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       Contempt, p.20

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  When I reached the villa, I ran up the stairs leading to the terrace and went into the living-room. It was empty, but a magazine lying open in an armchair, some red-stained cigarette-stumps in the ash-tray, and the sound of subdued dance-music coming from the radio indicated to me that Emilia had been there until a few moments before. And then, owing perhaps to the softened, pleasing brilliance of the afternoon light, perhaps to the discreet music, I felt my anger subsiding, though the causes which had inspired it remained firm and clear. I was struck, particularly, by the comfortable, serene, familiar, inhabited look of the room. It looked as if we had been living in the villa for months, and as if Emilia had become accustomed by now to regarding it as her settled abode. The radio, the magazine, the cigarette-stumps, all reminded me, for some reason, of her old love of home, of the pathetic yearning, wholly instinctive and feminine, that she had had for a hearth, a stable resting-place of her own. I saw that, notwithstanding all that had happened, she was preparing for a long stay, and that she was, in reality, pleased to be at Capri, in Battista’s house. And now, instead, I was coming to tell her that we had to go away again.

  Thoughtfully I went to the door of Emilia’s room and opened it. She was not there; but here too I noticed signs of her domestic instincts—the dressing-gown carefully laid out on the armchair, at the foot of the bed, the slippers placed neatly beside it; the numerous small bottles and pots and other accessories of beauty tidily arranged on the dressing-table, in front of the mirror; on the bedside table a single book, an English grammar, the study of which she had embarked upon some time before, and with it an exercise-book, a pencil, and a small bottle; and no trace at all of the many suitcases she had brought from Rome. Almost by instinct I opened the wardrobe: Emilia’s dresses—not very many of them—were hanging in a row on coat-hangers; on a shelf were arranged handkerchiefs large and small, belts, ribbons, a few pairs of shoes. Yes, I thought, it did not really matter to Emilia whether she loved me or loved Battista: what mattered more than anything was to have a house of her own, to be able to count upon a long, quiet stay, without worries of any kind.

  I left the room and went along a short passage towards the kitchen, which was in a little annex at the back of the house. When I reached the threshold, I heard the voice of Emilia in conversation with the cook. I stopped, automatically, behind the open door and listened for a moment.

  Emilia was giving the cook instructions for our dinner that evening, “Signor Molteni,” she was saying, “likes plain cooking, without a lot of gravies and sauces—just boiled or roast, in fact. It’ll be better for you, you’ll have less to do, Agnesina.”

  “Well, Signora, there’s always plenty to do. Even plain cooking isn’t as plain as all that. What shall we have this evening, then?”

  There was a short pause. Evidently Emilia was reflecting. Then she asked: “Would there still be any fish at this time of day?”

  “Yes, if I go to the fishmonger who serves the hotels.”

  “Well then, buy a nice big fish—two or three pounds, or even more...But it must be a good quality fish, without too many bones...a dentice or, better still, a spigola...in fact, the best you can get. And I think you’d better bake it...or boil it. You know how to make mayonnaise sauce, Agnesina?”

  “Yes, I do.”

  “All right...then if you boil it, make some mayonnaise... and then a salad, or some kind of cooked vegetables—carrots or aubergines or french beans...whatever you can find. And fruit, plenty of fruit. Put the fruit on the ice as soon as you get back from your shopping, so that it will be very cool when it’s served.”

  “And what shall we do about a first course?”

  “Oh yes, there’s the first course too! Let’s have something quite simple for this evening. Buy some ham—but be sure you get the best quality...and let’s have some figs with it. There are figs to be got?”

  “Yes, you can get figs.”

  I don’t know why, but while I was listening to this domestic conversation, so quiet, so easily foreseeable, I suddenly remembered the last words I had exchanged with Rheingold. He had said that I aspired after a world like that of the Odyssey; and I had agreed with him; and then he had retorted that this aspiration of mine could never be satisfied, that the modern world was not the world of the Odyssey. And now I thought: “Yet here is a situation that might have occurred just as well thousands of years ago, in the days of Homer...the mistress talking to her servingmaid, giving her instructions for the evening meal.” This idea recalled to my mind the lovely afternoon light, radiant but soft, which filled the living-room, and, as though by enchantment, it seemed to me that Battista’s villa was the house in Ithaca, and that Emilia was Penelope, in the act of speaking to her servant. Yes, I was right; everything was, or might have been, as it was then; and yet everything was so bitterly different. With an effort, I put my head in at the door and said: “Emilia.”

  She scarcely turned, asking: “What is it?”

  “You know...I want to talk to you.”

  “Go wait in the living-room...I’m not finished with Agnesina yet...I’ll be there in a minute.”

  I went back into the living-room, sat down in an armchair and waited. I now had a feeling of remorse in anticipation of what I was going to do: Emilia, to all appearances, was expecting to stay a long time at the villa; and I, on the other hand, was about to announce our departure. I remembered, at this point, how she, not so many days before, had made up her mind to leave me; and, comparing her almost desperate attitude that day with her present serene bearing, I thought that after all she must have decided to live with me, even if she did despise me. In other words, she was still, at that time, rebelling against an intolerable situation, whereas now she accepted it. And yet this acceptance was far more offensive to me than any kind of rebellion; it indicated, in her, a decline, a collapse, as though now she despised not only me but her-self as well. This idea sufficed to banish the slight feeling of remorse from my mind. Yes indeed, both for my sake and for hers, we had to leave, and I had to announce our departure to her.

  I waited a little longer; then Emilia came in, went and turned off the radio and sat down. “You said you wanted to talk to me.”

  “Have you unpacked?” I asked in return.

  “Yes, why?”

  “I’m sorry,” I said, “but you’ll have to pack again. We’re going back to Rome tomorrow morning.”

  She remained quite motionless for a moment, hesitating, as though she had not understood. Then, in a harsh voice, she asked: “What’s happened now?”

  “What’s happened,” I replied, rising from my armchair and going over to shut the door that led into the passage, “is that I’ve decided not to do the script. I’m throwing up the whole thing. And so we’re going back to Rome.”

  She seemed to be really exasperated by this piece of news. Frowning, she inquired: “And why have you decided to refuse this job?”

  I answered, dryly: “I’m surprised that you should ask. It seems to me that, after what I saw through the window yesterday evening, I could hardly do otherwise.”

  She at once objected, coldly: “Yesterday evening you were of a different opinion...and you’d already seen.”

  “Yesterday evening I allowed myself to be persuaded by your arguments...but afterwards I saw that I ought not to take them into account. I don’t know for what reason you advise me to do the script, nor do I wish to know. I only know that it’s better for me, and for you too, that I shouldn’t do it!”

  “Does Battista know?” she asked unexpectedly.

  “No, he doesn’t,” I replied, “but Rheingold does. I’ve just told him.”

  “You’ve made a very great mistake.”

  “Why?”

  “Because,” she said, in an uncertain, discontented tone of voice, “we need this money to pay the installments on the flat. Besides, you yourself have said, over and over again, that to break a contract means cutting yourself off from other jobs. You’ve made a bad mistake: you shoul
dn’t have done it.”

  I, in turn, became irritated. “But don’t you understand,” I cried, “don’t you understand that my situation has become intolerable...that I cannot go on taking money from the man...from the man who is in the process of seducing my wife?”

  She said nothing. I went on: “I am refusing the job because it would not be decent for me to accept it, in the present circumstances...but I am refusing it also for your sake, on account of you, in order that you may change your opinion about me. You—I don’t know why—at present consider me a man capable of accepting a job under such conditions. Well, you’re wrong. I’m not that sort of man!”

  I saw a hostile, malicious light come into her eyes. “If you’re doing it for your own sake, well, I don’t know...but if you’re doing it because of me, you still have time to change your mind. You would be doing a useless thing, I assure you. It would serve no purpose except to damage yourself—that would be all.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean just what I say—that it would serve no purpose.”

  I felt cold about the temples and knew I was turning pale. “And so—?”

  “You tell me first what effect this sacrifice of yours is supposed to have on me.”

  I realized that the moment of final explanation had arrived. It was she herself who was offering it to me. And all of a sudden I had a feeling of fear. I began, nevertheless: “You said, some time ago, that...that you despised me...that was what you said. I don’t know why you despise me. I only know that people get themselves despised when they do despicable things. Accepting this job, at the present moment, would in fact be a despicable thing...and so my decision will prove to you, more than anything, that I am not what you believe me to be—that’s all.”

  She answered promptly in a tone of triumph, pleased, one would have thought, at having at last made me fall into a trap: “On the contrary, your decision won’t prove anything to me...and that’s why I advise you to go back on it.”

  “What do you mean, it won’t prove anything?” I had sat down again and, with an almost automatic gesture, in which my distress was visibly expressed, I put out my hand and took hers as it lay on the arm of the chair. “Emilia, tell me that.”

  She pulled her hand away awkwardly. “Please leave all that alone...in fact...please don’t touch me, don’t try to touch me again. I don’t love you and it will never be possible for me to love you again.”

  I withdrew my hand and said in a resentful voice: “Don’t let’s talk about our love, never mind that...let’s talk instead about your...your contempt. Even if I refuse the job you’ll go on despising me?”

  Suddenly she jumped to her feet, as though seized by a violent impatience. “Yes, certainly I’ll go on. And now let me alone.”

  “But why do you despise me?”

  “Because I do,” she cried all at once; “because you’re made like that, and however hard you try, you can’t change yourself.”

  “But how am I made?”

  “I don’t know how you’re made—you ought to know. I only know you’re not a man, you don’t behave like a man.”

  I was struck by the contrast between the genuineness, the sincerity of feeling that sounded in her voice and the commonplace, sweeping nature of her words. “But what does it mean to be a man?” I demanded, with a rage in which irony was mingled; “don’t you realize it means nothing at all?”

  “Nonsense—you know perfectly well.”

  She had gone over to the window now, and her back was turned to me as she spoke. I clasped my head in my hands and gazed at her for a moment in despair. She had turned her back upon me not only physically but also, as it were, with the whole of her mind. She had no wish to explain herself, or perhaps, I suddenly thought, she was unable to do so. Clearly some reason for her contempt existed; but it was not so clear that she was able to indicate it precisely; and so she preferred to attribute her feeling of contempt to some original, innately despicable quality in me, a quality that was motiveless and therefore irremediable. All at once I remembered Rheingold’s interpretation of the relationship between Ulysses and Penelope, and a sudden enlightenment made me wonder: “Supposing Emilia had had the impression that during these last months I knew Battista was paying court to her, that I was trying to take advantage of it, and, in fact, that instead of expostulating, I was sanctioning Battista’s purposes for my own interest?” The impact of this idea left me breathless; even more so because I now recalled certain ambiguous episodes which might have confirmed her in such a suspicion; among others, my own lateness, the first evening we had gone out with Battista—due, in reality, to a taxi mishap, but which she might have attributed to a clever plan for leaving her alone with him. As if to corroborate my reflections, she suddenly said, without turning around: “A man who is really a man would not, for example, have behaved as you did yesterday evening, after seeing what you saw. But you came to me, as if butter would melt in your mouth, and asked me my opinion, pretending not to have seen anything, in the hope that I would advise you to go on with the script. And I gave you the advice you wanted and you accepted it. Then, today—goodness knows what happened with that German—you come and tell me you’re giving up the job for my sake, because I despise you and you don’t want me to despise you. But I know you by this time; and I can see that it’s not you who’ve given up the job but he who made you give it up. Anyhow it’s too late. I’ve made up my mind about you, and you can give up all the jobs in the world and I shan’t change it. So don’t make such a fuss about it now; accept the job and leave me in peace, once and for all.”

  So here we were, back at the beginning again, I could not help thinking: she despised me but refused to tell me the reason. It was deeply repugnant to me to try to formulate the reason myself, both because the reason itself would inevitably be repugnant to me, and also because, in formulating it, I should feel I was in some way accepting its validity. However I intended to get to the bottom of this question, and there was nothing else to be done. I said, as calmly as I could: “Emilia, you despise me and you won’t tell me why...perhaps you don’t even know, yourself. But I have a right to know, so that I can explain to you that it isn’t true, and so that I can justify myself. Now listen: if I tell you the reason for your contempt, will you promise me that you’ll tell me whether it’s true or not?”

  She was still standing in front of the window, with her back to me, and for a moment she said nothing. Then, in a tired, irritable voice, she said: “I don’t promise anything...oh, do leave me alone!”

  “The reason is this,” I said very slowly, as though I were spelling it out. “You have imagined, on a basis of deceptive appearances, that I...that I knew about Battista, and that, for my own interest, I preferred to close my eyes—that, in fact, I actually tried to push you into his arms...isn’t that so?”

  I raised my eyes in her direction, as she stood with her back towards me, and awaited her answer. But no answer came; she was gazing at something on the other side of the window-panes, and she did not speak. All at once I felt myself blushing right up to the ears, in sudden shame at what I had said; and I saw that, as I had feared, the actual fact of my having said it could not but be interpreted by her as yet another proof of a valid foundation for her contempt. In desperation, I added hastily: “But if this is true, Emilia, I can swear to you that you’re wrong. I never knew anything about Battista until yesterday evening... Of course you’re at liberty to believe me or not to believe me...but if you don’t believe me, it means that you want to be able to despise me at all costs, that you want not to be convinced, that you want me not to be able to justify myself.”

  Once again she did not speak; and I saw I had hit the mark. Perhaps she really did not know why she despised me, and in any case preferred not to know but to continue looking upon me as a contemptible figure—just like that, without reasons, without any references to my behavior, just as one might happen to have dark hair or blue eyes. I saw also that I had not achieved th
e effect I desired; but, I thought, innocence does not always succeed in being convincing. Urged on by an impulse beyond control, I felt the necessity of adding a physical argument to my words. I rose and went over to her—she was still standing by the window, looking out—and seized her by the arm, saying: “Emilia, why do you hate me so?...Why can’t you take things for granted, even for a moment?”

  I noticed that she turned her face aside, as if to hide it. But she allowed me to hold her arm; and, when I came close to her, so that my side was touching hers, she did not draw back. Then I grew bolder and put my arm around her waist. At last she turned, and I saw that her whole face was wet with tears. “I shall never forgive you,” she cried; “never shall I forgive you for having ruined our love. I loved you so much, and I’d never loved anyone but you...and I shall never love anyone else ...and you’ve ruined everything because of your character... We might have been so happy together...and instead of that, it’s all quite impossible now. How can I possibly take things for granted? How can I possibly not dislike you?”

  A faint hope was born in me: after all, she was saying that she had loved me, that she had never loved anyone but me. “Now listen,” I suggested, seeking to draw her to me, “you go and pack now, and we’ll leave tomorrow morning...and when we get to Rome I’ll explain everything to you...and you’ll be convinced, I’m sure of that.”

 
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