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The empty canvas, p.26
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       The Empty Canvas, p.26

           Alberto Moravia
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  'Although we were separated, my husband and I remained friends, so to speak. Well, he used to come and see me sometimes and he always talked to me about this girl. It was too much for him, he couldn't help it, and he took me into his confidence. And do you know? A man like him, who had had so many women, a man with his experience and intelligence—he used to cry.'

  Recalling that Cecilia, too, had spoken to me of Balestrieri's tears, I said: 'But he cried easily, your husband.'

  'Easily?—don't you believe it. We were together for years and I never saw him shed a tear. He cried because this girl had reduced him to despair. D'you know what he used to say? That this girl would be the death of him. He had a presentiment about it.'

  'What was the name of the saxophone player to whom Cec ... to whom the girl gave the money?'

  She understood that I was interested and she wished to make me understand that she had understood. She drew herself up with dignity. 'Call her by her name, Professor, call her Cecilia,' she said. 'The name of the saxophone player was Tony Proietti. He plays at the Canarino, a club in the neighbourhood of Via Veneto. Well, Professor, I must go. Again, please excuse me. If, however, the pictures interest you, you can always find me at home. I'm in the telephone book: Assunta Balestrieri. Or possibly you might even make your mother buy one—eh, Professor? Are you staying, or are you coming out with me?'

  I did not stay, but said good-bye to her and went back to my own studio, where I threw myself on the divan and fell into deep meditation. The proofs of Cecilia's venality were multiplying, but, strangely enough, these proofs did not prove anything. In fact, no sooner was her venality demonstrated than something came to light to contradict it: Balestrieri's money, according to the widow, was passed on by her to her lover, to Tony Proietti. And the truth of this seemed to be proved by the poverty of Cecilia's wardrobe and by the fact that she did not possess even the smallest piece of jewellery. If she had not given it to Proietti, where had Balestrieri's money gone?

  The day after the widow Balestrieri's visit, as soon as Cecilia appeared at my studio I asked her point-blank: 'Who is Tony Proietti?'

  Without hesitation she replied: 'A saxophone player who plays at the Canarino.'

  'Yes, but what has he been to you?'

  'I was engaged to him.'

  'You were engaged?'


  'And then?'

  'Then what?'

  'Then what happened?'

  Reluctantly she answered: 'He left me.'


  'He liked someone else.'

  'Did Balestrieri know you were engaged?'

  'Of course he knew; I was engaged to Tony when I was fourteen, a year before I met Balestrieri.'

  I was astonished. 'But you told me,' I stammered, 'that Balestrieri knew nothing and was jealous and for that reason employed a private detective agency.'

  She answered simply: 'Balestrieri wasn't jealous of Tony, because he came after Tony and knew at once that I was engaged to him. He was jealous when he thought I was being unfaithful to him with someone else.'

  'But did this "someone else" really exist?'

  'Yes, but it was a thing that only lasted a short time.'

  'Was that at the same time as Tony?'

  'No, it was immediately after Tony and I parted.'

  'Did Tony know about Balestrieri?'

  'What are you thinking about? If he'd known he'd have killed me.'

  'Who, actually, was the first, with you?'

  'What d'you mean, the first?'

  'The first you made love with.'


  'At what age?'

  'I've told you already, I was fourteen.'

  'And d'you ever see Tony now?'

  'We meet sometimes and greet each other.'

  'Tell me another thing: did Balestrieri give you money?'

  She looked at me for a moment and then replied with her usual mysterious reluctance: 'Yes, he did.'

  'Much or little?'

  'That depended.'

  'Depended on what?'

  She was silent again; then she said: 'I didn't want it, but he insisted on giving it to me.'

  'How d'you mean?'

  'He insisted. He knew that Tony hadn't a penny and that in the evening, when Tony and I went out together, we couldn't even go to the cinema; so he insisted on my accepting the money and giving it to Tony.'

  'It was he who made you give, it to Tony?'


  'What happened the first time?'

  'I told him that as we hadn't any money we spent the evenings in the streets. Then he took out a ten-thousand-lire note and put it in my hand and said: "Take this, then you can go to the cinema.'"

  'And what did you do?'

  'I didn't want to take it, but he forced me to. He threatened, if I didn't take it, to tell Tony that I made love with him, so I took it.'

  'And then he went on giving you money?'


  'Did he give you bigger sums, too?'

  'As he knew that Tony and I were going to get married and set up house, he insisted on my buying furniture for it with his money.'

  'What happened to the furniture in the end?'

  'Tony has it in his house, I left it for him.'

  'And the car?'

  'What car?'

  'Didn't Balestrieri pay for Tony's car, too?'

  'Yes, he did—a small car. Who told you that?'

  'Balestrieri's widow.'

  'Oh, that woman.'

  'D'you know her?'

  'Yes. She came to see me, she wanted the money back.'

  'And what did you say to her?'

  'I told her the truth. I told her that her husband had insisted on my accepting the money and that I had nothing, because I had given it all to Tony, as her husband wished.'

  'How long did Balestrieri go on giving you money?'

  'For almost two years.'

  'And with Tony—how did you explain the money you gave him?'

  'I told him I had a rich uncle who was fond of me.'

  'And after Tony had left you, did Balestrieri go on giving you money?'

  'Yes, now and again, when I asked him.'

  'But that other man who came afterwards—the one that Balestrieri was suspicious of—didn't you give him money?'

  'No, he didn't need it. He was the son of an industrialist.'

  'And did he leave you too?'

  'No, it was I who left him, because I had stopped being fond of him.'

  'Who were you fond of, then?'

  'You. You remember when I used to meet you in the corridor and look at you? Well, it was then that I left him.'

  'Did Balestrieri ever realize that you were fond of me?'


  'Did you ever talk about me to Balestrieri?'

  'Yes, once. He couldn't bear you.'

  'What did he say about me?'

  'That you were very conceited.'


  'Yes, he hated your painting. He said you didn't know how to paint.'

  This conversation left me with the conviction that my attempt to prove to myself that Cecilia was venal might now be said to have failed: Cecilia was not venal; in other words, her character could not be said to be merely acquisitive. It was clear, in fact, that Balestrieri had tried to assert his own superiority over Tony by supporting him through the medium of Cecilia, without the saxophone player being aware of it; and that Cecilia, on her side, had lent herself to Balestrieri's psychological manoeuvre without sharing in it or understanding it. As in my case, therefore, Cecilia had succeeded instinctively in keeping the two worlds of money and of love separate and apart. Balestrieri and I could have certainly affirmed that we had given her money; but she, on her side, could have always made it clear that she had not been paid. And my behaviour towards Cecilia tended increasingly to resemble Balestrieri's; with this difference, however, that the old painter had gone further than I had. To counterbalance that, my foll
y was greater than his; for he had had no predecessor to serve him as a mirror, so that it was more or less understandable that he should not have been able to stop. I myself, on the contrary, had his example to warn me, at every step, of the risks I was running; yet in spite of this I was repeating the same mistakes that he had made, and in fact almost taking pleasure in doing so.


  In the meantime Cecilia went on seeing Luciani every day, including the days when she came to see me; so that her elusiveness, after being for a long time a mere hypothesis, had become a certainty, something similar to a fixed character with which I had, one way or another, to settle accounts and to which I had to adapt myself. And I felt, in fact, that my love for her, originating from my inability to possess her, was now, after oscillating violently between boredom and misery, gradually assuming the aspect of a species of vice with four successive phases: the attempt to possess her otherwise than by sexual means; the failure of the attempt; the angry, futile relapse into the sexual relationship; the failure of this also; and then the same thing all over again. But the only thing of which I was not capable was resigning myself to Cecilia's elusiveness, accepting it, and, in short, calmly sharing her favours with Luciani. I remember that, much as Balestrieri had not been jealous of Tony Proietti because he imagined that Cecilia had been unfaithful to Tony with him, so did I seek to console myself by telling myself that, while I knew that Cecilia went to bed with the actor the latter did not know that she went to bed with me. In other words, I now found myself, in relation to Luciani, more or less in the position of a lover in relation to an ignorant husband; and no lover was ever jealous of a husband, precisely because knowing, in certain cases, means possessing and not knowing means not possessing. It was a wretched consolation, but it helped me to pass the time with calculations of the following kind: I knew about Luciani and Luciani did not know about me, therefore Cecilia was unfaithful to him with me and not to me with him. On the other hand, he had come after me, consequently Cecilia had been unfaithful to me with him and not to him with me. Finally there was the question of the money, as there had been with Balestrieri: I gave her money and Luciani not merely did not give her any but spent my money with her: therefore she was making me, not him, pay her, and consequently was, in a way, unfaithful to him with me. However it was not impossible that she was going with Luciani for love and with me for money, therefore she was being unfaithful to me with Luciani. But Cecilia, as I had now ascertained, attributed no importance to money. Money, therefore, had perhaps a sentimental significance between her and me, and since the actor did not give her any money, perhaps she was being unfaithful to Luciani with me. And so on, ad infinitum.

  After these agreeable reflections there remained always the bare fact, unalterable and indestructible, that Cecilia went to bed with Luciani and that, as long as she went on doing so, I should not be able to possess her because incomplete possession is a contradiction in terms. At least Cecilia might have tried to make me forget the incompleteness of my possession! But, confident that she had found a final solution to the problem of the simultaneous presence of two men in her life, not only did she talk to me freely and casually about her relations with the actor, but she did not even trouble to conceal from me the physical traces that Luciani's love-making left upon her. There was no particular self-satisfaction or cruelty in her voice, when, in answer to my question, she replied indifferently: 'Oh, that was Luciani, he gave me a bite '; or again: 'Luciani made this white mark on my dress; we made love without undressing'; there was rather the serenity of a person who finds it easier and more convenient to tell the truth than to invent lies. Cecilia was so entirely convinced that this sharing of her favours had now ceased to cause me any pain that she went so far as to make appointments with Luciani on the telephone in my presence, and then asked me to go with her to his house. In the end, one day when I was in fact taking her in the car to Via Archimede, where Luciani was expecting her, she actually said to me suddenly: 'I should so much like you and Luciani to meet and make friends.' I said nothing; but I reflected that a world made according to Cecilia's notions would be very different from the one in which we lived – a promiscuous world, without boundaries or contours, shapeless, casual and unreal, in which all the women belonged to all the men and no woman had only one man.

  But I was suffering. And gradually, through this suffering, there came to me at last an extravagant idea which I was astonished not to have had before: possibly the only way in which I could set myself free from Cecilia—that is, possess her truly and consequently become bored with her—was to marry her. I had not succeeded in becoming bored with Cecilia by having her as a mistress; but I was almost sure that I would be bored with her once she had become my wife. Thus the idea of marriage began to attract me more and more, but with a prospect, completely different from the one that generally smiles upon a man preparing to get married; the latter cherishes the dream of an endless love; but it was the opposite kind of dream, a dream of the end of love, that smiled upon me. I took pleasure in imagining that, once she was married, Cecilia would turn into an ordinary wife, full of domestic and social occupations, satisfied, without mystery; that in fact she would become, as they say, 'settled'. It was possible that her present elusiveness was nothing more than an expression of matrimonial ambitions; perhaps she was searching instinctively amongst her lovers for a husband with whom she might pause and be quiet. I planned to marry her with every sort of religious and social ceremony, and after marriage to make her have a large number of children, who would also play a part in ordering her life and confining her to the far from enigmatic role of motherhood.

  It may be thought that this idea of employing matrimony where a physical relationship and money had both failed was absurd, and anyhow inadequate. Like burning down one's house to light a cigarette. But I had severed all bonds, as I think I have made clear, with any kind of society, especially with the world in which my mother moved. In this lack of all roots and responsibilities, in this utter void created by boredom, marriage, for me, was something dead and meaningless; and in this way it would at least serve some purpose.

  Naturally I counted upon going to live, as soon as I was married, in the villa on the Via Appia, with my wife and my mother. Matrimony, the villa, my mother, my mother's world—all these were parts of the diabolical machine into which Cecilia would enter as a charming, enigmatic demon and from which she would issue as an ordinary, middle-class married woman.

  Moreover the idea of marriage had come to me spontaneously as the surest means of severing relations between Cecilia and Luciani. I thought, in fact, that she would willingly leave Luciani once she had agreed to marry me. But it was also true that, if Cecilia became my wife, I felt it would not much matter to me whether she went on having Luciani as a lover, or some other man, or no one at all.

  At this point I ought to say that, apart from the prospect of freeing myself from my love for Cecilia, the matrimonial solution seemed to give me a gleam of hope that I might start painting again as soon as Cecilia, now installed in my mother's house, ceased to darken my horizon. I imagined Cecilia much taken up with her children and with social life; and I, meanwhile, in the studio at the bottom of the garden, would devote myself deliciously to my beloved, chaste, highly intellectual painting. Quite a different thing from Balestrieri's foul, hectic nudes. I felt I would paint the most abstract pictures that had ever been painted since abstract painting came into existence. In the end, having planted Cecilia with my mother and a whole nestful of urchins, I would come back and live by myself in Via Margutta.

  It will be thought that all this was in contradiction to my previous character and behaviour; and furthermore, that the terms of my problem were different. In point of fact, being in love with Cecilia, and painting, were not two facts depending on each other; rather they were equivalent and independent. In other words, it was not my love for Cecilia which prevented me from painting, but rather that I was powerless to paint just as I was powerless to posses
s Cecilia; and so a release from my love for her did not at all mean that I should be enabled to take up painting again. Moreover, I had always hated my mother's house, my mother's world, my mother's money, and had gone to live in Via Margutta precisely because I had felt that it would be impossible for me to paint at the villa in Via Appia.

  And now I was thinking of going back to live with my mother, in that same house and that same world that I loathed. I can give no other explanation of all this, except that contradiction is the fickle and unforeseeable basis of the human spirit. In reality I was desperate; and it seemed to me that even the kind of suicide that a return to my mother's house meant to me was preferable to my present situation, provided that it served to rid me of Cecilia.

  It was summer now, and one day, during our usual morning telephone call, I said to Cecilia that instead of meeting at my studio we might go out of Rome for a drive in my car. I knew that Cecilia liked being in the open air; nevertheless I was surprised by the extraordinary warmth with which she welcomed my proposal. 'Yes indeed,' she added unexpectedly; 'and today we can be together all day long, till late this evening. I'm quite free.'

  'What's happened?' I asked sarcastically; 'will that terribly severe father of yours allow you to go out with me?'

  She answered frankly, as though astonished at my remembering the lie she had made use of to conceal her relations with Luciani. 'It's not that,' she said. 'It's because Luciani and I can't meet this evening. So I thought you would like to spend the whole day with me.'

  'Please thank Luciani very much from me for his generosity.'

  'There, you see how it is with you. So it's not true that one can always tell you the truth.'

  'Very well, I'll come and fetch you about eleven o'clock, and then we can have lunch together.'

  'No, not at eleven, I can't manage that; I'm lunching with Luciani.'

  'I thought it was strange that you shouldn't be seeing him for a whole day.'

  'I'll come to the studio, about three.'

  'All right, three o'clock.'

  Cecilia appeared, with her usual punctuality, at the time arranged. She was wearing a new, green, two-piece dress and I told her how well it suited her. She answered promptly, with a grateful eagerness that was vaguely surprising to me. 'I bought it with your money, and these too,' she said, pointing to her shoes, 'and these,' she added, stretching out her leg to show the stocking. 'In fact,' she concluded, 'I'm entirely dressed out of your money, underneath and on top.'

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