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The empty canvas, p.24
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       The Empty Canvas, p.24

           Alberto Moravia
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  I had a confirmation of this difference one day when I asked her for a much larger sum on a pretext which, as will be seen, was extremely unfortunate. It was after lunch; and my mother, as usual, had lain down on her bed in her own room, one arm over her face and her legs dangling; I myself was sitting in an armchair at the foot of the bed, and I was asking her questions, I believe, about my father—one of the few subjects which we had in common and which never ceased to interest me. My mother answered more and more briefly and vaguely and appeared on the point of falling asleep. Suddenly, without any preparation, I said to her: 'By the way, I'm in need of three hundred thousand lire.'

  I noticed that she drew her arm very slowly away from one of her eyes and looked at me for a moment with that eye only. Then, with a first sign of unpleasantness in the tone of her sleepy voice, she said: 'I gave you fifty thousand on Saturday, and it's only Tuesday now; what d'you want all this money for?'

  In accordance with the plan I had previously worked out, I replied: 'It's only the first instalment of the sum I shall have to spend. I've decided that I must do up the studio, which is in a shameful state.'

  'And how much will the total expense amount to?'

  'At least three times as much. Apart from plastering and whitewashing, I shall have to re-do the bathroom entirely, put up new curtains, repair the floor, and so on.'

  It had seemed to me a good plan. The studio was really needing to be done up; I had thus a good justification for touching my mother for a million or even a million and a half. Furthermore, I knew that my mother, owing to her aversion to my studio—a point of honour, with her—would never make up her mind to come to Via Margutta in order to see how I was spending her money.

  I awaited her answer, therefore, with confidence. She was lying still now, she appeared really to have dropped off to sleep. Finally, however, from beneath the arm which covered her face, came a perfectly wideawake voice: 'This time I shall not give you the money.'

  'But why?'

  'Because I don't see any need for you to give the landlord a present of a million lire when you have the possibility of living in a villa on the Via Appia.'

  I saw how she intended to parry the blow and realized, too late, that the pretext I had devised to extract the money from her was the very one I should have avoided. Pretending to be surprised, however, I exclaimed: 'What has that to do with it?'

  'You gave me to understand that you intended to come back and live here,' said my mother in a slow, hard, monotonous voice, 'and I, as you may have noticed, had the tact to give you as long as you wished to decide. But now you are asking me for money to do up your studio. So I am forced to conclude that you have gone back on your promise.'

  'I never made any promise,' I said, irritated. 'On the contrary, in fact, I've never concealed my repugnance at the idea of hving with you.'

  'Well then, my dear Dino, you can hardly be surprised at my saying that this time I shall not give you the money.'

  Now I had given Cecilia, two days before, the last thirty thousand lire that I possessed; and Cecilia was to come and visit me in the afternoon of that same day. It was, of course, possible for me not to give her anything, as so often in the past; but I was suddenly conscious that I would now no longer be capable of that. This was not so much because I felt that, by giving her money, I possessed her, as for the opposite reason: the money now endowed Cecilia's elusiveness with a new aspect which confirmed and complicated it—that of her disinterestedness. And just because she did not allow herself to be possessed through the medium of money, I now felt myself irresistibly urged to give it to her; in the same way that, just because I could not succeed in possessing her through the sexual act, I felt myself urged to repeat that same act over and over again. In reality, both the money and the sexual act gave me, for one moment, the illusion of possession; and I could now no longer do without that moment, although I knew that it was regularly followed, always, by a feeling of profound disillusionment. I looked at my mother still lying there flat on her back with her arm over her face; then I thought of Cecilia who, at the same moment that she closed her hand on my money, opened her mouth to my kiss, and I felt that I too would be capable of committing a crime in order to have the money I needed. My attention was drawn especially to the hand which my mother held over her eyes; on each of its thin fingers were massive rings with precious stones in them; all I need do was to slip off one of these rings and I should be able to give Cecilia all the money I wanted, at any rate for some months. Then, for some reason, I remembered the favourable, if self-interested, behaviour of my mother that day when I had let myself go and started making advances to the maid Rita; and I changed my plan all of a sudden. I got up, and went and sat on the bed, and said with calculated gentleness; 'Mother, I want to be honest with you. I don't need this money for doing up the studio. I need it for another reason.'

  'And what reason is that?'

  'It would be better if you gave me the money without asking so many questions. There are things that it's not easy to say.'

  'A mother has the right to know in what way her son spends her money.'

  'A son of sixteen, I dare say; but not a son of thirty-five.'

  'A mother is a mother, whatever age her son is.'

  'Oh well, I want this money for a woman.' After I had said this, I looked at my mother again. She was still motionless, and appeared once more to have fallen asleep. Then her voice came to me: 'Some bad woman, no doubt.'

  'But, Mother, if she was a bad woman, d'you think I should be asking you for three hundred thousand lire?'

  'A respectable women doesn't expect to be paid.'

  'But supposing this woman is in real need?'

  'Be careful, Dino, there are women who are capable of inventing all kinds of wonderful romances in order to get money.'

  'It's not a case of romance, it's a case of absolute necessities food, rent, clothes.'

  'In fact, you have to keep her in every possible way?'

  'Not exactly; just to help her a little, for a certain time.'

  'A piece of riff-raff, I suppose,' said my mother. 'How much better it would have been, Dino, if you had had a liaison with a married lady, someone of your own world, who would not have asked you for anything and would not have been a burden upon you in any way.'

  I replied, without irony: 'My world is not the world in which ladies of that kind are to be found.'

  'Your world is my world,' said my mother. 'Above all, Dino, do be careful; you can catch all sorts of diseases with these adventuresses who are going about nowadays.'

  'I haven't caught anything yet, and I shan't catch anything in the future.'

  'How d'you know who this woman goes with when you're not there? I repeat, Dino, be careful. Of course you know that in some cases there are precautions that can, and ought to be, taken.'

  'You'll be telling me next how I ought to conduct myself when I make love.'

  'No, but I want to put you on your guard. After all you are my son and your health is important to me.'

  'Well, Mother, to come to the point: are you going to give me this money?'

  My mother removed her hand from her eyes and looked at me. 'And who is this woman?' she asked.

  I answered with a phrase worthy of Cecilia. 'This woman is a woman.'

  'You see—you want money, and then you don't trust me.'

  'It's not that I don't trust you, but what does it matter to you whether she's called Maria, or Clara, or Paola?'

  'I didn't ask you her name, I asked you who she is—whether she's unmarried or married, whether she works or does nothing or is a student, how old she is, what she looks like.'

  'What a lot you want for a miserable little three hundred thousand lire!'

  'You forget that, if we were to settle accounts and include what I have given you already, we should have to multiply these three hundred thousand lire that you despise so much, several times over.'

  'Ah, you've kept an account, then.'

  'Of c

  'Well, Mother, I don't feel like telling you anything more—not for the moment, anyhow; but do answer me, once and for all: are you going to give me this money—yes or no?'

  My mother looked at me, and evidently I must have seemed sufficiently determined or even desperate to make her feel that she could not pull the cords of her indiscretion any tighter. Pretending to stifle a yawn, she said: 'Very well, then. Here is the key; go into the bathroom, you know where the safe is and you know the combination. Open it and you'll see a red envelope; take it out and bring it here.'

  I rose and went into the bathroom, turned the hook and opened the panel of tiles, as usual, and then the door of the safe. On the top of the rolls of bonds there was, indeed, an orange-coloured envelope. I took it out and weighed it in my hand: judging by its weight, I calculated that it must contain at least half a million lire in ten-thousand-lire notes. I went back and handed the envelope to my mother, who was now sitting, thoroughly tired and sleepy, on the edge of the bed. I watched her as she opened the envelope and drew out, with the tips of her fingers, one, two, three, four, five ten-thousand-lire notes. 'Here, take these in the meantime,' she said.

  'But in the envelope,' I could not help exclaiming, 'there must be at least five hundred thousand lire.'

  'If it comes to that, there are even more. But that's all I can give you for today. Now go and put back the envelope, close the safe, bring me back the key and then leave me. I'm extremely tired and I want to rest.'

  I did as I was told. But, as I replaced the envelope in the safe, I could not help being surprised at the confidence shown me by my mother, who was usually so mistrustful. After all, I could quite easily open the envelope again and help myself to some more money. But I realized at once that the reason why my mother trusted me was because I had always behaved in such a way as to inspire confidence in her—ever since I was born, so to speak—owing to my lack of interest in money, in fact my contempt for it, which was perhaps a little ostentatious but anyhow perfectly serious; and I realized also that it was not my mother but I myself who had changed, for I now felt myself quite capable of stealing the money I needed to pay Cecilia, and I had a presentiment that, if she did not give me enough, I should end by stealing it in sober fact. Yes, I had changed; but my mother had not yet awakened to a discovery of this change and continued to trust me as she had done in the past. I closed the door of the safe, replaced the tile panel and went back into the bedroom. My mother was lying on her back again now, across the bed, her arm over her eyes.

  I stooped and placed the key in her hand, but her fingers did not grasp it and it fell on the pillow. Then with my lips I lightly touched the thin, painted cheek and said: 'Good-bye, Mother.' She answered with a faint groan: this time she had really fallen asleep. I tiptoed out of the room.

  I decided to divide the fifty thousand lire into two parts; twenty thousand lire for myself and thirty thousand for Cecilia, to provide the now indispensable justification of venality for her next visit. But, as I have said, I felt that Cecilia eluded me in proportion to the amount I paid her; the more I paid her, the less did she seem to be mine. Furthermore, to my anguish at not possessing her there was now added the anguish of suspecting that perhaps she let herself be possessed by my rival. More and more, indeed, was I tormented by the thought that Luciani succeeded in possessing Cecilia in earnest, and precisely by means of the simple sexual act which had been shown, in my case, to be so wholly insufficient. I feared, in fact, that the actor, less intellectual and more a creature of instinct than myself, had succeeded where I had failed. And, reflecting that possession consists not so much in the sexual act itself as in the effect of the act upon the person who was its object, I never tired of questioning Cecilia about her relations with Luciani. Here, as an example, is one of these cross-questionings. 'Did you see Luciani yesterday?'


  'Did you just see him, or did you make love together?'

  'You know that when I say I've seen him, I mean that we've made love.'

  'Did you do it much?'

  'Just as usual.'

  'D'you usually do it much?'

  'Some days more, some days less.'

  'Which d'you like best, doing it with him or with me?'

  'You're two different things.'

  'What d'you mean?'


  'But what actually is the difference?'

  'He's kinder than you.'

  'D'you like his being kind?'

  'It's his natural way.'

  'But d'you like it or don't you?'

  'If I didn't like it, I wouldn't put up with it.'

  'Aren't there any other differences between him and me?'

  'Yes, he talks while we're making love.'

  'And what does he say to you?'

  'The things that people say when they're fond of you.'

  'I've said those things to you, sometimes.'

  'No, you don't say anything. The only time you spoke, you called me a bitch.'

  'Did you mind?'

  'No, I didn't mind.'

  'But you prefer the things he says to you?'

  'When I'm with him I like the things he says to me, and when I'm with you I like your being silent.'

  'But tell me, what d'you feel when he has you?'

  'There are some things one can't explain.'

  'D'you have a stronger feeling than you do with me?'

  'I don't know.'

  'What d'you mean, you don't know?'

  'I've never thought about it.'

  'Think about it now, then.'

  'Well, I feel he loves me.'

  'D'you like that?'

  'All women like to feel they're loved.'

  'Then it is a stronger feeling than the feeling you have with me.'

  'But with you too, I feel that you love me.'

  'And you like it?'

  'Of course I like it.'

  'More, or less, than with Luciani?'

  'They're two different things.'

  'Yes, I see. Now tell me: if for some reason you couldn't go on seeing Luciani, would you mind? Would you miss him?'

  'It hasn't happened yet, so how can I tell?'

  'But if it did happen?'

  'Then I should see. I think I would.'

  'And if you couldn't go on seeing me?'

  'That hasn't happened, either.'

  'Well, try and imagine.'

  'When I told you we ought to part, I remember I felt sorry.'

  'Very sorry?'

  'How can one measure such things? I was sorry.'

  'Well, tell me then, are you more fond of me or of him?'

  'You're two different things.'

  Or again, seeing that I had no success in squeezing information out of Cecilia on the subject of her feelings during physical love, I would try introducing a more innocent note into my investigations. 'Did you go out with Luciani yesterday?'

  'Yes, we went out to dinner together.'

  'Where did you go?'

  'To a restaurant in Trastevere.'

  'You always refused to go out with me in the evening.'

  'I hadn't any excuse. You can only have drawing lessons in the day time. But with Luciani I can always say he wants to introduce me to a film producer.'

  'But you can't make me believe your parents would have objected. I've met your parents.'

  'Mother—no, she wouldn't have objected. But Daddy would have. He was so ill, I couldn't go against him.'

  'Well, never mind. So you went to a restaurant in Trastevere?'


  'What did you talk about?'

  'All sorts of things.'

  'Who talked most, he or you?'

  'You know I like listening.'

  'Well, what did he talk about?'

  'I don't remember.'

  'Now, try hard to remember; after all, it only happened yesterday evening.'

  'But I haven't any memory, you know that. I don't even remember the things you said to me five min
utes ago.'

  'All right, then; never mind. What was the restaurant like?'

  'It was a restaurant like lots of others.'

  'What was it called?'

  'I don't know.'

  'Was it big or small, crowded or empty, with one room or several rooms, smart or countrified?'

  'I'm afraid I don't know, I didn't look at it.'

  'While you were talking, did you hold hands on the table?'

  'Yes, how did you come to guess that?'

  'Did you like his holding your hand?'


  'A lot or a little?'

  'I liked it, I don't know how much.'

  'Were your knees touching, under the table?'

  'No, because we were sitting side by side.'

  'Besides holding your hand, did Luciani fondle you?'

  'Yes, he stroked my face and kissed me on the neck.'

  'You can't remember the conversation, but you can remember the kisses.'

  'I remember them because I didn't want him to do it.'

  'Did you quarrel?'

  'No, but he always wants me to do things I don't want to do.'

  'What, for instance?'

  'Oh well, I can't tell you; if I tell you you'll be angry. '

  'No, I won't be angry. Tell me.'

  'Well, he wanted me to put my hand . . . you know where. D'you understand?'

  'Yes, I understand. And you—what did you do?'

  'I did it for a little, but I couldn't eat with only one hand and so I stopped. But what's the matter?'

  'Nothing. While you were doing that, did it give you pleasure?'

  'It gave me pleasure because it gave him pleasure.'

  'Supposing I asked you to do the same thing to me, would it give you pleasure to give me pleasure?'

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