Contempt, p.23Alberto Moravia
As I dwelt with inexhaustible pleasure upon the details of my vision, it suddenly occurred to me to compare once again the time at which I had left the Piccola Marina in the boat with the time at which I had come out of the Red Grotto, and I was again struck with the great length of time that I must have spent at the far end of the cave, on the little subterranean beach: allowing three quarters of an hour for the journey from the Piccola Marina to the Grotto, it must have been more than an hour. As I have already said, I had attributed this length of time to a fainting fit, or at any rate to some kind of collapse or unconsciousness very like a fainting fit. But now, on re-examining my hallucinations, which had been so complete and at the same time had corresponded so obligingly with my most profound desires, I wondered whether I had not quite simply dreamed the whole thing. Whether, that is to say, I had not embarked from the bathing-beach alone and without any ghost on board, and whether I had not penetrated, still alone, into the grotto, and finally lain down on the little beach and gone to sleep. During my sleep—if this were so—I had dreamed that I had started off in the boat with Emilia sitting in the stern, that I had talked to her and she had answered me, that I had suggested making love, that we had gone together into the cave. And then I had also dreamed that I had put out my hand to help her out of the boat, that I had failed to find her, that I had been frightened, that I had thought I must have had a ghost with me on my boat excursion, and that I had finally thrown myself down on the beach and fainted.
This supposition now seemed to me to be probably true; but not more than probably. Now that it had been obscured, sidetracked and confused by my subsequent fancies, it seemed to me almost impossible to search out the dividing line between dream and actual reality, a dividing line that must be located in that moment when I lay down on the beach. What had really happened at the precise moment when I lay down on the little beach at the far end of the cave? Had I fallen asleep and dreamed that I had been with Emilia, the real Emilia of flesh and blood? Or had I fallen asleep and dreamed that I had been visited by Emilia’s ghost? Or again, had I fallen asleep and dreamed that I was asleep and dreaming one or the other of the aforesaid dreams? Like those Chinese boxes each one of which contains a smaller one, reality seemed to contain a dream which in its turn contained a reality which in its turn contained yet another dream, and so on ad infinitum. Thus, again and again, pausing and resting on my oars out at sea, I wondered if I had dreamed or had had a hallucination, or—more singularly—if a ghost had indeed appeared to me; and in the end I came to the conclusion that it was not possible for me to find out, and that, in all probability, I should never find out.
I rowed on and came at last to the beach-house. I dressed in great haste, went up again to the road, and was in time to board a bus which was on the point of leaving for the piazza. I was in a great hurry now to be home again: somehow, for a reason I could not explain, I felt convinced that when I reached the villa I should perhaps find the key to all these mysteries. I was in a hurry to get there also because I had still to have lunch and pack my bag and then catch the six o’clock boat; and I had wasted time. I left the piazza at once, almost at a run, by the usual path; in twenty minutes’ time I was at the villa.
I had no time, as I entered the deserted living-room, to succumb to the sadness of desolation and loneliness. On the already laid table, beside the plate, was a telegram. Unsuspecting but vaguely troubled, I took the yellow envelope and opened it. Battista’s name surprised me and, for some reason, seemed to give me a hope of favorable news. But then I read the text: it announced to me, in a few words, that, as the result of a serious accident, Emilia was “dangerously ill.”
I realize, at this point, that I have almost nothing more to say. It is useless to describe how I left that same afternoon, how, when I reached Naples, I learned that in reality Emilia had been killed in a motor accident a short distance south of Terracina. Her death had been a strange one. Owing to fatigue and the great heat, she had apparently fallen asleep, with her head down and her chin resting on her chest. Battista, as usual, was driving extremely fast. Suddenly an ox-drawn cart had come out of a side road. Battista had jammed on the brakes; and, after an exchange of abuse with the driver of the cart, had driven on. But Emilia’s head was swaying from one side to another, and she had not spoken. Battista had spoken to her, but she had not answered; and, at a bend in the road, she had fallen on top of him. He had stopped the car, and had then discovered that she was dead. The sudden jamming on of the brakes to avoid the cart had caught her body in a moment of complete abandonment, with all the muscles relaxed, as indeed happens during sleep; and the jolt of the suddenly stopped car had caused an abrupt jerk of the neck, fracturing the spinal column out-right. She had died without knowing it.
It was extremely hot—a wearisome thing for sorrow, which demands, like joy, that there should be no rivalry in any other feeling. The funeral took place on a day of unrelieved sultriness, beneath a cloudy sky, the air damp and windless. After the funeral, in the evening, I closed the door behind me as I entered our apartment—for ever useless and empty, now—and I understood at last that Emilia, truly, was dead, and that I should never see her again. All the windows in the flat had been opened wide in the hope of increasing even the faintest breath of air, but I felt I was suffocating as I wandered from one room to another, over the polished floors, in the twilight gloom. Meanwhile the brightly lit windows of the adjoining houses, their inhabitants visible inside the rooms, drove me almost to frenzy, their quiet lights reminding me of a world in which people loved without misunderstandings and were loved in return and lived peaceful lives—a world from which it seemed to me that I was for ever shut out. The re-entry into such a world would have meant, for me, an explanation with Emilia, her conviction of my innocence, the creation once again of the miracle of love which, in order to exist, must be kindled not only in our own hearts but in those of others as well. But this was no longer possible, and I felt I should go mad when I thought that perhaps I ought to recognize, in Emilia’s death, a last, supreme act of hostility on her part against myself.
But I had to go on living. Next day I took up the suitcase which I had not yet opened, locked the door of the flat with the sensation of closing a grave, and handed the keys to the porter, explaining that I intended to get rid of the apartment as soon as I returned from my holiday. Then I started off again for Capri. Strange to say, I was driven to return there by the hope that, somehow or other, in the same place where she had appeared to me, or elsewhere, Emilia would again show herself to me. And then I would again explain to her why everything had happened, and I would again declare my love, and would again receive her assurance that she understood me and loved me. This hope had a quality of madness about it, and I was aware of this. Never, indeed, was I so near to a kind of reasoned insanity as I was at that time, balanced precariously between a loathing for reality and a longing for hallucination.
Emilia, fortunately, did not reappear to me, either when sleeping or waking. And when I compared the time at which she had appeared with the time at which she had died, I discovered that they did not correspond. Emilia had been still alive at the moment when I thought I had seen her sitting in the stern of the boat; but she was, in all probability, already dead during the time of my unconsciousness on the little beach at the far end of the Red Grotto. So, in death as in life, there was no true conformity. And I should never know whether she had been a ghost or a hallucination, or a dream, or perhaps some other illusion. The ambiguity which had poisoned our relationship in life continued even after her death.
Driven on by longing for her and for places where I had last seen her, I made my way one day to the beach below the villa, where I had come upon her lying naked and had had the illusion that I had kissed her. The beach was deserted; and as I came out through the masses of fallen rock with my eyes raised towards the smiling, blue expanse of the sea, the thought of the Odyssey came back into my mind, and of Ulysses and Penelope, and I said to myself tha
This is a New York Review Book
Published by The New York Review of Books
435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014
Copyright © R.C.S. Libri S.p.A.-Milan, Bompiani 1954
Introduction copyright © 1999 by Tim Parks
All rights reserved.
First published in Italy by Valentino Bompiani & Co. as Il disprezzo, 1954
Cover image: Georgii Petrusov, caricature of Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1933–1934
Cover design: Katy Homans
The Library of Congress has cataloged the earlier printing as follows:
Moravia, Alberto, 1907–
Contempt / Alberto Moravia ; introduction by Tim Parks ;
translated by Angus Davidson .
ISBN 0-940322-27-7 (pbk. : alk. paper)
I. Davidson, Angus. II. Title.
853’.912—dc 21 99-31899
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Alberto Moravia, Contempt
Contempt by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes