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The empty canvas, p.13
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       The Empty Canvas, p.13

           Alberto Moravia
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  Suddenly I grew calm again. 'No,' I said, 'I'll come to the house again, but don't ask me to love it.'

  'What is it that's so odious about this house? Isn't it just like any other house?'

  'On the contrary, it's a more beautiful and more comfortable house than a great many.'

  'Well, then?'

  I saw that she now appeared a little relieved at my not attacking her more directly. I answered her with a question: 'My father didn't like living in this house, either. Why was that?'

  'Your father liked travelling.'

  'Wouldn't it be more correct to say that he travelled because he didn't like living here?'

  'Your father was your father, you are you.'

  It was not the first time that arguments of this kind had taken place between me and my mother. I might shout and I might hurt her, but I always came to a stop in face of the real truth: that the house was repugnant to me because it was the house of a rich person. On the other hand my mother, by provoking and almost defying me, drove me, one might say, to the revelation of this truth; yet in reality she did not want me to reveal it and there always came a moment when she drew back and changed the course of the conversation. And so it was now. I was on the point of answering her when she went on, rather nervously: 'Say rather that you want to live on your own so as to have more freedom. You're making a mistake, but it doesn't matter. Here you are, then, here are your hundred thousand lire.'

  She held out the money towards me, but only halfway; as I put out my hand, she drew it back again, as though she had realized that I was giving her nothing in exchange; and she added: 'By the way, do stay to lunch, anyhow.'

  'I can't.'

  'I've invited a few people to lunch. There's the Minister, Triolo, and his wife. A charming, intelligent, energetic man.'

  'A Minister? How ghastly! Come on, give me this money.'

  This time she gave me the money, but with a gesture that was at the same time both angry and hesitant, as if she wished to take it back at the very moment when she was handing it to me. 'Then come to lunch tomorrow,' she said. 'There'll be no one but you and me. Then I can give you the rest of the amount. If it's really true that you're going to Cortina . …'

  'Why? D'you doubt it?'

  'With you one never knows.'

  My mother appeared now to be fairly well satisfied. I saw this from the way in which she walked downstairs in front of me, holding her head high and placing her hand on the brass rail. Perhaps she was satisfied, I thought, because she had succeeded once again in avoiding the great explanation between myself and her, the explanation that no one who is rich wants ever to happen, or else he could never again enjoy his wealth in peace. Her satisfaction was so great that, forgetting my recent refusal, she suggested to me, when we were in the hall: 'Why don't you stay until the Minister arrives? You could have a drink with him and then go away. He's an influential man, he might be useful.'

  'Not to me, unfortunately,' I said with a sigh. 'Besides, I really must run away.'

  My mother did not insist; she opened the front door and went out on to the doorstep and stood facing the drive, putting her hands under her armpits and shivering in the damp autumn air. 'If it goes on raining like this,' she said, looking up at the cloudy sky, 'it will be the end of my poor flowers.'

  'Good-bye then, Mother,' I said; and stooping down, deposited the dry ritual kiss on the no less dry cheek. Then I ran off hastily to my car: I had seen another car appear suddenly at the far end of the drive and turn up towards the villa and I wanted, at all costs, to avoid an encounter with my mother's guests. I sat down at the wheel just at the moment when this other car came out on to the open space in front of the house and stopped. My mother was now standing at the front door in an attitude of readiness, so to speak, for the reception of her important guests. I started my engine and went off—just in time to see a chauffeur in a braided uniform get out and open the door of the car, at the same time taking off his cap and bowing, but not in time to see the owner of the black-shod masculine foot protruding from the doorway and feeling for the ground.

  It was nearly one o'clock; I drove fast all the way along the Via Appia and reached the Piazza di Spagna shortly before the shops closed. I knew where to go to buy Cecilia's farewell present—to a shop in Via dei Condotti where they sold bags and umbrellas. It was full of smart women shoppers, who drew aside, with a faint look of surprise, at my appearance. Then, while I was hurriedly choosing a crocodile-leather bag, I caught sight of myself in a mirror and understood the reason for their glances. I looked like a tramp, and a rather alarming tramp at that: bald pate encircled with curly fair hair that badly needed cutting, a blur of reddish beard on the cheeks, charcoal-coloured sweater showing a shirt without a tie, shapeless, worn-out, olive green corduroy trousers. Tall, too, very tall in fact, in relation to the very low ceiling of the shop, with a forehead that looked like a vizor lowered over blue, bloodshot eyes, a short nose and a prominent mouth: a big ape, in fact. At the same time I realized, as I looked at myself, what a great proof of affection my mother had given me in inviting me to lunch, dressed as I was, in company with the Minister and her other guests. But then I reflected that my mother, with her sensitivity to what she called 'good form', must have felt that, after all, I was dressed like a painter, that is, I was wearing a kind of uniform which indicated my position, a by no means dishonourable position in a social circle such as hers, where a man had as much right to wear an artist's sweater as a Minister's double-breasted jacket. I was startled out of these thoughts by the voice of the shop assistant as she handed me the bag. I paid, took the parcel and went out.

  It was one o'clock. The appointment was at five. Strange to say, whereas I had never been conscious of waiting for Cecilia on other days, when I knew that our relationship was going to continue, now that I had made up my mind to break with her I found that the waiting dismayed me. I therefore did all the things I could find to do until five o'clock with the greatest possible slowness, hoping in this way to make the time pass imperceptibly and painlessly; I had lunch in a near-by restaurant and pretended to enjoy the food and to meditate between one mouthful and the next; I went into a bar and, after drinking a cup of coffee, hung about listening to songs on the juke-box; I had a second cup of coffee in another bar and, perched on a stool, read a newspaper from beginning to end; I stood on the pavement for about twenty minutes conversing with a young painter whose name I did not know, pretending to be interested in his long diatribe on the subject of awards and exhibitions. But I succeeded, in this way, in whiling away only two of the four hours until the time of the appointment, In the end, with an aching heart, I went back to the studio.

  There, filtering through the white curtain, came a mild, clean, clear light which was very familiar to me, that same light in which it seemed to me that my boredom, that is, the lack of contact between myself and external things, assumed an aspect of supreme normality, although it was none the less painful for that, in fact, perhaps precisely on that account, more painful than ever. And indeed, when I entered the studio and sat down in the armchair in front of the empty canvas which still glimmered white upon the easel, I at once said to myself: 'I am here and they are there.' By 'they' I meant the objects round me—the canvas on the easel, the round table in the middle, the screen in the corner to the left behind which the bed was concealed, the earthenware stove with its pipe going up into the ceding, the chairs with notebooks lying on them, the bookshelf and the books. They were there, I repeated to myself, and I was here; and between them and me there was nothing, truly nothing, just as, perhaps, in the interstellar spaces, there is nothing between the stars, milliards of light years distant from each other.

  I repeated to myself: 'I am here and they are there'; and then I remembered Cecilia lying, the day before, on the divan with her eyes closed and her head thrown back on the cushion, her belly thrust forward and offered in the most explicit, literal manner, like an object with no will of any sort beyond that of being poss
essed; and I remembered also that, as I went towards her, I had thought, as I was thinking today: 'She is there and I am here'; and I had felt that between her and me there was nothing, and that I had to penetrate, to cross, in fact to fill, that void with the movement of my body throwing itself upon hers. And as I recalled the effort, like the breaking of a barrier, that I had made in order to embrace and possess her, I suddenly realized that my decision to leave her was in reality nothing else than the official confirmation, so to speak, of a situation that already existed. Yes, I would break with Cecilia that day; but I had in effect left her a long time before—if indeed I had ever had any contact with her.

  In the midst of these reflections I began to feel sleepy; finally I got up from the armchair and went and threw myself on the divan. I fell asleep almost at once and with such a rush that I had, in my sleep, a sensation of hurtling downwards, fists and teeth clenched and all huddled up, into an infinity of space, and the longer my fall continued the more did the weight of my body increase. Then suddenly I awoke, with a taste of iron in my mouth as though I had been gripping a metal bar between my teeth. The studio was almost in darkness, and the objects in it had turned black in the grey half-light. I jumped up from the divan and went and turned on the light. Immediately it was night at the window. Then I looked at the clock on the table and saw that it was past six: Cecilia was to have come at five.

  It did not require a great effort of imagination to realize that her lateness was not a matter of chance and that it was indeed now very probable that she would not come that day. But this was not a normal fact that could be accepted with tranquillity. By one of the many contradictions in her character, even though she seemed incapable of the feelings which prompt us not to cause suffering to the people who love us, Cecilia was always extremely punctual, just as if she had really loved me; and when, for some reason, she could not help being late, she always found means of letting me know in time. Her lateness that day, therefore, was abnormal and could only be explained in one way—by some event more important than our appointment, so important that it not merely prevented her from coming but also from letting me know that she would not come.

  Nevertheless, the first thought that came into my mind was: 'Well, aren't you pleased? You wanted to get rid of her and she hasn't come. So much the better, surely?' But this thought was an ironical one; for I realized to my astonishment that Cecilia's lateness not only gave me no pleasure but seriously troubled me.

  I went back and sat down on the divan and started thinking.

  Why did Cecilia's lateness upset me? I saw that, whereas she had hitherto been nothing to me, as I have already said, her lateness caused her to become something. Furthermore this 'something', at the very moment when it was acquiring substance, eluded me in a painful fashion, for after all Cecilia had not come. And so it seemed to me that, when she was in the studio and clinging to me, Cecilia was absent; now, on the contrary, when she was not there and when I knew she would not come, I felt her to be poignantly, obscurely present.

  I tried to think with greater clearness, although I found it difficult to do so because I was suffering. Cecilia had not come; she had not even taken the trouble to justify herself; therefore she no longer loved me, or anyhow not enough to be punctual or to let me know she was not coming—in other words, she loved me very little. Then suddenly I remembered, with some astonishment, that, during the two months that our relationship had lasted, Cecilia had never told me that she loved me and I had never asked her. Certainly the fact that she had given herself to me and had shown that she found pleasure with me might be equivalent to a declaration of love. But it was also possible, as I at once realized, that it meant nothing at all.

  In any case, the very slight importance that Cecilia gave to this surrendering of her body seemed to prove that it had no meaning. Some things are simply a matter of feeling: Cecilia had given me her body with the same barbaric, naïve indifference with which a savage presents a rapacious explorer with the amulet of precious stones that he wears round his neck. It was, in fact, as though she had never had any wooers to make her understand how desirable a woman's body can be. Balestrieri, it is true, had adored her and had died of his adoration; but Cecilia appeared still to be surprised at it, as at something that seemed to her utterly unjustified.

  Suddenly I felt a pang at my heart, and I started violently so that my whole body shook. The thought that had pierced my heart was this: 'I can think whatever I like, but in the meantime she hasn't come!' and it aroused in me an almost physical feeling of the vanity of any sort of reflection in face of the reality of her absence. I looked at the clock and saw that more than half an hour had passed since I had woken up: certainly Cecilia would not be coming now. And I no longer had any desire to prove to myself that her absence left me indifferent.

  I thought she might not be feeling well—the only reason that could explain her conduct without causing me to be suspicious of her; and I got up from the divan to go to the telephone. And then I recollected, with the feeling that I was making a discovery, that I had never, not even once, telephoned to Cecilia. It was she who had telephoned me, every day; I had never telephoned her because I had never felt the need of it. This lack of curiosity on my part seemed to me significant. I had never bothered to telephone Cecilia, in the same way that I had never sought to establish any real contact with her. And so our relationship had been nothing, and boredom had easily corroded it, and I, in the end, had made up my mind to break it.

  After I had dialled the number, Cecilia's telephone went on ringing for a long time in a mysterious silence. Or, to be more precise, I felt that the silence was mysterious inasmuch as Cecilia, who was in the background of this silence, had, from the moment when she failed to arrive, become mysterious to me, like an animal which had taken refuge in the depths of its lair. However, although it was mysterious, this silence was not entirely negative. In an insecure sort of way, like a gambler who, after many losses, still deceives himself into thinking he is going to win, I hoped that Cecilia's voice would become audible. Instead of that, a strange thing happened: the ringing stopped, someone took off the receiver but no one spoke; or rather, I seemed to hear heavy breathing, or a kind of whispering, at the other end of the line. I called out: 'Hullo, hullo!' several times I asked: 'Who is speaking?' and finally I became aware that the receiver at the other end had been replaced. In a rage I dialled the number again, was again answered with silence and with that mysterious sound of breathing, and again, finally, the receiver was replaced. The third time, the telephone rang for a long time but nobody replied.

  I left the telephone and went back and sat on the divan. For some time, in astonishment, I thought of nothing. The only thing that was clear to me was that, on the very day when I had decided to announce the ending of our relationship, Cecilia, for some reason I still did not know, had for the first time missed an appointment, had in fact—even if only in a provisional way—provoked the separation which I had had it in mind to suggest to her. Thus I had the disagreeable sensation of someone who, going down a steep staircase in the dark, expects another step and encounters instead the flat surface of a landing and then loses his balance just because the step that might have caused him to lose it is not there.

  Deep in thought, I rose and went mechanically to the door, opened it and looked out into the corridor, towards the corner, almost hoping to see Cecilia appear there. I looked also in the opposite direction; and my glance, travelling along the wall, came to a stop at the last door, which was that of Balestrieri's studio. I could not help thinking that Balestrieri himself must have put his head out into the corridor countless times to see if Cecilia, when she was late, might appear at the corner. I knew that his studio had not yet been let again; in fact it was said that his widow had the intention of going to live there herself. Now Cecilia had left the key of the old painter's studio on my table, the day of our first meeting. She had never asked me for this key, and I had thrown it into the bottom of a drawer, with a pr
esentiment, as it were, that I might make use of it in the future. I felt a sudden desire to have a look at the place in which Balestrieri had tormented himself through the same uncertainty from which I myself was suffering at that moment.

  I took the key, left the door ajar so that Cecilia, if she came, could get in, and went to Balestrieri's studio. When the imitation candles of the central chandelier were lit, the studio looked to me gloomier than ever, with its sham-antique furniture and red damask. I went up to the table, walking across the thick carpet and inhaling with distaste the stuffy, dusty, slightly malodorous air. It was a massive table, in Renaissance style, its polished top now veiled with the dust of two months' abandonment; the telephone was standing upon it, together with the directories and a green receipted bill. I reflected that the widow was perhaps really intending to come and live in the studio, since she was continuing to pay for the telephone; then my eye fell on a bound address book with a marbled cover: I took it up and turned over the pages. Balestrieri's handwriting, big and coarse and thick, made me think, for some reason, of his too-wide shoulders and his too-large feet. I was struck by the great number of women's names without any surnames, on almost every page—Paola, Maria, Milly, Ines, Daniela, Laura, Sofia, Giovanna, etc., etc. Knowing Balestrieri's habits, I had no doubt that they were the names of the accommodating girls who in the past, before his great love for Cecilia, had so often visited him. I went on turning the pages and looked at the letter C. There was Cecilia's name, followed by the same telephone number that I had just been vainly ringing. I stood for a moment with my eyes fixed on this name and number, thinking of the very different feelings Balestrieri must have had on the day he wrote it down and then, successively, on each of the occasions when he went and looked at it before telephoning to Cecilia. Probably, in the end, he would not have had to refer to the address book, as he would have known the number by heart; but all the same he would have taken a look, now and then, at the page with the letter C, to revive the memory of that first, fatal occasion when he had written down Cecilia's name and number. All of a sudden the telephone on the table started ringing.

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