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The empty canvas, p.14
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       The Empty Canvas, p.14

           Alberto Moravia
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  I hesitated, then took up the receiver. I had a strange feeling of being not myself but Balestrieri; and that I should hear Cecilia's voice on the telephone. This feeling had an unexpected confirmation; I did, in fact, hear the well-known voice asking: 'Is that you, Mauro?' (Balestrieri's name was Mauro.) In a rush of anguish and nausea, my heart failed. So it really was Cecilia, and she was telephoning not to me but to Balestrieri, to a man who was dead and whom she knew to be dead.

  All this did not last more than an instant. In a scarcely audible voice I said: 'No, it's Dino'; and immediately the other voice, losing all resemblance to Cecilia's and showing itself, in fact, to be very different—as though the resemblance had been created there and then simply by my anxiety—exclaimed in a tone of confusion: 'Oh, I'm sorry, am I not speaking to Signor Balestrieri's number?'


  'Is Signor Balestrieri not there? You see, I've been away from Rome for four months and I wanted to have a word with him. Are you a friend of his?'

  'Yes, I'm a friend of his. And you—who are you?'

  'I'm Milly,' answered the girl, in a pathetic, hopeful tone of voice which somehow suggested her intimacy with the old painter.

  'Signorina Milly, Signor Balestrieri has ... has gone away.'

  'He's gone away? And you don't know when he's coming back?'


  'Oh well, tell him, when you see him, that Milly telephoned.'

  I put down the receiver again and stayed quite still for a time, brooding over the vague, unpleasant feeling that this telephone call had aroused in me. Then I became conscious that it was cold in the studio and that the cold was getting right into my bones. It was a special sort of cold, at the same time both unclean and sepulchral, the cold of a tomb which was also an alcove, or an alcove which was also a tomb. I had sat down to answer the telephone, overcome, it may be, by my agitation when I thought I heard Cecilia's voice. I rose and went out into the corridor.

  Back in my studio I looked at the clock and, since I knew I was no longer expecting anybody, I realized that I was looking at it to see how long it was before Cecilia telephoned me in the morning, as she always did. Next moment I reflected that it was the first time I had had such a thought; and I knew that henceforward such thoughts would visit my mind more and more frequently.


  Next morning, thinking over Cecilia's failure to arrive, I was convinced, or rather I tried to convince myself, that her absence was due to causes which had nothing to do with our relationship. For I still wanted to break with Cecilia, but the Cecilia I wanted to break with was the Cecilia who was in love with me, or whom I imagined to be in love with me, not the Cecilia who no longer loved me and who missed her appointments. And this was not a case of that special, perverse kind of love which makes us love someone who does not love us and dislike anyone who does love us; it was because the Cecilia who loved me had proved boring, and therefore unreal, whereas the Cecilia who did not love me seemed, on the contrary, by the very fact of not loving me, to acquire a steadily increasing resemblance of reality in my eyes. Nevertheless I preferred to think that Cecilia loved me and that consequently I did not have to alter my decision to get rid of her, because, as I have already hinted, the idea that she had ceased to bore me, in other words that she was becoming real, filled me, fundamentally, with a kind of fear, as though I were confronting a trial that I did not feel able to face.

  In the meantime, however, there was a problem, a small but painful problem: should I be the first to telephone, or should I wait for her to telephone me? Cecilia was in the habit of telephoning me every day, always at the same time, about ten o'clock in the morning, to greet me and confirm our appointment for the afternoon. I could therefore certainly expect her to telephone that day as usual, but at the same time I was afraid lest she might not do so and might go out, in which case, by the time I made up my mind to telephone myself, she would not be there and I should have to spend the whole day in uncertainty as to whether she was coming—an uncertainty which without any doubt had by now become extremely painful. And furthermore I realized that in this affair of the telephone the terms of my greater problem were being repeated in an identical way: I wanted Cecilia to telephone me first so that I could continue to consider her dispensable and therefore non-existent; whereas, if it were I who telephoned, I should have to think of her as of something problematical and elusive and therefore real. At three in the afternoon I was still immersed in these reflections when I heard the telephone ringing repeatedly, over at the far end of the studio—gently, querulously, ironically, as if to tell me that the thing that mattered was not my thoughts, however lucid, but its own ringing. I rose and went over and took up the receiver and at once heard Cecilia's voice saying: 'At last! Why, where were you?'

  I answered in a very low voice: 'I was in the studio, but I hadn't heard you.'

  There was a moment's silence and then she said: 'I didn't ring you this morning because the telephone was out of order. See you today at the usual time, then.'

  I could not help exclaiming somewhat sharply: 'But why didn't you come yesterday?'

  I expected her reply, whether sincere or untruthful, to be anyhow precise. Instead of which, these disconcerting words reached my ears: 'Because I couldn't.'

  'Why couldn't you?'

  'Because I had things to do.'

  'Very well,' I said angrily, recognizing, in these answers, Cecilia's characteristic capacity at the same time to avoid both telling the truth and telling a lie; 'very well then. See you soon.'

  'Yes, soon. Good-bye.'

  I realized immediately afterwards that the fact that it had been she who telephoned first did not bring me the relief I had hoped for. She had indeed telephoned first, but had contrived, by her secretiveness, to remain just as elusive and mysterious as if she had not done so. Her action in telephoning me, which ought to have meant that I had it in my power to dispose of her, that she was dependent upon me and therefore could be discarded, had in reality meant nothing. And I still had to get rid of her, as I had decided.

  In the meantime, however, I had to go on living, by which I mean I had to while away the two hours that still lay between me and the moment when Cecilia would appear in my studio. To give some idea of my impatience, I can say that, not knowing what to do, I even took it into my head to start painting, after an interval of more than two months during which I had not touched a brush. I said to myself, that if I could perhaps manage in some way or other to cover the canvas that still stood prominently on my easel, I would have, if nothing else, a further reason for parting from Cecilia; I knew, in fact, that painting and painting alone could fill the void in my life which the ending of our relationship would leave. But I only had to look at the canvas standing there on the easel to know that I would be incapable, not merely of painting, but even of lifting my hand to make any kind of a mark upon it. In reality, I thought, I had at that moment only one relationship, and that a problematical one, with any object of any kind, and that was my relationship with Cecilia, which in any case I was preparing to break off. How the devil, then, could I paint on that canvas, which, on the day of my first meeting with Cecilia, I had signed as if to underline the fact that painting, as far as I was concerned, was finished? To comfort myself, I re-read something that Kandinsky had written on this very subject of the empty canvas. 'The empty canvas. In appearance—really empty, silent, indifferent. Stunned, almost. In effect—full of tensions, with a thousand subdued voices, heavy with expectation. A little frightened because it may be violated. But docile. It does willingly whatever is asked of it, it only begs for mercy. It can lead to anything, but cannot endure everything. A wonderful thing is the empty canvas, more beautiful than many pictures ', etc., etc. Suddenly I hurled the book on the floor and almost ran out of the studio.

  I knew what direction I would take, not so much with my mind as by an instinct like that of a sporting dog following a scent through a wood or across a heath. Thus I turned out of Via Margutta,
came into Via del Babuino and walked in the direction of the Piazza di Spagna, hurrying along quickly past the shops and through people who knocked against me, just as though I were afraid of arriving late for some appointment. I went on for a hundred yards or so and then, in front of me, I saw Cecilia. She too was walking quickly, like a person who knows where he is going and is in a hurry to get there. After thinking for a moment of catching up with her, I slackened my pace and followed her: I had suddenly realized that never had she seemed so real to me as now when I was intending to part from her; and I wanted to enjoy this feeling of reality and at the same time to understand why in the world it had become perceptible to me at this particular moment. So I looked at her attentively and realized that it was as though I were seeing her for the first time in my life, in an atmosphere as fresh as that of the first day of Creation. The details of her figure seemed, by some miracle, to be more visible than usual, in fact to be visible on their own account, so to speak—visible, that is, in any case even if I did not look at them and examine them—the light, crisp, brown mass of her hair, more like the intricate, untamed fleece of the groin than a combed head of hair; the motion of her neck, which could not be seen because it was hidden, but which could be felt, at the same time querulous and graceful; the movement of her long, loose, hairy green sweater round the bust which I knew to be naked underneath it, with the full, firm breasts and their delicate points exposed to the friction of the rough wool; her short, narrow black skirt which displayed the rotundity of her hips, shifting and undulating at every step: her whole body, in fact, seemed to attract and, so to speak, swallow up my glances with the avidity with which the dry earth swallows the rain. But beyond these outward appearances which nevertheless leapt to my eye, I realized that, for the first time after a long period, I was enabled to perceive a reality—how shall I describe it?—a reality of second degree; that is, something which gave a soul to these vivid, emphatic forms. Finally I understood what this reality was: in every part of that body in movement there was, as it were, an unconscious, involuntary force that seemed to urge Cecilia forward, as if she were a sleep-walker with closed eyes and darkened mind. This force drew her away from me and consequently made her real to me.

  When she reached the Piazza di Spagna, Cecilia walked with decision towards the great flight of steps. I stopped for a moment and, my eye leaping from her to the place that she appeared to be making for, I caught sight of the figure of a man who indeed seemed to be waiting for somebody, standing beside a flower-seller's big umbrella. He was a young man, tall and vigorous-looking, with two features that I noticed at once: very broad shoulders which seemed to indicate an athletic build, and hair of a false-looking, golden blond that appeared to be bleached with peroxide. Cecilia, meanwhile, had crossed the whole space of the Piazza di Spagna, her head bent, and was now approaching the young man, without quickening her step but with a movement of the hips that was full of irresistible, provoking urgency. She reached him and stopped, and it looked to me as if they shook hands; and then, hastily, I also moved. They were talking now and Cecilia had climbed on to the first step of the stairs, and even so looked shorter than he.

  Soon I was quite close to them. I realized that Cecilia had not seen me, so I went almost up to her, at a distance of a pace or so, and even then I was sure that she continued not to see me. I moved up on to the step and walked round her, almost touching her this time: she was talking and laughing gaily with the man with the peroxide hair, and all of a sudden her big dark eyes rested upon me, but even now, although it seemed to me impossible, I had to admit that she had not seen me. I was aware that I was registering these things without thinking at all, and I knew I was not thinking because I was suffering. In the end I went and hid behind the flower-seller's umbrella, a few steps farther on.

  Now the young man with the peroxide hair had taken Cecilia by the arm, with an eloquent tenderness, and was gently pushing her towards the umbrella behind which I was hiding. They stopped; and then the young man, without letting go of Cecilia's arm, selected a bunch of violets from a jar and handed them to her. Cecilia raised the bunch of flowers to her nostrils; the young man paid the flower-seller, and then, still holding Cecilia by the arm, went off with her up the steps towards Trinità dei Monti. For the first time I noticed that the young man was wearing a short green overcoat; until then I had not seen it.

  For a short time after they had disappeared I remained where I was, looking up the flight of steps. I felt an acute pain which gave me no peace and at the same time an impotent rage at the fact that I felt this pain. I understood, indeed, that until I had suffered I should not be able to part from Cecilia, as I still wished to do. And I also understood that with Cecilia I could only be bored, or suffer: hitherto I had been bored and consequently had wished to leave her; now I was suffering and I felt I would not be able to leave her until I was bored once again.

  These reflections and others of a similar kind must have been very intense and very absorbing, for I suddenly found myself, to my surprise, back again in my studio: wrapped in a cloud of thought I had gone back, without being conscious of it, to Via Margutta, had gone in and thrown myself on the divan. The clock on the central table showed half past four; there was therefore only half an hour to go before Cecilia's arrival. But there was nothing more I could do except wait for her. And this half-hour seemed to me, all at once, to be impassable, as though time itself had stopped and were awaiting a push from me to make it resume its course. Actually it was I who had stopped, arrested by a thought which refused to be displaced, whatever efforts I might make.

  What most infuriated me was that, although I did not love Cecilia, circumstances, so to speak, were forcing me to have the feelings and to behave in the ways which are appropriate to love. I wanted to free myself from these circumstances as an ox wants to free itself from the yoke that weighs upon its neck, but I felt that with every movement they oppressed me more and constrained me to behave like the lover which I was now convinced I was not.

  I said to myself, for instance: 'Now Cecilia and her friend are in some retired corner of the Borghese Gardens and Cecilia is doing with him what she has done so many times with me: she is kissing him awkwardly and coldly, with her childish lips, and at the same time is giving him her customary hard, eager blow in the belly with her groin.' And immediately afterwards I thought: 'Why do I think all these things and why do I suffer? Obviously because I saw them together. And am I then forced, in spite of myself, by the sole fact of having seen them together, to be jealous on her account and to suffer?'

  I sat thinking with my head bent and my eyes on the floor; but finally I looked up at the clock and discovered that there was only a short time now left before Cecilia's arrival. Then, rising from the divan and stretching my cramped limbs, I reflected that after all I was not altogether sure that she had betrayed me. What, in actual fact, had I seen? An innocent meeting in a place that was far from secret, the gallant but not highly significant gift of a bunch of violets, a walk to the Pincio. Such things happen every hour and every day, without the people who do them being, on that account, bound together by the ties of love. There was, it is true, the fact of the missed appointment of the previous day. But I had to beware of the kind of mental disposition that tends to establish arbitrary relations between separate and dissimilar things. Cecilia had not come to our appointment the day before: that was a fact. I had seen her that afternoon with a young man with peroxide hair: that was another fact. But that did not mean that the two facts were connected; above all, it did not mean that they were connected by a common factor of betrayal.

  Strange to say, no sooner had I given shape to these reflections than the figure of Cecilia, which, as long as I had suspected her of betraying me, had been living and real to me, although mysterious—in fact, precisely because mysterious; now that I was doubtful about her betrayal, became unreal and boring again as in the past. And, as in the days past, I felt I must get rid of her, at all costs; and I was afraid lest I m
ight not be capable of it; and I strengthened myself in my determination by recalling the cruelty which I had resorted to during one of our last meetings in order to avoid a relapse into boredom.

  Cecilia was punctual. At five o'clock I heard the familiar ring at the bell that was so characteristic of her, so brief, so reticent, and at the same time so intimate. I went and opened the door, saying to myself: 'The moment I see her I shall tell her I'm leaving for the mountains, and thus, even if I have cause to regret it later, I shall have created an established fact which it will be difficult for me to nullify afterwards.' I foresaw that, the moment she came in, Cecilia would as usual throw her arms round my neck, with her customary, mechanically passionate gesture; but this time I would take hold of her hands and pull them down, disengaging myself from her embrace and saying: 'First of all I've got to talk to you.'

  What happened, however, was something I had not foreseen but which I really ought to have foreseen. When I threw the door open, Cecilia did not fling her arms round my neck; on the contrary, she drew back, making a sort of gesture to keep me at a distance and saying: 'First of all there's something I must say to you.'

  I could not help thinking that these were more or less the words I had in mind to say to her, and it immediately flashed across my mind that Cecilia wanted to announce a decision similar to my own, that is, that she wanted to leave me. In the meantime she had gone and sat down on the divan. I went over and sat down beside her, saying in a loud, angry voice: 'No, first of all you've got to give me a kiss.'

  Obediently she bent forward and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. Then, drawing back, she said: 'The thing I must tell you is that from now on we can't go on meeting every day, but only twice a week.'

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