Contempt, p.2Alberto Moravia
All this, however, I reconstructed later, as I have already mentioned, patiently retracing in memory a number of occurrences which—at least at the time—had seemed insignificant, and which had passed almost unobserved by me at the moment when they took place. At that time I had been aware merely of a change for the worse in Emilia’s demeanor towards me, but without explaining or defining it to myself in any way; in the same way one becomes conscious, through a change and a heaviness in the air, of the approach of a thunderstorm though the sky is still serene. I began to think she loved me less than in the past, because I noticed that she was no longer so anxious to be near me as in the first times after our marriage. In those days I would say: “Look, I’ve got to go out; I’ll be out for a couple of hours but I’ll come back as soon as I can”; and she would not protest, but she showed, by her expression of mingled sadness and resignation, that she did not like my being away. So much so, indeed, that often I either gave up going out, excusing myself somehow from my engagement; or, if possible, took her with me. Her attachment to me then was so strong that one day, when she had gone with me to the station from which I was to leave for a very brief trip to North Italy, I saw her, as we were saying good-bye, turn her face to hide the tears that filled her eyes. That time I pretended not to notice her grief; but during the whole journey I was haunted by remorse for that shamefaced but uncontrollable weeping; and from then onwards I ceased completely to travel without her. But now, instead of assuming the usual, beloved expression with its slight suggestion of mortification and sadness, all she would do, if I announced that I was going out, was to answer calmly, often without even looking up from the book she was reading: “All right, I understand; then we’ll see each other at dinner. Don’t be late.” Sometimes she seemed actually to want my absence to last longer than I myself intended. I would say to her, for instance: “I’ve got to go out. I’ll be back at five”; and she would answer: “Stay out as long as you like...I’ve got things to do.” One day I remarked in a light tone of voice that she seemed almost to prefer that I shouldn’t be there; but she made no direct answer, merely saying that, since I was busy, one way and another, almost all day, it was just as well that we shouldn’t meet except at mealtimes, and so she would be able to get through her own jobs in peace. This was only partly true: my work as a script-writer obliged me to be out of the house only in the afternoons; and hitherto I had always arranged matters so that I could spend the rest of the day with her. From that day onwards, however, I took to going out in the morning as well.
In the days when Emilia gave me to understand that my absences were displeasing to her, I used to leave the house with a light heart, well content, in reality, at her displeasure, as being yet another proof of the great love she felt for me. But as soon as I became aware that not merely did she show no disappointment, but even seemed to prefer to be left alone, I began to experience an obscure feeling of distress, as if I had felt the ground give way beneath my feet. I went out now not only in the afternoons to go and work at the film-script, but in the mornings too, as I said, and often without any other purpose than to test Emilia’s indifference, so utterly new and, to me, so bitter; and yet she did not show the slightest displeasure, in fact she accepted my absences with placidity if not actually—so it seemed to me—with ill-disguised relief. At first I tried to console myself for this coldness by arguing that, after two years of marriage, habit, even though it may be an affectionate habit, creeps into love with fatal effect, and the assurance of being loved takes away all character of passion from a married couple’s relationship. Yet I felt that this was not true: I felt it rather than thought it, for thought is always more fallible, even in its apparent preciseness, than obscure, confused feeling. I felt, in fact, that Emilia had ceased to be displeased at my absences, not because she considered them inevitable and without consequence to our relationship, but because she loved me less, or indeed not at all. I also felt that something, without doubt, must have happened to change her feeling, which had once been so tender and so possessive.
AT THE TIME when I first met Battista, I found myself in an extremely difficult situation, and I did not know how to escape from it. My difficulty consisted in my having at that time acquired the lease of a flat, although I had not the money to complete my payment for it and did not know how I should be able to get the money. We had lived, Emilia and I, during our first two years, in a large furnished room in a lodging-house. Any other woman but Emilia would perhaps not have put up with this provisional arrangement; but, in the case of Emilia, I think that, by accepting it, she gave me the greatest proof of love that a devoted wife can give to a husband. Emilia was, indeed, what is called a born housewife; but in her love of home there was more than the natural inclination common to all women; I mean that there was something that resembled a deep, jealous passion, almost a hunger, which went beyond her own self and seemed to derive its origin from some ancestral situation. She came of a poor family; she herself, when I first came to know her, was working as a typist; and I think that her love of home was an unconscious means of expression for the frustrated aspirations of generations of disinherited people who were chronically incapable of setting up an abode of their own, however modest. I do not know whether she was under the illusion that, with our marriage, her dreams of domesticity would come true; but I remember that one of the few times I ever saw her weep was when I was forced to confess, shortly after we became engaged, that I was not yet in a position to provide her with a home of her own, even a rented one, and that we must be content, at first, with a furnished room. It seemed to me that those tears, quickly suppressed as they were, were an outward expression not only of bitter disappointment at seeing her cherished dream thrust away into the future, but also of the actual power of that dream, which for her was, as it were, more a reason for living than just a dream.
And so we lived, those first two years, in a furnished room; but how meticulously tidy and bright and clean Emilia always kept it! It was obvious that, as far as possible—and in a furnished room it is possible only to a limited degree—she wanted to deceive herself into believing that she had a home of her own; and that, lacking her own household furniture, she wanted at least to infuse her own concentrated domestic spirit into the lodging-house keeper’s shabby utensils. There were always flowers in a vase on my desk; my papers were always arranged with loving, inviting orderliness, as though to encourage me to work and guarantee me the greatest possible privacy and quietness; the tea service always stood ready on a small table, with napkins and a box of crackers; never was an undergarment or other intimate object to be found where it should not be, on the floor or the chairs, as so often happens in similar cramped, temporary abodes. After the first hurried cleaning by the servant-girl, Emilia would subject the whole room to a second, more scrupulous, personal cleaning, so that everything which could shine and reflect did shine and reflect, even the smallest brass knob on the window-frame or the least visible strip of wood on the floor; at night, she insisted on preparing the bed herself, without the help of the maid, laying out her own muslin nightgown on one side and my pajamas on the other and carefully turning down the sheets and arranging the twin pillows; in the morning she would get up before me, and, going to the lodging-house keeper’s kitchen, would prepare the breakfast and bring it to me herself, on a tray. She did all these things in silence, discreetly, without drawing attention to herself, but with an intensity, a concentration, an eager, absorbed solicitude that betrayed a passion too deep to be openly proclaimed. Nevertheless, in spite of these pathetic efforts on her part, the furnished room remained just a furnished room; and the illusion that she sought to create for herself and for me was never complete. And then, from time to time, in moments of excessive weariness or discouragement, she would complain—gently, it is true, and almost placidly, in accordance with her character, but not without evident bitterness—asking me how long this provisional, this inferior, way of living would have to continue. I was aw
In the end I decided, as I said, to buy the lease of a flat; not because I had the means to do so, for such means were still lacking, but because I understood how she was suffering and how her suffering would perhaps some day overcome her powers of endurance. I had put aside a small sum of money during those two years; to this sum I added some more money which I had obtained on loan; and so I was able to pay the first installment. In doing this I did not, however, experience the joyful feelings of a man preparing a home for his bride; on the contrary, I was anxious and seriously distressed, because I did not know in the least how I would manage when, a few months later, the time came to pay the second installment. At that time, in fact, I was so desperate that I had almost a feeling of rancor against Emilia, who, by the tenacity of her passion, had in a way forced me to take this imprudent and dangerous step.
However, the profound joy of Emilia when I announced that the matter was settled, and later the unaccustomed feelings—strange, to me, both in their quality and their intensity—which she displayed on the day we went for the first time into the still unfurnished flat, made me for some time forget my troubles. I have said that, with Emilia, love of home had all the characteristics of a passion; and I must add that, on this occasion, that same passion appeared to me to be bound up with, and mingled with, sensuality, as though the fact of having at last acquired a flat for her had made me, in her eyes, not merely more lovable but also, in a wholly physical sense, closer and more intimate. We had gone to inspect the place, and Emilia, to begin with, walked round all the cold, empty rooms with me while I explained the purpose of each of them and the way in which I thought to arrange the furniture. But, at the end of our visit, as I was walking over to a window with the intention of opening it and showing her the view to be enjoyed from it, she came close up to me and, pressing her whole body against me, whispered to me to give her a kiss. This was quite a new thing for her, usually so discreet, so almost shy, in any expression of love. Excited by this novelty and by the tone of her voice, I kissed her as she wanted; and all the time the kiss lasted—certainly one of the most violent and most abandoned we ever exchanged—I felt her clinging more and more closely with her body against mine, as though inviting me to greater intimacy; and then, wildly, she tore off her skirt, unbuttoned her chemise, and thrust her belly against mine. The kiss over, in a very low voice that was like an inarticulate breath and yet was melodious, melting, she murmured in my ear—or at least so it seemed to me—that I should take her; and meanwhile, with all the weight of her body, she was pulling me down towards the floor. We made love on the floor, on the dusty tiles, under the sill of the window I had meant to open. Yet in the ardor of that embrace, so unrestrained and so unusual, I was conscious not only of the love she felt for me at that time, but more particularly of the outpouring of her repressed passion for a home, which in her expressed itself quite naturally through the channel of unforeseen sensuality. In that embrace, in fact, consummated on that dirty floor, in the chilly gloom of the empty flat, she was giving herself, so I felt, to the giver of the home, not the husband. And those bare, echoing rooms, still smelling of paint and fresh plaster, had stirred something in the innermost recesses of her heart that no caress of mine, hitherto, had ever had the power to awaken.
Between our visit to the empty flat and the day of our entry into it a couple of months went by, during which the necessary contracts were drawn up, all in Emilia’s name, because I knew that this gave her pleasure; while we also collected together the small amount of furniture that, with my very limited means, I could afford to buy. Meanwhile, when the first feeling of satisfaction was over, I felt, as I have mentioned, extremely anxious about the future, and, at moments, positively desperate. I was earning enough by now, it is true, for us to live in a modest manner and even put aside a few pennies; but these savings were certainly not sufficient to pay the next installment on the flat. My desperation was all the more acute inasmuch as I could not even have the relief of talking about it to Emilia: I did not wish to spoil her pleasure. But I recall that time as a period of great anxiety and, in a way, of diminished love for Emilia. Indeed I could not help realizing that she was not in the least worried to know how I had managed to come by so much money, although she knew our real position perfectly well. This thought was vaguely surprising to me, and there were moments when it inspired me almost with irritation against her—she who now, all busy and cheerful, thought of nothing but going round the shops looking for things to furnish the flat, and who every day, in her most placid tone of voice, announced some new acquisition. I wondered how it came about that she, who loved me so much, failed to guess at the cruel anxieties that oppressed me; but I realized that, probably, she thought that if I had bought the lease of the flat I had no doubt also taken steps to procure the necessary money. Nevertheless her serenity and satisfaction seemed to me, in contrast to my own wretched worries, to be a sign of selfishness, or, at the least, of insensibility.
I was so troubled at that period that even the image I had hitherto made of myself in my own mind had changed. Up till then I had looked upon myself as an intellectual, a man of culture, a writer for the theater—the “art” theater, I mean—for which I had always had a great passion and to which I felt I was drawn by a natural vocation. This moral image, as I may call it, also had an influence on the physical image; I saw myself as a young man whose thinness, short sight, nervousness, pallor and carelessness in dress all bore witness, in anticipation, of the literary glory for which I was destined. But at that time, under the pressure of my cruel anxieties, this very promising and flattering picture had given place to an entirely different one, that of a poor devil who had been caught in a shabby, pathetic trap, who had not been able to resist his love for his wife and had over-reached himself and would be forced to struggle, for goodness knows how much longer, in the mortifying toils of poverty. I saw myself changed in my physical aspect as well: I was no longer the young and still unknown theatrical genius, I was the starving journalist, the contributor to cheap reviews and second-rate newspapers; or perhaps—even worse—the scraggy employee of some private company or government office. This man hid his anxieties from his wife, so as not to worry her; he ran about the town all day long, looking for work and often not finding any; he would wake up in the night with a start, thinking of the debts that had to be paid; in fact, he no longer thought of, or saw, anything but money. It was a touching picture, perhaps, but lacking in luster and dignity, the picture of a wretched, conventional literary figure, and I hated it because I thought that, slowly and insensibly, with the years, I should end by resembling it in spite of myself. But there it was: I had not married a woman who could understand and share my ideas, tastes and ambitions; instead I had married, for her beauty, an uncultivated, simple typist, full, it seemed to me, of all the prejudices and ambitions of the class from which she came. With the first I could have faced the discomforts of a poverty stricken, disorganized life, in a studio or a furnished room, in expectation of the theatrical successes that were bound to come; but for the second I had had to provide the home of her dreams. And at the cost, I thought in desperation, of having to renounce, perhaps for ever, my precious literary ambitions.
There was another factor which contributed at that time to increase my feeling of anguish and impotence in face of material difficulties. I felt that the metal of my spirit, like a bar of iron that is softened and bent by a persistent flame, was being gradually softened and bent by the troubles that oppressed it. In spite of myself, I was conscious of a feeling of envy for those who did not suffer from such troubles, for the wealthy and the privileged; and this envy, I observed, was accompanied—still against my will—by a feeling of bitterness towards them, which, in turn, did not limit its aim to particular persons or situations, but, as if by an uncontrollable bias, ten
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