The Empty Canvas, p.23Alberto Moravia
'No, let me go.'
She struggled determinedly, but without any hostility, as though she were withholding herself simply because I was incapable of offering her my love in a more efficacious manner.
In her enigmatic, unmoving eyes there was, in fact, an ambiguous hint of allurement; and in her body below the waist, a submissiveness which I did not perceive in its childish, slender upper part. But struggle she did; and when I succeeded in making her sit down again on the divan she drew back a little, out of reach of my lips. Then an idea came to me, or rather an impulse. That morning I had taken twenty thousand lire, in two notes of ten thousand, out of my drawer and put them in my pocket. I pulled Cecilia violently towards me; and at the same time, as she turned her face away from me and my kiss landed on her neck, I slipped the two notes into her hand. I saw, distinctly, that she lowered her eyes to take a quick glance at the unacccustomed object in the palm of her hand, as if to see what it was; then her hand closed, I felt her body abandon its resistance, and I saw that she had lowered her eyelids as if ready to fall asleep—which was her way of showing me that she accepted my love and was prepared to enjoy it.
And so I took her, without her undressing; with a fury and a violence greater than usual, for it seemed to me that her body had become a kind of arena where I had to compete with the actor in vigour and tenacity. I took her in silence; but at the moment of the orgasm I blew the word 'Bitch!' right into her face. I may have been wrong, but it seemed to me that a very faint smile hovered on her lips; I could not tell, however, if she smiled for the pleasure she was feeling or at my insult.
Later, then she was half asleep, and I was lying beside her, I reflected, as usual, that physical possession had in no way satisfied me. The fleeting, ambiguous, possibly ironical smile with which she had answered my insulting word confirmed, if anything, the futility of the carnal relationship. But I had seen her grasp the banknotes in her fist; and during our love-making she had put her hand up to her forehead so that the notes had been in front of my eyes all the time. I said to myself, all of a sudden, that, considering the failure of my previous attempts at possession, money might possibly be the trap in which I could catch her. She had refused herself to me until the moment when I put the money in her hand; so that, contrary to what I had thought hitherto, she was venal. It was now a matter of proving that she really was so: that is, of reducing the mystery of her independence to a question of profit.
Cecilia slept beside me for a little, for her usual length of time and in her usual way; then she woke up, planted a kiss on my cheek with her usual mechanical tenderness, and finally rose to her feet, smoothing down her crumpled dress with both hands. The two banknotes, folded in four, were now lying on the floor, where she had dropped them after we finished making love. She picked them up, opened her bag and slipped them, very carefully, into her purse. 'Then you still want us to part company?' I asked.
She did not appear to grasp the allusion contained in the word 'still'; she answered indifferently: 'Just as you like. If you want us to go on, I don't mind. If you want us to part company, let's do so.'
And so, I reflected, not without astonishment, the money she had received and accepted had sufficed for one single time only; and it had failed to suggest, to her lazy imagination, the alluring prospect of her being able to earn more in the future, in the same manner. 'But,' I asked, 'if you go on seeing me, why would you do so?'
'Because I'm fond of you.'
'If I asked you to give up Luciani, would you do it?'
'Ah no, not that.'
I was hurt, in spite of myself, at the firmness of her refusal. 'You might answer me with a little less eagerness,' I said.
'So from now onwards I've got to go halves with Luciani?'
She seemed to become more animated, as though I had at last touched a sensitive spot. 'But what does it matter to you?' she said. 'Why are you so worried about it? I'll come and see you as usual; nothing will be changed.'
I repeated to myself: 'Nothing will be changed,' saying to myself that, for her at least, it was the truth. She was gazing at me now with a curious, almost regretful expression. At last she said: 'You know, I should be sorry to leave you.'
I could not but be struck by the undoubted sincerity of these words. 'Would you really be sorry?' I asked.
'Yes, I've grown accustomed to you.'
'But you would be equally sorry to leave Luciani, wouldn't you?'
'You've grown accustomed to him too?'
'You're two different things.'
I remained silent for a moment. How could we be two different things, seeing that Cecilia asked the same thing from both of us, which was in fact the mere physical relationship?' So you want to have us both?' I asked.
She nodded her head in a mysterious silence, full of impudent, childish covetousness. Then she said: 'What fault is it of mine if I like being with both of you? You each of you give me something different.'
I felt tempted to ask her: 'I give you money and Luciani gives you love—isn't that so?' But I restrained myself, realizing that it was still too early for a question of that sort. Before I asked it, I would have to get to the bottom of her newly discovered venality. The fact that she had accepted money just this once might not after all have any significance. Finally, with a mingled feeling of anger and weariness, I said: 'Very well then, you shall have both of us. We'll have a try at it. But you'll see yourself that it's impossible to love two men at the same time.'
'Not at all; I tell you it's perfectly possible.' She appeared to be extremely glad at having solved the problem of our relationship; stooping, she lightly touched my cheek with her lips and went off towards the door, telling me that she would telephone me next morning, as she did every day.
I turned to the wall and closed my eyes.
I had now to prove to myself that Cecilia was venal. I recalled all the times I had given money to prostitutes and told myself that, if Cecilia was really venal, I should, in the end, have the same feeling for her that I had for these women after I had paid them—a feeling of possession, but of a possession depreciated and superfluous, a feeling that the person who had received the money was reduced to the status of an inanimate object, a feeling that, owing precisely to this commercial valuation, she had forfeited all true value. It was only a step from this feeling to the sense of boredom which would liberate me from Cecilia and from my love for her. Certainly it was a degrading kind of possession, for the one who was possessed as well as for the one who possessed; and without doubt I should have preferred a different kind, which would have permitted of my parting from Cecilia as from somebody whom I now knew too well but did not despise; but I had at all costs to relieve my own misery. Indeed, I preferred to know that Cecilia was mercenary rather than mysterious; for the knowledge that she was mercenary would give me a sense of possession that mystery denied me.
And so I acquired the habit, at the first moment of our meetings, of thrusting into Cecilia's hand—without a word, as I had done the first time—a sum of money which varied, according to the day, from five to thirty thousand lire: in this way, I thought, the elusive, mysterious Cecilia, from whom I could not succeed in detaching myself, would be replaced in a short time by a Cecilia who was not in the least elusive and who was entirely devoid of mystery. But this transformation did not take place. If anything, it was the opposite that happened: it was not the money that changed Cecilia's character; on the contrary it was Cecilia, evidently the stronger of the two, who changed the character of the money.
Cecilia, when I thrust the folded banknotes into her palm, would immediately clench her fist, but without giving any other sign that she had received and accepted them. It was truly as if this money and the hand that gave it and the hand that received it belonged to a different world from the world in which Cecilia and I existed. Then, while I was embracing her, she would drop the notes on the
At first, as I have said, I gave her from five to thirty thousand lire, wishing to see, by these variations in the amount, whether she would react in any way. I felt that, if she said to me: 'Last time you gave me twenty thousand lire, today you've given me only five—why is that?' I should have more than sufficient reason to consider that she was venal. But she never showed that she noticed whether the notes I put in her hand were single or double, green or red, as though the gesture of paying her had no particular or precise significance but was simply one of the many gestures I made when I was with her, which I might indeed have made in a different way or not at all, without our relationship being altered on that account. Then I decided to see what would happen if I ceased entirely to give her money. Strange to say, I set about this experiment with a beating of the heart. I did not openly admit it to myself; but since I was almost convinced that these banknotes which I slipped furtively into Cecilia's hand now constituted the chief grounds for our relationship, I was afraid of losing her at the very moment when I hoped to prove to myself that, in losing her, I had nothing to lose.
One day, therefore, I did not put anything into her hand. To my astonishment I then realized that Cecilia, far from showing disappointment, did not even appear to have noticed the change that had occurred in the customary love ritual. In the clasp of the fingers that received my empty hand there was no feeling of surprise or dissatisfaction; it was exactly the same handclasp with which, on the previous days, she had announced to me, after receiving the money, that she was ready to give herself to me. That day she behaved, during our love-making, in the same way as on the days when I paid her; and she went away without alluding in any way to the fact that I had not paid her. I did the same thing two or three times, but Cecilia, childishly impenetrable, again gave no sign of having noticed anything. So I found myself faced with three possibilities: either Cecilia was venal, but was sufficiently superior and elegant in her astuteness not to show it; or she was absent-minded, but with a highly mysterious kind of absent-mindedness—that is, she was as elusive as before and as always, in spite of the money; or again, she was completely disinterested, and in this case too she eluded me and withdrew herself from my possession. I turned over this problem in my mind for some time, and in the end decided to get her with her back to the wall. One day I again slipped two ten-thousand-lire notes into her hand and immediately afterwards said to her: 'Look, I've given you twenty thousand lire.'
'Yes, I noticed you had.'
'It's the first time I've done it, after giving you nothing for a week. Did you notice that too?'
'You weren't annoyed?'
'I imagined you hadn't the money.'
I must mention at this point that Cecilia, completely devoid of curiosity as she was, had never questioned me about my family and did not know that I was rich. She took me for what I appeared—a painter in a sweater and a pair of corduroy trousers, with a very untidy studio and a decrepit car. And so her reply was, as usual, the only one she could give. 'It's true,' I went on, 'I hadn't got the money, but I thought you might be annoyed that I stopped giving you any.'
'To be left without money is a thing that can happen to anyone,' she answered ambiguously.
'Supposing that from now onwards I couldn't give you any more—what would you do?'
'You gave me some today; why think of the future?'
This, as I knew, was one of Cecilia's fundamental responses: past and future, for her, did not exist; only the most immediate present, in fact only the actual fleeting moment, seemed to her worthy of consideration. I went on insisting, however: 'But suppose I didn't give you anything more; would you go on seeing me?'
She looked at me, and then finally replied: 'Didn't we see each other before you started giving me anything?' It was, I thought, the perfect answer. But her uncertain, dubious, questioning tone, as if she were not entirely sure of what she was saying, seemed to allow room for the supposition that, if I did really stop paying her, she would perhaps reconsider the whole question of our relationship. And yet, I thought, even this was not certain. Cecilia, as I perceived, did not really know what she would do if I ceased to give her money; and this for the good reason that, being attached, as I have said, to the present and quite devoid of imagination, she could not foresee what feeling my financial shortcomings would arouse in her, and, above all, to what extent, once I had stopped paying her, she would feel the desire to make love with me, whether less or more or in the same way or in a different way or not at all. 'Now listen,' I said, 'I want to make a suggestion. Instead of my giving you sometimes five, sometimes ten, sometimes twenty, sometimes thirty thousand lire, as I do at present, we might agree on a fixed amount which I would give you once a month. What d'you say to that?'
She immediately protested, as though she were being asked to replace a cherished habit, slightly absurd but nevertheless poetical, with something more rational, but prosaic. 'No, no,' she said, 'let's go on like this, as we've done so far. You can give me what you like and when you like, from time to time, without any rules; anyhow, like that it's a surprise every time.'
Thus once again I failed to catch Cecilia in the trap of venality and, further, to transform her from a creature of mystery and elusiveness into an ordinary, boring, mercenary woman. I came finally to the conclusion that the money one gives to a prostitute has, in reality, a possessive character because not only the one who gives it but also the one who receives it considers it as a recompense for certain very precise services. In other words, the prostitute's client knows that, if he does not pay her, the woman will reject him; the woman, on her side, knows that if she accepts the money she is then obliged to give herself to him. But I was conscious that Cecilia gave herself to me for reasons that had nothing to do with money; and that she, on her side, appeared not to know that the money, once accepted, obliged her to give herself. I had proof of this ignorance one day when, after I had placed the banknotes in her hand as usual, I found myself being rejected with the following words: 'Look, I don't want to today; let's be together like brother and sister'—words in which there was no trace of any sort of calculation but merely a quite ingenuous indifference. In the meantime, however, the notes were in her hand, and immediately afterwards she put them into her bag. Thus the money which, as long as I had it in my pocket, might seem to me to be the symbol of possession, became the symbol of the impossibility of that same possession as soon as it passed into Cecilia's bag.
On the other hand, the knowledge that each time she visited me she would receive money did not appear to alter the insecure, irregular, unexpected, problematical character of these visits. Not merely did Cecilia now come to see me not more than two or three times a week, exactly as she had done when she was not receiving anything from me; but it also seemed clear to me, from the hesitation and uncertainties in her tone of voice when she telephoned me to arrange an appointment, that our meetings depended, as in the past, upon disinterested and mysterious obligations and opportuni
The first effect of this frenzy of mine to possess Cecilia through the medium of venality was that, in order to meet the expense forced upon me by my experiment, I again approached my mother, from whom I had hitherto asked nothing more than what was strictly necessary to live on. I could have wished now that I had not been so contemptuous of her money: I was aware that I had accustomed her, by now, to a disinterestedness on my part which I would willingly have discarded and which obliged me to assume a character towards Cecilia which, if not actually miserly, was at any rate parsimonious. But there it was: I had wished to be poor, without foreseeing that Cecilia would make me want to be rich, and now it was too late to change my mother's ideas about me, all the more so since these ideas accorded all too well with her own natural inclination towards thrift. I knew, nevertheless, that my mother was prepared to give me a good deal more than she had so far given me; but I also knew that she was not prepared to give me anything without something in exchange. Now my mother held fast to her desire that I should go back and live with her; and I was not ignorant of the fact that the money which she had so often offered me, in vain, in the past, and the money which she was now giving me, in increasing amounts, whenever I asked for it, had the same object always in view, that of putting herself in the position of being able to impose her will upon me. I tried, however, to postpone the clash which I felt to be inevitable, by treating my mother, each time, in exchange for her unexpected generosity, with an assiduity and an affection to which I had certainly not accustomed her in the past. Then, seeing that she not only did not refuse me the money but even, apparently, encouraged me to go on asking for more, I suddenly realized that the relationship between her and me was, fundamentally, almost the same as that between myself and Cecilia: my mother, too, was seeking to get control over me by means of money. But here the resemblance ended, for I was not like Cecilia, and, above all, my mother was not like me. Money, between Cecilia and me, owing to the lack of importance which we both, for different reasons, attached to it, seemed no longer to be money at all but a part of our sexual relationship; whereas between me and my mother, just because for her it was not, and could never be, anything but money, it preserved intact its original character. In other words, although my mother certainly loved me, she was not in the least disposed to sink money in me permanently, so to speak, simply because she was fond of me—that is, to do the only thing that could deprive the money itself of its accustomed significance.
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes