Contempt, p.3Alberto Moravia
At last we moved in, and the very next day, by a coincidence that seemed to me providential, I met Battista, and, as I have already related, was at once invited by him to work on the script of one of his films. For some time I felt relieved and more cheerful than I had been for many weeks: I thought I would do four or five film-scripts to pay off the lease of the flat, and then devote myself again to journalism and my beloved theater. Meanwhile my love for Emilia had come back to me stronger than ever, and sometimes I went so far as to reproach myself, with the bitterest remorse, for having been capable of thinking ill of her and judging her to be selfish and insensitive. This brief bright interval, however, lasted only a very short time. Almost immediately the sky of my life clouded over again. But at first it was only an exceedingly small cloud, though of a decidedly gloomy color.
MY MEETING WITH Battista took place on the first Monday in October. The day before, we had moved into the flat, which was now completely furnished. This flat, the cause, to me, of so many anxieties, was in truth neither large nor luxurious. It had only two rooms—a big living-room, of greater length than width, and a bedroom, also of good proportions. The bathroom, the kitchen and the maid’s room were all three very small—reduced, as always in modern buildings, to the smallest possible size. Besides this there was a little windowless box which Emilia intended to make into a dressing-room. The flat was on the top floor of a newly built block, as smooth and white as if it had been all made of plaster, in a narrow, slightly sloping street. The whole of one side of the street was occupied by a row of buildings similar to ours, while along the other side ran the boundary wall of the garden of a private villa, with branches of great leafy trees hanging over it. It was a beautiful view, as I pointed out to Emilia, and we could almost delude ourselves into thinking that this garden, in which we could catch glimpses of winding paths and fountains and open spaces, was not cut off from us by a street and a wall, and that we could go down and walk about in it as often as we liked.
We moved in during the afternoon. I was busy the whole day, and I do not remember where we dined, nor with whom; I only remember that, towards midnight, I was standing in the middle of the bedroom in front of the triple looking-glass, looking at myself and slowly undoing my tie. All at once, in the mirror, I saw Emilia take a pillow from the double bed and go off towards the door of the living-room. Surprised, I asked: “What are you doing?”
I had spoken without moving. Still in the mirror, I saw her stop in the doorway and turn, as she said in a casual tone: “You won’t mind, will you, if I sleep on the divan bed, in the other room?”
“Just for tonight, you mean?” I inquired, puzzled and still uncomprehending.
“No, for always,” she replied hurriedly. “To tell you the truth, that was one of the reasons why I wanted a new home. I really can’t go on sleeping with the shutters open, as you like to do. I wake up every morning at the crack of dawn and then I can’t go to sleep again, and I go about all day long with a sleepy feeling in my head. You don’t mind, do you? I do think it’s really better for us to sleep separate.”
I still failed to understand, and at first I felt no more than vaguely irritated at an innovation so completely unexpected. Walking across to her, I said: “But this can’t go on. We’ve only two rooms; in one there’s the bed, and in the other, the armchairs and divans. Why...? Besides, sleeping on a divan, even if it can be turned into a bed, is not very comfortable!”
“I never dared tell you, before, “ she answered, lowering her eyes without looking at me.
“During these two years,” I persisted, “you’ve never once complained...I thought you’d got accustomed to it.”
She raised her head, pleased, it seemed to me, that I had taken up the point of the excuse she had made. “I’ve never got accustomed to it...I’ve always slept badly...recently, in fact, perhaps because my nerves are bad nowadays, I’ve hardly been sleeping at all...If we could only go to bed early; but, one way or another, we’re always late...and then...” She did not finish her sentence and made as if to move away towards the living-room. I went after her and said hastily: “Wait a minute. If you like, we can perfectly well give up sleeping with the shutters open. It’s all right—from now on we’ll sleep with them shut.”
I realized, as I spoke, that this proposal was not merely a demonstration of affectionate compliance; in reality, as I knew, I wanted to put her to the test. I saw her shake her head, and she answered, with a faint smile: “No, no...why should you sacrifice yourself? You’ve always said you feel suffocated with the shutters closed. It’s better for us to sleep apart.”
“I assure you, for me it will be a very slight sacrifice...I shall soon get used to it.”
She appeared to hesitate and then said, with unexpected firmness: “No, I don’t want any sacrifices—either great or small...I shall sleep in the other room.”
“And what if I say I don’t like it, and that I want you to sleep with me?”
She hesitated again. Then, in the good-natured tone which was usual to her: “Riccardo, that’s just like you. You didn’t want to make this sacrifice two years ago, when we got married; and now you want to make it, at all costs. What’s the matter with you? Plenty of married people sleep apart and are fond of each other just the same. And you’ll be freer in the mornings, too, when you have to go to work; you won’t wake me up any more.”
“But you’ve just said you always woke at dawn...I don’t leave the house at dawn!...”
“Oh, how pig-headed you are!” she exclaimed impatiently. And this time, without paying any more attention to me, she left the room.
Left alone, I sat down on the bed, which, despoiled of one of its pillows, already had about it a suggestion of separation and desertion, and so I remained for some moments in bewilderment, looking at the open door through which Emilia had disappeared. One question came into my mind: did Emilia not want to sleep with me any longer because the daylight really annoyed her, or simply because she did not want to go on sleeping with me? I was inclined to believe in the second of these alternatives, although I longed with all my heart to believe in the first. I felt, however, that if I had accepted Emilia’s explanation, there would always have been a doubt in my mind. I did not admit it to myself, but the final question, in reality, was, “Has Emilia perhaps ceased to love me?”
In the meantime, while, absorbed in these thoughts, I sat looking about the room, Emilia was coming and going, carrying into the living-room, after the pillow, a pair of folded sheets that she took from the cupboard, a blanket, a dressing-gown. It was the beginning of October, and the weather was still mild, and she was going about the flat in a gauzy, transparent chemise. I have not yet described Emilia, but I should like to do so now, if only in order to explain my feelings that night. She was perhaps not really a tall woman, but to me, owing to the feeling that I had for her, she seemed taller and, above all, more majestic than any woman I had ever known. I could not say whether this look of majesty was innate in her or whether it was my own ravished glances that attributed it to her; I only remember that, on the first night after our wedding, when she had taken off her high-heeled shoes, I went up to her in the middle of the room and embraced her, and was vaguely surprised when I noticed that her forehead barely came up to the top of my chest and that I was taller than her by head and shoulders. But later, when she was lying beside me on the bed, there was a further surprise: her naked body now looked to me big, ample, powerful, although I knew that, in reality, she was not in the least massive. She had the most beautiful shoulders, the most beautiful arms, the most beautiful neck I had ever seen, full and rounded, shaped in form and languid in movement. Her complexion was dark her nose pronounced and in form severe; her mouth full and fresh and laughing, with two rows of teeth of a luminous whiteness which seemed always to be wet and gleaming with saliva; her eyes very large, of a fine golden brown sensual in expression, and sometimes, in moments of abandon, strangely relaxed and dazed-looking. She had
And so that evening, as she went backwards and forward between the bedroom and the living-room, and as I followed her with my eyes, not knowing what to say, and feeling at the same time both displeased and embarrassed, my glance traveled from her serene face to her body, which was more or less visible through the thin stuff of her chemise, its colors and contours being veiled and broken up by its folds and suddenly, the suspicion that she no longer loved me sprang into my mind again, in an abrupt, haunting sort of way, as a feeling of the impossibility of contact and communion between my body and hers. It was a sensation I had never felt before, and for a moment I was stunned and at the same time incredulous. Love is certainly, and before all else, a matter of feeling; but it is also, in an ineffable, almost spiritual manner, a communion of bodies—that communion, indeed, which up till then I had enjoyed without being conscious of it, as something obvious and completely natural. And now, as if my eyes had been at last opened to a fact which was clear and yet, till that moment, invisible, I was conscious that this communion might no longer exist between us, in fact, no longer did exist. And I, like a person who suddenly realizes he is hanging over an abyss, felt a kind of painful nausea at the thought that our intimacy had turned, for no reason at all, into estrangement, absence, separation.
I came to a pause at this staggering notion; meanwhile Emilia, who had gone into the bathroom, was washing, as I could tell from the sounds of water flowing from taps. I had an acute feeling of impotence and, at the same time, a violent desire to overcome it as quickly as possible. So far I had loved Emilia both easily and ignorantly; and my love had always manifested itself as if by enchantment, with a thoughtless, impetuous, inspired impulse which hitherto had seemed to me to spring from myself and from myself alone. Now, for the first time, I realized that this impulse depended upon, and nourished itself upon, a similar impulse in Emilia, and, seeing her so changed, I feared that I should no longer be capable of loving her with the same ease and spontaneity and naturalness. I feared, in fact, that that admirable communion, of which I had only now become aware, would be succeeded by, on my side, an act of cold imposition, and on hers...I did not know what her attitude would be, but I felt intuitively that if, on my side there was imposition, on hers there could only be a non-participating passivity, if not worse.
At that moment Emilia passed close to me as she came and went about the room. I leant forward with an almost involuntary lunge and seized her by the arm, saying: “Come here...I want to talk to you.”
Her immediate reaction was to draw away from me, then next moment, she yielded and came and sat down on the bed, though at some distance from me. “Talk to me? What do you want to talk to me about?”
For some reason or other, my throat now felt choked by sudden anxiety. Or perhaps it was shyness—a feeling which had hitherto been absent from our relationship and which more than anything else, seemed to confirm the change that had taken place in it. “Yes,” I said, “I want to talk to you I have an impression that something has changed between us.”
She threw me a rapid, sideways glance and answered with decision: “I don’t understand you...what do you mean, changed? Nothing’s changed.”
“I haven’t changed, but you have!”
“I haven’t changed in the least. I’m still just the same.”
“You used to love me more. You used to be sorry if I left you alone when I went out. You used not to mind sleeping with me then...on the contrary.”
“Ah, that’s what it’s all about,” she exclaimed, but I noticed that her tone was less assured; “I knew you would think something like that...But why don’t you stop tormenting yourself like this? I don’t want to sleep with you, merely because I want to sleep, and with you I can never manage to—that’s all.”
Now, strangely, I felt that arguments and ill-humor were melting quickly away and dissolving into nothingness, like wax at the fire: she was sitting beside me, in that vaporous, crumpled chemise through which it seemed that only the most intimate and secret colors and forms of her body were visible; and I desired her and felt it strange that she should not be aware of it and should not stop talking and embrace me, as had always happened in the past at the mere meeting of our disturbed glances. On the other hand, this feeling of desire made me hope not only that I should be drawn with the old, irresistible force towards her, but also that I should arouse in her a similar impulse towards me. I said, in a very low voice: “If nothing’s changed, prove it to me.”
“But I prove it to you every day, every hour!”
As I said this, I leant forward and took hold of her almost violently by the hair and tried to bend her head back to kiss her. Obediently she allowed herself to be drawn towards me, but at the last moment she avoided my kiss by a slight movement of her head, so that my lips could only reach her neck. Letting her go, I said: “Don’t you want me to kiss you?”
“It’s not that,” she murmured, rearranging her hair with characteristically wayward indolence; “if it was just one kiss, I would willingly give it you. But then you go on...and it’s late already...”
I felt hurt by these prudent, discouraging words. “It’s never too late for such things,” I said.
Meanwhile I was trying to kiss her again, pulling her towards me by the arm. “Ow,” she cried out, “you’re hurting me!”
Now I had scarcely touched her, and I remembered how, at the time when we loved each other, I had sometimes clasped her violently in my arms without drawing so much as a sigh from her. Irritated, I said: “In the old days it didn’t hurt you!”
“You’ve got hands like iron,” she replied; “you don’t realize...You must have left marks on me now!” All this was said in an indolent sort of way, but without the slightest coquettishness.
“Come on,” I insisted sharply, “are you going to give me that kiss, or not?”
“Here you are”; and she leant forward and, in a motherly way, flicked me a light kiss on the brow. “And now let me go to bed; it’s late.”
I did not intend to put up with that; and I took hold of her again, with both hands, just below the waist. “Emilia,” I said, leaning towards her as she drew herself away, “that’s not the kiss I wanted from you.”
She thrust me away, saying once again, but now in a distinctly rough tone of voice: “Oh, let me alone...you hurt me!”
“It’s not true, it can’t be true,” I muttered between my clenched teeth, throwing myself upon her.
This time she disengaged herself with two or three energetic, simple movements; then rose to her feet and, as if suddenly making up her mind, said, without any show of modesty: “If you want to make love, all right then...But don’t hurt me; I can’t bear to feel myself squeezed like that!”
I was left breathless. Her tone was now utterly cold, I could not help noticing, and practical, without the faintest touch of feeling in it. For a moment I sat quite still on the bed, my hands clasped, my head bent. Then her voice reached me again: “Well then, if you really want to, let’s get on with it...shall we?”
Contempt by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes