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The empty canvas, p.2
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       The Empty Canvas, p.2

           Alberto Moravia
 

  Anyhow, my mother did not indulge in any great subtleties; she believed she could recognize without any possible doubt, in my boredom, the superficial tedium which had previously made her relations with her husband difficult. 'Unfortunately you take after your father more than after me,' she finally said to me one day, in a brisk manner. 'I know that when this thing attacks you the only remedy is to send you away. So go away, go wherever you like, and when you've got over it you can come back.'

  I answered at once, with relief, that I had no intention of going away: travelling did not interest me in the least. I merely wanted to leave the house and set up on my own. My mother objected that it was absurd for me to go off and live on my own when I had the full use of a big villa like the one we lived in, where, into the bargain, I could do just as I pleased. But, having by this time determined to take advantage of the opportunity, I answered with some violence that I would leave next day, not a moment later. My mother then understood that I was serious. All she did was to repeat, with carefully studied bitterness, that my reply reminded her of my father, even to the tone of voice: I must therefore do whatever pleased me best, I must go and live wherever I liked.

  There remained the question of money. We were rich, as I have already said, and hitherto I had enjoyed a more or less unlimited credit: I drew upon my mother's bank account whenever I needed it. But now my mother, foreseeing that there would be a repetition, with me, of the experience she had already had with her husband, to whom she had always given enough money for him to run away but never enough to stay permanently away from her, informed me drily that from now on she would give me a monthly allowance. I replied that I asked nothing better; and when, with a kind of angry remorse, she announced the amount of the sum she intended to allow me, I told her at once that I would be satisfied with the half of it. My mother, who had been expecting an argument of the sort that she had formerly carried on with my father, to whom the money she offered had never been enough, was very much surprised at this unforeseen disinterestedness on my part. 'But you can't live on as little as that, Dino,' she exclaimed almost involuntarily. I replied that it was my affair; and in order to avoid giving myself the airs of an ascetic, I added that in any case I hoped soon to succeed in earning a living by my painting. My mother looked at me, I thought, with incredulity; as I knew, she did not believe in my artistic abilities. A few days later I found a studio in Via Margutta and moved there with my belongings.

  My change of dwelling, of course, caused no alteration in my state of mind. What I mean is that, once the initial relief due to any sort of change had worn off, I started to be bored again at intervals as in the past. I say, 'of course', because I ought to have foreseen that boredom would not disappear simply owing to my moving house: in any case I was rich not because I lived in the Via Appia, but because I possessed a certain amount of money. The fact that I did not want to make use of it mattered, fundamentally, very little; there are rich people who are miserly and who spend a very small part of their income and live poorly, but no one, on that account, would think of calling them poor. And so my first idea, or rather my first obsession, that my boredom and consequent artistic sterility were due to the fact of living with my mother came gradually to be replaced by a second and more serious obsession: that it was impossible to renounce one's own wealth; being rich was like having blue eyes or an aquiline nose; a subtle compulsion bound the rich man to his money, and gave the colour of money even to his decision not to make use of it. In short, I was not a poor man who had been rich, I was simply a rich man who was pretending, both to himself and to others, to be poor.

  I went on to prove to myself that this was true, in the following way: What does a really poor man do, if he hasn't any money? He dies of hunger. What would I do in such a case? I should go and seek help from my mother. And even if I did not do so, I should not on that account be considered poor: not at all, I should merely be considered mad. But, I immediately reflected, mine was not an extreme case. It was an intermediate case, since it was true that I allowed myself to be supported by my mother, even though I limited such support to what was strictly necessary. Thus, in comparison with the really poor, I found myself in the privileged, treacherous position of the rich gambler in relation to the poor gambler: the former can lose to an unlimited extent, the latter cannot. But—even more important—the former can really 'play', that is, amuse himself; whereas the latter can only set out to win.

  It is difficult to say what my feelings were as I thought over these things. There was a sense of some kind of petty witchcraft, against which I could do nothing, because it was impossible for me to tell when or how or where the spell which enmeshed me had been woven. Sometimes I thought of the saying in the Gospels: 'It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God'; and I wondered what being rich meant. Was one rich because one possessed a lot of money? Or because one had been born into a rich family? Or because one had lived, and still lived, in a society that placed riches above all other good things? Or because one believed in riches, desiring to become rich or bewailing the fact that one had been rich? Or because—as in my case—one did not want to be rich? The more I thought about it, the more difficult did it seem to me to define precisely, in my own mind, the feeling of compulsion, of predestination, that wealth aroused in me. Of course this feeling would not have existed if I had succeeded in freeing myself from my initial obsession that my boredom resulted from wealth, and my artistic sterility from boredom. But all our reflections, even the most rational, originate in some obscure basis of feeling. And it is not so easy to free oneself of feelings as it is of ideas: the latter come and go, but feelings remain.

  It may be objected, at this point, that, when all was said and done, I was nothing more than an unsuccessful painter who—which is perhaps unusual—was conscious of his own failure: and that was all there was to it. Quite right; but up to a certain point only. Certainly I had failed, but not because I was unable to paint pictures that other people liked; it was rather because I felt that my pictures did not permit me to express myself, in other words to deceive myself into imagining that I had some contact with external things—that is, in a word, they did not prevent me from being bored. Now the fundamental reason why I had started painting was to escape from boredom. If I went on being bored, why go on painting?

  I left my mother's villa, if I remember rightly, in March 1947; a little more than ten years later, as I have already related, I took a knife and slashed my last picture and decided not to paint any more. Immediately my boredom, hitherto kept at bay, to a certain extent, by the exercise of painting, attacked me again with incredible violence. I have already observed that boredom consists, fundamentally, in a lack of contact with external things; during those days it appeared to me that there was a lack of contact, not only with things, but with myself. I know that these things are difficult to explain; I will not go further than to suggest my meaning by means of a metaphor. During the days following my decision to give up painting, I closely resembled, in relation to myself, some individual, for various reasons intolerable, who is found by a traveller in his own railway carriage at the beginning of a long journey. The carriage is of the old-fashioned kind, without any communication with the other carriages; the train is not going to stop until the end of the journey; and so the traveller is forced to remain with his hateful companion without hope of escape. In reality, and leaving metaphor aside, boredom had thoroughly corroded my life, during those years, down below the surface of my job as a painter, leaving nothing unimpaired; so that, once I had given up painting, I felt I had been transformed, without noticing it, into a kind of shapeless, truncated fragment. And, as I have said, the main feature of my boredom was the practical impossibility of remaining in my own company—I myself being, moreover, the only person in the world whom I could not get rid of in any possible way.

  And so at that time my life was dominated by a feeling of extraordinary impatience. Noth
ing that I did pleased me or seemed worth doing; furthermore, I was unable to imagine anything that could please me, or that could occupy me in any lasting manner. I was for ever going in and out of my studio on any sort of futile pretext—pretexts which I invented for myself with the sole object of not remaining there: to buy cigarettes I didn't need, to have a cup of coffee I didn't want, to acquire a newspaper that didn't interest me, to visit an exhibition of pictures about which I hadn't the slightest curiosity, and so on. I felt, moreover, that these occupations were nothing more than crazy disguises of boredom itself, so much so that sometimes I did not complete the errands I undertook, and instead of buying a newspaper or drinking coffee or visiting an exhibition, after taking a few steps I would go back again to the studio which I had left in such a hurry only a few minutes before. But back in the studio boredom, of course, awaited me and the whole process would begin over again.

  I would take down a book—for I had a small library and have always been fond of reading; but very soon I would let it drop: novels, essays, poetry, drama, the whole literature of the world—there was not one single page that succeeded in holding my attention. In any case, why should it? Words are symbols of objects, and with objects, as I have already said, I had no relationship at all in moments of boredom. So I would drop my book, or perhaps in an impulse of rage fling it into a corner, and turn to music. I had an extremely good record-player, a present from my mother, as well as about a hundred records. Who was it who said that music always acts in some kind of way, that is, makes itself listened to forcibly, so to speak, by even the most distracted person? The man who said such a thing said something which was incorrect. In point of fact my ears refused not merely to listen but even to hear. Besides, when it came to the point of choosing a record, I was paralysed by this thought: what sort of music is it that can be listened to in these moments of boredom? And so I would close the record-player, throw myself down on the divan and start thinking of what I could do.

  What struck me above all was that I did not want to do absolutely anything, although I desired eagerly to do something. Anything I might wish to do presented itself to me like a Siamese twin joined inseparably to some opposite thing which I equally did not wish to do. Thus I felt that I did not want to see people nor yet to be alone; that I did not want to stay at home nor yet to go out; that I did not want to travel nor yet to go on living in Rome; that I did not want to paint nor yet not to paint; that I did not want to stay awake nor yet to go to sleep; that I did not want to make love nor yet not to do so; and so on. When I say 'I felt' I ought rather to say that I was filled with repugnance, with disgust, with horror.

  I used to ask myself, every now and then, between these frenzied bouts of boredom, whether perhaps I did not want to die; it was a reasonable question, seeing that I disliked living so much. But then, to my surprise, I realized that although I did not like living I yet did not want to die. Thus the inseparable alternatives which filed through my mind like a sinister ballet did not halt even in face of the extreme choice between life and death. The truth of the matter, I sometimes thought, was not so much that I wanted to die as that I wanted not to go on living in my present manner.

  1

  After I had moved into the studio in Via Margutta, I managed to overcome the irrational and almost superstitious repugnance that the villa in the Via Appia aroused in me and to establish fairly regular contact with my mother. I went to see her once a week, to lunch, which was the moment of the day when I knew I should find her alone; and I would stay a couple of hours, listening to her usual conversation, which I knew by heart, on the only two subjects that interested her: botany, that is to say, the flowers and plants which she grew in her garden, and business, to which she had devoted herself, it might be said, ever since she had reached years of discretion. My mother, in truth, would have liked me to visit her more often, and at other times of the day too, for instance when she was entertaining her friends or the people of her own social set; but, after a couple of invitations which I refused firmly, she appeared to resign herself to the rarity of my visits. Her resignation was, of course, a forced one, ready to vanish at the first opportunity. 'One day you'll discover,' she was accustomed to say, speaking of herself in the third person, which in her was always an indication of a feeling strong enough for her to wish to conceal it, 'you'll discover that your mother is not just an ordinary lady whom one visits out of politeness, and that your real home is here and not in Via Margutta.'

  One day, not long after I had given up painting, I went to my mother's house for the usual weekly luncheon. Actually it was rather a special luncheon: that day, in fact, was my birthday; and my mother, in case I had forgotten this, had reminded me of it that same morning, giving me her good wishes by telephone in her strangely official and ceremonious manner: 'Today you reach the age of thirty-five. I convey to you my sincere good wishes for your happiness and success.' She informed me at the same time that she had prepared a 'surprise' for me.

  And so, about midday, I got into my old, dilapidated motorcar and went off across the town with the usual feeling of uneasiness and repugnance that seemed to increase steadily as I drew nearer my goal. My heart more and more heavily oppressed with a weight of anguish, I at last turned into the Via Appia between the cypresses and pines and brick ruins which line its grassy banks. The gateway to my mother's house was on the right, halfway along the Via Appia, and I looked out for it as usual, half hoping that, by some miracle, I should find it was no longer there, so that I could go straight on to the Castelli and then go back to Rome and return to my studio. However, there the gate was, thrown wide open especially for me, one might have thought, so as to stop me as I passed and swallow me up. I slowed down, turned sharply, and with a gentle noiseless lurch entered the gravelled drive, between two rows of cypresses. The drive rose gradually towards the villa, which could be seen at its far end; and as I looked at the small black cypresses with their dusty, curled foliage, and at the low, red house crouching beneath a sky full of fluffy grey clouds like lumps of dirty cotton wool, I was again conscious of the horror and consternation that assailed me each time I went to see my mother. It was a horror such as might be felt by a man who is preparing to commit an unnatural act; it was almost as though, as I turned into the drive, I were actually re-entering the womb that had given me birth. I sought to rid myself of this disagreeable feeling of retrogression by sounding my horn at full blast to announce my arrival. Then, after making a half circle on the gravel in front of the house, I stopped the car and jumped out. Almost immediately the glass door on the ground floor opened and a maid appeared on the doorstep.

  I had never seen her before that day; my mother, who persisted in keeping a staff at the villa which would barely have been sufficient for a five-roomed flat, was for this reason frequently compelled to make changes. She was tall, with ample, robust hips and bosom and curiously short, badly cut hair, like the hair of a convict or a convalescent, and her pale, slightly freckled face had a sly expression, possibly owing to the huge pair of black-rimmed spectacles that concealed her eyes. I particularly noticed her mouth, which was shaped like a crushed flower and was of a delicate geranium pink. I asked her where my mother was, and she in turn asked me, in a very gentle voice: 'Are you Signor Dino?'

  'Yes.'

  'The Signora is in the garden, over by the greenhouses.'

  I started off in that direction, not without first giving a surprised glance at another car which was standing on the open gravelled space near mine. It was a 'sports' car, low, powerful-looking, with a top that opened back, and of a metallic blue colour. Had my mother then invited someone else to lunch? Turning over this disagreeable doubt in my mind, I walked round the villa, along the brick pathway in the shade of laurels and holm-oaks, and came out on the fair side of the house. Here was a large garden laid out in the Italian style, with flower-beds in the form of triangles, squares and circles, small trees clipped into spheres and pyramids and cones, and numerous avenues and paths, gra
velled and box-edged. A wider, straight path, covered by a white-painted iron pergola twined round with the branches of vines, cut the garden into two parts and stretched from the villa to the far end of the property where, against the boundary wall, could be seen the glistening panes of numbers of greenhouses in which my mother grew flowers. Half way between the villa and the greenhouses, underneath the pergola, I caught sight of her walking along, her back turned towards me. For a moment I refrained from calling to her and watched her.

 
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