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       Contempt, p.14

           Alberto Moravia
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  We got out of the car, and I immediately started off down a path that led through the vineyard to the beach. I explained to Rheingold: “I’ve been shut up indoors for eight months...I haven’t seen the sea since last summer. Let’s go down to the beach for a moment.”

  He followed me in silence; perhaps he was still offended, and still cross with me. The path wound through the vineyard for not much more than fifty yards and then petered out in the sand of the beach. The dull, mechanical sound of the engine had now been replaced by the irregular, echoing roar—to me a delicious sound—of waves piled upon each other and breaking in disorder. I walked a short distance, now going down on to the shimmering wet sand and now withdrawing again, according as the waves advanced or retired; finally I stopped and stood still for a long time on top of a sand-dune, my eyes turned towards the horizon. I felt I had offended Rheingold, that I ought to resume the conversation again in some more courteous manner, and that he was expecting me to do so. So, although it irritated me very much to be forced to interrupt my rapt contemplation of the far-off spaces of the sea, I finally made up my mind. “I’m sorry, Rheingold,” I said all at once, “perhaps I didn’t express myself very well just now. But, to tell you the truth, your interpretation didn’t entirely convince me...if you like, I’ll tell you why.”

  He answered at once, solicitously: “Tell me...tell me... discussion is part of our work, isn’t it?”

  “Well,” I resumed, without looking at him, “I am not entirely convinced, though I’m not saying that the Odyssey may not have that significance too. But the distinctive quality of the Homeric poems and, in general, of classical art is to conceal such a significance and a thousand other meanings too, that may occur to us moderns, in a conclusive, and what I may call a profound, form. What I mean is,” I added, with sudden, inexplicable irritation, “the beauty of the Odyssey consists precisely in this belief in reality as it is and as it presents itself this same form, in fact, which allows of no analysis or dissection and which is exactly what it is: take it or leave it. In other words,” I concluded, still looking not at Rheingold but at the sea, “the world of Homer is a real world. Homer belonged to a civilization which had developed in accordance with, not in antagonism to, nature...That is why Homer believed in the reality of the perceptible world and saw it in a direct way, as he represented it, and that is why we too should accept it as it is, believing in it as Homer believed in it, literally, without going out of our way to look for hidden meanings.”

  I paused, but my attempt at clarification, far from calming me, had strangely exasperated me, as though it had been an effort that I knew perfectly well to be useless. And almost immediately came Rheingold’s reply, accompanied by a burst of laughter, this time triumphant: “Extrovert, extrovert...You, Molteni, like all Mediterranean people, are an extrovert, and you don’t understand anyone who is an introvert. But of course there’s no harm in that. I am an introvert and you are an was precisely for that that I chose you. You, with your extrovert character, will counterbalance my introvert character. Our collaboration will work marvelously well, as you’ll see.”

  I was on the point of answering him; and I think my answer would have been such as to offend him again, for I again felt violently irritated at his pig-headed obtuseness; when a well-known voice suddenly reached me from behind: “Rheingold, Molteni...what are you doing here? Taking the sea air?”

  I turned and saw, clear-cut in the strong morning light, the two figures of Battista and Emilia, at the point where the dunes were highest. Battista was coming quickly down towards us, waving his hand in greeting, and Emilia was following more slowly, looking down at the ground. Battista’s whole bearing showed a cheerfulness and an assurance even greater than usual; while that of Emilia seemed to me to exude discontent, perplexity and an indefinable disgust.

  Rather surprised, I said at once to Battista: “We thought you were far Formia, at least, or even farther.”

  Battista answered, in a self-possessed voice: “We went a long way around...I wanted to show your wife a property of mine near Rome where I’m building a villa...then we found a couple of grade crossings closed.” He turned towards Rheingold and asked: “Everything all right, Rheingold? Been talking about the Odyssey?”

  “Everything all right,” replied Rheingold in the same telegraphic style, from beneath the peak of his cloth cap. Obviously Battista’s arrival annoyed him, and he would have preferred to continue the discussion with me.

  “Splendid, that’s wonderful”; and Battista took us both confidentially by the arm and moved away, drawing us towards Emilia who had stopped at a little distance along the beach. “And now,” he went on, with a gallantry that seemed to me insufferable, “now, fair Signora, it’s up to you to decide. Shall we lunch at Naples, or shall we lunch at Formia? You must choose.”

  Emilia gave a start and said: “You three must’s all the same to me.”

  “No, no, goodness gracious, it’s the ladies who have to decide.”

  “Well then, let’s lunch at Naples; I’m not hungry now.”

  “All right, Naples let it be. Fish soup with sughillo. A band playing O sole mio...” There could be no doubt of Battista’s cheerfulness.

  “What time does the steamer leave for Capri?” asked Rheingold.

  “At half past two. We’d better get on,” replied Battista. He left us and went off towards the road.

  Rheingold followed and, catching him up, walked beside him. Emilia, on the other hand, remained where she was for a moment, pretending to look at the sea, as though to allow them to go on ahead of us. But, as soon as I came up to her, she took me by the arm and said in a low voice: “I’m coming in your car now...and please don’t contradict me.”

  I was struck by her tone of urgency. “Why, what’s happened?”

  “Nothing...only that Battista drives too fast.”

  We walked up the path in silence. When we reached the road, near the two stationary cars, Emilia moved in a determined manner towards mine.

  “Hi,” cried Battista, “isn’t the Signora coming with me?”

  I turned: Battista, was standing beside the open door of his car, in the sun-filled road. Rheingold remained in uncertainty between the two cars, looking at us. Emilia, without raising her voice, said quietly: “I’m going with my husband now. We’ll all meet at Naples.”

  I expected Battista to give in without any more ado. But, to my slight surprise, he came running over to us. “Signora, you’re going to be with your husband for two months, at Capri...and I,” he added in a low voice, so as not to be overheard by the director, “I’ve had just a bit too much of Rheingold in Rome, and I assure you he’s not amusing. Surely your husband doesn’t mind you coming with me, do you, Molteni?”

  I could not but answer, although it was an effort to me: “No, not at all. But Emilia says you drive too fast.”

  “I’ll go at a snail’s space,” promised Battista, facetiously but with warmth. “But I do beg of you not to leave me alone with Rheingold.” He lowered his voice again. “If you knew what a bore he is. He talks of nothing but films.”

  I don’t know what came over me at that moment. Perhaps I thought it was not worth while annoying Battista for so frivolous a reason. Without giving myself time to reflect, I said: “Come on Emilia...won’t you do this to please Battista?... He’s quite right, anyhow,” I added with a smile, “there’s nothing you can talk about to Rheingold except films.”

  “Exactly,” confirmed Battista, satisfied. Then he took Emilia by the arm—very high up, right under the armpit—saying: “Come along, fair Signora, don’t be unkind...I promise you I’ll go at walking pace.”

  Emilia threw me a glance which, at the time, I was quite unable to account for; then she answered slowly: “Very well, if you say so.” She turned with sudden decision, and adding “Let’s go, then” walked off with Battista, who still kept a tight grip on her arm, as if he feared she might escape. I was
left standing in uncertainty beside my own car, gazing at Emilia and Battista as they moved away. Beside Battista, thickset and shorter than herself, she walked indolently, slowly, with an air of discontent that was yet full of an intense, mysterious sensuality. She seemed to me, at that moment, extremely beautiful; not the middle-class “fair signora” to whom Battista alluded, in that greedy, metallic voice of his; but truly very beautiful like some creature outside time or place, in harmony with the sparkling sea and the luminous sky against which her figure was outlined. And her beauty had about it a look of subjection, of reluctance, the cause of which I was at a loss to identify. Then, as I looked at her, I was struck by this thought: “Idiot...perhaps she wanted to be left alone with you...perhaps she wanted to talk to you, to explain things once and for all, to confide in you...perhaps she wanted to tell you that she loves you. And you forced her to go off with Battista.” This idea brought me a feeling of sharp regret, and I lifted my arm as though to call her. But by now it was too late: she was getting into Battista’s car and Battista was getting in beside her and Rheingold was walking towards me. So I got into my car, and Rheingold took the seat beside me. At that same moment Battista’s car went past us, grew rapidly smaller in the distance, and disappeared.

  Perhaps Rheingold had become aware of the violent ill-humor that overcame me at that moment; for instead of resuming—at I feared he would—our conversation about the Odyssey, he pulled his cap down over his eyes, settled down into his seat and was very soon asleep. I drove on in silence, therefore, urging my far from powerful little car to its greatest possible speed; and all the time, in an uncontrollable, frantic manner, my ill-humor increased. The road had turned away from the sea, and was now crossing a prosperous countryside, golden in the sunshine. At any other time I should have rejoiced in these luxuriant trees which, here and there, met over my head, forming a living gallery of rustling leafy branches; in these gray olives scattered, as far as the eye could reach, over the red hillsides; in these orange groves laden with glossy, dark foliage in the midst of which shone the round, golden fruit; in these old, blackened farm buildings guarded by two or three tawny haystacks. But I saw nothing; I drove on and on, and as time passed my wretched ill-humor increased more and more. I did not try to discover the reason for it, which undoubtedly went far beyond simple regret at not having insisted upon taking Emilia with me; even if I had wished to do so, my mind was so obscured by anger that I should have been incapable of it. But, like some kind of uncontrollable nervous convulsion which lasts as long as it is due to last and then by successive phases, gradually dies down and ceases, leaving its victim all aching and dizzy, so my ill-humor gradually reached its highest point as we passed through fields and woods, plains and mountains, then decreased, and finally, as we came near Naples, vanished altogether. Now we were going swiftly down the hill towards the sea, in sight of the blue waters of the bay, amongst pines and magnolias; and I was feeling dull and torpid-like, an epileptic who has been shaken, body and soul, by a convulsion of irresistible violence.


  BATTISTA’S VILLA, AS we learned on our arrival in Capri, was a long way from the main piazza, at a lonely point on the coast in the direction of the Sorrento peninsula. After we had accompanied Rheingold to his hotel, Battista, Emilia and I went off towards the villa along a narrow lane.

  At first our road took us along the sheltered walk that runs around the island, halfway up the mountain-side. It was almost sunset, and only a few people passed, slowly and in silence, along the brick paved walk in the shadow of the flowering oleanders or between the walls of the luxuriant gardens. Now and again, through the foliage of pines and carobtrees, one caught a glimpse of the distant sea, a sea of a hard and peerless blue, shot with the glittering, cold rays of the declining sun. I was walking behind Battista and Emilia, stopping from time to time to observe the beauties of the place, and, almost to my surprise, for the first time after a long period, I felt, if not exactly joyful, at least calm and composed. We traversed the whole length of the walk; then we turned off along another, narrower path. Suddenly, at a bend, the Faraglioni became visible, and I was pleased to hear Emilia utter a cry of astonishment and admiration; it was the first time she had been to Capri and so far she had not opened her mouth. From that height the two great, red rocks were surprising in their strangeness, lying on the surface of the sea like two meteorites fallen from heaven on to a mirror. Elated at the sight, I told Emilia that there was a race of lizards on the Faraglioni that existed nowhere else in the world—bright blue because they lived between the blue sky and the blue sea. She listened to my explanation with curiosity, as though for a moment she had forgotten her hostility towards me; so that I could not but conceive a fresh hope of reconciliation, and in my mind the blue lizard, which I described nestling in the cavities of the two rocks, suddenly became the symbol of what we ourselves might become, if we stayed a long time on the island. We too should be of a pure blue within our hearts, from which the clear calm of our sojourn by the sea would gradually wash away the sooty blackness of gloomy town thoughts—blue and with a blue light within us, like the lizards, like the sea, like the sky, like everything that is bright and gay and pure.

  After we had passed the Faraglioni, the path started to wind amongst rocky precipices, and there were no more villas or gardens. At last, on a lonely point, there appeared a long, low, white building with a big terrace jutting out above the sea; this was Battista’s villa.

  It was not a large villa: apart from a living-room that opened on to the terrace, there were only three other rooms. Battista, who walked in front of us as though to display his pride of ownership, explained that he had never lived in it, and that it was scarcely a year since he had come into possession of it as part payment of a debt. He drew our attention to the way in which he had had all preparations made for our arrival: there were vases of flowers in the living-room; the glossy floor emitted a pungent smell of wax polish; when we looked into the kitchen, we saw the caretaker’s wife busy in front of the cooking-stove, preparing our dinner. Battista, who made a special point of displaying all the conveniences of the villa to us, insisted on our examining every nook and corner of it; he carried his politeness even to the extent of opening the cupboards and asking Emilia if there were enough coat-hangers. Then we went back into the living-room. Emilia said she was going to change her clothes, and went out. I should have liked to follow her example; but Battista sat down in an armchair and invited me to do the same, thus preventing me. He lit a cigarette and then, without any preamble, asked, in a wholly unexpected manner: “Well, Molteni, what d’you think of Rheingold?”

  I answered, in some astonishment: “Really I don’t know. I’ve seen too little of him to be able to judge. He seems to me a very serious sort of person. He’s said to be an extremely good director.”

  Battista reflected for a moment and then went on: “You see, Molteni, I don’t know him at all well either, but I know, more or less, what he thinks and what he wants...In the first place, he’s a German, isn’t he?—whereas you and I are Italians. Two worlds, two conceptions of life, two different sensibilities.”

  I said nothing. As usual Battista was taking a roundabout course and keeping away from all material concerns: so I waited to see what he was getting at. “You see, Molteni,” he resumed, “I wanted to put you, an Italian, to work beside Rheingold, just because I feel him to be so different from us. I trust you, Molteni, and before I go away—and I ought to leave here as soon as possible—I want to give you a few words of advice.”

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