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       Boredom, p.3

           Alberto Moravia
 

  I would take down a book—for I had a small library and have always been fond of reading—but very soon I would let it drop: novels, essays, poetry, drama, the whole literature of the world—there was not one single page that succeeded in holding my attention. In any case, why should it? Words are symbols of objects, and with objects I had no relationship at all in moments of boredom. So I would drop my book, or perhaps in an impulse of rage fling it into a corner, and turn to music. I had an extremely good record player, a present from my mother, as well as about a hundred records. Who was it who said that music always acts in some kind of way, that is, makes itself listened to forcibly, so to speak, by even the most distracted person? The man who said that was incorrect. My ears refused not merely to listen but even to hear. Besides, when it came to the point of choosing a record, I was paralyzed by this thought: what sort of music is it that can be listened to in these moments of boredom? And so I would close the record player, throw myself down on the divan and start thinking of what I could do.

  What struck me above all was that I did not want to do simply anything, although I desired eagerly to do something. Anything I might wish to do presented itself to me like a Siamese twin joined inseparably to some opposite thing which I equally did not wish to do. Thus I felt that I did not want to see people nor yet to be alone; that I did not want to stay at home nor yet to go out; that I did not want to travel nor yet to go on living in Rome; that I did not want to paint nor yet not to paint; that I did not want to stay awake nor yet to go to sleep; that I did not want to make love nor yet not to do so; and so on. When I say “I felt” I ought rather to say that I was filled with repugnance, with disgust, with horror.

  I used to ask myself, between these frenzied bouts of boredom, whether perhaps I did not want to die; it was a reasonable question, seeing that I disliked living so much. But then, to my surprise, I realized that although I did not like living I yet did not want to die. Thus the inseparable alternatives which filed through my mind like a sinister ballet did not halt even in face of the extreme choice between life and death. The truth of the matter, I sometimes thought, was not so much that I wanted to die as that I wanted not to go on living in my present manner.

  1

  AFTER I HAD moved into the studio in Via Margutta, I managed to overcome the irrational and almost superstitious repugnance that the villa in the Via Appia aroused in me and to establish fairly regular contact with my mother. I went to see her once a week, to lunch, which was the moment of the day when I knew I should find her alone; and I would stay a couple of hours, listening to her conversation, which I knew by heart, on the only two subjects that interested her: botany, that is to say, the flowers and plants which she grew in her garden, and business, to which she had devoted herself ever since she had reached years of discretion. My mother, in truth, would have liked me to visit her more often, and at other times of the day too, for instance when she was entertaining her friends or the people of her own social set, but after a couple of invitations which I refused firmly, she appeared to resign herself to the rarity of my visits. Her resignation was, of course, a forced one, ready to vanish at the first opportunity. “Some day you’ll discover,” she was accustomed to say, speaking of herself in the third person, which in her was always an indication of a feeling strong enough for her to wish to conceal it, “you’ll discover that your mother is not just an ordinary lady whom one visits out of politeness, and that your real home is here and not in Via Margutta.”

  One day, not long after I had given up painting, I went to my mother’s house for the usual weekly luncheon. Actually it was rather a special luncheon; that day was my birthday, and my mother, in case I had forgotten this, had reminded me of it that same morning, giving me her good wishes by telephone in her strangely official and ceremonious manner: “Today you reach the age of thirty-five. I convey to you my sincere good wishes for your happiness and success.” She informed me at the same time that she had prepared a “surprise” for me.

  And so, about midday, I got into my old, dilapidated car and went off across the town with the usual feeling of uneasiness and repugnance that seemed to increase steadily as I drew nearer my goal. My heart more and more heavily oppressed with a weight of anguish, I at last turned into the Via Appia between the cypresses and pines and brick ruins which line its grassy banks. The gateway to my mother’s house was on the right, halfway along the Via Appia, and I looked out for it, half hoping, as usual, that by some miracle I should find it was no longer there, so that I could go straight on to the Castelli and then go back to Rome and return to my studio. However, there the gate was, thrown wide open especially for me, one might have thought, so as to stop me as I passed and swallow me up. I slowed down, turned sharply, and with a gentle, noiseless lurch entered the graveled drive, between two rows of cypresses. The drive rose gradually toward the villa, which could be seen at its far end; and as I looked at the small black cypresses with their dusty, curled foliage, and at the low, red house crouching beneath a sky full of fluffy gray clouds like lumps of dirty cotton wool, I was again conscious of the horror and consternation that assailed me each time I went to see my mother. It was a horror such as might be felt by a man who is preparing to commit an unnatural act; it was almost as though, as I turned into the drive, I were actually re-entering the womb that had given me birth. I sought to rid myself of this disagreeable feeling of retrogression by sounding my horn to announce my arrival. Then, after making a half circle on the gravel in front of the house, I stopped the car and jumped out. Almost immediately the glass door on the ground floor opened and a maid appeared on the doorstep.

  I had never seen her before that day; my mother, who persisted in keeping a staff at the villa which would barely have been sufficient for a five-room flat, was for this reason frequently compelled to make changes. She was tall, with ample, robust hips and bosom and curiously short, badly cut hair, like the hair of a convict or a convalescent, and her pale, slightly freckled face had a sly expression, possibly owing to the huge pair of black-rimmed spectacles that concealed her eyes. I particularly noticed her mouth, which was shaped like a crushed flower and was of a delicate geranium pink. I asked her where my mother was, and she in turn asked me, in a very gentle voice: “Are you Signor Dino?”

  “Yes.”

  “The Signora is in the garden, over by the greenhouses.”

  I started off in that direction, not without first giving a surprised glance at another car which was standing on the open graveled space near mine. It was a sports car, low, powerful-looking, with a top that opened back, and of a metallic blue color. Had my mother then invited someone else to lunch? Turning over this disagreeable doubt in my mind, I walked round the villa, along the brick pathway in the shade of laurels and holm oaks, and came out on the far side of the house. Here was a large, formal, Italian garden, with flower beds in the form of triangles, squares and circles, small trees clipped into spheres and pyramids and cones, and numerous avenues and paths, graveled and box-edged. A wider, straight path, covered by a white-painted iron pergola twined round with the branches of vines, cut the garden into two parts and stretched from the villa to the far end of the property where, against the boundary wall, could be seen the glistening panes of the greenhouses in which my mother grew flowers. Halfway between the villa and the greenhouses, underneath the pergola, I caught sight of her walking alone, her back turned toward me. For a moment I refrained from calling to her and watched her.

  She was walking slowly, very slowly, in the manner of someone who looks around and is pleased with what he sees and prolongs his contemplation as much as possible. She was wearing a pale blue two-piece dress, the jacket very tight at the waist and very wide at the shoulders, the skirt extremely narrow, a veritable sheath. She always dressed like this, in very close-fitting clothes that made her small, fragile figure look even more meager and rigid and puppet-like. Her head was large, on a long, sinewy neck, her hair a crisp, dull blond and always elaborately waved and curle
d. The pearls around her neck were so big that I could see them perfectly clearly from a long way off. My mother loved to adorn herself with showy jewelry: massive rings that danced about on her thin fingers, enormous bracelets, laden with charms and pendants, which looked as if they would slip off her bony wrists, brooches too elaborate for her scrawny bosom, earrings too big for her ugly, fleshless ears. I noticed too, with a mingled feeling of familiarity and distaste, how the shoes on her feet and the handbag that she held under her arm seemed to be too big. Then I pulled myself together and called to her.

  Characteristically mistrustful, she stopped immediately, as though somebody had placed a hand on her shoulder, and then turned without moving her legs, with the top part of her body only. I saw her long, pointed face with the hollow cheeks, the pinched mouth, the long, narrow nose, the glassy blue eyes which were looking at me obliquely. Then she smiled, turned right around and came to meet me, her head bowed, her eyes fixed on the ground, and saying as though it were a matter of duty: “Good morning and many happy returns of the day”; and although her intention was affectionate, I could not help noticing that the sound of her voice remained as it always was, dry and croaking, like the caw of a rook. She said again as she came up to me: “Many happy returns of the day. Come on, give me a kiss!” And then I stooped down and hastily planted a kiss on her cheek. We walked off side by side toward the far end of the path. Pointing to the vines that covered the pergola, my mother suddenly said: “Do you know what I was looking at? At my bunches of grapes here. Look!”

  I raised my eyes and saw that the grapes all looked as if they had been nibbled or sucked, some more and some less.

  “Lizards,” said my mother, in the curiously intimate, affectionate, and at the same time scientific tone of voice that she used when speaking of her flowers and plants. “Those nasty little creatures climb up the posts of the pergola and eat the grapes. They ruin my pergola; the black clusters among the green leaves and tendrils look so beautiful, but if the grapes are half nibbled away, the whole effect is spoiled.”

  I said something or other about a ceiling by Zuccari in a palace in Rome, in which the subject of the painting was, in fact, a golden pergola with clusters of black grapes and vine leaves, and she went on: “The other day a hen belonging to the peasants close by somehow found its way into the garden. One of these lizards was on the pergola, and was, of course, sucking at my grapes. Then, for some odd reason, it lost its footing and came tumbling down. Just imagine—it didn’t even touch the ground: the hen caught it in its beak and positively drank it down. Yes, I really mean that—it drank it.”

  “Then you must take to keeping hens,” I said. “They’ll eat up the lizards, and the lizards, of necessity, having been eaten, will stop eating the grapes.”

  “For heaven’s sake, no! Hens, besides eating lizards, destroy everything, wherever they go. I’d rather keep the lizards.”

  And so we went on around the garden, going down the long path underneath the pergola to the boundary wall and then walking through the greenhouses. My mother would stoop down and touch the corolla of a flower that had opened in the night, holding it between two fingers against the palm of her hand; or she would stand enraptured (there is no other word for it), glassy-eyed, in front of an earthenware flower pot from which a fleshy plant, like a green, hairy snake, curled right down to the ground, so that you almost expected it to hiss at you; or again, in a dry, didactic manner, she would provide me with a quantity of botanical information, culled from the detailed reading of horticultural manuals as well as from her long conversations with her two gardeners, very patient because very well paid, upon whom she inflicted her company the whole time they were working in the garden. As I have said, her love of flowers and plants was the only poetical thing in my mother’s otherwise completely prosaic life. It is true that, in her way, she loved me; and that she introduced an unbelievable passion into the management and the enlargement of our property. But, both in business matters and with me, the predominant influence was her own character, authoritative, unscrupulous, self-interested, mistrustful. Flowers and plants, on the other hand, she loved in an entirely disinterested way, with unrestrained enthusiasm and no ulterior motives. And my father, how had she loved him? As usual, the idea came back into my mind that my father and I resembled one another at least in this one point: that we did not want to live with my mother. I asked her abruptly:

  “By the way, I should very much like to know why my father was always running away from you.”

  I saw her wrinkle up her nose, as she always did when I spoke to her about my father. “Why by the way?” she said.

  “Never mind, answer my question.”

  “Your father wasn’t running away from me,” she answered after a moment, with icy dignity, “he liked traveling, that’s all. Look at these roses, aren’t they lovely?”

  I said peremptorily: “I want you to tell me about my father. Why then, if it’s true that he wasn’t running away from you, didn’t you go traveling with him?”

  “First and foremost, because somebody had to stay here in Rome to look after our interests.”

  “You mean your interests.”

  “The family interests. And then, I didn’t like his way of traveling. I like to travel with every sort of convenience. To go to places where there are good hotels, and people that I know. For instance to Paris, London, Vienna. But he would have dragged me off to goodness knows where, Afghanistan or Bolivia. I can’t bear discomfort and I can’t bear out-of-the-way countries.”

  “But tell me,” I persisted, “why did he run away from home, or why, as you say, did he travel? Why didn’t he stay with you?”

  “Because he didn’t like staying at home.”

  “And why didn’t he like staying at home? Was he bored?”

  “I never took the trouble to find out. I only know that he used to become gloomy, and never say anything, and never go out. In the end it was I who gave him the money and said to him: ‘Here you are, go away, it’s better for you to go.’”

  “Don’t you think that if he had loved you he would have stayed?”

  “Yes, exactly,” she answered in a disagreeable voice that seemed to take pleasure in telling the truth, “but he didn’t love me.”

  “Then why did he marry you?”

  “It was I who wanted to marry him. He, perhaps, wouldn’t have done it.”

  “He was poor, wasn’t he? And you were rich?”

  “Yes, he had nothing at all. He came of a good family. But that was all.”

  “Don’t you think he might have wanted to marry for money?”

  “Oh, no. Your father wasn’t mercenary. In that respect he was like you. It’s true that he was always in need of money, but he didn’t attach any importance to money.”

  “Do you know why I’m asking you all these questions about my father?”

  “No, indeed I don’t.”

  “It’s because it occurred to me that, in one respect anyhow, I’m like him. I’m always running away from you.”

  She stooped down and, with a little pair of scissors that I hadn’t noticed before, neatly cut off a red flower. Then she straightened up again and asked: “How is your work going?”

  At this question I was suddenly conscious of a tightening of the throat and of a feeling of gray, icy desolation spreading all around me, issuing from me in steadily widening waves, as happens in nature when a cloud comes between the sun and the earth. In a voice that in spite of myself sounded strangled, I replied: “I’m not painting any more.”

  “What do you mean, you’re not painting any more?”

  “I’ve decided to give up painting.”

  My mother had never been in sympathy with my painting. In the first place because she understood nothing about it but disliked admitting this or hearing it said to her, and also because, not unjustly, she thought it had been my painting which had taken me away from her. But once again I was forced to admire her power of self-control. Anyone else in her
place would at least have shown some satisfaction. She, however, received the news with indifference. “And why,” she inquired after a moment, in a tone of polite, idle, almost mundane curiosity, “why have you decided to give up painting?”

  By this time we had almost reached the villa, and there was a smell of cooking, of very good cooking, in the air. At the same time I felt that my despair, instead of lessening, was increasing, though I kept repeating furiously to myself: “It’s getting better now, it’s getting better now.” And then a recollection rose to the surface of my mind, a memory of myself as a child of five, with my knee bleeding, sobbing despairingly as I came up through another garden and ran toward my mother, into whose arms I threw myself impetuously; and of my mother bending over me and saying to me in her ugly, croaking voice: “Now, now, don’t cry, let me look at it, don’t cry, don’t you know that men don’t cry?” And now I looked at my mother and it seemed to me that, for the first time after a long period, I had a feeling of affection for her. Then, in answer to her question, I said: “Don’t know,” speaking as briefly as possible, for I was ashamed of my despair and did not wish her to be aware of it.

  But I realized at once that it was no use saying “Don’t know”; the feeling of desolation did not cease on that account; it made my flesh creep and my hair tingle, and around me the whole world seemed discolored and shriveled. Then a light puff of wind brought that smell of good cooking to my nostrils again, and I felt a desire to throw myself sobbing into my mother’s arms, as I did when I was five, with the same hope that she would console me for my abandoned painting just as she had done then for my wounded knee. Suddenly I said unexpectedly: “Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you that I’m leaving the studio, which serves no purpose now, and coming back to live with you.” I paused a moment, astonished at these words which I had had no intention of uttering and which issued from my mouth for no explainable reason. Then, realizing that I could not now withdraw again, I added with an effort: “Provided you want me to.”

 
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