Contempt, p.16Alberto Moravia
There was another consideration which kept me from crossing the threshold of the living-room, this one, perhaps, of a more selfish kind: I saw that I now had a good reason for throwing over the Odyssey script, for ridding myself of a task that disgusted me and returning to my beloved theater. This consideration had the quality of being good for all three of us—for Emilia, for Battista, and for myself. The kiss I had witnessed marked, in reality, the culminating point of the falsity against which my whole life was contending, both in my relations with Emilia and in my work. At last I saw the possibility of clearing away this falsity, once and for all.
All this passed through my mind with the swiftness with which, if a window is suddenly thrown open, a blast of wind rushes into the room, bearing with it leaves and dust and all kinds of rubbish. And just as, if the window is closed again, there is a sudden silence and stillness within the room, so my mind, in the end, became all at once empty and silent, and I found myself standing there in astonishment, staring into the darkness, with no more thought or feeling in me. In this stupefied condition, and almost without knowing what I was doing, I left the balustrade and went over to the french window; I opened it and went into the living-room. How long had I remained on the terrace after coming unawares upon Battista embracing Emilia? Longer than I had thought, certainly, for I found Battista and Emilia already seated at table, halfway through dinner. I noticed that Emilia had taken off the dress which Battista had torn and had again put on the one she had worn for the journey; and this detail, for some reason, troubled me deeply, as a particularly cruel and eloquent proof of her infidelity. “We thought you must have gone for a nocturnal swim,” said Battista jovially. “Where the devil have you been hiding yourself?”
“I was just outside there,” I answered in a low voice. I saw Emilia raise her eyes in my direction, look at me for a moment, and then lower them again; and I was quite sure she had seen me watching their embrace from the terrace, and that she knew that I knew she had seen me.
EMILIA WAS SILENT during dinner, but without any visible embarrassment, which surprised me because I thought she ought to be troubled and I had always, hitherto, considered her incapable of dissimulation. Battista, on the other hand, did not conceal his jubilant, victorious state of mind and never stopped talking, uninterruptedly, while at the same time eating with a good appetite and drinking with a freedom that was perhaps excessive. What did Battista talk about, that evening? Many things, but, I noticed, mainly about himself, whether directly or indirectly. The word “I” boomed aggressively from his mouth, with a frequency that irritated me; and I was no less disgusted by the way in which he contrived to make use of even the most far-fetched pretexts to descend by degrees to his own self. I realized, however, that this self-applause was due not so much to simple vanity as to a wholly masculine wish to glorify himself before Emilia, and possibly to humiliate me: he was convinced that he had made a conquest of Emilia, and now, very naturally, was taking pleasure in strutting like a peacock and showing off his most brilliant plumes in front of his victim. I am bound to admit, at this point, that Battista was no fool; and that, even during this display of masculine vanity, he still kept his feet on the ground and said things that were, for the most part, interesting; as when, at the end of dinner, he told us, in a lively manner but also with seriousness of judgment, of his recent trip to America and of a visit he had paid to the studios of Hollywood. But this did not prevent his arrogant, self-centered, indiscreet tone from becoming intolerable to me; and I imagined, somewhat ingenuously, that the same must be true of Emilia, whom I still, for some reason, held to be hostile to him, in spite of what I had seen and knew. But once again I was wrong: Emilia was not hostile to Battista—on the contrary; more than once while he was speaking I seemed to catch in her eyes a look which, if it was not exactly love-sick, at least showed a serious interest and was even, at moments, full of a wondering esteem. This look was as disconcerting and bitter to me as Battista’s male vanity—if not more so; and it recalled to my memory another, similar look; but where I had noticed it, I could not at first remember. Then, suddenly, at the end of dinner, it came back to me: it was the same look—or anyhow, not far different—as the one I had caught, not very long ago, in the eyes of the wife of the film-director Pasetti, when I had had lunch with them at their home. Pasetti—pallid, insignificant, precise—was talking; and his wife gazed at him with spell-bound eyes in which could be read, simultaneously, love, awe, admiration and self-surrender. Certainly Emilia had not yet reached that point with Battista, but it seemed to me that her look already held the germ of the feelings that Signora Pasetti cherished for her husband. Battista, in fact, did quite right to show off; Emilia, inexplicably, was already partly subjugated, and would soon be wholly so. At this thought I felt myself transfixed by a feeling of pain even sharper, perhaps than the pain I had felt shortly before, when I had seen them kissing. And I could not prevent the expression on my face from becoming visibly more gloomy. Battista must have noticed this change, for he threw me a penetrating glance and then suddenly asked: “What’s the matter, Molteni? Aren’t you pleased to be at Capri? Is there something wrong?”
“Because,” he said, pouring himself out some wine, “you look gloomy...not to say ill-humored.”
This was his method of attack: perhaps because he knew that the best way to be on the defensive is to be offensive. I answered with a promptness that surprised me: “I started feeling ill-humored while I was out on the terrace looking at the sea.”
He raised his eyebrows and looked at me questioningly but with no sign of agitation. “Oh, really...why?”
I looked at Emilia: she did not appear to be worried, either. They were both of them incredibly sure of themselves. Yet Emilia had certainly seen me, and in all probability had told Battista. Suddenly these unpremeditated words issued from my mouth: “Battista, may I talk to you frankly?”
Again I wondered at his imperturbability. “Frankly?” he asked. “But of course! I always like people to talk to me frankly.”
“You see,” I went on, “when I was looking at the sea, I imagined for a moment that I was here working on my own account. My ambition, as you know, is to write for the theater. And so I thought how this would be the ideal spot, as they say, to devote myself to my work: beauty, silence, peace, my wife with me, nothing to worry about. Then I remembered that I was here, in this place which is so lovely and so favorable in every way, not for that purpose, but—I’m sorry, but you wanted me to be frank—in order to spend my time writing a film-script which will certainly be good but which, in fact, really and truly doesn’t concern me. I shall give of my very best to Rheingold, and Rheingold will make whatever use of it he likes, and in the end I shall be given a check. And I shall have wasted three or four months of the best and most creative time of my life. I know I shouldn’t say such things to you, nor to any other producer...but you wanted me to be frank. Now you know why I’m in a bad temper.”
Why had I said these things instead of the others that were on the tip of my tongue and that concerned the conduct of Battista towards my wife? I did not know; perhaps owing to a sudden weariness of overstrained nerves; perhaps because in this way I expressed, indirectly, my desperation at Emilia’s unfaithfulness which I felt to be somehow connected with the commercial and subordinate character of my work. But, just as Battista and Emilia had remained untroubled by my ominous preamble, so now they failed to show any relief at all at the wretched confession of weakness that had followed it. Battista said seriously: “But I’m sure, Molteni, you’ll write a very fine script.”
Having started out on the wrong track, I was now committed to it to the bitter end. I answered in a tone of exasperation: “I am afraid I didn’t make myself clear. I am a writer for the theater, Battista, not one of the large number of professional writers of film-scripts...and this script, however fine, however perfect it is, will be, for me, merely a script...a thing— allow me to say
I realized that I had become over-excited and that my eyes had actually filled with tears. And I was ashamed and in my heart I cursed my excess of feeling which encouraged me to make confidences of this kind to the man who, a few moments earlier, had successfully tried to entice my wife away from me. But Battista was not put out of countenance for so small a matter. “You know, Molteni,” he said, “hearing you talk, I seem to see myself again at the time when I was your age.”
“Oh, really?” I stammered, disconcerted.
“Yes, I was extremely poor,” pursued Battista, helping himself to more wine, “and I also had, as you say, ideals...What those ideals were, I could not now say, and perhaps I did not know even then...but I had them nevertheless...or perhaps I did not have this or that ideal, but Ideals with a capital I... Then I met a man to whom I owe a very great deal, if only for having taught me certain things.” Battista paused a moment, with characteristic, heavy solemnity, and I could not help calling to mind, almost involuntarily, that the man to whom he was alluding was without doubt a certain film producer, forgotten now, but famous in the days of the early Italian cinema, with whom, and under whose orders, Battista had indeed started out upon his prosperous career; a man who, however, as far as I knew, was to be admired for nothing except his capacity for making money. “To that man,” Battista went on, “I made more or less the same speech as you’ve made to me this evening. You know what he answered me? That ideals, until one knows exactly what one wants, are best forgotten and put aside...but, as soon as one has planted one’s foot on solid ground, then one should remember them, and that should become the ideal...the first thousand-lire note one earns—that’s the best ideal! Then, as he said to me, one’s ideal develops and becomes a film studio, a theater, films that have been made and that are going to be made—one’s everyday work, in fact. That’s what he said to me...and I did as he told me and everything turned out well. But you—you have the great advantage of knowing what your ideal is—to write plays. Well, you will write them!”
“I will write them?” I could not help asking, feeling doubtful but, at the same time, already somewhat comforted.
“Yes, you will write them,” Battista affirmed; “you will write them if you really want to, even if you are working for money, even if you are making scripts for Triumph Films. D’you want to know what the secret of success is, Molteni?”
“What is it?”
“Get into the queue, in life, just as you get into the queue at the booking-office, at the station. Our moment always comes, if we have patience and don’t change queues. Our moment always comes, and the booking-office clerk gives each person his ticket...each person according to his merits, of course...anyone who is going a long way, and is capable of doing so, may even be given a ticket for Australia. Others who are not going so far are given tickets for shorter journeys—for Capri, possibly!” He laughed, pleased with this ambiguous allusion to our journey, and then added: “I hope you yourself may receive a ticket for a very far-off destination...how about America?”
I looked at Battista, who was smiling at me in a fatherly manner, and then I looked at Emilia and saw that she too was smiling; it was a very faint smile, it is true, but no less sincere on that account—at least so it seemed to me. And I realized once again that Battista, that day, had somehow managed to change her aversion into a feeling that was almost one of liking for him. At this thought I was overwhelmed anew by the sadness that had assailed me when it seemed to me that I detected Signora Pasetti’s look in the eyes of Emilia. I said sadness, rather than jealousy: in reality I was extremely tired, owing both to the journey and to the various events of the day, and weariness was intermingled with all my feelings, even the most violent, deadening them and changing them into an impotent, despairing melancholy.
Dinner came to an end in unexpected fashion. After listening sympathetically to Battista, Emilia appeared suddenly to remember me—or rather, to remember my existence—in a manner that once again confirmed my uneasiness. To an insignificant remark from me: “We might go out on the terrace...the moon should have risen by now,” she replied: “I don’t want to go out on the terrace...I’m going to bed. I’m tired”; and without more ado she got up, said good night to us, and went out. Battista did not appear to be surprised at this abrupt departure; in fact—or so it seemed to me—he looked almost pleased at it, as a flattering indication of the havoc he had contrived to create in Emilia’s mind. But I felt my uneasiness to be doubled. And although, as I said, I felt exhausted, although I was well aware that it would have been better to postpone all explanations till next day, in the end I could no longer contain myself. With the excuse that I felt sleepy, I too said good night to Battista and left the room.
MY BEDROOM COMMUNICATED with Emilia’s by means of an inside door. Without any delay I went to this door and knocked. Emilia called to me to come in.
She was sitting on the bed, quite still, in a thoughtful attitude. When she saw me, she at once asked, in a weary, irritable voice: “What more do you want of me?”
“Nothing at all,” I answered coldly, for I felt perfectly calm and lucid now, also less tired; “just to wish you good night.”
“Or is it that you want to know what I think of the conversation you had this evening with Battista? Well, if you want to know, I’ll tell you at once: it was not only inopportune but ridiculous as well.”
I took a chair and sat down, then asked: “Why?”
“I don’t understand you,” she said, annoyed, “really I don’t understand you. You set so much store by this script, and then you go and tell the producer that you’re working simply to make money, that you don’t like the work, that your ideal would be to write for the theater, and so on. But don’t you realize that although, out of politeness, he gave in to you this evening, tomorrow he’ll think it over, and he’ll take good care not to give you any more work? Can’t you possibly understand a thing as simple as that?”
So she launched her attack. And although I knew she was doing it in order to conceal other, more important, anxieties from me, I still could not help noticing a certain sincerity in her voice, however painful and humiliating it might be for me. I had promised myself that I would keep calm. But her tone of utter contempt made me flare up in spite of myself. “But it’s the truth,” I cried all of a sudden; “I don’t like this job, I’ve never liked it. And it’s by no means certain that I’m going to do it.”
“Of course you’re going to do it.” Never had she despised me so much as at this moment.
I set my teeth and tried to control myself. “Perhaps I may not do it,” I said in a normal voice. “I had intended to do it even as late as this morning...but certain things have happened during the course of today which will cause me, in all probability, to announce to Battista, not later than tomorrow, that I am giving it up.”
I uttered this sibylline remark deliberately, with a feeling almost of vindictiveness. She had tortured me so much, and now I wanted to torture her by alluding to what I had seen through the window, without, however, speaking of it directly or precisely. She looked at me fixedly, and then asked in a quiet voice: “What things have happened?”
“Plenty of things.”
She was insistent: it seemed to me that she sincerely desired me to accuse her, to reprove her for her unfaithfulness. But I continued to be evasive. “They’re things to do with the film...things between myself and Battista...there’s no need to mention t
“Why don’t you want to mention them?”
“Because they wouldn’t interest you.”
“Possibly; but you won’t have the courage to give up the job. You’ll do it all right.”
I could not quite make out whether this remark showed merely the usual contempt, or whether it contained an unspecified hope. I asked, cautiously: “Why do you think so?”
“Because I know you.” She paused a moment and then sought to gloss over what she had said. “It’s always like that with film-scripts, anyhow...How many times have I known you declare that you wouldn’t do this or that job, and then you’ve done it! The difficulties in scripts always get smoothed out in the end.”
“That may be, but this time the difficulty is not in the script.”
“Where is it, then?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Battista kissing you,” I should have liked to reply. But I restrained myself: our relationship had never been clarified right down to the bare truth, it had always been carried on by means of allusions. Before we reached the truth, there were so many other things that would have to be said. I bent forward slightly and declared with the greatest seriousness: “Emilia, you already know the reason; as I said at dinner, it’s because I’m tired of working for other people and want at last to work for myself.”
“And who’s preventing you?”
“You,” I said emphatically; then, seeing at once that she started to make a gesture of protest: “Not you directly...but your presence in my life...Our relations are unfortunately—what they are: don’t let’s speak of them...but all the same you are my wife, and I, as I’ve told you before, I take on these jobs mainly because of you. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t accept them. To put it briefly—you know it perfectly well and there’s no need for me to repeat it—we have a great many debts, we still have several installments to pay on the flat, even the car hasn’t yet been completely paid for...that’s why I do these film-scripts. Now, however, I want to make you a suggestion.”
Contempt by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes