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Conjugal love, p.2
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       Conjugal Love, p.2

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  I don't think that Leda is very intelligent; but with a mediocre intelligence she nevertheless succeeded, thanks to the importance she assumed in my life and to her air of experience and her nicely calculated mingling of indulgence and irony, in acquiring in my eyes a mysterious authority; owing to this her slightest gesture of understanding and encouragement was, to me, both precious and flattering. I was under the illusion at that time that I had persuaded her to marry me; but I can now say that it was she who had determined upon it, and that without that determination on her part the marriage would never have taken place. I was still in the preliminary stages of my courtship, which I imagined would be long and difficult, when she, almost forcing my hand, gave herself to me. But this surrender, which in other women would have seemed to me to be the sign of a facile virtue and would perhaps have made me contemptuous, in her had the same rare and flattering quality as her earlier marks of approbation and encouragement. After I had possessed her, I realized that that mysterious authority of hers remained intact, that it was, in fact, strengthened by the impatience of my senses which had hitherto been unawakened. As, before, she had played upon my need of being understood, so now, with far greater and more instinctive intelligence, she played upon my desire. Thus I discovered that the fleeting, evasive character of her beauty was matched by an analogous character of mind. I was never sure of possessing her completely; and just when I felt I was verging upon satiety, a word, a gesture on her part would, all of a sudden, make me afraid that I was losing her again. These alternations of possession and despair lasted, one may say, right up till the day of our wedding. By now I was furiously in love with her and I understood that I had, at all costs, to prevent this love coming to an end, like the others that had gone before it, in discouragement and emptiness. Urged on by this fear and at the same time reluctant, and thinking, almost, that I was doing a thing that was altogether too easy, I at last asked her to become my wife, with the certainty of being immediately accepted. Instead of that, I found myself met by an almost astonished refusal, as though in making this proposition I had transgressed some mysterious law of good manners. With this refusal I felt I had reached the darkest depths of my ancient despair. I left her, thinking confusedly that there was nothing left for me and that, if I was not a coward, the time had now really come for me to kill myself. A few days went by and then she telephoned me, asking with surprise why I had not been to see her. I went, and she welcomed me with the sweet but impudent reproof that I had deserted her and had not given her time to reflect. She concluded by saying that, after all, she would agree to become my wife. In two weeks' time we were married.

  There began, at once, a period of complete happiness such as I had never known. I loved Leda passionately; yet at the same time, I continued to be afraid either that I should stop loving her or that I should stop being loved by her. And so I tried by every possible means to mingle our two lives together, to create bonds between us. As I knew her to be ignorant, I first of all proposed to her a sort of programme of aesthetic education, telling her that she would find just as much pleasure in learning as I should in teaching her. I discovered her, quite unexpectedly, to be extraordinarily docile and sensible. By mutual agreement we arranged a plan and a time-table for our studies, and I undertook to communicate to her, and to make her appreciate, everything that I myself knew and liked. I do not know how far she followed me nor how much she understood: probably very much less than I thought. But, as always, owing to that strange, mysterious authority of hers, I felt I had won a great victory when she said simply: 'I like this piece of music . . . this poem is beautiful . . . read me that passage again . . . let's hear that record over again.' At the same time, in order to occupy our leisure hours, I was teaching her English. In this she made steady progress, for she had a good memory and a natural inclination. But readings, explanations, lessons were all made attractive and precious in my eyes by her constant kindness and loving affection and goodwill. So that, in a sense, although she was the learner and I the teacher, it was I who felt all the trepidations of the pupil as he progresses slowly through the subjects of his study. And this was right, because the real subject of study between us was love, and every day I seemed to myself to gain a fuller mastery of it.

  And indeed, in spite of everything, the surest foundation of our happiness still lay in our love life, which was a thing apart from the tastes that we now shared.

  I have said already that her beauty, disturbed as it sometimes was by ugly grimaces and contortions, was never unworthy of itself while we were making love. Let me add that the enjoyment of that beauty had now become the central point around which circled the whirlpool of my life, once black and threatening, now luminous, pleasantly slow, regular. How often, as I lay beside her in bed, did I contemplate her naked body and feel almost frightened at seeing it so beautiful, yet at the same time with a beauty which, even under my persevering gaze, defied all definition! How often, as she lay there, flat on her back, her head sunk in the pillow, did I disarrange and rearrange those long, soft, fair tresses of hers, seeking in vain to understand the mysterious feeling of movement- which gave them that fluttering, evasive look! How often did I gaze at those enormous blue eyes of hers and wonder where lay the secret of their sweet, troubled expression! How often, after kissing her long and furiously, did I analyse the sensation that my lips still retained, comparing it with the exact shape of her lips and hoping to penetrate the significance of that faint smile of almost archaic form which, after the kiss, became visible again at the corners of her big, sinuous mouth - precisely the smile that is to be seen in the earliest Greek statues. I had, in fact, found a mystery as great - or so it seemed to me - as the mysteries of religion: a mystery after my own heart, in which my eyes and my mind, well used to the examination of beauty, could lose themselves at last and find peace, as though in an enchanting, unlimited spaciousness. She appeared to understand all the importance that this kind of adoration acquired for me, and allowed herself to be loved with the same untiring docility, the same intelligent complacency with which she allowed herself to be taught.

  Perhaps I ought to have been put on my guard, in the midst of a happiness so complete, by one particular aspect of my wife's attitude, which, anyhow, I think I have already mentioned - her goodwill. In her, clearly, love was not so spontaneous as in me; and there was discernible in her manner towards me an undoubted though mysterious desire to please me, to satisfy me, sometimes even to flatter me - exactly, in fact, what is generally, and not without a trace of contempt, called goodwill. Now it is difficult for goodwill not to conceal something which, if it were by chance revealed, would contradict it and endanger its effects; something that may range from the mere presence of different, hidden preoccupations to actual duplicity and treachery. But I accepted this goodwill as a proof of her love for me and did not worry, at the time, to investigate what it might conceal, or what the meaning of it might be. I was, in fact, too happy not to be selfish. I knew that, for the first time in my life I was in love and, with my usual, rather indiscreet enthusiasm, I attributed to her also the feeling that occupied my own mind.

  4

  I HAD never spoken to my wife about my literary ambitions because I felt that she would not be able to understand them, and also because I was ashamed to have to confess that they were no more than ambitions, or rather, vain attempts which had never so far been crowned with any success. That year we spent the summer at the seaside, and towards the middle of September we began to discuss our plans for the autumn and winter. I don't know how it came about that I then alluded to my barren efforts; perhaps I may have referred to the long period of idleness into which marriage had led me. 'But Silvio, you never told me about it,' she exclaimed at once. I answered that I had never spoken of it because, up till that moment, anyhow, I had never succeeded in writing anything that was worth talking about. But she, with her usual affectionate eagerness, merely replied by urging me to show her something I had written. This invitation made me imm
ediately realize that her curiosity flattered me enormously and that, in the long run, her opinion was just as important to me as that of a professional man of letters, if not more so. I knew perfectly well that she was ignorant, that her taste was unreliable, that her approval or her condemnation could have no value; and yet I felt that it now depended upon her whether I continued to write or not. When she insisted, I put up a show of resistance for a short time, and then, having warned her repeatedly that the things I had written were unimportant and that I myself had rejected them, I agreed to read her a brief story that I had written a couple of years before. As I read, it seemed to me that my story was not as bad as I had formerly thought it; and so I went on reading in a firmer and more expressive tone of voice, looking at her every now and then out of the corner of my eye as she sat listening attentively, not showing in any way what effect it was having upon her. When I had finished, I threw the pages aside and exclaimed: 'As you see, I was right, it was not worth talking about.' And I waited with a strange anxiety for her opinion. She was silent for a moment, as though collecting her impressions, and then she declared, in a decided and peremptory manner, that I was entirely wrong in not attributing any importance to my talent. She said that she liked the story although it had many defects, and she adduced a number of reasons to explain and justify her pleasure. It was not (and how could it have been?) the criticism of an expert; but all the same I felt curiously encouraged. It suddenly seemed to me that her reasons, which were indeed those of an ordinary person with ordinary tastes, might well be worth those of the most refined men of letters; that, after all, there was perhaps in me a tendency to excessive self-criticism, more injurious than useful; and that, in fact, what I had hitherto lacked was not so much talent, perhaps, as affectionate encouragement such as she was at that moment heaping upon me. There is always something false and humiliating in a success amongst one's own family, amongst people whose affection makes them indulgent and partial: a mother, a sister, a wife are always ready to recognize in us the genius that others obstinately deny us, but at the same time their praises do not satisfy us, and we sometimes feel them to be more bitter than frank condemnation. Now I felt nothing of all this with my wife. It seemed to me that she had really liked the story, quite apart from the affection that she bore me. Besides, her praises were discreet and reasoned enough not to seem merely pitying. I asked her, in the end, almost timidly: 'Well then, you really think I ought to go on and persevere? . . . Think well over what you say. . . . I've been working for at least ten years without any result. ... If you tell me to go on, I'll go on . . . but if you tell me to stop, I'll stop and never touch a pen again.'

  She laughed and said: 'You're putting a great responsibility on to me.'

  I insisted: 'Speak as though I were not what I am in relation to you, but a stranger. . . . Say exactly what you think.'

  'But I've already told you,' she replied, 'you ought to go on.'

  'Truly?'

  'Yes, truly.'

  She was silent for a moment and then added: 'Now look . . . let's do this. . . . Instead of going back to Rome, let's go and spend a month or two at the villa in Tuscany. . . . You can get down to work there, and I'm sure you'll write something really good.'

  'But you - you'll be bored.'

  'Why? You'll be there . . . besides, it'll be a change for me . . . it's so many years since I've led a quiet life.'

  I must admit that it was not so much her reasons and her encouragements that persuaded me as a kind of superstition. I thought that for the first time in my life a kindly star was watching over me, and I said to myself that I ought to assist, in every possible way, this unexpected trend of fortune in my favour. With my wife I had already found the love to which I had aspired in vain for so many years; and perhaps love would now be followed, in its turn, by literary creativeness. I felt, in fact, that I was on the right road; and that the beneficial effects of our meeting were not yet entirely exhausted. I embraced my wife, telling her jokingly that from henceforth she would be my Muse. She did not seem to understand the expression, and asked me again what my decision was.

  I answered that, as she had suggested, we would go to the villa in a few days. A week later, in fact, we left the Riviera for Tuscany.

  5

  THE villa lay in a kind of hollow, at the foot of some medium-sized mountains, facing a wide, flat cultivated plain. It was surrounded by a small park thickly planted with leafy trees; so that there was no view at all, even from the windows of the top floor, and one could imagine oneself, not at the edge of a plain studded with farms and criss-crossed with fields, but in the depths of a great forest, in a hermit-like solitude. In the plain, at no great distance from the villa, lay a big village. The nearest town, on the other hand, was an hour's cart-ride away, on the top of one of the hills that rose at the back of the villa. It was a medieval town, surrounded by battlemented walls, with palaces, churches, convents, museums; but, as often happens in Tuscany, it was much poorer than the ugly modern village that commerce had brought into being in the plain below. The villa had been built about a hundred years ago - judging, at any rate, by the height and size of the trees in the park. It was a plain, regular building, with three floors and three windows to each floor. At the front of the house was an open, gravelled space, shaded by two horse-chestnut trees; from this space a winding drive led to the park gate and then, beyond, along the old surrounding wall to the main road. The park, as I have already said, was small in extent but thickly timbered and full of shady retreats; its limits were not clearly defined except on one side.

  On the other sides, without hedges or other dividing lines, the shade of the woods merged into the openness of the cultivated fields. There were a couple of farms attached to the property; and the farm buildings were situated at the edge of the park, on a hill from which one enjoyed a view over the whole of the immense plain. From the villa one could hear, without seeing them, the peasants in the neighbouring fields, urging on their oxen with brief cries; and quite often the farmer's hens would wander all over the park and come pecking right up to the front door.

  Inside, the villa was crammed with pieces of old furniture, in which every style of the last century was represented, from 'Empire' down to 'art nouveau'. The last inhabitant, my maternal grandmother, had died there at the age of almost a hundred after having collected, with the avarice and patience of an ant, enough stuff to set up another house of the same size. The rooms contained double the amount of furniture that was needed; and drawers, cupboards and chests were overflowing with a mass of heterogeneous objects - crockery, linen, knick-knacks, rags, old papers, kitchen utensils, lamps, photograph albums and endless other things. The bedrooms were large and dark, with four-post beds, vast chests of drawers, dim family portraits. There were, besides, an indefinite number of sitting-rooms, a library with a great many shelves full of old books, most of them volumes on the writings of the Fathers, almanacs, and collections of reviews, and even a small bare room entirely taken up with a billiard-table; but the cloth was torn and there were hardly any cues left and no balls at all. One moved about with difficulty amongst all this creaking old junk, with no free space anywhere; it was as though the real inhabitants of the villa were the pieces of furniture and we merely intruders. However, I succeeded in partly clearing the first-floor sitting-room, restoring its original fine Empire appearance; and there I established my own study. We each chose a bedroom; and my wife took as her own sitting-room the drawing-room on the ground floor in which were the only two comfortable armchairs in the house.

  We began, from the very first day, to lead a very regular life, almost like that of an industrious monastery. In the morning the old servant carried the tray into my wife's room and we had breakfast together, she in bed and I sitting beside her. Then I left her, went into my study, sat down at the desk and worked, or at least tried to work, until midday. In the meantime my wife, after lying in bed for a little, would get up, make a lengthy and meticulous toilet and, while she was
dressing, give the cook her orders for the day. About midday I would rise from my work and go downstairs, where my wife would be waiting for me. We took our meals in a small dining-room, in front of a french window giving on to the park. After lunch we drank our coffee outside, in the shade of the chestnut tree. Then we would go up to our rooms for a short rest. We met again at tea in the drawing-room on the ground floor. There was not a great variety of walks; Tuscany, where it is cultivated, is more like a garden, though without seats or paths, than open country: so we went either along the winding tracks that led across the fields from one farm to another; or we walked along the grassy bank of a canal that crossed the whole length of the plain; or, again, we strolled along the main road, but without ever going as far as either the village or the town. When we returned from our walk, which never lasted more than an hour, I gave my wife her English lesson and then, if there was still time, I read aloud to her or made her read to me. Then we dined, and after dinner we read again or conversed. Finally we went, not very late, to our rooms, or rather, I followed my wife into hers. This was our moment for making love - towards which, in truth, our whole day had been tending. I found my wife always ready and always docile, as though she were conscious of providing both herself and me with a reward and an outlet after so many hours of tranquillity. In the rustic night that looked in through the wide-open windows, its deep silence broken only at rare intervals by the cry of a bird, in that dim and lofty room, our love would burst into sudden flame and burn long and silently, clear and living like the flame of the old oil lamps that once had illumined those sombre apartments. I felt that I loved my wife more each day, the feeling of each evening nourishing itself and gathering strength from that of the evening before; and she, on her side, seemed never to exhaust the treasure of her affectionate, sensual compliance. During those nights, for the first and, perhaps, the last time in my life, I seemed to grasp the meaning of what true conjugal passion can be - that mixture of violent devotion and lawful sensuality, of exclusive, limitless possession and confident joy in that possession. For the first time I understood the sometimes indiscreet sense of ownership that some men attach to the marriage relationship, saying' my wife' in the same way that they say 'my house' or 'my dog' or 'my motor car'.

 
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