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       Contempt, p.19

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  “What is it?”

  “I fell asleep and dreamed I was kissing you.”

  She said nothing. Frightened by her silence, I was anxious to change the subject, so I went on, at random: “Where’s Battista?”

  She answered in a quiet voice, from underneath the hat: “I don’t know where he is...By the way, he won’t be at lunch with us today...he’s lunching with Rheingold at the beach.”

  Before I knew what I was saying, I blurted out: “Emilia, I saw you yesterday evening, when Battista kissed you in the living-room!”

  “I knew you’d seen me. I saw you too.” Her voice was quite normal, though slightly muffled by the brim of the hat.

  I was disconcerted by the manner in which she received my disclosure; and also, to some extent, by the way in which I myself had made it. The truth of the matter, I thought, was that the stupefying sunshine and the silence of the sea reduced and neutralized our quarrel in a general feeling of vanity and indifference. However, with a great effort, I went on: “Emilia, you and I must have a talk.”

  “Not now...I want to lie in the sun and be quiet.”

  “This afternoon, then.”

  “All right, this afternoon.”

  I rose to my feet and, without looking back, walked off towards the path that led to the villa.

  19

  AT LUNCH WE scarcely spoke. Silence seemed to penetrate inside the villa together with the strong light of noon; the sky and sea that filled the big windows dazzled us and gave us a feeling of remoteness, as though all this blueness were a substantial thing, like a depth of water, and we two were sitting at the bottom of the sea, separated by luminous, fluctuating liquid and unable to speak. Moreover I made it a point of duty not to embark upon the explanation with Emilia until the afternoon, as I myself had proposed. It might be imagined that two people who find themselves sitting face to face with an important argument hanging between them do not think of anything else. But this was certainly not the case with us: I was not thinking at all of Battista’s kiss or of our relationship; and I was sure that Emilia was not thinking of them either. There was a sort of continuation of the suspense, of the torpor, of the indifference that had prompted me on the beach that morning to put off all explanations till later.

  After lunch, Emilia rose and said she was going to rest, and went out. Left alone, I sat still for a while, looking through the windows at the clear, luminous line of the horizon, where the harder blue of the sea joined the deep blue of the sky. A ship, small and black, was advancing along this line, like a fly on a taut thread, and I followed it with my eyes, thinking, for some reason, of all the things that were going on at that moment on board that ship—sailors polishing brasses or washing the decks; the cook washing dishes in his galley; the officers still, perhaps, sitting at table; and, down in the engine-room, half-naked stokers shoveling coal into the furnaces. It was a small ship, and to me, as I looked at it, it was nothing but a black speck; but from close by it was a large object filled with human beings and human destinies. And, conversely, I thought of the people over there looking from their ship at the coast of Capri; their eyes would perhaps be brought to an unwilling halt by an isolated white spot on the coast, and they would not even suspect that that white spot was the villa and that I was inside it and with me was Emilia and we two did not love each other and Emilia despised me and I did not know how to regain her esteem and her love...

  I became conscious that I was dozing off, and, with an abrupt burst of energy, decided to put into effect the first part of my plan: to go and inform Rheingold that I had “thought it over” and that, as a result, I would not be collaborating in the script of the film. This decision had the effect upon me of a bucketful of fresh water. Wide awake now, I jumped to my feet and went out of the house.

  Half an hour later, having walked rapidly along the path that ran round the island, I entered the hall of the hotel. I sent in my name and went and sat down in an armchair. I felt that my mind was exceedingly lucid, even though with a feverish and somewhat agitated lucidity. But, judging from my growing sense of relief—my joy, almost—at the thought of what I was about to do, I knew that I had at last set out upon the right road. After a few minutes Rheingold entered the hall and came over to me with a clouded, surprised expression in which wonder at my having called at that hour appeared to be mingled with the suspicion that he was about to hear some unpleasant news. For politeness’ sake, I asked him: “Perhaps you were asleep, Rheingold?...and I’ve woken you up?”

  “No, no,” he assured me, “I wasn’t asleep, I never sleep in the afternoon...But come this way, Molteni, let’s go into the bar.”

  I followed him into the bar, which at that hour was deserted. Rheingold, as though anxious to delay the discussion he anticipated, asked me if I would like something to drink—coffee, a liqueur. He made this suggestion with an air of gloom and reserve, like a miser who is forced to provide expensive hospitality against his will. But I knew that the reason was quite a different one: he would have preferred me not to come at all. Anyhow, I refused; and, after a few polite remarks, I embarked without more ado on the main subject. “You may perhaps be surprised,” I said, “that I’ve come back so soon. I had a whole day to consider it. But there seemed no point in waiting till tomorrow. I’ve thought about it long enough, and I came to tell you the result of my reflections.”

  “And what is that result?”

  “That I cannot collaborate in this film-script...in fact, that I am throwing up the job.”

  Rheingold did not receive this declaration with any surprise: he was evidently expecting it. But he appeared to be thrown into a kind of agitation. He said at once, in a changed voice: “Molteni, you and I must speak plainly.”

  “It seems to me I have already spoken extremely plainly: I am not going to do the script of the Odyssey.”

  “And why? Please tell me.”

  “Because I do not agree with your interpretation of the subject.”

  “In that case,” he retorted, quickly and unexpectedly, “you agree with Battista!”

  I do not know why I, in my turn, was irritated by this unforeseen accusation. It had not occurred to me that not to be in agreement with Rheingold meant to be in agreement with Battista! I said angrily: “What’s Battista got to do with it? I don’t agree with Battista either. But I tell you frankly, Rheingold, if I had to choose between the two, I should prefer Battista every time. I’m sorry, Rheingold: as far as I’m concerned, either one does the Odyssey of Homer or else one doesn’t do it at all.”

  “A masquerade in technicolor with naked women, King Kong, stomach dances, brassières, cardboard monsters, model sets!”

  “I didn’t say that: I said the Odyssey of Homer!”

  “But the Odyssey of Homer is mine,” he said with profound conviction, bending forwards, “it’s mine, Molteni!”

  For some unexplained reason I was conscious, all at once, of a desire to offend Rheingold: his false, ceremonious smile, his real, dictatorial hardness, his psychoanalytical obtuseness, all became at the moment intolerable to me. I said furiously: “No, Homer’s Odyssey is not yours, Rheingold. And I’ll say more, since you force me to it: I find Homer’s Odyssey altogether enchanting and yours altogether repulsive!”

  “Molteni!” This time Rheingold appeared really indignant.

  “Yes, to me it’s repulsive,” I went on, becoming heated now, “this desire of yours to reduce, to debase the Homeric hero just because we’re incapable of making him as Homer created him, this operation of systematic degradation is repulsive to me, and I’m not going to take part in it at any price.”

  “Molteni...one moment, Molteni!”

  “Have you read James Joyce’s Ulysses?” I interrupted him angrily; “do you know who Joyce is?”

  “I’ve read everything that concerns the Odyssey,” replied Rheingold in a deeply offended tone, “but you—”

  “Well,” I continued passionately, “Joyce also interpreted the Odyssey in the modern
manner...and he went much farther than you do, my dear Rheingold, in the job of modernization—that is, of debasement, of degradation, of profanation. He made Ulysses a cuckold, an onanist, an idler, a capricious, incompetent creature...and Penelope a retired whore. Aeolus became a newspaper editor, the descent into the infernal regions the funeral of a boon-companion, Circe a visit to a brothel, and the return to Ithaca the return home at dead of night through the streets of Dublin, with a stop or two on the way to piss in a dark corner. But at least Joyce had the discernment not to bring in the Mediterranean, the sea, the sun, the sky, the unexplored lands of antiquity. He placed the whole story in the muddy streets of a northern city, in taverns and brothels, in bedrooms and lavatories. No sunshine, no sea, no sky... everything modern, in other words debased, degraded, reduced to our own miserable stature. But you—you lack Joyce’s discretion...and therefore I, I repeat, between you and Battista, I prefer Battista, in spite of all his papier mâché. Yes, I prefer Battista. You wanted to know why I don’t wish to do this script...now you do know!”

  I fell back in my armchair, damp with sweat. Rheingold was now looking at me with a hard, serious expression and a deep frown. “You do, in fact, agree with Battista,” he said.

  “No, I do not agree with Battista. I disagree with him.”

  “On the contrary,” said Rheingold suddenly, raising his voice. “You’re not in disagreement with me, and you are in agreement with Battista.”

  All at once I felt the blood leave my cheeks and knew that I had gone deathly pale. “What do you mean?” I asked in an uneven voice.

  Rheingold leant forward and hissed (that is the only word for it) just like a snake when it sees itself threatened: “I mean what I said. Battista came to lunch with me today, and he did not conceal his ideas from me, nor the fact that you share them. You are not in disagreement with me, Molteni, and you are in agreement with Battista, whatever Battista may desire. To you, art does not matter; all you want is to be paid. That’s the truth of it, Molteni...all you want is to be paid, at any cost!”

  “Rheingold!” I cried suddenly in a loud voice.

  “Oh, yes, I understand, my dear sir,” he insisted, “and I repeat it to your face: at any cost!”

  We were face to face now, breathless, I as white as paper and he scarlet. “Rheingold!” I repeated, still in the same loud, clear voice; but I became aware that it was not so much scorn that was not expressed in my voice as a kind of obscure pain, and that that cry: “Rheingold!” contained a prayer rather than the anger of an offended person who is on the point of passing from verbal to physical violence. Yet at the same time I was conscious of the fact that I was going to hit him. I had no time. Rheingold—strangely, for I thought him an obtuse kind of man—appeared to discern the pain in my voice and, all of a sudden, seemed to check and control himself. He drew back a little and said, in a low, deliberately humble tone: “Excuse me, Molteni. I said things I didn’t mean.”

  I made an agitated gesture, as much as to say “I excuse you,” and felt at the same time that my eyes were filling with tears. After a moment’s embarrassment Rheingold resumed: “All right, it’s understood, then. You won’t take part in the script. Have you told Battista yet?”

  “No.”

  “Are you intending to tell him?”

  “Please tell him yourself. I don’t think I shall see Battista again.” I was silent a moment, and then I added: “And tell him also to start looking out for another script-writer. Let it be quite clear, Rheingold.”

  “What?” he asked in astonishment.

  “That I shall not do any script of the Odyssey either according to your ideas, or according to Battista’s ideas...either with you, or with any other director. Do you understand, Rheingold?”

  He understood at last, and a light of comprehension came into his eyes. Nevertheless he asked cautiously: “To put it shortly, is it that you don’t want to do my script, or that you don’t want to do this script in any way at all?”

  After a moment’s reflection, I said: “I’ve already told you: I don’t want to do your script. However I quite realize, on the other hand, that if I account for my refusal in that way, I should do you harm in the eyes of Battista. Let’s put it like this, then: for you, it’s your script I don’t want to do...but, for Battista, let it be understood that I don’t want to do the script whatever interpretation may be given to the subject. Tell Battista, then, that I don’t feel like it, that I’m tired, that my nerves are worn out...is that all right?”

  Rheingold appeared at once to be much relieved by my suggestion. He insisted, nevertheless: “And will Battista believe it?”

  “He’ll believe it, don’t worry...you’ll see, he’ll believe it.”

  A long silence ensured. We both felt embarrassed now; our recent quarrel still hung in the air and neither of us could quite manage to forget it. At last Rheingold said: “Yet, I’m very sorry you’re not going to collaborate in this work, Molteni. Perhaps we might have come to an agreement.”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Perhaps the differences were not so great, after all.”

  Feeling perfectly calm now, I said firmly: “No, Rheingold, they were very great indeed. It may be that you’re right to see the Odyssey in that way, but I’m convinced that, even today, the Odyssey could be made as Homer wrote it.”

  “That’s an aspiration on your part, Molteni. You aspire after a world like that of Homer...you would like it to be so...but unfortunately it isn’t!”

  I said conciliatingly: “Let’s leave it at that, then: I aspire after that sort of world. You, on the other hand, do not!”

  “Oh yes, I do, Molteni...who doesn’t? But when it’s a question of making a film, aspirations are not enough.”

  There was a further silence. I looked at Rheingold and realized that, even though he understood my reasons, he was still not altogether convinced. Suddenly I asked him: “No doubt you know the Ulysses canto in Dante, Rheingold?”

  “Yes,” he answered, a little surprised at my question, “I know it, but I don’t remember it exactly.”

  “Do you mind if I recite it to you? I know it by heart.”

  “Please do, if you care to.”

  I did not know precisely why I wanted to recite this passage from Dante—perhaps, I thought afterwards, because it seemed to me the best way of repeating certain things to Rheingold without running the risk of offending him afresh. While the director was settling himself in his armchair, and his face assuming a submissive expression, I added: “In this canto Dante makes Ulysses relate his own end and that of his companions.”

  “Yes, I know, Molteni, I know; recite it then.”

  I concentrated my thoughts for a moment, looking down on the floor, and then began: “The greater horn of the ancient flame began to shake itself, murmuring, just like a flame that struggles with the wind”—continuing steadily in a normal voice and, as far as I could, without emphasis. Rheingold, after considering me for a moment, with a frown, from beneath the peak of his cloth cap, turned his eyes in the direction of the sea and sat without moving. I went on with my recitation, speaking slowly and clearly. But at the lines: “‘O brothers!’ I said, ‘who through a hundred thousand dangers have reached the West, deny not, to this brief vigil of your sense that remains, experience of the unpeopled world behind the Sun’”—I felt that my voice, in spite of myself, was trembling with sudden emotion. I considered how there was contained, in those few lines, not merely the idea I had formed of the figure of Ulysses, but also of myself and of my life as it ought to have been and, alas, was not; and I realized that my emotion arose from the clarity and beauty of this idea in comparison with my own actual powerlessness. However I more or less succeeded in controlling the tremor in my voice and went on, without stumbling, to the very last lines: “Three times it made her whirl round with all the waters; at the fourth, made the poop rise up and prow go down, as pleased Another, till the sea was closed above us.” The moment I had finished I jumpe
d to my feet. Rheingold also rose from his armchair.

  “Allow me, Molteni,” he said at once, hastily, “allow me to ask you...Why did you recite this fragment of Dante to me? ...For what purpose? It’s very beautiful, of course—but why?”

  “This, Rheingold,” I said, “this is the Ulysses I should have liked to create...this is how I see Ulysses...Before leaving you I wanted to confirm it unmistakably...I felt I could do this better by reciting the passage from Dante than in my own words.”

  “Better, of course...but Dante is Dante: a man of the Middle Ages...You, Molteni, are a modern man.”

  I did not answer this time, but put out my hand. He understood, and added: “All the same, Molteni, I shall be very sorry to do without your collaboration...I was already getting accustomed to you.”

  “Some other time, perhaps,” I answered. “I should have liked to work with you, too, Rheingold.”

  “But why, then? Why, Molteni...?”

  “Fate,” I said with a smile, shaking his hand. And I walked away. He remained standing beside the counter, in the bar, his arms outstretched as if to repeat: “Why?”

  I hurried out of the hotel.

  20

  I RETURNED HOME as hurriedly as I had come; and with a feeling of impatience and of pugnacious elation which prevented me from reflecting calmly over what had happened. In fact, as I ran along the narrow ribbon of cement under the burning sun, I did not think of anything. The deadlock in an unbearable situation had already lasted too long, and now I knew I had broken it; I was aware, too, that in a short time I should at last know why it was that Emilia had ceased to love me; but beyond the establishment of these facts I could not go. Reflection belongs either to the moment after, or to the moment before, the taking of action. During the time of action we are guided by reflections already past and forgotten, which have been transformed in our minds into passions. I was acting; therefore I was not thinking. I knew that I should think later, when action was over.

 
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