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The empty canvas, p.16
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       The Empty Canvas, p.16

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  'Wait.'

  And so I took her again without opening her eyes, although with her body she candidly welcomed and facilitated my embrace in her usual hungry manner—a final proof, if there was need of it, of the fact that she was somewhere else and that what I took possession of had no value for her nor, therefore, for me either. But this time Cecilia opened her eyes wide, immediately afterwards, and said: 'Now I really must be going.'

  She rose, ran across to the bathroom door and disappeared. Left alone, I fell into a kind of empty reflection. I reflected in the literal sense of the word, that is, I contemplated, in the dark mirror of my consciousness, myself lying naked and inert on the divan, the easel with the blank canvas near the window, the studio and all the things it contained. Then a precise thought insinuated itself into this dead, objective world; this was that, after the second embrace, Cecilia had remained more than ever elusive and therefore real; so that, if by some miracle of nature I had been capable of having her, not twice in succession but two hundred times, I should have found myself, in the end, just as unsatisfied as the first time. In short, the more I had her the less I possessed her; if only because, in having her, I wasted the energy I should have needed to possess her seriously, in a way, however, that I could not contrive to imagine, at least for the moment.

  At this point I heard Cecilia open the bathroom door, and then, rising on my elbows, I said to her: 'Look in that cupboard: there's a present for you.' I heard her exclaim: 'For me?' in a tone of voice which was neither surprised nor really pleased; then, evidently, she opened the cupboard, took out the bag, unwrapped it and looked at it; but I saw nothing because I was now lying on my back again, staring up at the ceiling. But after a little I felt her lips brush lightly against mine in one of those characteristically meagre, childish kisses, and I heard her murmur: 'Thank you.' Finally, a little later, I hoisted myself on to my elbows again: Cecilia, now fully dressed, was standing at the table in the middle of the room and carefully transferring her various personal objects from her old bag into the new one. I sank down again, flat on my back.

  6

  Cecilia, as I think I have made clear, was not talkative, in fact it might be said that her natural inclination was to keep silence; but even when she spoke she contrived, as it were, to be silent at the same time, thanks to the disconcertingly brief, impersonal quality of her manner. Words, in her mouth, seemed to lose all real significance, and were reduced to abstract sounds as though they were words in a foreign language that I did not know. The lack of any kind of accent or dialect and of any inflection of social class, the complete absence of revealing commonplaces, the reduction of conversation to pure and simple declarations of incontrovertible facts such as 'It's hot today'—all these confirmed this impression of abstractness. I would ask her, for example, what she had done on the evening of the day before; and she would answer: 'I had dinner at home and then I went out with Mother and we went to the cinema together.' Now these words, as I immediately noticed—'home', 'dinner', 'mother', 'cinema'—which in another mouth would have meant what they usually mean, and consequently, according to how they were uttered, would have made me see whether she was lying or telling the truth, these same words, in Cecilia's mouth, seemed to be nothing more than abstract sounds, behind which it was impossible to imagine the reality either of truth or of falsehood. How it was that Cecilia contrived to speak and at the same time give the impression of being silent, I have often wondered. And I came to the conclusion that she had only one means of expression, the sexual one, which however was obviously impossible to interpret even though original and powerful; and that with her mouth she said nothing, not even things concerned with sex, because her mouth was, so to speak, a false orifice, without depth or resonance, that did not communicate with anything inside her. So much so that often, looking at her as she lay beside me on the divan after our intercourse, flat on her back with her legs open, I could not help comparing the horizontal cleft of her mouth with the vertical cleft of her sex and remarking, with surprise, how much more expressive the latter was than the former—and with the same purely psychological quality as those features of the face by which a person's nature is revealed.

  I had, furthermore, to discover what was concealed behind a remark such as: 'I had dinner at home and then I went out with Mother and we went to the cinema together'; whether, in fact, a dinner and a home, a mother and a cinema were really concealed behind the words, or possibly an appointment with the peroxide-haired actor; and thus, all at once, I was seized with a furious desire to know Cecilia better, for hitherto I had not taken the trouble to find out anything about her because, being under the illusion that I possessed her through our sexual relationship, I was under the illusion that I knew everything. For example, her family. Cecilia had told me, with her usual brevity, that she was an only daughter, that she lived with her father and mother and that they were not well off because her father was ill and had stopped working. I had been content with this information, almost grateful to her, in fact, for not telling me more, since the thing that mattered to me more than anything else was that she should come every day to the studio and make love with me. But from the moment when I had a suspicion that she was being unfaithful to me, and when this suspicion had suddenly transformed Cecilia from something unreal and boring into something real and desirable, I was filled with curiosity to know more about her home life, as though I hoped that a more thorough knowledge might enable me to achieve the full possession which sexual intercourse denied me. So I started questioning her, rather in the way in which I had questioned her about her relations with Balestrieri. Here, as an example, is one of our conversations.

  'Your father is ill?'

  'Yes.'

  'What is he suffering from?'

  'He's suffering from cancer.'

  'What do the doctors say?'

  'They say he's suffering from cancer.'

  'No, what I mean is—do they think he can recover?'

  'No, they say he can't recover.'

  'Then he'll die soon?'

  'Yes, they say he'll die soon.'

  'Are you sorry?'

  'Sorry for what?'

  'That your father is dying.'

  'Yes.'

  'Is that all you can say?'

  'What ought I to say?'

  'But you're fond of your father?'

  'Yes.'

  'Well, let's go on to something else. Your mother—what's she like?'

  'What d'you mean—what's she like?'

  'Well, is she short, tall, pretty, ugly, dark, fair?'

  'Oh well, I don't know; she's just like lots of other women.'

  'But tell me, what does she look like?'

  'Goodness me, she doesn't look like anything.'

  'Doesn't look like anything? Whatever do you mean?'

  'I mean she doesn't look like anything in particular. She's just like anyone else.'

  'Are you fond of your mother?'

  'Yes.'

  'More or less fond than of your father?'

  'It's a different thing.'

  'What does different mean?'

  'Different means different.'

  'But different in what way?'

  'I don't know: different.'

  'Well then, is your mother fond of your father?'

  'I think so.'

  'Why, aren't you sure?'

  'They get on all right together, so I imagine they're fond of each other.'

  'What does your father do all day?'

  'Nothing.'

  'What does nothing mean?'

  'Nothing means nothing.'

  'But people say "doing nothing" just as a manner of speaking, and then they really do all sorts of things even if they're doing nothing. So your father doesn't work; what does he do instead?'

  'He doesn't do anything.'

  'That is to say -?'

  'Oh well, I don't know: at home he sits by the radio, in an armchair. Every day he takes a little walk—that's all.'

  'I
see. You live in a flat in the Prati district?'

  'Yes.'

  'How many rooms have you?'

  'I don't know.'

  'What d'you mean, you don't know?'

  'I've never counted them.'

  'But is it a big or a small flat?'

  'So-so.'

  'What does that mean?'

  'Medium-sized.'

  'Well then, describe it.'

  'It's a flat just like lots of others; there's nothing to describe.'

  'But I suppose this flat of yours isn't empty? There's some furniture in it?'

  'Oh yes, there's the usual furniture, beds, armchairs, cupboards.'

  'What sort of furniture?'

  'Really I don't know; just like any other furniture.'

  'Take the sitting-room, for example. You have a sitting-room?'

  'Yes.'

  'What furniture is there in it?'

  'The usual furniture: chairs, small tables, armchairs, sofas—the same as in all sitting-rooms.'

  'And in what style is this furniture?'

  'Don't know.'

  'What colour is it, then?'

  'It hasn't any colour.'

  'What d'you mean, it hasn't any colour?'

  'I mean it hasn't any colour, it's gilt.'

  'I see, but even gilt is a colour. D'you like your home?'

  'I don't know whether I like it. In any case, I'm not there very much.'

  I could go on, in this way, ad infinitum. But I think I have given a good example of what I have called Cecilia's abstractness. It may perhaps be thought, at this point, that Cecilia was stupid, and, anyhow, devoid of personality. But this was not so: the fact that I never heard her say stupid things was a proof, if nothing else, that she was not stupid; and as for personality, this, as I have already said, lay elsewhere than in her conversation, so that to report the latter without at the same time accompanying it with a description of her face and figure would be rather like reading an operatic libretto without music or a film script without the pictures on the screen. But I wished to transcribe an example of conversation mainly in order to convey the idea that Cecilia's way of speaking was thus formal and bloodless for the good reason that she herself was ignorant of the things about which I questioned her, just as much as I was and perhaps more so. In other words, she lived with her father and mother in a flat in Prati and had been Balestrieri's mistress; but she had never paused to look at the people and things in her life and therefore had never truly seen them, still less observed them. She was, in fact, a stranger to herself and to the world she lived in; just as much as those who knew neither her nor her world.

  In any case, my suspicion of Cecilia's unfaithfulness, by making her mysterious and elusive and therefore real, finally aroused in me a desire to verify her vague scraps of information, if only in order to abolish at least that portion of mystery which lay outside our sexual relationship. And so, one day, I asked her to let me make the acquaintance of her family. I noticed, with some surprise, that my request did not embarrass her at all, in spite of the 'grumblings' that she had put forward as an excuse to justify her intention of reducing the number of our meetings. 'I had thought of that too,' she said; 'my mother is always asking me about you.'

  'Did you introduce Balestrieri to your family, at that time?'

  'Yes.'

  'Did your parents ever get to know that you were Balestrieri's mistress?'

  'No.'

  'If they had known, what would they have done?'

  'Who knows?'

  'Did Balestrieri often come to your home?'

  'Yes.'

  'What did he do there?'

  'Nothing. He used to come to lunch or for coffee and then we'd go off together to his studio.'

  'Did you ever make love, you and Balestrieri, at your home?'

  'He always wanted to, but I didn't, because I was afraid my parents would discover.'

  'But why did he want to do it there, in your home?'

  'I don't know, he liked the idea.'

  'But did you do it, or not?'

  'Yes, we did it sometimes.'

  'Where?'

  'I don't remember now.'

  'Try and remember.'

  'Ah yes, we did it once in the kitchen.'

  'In the kitchen?'

  'Yes, Mother had gone out to buy something, and I had to mind the oven.'

  'But couldn't you have gone into your room, seeing that you were alone in the house?'

  'If Balestrieri had a mind to make love, he did it wherever he was: he liked doing it in odd places.'

  'Why?'

  'I don't know.'

  'But how did you manage to do it, like that, in the kitchen?'

  'Standing up.'

  And so, one day, Cecilia brought me an invitation to lunch from her parents. That morning I changed my sweater and corduroy trousers for a dark suit, a white shirt and a sober tie, so as to look like the professor I was supposed to be, and went off towards one o'clock to Cecilia's address, a street in Prati. To tell the truth, I felt intensely curious and almost excited at going to visit her at her home; this was because every discovery I made, or thought I made, about Cecilia now immediately assumed a sensual quality, as if, in discovering aspects of her life that I did not know, I had discovered her herself, in a material sense, or had stripped her naked.

  I did not have much difficulty in finding the street, a quiet, bleak, straight street flanked by plane-trees now leafless, and with rows of shops on the ground floors of the big grey and yellow buildings. The entrance door of Cecilia's block of flats led into a large courtyard in which a few palm-trees planted in the middle of barren flower-beds raised yellowed crests like plucked feathers to the garlands of washing hung out to dry from the top floors. There were various staircases marked with the letters A to F; the one leading to Cecilia's flat was staircase E. An 'Out of Order' notice hung on the grating of the ancient lift; so I walked up many flights of stairs, in a wan, cold light, from one landing to another, scrutinizing, at each floor, the labels on the doors. Flats One, Two, and Three; Flats Four, Five, and Six; Flats Seven, Eight, and Nine; Flats Ten, Eleven, and Twelve: this, then, was the staircase, I could not help thinking, as I arrived at last at Flat Thirteen, on the fourth floor, and pressed the bell, this was the staircase up and down which Cecilia went every day when she came to see me or returned home again. What would I have found out about this staircase if I had asked Cecilia? Nothing, less than nothing. She would have answered me, with characteristic tautology, that 'the staircase was a staircase', and that would have been the end of it. And yet upon this staircase she had left a part of her life; and this grey light, these white marble steps, these red tiles on the landings, this dark wood of which the doors were made, all these must have remained in her memory—just as others, more fortunate, retain a memory of the smiling landscapes amongst which they have passed their years of childhood and youth. As I was thinking these things I heard, on the far side of the door, a step which, though light, made a loud sound on the loose bricks of an old floor. The door opened and Cecilia appeared on the threshold. She was wearing the usual green, hairy sweater that came down below her waist, with the deep, triangular neckline allowing a glimpse of the beginning of her breasts; her short, tight black skirt was stretched in deep, concentric folds over her belly. As I greeted her, she leant forward in the doorway and I was a little surprised because I thought she was intending to kiss me, and this was not like her, in such a place and at such a moment. Instead, she whispered: 'Remember it's a lesson day today and that after lunch we go off together to your studio.' For some reason or other, this unusual urgency made me almost suspicious; and it crossed my mind that Cecilia intended to make use of me and of our appointment in order to conceal some other engagement.

  The hall was furnished like a room of the same kind in an old-fashioned family boarding-house at a watering-place: chairs and table of wickerwork, a plant in one corner and a plaster statue of a nude woman in another. But the chairs and the table
looked old and decrepit, the statue, wherever there was a curve or a hollow, was grey with dust and lacked a hand into the bargain, and the plant, of the species called ficus, was reduced to a couple of leaves at the end of a long stalk. I noticed that the walls were white, but with à suspicion of dust everywhere, a kind of old, sticky dust which seemed thicker in the corners of the ceiling, where there were little dark, dense cobwebs. It suddenly occurred to me that this was a house of which, rightly or wrongly, any ordinary girl would be ashamed, at a moment when she was bringing in her lover; any ordinary girl, but not Cecilia. Meanwhile she was leading me down a long, empty passage; then she opened a door and beckoned to me to follow her.

  I saw a big, rectangular room with four windows, veiled by yellow curtains, in a row along one wall. The room appeared to be divided into two parts by a couple of steps and an arch; the larger part was the sitting-room, and in it was the furniture which Cecilia had once described as being without colour, that is, gilded. This furniture, actually, was in the Louis XV style, imitated from the antique, as had been the fashion forty years before, and it was arranged in ghostly groups round little circular tables and meagre lamps with shades adorned with beads. With my first glance I noticed white patches where the gilded plaster had peeled off, dirty marks on the flower-patterned arms of the chairs, damp stains on the small pieces of tapestry depicting episodes of gallantry. But the shabbiness of the place was evident not so much in the worn look of its furnishings as in certain almost unbelievable details which seemed to indicate a long-standing, unjustifiable neglect: a long, narrow strip of wallpaper with a pattern of little bunches of flowers and baskets, for instance, hanging down in the middle of the wall and showing the raw plaster behind it; a wide, uneven, rough-edged tear in one of the yellow curtains at the windows; and actually a large, black, gaping hole in one corner of the ceiling. Why had Cecilia's parents not taken the trouble at least to paste back the strip of wallpaper, to mend the curtain, to have the ceiling repaired as far as possible? And as for Cecilia—was this, then, the house which was a house, the sitting-room which was a sitting-room, the furniture which was furniture? Was it possible that she lived in a flat which, in its own squalid way, was so peculiar, and had never become conscious of it? With these thoughts in my mind I followed her into the smaller part of the room, beyond the arch, which was arranged as a dining-room, with furniture in the same dark, massive, Renaissance style as I had already noted in Balestrieri's studio. From near one of the windows, breaking the silence, came the jerky sound of light music on the radio. Possibly because of a certain icy quality in this silence, when I heard these sounds I realized suddenly that, although it was already the beginning of December, the flat was not heated. Cecilia, who was in front of me, said: 'Dad, let me introduce my drawing-master.'

 
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