The Empty Canvas, p.22Alberto Moravia
I had scarcely fallen asleep when I woke up again. But the studio was almost in darkness and, when I turned on the light, I realized that in reality I had slept for about an hour: it was half past five, and I had come back from the agency at about half past four. This sleep, so profound as to give me the feeling of not having slept at all, had rested me: I felt unusually clear-headed and, as had sometimes happened to me in the past when I was getting ready to paint, full of precise and conscious creative energy. I looked up at the canvas and thought, almost involuntarily, that it was a pity that I had given up painting: this was the state of mind one needed for working. But immediately afterwards, in an automatic sort of way, I jumped off the divan and rushed out of the studio. I was sure that Cecilia was in the actor's flat, and I wanted to catch her at the moment when she came out on her way to visit me.
Hitherto I had set out to watch Cecilia every day except those days on which we saw each other, thinking, for some reason or other, that she would not go to bed with me and with the actor on the same afternoon. But Cecilia had told me on the telephone that morning that she could not see me before six, and I now understood why she had given me an appointment for that time: she was due to visit Luciani before she came to visit me. And so, while I could not know at what time she went to see Luciani on other days, nor at what time she left him, today I at least knew for certain at what time she would be leaving him, because that was the time when she was coming to see me. It astonished me that I had never before thought of a thing that was so simple and, in addition, so completely in conformity with Cecilia's innocently cruel psychology. It was, in fact, characteristic of her to go straight from the arms of the actor into mine, in the space of barely half an hour; to give herself to me with the same flattering abandonment with which she had given herself to him; to mingle the seed of both of us, with animal-like greed, in her own belly. Why in the world had I never thought of it before?
A quarter of an hour later I was at the house where the actor lived; I found room for the car almost in front of the entrance door, and stayed in it. It was not worth while taking up my position in the bar; according to my calculations, Cecilia ought to be coming out in five minutes at most. So I lit a cigarette, all the time keeping my eyes fixed on the ground floor shutters, through which a light showed. These were the shutters of Luciani's flat, and probably, at that same moment, Cecilia was dressing hastily, telling the actor the same childish lie that she generally told me: 'I must go, Mother's expecting me.' I had a feeling of nausea as I looked at those shutters, and realized that it was not so very different from the feeling sometimes aroused in me, in times past, by the blank surface of a canvas at the moment when I was preparing to paint: out of that door, framed in black marble, would soon issue something which I desired at the same time both to know and not to know, something for which I felt at the same time both appetite and disgust—Cecilia, or in other words, reality. I knew that I must stay sitting in my car until I saw her appear in the doorway, yet at the same time I felt a great desire to go away. Once again, in the light of this twofold, contradictory feeling, I saw that what had so often made me abandon my spying, during these last days, had not been, as I thought, a revolt of dignity but rather a repugnance for Cecilia as she really was—that is, in a word, for reality.
At the end of five minutes, as I had foreseen, Cecilia and the actor did in fact appear together in the doorway. They were holding hands and it seemed to me that they were both staggering a little, as though dazed. I noticed that Cecilia was clasping the actor's hand in a special way, with her fingers between his, as if unconsciously repeating the recent interlacing of their bodies. Still holding hands, they went off along the pavement down the hill.
Everything can be foreseen, except the feeling aroused in us by what we foresee. One can certainly foresee, for example, that a snake may come out of a hole under a rock; but it is difficult to foresee the quality and intensity of the fear that the sight of the reptile will inspire in us. Countless times I had imagined Cecilia coming out of the actor's house, either in company with him or alone; but I had not foreseen the feelings I would experience when I actually saw her come out of that big door with its black marble frame, into the street, hand in hand with Luciani. And so I was astonished when, at the sight of Cecilia and the actor standing for what seemed an eternity in the doorway, I became conscious of an abominable sensation like that of a fainting fit. I suffered horribly and was at the same time amazed that I should be suffering so much and in so novel a way, when I had been prepared for this moment by so precise an anticipation. I felt that the image of those two was impressed indelibly upon my memory; and I felt a scorching pain, as though that image were a red-hot iron and my memory a piece of sensitive flesh that rebelled against it.
I have said that my suffering was comparable to that of a fainting fit. In reality I had fainted in every part of myself except at the one point in which—as if the whole of my vitality had concentrated itself there—I had not merely fainted but was conscious of myself to an excessive degree. And it was from this, precisely, that I suffered: from feeling myself to be everywhere lifeless except at this one grievous point. In the meantime I had automatically started the car, brought it slowly out from its parking-place and driven off behind Cecilia and Luciani.
They were walking very slowly, still holding hands, silent and happy, no doubt. Then, at a barber's shop, the actor stopped; Cecilia spoke to him for a moment, held out her hand to him and Luciani kissed it. He went into the barber's shop and Cecilia went on her way. Driving slowly all the time, my eyes fixed on her as she disappeared and reappeared according to the bends in the pathway, I went on for some distance down the street. I looked at her, and I looked especially at the movement of her hips under her short, tight dress, a movement at the same time clumsy and lazy and powerful, and I realized that I still felt desire for her—just as though I were not yet entirely sure of her unfaithfulness. And I saw that if I really wished to stop desiring her, I must compel her to confess the truth, that truth which alone would irreparably establish her in my eyes for what she was, and would make me cease to love her. Cecilia, meanwhile, had gone to the bus stop, a little farther down the street. I looked at my watch; there were still ten minutes to go to the time of her appointment with me. Punctual as ever, she had calculated her time well: in a quarter of an hour at most, the bus would put her down in the Piazza del Popolo, only a few steps from my studio. Thus at six o'clock, as arranged, she would be able to throw herself into my arms.
I stopped the car abruptly in front of her—she was at that moment fumbling in her bag with her head down—threw the door open and said to her in my normal voice: 'D'you want to get in?' She looked up and saw me, appeared to be on the point of speaking, then changed her mind and got into the car in silence. I started off again and at once asked her: 'How d'you come to be in these parts?'
'I've been to see that film producer,' she replied.
'But isn't his office in Via Montebello?'
'His private house is near here.'
I threw her a sideways glance and observed, in spite of being troubled myself, that Cecilia was troubled too, however inappropriate that word may seem when used of a person so expressionless. I saw this from a very slight contraction of her eyebrows, which I knew to be, in her, a sign of worry and perplexity. I decided to attack her with a combination of reason and severity, as if this had been a police interrogation. 'What's this producer called—quickly now, his name and surname?'
'He's called Mario Meloni.'
'Where does he live—quickly now, his street number, which floor, and the number of his flat?'
'He lives here, in Via Archimede,' she replied, in a grudging tone of voice, like a little schoolgirl being questioned by her teacher, 'at number thirty-six, flat six, third floor.'
This was the number of Luciani's house, but not his floor nor yet the number of his flat. I realized that Cecilia gave me this number to protect herself from the possibility of my contestin
'He was at the producer's too. We went there together.'
'He wanted to speak to us about a job.'
'What's the title of this film?'
'He didn't tell us.'
'Where did Meloni receive you?'
'In his drawing-room.'
'Describe this room, then—quickly now—beginning with the furniture and how it was arranged.'
I knew, of course, that Cecilia did not notice things nor, generally, places in which she had been. I thought therefore that if, in order to reassure me, she described the furnishings of Meloni's drawing-room with a wealth of detail—that room in which she had never been because it did not exist—I should have a further proof that she was lying to me. But I had not counted upon her unconquerable, negative laziness. She said drily: 'It's a room like lots of other rooms.'
Disconcerted and somewhat surprised, I insisted: 'Meaning what?'
'A room with armchairs, sofas, little tables and chairs.'
These were the same words that she had used to describe the sitting-room in her own home. I continued to press her. 'What colour were the armchairs and sofas?'
'I didn't look at them.'
'What colour were Luciani's underpants; you must have looked at them, anyhow.'
'There you are, I knew you'd begin making insinuations.'
By this time we had arrived at Via Margutta. I drove into the courtyard, stopped and jumped out and then, faithful to my plan of systematic intimidation, seized Cecilia by the arm and pulled her violently out of the car. 'Now we'll see,' I cried.
'We'll see if you've told the truth.'
I grasped her tightly by her thin, childish arm and realized that I was running purposely in order to be able to give her a violent tug now and then and so cause her to stumble and almost fall. 'What a way to behave!' she said once, and then: 'Whatever's wrong with you?' yet she did not appear to be either surprised or irritated or frightened. I pushed the key into the lock, turned it and kicked the door open, then turned on the light and, with a last, violent shove, hurled Cecilia on to the divan. She fell, her head lowered; I rushed to the telephone and started furiously turning over the pages of the street directory. I fumbled and searched, found what I was looking for, and then, my finger on the list, thrust it under the nose of Cecilia, who had now risen to her feet again. 'There's no Meloni at 36, Via Archimede,' I said.
'His number isn't in the book.'
'Because he doesn't want to be disturbed.'
'On the other hand, here's Luciani at number 36.'
'It's not possible, he's not in the telephone book.'
'No, but he's in the street directory. Look here, there it is!'
She looked with feigned reluctance but said nothing. I commented sarcastically: 'What an odd coincidence! Meloni and Luciani live in the same house.'
'Yes, Luciani lives on the ground floor and Meloni on the third.'
'Very well, then, now we'll go out and drive together to Meloni's.'
A long silence followed. Cecilia gazed at me with those eyes, so vague and so poetical, that in reality saw nothing, and was silent. 'Come on,' I urged her, 'get a move on.'
I saw her suddenly blush, with an uneven, patchy redness, from her neck upwards over her cheeks. 'Yes,' she said, 'it's true.'
'It's true?—what's true?'
'That Luciani and I see each other.'
Again I had foreseen, for some time past, the words of this confession; but there is a great difference between foreseeing with one's mind and hearing with one's ears: once again, as when I saw her coming out of Luciani's house, I had a sickening sensation of faintness. 'What do you mean, that you see each other?' I stammered stupidly; 'I know you see each other.'
'I mean we make love.'
'And you say it just like that?'
'How else should I say it?'
I felt that she was right; she did not love me, she was unfaithful to me, and her tone, so economical and so colourless, was the correct one. I was still left, however, with an insatiable need to imprison her in her confession as in a cage of shame from which she would never be able to escape. 'Why did you do it?' I asked.
She seemed to be reflecting, seriously, scrupulously, before answering. Then she said, quite simply: 'Because I liked it.'
'But don't you realize you ought not to have done it?'
'Why ought I not to have done it?'
'Because a woman doesn't betray a man she's fond of, and you've told me over and over again that you're fond of me.'
'Yes, I am fond of you, but I'm fond of Luciani too.'
'So you're one of those women who give themselves to everybody—yesterday to a painter, today to an actor, tomorrow, I daresay, to the electrician.'
She looked at me and said nothing. I went on again: 'You're a good-for-nothing, worthless woman.'
Still she was silent. Why did I go on insisting like this? Because I wanted to convince myself that, after the confession she had made, Cecilia was discredited and reduced to nothingness in my eyes; and yet I felt that this was not so. Nevertheless, this discrediting process was bound to occur, I could not help thinking. There had been women who had forfeited my estimation and my affection for no more than a phrase, a gesture, an attitude; all the more reason, then, why Cecilia, who had vulgarly betrayed me, should do so. I concluded angrily: 'Do you realize that what one does, one is, and that therefore what you have done makes you into something very different from what you were?'
I should have liked her to ask: 'What was I, and what am I now?' And then I should have answered: 'You were an honest girl and now you're a whore.' At the same time her question would have indicated a need on her part to be well-considered, esteemed, appreciated by me. But I was disappointed in my hope: Cecilia did not open her mouth; and I saw that silence was the only answer I could expect from her. This silence meant that lying and unfaithfulness were, for her, words devoid of significance, not so much because she did not understand them as because they did not denote anything particular, in her life. I felt she was eluding me again, and I seized her by her arms and shook her, crying out in a rage: 'Why don't you speak, say something, why don't you answer?'
She announced, quite sincerely: 'I have nothing to say.'
'I, on the other hand,' I shouted, beside myself with rage, 'I have something to say. And that is, that you're just a vulgar little whore.'
She looked at me, but said nothing. I shook her again. 'So you allow yourself to be called a whore and you don't protest.'
She rose to her feet. 'Dino, I'm going away.'
Amongst all the many things I had failed to foresee, there was this—the possibility of her going away. Seized with a sudden anxiety, I asked: 'Where are you' going?'
'I'm going away. It's better for us not to go on seeing each other.'
'But why? Wait. Wait a moment. We must talk.'
'What's the use of talking? We don't agree, anyhow. Our characters are too different.'
Thus Cecilia was again eluding me, and in two ways—firstly, by reducing the value of her own confession: between herself and me, according to her, there was merely a difference of character, as though unfaithfulness were a question of individual temperament and not of moral standards; secondly, by leaving me before I could leave her. Passing suddenly from the moral to the physical, I was seized with desire for her; it was as though I should be able to pretend to myself, if I took her at that moment, that I was possessing her through the physical act after psychological possession had failed. I caught her round the waist as she was already moving towards the door and whispered in her ear: 'We must make love, for the last time.
'No, no, no,' she replied, trying to disengage herself, 'that's all finished.'
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes