The Empty Canvas, p.19Alberto Moravia
She seemed astonished both by my words and my tone of voice. 'Why?' she said, 'aren't you going with me?'
'I've told you already, to that film producer's.'
'Very well, then: come along.'
I did not speak during the whole journey. Fundamentally, what most exasperated me was not so much that Cecilia should make me drive her to an appointment with her lover, as that she should do so without malice and without cruel intent, in a vague sort of way, simply, it might be, because she was tired of taking the usual crowded bus, and there was I, ready and on the spot, with my car. I realized that this detached, childish lack of sensitiveness caused me far more pain than any self-indulgent perversity.
Finally I stopped the car in front of the film company's door and watched Cecilia as she disappeared into the darkness of the entrance hall, walking with her usual tired-looking, swaying step. Evidently the appointment with the film producer was genuine; but either the actor was waiting for Cecilia in the office, or Cecilia was intending to join him at his own home after she had spoken with the producer. In both cases it would have been easy for me to ascertain the truth, either by following her immediately into the building, or by waiting until she came out. But I gave up the idea: I was still at the stage of jealousy when a surviving sense of dignity prevents one from spying upon the person of whom one is jealous. Nevertheless, as I went away I knew I had merely postponed the moment when I would start watching her. Next time, I thought, I should no longer be able to stand firm against circumstances which encouraged me, which indeed almost obliged me, to spy upon her.
The events which I am now going to relate may possibly create the impression of a crisis of very ordinary jealousy; and indeed, if my behaviour during that time had been observed by a spectator of little perspicacity, it might well have appeared to be that of the stock victim of jealousy. But it was not like that. The jealous man suffers from an excessive sense of possessiveness; he suspects continually that some other man wishes to get possession of his woman; and this haunting suspicion gives rise to extravagant imaginings and may even lead him to crime. I myself, on the other hand, suffered because I loved Cecilia (for it had now become a question of love); and my aim in spying upon her was to make certain that she was deceiving me, not indeed to punish her or in any way prevent her from continuing in her unfaithfulness, but in order to set myself free both from my love and from her. The jealous man tends, in fact, even in spite of himself, to shackle himself in his own servitude; I, on the contrary, wished to release myself from this same servitude, and I saw no other means of attaining my object than by destroying Cecilia's independence and mystery, thus reducing her, through a more exact knowledge of her treacherous conduct, to something well-known and ordinary and insignificant.
My first thought was to make use of the telephone. As I have already mentioned, Cecilia used to telephone me every morning about ten o'clock. She had done this, at the beginning, merely in order to greet me. But now that her visits had become rarer (her promise to go on coming to see me every day, as before, had soon been proved unreliable), the telephone had become an essential element in our relationship. It was in fact by telephone that Cecilia now fixed the day and hour of our appointments each time, in an unaccountable, irregular manner. I noticed that the time of these telephone calls had changed recently from ten to twelve o'clock. Cecilia had justified this change by the fact that her telephone was a party line and that the subscriber who shared it had taken to making a great many calls in the early morning. But I was convinced that the reason was a different one and that she no longer telephoned me at ten o'clock because by that time she had not yet spoken to the actor who, like all actors, slept very late into the morning. And, not having spoken to him, she did not yet know what she would be doing during the day, and therefore could not tell me if and when she could see me.
The actor's number was not in the telephone directory; but it was easy for me to obtain it from a film company for whom he had worked in the past. Having found out the number, I ascertained the truth of what I had supposed in the following way: I first telephoned to Cecilia at about a quarter to twelve and invariably found that the number was engaged; immediately afterwards I telephoned the actor and discovered that he too was on the line. I waited five or ten minutes and then repeated the manoeuvre: both the lines were free. And indeed, a moment later, with a punctuality that filled me with sadness, my own telephone would ring and Cecilia, at the other end, calm and precise as a trained secretary, would tell me, according to the situation, whether we could see each other that day or not.
I also made use of the telephone to keep watch over Cecilia's comings and goings. I telephoned methodically (if one can speak of method in relation to the frantic stratagems of jealousy) at various times of day, and either I found no one, or I found Cecilia's mother, who often stayed at home, leaving the shop to her sister. Then I would enter into conversation with her, and she, on her side, asked nothing better than a few minutes' chatter; and thus, by way of this chatter, I would get to know more or less what I wanted. The mother's pieces of information, of course, came almost entirely from Cecilia, who lied to her just as she did to me, and anyhow told her only what best suited her; but I had now reached a point when I could decipher these pieces of information fairly well, all the more so because Cecilia, not knowing that she was being spied upon, did not take the trouble to bring them into line with the equally false but different information with which she provided me. Thus I came to know that Cecilia, a creature of habit like all persons who lack imagination, had, to her parents, justified her relations with the actor in the same way as those with Balestrieri and myself: she said she went to see the actor because he had promised to find her work on the films, just as she had said, in the past, that she visited Balestrieri and me because we gave her drawing lessons. But lessons last only an hour or two, whereas an association with a place of regular work may take up the entire day; and thus I discovered that Cecilia, under the pretext of her film job, was seeing the actor every day, twice or even three times a day. She saw him sometimes in the morning, especially if the weather was fine, for a walk in the town and an aperitif; she saw him in the afternoon, probably in order to make love; she saw him in the evening, to have dinner and go to the cinema. Her mother was slightly alarmed at this pretended film activity on her daughter's part, and at the same time rather flattered. Taking me into her confidence, she would ask me anxiously, at one moment, if there was not a danger that the film world, so notoriously free and easy, not to say licentious, might have a corrupting influence upon Cecilia; and then again she would ask, with equal anxiety, whether I thought that her daughter had the right qualities for becoming a star. She spoke with complete ingenuousness; but to me, at the other end of the line, she often gave the impression of knowing everything, both about myself and about the actor, and of amusing herself by tormenting me with refined and conscious cruelty. In reality, as I knew perfectly well, the cruelty lay in the circumstances and in them only.
And so, what with Cecilia's lies on the one hand and her mother's illusions on the other, the telephone neither gave me complete reassurance nor did it furnish me with the indubitable proofs that I needed in order to free myself of my little mistress and of my love for her. Indirect and abstract by its very nature, the telephone now seemed to me, in fact, to be the positive symbol of my own situation: a means of communication which prevented me from communicating; an instrument of inspection which permitted of no precise information; an automatic machine, extremely easy to use, which nevertheless showed itself to be almost always capricious and untrustworthy.
Furthermore, the telephone seemed perfectly designed to confirm the elusiveness of Cecilia's character. Obviously it was not the fault of the little black instrument if Cecilia was late in telephoning me or did not telephone me at all; if she lied to me or disappointed me. But since all this took place on the telephone, I had reached the point when I was obsessed w
But the thing that drove me on to spy directly upon Cecilia was, more than anything else, my own fatigue. I now spent almost the whole day looking at the telephone, waiting either for the time at which Cecilia telephoned me, or for the time at which I knew I could telephone to her with the hope of finding her. Besides this, there were the calls when I found no one, or only the whisperings of her father; and there were the calls to her mother, exhausting and irritating, to reconstruct Cecilia's daily activities. All these telephonic stratagems, growing, as they did, more and more complicated and harassing, in the end cancelled out, I noticed, any possible relief that I might derive from the telephone calls themselves. Like a starving man, whose hunger seems unsatisfied even after he has eaten, so I, after I had finally succeeded in speaking to Cecilia, continued to feel just as harassed and angry as before. Moreover the result of all this was a kind of sexual frenzy; after deciding beforehand to question Cecilia calmly and at length and to oblige her to confess her unfaithfulness, the moment she appeared in the doorway of the studio I would forget my cool intentions, throw her on the divan and have there and then, without waiting for her to undress, without even—as she herself used to say with a touch of childish complacency—giving her time to breathe. It was the usual masculine illusion that possession can be achieved all in a moment and without a word, by the mere physical act, which drove me to this frenzy. But immediately afterwards, when I saw Cecilia to be even more elusive than before, I realized my mistake and said to myself that, if I wished to possess her truly, I ought not to expend my energy in an act which had merely the semblance of possession.
An insignificant incident was the immediate cause of my decision to spy upon Cecilia. It is worth recounting if only to give an indication of my state of mind at that time. One morning, after I had carried out my usual investigation of Cecilia's and the actor's telephone lines and had found them both to be engaged, I asked Cecilia point blank, as soon as she rang me: 'Who were you telephoning to? Your number's been engaged for at least twenty minutes.'
She replied at once, in a perfectly natural way: 'I was telephoning to Gianna.'
Gianna was a friend of Cecilia's, and by chance I knew her surname and address. I hastily said good-bye to Cecilia and then went and looked up Gianna's number in the directory. Exasperated, I thought that this time I would get Cecilia with her back to the wall. I dialled Gianna's number, and a woman's voice, probably that of Gianna's mother, answered me. 'Signorina Gianna?' I enquired.
'She's gone out.'
'How long ago?'
'Oh, it must be more than an hour. Who is wanting her?'
I threw down the receiver and then again dialled Cecilia's number. As soon as I heard her voice, I shouted: 'You told me a lie.'
'What do you mean?'
'You told me Gianna had telephoned you a minute ago. Well, I've just telephoned her and been told she went out an hour ago.'
'That has nothing to do with it; Gianna was telephoning from outside. From a public telephone.'
This took my breath away. So I was no longer capable, in my present state of fatigue, of orderly, lucid reflection; and I had thought to catch Cecilia in a trap from which, in point of fact, it was perfectly easy for her to escape. 'I'm sorry,' I said, with a kind of astonishment, 'I hadn't thought of that. For some time now I don't seem to understand anything.'
'It seems so to me, too.'
This incident, although of minor importance, convinced me that I could no longer trust my own tired, confused mind; and that I must spy upon Cecilia in a direct way, with my eyes. At first this seemed to me the easiest thing in the world. But as soon as I set about doing it in earnest, I became aware that it was not so.
My idea was to telephone to Cecilia from a public telephone as near as possible to the building in which she lived; and, after assuring myself that she was at home, to go and mount guard opposite her door and wait for her to come out, as she usually did, about three o'clock. I was convinced, from a number of clues, that she went to visit the actor at about that time: I would follow her, I would watch her entrance into Luciani's house, I would wait for her to come out, I would stop her. Of course it was by no means inconceivable that Cecilia, even at that moment and in that place, would find some means of lying to me, or rather, as was more probable, of admitting only a part of the truth—and precisely that innocent part which is never lacking in any guilty action; but I counted on the fact of surprising her and catching her in the act to undermine her duplicity and oblige her to confess. Once I had obtained this confession, I was convinced that the devaluation of Cecilia and my consequent liberation would follow of themselves.
I had noticed that the street in which Cecilia lived was intersected, two blocks farther down, by a side street, and that at the corner there was a bar. And so, one afternoon, I stopped my car in front of the bar, went in and rang Cecilia's number. I realized, while the telephone was ringing, that I had no excuse for speaking to her. We had already talked on the telephone that morning and had made an arrangement to meet the following day; what then could I say to her? Finally I decided that I would beg her to come to the studio that same day, in spite of our previous agreement; and I also decided that, if she accepted, I would give up spying upon her once and for all.
The telephone went on ringing for a long time; then at last came Cecilia's voice, neutral, colourless: 'Is that you? What is it?'
I've been thinking it over; I'd like to see you today.'
'Why is it impossible?'
'Because I can't.'
'Do you have to go and see that film producer again today?'
This time she was silent, as though she were waiting for me to ring off. I waited too, hoping that she would be hypocritical enough to give me a word of affection, as any other woman would have done, seeing herself to be, quite rightly, suspected. But Cecilia had no imagination and never said a word more than was necessary. And so, after a long silence, she concluded: 'Till tomorrow, then; good-bye.'
I left the bar, got into my car again and went and placed myself two blocks farther on, in front of Cecilia's door. It was the first time in my life that I had spied upon anyone; and, as I have already said, I was under the illusion that it was an easy thing to do: apart from people who made a business of it, such as detectives and the like, was it not done by silly women through the bars of shutters, by urchins through keyholes, and by idlers in general in order to kill time? But when I myself began spying, I discovered a very simple fact which I had not foreseen: it is one thing to spy as a profession, like a policeman, or out of idle curiosity, like silly women or street urchins, but quite another to spy, as in my case, for a precise and directly personal reason. Not ten minutes had passed, in fact, before I realized that I was suffering far more than if I had stayed in my studio mentally analysing my suspicions, without seeking otherwise to verify the basis of them. I continued now to be suspicious of Cecilia in just the same way; but to the misery of suspicion was added that of espionage. If at least I had known the exact moment at which she would come out, then I could have felt easy until, let us say, one minute before she appeared in the doorway. But since I was ignorant of when that moment would arrive, each instant that passed had, for me, the exaggeratedly painful quality of that one single instant when I would see her actually appear. And, in
I waited calmly for the first ten minutes, for I was certain that Cecilia would not come out during that time, since I lad mounted guard at ten minutes to three and knew that she never went out before three. These first ten minutes went by without Cecilia appearing, and then I allowed her another ten. These minutes went by, and yet a further ten, and then I decided to wait ten minutes more, though I was quite unable, this time, to imagine what could be keeping her indoors. These empty, but still endurable, ten minutes passed more slowly than the first thirty, seeing that I did not intend to go on waiting and indeed hoped that Cecilia would appear at the third or fourth minute; but she did not come and I found myself, all at once, faced for the fifth time with an empty period which was as repugnant to me as a huge, deserted square must be to a man suffering from agoraphobia. I waited, nevertheless, telling myself, with a kind of mystical hopefulness, that this time Cecilia was bound to come. But she did not come, and I resigned myself to waiting a further ten minutes, comforting myself, for lack of anything better, by reflecting that this would make a complete hour, and an hour is the longest time that anyone can wait in any possible circumstances. But, naturally (I say naturally, because I now felt that Cecilia's appearance would be a fact against nature, in other words, a miracle)—naturally she did not come this time either, and I prepared, for the seventh time, to wait another ten minutes, justifying my decision with the subde, arbitrary reflection that, an hour being the longest time one could wait, I must give Cecilia ten minutes over the hour, if only out of politeness. At this point, however, I became aware that my mind was no longer working, and was thus refusing to keep me company while I waited. I was alone with myself, that is, with the misery which at that moment was my only mode of existence; and the only two things that meant anything to me now were the watch on my wrist and the door upon which my eyes were fixed. My aim was to take a glance at my watch at intervals of three minutes; otherwise I kept my eyes on the door as much as possible, as though I were afraid that Cecilia might come out with the speed of lightning and vanish during that one moment when I looked down at my watch. But it happened invariably that my impatience caused me to think the three minutes had already gone by, whereas only one minute had passed; and that the effort with which I forced myself to stare at the door became suddenly unendurable, as is any muscular tension that is continued for too long. And so I looked too often at my watch and was astonished to see that the minutes of this time of waiting appeared to be infinitely slower than any other minute I had ever waited in my life; and on the other hand I felt an almost unconquerable longing to take my eyes off the door, the threshold of which seemed deserted only because I was looking at it, as though its stones and bricks and plaster knew of my waiting and maliciously withheld Cecilia's appearance just because I desired it so much.
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes