The Empty Canvas, p.21Alberto Moravia
'What does fatuous mean?'
'It means conceited.'
She was silent for a moment, then she remarked: 'It's true that he has small hands and feet. Now that you mention it, I remember.'
'So, if I hadn't mentioned it, you wouldn't have remembered?'
'I don't look at people, as you do, in detail. I only see if they're nasty or nice. That's enough for me.'
At this point it occurred to me, naturally, to wonder what Cecilia thought of me. I had it on the tip of my tongue to ask her: 'And what do you think of me?'—but I could not make up my mind to put this question to her, fearing perhaps that she would answer, as in the case of Luciani, that she didn't think anything. In the end, however, I did decide, one day, to ask her: 'What d'you think of me?'
Rather unexpectedly, she replied: 'Oh, lots of things.'
I was much relieved, and went on: 'Really? And what?'
'I don't really know; lots of things.'
'Tell me one of them, anyhow.'
She appeared to be considering the matter scrupulously, and then she answered: 'Perhaps it's just because you want to know, but at the present moment I can't think of anything.'
'What d'you mean by that?'
'I mean that at the present moment I don't seem to think anything.'
'But just now you said you thought lots of things.'
'Yes, I said so, but I see I was wrong.'
'But don't you find it tiresome to think nothing, absolutely nothing, about the man you make love with?'
'No, why should I? What need is there to think anything?'
And so Cecilia did not merely remain elusive herself, but managed to confer an atmosphere of elusiveness upon everything that concerned her; she was like one of those characters in a fairy story, who are not only invisible themselves but make everything they touch invisible.
And yet, two or three times a week, I possessed her, by which I mean that I went to bed with her. Anyone else, faced with the growing inadequacy of the physical relationship, would have sought elsewhere for the explanation of a thirst which increased in proportion as it was satisfied. But I was now set upon a course which I felt to be at the same time both fatal and mistaken; and so I made violent efforts to discover, in that physical possession which I yet knew to be illusory, the true possession of which I had so desperate a need. Possibly I felt, as I threw myself upon Cecilia's willing body, that I was making amends, in those two hours of her delusive presence, for the other days of her absence; possibly I was seeking, in her unalterable docility, a reason for boredom and thus for liberation. But Cecilia's body was not Cecilia, and what Cecilia was, I did not succeed in finding out. As for her docility, it no longer produced any boredom in me, but rather a profound mistrust, like some trap of nature into which I had fallen and from which I could not contrive to escape.
Anyhow I do not remember ever having loved Cecilia with such violence as I did during the time when I was spying upon her and suspecting that she was being unfaithful to me. I would throw myself upon her as if she had been an enemy whom I wished to tear to pieces, a beloved enemy, however, who in an ambiguous way incited me to do this; and I was hardly ever satisfied with only one embrace. Significantly, the feeling that I had not truly possessed her used generally to assail me at the moment when, fully dressed and after saying good-bye to me, she walked off towards the door in order to go away; it was as though her departure suddenly revealed to me, in an entirely physical manner, her unchanging power to withdraw herself from me, to elude me. Then I would pursue her, seize her by the hair and hurl her on the divan, disregarding her protests which in any case were not very energetic, and have her again, just as she was, fully dressed, with her shoes on her feet and her bag on her arm, still with the illusory idea that, by having her, I could nullify her independence and her mystery. Immediately after the embrace I realized, of course, that I had not possessed her. But it was too late: Cecilia went away and I knew that the whole thing would begin again next day—the useless watching, the unattainable possession, the final disappointment.
In the end, after more than a month of fruitless spying and of even more fruitless sexual frenzy, I understood what I ought to have guessed from the very first day, that surveillance is not a thing that should be carried out by someone who is directly interested in the results of what he is doing. And that, if I wanted to make any headway, I must have recourse to somebody who carried out such surveillance as a professional duty, that is, to a private detective agency. It was Cecilia herself who gave me this idea. Continually, while I was spying upon her, I thought of nothing but Balestrieri. The old painter, whom I had never cared about while he was alive, had, since his death, become for me an object of horrified and incomprehensible attraction. In reality, I sometimes said to myself, Balestrieri, to me, was rather like a mirror to a sick man—an unanswerable witness to the progress of his disease. I thought especially of Balestrieri each time I suspected that I was doing something he had done before me. And so, during the time when I was spying upon Cecilia, I could not resist the temptation to ask her whether the old painter had also given way to the same weakness. We were in my car; I was taking Cecilia home, in the evening. When we reached the street in which she lived and where I recalled having so often waited in vain for her to come out, I stopped the car and asked her point-blank: 'Did Balestrieri ever spy on you?'
'What d'you mean?'
'Did he follow you, wait for you, watch you, in fact?'
'You never told me about it.'
'You never asked me.'
'In what way did he watch you?'
'He stood in the courtyard and waited for me to come out.'
So Balestrieri, I thought, had been more intelligent than I; he had quickly discovered that there were two doors. 'And then what?' I asked.
'Then, as soon as I came out, he followed me.'
'Did he do this often?'
'During a certain period he did it every day.'
'At what time did he take up his position in the courtyard?'
'That depended. Some days, when he knew I would be going out early, he was there by about eight o'clock.'
'How did you come to know about it?'
'I used to see him from my bedroom window.'
'And what did he do in the courtyard?'
'He used to walk about, or pretend to read the paper, or make drawings in a notebook.'
'But what did he do so that you shouldn't see him, when you came out?'
'He went and stood under the doorway, in the shade, or behind a tree.'
'And then what?'
'Then he followed me.'
For a moment I was silent: I seemed to see the elderly painter, short and square, with his broad shoulders and big feet, his red face and silvery hair, turning up the collar of his waterproof and pulling the brim of his hat down over his eyes as he shadowed the sixteen-year-old girl from the courtyard to the street, and from that street to another; and I felt, recoiling upon me, the now habitual sense of shame at the thought that I had been doing, recently, exactly the same thing. Then I continued: 'But did you notice that he was following you?'
'Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't.'
'And when you did notice, what did you do?'
'Nothing: I went on just as if I hadn't noticed. But once I turned and went back to meet him, and then we went together into a café.'
'What did he say in the café?'
'He didn't say anything; he started crying.'
I said nothing for a moment. Cecilia, who did not like being questioned, took advantage of this to start getting out of the car. But I stopped her. 'Wait,' I said. 'During the time when he was watching you, were you being unfaithful to him?'
As if amused at the coincidence, she replied: 'No, no, at that time I wasn't being unfaithful to him at all. It was only some months later that I had somebody.'
'So he was watching you for no reas
'And by the time that, as you say, you had somebody, he had given up following you?'
'Yes, because he had had proof that I was not being unfaithful.'
'In what way?'
'He had me followed.'
She said somewhat vaguely: 'Oh, by one of those agencies—you know—who make inquiries, by a detective, in fact. They told him I hadn't anybody except him.'
'But how did you get to know that he'd employed an agency to follow you?'
'He told me himself. He made me read a long report—pages of it. It cost him I don't know how much.'
'Was he pleased?'
After a brief silence, I asked: 'And you were unfaithful to him immediately after the agency had proved to him that you weren't?'
'Yes, a month afterwards, but I didn't do it on purpose; it just happened.'
'And he knew about it?'
She hesitated and then said: 'I think he may have guessed something, but he was never really sure about it.'
'How d'you mean?'
'He saw me two or three times, always with the same boy, and then he started following me again, on his own, without the agency. But he had got rather tired and he did it less often than before. Then he died.'
'Why didn't he have you followed by the agency again?'
She said, with a reflective air: 'If he had had me followed, he would have found out everything. But he no longer trusted the agency. He said I had always been unfaithful and the agency hadn't been able to discover the truth.'
After this conversation, I began to think more and more often of having recourse to an agency, as Balestrieri had done. Strangely, whereas in the past I had refrained from doing certain things simply because I knew Balestrieri had done them, now, on the contrary, I felt inclined to employ an agency just because he had employed one. It was as though, having recognized the vanity of my efforts to stop myself on the slope down which Balestrieri had plunged, I had now decided to do, deliberately, the things he had done before me, as if doing them consciously and of my own free will had now become my only means of distinguishing myself from him, since he had done these things in spite of himself and in a state of unconsciousness bordering on madness.
One day, therefore, I started off to find the Agenzia Falco, in a gloomy building in Via Nazionale, very solemn-looking outside, ornate and covered with pillars and statues and Latin inscriptions, and dark and dreary inside. I went up to the third floor in a dilapidated, evil-smelling old lift, stepped out on to a pitch-dark landing and walked towards a glimmer of light filtering through an opaque glass door, upon which stood out the name of the agency and a small, symbolic bird which was, presumably, a falcon. The door rang a bell as I opened it; and I went into an anteroom which was almost entirely bare except for a few wicker chairs. Two men came out of a room, at the same moment, tightening the belts of their waterproofs and pulling down their hats on their heads; I judged from their behaviour and their clothes that they must be detectives, possibly the ones to whom the surveillance of Cecilia would be entrusted. The door having remained open, I walked over to it; and at the far side of a large room, sitting behind a desk reading a newspaper, I saw a dark, bald, thin man with flat temples, a big nose and fallen-in cheeks. I asked where the director could be found. In an earnest, authoritative manner, as though wishing to reassure me, he answered: 'I am the director. Please come in and sit down.'
I went in and he rose to his feet, holding out his hand and introducing himself: 'Major Mosconi.' I sat down and for a moment looked at him, first at his meagre face and worn black suit and twisted tie, and then at the old ink stains that speckled the top of the desk. I wondered what all this could possibly have to do with Cecilia and me, and the answer was: nothing. I said, however: 'There's a person I want to have watched.'
The major answered in a prompt, brisk tone: 'That's what we're here for. Is it a man or a woman?'
'Is this woman your wife?'
'No, I'm not married. It's somebody to whom I am bound by special affection.'
'Then it's a case of pre-matrimonial investigations?'
'Call it that, if you like.'
The major indicated, by a gesture, that he did not wish to insist, that it was not necessary for me to say any more. Then he asked: 'For what reason do you want to have this person watched?'
I looked at him again. For the director of an agency that called itself 'Falcon', he had a face which seemed to contradict that sharp-eyed appellation in every possible way. His eyes, deep-set, small, lustreless, expressionless, made one think not so much of a falcon as of a blind chaffinch. With a roughness that gave me a certain satisfaction, I said: 'I have very good reasons for believing that this person is unfaithful to me.'
It was quite obvious that the major was unwilling to come quickly to the main point of the question, by way of the very simple truth; and this, it appeared, was more in order to uphold the decorum of his office than because he had not understood what it was all about. 'Is this person married?' he asked.
'No, she's unmarried.'
'Are you married?'
'I've already told you that I'm not.'
'I beg your pardon, I didn't remember. And so you have the impression that this young lady ... it is a question of a young lady, is it not?'
I could only confirm this, impatiently: 'Obviously.'
'Excuse me, I didn't explain myself: I wished to know whether it is a question of a young lady of good family or of a woman who lives on her own and leads an independent life?'
'It's a young lady of good family.'
'I could have sworn it was,' he affirmed mysteriously.
This time I could not refrain from asking: 'Why could you have sworn it was?'
'Those are the ones who give us most trouble. Very young girls, of eighteen or twenty. And so you have the impression that the young lady is unfaithful to you?'
'It's the usual reason. You must excuse my saying so, but ninety per cent of those who come here say the same thing. And alas, in at least sixty per cent of these cases, suspicions are shown to be well founded.'
'If their suspicions are well founded, why then do they have recourse to your agency?'
'In order to have a mathematical certainty.'
'And you—are you able to provide this certainty?'
The major shook his head with indulgent forbearance.
'Look,' he said, 'you might perhaps think that anybody can carry out certain inquiries. Even the interested party, you might think; but that isn't so. There is as much difference between the inquiries of an amateur investigator and ours as there is between an analysis made by an amateur scientist, without proper means and without serious knowledge, and an analysis carried out in a scientific laboratory. If you wanted to find out whether you had a definite disease, would you go for an analysis to a charlatan, or to a serious scientific laboratory, accredited and recognized by law? Obviously, the latter. Now the Agenzia Falco is the serious, accredited laboratory, recognized by law'—here the major broke off and pointed to a framed diploma hanging on the wall above his head—'and it is able to provide you with the certainty you require, in a scientific manner.'
'In other words,' I asked, in order to gain time, 'you are able to discover the truth?'
'Always. A case of uncertainty is extremely rare, in fact almost non-existent. Our detectives are honest and trustworthy, all of them ex-carabinieri or ex-policemen, and it is practically impossible for them not to obtain some information.'
'And how long does the investigation take?'
The major made a typical office-worker's gesture: he replaced a pencil which was not out of place, rested his chin on his hand and fixed me with his little black, lustreless eyes. 'I might say two or three weeks,' he said. 'I might say even longer. But I don't want to run off with your money. By the end of a week we shall know everything. W
'What d'you mean—going more deeply into the matter?'
'Forgive me, but these are not things that can be stated beforehand. One has to know the case. However, don't worry, a week will be enough. Yours, if I may be allowed to say so, is an ordinary case.'
'It is the simplest kind of case. You have no idea of the complications we are faced with sometimes. A week, then, as I said, will be more than enough.'
'Yes, I understand,' I said; and I remained silent for a short time. I was thinking that the major, thanks to his so-called scientific investigations, was convinced that he could reach the truth of the matter; and I was also thinking that his truth was not mine. Finally I inquired: 'What are the conditions of payment?'
'Ten thousand lire a day. With a supplement, according to arrangement, if the person to be watched goes about by car, because in that case our detectives have to have the use of a car too.'
I said, meditatively: 'She doesn't go by car, she walks.'
'Ten thousand lire a day, then.'
'And when could you start?'
'Tomorrow. You give me the details, I'll study them and tomorrow morning the detective will start shadowing her.'
Suddenly I rose to my feet. 'We'll begin in a week's time,' I said. 'Because the person isn't in Rome at the moment and won't be back for a week.'
'As you wish,' Major Mosconi had also risen to his feet.
'But if by any chance you are hesitating because of the price, you can find out and see that other agencies won't charge you any less.'
I answered that it was not a question of price and, repeating that I would reappear in a week's time, I went away.
I went back mechanically to my studio and prepared to wait for Cecilia, for this was one of the two or three days of the week when we saw each other. For some time now I had been suffering from sleeplessness owing to the wretchedness that my relations with Cecilia were causing me. Usually I would drop off to sleep at once after I had gone to bed, but not an hour would pass before I woke up with a jump, as though somebody had given me a good shaking; and then, inevitably, I would start thinking about Cecilia and would not fall asleep again until dawn was breaking, only to re-awaken at my usual time, all too early. What happened, however, was that during the day I would drop off to sleep suddenly, worn out with fatigue, wherever I was, and sleep heavily for as much as two or three hours. And so it happened that day. The window-curtain was drawn, and a restful light, warm and yellow, filled the studio. I lay down on the divan and, turning on one side, started looking at the empty canvas still standing on the easel near the window. I reflected that the canvas was blank because I did not succeed in getting possession of any kind of reality, in the same way that my own mind was blank when confronted with a Cecilia who eluded me and whom I could not succeed in possessing. And the physical act, by which I often had the illusion of possessing her, was equivalent to the pornographic painting of Balestrieri—that is, it was not possession, just as the other was not painting. And in the same way as, with Cecilia, I oscillated between boredom and sexual mania, so, in art, I oscillated between bad painting and no painting at all. And now I had turned to the Agenzia Falco in order to find out something certain about Cecilia; but it was as though, in order to paint, I had read a scientific treatise on the nature and composition of matter. The canvas was empty. I went on thinking confusedly, because Cecilia eluded me; my mind was empty because reality eluded me. Reality and Cecilia were the two words that echoed more and more feebly in my head, evoking two different operations which I felt, nevertheless to be connected by an undoubted link. It seemed clear to me that this link was the mania to possess, and that both operations were wrecked by the impossibility of doing so. As I thought over these things, more and more wearily, I ended by falling asleep.
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes