The Empty Canvas, p.28Alberto Moravia
She sat in silence for a moment, then answered: 'I don't think so. I didn't think about it when I was with the nuns, where, you may say, there was nothing but religion; so why should I think about it outside the convent, with so many other things to think about? D'you know what I used to think about while I was reciting the prayers, with the nuns?'
'About the clock.'
'Why about the clock?'
'It had a pendulum and I used to watch it, and as I recited the prayers I counted the seconds and the minutes.'
'Were you so bored, saying these prayers?'
'Because with lots of things, even if they're extremely boring, you at least know that they serve some purpose. But prayer, for me at any rate, serves no purpose at all.'
'You never know. Some day perhaps you'll find it does.'
'I don't think so. I can't imagine the day when I shall feel a need for religion. It's a superfluous thing.'
'Yes—how can I explain? If it exists, things go on in a certain way, and if it doesn't exist, things still go on in the same way. Nothing changes: therefore it's a superfluous thing.'
'That could be said of plenty of things in this world.'
'Well—art, for instance. Things, as you say, would go on in the same way even if art didn't exist.'
'But art is enjoyable to the person who practises it. Balestrieri enjoyed himself. You enjoy yourself. Religion, on the other hand, is boring. At the convent I always had the impression that the nuns were bored, just as priests are bored and indeed all those people in general who are taken up with religion. In the churches, goodness knows how bored people are. You've only to look at them in church, and you can see there's not a single one of them that isn't bored to death.'
It was the first time Cecilia had spoken to me on the subject of boredom; my curiosity was aroused, and I could not refrain from asking her: 'Are you ever bored?'
'And what d'you feel when you're bored?'
'I feel boredom.'
'What is boredom?'
'How am I to explain that? Boredom is boredom.'
What I wanted to say was: 'Boredom is the suspension of all relationship with reality. And I want to marry you so as to get bored with you, so as to stop suffering and to stop loving you, so as to bring it about, in short, that you cease to exist as far as I am concerned, just as for you religion and a great many other things don't exist'; but I hadn't the courage. Moreover, she suddenly interrupted our conversation by raising her hand and stroking my cheek. 'Let's go to your mother's now; otherwise it'll be too late.'
'Very well,' I said. But at the same time I could not help wondering what could be the reason of this sudden desire to go and see my mother; whereas, shortly before, Cecilia had shown what amounted almost to repugnance at the idea of the visit. It seemed to me, in reflection, that she was suggesting that we should go and see my mother in order to escape a conversation which made her feel uneasy. I knew, in fact, that she did not like one to talk about her. I, on the other hand, did this continually, and it occurred to me that her stubborn reticence derived, precisely, from her antipathy to the kind of conversation which I forced upon her. Always ready, at any moment and in any situation, to surrender herself physically, Cecilia, when it came to a conversation about herself, could be compared to a closed, obstinate oyster which tightens its valves all the more firmly, the more one struggles to open them. Usually, as I knew, she contrived to break off this type of conversation by suggesting that we should make love: she would take my hand and convey it to her belly, then close her eyes. Thus she offered me her body in order to distract me from everything else. But that day we could not make love, and so, in her desperate desire not to hear herself talked about, she suggested the first thing that came to hand, the distasteful visit to my mother.
I drove on in silence for a time, thinking about these things; then I asked her: 'Did Balestrieri ever talk to you about yourself?'
'What did he generally talk about?'
'About himself, generally.'
'What did he say?'
'He said he loved me.'
'Nothing else. He went on talking about himself—that is, about what he felt for me. You know, the usual speeches that men make when they're in love.'
I could not help thinking that at last I had found one difference between myself and Balestrieri: I was always talking to Cecilia about herself, while Balestrieri, like all sex-maniacs, talked about himself all the time. In point of fact, I suddenly decided, Balestrieri had never really loved Cecilia. 'And did you like him to talk about himself?' I asked her.
'When he told me he loved me, I liked it for a bit, but then he went on repeating the same things and so I gave up listening.'
'Would you have preferred him to talk about you?'
'Don't you like people to talk about you?'
'I don't know.'
'Well, I'm continually asking you questions about yourself—you don't like that?'
This decided monosyllable almost took my breath away. 'Perhaps you reach the point of hating me when I talk to you about yourself?' I asked.
'No, I don't hate you, but I long for you to stop as soon as possible.'
'What d'you feel when I question you about yourself?'
She thought for a moment and then replied: 'I feel a desire not to answer you.'
'To stay silent, you mean?'
'Yes, or to tell you something that isn't true, just to satisfy you.' She paused for a moment and then went on, with sudden volubility: 'Imagine, when I was at the convent and had to go to confession, in order not to talk about myself I used to invent sins I hadn't committed. Then the priest was satisfied and told me that I must repent and say I don't know how many prayers to the Madonna and Saint Joseph, and I said yes, I always said yes, although afterwards I never did anything of what he told me to do, because I hadn't done anything wrong and so there was no need for me to repent.'
It occurred to me all at once that this indiscreet priest had wished to do the same thing, fundamentally, that I had so often tried to do—to catch Cecilia, to imprison her in some sin or other, to nail her down to a penalty. I asked in alarm: 'Then with me too you've invented things you never did?'
She answered vaguely: 'Yes, perhaps I have, sometimes.'
'But what d'you mean? That you've lied to me? And when?'
'It may be so, but I don't remember now.'
'Try and remember.'
'I don't remember.'
'Did you he to me, for instance, about your relations with Balestrieri?'
'I swear I don't remember.'
'And so everything you've told me about your past may also be untrue?'
'No, that's not so. I've only told you lies when it was necessary.'
'When, for example?'
'I don't remember now: when it was necessary.'
'And when is it necessary for you to tell lies?'
'How can I explain that? It's necessary when it's necessary.'
'Well, now we'll go and see my mother. I'll introduce you as my fiancée, and in a month, at most, we'll get married.'
We drove on in silence and very soon came to the well-known gate between the two pillars adorned with bits of Roman junk. It was not shut, as it usually was, but wide open; the two lanterns on top of the pillars were lit; and at that very moment three or four cars were on the point of entering. Disappointed, I said: 'I'm afraid my mother must be, as they say, receiving—in other words, giving a cocktail party. What shall we do?'
'Whatever you like.'
I reflected that, after all, for the purpose I had in mind, a party might come in useful: Cecilia would in this way be able to form an idea of the world into which I should introduce her if I
'Yes, that's all right.'
I drove up the avenue behind the other cars and found a place to stop, not without difficulty, as the open space in front of the house was already almost full. Cecilia got out and I followed her. As she walked towards the front door she put up her hands and lifted her hair from off her neck, arranging it on her shoulders, in a gesture which with her, as I knew, indicated that she felt a timidity which she was trying to overcome. I caught up with her and took her by the arm, whispering: 'This is the house we'll come and live in when we're married. D'you like it?'
'Yes, it's a fine house.'
We went into the hall and thence into the first of the four or five rooms that occupied the ground floor. There were already large numbers of guests, standing close together, glass in hand, talking into each other's faces and leering at each other sideways, as always happens at cocktail parties. Then, as I thrust Cecilia forward by the arm, cleaving a passage through this haughty, conceited crowd; and as I looked at all these florid, glossy men and painted women dressed in the latest fashion; and as I saw that Cecilia seemed to mingle with the odious multitude to the point of appearing to be one of them; and as I reflected that, if this really happened as in fact it might happen after our marriage, I should not only be rid of her and of my love for her but should actually hate her, as I hated my mother's guests—then I felt a kind of remorse at having planned to lose her amongst this horrible crowd, and a hope, almost, that finally she would not agree to marry me. I wanted, indeed, to become bored with Cecilia, but I did not want to hate her. And anyhow I loved her too much to wish to be rid of her at the price of her transformation from a poor and charming girl into a moneyed harpy.
Thus reflecting, I went on pushing Cecilia through the crowd, from one group to another, from one circle of faces to another, through the cigarette-smoke and the buzz of conversation, brushing, as we passed, against trays covered with glasses of various sizes and colours which were being handed round by waiters. It was, in truth, an immensely crowded reception, and it was obvious that my mother was doing things on a grand scale, regardless of expense. But the money my mother had spent in order to receive her guests worthily was a mere nothing in comparison with the money—an almost incalculable total—represented by each one of those same guests. I remembered, for some reason, a question which, at a similar reception some years before, I had heard put, with an air of complacency and at the same time of almost scientific perplexity, by a fat, vigorous, cheerful old man to another old man who was thin and pale and melancholy: 'What amount of capital do you suppose is represented within these four walls? What d'you think? What's your guess?'. To which the other had replied sombrely: 'How should I know? I'm not a tax collector.' Often I had wondered why I felt so profound an aversion to my mother's world; but it was only today, remembering that remark and comparing it with the faces I saw all round me, that I finally understood. Indeed, as I examined the faces of my mother's guests, I suddenly had a very precise feeling that there was not one wrinkle, not one inflection of the voice, not one ripple of laughter, not a single feature, in fact, that was not directly determined by the money which, as the fat old man had said, was represented by the guests in that room, in greater or lesser quantity. Yes, I thought, in that crowd money had turned into flesh and blood; whether earned by honest and successful work or stolen by cunning and arrogance, it produced always the same result—an inhuman vulgarity that was recognizable both in well-fed fatness and in dried-up thinness. And if it was true—as indeed it was true—that money does not allow of any divorce from money, for anyone who is rich cannot make a pretence of not being so: then I understood, yet again, that I myself, even in spite of myself, formed part of this society of rich people, and that it was money—which I had renounced without being able to get rid of it—that had caused the crisis in my painting and, in general, in my life. I was therefore merely a rich man who would have liked not to be so; I might dress in rags and eat crusts and live in a hut; but the money at my disposal would transform my rags into elegant clothes, my crusts of bread into delicate and dainty dishes, my hut into a palace. Even my car, old and dilapidated as it was, was more luxurious than many luxurious cars because it belonged to someone who, just for the asking, could have had another one, brand new and of the most expensive kind.
I started as I heard my mother's voice, saying: 'Oh, Dino, what a pleasant surprise!'
She was standing in front of me, but I had not seen her, or rather, perhaps I had seen her but had not been able to distinguish her among the crowd of her guests, for at that moment she looked to me like one of them, exactly similar to them in every way and without any kind of connexion with me, even of blood. Alone, my mother was my mother; but in the crowd that filled her rooms she became as indistinguishable as a bird in a flock of other birds or a fish in a shoal. Thus the strong business sense which, when my mother was alone, might appear to be an individual characteristic, revealed her impersonal, generic character among the crowd of her guests. And as in the case of all the figures thronging the rooms of the villa, so with my mother one could swear that, behind the glassy glint of her blue eyes and the showiness of her massive jewellery, behind her nervous thinness and the excessive artificiality of her make-up and the disagreeable quality of her voice, there was a conformist attitude towards money, typical of the society of which she formed part, rather than any originality of private experiment.
Similar to her guests in physical appearance, my mother also resembled them in her behaviour during our brief encounter. Usually, when she was alone, she was very attentive; but now, at this cocktail party—the normal rule for such occasions being, apparently, a supreme inattentiveness made up of indifference, haste and thoughtlessness—my mother behaved like all the other people, looking without seeing and talking without listening. Indeed, immediately after her lively welcoming remark, she murmured a few vague, incoherent words about how busy she was and how this would prevent her from taking much notice of me that afternoon; and then, looking round her all the time, she added, without the slightest sign of curiosity, hastily and as a matter of form, so to speak: 'May I point out that you haven't yet introduced your friend to me?'
Taking Cecilia by the arm, and with a certain solemnity, I said: 'This is Cecilia, my fiancée.' And then an unexpected thing happened. Either my mother did not hear what I said, or if she heard it she did not take it in, by which I mean that she was conscious of it as a sound but not of its significance; the fact remains that, after letting her cruelly sparkling eyes rest for a moment upon Cecilia, she hurriedly exclaimed: 'Forgive me, I'll see you later; there's something I must do now'; and, without waiting for an answer, she darted off through the crowd with the decision of a shark rushing through the depths of the sea after its prey. I presumed that somebody had arrived; somebody of importance, perhaps; and my mother had not listened to me because, just at the moment when I was introducing Cecilia to her, her eye had caught sight of an eddying movement near one of the doors, the movement caused by an influx of new guests into the crowd at a party.
I took two glasses from a tray handed by a waiter and gave one to Cecilia; then I propelled her across the room into a window. 'Well, what d'you think about it?' I asked.
I stood for a moment in embarrassed silence. I did not know what it was that I wanted to know from Cecilia; everything, in point of fact, since I knew nothing. I said haphazardly: 'About this party.'
'Well—it's a party.'
'D'you like parties?'
She answered, after a moment, with a slightly troubled air: 'Not very much. I don't like the smoke and the noise.'
'What d'you think of all these people?'
'I don't think anything. I don't know anybody.'
'Useful in what way?'
'What does that mean?'
'Oh well, they might make friends with you, take a liking to you, ask you to parties like this one, or, if they're men, they might flirt with you. Something useful might come out of any of those things. Lots of people go to parties for that reason. Shall I introduce you, then?'
'No, it doesn't matter; after all I shall never see them again.'
'Certainly you'll see them again, since we're getting married.'
'Well, in that case you can introduce me later on.'
I wanted to turn the conversation to the subject of wealth, but I didn't know how to manage it. Finally I said: 'The people you see here are all very rich.'
'Yes, you can see that.'
'How can you see it?'
'From the ladies' clothes and jewellery.'
'Would you like to be like them?'
'I don't know.'
'Why don't you know?'
'I'm not rich; in order to know whether I'd like to be rich, I'd have to become rich. I could only say if I liked it or not after I'd tried it.'
'But can't you imagine it?'
'How can you imagine a thing that you don't know about?'
'But you like money?'
'When I'm in need of it, yes.'
'And aren't you perhaps in need of money?'
'Not at present; what you give me is enough.'
'Well now, if you married me you'd have plenty of money and you'd become like the ladies you see here; what d'you say to that?'
I saw her big, dark eyes moving round the crowd of guests; and once again I wondered what she saw, and whether what she saw in any way resembled what I saw. Then she said, slowly: 'There are no girls here; there are only ladies of your mother's age.'
'My mother is giving a party for her friends; it's natural therefore that the ladies here should all be more or less of her own age. But you haven't answered my question. What d'you say, then, to the prospect of marrying me and becoming like these ladies here?'
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes