The Empty Canvas, p.15Alberto Moravia
'Why is that?'
'Keep calm, don't get angry,' she said, before answering my question. My voice had indeed been loud and harsh; but I became seriously angry as I heard myself say: 'I am calm and I am not angry. I merely want to know the reason for all this.'
'They're beginning to grumble at home because I see you every day.'
'But didn't you tell them you were taking drawing lessons?'
'Yes, but only twice a week. On the other days I always have to invent some excuse, and now they've found out.'
'It's not true, your people don't grumble. They didn't grumble, for instance, when you saw Balestrieri every day.'
'Balestrieri was sixty-five, not thirty-five like you; they weren't suspicious of him. Besides, they knew him.'
'Well, introduce me to them, then.'
'All right, I will. But meanwhile we must meet only twice a week.'
For a short time we sat silent. I was discovering now that not merely did I no longer want to part from Cecilia, but also that I could not bear to see her only twice in seven days. Then, all of a sudden, I understood. I was even prepared to reduce the number of our meetings; but I had to be mathematically certain that she was not lying to me and that her parents had really made trouble. Since, however, I was not certain, the idea that she was lying to me gave me a feeling of deep distress; as though she had escaped me at the very moment when, thanks to her untruthfulness, she was becoming real and desirable in my eyes. I took hold of her hand. 'Tell me the truth,' I said; 'you don't want to see me any more.'
She answered at once: 'That's not the point. I said that from now on we must meet only twice a week, that's all there is to it.'
I noticed that her tone of voice was completely neutral, equally distant from truthfulness and from falsehood. This was an observation that I had already made on other occasions; but only in order to note a trait in Cecilia's character without attaching any significance to it. In general, she appeared always to be saying simply the things that she was saying, neither more nor less, without the slightest undertone of feeling. The latter, as I knew, was perceptible during sexual intercourse, and only then. But it was absolutely necessary for me to know whether she was lying to me, because I still wished to break off relations with her and her lying to me would prevent this. So I insisted. 'What you really want is for us to part. But you haven't the courage to tell me and so you're trying to prepare me. Today you say twice a week, tomorrow you'll say twice a month, and then in the end you'll tell me the truth.'
I had it on the tip of my tongue to say: 'That you have another man.' But I restrained myself: the connexion between her decision to reduce the number of our meetings and the encounter in the Piazza di Spagna was too obvious, and it humiliated me to accept it. Instead, I said brusquely: 'Very well then. Let it be as you wish; from now on we'll meet only twice a week. And now let's change the subject.'
'But what's the matter? Why are you so gloomy?'
'Let's change the subject. D'you know that I passed right under your nose today and you didn't see me?'
'In the Piazza di Spagna, near the steps.'
'At what time?'
'It must have been about four.'
I looked at her closely: her face had its usual uncertain, childish expression and she did not even start. 'Ah yes,' she said, 'I was with an actor called Luciani.'
Even then her voice revealed nothing in particular: it was expressionless, neutral, unrelated to innocence or guilt. I asked casually: 'Why has he put peroxide on his hair?'
'Because he had to play the part of a fair-haired man.'
'You seemed very intimate, judging, at least, from the way you walked.'
'What way?' she inquired, with genuine curiosity.
I felt that words were not adequate to depict the tenderness with which the actor had taken her by the arm. 'Get up!' I said.
She obeyed. Then I took her by the arm and made her walk about the studio for a little, exactly as I had seen the actor do. 'There,' I said finally, letting her go again; 'that's the way.'
She went back and sat down on the divan and looked at me for a moment; then she said: 'He always does that'—a remark, I felt, that did not at all signify that she and the actor were not in love. 'Have you known this Luciani for long?' I asked.
'For a couple of months.'
'D'you, see him often?'
'We see each other now and again.'
She got up again and started pulling off her sweater over her head. 'You had an appointment with him to-day?' I asked.
'He wants me to work in the films, and we had to talk about that.'
I looked up at her: she had pulled up her sweater over her head, showing her white armpits with their few long, soft, brown hairs; but her breasts were still hidden, and only the thin, adolescent torso could be seen. Then, with a violent movement, she gave an upward pull and her breasts burst forth: all at once the torso was that of a grown woman, though it still retained a certain slenderness and immaturity. It crossed my mind that she was undressing in order to interrupt an embarrassing interrogation. 'Are you going to work in the films?' I asked her.
'I don't know yet.'
'And afterwards where did you go?'
'We went to the Pincio and had some coffee.'
She had seated herself on the divan again now, bare to the waist, as though to answer me better. Meanwhile she was carefully turning back the sleeves of her sweater. 'Yes,' I said, 'I saw you go up towards the Trinità dei Monti. Perhaps this actor lives close by in Via Sistina, does he?'
'No, he lives in the Parioli district, in Via Archimede.'
'And after your coffee what did you do?'
'We walked about in the Borghese gardens until a short time ago, when I left him to come here.'
I became conscious that I was looking at her with desire; and I realized that I desired her, not so much because she was naked, as because she was lying to me. She appeared to notice my look, and added, quite simply: 'Well then, d'you want to make love?'
The idea that she was proposing we should make love in order to conceal the fact that she was lying to me made me suddenly furious. I was certain that only a lover could press a woman's arm in the way Luciani had pressed hers. But now again I avoided mentioning the actor's name. 'No,' I shouted, 'I don't want to make love. I want to know the truth.'
'But what d'you mean, the truth?'
'The truth, whatever it is.'
'I don't understand you.'
'Yesterday you didn't come to our appointment and you didn't even let me know that you couldn't come. Today you want to reduce the number of your visits. I want to know the truth; I want to know what there is behind all this.'
'I've already told you: my parents are making trouble.'
Again I felt it on the tip of my tongue to say: 'It's not true, the truth is that you go to bed with Luciani'; but at the same time I felt that in no case would I be capable of saying it. So I remained silent and glum, staring at the floor. Then I felt her hand on my cheek and heard her say: 'Are you very sorry not to see me every day?'
'Well then, forget what I said. We'll go on as before. Only we shall have to be more careful. We'll meet at different times, according to which day it is. In any case I'll telephone you in the morning to let you know, each day, what time we can meet. Are you content now?'
And so, in a mysterious, unexpected way, Cecilia gave up the idea of reducing her visits to me. I was so surprised that I couldn't go on thinking unkind things about her. It was clear now: Cecilia, in spite of her precocious experience, was a very young girl and afraid of her parents; this fear had prompted her to reduce the frequency of our meetings; in face of my sadness and suspicion, she had changed her mind again and was doing as I asked. So she was not being unfaithful to me, she was not lying to me; she was just a simple, unmysterious girl, torn between her subjection to her
'No, it doesn't matter, I'll find some excuse.'
She had gone back towards the chair upon which she had placed her sweater and had started undressing again. I watched her as she put her two hands to the zip fastening of her skirt at her side, and then as she lowered it; I wondered whether the quick, graceful gestures that brought about the gradual fall of her clothes and the gradual unveiling of her body appeared to me, now that I was sure of not being betrayed, as boring and ridiculous as they had in the past; and, after a moment's consideration, I was compelled to admit that it was so. As if, in fact, by a miracle in reverse—a miracle, that is, which instead of introducing something magical into reality had withdrawn it—Cecilia, who had seemed to me so desirable as long as I had suspected that she was betraying me, now that I was convinced of the contrary had gone back to being an insignificant object, present, perhaps, to the most superficial perception of my senses but not for that reason truly real. I reflected that the whole of her personality was in that action of lowering the zip fastening, the whole of her, with no margin of independence or mystery, and that she was, for that very reason, non-existent; that she had been already possessed beforehand, even before sexual intercourse gave a superfluous confirmation to this possession by feeling; possessed and therefore boring. I recall that, while I was thinking these things, I was myself undressing; and that I could not help casting a glance at my sexual organ, almost afraid that it was not in a state of erection, as I might well have feared, judging from my reflections. But it was; and never so much as at that moment had I admired the force of nature which made me desire, so to speak, without any real desire. By this time I was naked. I lay down on my back on the divan, rather as a sick man lies down on the doctor's couch, and with the same sense of submitting to an unpleasant ordeal which anyhow was very far removed from love.
Then an unexpected thing happened. Cecilia, who had also finished undressing, went over on tiptoe, as usual, to draw the curtains across the big window, and then, with the joyous movement of one who gains his freedom and runs towards the sea, she rushed towards the divan and fell on top of me, heavily, violently, and with an inarticulate cry of triumph. Then she raised herself up and sat astride me as I lay flat; and, leaning heavily with her two hands on my shoulders, exclaimed: 'Now tell me the truth, you must confess that you believed just now that I was being unfaithful to you with Luciani?'
I looked at the excited face, red with pleasure, framed in the light, curly hair that had never seemed to me so alive, and I was suddenly convinced of the opposite of what I had hitherto been thinking: yes, Cecilia had lied to me; yes, she had been unfaithful to me with the actor. There was proof of this, if nowhere else, in her triumphant voice, which, in its irresistible artlessness, resembled that of a little girl who, after a successful joke, calls out to her companion: 'Now admit it, you were caught!'
At the same time I saw her afresh, more real than ever and therefore desirable, with her full, brown, womanly breasts hanging forward from her thin, white adolescent body; with her slim waist; with her compact, powerful hips; and it seemed to me that she appeared real and desirable precisely because she was evading me through her lying and treachery. This thought filled me with anxious, vindictive rage; I seized her by the hair with such force that I heard her groan, threw her off me and hurled myself upon her. Physical possession, usually, was no more than the repetition of a preceding mental possession, that is, it merely confirmed the boredom which made Cecilia unreal and absurd to me. But this time, as I immediately felt, possession appeared to confirm, on the contrary, my inability truly to possess her: however roughly I treated her, however much I squeezed her and bit her and penetrated her, I failed to possess Cecilia and she was elsewhere, God knows where. Finally I fell back exhausted but still angry, withdrawing from her sex as from a useless wound; and it seemed to me that Cecilia, who was now lying beside me with closed eyes, had an expression of irony on her face even in the midst of the composed serenity that follows the satisfaction of carnal appetite. The expression, I said to myself, of reality itself, the reality that evaded me and receded at the very moment when I imagined I had seized hold of it.
I looked at her intently. She must have felt my eyes upon her, for she opened hers and gazed back at me. Then she said:
'D'you know, it was wonderful today?'
'Isn't it always wonderful in the same way?'
'Oh no, it's always different. There are days when it's not so good, but today it was very good.'
'Why was it so good?'
'It's a thing one can't explain. A woman feels, you know, when it's good and when it isn't so good. D'you know how many times, today?'
She lifted her hand with three fingers pointing upwards and said: 'Three '; then she closed her eyes again, pressing herself lightly against me; and as she made this movement the ironical expression I had already noticed appeared again on her face with its lowered eyelids. And so, I thought, it might even be that I had really possessed her, possessed her totally, possessed her with no margin of independence or mystery. But I was unable to have full consciousness of it, or, therefore, to enjoy it; it seemed that only the one who was possessed could be conscious of possession, not the possessor. Again, and more strongly than ever, I experienced the feeling that I was incapable of achieving true possession, in spite of the fullness of the physical relation. I should have liked to ask: 'Was it better with me or with Luciani?', but once again I felt myself unable to utter the actor's name. I asked her instead, for some inexplicable reason: 'Is it true that Balestrieri died in your arms, while you were making love?'
I noticed that she wrinkled up her face for an instant, without opening her eyes, as though a gnat had brushed against it in flight. Then she murmured: 'Why d'you want to know that?'
'Tell me if it's true.'
She was still lying with her eyes closed, and I seemed to be questioning a sleep-walker. 'Not exactly,' she replied. 'He felt ill while we were making love, but he died later, after we had stopped.'
'You're not telling the truth.'
'Why shouldn't I be telling the truth? I was so frightened. I thought he was really dead; but he recovered, luckily, and managed to get to the bed.'
'Then you weren't on the bed?'
'Where were you, then?'
'What a lot of things you want to know.'
'Where were you?'
'On the stairs.'
'On the stairs?'
'Yes, he used to want to make love at any moment, so to speak. We'd already done it once in the little room upstairs, and we were going down to the studio because he wanted to paint. I was in front of him. Suddenly he wanted to make love again, and he did it right there on the stairs. But—d'you know?'
'After he felt ill, and I'd helped him to get upstairs to the bedroom again and on to the bed, he lay there for a little, with his eyes shut, quite still. Then, gradually, he recovered, and—just imagine—he wanted to make love yet again, for the third time. It was I who refused. He looked like death already, and I was frightened. He gave up the idea, but very unwillingly, and he was angry. Sometimes I think he died because he got so angry.'
So Balestrieri had really wished to kill himself, I thought. I seemed to see those two, separating at the critical moment of their intercourse; and the old painter clinging wit
She made that same grimace of irritation, as if troubled by an importunate gnat; and I realized that what I had really asked her was: 'Are you deceiving me?' And indeed she too seemed to understand the true meaning of the question, for she merely murmured: 'Now you're beginning again.'
But I persisted. 'Tell me, please, did you deceive him?'
Finally she replied: 'Why d'you want to know? Yes, I did deceive him, now and then; he was so boring.'
This took my breath away. 'Boring—how d'you mean, boring?'
'But what does that mean, to you—boring?'
'Boring means boring.'
'And that is?'
So Cecilia was deceiving me, I thought again, and she was deceiving me because I was boring—in other words, as she was for me, non-existent. But between us there was this difference: that I knew what boredom was, having suffered from it all my life; whereas, for her, boredom was simply an obscure urge to take the provoking irresistible movement of her disdainful hips elsewhere. I looked at her again: she was lying flat on her back, her legs spread out, just as our last embrace had left her, with no sign of modesty, but apparently confident that I would consider her attitude of abandonment as a proof of naturalness and intimacy. And then, as I looked at her, I could not help succumbing to the masculine illusion which looks upon physical possession as the only true possession. Yes, I thought, Cecilia evaded me, she withdrew herself from me; but if I took her again—who knows?—possibly I might succeed this time in nullifying the feeling of not possessing her, I might succeed in possessing her truly and decisively. I pulled myself up, and bending over her lightly touched her lips with a kiss. Without opening her eyes, she murmured: 'I think I ought to be going soon.'
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes