The Empty Canvas, p.27Alberto Moravia
As I drove the car out of the courtyard, I asked: 'Why d'you tell me this?'
'Because you once told me that you liked me to tell you these things.'
'Yes, that's true. But I would far rather know that you belonged to me, not only underneath and on top, but inside as well.'
She laughed, with her rather childish laugh that lifted her lips above her eye-teeth. 'Inside, I don't belong to anybody,' she said. 'Inside are one's lungs and heart and liver and intestines. What would you do with them?'
She was gay, and I pointed this out to her. She said lightly: 'I'm gay because I'm with you.'
'Thank you, that's very nice of you.'
We crossed the Piazza del Popolo and the Tiber, went the whole length of Via Cola di Rienzo and, after circling the sloping walls of the Vatican, started off along the Via Aurelia, in the direction of Fregene. Cecilia sat quite still at my side, her head erect, the mass of her thick, curly hair falling about her round face, her hands in her lap. From time to time, as I drove, I cast a sideways glance at her and recognized yet again the characteristics which, in their enigmatic way, made her so desirable to me and at the same time so elusive; the childishness of her face, contradicted nevertheless by the dry, fine lines that cut into the skin at the corners of her small mouth; the sharp slimness of her shoulders, which seemed belied by the full, heavy prominence of her bosom; the supple slenderness of her waist which did not match the rotundity of her hips and the solidity of her thighs. And, lying in her lap, her big, ugly hands, doubtfully white, yet attractive and even, perhaps, beautiful—if it is permissible to say that an ugly thing is beautiful. Never had I found her so pleasing; and that in a manner so very like herself, both irritating and evasive. As soon as we were outside Rome I began to think I should not be able to wait until six, at which time we should be returning to the studio. I had ten hours at my disposal; therefore I could make love twice: now, immediately, and then again at night, after dinner. Now, in any convenient meadow; after dinner, at the studio.
The road went up and down amongst treeless hills covered with thick, luxuriant grass of an almost blue green, grass which had sprouted from the water-soaked earth after the abundant rain of the last two months. But the sky was still not clear: black clouds, which looked as if they were unable to rise for the burden of rain they carried, hung in motionless layers above this spring-like green. I kept looking about for a suitable place, although I was driving fast, but failed to find one: either it was too near the road, or too exposed, or too close to a farm, or on too steep a slope. So I went on for some miles, still without speaking, and in the silence I became overburdened with the full force, the anger, almost, of my desire. At last, at the first side road, I turned off. 'But aren't we going to the sea?' Cecilia demanded.
'We're going now to a quiet place to make love,' I answered, 'and afterwards we'll go to the sea.'
She said nothing; and I drove on as fast as I could along the white, stony country road. After we had bumped along over crackling loose rubble for about half a mile, the landscape, as I had hoped, began to change. No longer were there grassy, treeless hills, but wooded slopes rising behind small fields in which horses and sheep were grazing. It was just what I was looking for. I came to a sudden stop beside a fence and said to Cecilia: 'Let's get out.'
She obeyed, and stood aside to let me go ahead. I said, for no particular reason: 'I'd rather you went in front.' She made no objection; and, after pushing open a rustic gate, started off down a path, or rather a track where the tall, thick grass had been trodden down; and then I saw why I had asked her to walk in front of me: I wanted to watch the powerful, indolent movement of her hips. I knew that this movement did not concern me, personally, any more than the sexual appeal of a woman of any kind concerns any particular man. Now if I had been walking in front of her, I might even, perhaps, have had the illusion that I was acting as her guide. But in this way, by making her walk ahead of me, I should be able to persuade myself that this movement was directed not so much at me as at the pleasure that awaited her at some spot in the wood, a pleasure which I should be providing for her, it is true, but of which I should be merely the instrument.
We walked on in silence through the tangled, sticky grass. Above our heads the mass of cloud, low and swollen like a pregnant belly, seemed to be unravelling itself into shreds of mist. The air was damp and warm and humming with insects. I watched Cecilia's hips which, as we gradually drew nearer to the wood, appeared to assert the strength and monotony of their movement like a machine that has found its normal rhythm, and I reflected that there was no difference between this movement which she made as she walked and those she would soon be making as she lay on her back: Cecilia was always ready, so to speak, for the sexual act, just as a machine, nourished with the proper fuel, is always ready to function. She must have become aware of my gaze, for suddenly she turned and asked: 'What's the matter, why don't you speak?'
'I want you too much to speak.'
'D'you want me always?'
'Do you mind?'
'No, I was just asking.'
We walked on for some distance; then the thick grass of the meadow began to be replaced by scantier, taller undergrowth and trees rose here and there from the uneven ground, thinly scattered at first but growing steadily thicker. After a few more steps we found ourselves in a little ravine between two hills, with trees everywhere, and bushes and thickets up and down the humps and hollows of the broken ground. I started looking round for a suitable place, where we could lie down; and finally I thought I had found what I wanted—a flat, mossy open space surrounded with tall ferns and big broom bushes. I was about to point it out to Cecilia, when she turned round and said lightly: 'Oh, I forgot to tell you, it's not possible for us to make love today.'
I felt as though I had put my foot into a trap. 'Why?' I asked.
'I'm not well.'
'You're not telling me the truth.'
She did not reply, but walked on amongst the ferns and the broom bushes with her usual slow, firm step and climbed up on to a small, round hillock; then she turned towards me, stooped down and, taking hold of the hem of her dress with both hands, pulled it right up to her belly. I could see her straight thighs pressed close together, sheathed in their silk stockings, and, at the lowest point of her belly, where usually the transparent stuff of her slip allowed a glimpse of the dark groin, the pale, opaque patch of a wad of cotton-wool. 'Now d'you believe me?' she asked.
I answered angrily: 'Yes, it's true, with you it's always true.'
She pulled down her dress in silence, and then asked: 'Why do you say that? On other occasions I've never refused you.'
I felt now that I was going almost mad; frustrated desire joined forces with my usual obsession of being unable to possess her, as though this day's discomfiture were only one of the many impossibilities of a never-changing situation. 'I wanted you so much,' I said, 'and by coming with me and letting me think you were willing, you made my desire twice as great. Why didn't you tell me at once that you weren't well?'
She looked at me with indifference, like a shopkeeper who, instead of an article which is out of stock, offers another which is quite different and of inferior value. 'But we're going to be together all day,' she answered.
'But I wanted to make love.'
'We'll do that some other time, perhaps even tomorrow.'
'But I wanted to do it today—now.'
'You're like a child.'
Silence followed. Cecilia was walking amongst the bushes with bent head and appeared to be looking for something. Then she stooped, picked a blade of grass and put it between her teeth. I said furiously: 'That's why you suggested that we should spend the day together. Just because you knew you couldn't make love with Luciani.'
'Luciani wanted to do it too, and I told him the same thing that I've told you.'
'But Luciani had you yesterday and I haven't had you for three days.'
She walked on in front of me through the bushes, wandering about, the blade of grass between her teeth. All of a sudden I asked angrily: 'Where are you going, what d'you want to do?'
'Whatever you want to do.'
'You know what I wanted.'
'But I've told you it's impossible.'
'Well, if we can't do that, I really don't know what we can do.'
'D'you want to go back into town and go to the cinema?'
'D'you want to go to the sea?'
'D'you want to go over towards the Castelli?'
'D'you want to stay here?'
'D'you want to go away?'
'Then what do you want?'
'I've already told you: I want you'
'And I've already told you—not today.'
'Then let's go back to the car.'
'And where shall we go?'
'I don't know; let's go, anyhow.'
So we went back to the car and this time I walked in front of Cecilia; although, unlike her—for she always seemed to be conscious of her objective, with her body at least, if not with her mind—I was entirely ignorant of where I was going.
When we were in the car, I did not even wait for Cecilia to close the door properly before I started off at full speed. I felt an increasing fury which nothing could quench nor satiate, like a fire to whose flames fresh fuel is constantly being added.
And this fury filled my mind with continuous, haunting illusions, so that, having failed to make love to Cecilia, I sought her everywhere, in a stupid, stubborn fashion, if even the most remote resemblance permitted it. Thus certain brief stretches of country, partly mown and partly grassy, made me think of her belly; certain rounded hillocks, of her breasts; certain irregularities in the ground, of her profile and her hair. Or again I saw the road creeping in between two long curving hills, and it seemed to me that they were the open legs of Cecilia as she lay on her back, and that between the two hills was the cleft of her sex and that the car was moving swiftly towards this cleft. Then, all of a sudden, when I thought I was about to plunge, car and all, into this gigantic Cecilia made of earth, the whole prospect changed, and instead of two hills there were four, and there were no longer any legs or sex or anything but merely an ordinary landscape. Moreover, as I have said, I did not know where I was going; I seemed to be rushing in search of something which, rush as I might, remained unattainable. This something was in front of me all the time—down there in that group of trees, on that hill, in that wide valley, upon that bridge; but when I reached the group of trees, the hill, the valley, the bridge, there was nothing there and I had to rush on breathlessly towards new fictitious goals. And meanwhile, in the midst of this delirium of dull, impotent rage, I still had the precise feeling that Cecilia was there, at my side, close to me yet at the same time inaccessible.
I do not know how far I went, in this haphazard way, along one road after another, branching off at crossroads without any exact sense of direction, turning back, driving for miles and miles along the sea or through woods; for more than an hour, perhaps. Suddenly, on one of these roads, facing a wide stretch of fields bounded by poplar-trees, I stopped the car abruptly and turned towards Cecilia. 'I have a proposal to make to you,' I said.
'What is that?'
The idea had never entered my head while I was driving. But I had thought about it during the preceding days and that same morning before seeing Cecilia. And so it seemed to me that I was saying something quite natural. 'I want you to become my wife.'
She looked at me with quiet diffidence, but without surprise. 'You want us to get married?'
'But why d'you say this to me now?'
'I've been thinking about it for some time and now the moment has come.'
She was gazing at me, and I, meanwhile, had a giddy, voluptuous feeling, like a man who, after many hesitations, hurls himself headlong into the void. I seized her hands and said hurriedly: 'You'll be my wife and we'll go and live at my mother's house. You don't perhaps know that I'm a rich man.'
'You're a rich man?'
'Yes, or rather, my mother's rich, and when we're living with her, in her villa on the Via Appia, her money will be mine too—in fact ours.'
She said nothing. I went on: 'We'll get married with all the proper celebrations. Wedding in church, presents, flowers, wedding-cake and refreshments, reception and so on. Then we'll have a fine honeymoon; we can go north to Scandinavia or south to Egypt. When we come back, your whole life will change completely. You'll be a married lady in Roman society, like the ladies you see in Via Veneto or Piazza di Spagna.'
Still she said nothing. In a growing frenzy, squeezing her two hands, I went on: 'We'll have children, because I want children. And you look capable of producing any number of them. I'll see that you have two, four, six, eight—as many as you like.'
Her silence, nevertheless, made me uneasy. Quickly I asked: 'Well, what d'you think?'
At last she made up her mind to answer. 'I can't tell you, like this, all in a moment.' she said slowly. 'I must think it over.'
'Yes, think it over. Will you give me an answer tomorrow, the day after tomorrow? Just as you like. In the meantime,' I suddenly added, 'let's go at once to my mother's and I'll introduce you as my fiancée.' It had occurred to me that Cecilia might be doubting my statement about my mother's wealth and I wanted her to make certain of it with her own eyes.
Besides, to introduce her as my fiancée meant compromising her and, in a way, forcing her to accept my proposal.
'Why go to your mother's now?' she asked. 'You can let me meet her some other day.'
'No, it's better today; then you'll know her and be able to see what it's all about.'
'But you can't introduce me as your fiancée; I'm not that, yet.'
'What does it matter? If we decide not to get married after all, I'll tell my mother you changed your mind.'
'I'll give you my answer today,' she said suddenly, in a strange manner, as though she had already taken the decision which she was to announce in a few hours' time. 'This evening.'
'Why this evening? Why not now?'
'No, this evening.'
I said nothing; I released the brake, started the engine and drove off. I now felt such a desire for her that the marriage I had offered her seemed to me an inadequate price, not for an eternity of love, but even for a single, fleeting embrace. To possess her just once, but really and truly, I would not only have married her but, I felt, have made a pact with the devil and damned my own soul. This, it may be said, is a mere phrase, and of a highly romantic kind into the bargain. Nevertheless, at that moment damnation was for me not a mere phase but an actual fact which might take place, not in the other world in which I did not believe, but in this world, in which I knew I had to live. Strange to say, however, the sense of such a damnation was not unrelated to a very remote hope of liberation; of that particular liberation which I continually deceived myself into thinking I should attain on the day when I succeeded in possessing Cecilia.
By now it was almost sunset; and at last the cypresses and pines of the Via Appia came into view, black as ink, outlined against the background of a long red streak in the sky which looked like a chink of fire in the dark tumult of the clouds. I started driving slowly up the narrow Roman road, slackening speed where the ancient pavement showed through the surface of the asphalt, lingering now and then to look at the ruins, at the gates of villas, at the cars standing on the grassy verges. All the time I was reflecting upon the marriage proposal I had made to Cecilia, and I was conscious that I had made use of matrimony in perhaps too frivolous a way, as a mere means, one among many, of achieving a purpose which was not only foreign to it but actually contradicted it. I became afraid that I had exposed my own state of mind and my intentions and had thus failed to be co
She said nothing, and I went on: 'Getting married means becoming united for life. I, at any rate, understand it in that way: that's why I want us to get married in church.'
Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, she asked: 'Why in church?'
'Because,' I said complacently, 'if we get married in church we're truly united, without the possibility of ever parting again.'
'But you don't believe in it,' she said.
'I would do it for your sake.'
'I don't believe in it either.'
'You don't believe in it? But you told me you'd been brought up by the nuns until you were twelve.'
'That doesn't mean anything. Even when I was with the nuns I didn't believe in it.'
'What did you believe in?'
She appeared to reflect for a moment; then she replied, in a dry, precise, conscientious way: 'In nothing. But I don't mean I didn't believe in it because I thought about it, and realized, by thinking about it, that I didn't believe in it. I didn't believe in it because I never thought about it. And even now I never think about it. I think about any sort of thing, but not about religion. If a person never thinks about a thing, it means that for him that thing doesn't exist. With me, it isn't that I like or dislike religion, it just doesn't exist.'
Slowing down until I had almost stopped, I said: 'You may never think about it now, but it's not impossible that you may come to think about it some day.'
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes