls loosened, and I thought I could even see a few straws still sticking in it. The bunch of flowers was no longer there; it had presumably been left on the threshing-floor. Her mouth was pale and discoloured, but with a few smears of lipstick here and there which gave her whole face a battered and distorted look. Her dress, too, was crumpled; and at the height of the knee there was a fresh stain of earth, produced, apparently, by a fall.
I realized that she knew she was in this state and that she had acted deliberately in appearing as she was. Otherwise she could easily have gone first to her room and cleaned herself up, touched up her face, taken off her dress and put on a dressing-gown. At this thought I felt a fresh spasm of pain, being confronted, as it seemed, with an arrogant and ruthless hostility. She was saying, in the meantime: 'Kill yourself? Why, you're crazy . . . and all for a story that didn't turn out right.'
I translated this, mentally, into: 'All for one moment of aberration . . . because I couldn't resist a passing temptation.' And I said: 'For me this story was extremely important. ... I know I'm a failure now . . . and I have the proof of it - in this manuscript'; and as I said it I made a brusque, almost involuntary gesture, pointing not in the direction of the desk upon which the manuscript lay, but towards her.
This time she understood (or perhaps she had already understood but had hoped to deceive me), and she lowered her eyes in a kind of confusion. The hand that she held in her lap moved downwards to her knee in order to hide the earthy stain. Bodily love is exhausting, and there are certain pretences which depend, for their efficacy, upon a physical impetus. At that moment, hampered by weariness of the senses and by her outward disorder, she must certainly have found it very difficult to recover herself and play her usual part as an affectionate wife. I feared some inept remark and said to myself that this time I would tell her the truth. Then I heard her voice, unexpectedly tremulous, asking: 'Why a failure? You didn't think of me, then?'
I dwelt for a moment upon the feeling of surprise that these words gave me. There was more in her question than mere audacity and slyness - admirable, possibly, but only as a flash of unwonted smartness; there was - or so it seemed to me - a touching sincerity. I asked, in turn: 'And what can you do for me? You can't possibly give me the talent that I lack.'
'No,' she said, in the sensible, ingenuous way she sometimes had, 'but I love you.'
She put out her hand towards me, seeking mine, and gazing at me all the time with those eyes of hers which seemed to become steadily clearer and more luminous as her feeling for me regained its strength and dispelled her recent excitement. I took her hand, kissed it, and fell on my knees in front of her. 'I love you too,' I said softly, 'and by now you ought to know it. . . but I'm afraid that isn't enough to keep me alive.'
I kept my face pressed against those legs which, a short time before, I had seen, naked, executing the dance of desire on the threshing-floor. Meanwhile I was pondering over the meaning of her words. And this is what I gathered from them: 'I have done wrong, because I was led astray by desire. . . but I love you, and that's the only thing that counts for me. ... I am sorry and I won't do it again.'
And so everything was as I had foreseen. But now I no longer felt inclined to reject that affection of hers, however insufficient it might be. I heard her saying: 'When these fits of despair come over you, you must try and think of me. . . . After all, we love each other, and that has some importance.'
'Think of you?' I answered softly. 'And do you think of me?'
I said to myself that she was not lying. Probably she did think of me always and had thought of me always - even when, a short time ago, she had given herself to Antonio at the threshing-floor. I might have found a certain absurdity in the way she thought of me, so constant, so ineffective, which not merely had not prevented her from betraying me, but which - as does indeed happen - had perhaps made her betrayal actually more alluring and richer in flavour. But I preferred to tell myself that she really did think of me all the time as one thinks of an unsolved and yet vital question which lies at the centre of one's more creditable preoccupations. Her thought was dictated, perhaps, by goodwill; but it suited me to think that, apart from goodwill, everything in her was dark and confused, and predisposed her to give way to temptations of the kind that had thrown her into Antonio's arms. And so it was that we were speaking different languages: I gave no importance at all to goodwill - which was made up, it seemed to me, merely of reasoning and common sense - but a great deal, on the other hand, to instinct, without which I considered that there could be neither love nor art; whereas she placed a high value upon this goodwill, which evidently appeared to her to be the best part of herself, and rejected instinct as being both wrong and inadequate. I reflected that one always loves the thing one does not possess: she, full of confused instinct, had perforce to respect clear reason, whereas I, full of bloodless reason, was naturally attracted by the richness of instinct. I found myself murmuring: 'And art? Can art be created by goodwill?'
She was stroking my head and certainly did not hear those words of mine, spoken, as they were, in a very low voice; but, just as though she had heard them, she went on, a moment later, in a lively, self-possessed, affectionate voice: 'Come on, get up. . . . And d'you know what we'll do now? I'll go and undress and get into bed, and then you can come and read me your story. . . . We'll see whether it's really so bad.'
She rose as she spoke, with a brisk movement of her whole body. I rose too, feeling dazed and protesting that it was not worth the trouble, that there was no doubt that the story was bad, and there was nothing to be done about it. But she stopped me, putting her hand to my mouth and exclaiming: 'Now, come along . . . it's too early to tell yet.. . . Now I'm going to my room and you can join me there in a few minutes.' Before I could speak, she had gone out.
When I was alone, I went to the desk and automatically took up the manuscript. And so, I thought, her goodwill was growing in strength and there was no doubt that she was sincere. Could I hope that this goodwill would triumph over the next temptation? I knew that only the future could answer that question for me.
I lit a cigarette and stood motionless, smoking, beside the desk. When I thought a long enough time had passed, I left the room, the manuscript under my arm, and went and knocked at her door. She at once called out to me, in a cheerful sing-song voice, to come in.
She was already in bed, sitting upright, in a magnificent nightdress adorned with openwork and lace. The room was in darkness except for the head of the bed, upon which fell the light of the bedside lamp. She was leaning against the pillows, her arms stretched out on the sheet in front of her, with a welcoming, expectant air. Her face was exquisitely made up, all her curls were in place, there was a new bunch of fresh f
I sat down, slantwise, on the edge of the bed, and said: 'I'm reading it to you only because you want me to. . . . I've already told you it's bad.'
'Never mind. . . . Come on. I'm listening.'
I took up the first page and began reading. I read the whole story straight through without stopping, merely casting a glance at her, now and then, as she listened seriously and attentively. As I read I was confirmed in my former opinion: the thing was respectable, and that was all. Nevertheless this 'respectability' which, not long before, had seemed to me a characteristic which had no importance, now - I do not know why - appeared to have more weight than I had imagined. This less unfavourable impression, however, did not distract my mind from its main preoccupation, which was my wife. I was wondering all the time what she would say at the end of the reading. There seemed to me to be two courses open to her: the first consisted in exclaiming immediately: 'But, Silvio, what do you mean, it's very fine indeed'; the second, in admitting that the story was mediocre. The first was the way of indifference and deceit. By giving me to understand that the story was good when she thought it was not (and she could not but think so), she would be showing clearly that she wished to lead me by the nose, and that between her and me there could be a relationship merely of falsity and pity. The second was the way of love, even if it was only a love like hers, made up of goodwill and affection. I wondered, not without anxiety, which way she would choose. If she said that the story was good, I had made up my mind to cry: 'The story's bad and you're nothing but a whore!'
I read through the whole story with this idea in mind, and, the nearer I drew towards the end, the more I slowed down the pace of my reading, being fearful of what would happen. Finally I read the last sentence, and then said: 'That's all,' raising my eyes towards her.
We looked at each other in silence; and, like a passing cloud in a clear sky, I saw a shadow of deceit spread, for one moment, over her face. For one moment, certainly, she thought of lying to me, of crying out that the story was good and thus revealing herself in all her coldness and cunning and in the act of administering the false comfort of a pitying flattery. But this shadow vanished almost at once; and it seemed to be replaced by a love for me which consisted, first of all, in truth towards me and respect for me. In a voice full of a sincere disappointment, she said: 'Perhaps you're right. ... It isn't the masterpiece you thought. . . . But neither is it as bad as you think now. It's interesting to listen to.'
Greatly relieved, I answered almost joyfully: 'Didn't I tell you so?'
'It's very well written,' she went on.
'It's not enough, to write well.'
'But perhaps,' she said,' perhaps you haven't worked at it enough.... If you re-wrote it - more than once, if necessary - in the end it would be just as you want it to be.'
She was thinking, then, that in art too, goodwill was of greater value than the gifts of instinct. 'But I want it to be,' I said, 'exactly as inspiration produces it - or lack of inspiration.. . . And if there isn't inspiration it's not worth while working and worrying at it.'
'That's just where you're wrong,' she exclaimed with animation.' You don't give enough importance to work and worry . . . but really they're extremely important. That's the way things get done - they don't just happen, as though by a miracle.'
We went on arguing for some time, both of us firm in our own very different points of view. Finally, I folded the manuscript in four and thrust it into my pocket, saying: 'Well, well, don't let's talk about it any more.'
There was a moment's silence. Then I said softly: 'You don't mind having an unsuccessful writer for a husband?'
She answered at once: 'I've never thought of you as a writer.'
'How have you thought of me, then?'
'Well, I don't know,' she said, smiling. 'How can I possibly say? I know you too well by now. ... I know just what you're like.. . . You're the same for me, always - whether you write or don't write.'
'But if you had to pronounce an opinion, what would it be?'
She hesitated, and then said, with sincerity: 'But one can't pronounce an opinion when one loves.'
And so we always came back again to the same point. There was, in this protestation of hers that she loved me, a touching persistence that moved me deeply. I took her hand and said: 'You're right. . . . And I too, just because I love you, although I know you very well, couldn't pass judgement upon you.'
With a flash of intelligence in her eyes, she exclaimed: 'It is so, isn't it? When one loves someone, one loves every aspect of that person - defects and all.'
I should have liked to say to her at that moment, with perfect sincerity: 'I love you as you are now, sitting up in bed, calm and serene in your beautiful nightdress, with your curls and your bunch of flowers and your clear, shining eyes. And I love you as you were a little time ago when you were dancing the dance of desire and gnashing your teeth and pulling up your dress and clinging to Antonio. . . . And I shall love you always.' But I said nothing of all this, because I realized that she understood that I knew everything, and that everything was now settled between us. Instead, I said: 'Perhaps one day I'll rewrite the story ... it's not finished with yet. . . . Some day, when I think I'm capable of expressing certain things.'
'I'm convinced too,' she said cheerfully, 'that you ought to rewrite it - after some time.'
I kissed her good night and went off to bed. I slept extremely well, with a deep, harsh sleep like the sleep of a child who has been beaten by its parents for some fault or caprice, and has screamed and wept a great deal and then, finally, been forgiven. Next morning I rose late, shaved myself and, after breakfast, suggested to my wife that we should go for a walk before lunch. She agreed and we went out together.
A little beyond the farm buildings, on the top of another mound, were the ruins of a small church. We climbed up to it by a mule-track and sat down on the low wall that ran round the churchyard, in full view of the vast panorama. The church was of great antiquity, as could be seen from the Romanesque capitals of the two pillars supporting the exterior porch. Apart from this porch, nothing was left but a portion of the walls, a fallen apse and the almost unrecognizable stump of a tower. The churchyard, paved with old grey stones, was all grass-grown, and beneath the little porch one could catch a glimpse, through the cracks in the gaping boards of the rustic door, of the rampant bushes, their foliage gleaming in the sunshine, that ran riot in the apse. Then, as I looked at the church, I noticed that there was a face or mask carved on one of the capitals. Time had worn and smoothed away the sculpture, which must have always been rather rudimentary and now seemed almost formless; not so much so, however, that one could not distinguish the sinister face of a demon, such as the sculptors of those days were in the habit of portraying in church bas-reliefs for the admonishment of the faithful. I was suddenly struck by a remote resemblance between this ancient, half-effaced grin and the grimace that I had seen upon my wife's face the previous night. Yes, it was the same grimace, and that stonemason of bygone times had certainly intended, by stressing the mournful sensuality of the heavy lips and the feverish, greedy expression in the eyes, to suggest the same kind of temptation. I turned my eyes from the capital and looked at Leda. She was gazing at the view and appeared to be meditating. Then she turned towards me and said: 'Listen. ... I was thinking last night about your story. ... I believe I know why it's not convincing.'
'You meant to represent yourself and me, didn't you?'
'Yes, to a certain extent.'
'Well, your facts were wrong, to start with.. . . What I mean is, one feels that when you wr
'No, nothing else. ... I think that, after some time, when we know each other better, you must take up the story again, as you said last night. . . . I'm sure you'll make something good out of it.'
I said nothing; all I did was to stroke her hand. And, as I did this, I was looking over her shoulder at the capital with the demon's face on it and thinking that, in order to take up the story again, I should have not merely to know the devil as well as the unknown stonemason had known him, but also to know his opposite. 'It'll take a long time,' I said softly, finishing my thought aloud.
Alberto Moravia, Conjugal Love
Conjugal Love by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes