The Empty Canvas, p.25Alberto Moravia
'I think it would. There are lots of things one can do with pleasure because one knows they give pleasure to someone else.'
'Someone else? To anybody, then?'
'No, I said someone else, meaning Luciani or you.'
'Yes, I understand. And afterwards what happened?'
'We ate and drank; in a restaurant one eats and drinks, doesn't one?'
'What did you eat?'
'I don't remember, I never look at what I'm eating. The usual things.'
'Luciani called to the band and they sang us some Neapolitan songs.'
'I don't remember.'
'D'you like Neapohtan songs?'
'I think I do.'
'But really now, do you like them or do you not?'
'Oh well, it depends. In a restaurant, yes. But if they started singing them while I was asleep—certainly not.'
'After that, what did you do?'
'What did we do? Nothing else.'
'I bet Luciani bought you a rose with its stalk wrapped in silver paper, from one of those girls who go round selling them in restaurants?'
'Ah yes, that's true; how did you know?'
'There are lots of things I know. I know also that you put it to your nose to smell it, didn't you?'
'That's the thing to do when you're given a flower, isn't it?'
'Were you pleased that Luciani gave you a rose?'
'And after dinner where did you go?'
'To the cinema.'
'What was the name of the film you saw?'
' I don't know.'
'Who were the actors in it?'
'I don't know, I don't know their names.'
'But anyhow, what happened in the film?'
'I think it was an American film—you know, one of those with people on horseback, shooting.'
'A Western. Did you hold hands in the cinema?'
'Did you kiss?'
'Did you make love?'
'How? You made love in the cinema?'
'We were in seats at the back, behind a pillar, and the place was half empty.'
'But how did you manage to make love?'
'I got on to his knee.'
'And did you like it?'
'No, I was too frightened. Besides, I don't like doing things in public places.'
'Why did you do it, then?'
'Because I wanted to.'
'Then you did like it?'
'No, I wanted to, but I didn't like it.'
'And what else did you do during the evening?'
'We went to a night club.'
'I don't know what it's called. Behind Via Veneto.'
'What was it like?'
'It was very crowded.'
'No. I mean what was the room like, how was it furnished and decorated?'
'I didn't look at it.'
'Did you dance?'
'While you were dancing, did you press close against him?'
'Because we were doing dances in which you have to keep apart.'
'What more did you do?'
'Nothing more. About three o'clock he took me home.'
'Has he a car?'
'He had one but he sold it.'
'He hasn't much money, then?'
'Not at present, because he's out of a job.'
'Do you give him money, sometimes?'
'Yes, sometimes I do.'
'Yes, the money you give me.'
'And so the money I give you—you never spend it on yourself?'
'Yes, I buy a few things. But I spend it mostly with him.'
'Yesterday evening, did he pay or did you?'
'We each did part of it; he paid for the cinema, I paid the rest.'
'In fact you paid almost the whole thing.'
'He's paid a good deal on other occasions.'
'How did you give him the money?'
'In the restaurant I gave it to him under the table. In the night club he took it out of my bag.'
'And then he took you home in a taxi?'
'Did he go into the courtyard with you?'
'Did you go upstairs together?'
'Did you make love on the stairs?'
'We did, a little, on my landing.'
'What does "a little" mean?'
'Without going right to the end.'
'Did you like it?'
'Better than I did in the cinema because I wasn't so frightened.'
'Then we parted.'
'And you went to bed?'
'Did you think about him before you went to sleep?'
'No, I thought about you.'
'Yes, about you; I thought about you until I went to sleep.'
'What did you think?'
'I don't remember. I just thought about you, that's all.'
One day, as if to confirm the feeling of elusiveness that Cecilia inspired in me, there occurred an incident which I wish to relate. Quite often, especially when I knew that Cecilia would not be coming to visit me, I used to go into Balestrieri's studio, which was still in the state in which it had been on the day the old painter died. His widow had not troubled to let it again, or—which was more probable—had not yet found a sub-tenant. I was able to get into the studio, thanks to the key which Balestrieri had given to Cecilia and which I had taken from her, and I took to wandering about amongst the dust-covered furniture in that room which smelt of fustiness and squalor, seeking I knew not what. As I lingered in the big, gloomy studio full of black furniture and dull red hangings that had witnessed the amours of Cecilia and Balestrieri, I had a mournful feeling, as though I were not in Balestrieri's studio but my own, and I myself were dead, and had come back in the form of a ghost to visit, as ghosts do, the place of my own amours. This mournful feeling, moreover, came to me not only from the sickening resemblance between my relationship with Cecilia and that of Cecilia and Balestrieri, but also from the conviction that I, in a way, was dead too, and in a manner perhaps more decisive than the old painter, who at least had never had doubts about his own art and had gone on painting, so to speak, until his last breath. I, on the other hand, as I thought when I looked at the enormous, agitated nudes of Cecilia covering the walls from floor to ceiling, I was already dead to painting even before I met Cecilia; and if, like Balestrieri, I had died because of Cecilia, I had merely confirmed in life what had already happened to me in art. And so, as always, I felt that there was a link between the crisis in my painting and my relationship with Cecilia; between my inability to paint on the canvas that stood on the easel and my inability to possess Cecilia upon the cushions of the divan; just as there had been a link between the execrable quality of Balestrieri's painting and the character of his relationship with Cecilia. It was an obscure, sinister link; there is a similar significance, for a traveller lost in the middle of a desert, in the white bones scattered on the sand.
One afternoon, while I was contemplating Balestrieri's hideous nudes as one contemplates the mysterious signs of an undeciphered language, the door, which I had left ajar, opened slightly and in the opening appeared the head of a woman. The woman, after making sure that I was there, then entered and came over to me. I recognized her almost at once; it was Balestrieri's widow who, on the day of his funeral, had her face completely hidden by a thick black veil of the kind that you see in village funeral processions, but whom I had happened to encounter on one or two subsequent occasions. She was a tall, well-built woman who had been beautiful and who, at fifty, still retained her youthful colouring, though it was now, so to speak, diluted and diffused over the slackened flesh of her face—a gl
I noticed at once that she did not appear surprised nor yet displeased at finding me in her husband's studio. She introduced herself, saying in a warm, low voice, a regular peasant's voice: 'I am Signora Balestrieri.'
I hastened to offer my apologies. 'Forgive me, I found the door open and came in to have a look at the pictures.'
She answered promptly: 'Please, Professor, do come in here whenever you like. I know my poor husband was a great friend of yours.'
I dared not contradict her. Now she was looking at me and smiling; and in her smile there seemed to be a kind of affectionate indulgence which I did not understand. 'I came to look for you in your studio, Professor,' she said, 'because I must speak to you about something that may interest you. I found your door open, saw that you weren't there, and then I thought you might be here.'
'Why did you think I was here?'
'Because I knew that you have the key of my husband's studio.'
'Who told you that?'
'Why, the caretaker, Professor.'
'And you wanted to speak to me?'
'Yes,' she said quietly. 'I looked for you the other day, but you weren't there.' Then, changing the subject, she went on, with awkward, countrified tactlessness: 'How d'you like these pictures, Professor?'
Embarrassed, I replied: 'Your husband, as a painter, was full of quality.'
'They're good, aren't they?' she resumed, starting to walk round the studio and look at the canvases on the walls. 'You know, Professor, that they're all done from the same model?'
I said nothing. After a moment she went on, still in that same countrified manner, full of allusions and irony: 'What a pretty girl, isn't she, Professor? Look what a chest she has, what legs, what shoulders, what hips! She's really what they call a lovely girl, Professor.'
'But you,' I said, seeking to turn the conversation, 'didn't your husband ever paint you?'
'Yes, many, many times, in the old days. But there's no picture of me here. When we separated, my husband took down all the paintings of me off the walls and sent them to where I lived. I have them all still. But I was not as pretty as this girl. Mine was a classical beauty, I was made like a statue. But this is a modern kind of beauty, half child and half woman; that's what they like nowadays. Yes,' she reaffirmed with a sigh, 'really a beautiful girl. Pity she's not as good as she's beautiful.'
I could not refrain from asking, not altogether ingenuously: 'But do you know her, then?'
'Yes, of course I know her. How could I fail to know her? My poor husband, you may say, died because of her.'
'So they say.'
'Yes,' she corrected with dignity. 'I know what they say. The usual disgusting things. And indeed that may have happened, but it could have happened with any other woman just as well. No, I did not mean that. I mean that he died because of this girl from the heartbreak that she caused him.'
'In what way?'
'With her wickedness.'
'Is this girl so wicked?'
She answered with reason and moderation. 'I don't say she's altogether wicked. Women, as everyone knows, are good or bad according to whether they love or not. In any case she was wicked to my husband. With you, I dare say, she's good.'
At last I understood the obscure allusiveness of her looks and words; she knew that Cecilia was my mistress. Pretending to be surprised, I said: 'How do I come into it?'
She lifted her hand and slapped me on the shoulder, in a gesture of rustic sympathy. 'Poor Professor—well, well, well, poor Professor!' Then she walked away from me and, pointing to the wall, asked suddenly: 'D'you like that picture, Professor?'
I went up and looked at it. It was a singular picture, inasmuch as Balestrieri, who generally limited himself to depicting Cecilia alone, in various attitudes, had here sketched in a kind of composition. Against the usual muddy, sticky-looking background Cecilia was to be seen, naked and clothed in a spectral light, astride a dim human shape on all fours. It was one of Balestrieri's worst pictures: in order to convey the idea of Cecilia triumphant, the best he had been able to do was to make her raise one victorious hand in the air, while with the other she grasped the nape of the neck of the shapeless Caliban who served her as a mount. I said drily: 'Yes, it's not bad.'
'You know who the man on all fours is?' asked the widow, going up to the picture and looking at it with vindictive intentness. 'It's hard to tell because the face isn't clear; but I know. It's he himself, my husband. You may think that by depicting himself in that way he intended to show that the girl trampled him, so to speak, underfoot. Not at all. He did it quite seriously.'
'But what did he mean?'
'He used to go down on all fours, and she climbed on his back and he jumped about all over the studio. Like little boys playing at horses. And then, believe it or not, he would rear up and throw her on the floor with her legs in the air. I saw them one day, with my own eyes, through the window. Oh, they were enjoying themselves all right!' For a moment she was silent as she continued to look at the picture. Then she added: 'If you like that picture, Professor, I'll sell it to you.'
So little was I expecting such a proposal that for a moment I did not know what to say; then I understood: the widow knew of my passion for Cecilia and wished to speculate upon it. All of a sudden I had a feeling of shame, like someone with a vice which he thinks he has kept secret and who then finds himself being offered, in the street, a packet of obscene photographs portraying precisely that same vice. I asked, in irritation: 'Why the devil should I buy that picture?'
Serenely, she answered: 'I inquired in case it might interest you. In a few days' time I have to take away the pictures, because I have managed to sub-let the studio and the new tenant does not want them. He says they're too daring. So I thought you might like to have one of them as a souvenir.'
'A souvenir of what? Of whom? Of your husband? We scarcely knew each other.'
Again she made a gesture of roguish compassion, slapping me on the shoulder and shaking her head. 'Professor, Professor, let's try and understand one another,' she said. 'Why don't you want to be honest with me? My hair is white, now'—and she indicated her raven-black hair, combed back in two smooth bands to a bun on the back of her neck, in which nevertheless, a few white threads were visible—'and I could easily be that girl's mother; why won't you be honest with me?'
I now sat down at the table, on which stood the telephone; and I made a sign to the widow to sit down too; and then, pretending not to have heard her appeal to my honesty, I said to her solemnly and at the same time rather threateningly: 'Signora Balestrieri, kindly tell me exactly what this is all about. You have made certain allusions which I do not understand. I should like you to explain them to me.'
Slightly intimidated, she took refuge, like a true peasant woman, in a tone of lamentation. 'My husband, alas, did not leave me at all well off. I thought that you, as a painter yourself, would really understand my husband's pictures, and might possibly buy at least one of them. I've tried to sell them but people don't understand them.'
'But I haven't any money,' I replied. 'I'm just a painter, and a painter who doesn't paint, into the bargain.'
She was genuinely astonished. 'How strange,' she said; 'I've been told that your mother's so rich.'
'My mother is, but I'm not.'
'Then forget about it, Professor, forget about it.'
'One moment,' I insisted; 'just now you made a certain allusion. Why, in point of fact, should I acquire this picture as a souvenir? A souvenir of whom, in any case?'
She opened her fin
'Professor, you know why.'
'Signora Balestrieri, I don't understand you.'
'Well, Professor, you know what people say? That that girl is your mistress.'
'Who says so?'
'Everyone. ... The caretaker, to begin with.'
I pretended to be disconcerted. Then, slowly and firmly, I said: 'Ah, so that's the reason. Then you're mistaken. That girl is nothing to me.'
She gave a little laugh of indulgent complicity. 'Ah, Professor! Ah, Professor!' but I interrupted her, raising my voice in a conventional show of annoyance: 'If I say a thing, I mean it! '
Again she withdrew into her shell, like a frightened snail. But next moment she peeped out again, so to speak, with the remark: 'I believe you, Professor. Well, you know what I say? For your sake, I'm glad.'
'I told you: that girl is beautiful but she isn't good.'
'In what way?'
She sighed. 'My husband could have told you better than I can,' she said. 'But my husband is dead. I don't know anything precise, you must understand. I know only one thing: my husband owned a five-roomed flat in the neighbourhood of Piazza Bologna, worth several million lire. But when he died, it was discovered that he had sold the flat. However the millions were not to be found. What was found was an account-book in which my husband, who was an orderly man, noted down his expenses. On almost every page there was an entry: Cecilia, so much and so much.'
'You mean to say that this girl exploited your husband?'
'Exactly, Professor.' She sighed again and then went on in a low voice, very hurriedly: 'She's a deep one, that girl, Professor. Heartless, false, mercenary. And she was unfaithful to him, into the bargain; she took money from him and gave it to another man.'
'Gave the money to another man?' I could not help exclaiming.
'Certainly she did—a miserable creature that she went to see every evening after she'd been with my husband during the day.'
'But who was this man?'
'A saxophone player. He played in a night club. They spent my husband's money together. He even bought a car.'
'Then your husband gave this girl a great deal of money?'
'Millions, Professor. It's all noted down in the account-book. But, do you know, Professor?'
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes