Contempt, p.15Alberto Moravia
“Go on,” I remarked coldly.
“I’ve been watching Rheingold,” said Battista, “during our discussions about the film; either he agrees with me or he says nothing...but I know too much about people, by this time, to believe in that kind of attitude. You intellectuals, Molteni, all of you, all of you without exception, you think, more or less, that producers are simply business men, and that’s all there is to it. Don’t deny it, Molteni; that’s what you think, and of course Rheingold thinks just the same. Now, up to a point, it’s true. Rheingold perhaps thinks that he can fool me by this passive attitude of his, but I’m wide awake, very wide awake, Molteni!”
“The fact of the matter is,” I said abruptly, “you don’t trust Rheingold?”
“I trust him and I don’t trust him. I trust him as a technician, as a professional. I don’t trust him as a German, as a man of another world, different from our world. Now—” and Battista put down his cigarette in the ashtray and looked me straight in the eyes—“now, Molteni, let it be quite clear that what I want is a film as much like Homer’s Odyssey as possible. And what was Homer’s intention, with the Odyssey? He intended to tell an adventure story which would keep the reader in suspense the whole time...a story which would be, so to speak, spectacular. That’s what Homer wanted to do. And I want you two to stick faithfully to Homer. Homer put giants, prodigies, storms, witches, monsters into the Odyssey—and I want you to put giants, prodigies, storms, witches and monsters into the film...”
“But of course we shall put them in!” I said, somewhat surprised.
“Yes, you’ll put them in, you’ll put them in...” cried Battista in sudden, unexpected anger; “perhaps you think I’m a fool, Molteni? I’m not a fool.” He had raised his voice and was staring at me with a furious look in his eyes. I was astonished at this sudden rage; and, even more, by the vitality of Battista who, after driving a car all day long and crossing from Naples to Capri, instead of resting when he arrived, as I should have done in his place, still had a desire to discuss Rheingold’s intentions. I said, softly: “But what makes you imagine that I think you’re a...a fool?”
“Your attitude, the attitude of both of you, Molteni.”
Slightly calmer now, Battista took up his cigarette again and went on: “You remember—that day when you met Rheingold for the first time in my office—you said then that you didn’t feel you were cut out for a spectacular film, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I think I did.”
“And what did Rheingold say to you, to reassure you?”
“I don’t quite remember...”
“I will refresh your memory. Rheingold told you not to worry...he intended to make a psychological film—a film about the conjugal relations of Ulysses and Penelope. Isn’t that so?”
Again I was astonished: Battista, under that coarse, animal-like mask, was sharper than I had believed. “Yes,” I admitted, “I think he did say something of the kind.”
“Now, seeing that the script hasn’t yet been started and that nothing has yet been done, it is just as well that I should inform you with the utmost seriousness that, for me, the Odyssey is not a matter of the conjugal relations of Ulysses and Penelope.”
I said nothing, and Battista, after a pause, went on: “If I wanted to make a film about relations between husband and wife, I should take a modern novel, I should stay in Rome, and I should shoot the film in the bedrooms and drawing-rooms of the Parioli quarter...I shouldn’t bother about Homer and the Odyssey. Do you see, Molteni?”
“Yes, yes, I see.”
“Relations between husbands and wives don’t interest me—do you see, Molteni? The Odyssey is the story of the adventures of Ulysses on his journey back to Ithaca, and what I want is a film of the adventures of Ulysses...and in order that there should be no more doubts on the matter, I want a spectacular film, Molteni—spec-tac-ular—do you see, Molteni?”
“You need have no doubts about it,” I said, rather irritated, “you shall have a spectacular film.”
Battista threw away his cigarette and, in his normal voice, endorsed what I had said. “I don’t doubt it,” he said, “seeing that, after all, it’s I who pay for it. You must understand that I have said all this to you, Molteni, so as to avoid unpleasant misunderstandings. You begin work tomorrow morning, and I wanted to warn you in time, in your own interest too. I trust you, Molteni, and I want you to be my mouthpiece, so to speak, with Rheingold. You must remind Rheingold, whenever it may become necessary, that the Odyssey gave pleasure, and has always given pleasure, because it is a work of poetry... and I want that poetry to get over, complete, into the film, exactly as it is!”
I realized that Battista was now really calm again: he was, in fact, no longer talking about the spectacular film that he insisted upon our producing, but rather poetry. After a brief incursion into the earthy depths of box office success, we had now returned to the airy regions of art and the spirit. With a painful grimace which was meant to be a smile, I said: “Have no doubts about it, Battista. You shall have all Homer’s poetry...or anyhow all the poetry we’re capable of finding in him.”
“Splendid, splendid, let’s not talk of it any more.” Battista rose from his armchair, stretching himself, looked at his wrist-watch, said abruptly that he was going to wash before dinner, and went out. I was left alone.
I also had previously thought of retiring to my room and getting ready for dinner. But the discussion with Battista had distracted and excited me, and I started walking up and down the room, almost without knowing what I was doing. The truth was that the things Battista had said to me had, for the first time, given me a glimpse of the difficulty of a task which I had undertaken rather light-heartedly and thinking only of material advantage: and now I felt that I was succumbing in advance to the fatigue from which I should be suffering by the time the script was finished. “Why all this?” I said to myself; “why should I subject myself to this disagreeable effort, to the discussions that will doubtless take place between ourselves and Battista, to say nothing of those that will crop up between me and Rheingold, to the compromises that are bound to follow, to the bitterness of putting my name to a production that is false and commercial? Why all this?” My visit to Capri, which had seemed to me so attractive when I looked down upon the Faraglioni from the high path a short time before, now appeared as it were discolored by the dreariness of a thankless and questionable undertaking—that of reconciling the demands of an honest man of letters such as myself with the wholly different demands of a producer. I was once again conscious, in a painful manner, that Battista was the master and I the servant, and that a servant must do anything rather than disobey his master; that any methods of cunning or flattery by which he may seek to evade his master’s authority are in themselves more humiliating than complete obedience; that, in brief, by appending my signature to the contract, I had sold my soul to a devil who, like all devils, was at the same time both exacting and mean. Battista had said quite clearly, in a burst of sincerity: “It’s I who pay!” I, certainly, had no need of all that amount of sincerity to say to myself: “And it’s I who am paid!” This phrase sounded continually in my ears, every time I turned my mind to the film-script. Suddenly these thoughts gave me a feeling of suffocation. I felt a strong desire to escape from the very air that Battista breathed. I went over to the french window, opened it and stepped out on to the terrace.
NIGHT HAD FALLEN, by now; and the terrace was gently illuminated by the indirect, but already intense, brilliance which a still invisible moon spread across the sky. A flight of steps led from the terrace to the path that ran round the island. I hesitated a moment, wondering whether to descend these steps and go for a walk, but it was late and the path was too dark. I decided to stay on the terrace. I stood looking over the balustrade and lit a cigarette.
Above me, black and sharp against the clear, starry sky, rose the rocks of the island. Other rocks could be dimly discerned
I felt myself growing quickly calmer under the influence of this calm night; and yet I was aware, with complete lucidity, that all the beauty in the world could produce only a fleeting interruption in the sequence of my troubles. And indeed, after I had stood for some time motionless and thinking of nothing, staring in the darkness, my mind, almost against my will, came back to the thought that dominated it, the thought of Emilia; but this time, perhaps as a result of my conversations with Battista and Rheingold and of the place I was in, so similar to places described in Homer’s poem, it was strangely mingled and bound up with the thought of the Odyssey script. Suddenly, from some unknown spring of memory, there rose into my mind a passage from the last canto of the Odyssey, in which Ulysses, in order to prove his true identity, gives a minute description of his marriage bed; and so, at last, Penelope recognizes her husband and turns pale and almost faints, and then, weeping, throws her arms around his neck and speaks words which I had learned by heart from having so very often re-read and repeated them to myself: “Ah, Ulysses, be not angry, thou who in every event didst always show thyself the wisest of men. The gods condemned us to misfortune, being unwilling that we should enjoy the green and flourishing years side by side, and then see, each of us, the other’s hair grow white.” Alas, I did not know Greek; but I was aware that the translation could not be a truly faithful one, if only because it failed to reproduce the beautiful naturalness of the Homeric original. Nevertheless I had always taken a singular pleasure in these lines, because of the feeling that shone through them, even in so formal an expression; and, as I read them, it had so happened that I had compared them with Petrarch’s lines in the sonnet that begins:
Tranquillo porto avea mostrato amore
and ends with the triplet:
Et ella avrebbe a me forse risposto
Qualche santa parola, sospirando,
Cangiati i volti e l’una e l’altra chioma.
What had struck me, both in Homer and in Petrarch, was the feeling of a constant, unshakable love, which nothing could undermine and nothing could cool, even in old age. Why did those lines come back now into my mind? I saw that the recollection arose from my relations with Emilia, so different from those of Ulysses with Penelope or of Petrarch with Laura, relations which were in peril not after thirty or forty years of marriage but after a few months, relations to which the comforting expectation of ending our lives together was certainly denied, or of remaining lovers always, as on the very first day, notwithstanding that “our faces were changed and the hair of both of us.” And I—I who had so ardently wished that our relations might be such as to justify the hope of this expectation—was left with a feeling of astonishment and terror in face of the rupture—to me incomprehensible—that was preventing my dream from coming true. Why? Almost as though I were seeking a reply from the villa which in one of its rooms enclosed the person of Emilia, I swung around towards the window, turning my back on the sea.
I happened to be standing at one corner of the terrace, in such a way that I could see, albeit slantwise, right into the living-room, without myself being seen. As I looked up, I saw that Battista and Emilia were both in the room. Emilia, who was wearing the same low-necked, black evening dress that she had worn on the occasion of our first meeting with Battista was standing close beside a little movable bar; and Battista, bending over the bar, was preparing some drink in a large crystal glass. I was suddenly struck by something unnatural in Emilia’s demeanor—a look of mingled perplexity and impudence, something between embarrassment and temptation: she stood waiting for Battista to hand her the glass and in the meantime was looking around her with an uneasy expression in which I recognized that look of disintegration that was caused in her, by doubt and bewilderment. Then Battista finished mixing the drinks, carefully filled two glasses, and held one out to Emilia as he rose; she started, as though awakening from a fit of deep abstraction, and slowly put out her hand to take the glass. My eyes were upon her at that moment as, standing in front of Battista, leaning slightly backwards, she raised one hand with the glass in it and supported herself with the other on the back of an armchair; and I could not help noticing that she seemed, as it were, to be offering her whole body as she thrust forward her bosom and her belly beneath the tight, glossy material of her dress. This gesture of offering herself, however, did not betray itself in any way in her face, which preserved its usual expression of uncertainty. Finally, as though to break an embarrassing silence, she said something, turning her head towards a group of armchairs at the far end of the room, round the fireplace; and then, cautiously, so as not to spill her brimming glass, she walked towards them. And then the thing happened which by now, in reality, I was expecting; Battista caught up with her in the middle of the room and put his arm around her waist, bringing his face close to hers, over her shoulder. She immediately protested, with no severity in her manner, but with a vivacity that was imploring and perhaps even playful, as, with her eyes, she indicated the glass which she was now holding tightly between her fingers, in mid-air. Battista laughed, shook his head and drew her more closely towards him, with a movement so abrupt that, as she had feared, the glass was upset. “Now he’s going to kiss her on the mouth,” I thought; but I failed to take into account Battista’s character, Battista’s brutality. He did not in fact kiss her, but, grasping the edge of her dress on her shoulder in his fist, with a strange, cruel violence, twisted and pulled it roughly downwards. One of Emilia’s shoulders was now completely bare, and Battista’s head was bending over it so that he might press his mouth against it; and she was standing upright and still, as though waiting patiently for him to have finished; but I had time to see that her face and her eyes, even during the kiss, remained perplexed and uneasy, as before. Then she looked in the direction of the window, and it seemed to me that our eyes met; I saw her make a gesture of disdain and then, holding up the torn shoulder-strap with one hand, leave the room hurriedly. I turned and walked back along the terrace.
My chief sensation at the moment was one of confusion and astonishment, because it seemed to me that what I had seen was in complete contradiction with what I knew and had hitherto thought. Emilia, who no longer loved me and who, in her own words, despised me, was in reality, then, deceiving me with Battista. And so the situation between us was now reversed: from being vaguely in the wrong I had become clearly in the right; after seeing myself despised for no reason, it was I, now, who had full justification for despising; and the whole mystery of Emilia’s conduct towards me resolved itself into a perfectly ordinary intrigue. It may be that this first harsh yet logical reflection, dictated largely by my own personal pride, prevented me, at that moment, from being conscious of any pain caused by the discovery of Emilia’s unfaithfulness (or what appeared to me to be unfaithfulness). But as I approached the balustrade at the edge of the terrace, feeling irresolute and half-stunned, I became suddenly aware of the pain, and, recoiling to the opposite extreme, was certain that what I had seen was not, could not be, the truth. Certainly, I said to myself, Emilia had let herself be kissed by Battista; but, in some mysterious way, my own guilt did not on that account disappear, nor, as I realized, did I now have the right to despise her in my turn; in fact—why, I did not know—it seemed to me that she still retained this right towards me in spite of the kiss I had seen. And so, really and truly, I was m
I remembered that she had always shown a determined and, to me, inexplicable, aversion for Battista; and that, no longer ago than that very day, that very morning, she had twice besought me not to leave her alone, during the journey, with the producer. How could I reconcile this behavior on her part with the recent kiss? There could be no doubt that this kiss had been the first: Battista, in all probability, had managed to take advantage of a favorable moment which, before this evening, had never occurred. Nothing, therefore, was yet lost; I might still come to know why in the world it was that Emilia had let herself be kissed by Battista; and why, above all, I felt, in an obscure but unmistakable way, that in spite of the kiss our relations were not changed, but that—as before and no less than before—she still had the right to refuse me her love and to despise me.
It may be thought that this was not the moment for such reflections, and that my first and solitary impulse should have been to burst into the sitting-room and reveal my presence to the two lovers. But I had been pondering too long over Emilia’s demeanor towards me to give way to a candid, unprepared outburst of that kind; and furthermore, what mattered most to me was not so much to put Emilia in the wrong as to shed new light upon our relationship. By bursting into the room, I should have precluded, once and for all, every possibility either of getting to know the truth or of winning back Emilia. Instead, I told myself, I must act with all possible reasonableness, with all the prudence and circumspection imposed upon me by circumstances which were at the same time both delicate and ambiguous.
Contempt by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes