The Empty Canvas, p.17Alberto Moravia
Cecilia's father rose with an effort from the armchair in which he was sitting listening to the radio and held out his hand to me without speaking, at the same time pointing to his throat as if to warn me that, owing to his disease, he was unable to talk. I recalled the strange whispering, breathing sound that I had heard on the telephone some days before and realized that it had been he who had answered me, or rather had tried, in vain, to answer me. I looked at him as he let himself fall back into his old leather armchair, all blackened and worn, and then as he bent forward and turned down the volume of the radio. He must have been what is generally called a handsome man, with that slightly vulgar kind of handsomeness that is to be found in some over-symmetrical faces. Of that handsomeness there was now nothing left. Disease had ravaged his face, causing it to swell in some places and contract in others, reddening it here and whitening it there. And there was death already, it seemed to me, in his black hair, which lay flat and lifeless and glued down, as it were, by an unhealthy sweat upon his brow and temples; in the purplish colour of his lips; and, above all, in his round eyes, with their expression of intense dismay. These eyes seemed to say things which his mouth, even if it had not been speechless, would have passed over in silence; and they brought to mind, not merely the dumbness produced by his disease, but, even more, the kind of forced helplessness of one who has been bound and gagged and left, alone and defenceless, to face a deadly peril.
Cecilia told her father to sit down, and she invited me to do the same and to keep her father company, as she had to go to the kitchen: she spoke in a loud voice, mentioning her father as if he were some inanimate object to be disposed of as one liked. I sat down, therefore, opposite the invalid, and, not knowing what to say, began talking in a flattering way about Cecilia's artistic talent. Her father listened to me, rolling his terrified eyes as if, instead of talking to him about his daughter, I were hurling grave threats at him. From time to time he also talked, or rather tried to talk, as he had done on the telephone that day when he answered me; but the sounds that issued from his mouth, blown forth rather than articulated, were to me incomprehensible. All of a sudden, without much ceremony and with the involuntary bad manners of the healthy when confronted with the sick, I said I must wash my hands; and I rose and left the room.
I was urged to do this by the same curiosity that had made me ask Cecilia to introduce me to her parents. When I was in the passage I went, at random, to the first of the four doors leading from it, and opened it. A little bedroom, of a chilling poverty, met my eyes: the cold, subdued light came from the courtyard through the panes of curtainless windows. A black-painted iron bedstead with a consecrated olive-branch tied to its bars and a red coverlet well tucked in under a thin mattress, two so-called kitchen chairs with yellow straw seats, and a small wardrobe of rough wood, constituted the whole of the furniture. I was at once sure that this almost empty little room must be Cecilia's; I knew it from the smell that hung in the air, a rather sharp, unsophisticated feminine smell that I remembered having encountered in her hair and on her skin. I opened the cupboard to make more sure, and there indeed I saw on their hangers the few clothes, so well known to me, of which Cecilia's wardrobe consisted—the little ballet-skirt she had worn during the summer, when I first met her; a two-piece suit of grey wool which she put on in cold weather; a black coat which she wore in the evening; a black dress of the kind known, I believe, as semi-evening dress. On a shelf lay something wrapped in white tissue-paper—the bag I had given her on the day that should have been the day of our parting. I closed the cupboard again and looked round, trying to define to myself the feeling which the room inspired in me; and finally I understood: the room was bare and squalid, but its bareness and its squalor were natural and as it were untamed, like those of a place—of some hollow or cave—lived in by wild beasts. It was the bareness, in a word, not so much of a poverty-stricken house as of a lair.
I tiptoed out and opened the next door. Here the darkness was almost complete, but from the vague outline of a big double bed and from a stuffy smell very different from that in Cecilia's room, heavier and less healthy, I concluded it was her parents' bedroom. I closed this door too, and opened the third.
This was the bathroom, more like a long narrow passage than a room, with the window and the half-closed shutters at the opposite end to the door. All in a row along one wall stood the bath, the bidet, the washbasin and the water-closet. The bath was of an old-fashioned shape, with deposits of rust on its old yellowed enamel; the wash-basin was criss-crossed with thin black cracks; the bidet had a kind of grey, greasy patina at the bottom of it; and finally my eye, jumping with increasing disgust from one to another of these tarnished instruments of cleanliness, detected, on the inside rim of the water-closet, something fresh and dark and shining which had obviously resisted the insufficient rush of water from the antiquated flushing apparatus. I went to the wash-basin, took a little piece of soap from the dish and started washing my hands. While I was washing, I recalled all the questions I had put to Cecilia about her home and the answers I had received, those formal, abstract answers; and this confirmed what I had previously supposed: Cecilia had not been able to tell me anything about her home because, in point of fact, she had never seen it. Then the door opened and Cecilia herself came in.
'Ah, you're here,' she said, without showing any sign of surprise that I was not keeping her father company in the sitting-room, as she had asked me to do. She walked past behind my back, went straight to the water-closet and, pulling up her skirt with both hands, sat down and made water. Then, as I saw her sitting like that, her knees bent and her legs apart, her bust thrown forward and her face turned towards me, seeing, especially, her beautiful, dark, expressionless eyes fixed upon me with an innocence like that of an animal which, unconscious of the man watching, quietly relieves the needs of nature, the idea of the wild creature's lair, which had occurred to me shortly before when I was in her room, came back to me again. Yes, I said to myself, this flat made one's heart ache if one considered it as being inhabited by human beings; but the moment one imagined a wild animal living there, a small, graceful animal such as a fox, a stone marten, an otter, it became normal and acceptable. Cecilia by now had finished making water. She transferred her bare buttocks from the water-closet to the bidet, squatted down and washed herself thoroughly with one hand. Then she got up again and, spreading her legs wide apart, wiped herself vigorously with a towel. Finally, pulling down her skirt, she said: 'Out of the way a moment, I want to comb my hair.'
I stood aside, and she took from the shelf a brush that had lost most of its bristles and a very dirty comb from which several teeth were missing, and began energetically doing her hair. I said casually: 'Your father is really very ill; I'm afraid the doctors are right.'
'What d'you mean?'
'That he hasn't long to live.'
'Yes, I know.'
'How will you manage?'
'How will we manage what?'
'When he's dead.'
'In what sense?'
'What will you live on?'
She answered hurriedly, passing a lipstick over her mouth: 'We'll manage as we've always done.'
'And how have you managed?'
'We have a shop. That's what we live on.'
'A shop? You never told me.'
'You never asked.'
'What do you sell in the shop?'
'Umbrellas, suitcases, bags, leather goods.'
'And who is there in the shop?'
'My mother and my aunt.'
'Does this shop pay well?'
She finished painting her lips, then answered conclusively: 'No, it pays very little.'
I put my arm round her waist and pressed myself against her, my belly close against her back. She threw a brief glance, whether of understanding or of surprise I could not tell; then she took a black pencil and began touching up her eyebrows. 'D'you ever think of death?' I asked her.
I was clasping her lightly and she started m
'Not even when you see your father in such a bad state?'
'Surely anyone in your position would think about it.'
'I'm quite well; why should I think about death?'
'But there are other people.'
'So they say.'
'Why, aren't you sure?'
'No, I was only talking.'
'And your father—d'you imagine he thinks about death?'
'Yes, he does.'
'Is your father afraid of dying?'
'Does he know he's going to die?'
'No, he doesn't know.'
'And do you never think about his dying?'
'As long as he's alive, even if he's ill, I don't think about his death. I'll think about it on the day he dies. All I think about now is that he's ill.'
Abruptly I let go of her, saying: 'D'you know, I want you?'
'Yes, I realized that.'
She finished touching up her eyebrows, put the pencil back on the shelf and then pushed me towards the door. 'Come on,' she said, 'in any case Mother must be back by now.'
And, in fact, she had come back. As we came out into the passage, a shrill, discordant voice, like the tinkle of chimes let loose when you open the door of a shop, started shouting: 'Cecilia! Cecilia!'
Cecilia started off in the direction of this voice and I followed her. The kitchen door was open, and her mother, still wearing her coat and hat, was standing in front of the stove, spoon in hand, stirring a pot. The kitchen was dark and smoky and of an unusual, triangular shape: the stove stood on the longest side, underneath a hood; the sharp point of the triangle ended in a high narrow window, a half-window, actually, and obscured, into the bargain, by clothes hung up to dry. The room was dirty and extremely untidy, with peelings scattered on the floor, the marble table covered with parcels and paper bags and, in the sink near the window, towering piles of dirty plates heaped up all higgledy-piggledy on top of each other. Without turning round, Cecilia's mother said: 'The plates, the plates have got to be washed.'
'I'll wash the whole lot this evening,' replied Cecilia, 'today's and yesterday's as well.'
'And the day before yesterday's too,' said her mother.
'That's what you say every day and soon we shan't have any plates left. I washed the breakfast plates this morning; but you'll have to wash the dinner plates, because I must go to the shop.'
'Let me introduce Dino, Mother.'
'Oh, Professor, excuse me, it's a pleasure, a pleasure, excuse me, excuse me, it's a pleasure.' The clanging sound of her voice went on for some time chiming the words 'pleasure' and 'excuse me', while I was shaking her hand. I looked at her. She was a woman of small stature, with a minute, wasted face which seemed, however, to have blossomed belatedly into a kind of uproarious youthfulness. Her eyes, black, unsophisticated, and surrounded with fine wrinkles, shone with a reckless light; her cheeks were enlivened by a hectic colouring, whether natural or artificial I could not tell; her mouth, painted and very large, opened in a brilliant smile. She resembled Cecilia, I noticed, especially in the childish look of her brow which jutted out over her wide open eyes, and in the round shape of her face. In her loud, cracked voice she cried: 'I didn't know the Professor was here. Cecilia, take the Professor into the sitting-room; I'll see to the cooking.'
In the passage I said to Cecilia: 'You introduced me to your father as your drawing-master, and to your mother as Dino. Couldn't you remember my surname?'
She replied, in an absent-minded sort of way: 'You may not believe it, but I still don't know it. I've known you as Dino, and I've never thought of asking you your other name. By the way, what is your other name, then?'
'Well,' I said, 'if you still don't know it, you might as well go on not knowing it. I'll tell you another time.' Suddenly I felt myself to be, so to speak, unnameable, perhaps simply because Cecilia seemed to prefer me without a name.
'Just as you like.'
We went into the sitting-room, and I said to Cecilia: 'Your mother is very like you, physically. But what sort of character has she?'
'What d'you mean?'
'What is she like—good or bad, calm or nervous, generous or mean?'
'I really don't know, I've never thought about it. She has an ordinary sort of character. To me, she's my mother and that's that.'
'And he?' I asked, indicating her father sitting in the armchair beside the radio; 'what sort of character has he, in your opinion?'
This time she did not answer me at all; she merely shrugged her shoulders, in a strange way, as though I had asked an entirely senseless question. Seized by a sudden irritation, I took hold of her by the arm and, speaking right into her ear, asked her: 'What's that black hole up there in the ceiling?'
She looked up the hole as though she were seeing it for the first time. 'It's a hole; it's been there for some time.'
'Ah then, you can see the hole.'
'Why shouldn't I be able to see it?'
'Then how is it that you can't see your father's and mother's characters?'
'You can see a hole, you can't see a character. My father and mother are people just like lots of other people, that's all there is to it.'
We were now close to her father, who was listening, motionless, to the radio. I sat down on a chair opposite him and shouted: 'How d'you feel today?'
He jumped in his armchair and looked at me in dismay. Then he said something I did not understand. 'He says there's no need to shout, he's not deaf,' explained Cecilia who, it appeared, understood her father's whispering sounds perfectly.
She was right, and goodness knows why I had thought that, because he was almost dumb, he was also deaf. 'I'm sorry,' I said, 'I was asking you how you felt.' He pointed to the windows and said something which Cecilia interpreted in this way: 'There's a scirocco blowing and on scirocco days he never feels very well.'
'Why don't you go to your shop?' I asked. 'It would be a distraction for you, don't you think?'
He made a gesture of humble denial and then answered in a more detailed way, pointing to his throat and face. Cecilia said: 'He says he can't go there because customers would be discouraged at seeing him so changed, and sales would suffer. He says he'll go as soon as he's better.'
'Are you having treatment?'
Again he spoke and again his daughter interpreted: 'He's having X-ray treatment. He hopes to be well again in a year's time.' I looked at Cecilia now to see what was the effect upon her of these pathetic illusions on the part of her father; as usual, nothing was perceptible on her round face, in her expressionless eyes. I reflected that not merely did she not realize that her father was dying, but not even—contrary to what she had affirmed—that he was ill. Or rather, she did realize it, she was conscious of it, but in the same way that she was conscious of the black hole in the sitting-room ceiling: the hole was a hole, her father's illness was an illness. Behind us, her mother's voice clanged: 'It's ready, please come and sit down.'
We went and took our seats at the table, and Cecilia's mother, apologizing for not having a servant, herself carried round the tureen full of pasta. Then, as I looked at the tangle of red, greasy spaghetti in the china tureen, it occurred to me that even the food had something about it that resembled the flat, something old, something neglected. It was with repugnance that I ate this bad pasta, using a fork with an unsteady, yellow bone handle and secretly envying the other three, and especially Cecilia, who were all devouring their food with appetite. Cecilia's mother poured me out some wine which I judged, at the first sip, to have gone sour, and then, when I asked for some cold water, she filled my other glass with mineral water which was also stale, that is, warm and without sparkle. The unpleasantness of the food was, however, surpassed by the unpleasantness of the conversation which Cecilia's mother, the only one who spoke, stubbornly persisted in carrying on with me. Quite logically, she had almost a
I glanced at Cecilia before replying. She glanced back at me, but seemed not to see me, so absent-minded and vague was her look. I said drily: 'Yes, I knew him slightly.'
'Such a good man, so charming and so intelligent. A real artist. You can't imagine how upset I was at his death.'
'Yes, yes,' I said casually, 'and he wasn't so very old.'
'Barely sixty-five, and he looked fifty. We had known him for only two years, and yet I seemed to have known him always. He was part of the family, so to speak. And he had such a great affection for Cecilia! He said he looked upon her almost as a daughter.'
'He ought to have said,' I corrected, without smiling, 'he ought to have said as a grand-daughter.'
'Yes, indeed, a grand-daughter,' she approved mechanically. 'And just imagine, he wouldn't even be paid for his lessons. "Art cannot be paid for", he used to say. How true that is!'
'Perhaps,' I remarked, with an attempt at archness, 'perhaps you mean to suggest that I ought to give Cecilia lessons for nothing, too.'
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes