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The empty canvas, p.3
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       The Empty Canvas, p.3

           Alberto Moravia

  She was walking slowly, very slowly, in the manner of someone who looks round 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 meagre and rigid and puppet-like. Her head was large, on a long, sinewy neck, her hair of a crisp, dull blonde and always elaborately waved and curled. The pearls round 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 jewellery: massive rings that danced about on her thin fingers, enormous bracelets laden with charms and pendants which looked as if they would at any moment slip off her bony wrists, brooches too elaborate for her scraggy bosom, earrings too big for her ugly, fleshless ears. I noticed too, once again, with a mingled feeling of familiarity and distaste, how the shoes on her feet and the bag that she held under her arm seemed to be too big. Then, finally, 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 round 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; and 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 towards the far end of the path. Pointing to the vines that covered the pergola, my mother suddenly said: 'D'you know what I was looking at? At my bunches of grapes here. Look!'

  I raised my eyes and saw that the bunches of 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 amongst the green leaves and tendrils look so beautiful, but if the grapes are half nibbled away, the whole effect is spoilt,'

  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 found its way, I don't know how, 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 I Hens, besides eating lizards, destroy everything, wherever they go. I'd rather keep the lizards.'

  And so we went on round 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 her 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 already 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 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 travelling, that's all. But now, 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 travelling 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 travelling. 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 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 are 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.'

  'D'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 grey, icy desolation spreading all round 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 which, in spite of myself, sounded strangled, I replied: 'I'm not painting any more.'

  'What d'you mean, you're not paint
ing 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; but 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 towards 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: 'Don't know,' I said, 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 round me the whole world seemed discoloured and shrivelled. Then a light puff of wind brought that smell of good cooking to my nostrils again, and I felt, almost, 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, in a quite unexpected way: 'Oh, by the way, I was forgetting 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.'

  In spite of the amazement into which I had been thrown by my own proposal, I could not help admiring, once again, my mother's capacity for dissimulation, the capacity that she, in her 'society' idiom, called 'good form'. I had said the thing she had been waiting to hear for years; the only thing, perhaps, that could give her real pleasure; nevertheless, not a sign appeared on her wooden, expressionless face or in her glassy eyes. Slowly she said, in a more than usually disagreeable voice, almost in the tone of someone, in a drawing-room, reciprocating a compliment of no importance whatsoever: 'Of course I want you to. In this house you'll always be more than welcome. When would you come?'

  'This evening or tomorrow morning.'

  'Better tomorrow morning; then I'll have time to have your room got ready for you.'

  'Tomorrow morning, then.'

  After these words we said nothing more for some time. I was wondering what it was that had happened to me; and whether my true vocation, now, might not be to stay at home with my mother and accept the fact of being bored and administer our property and be rich. My mother, on her side, appeared by this time to have got beyond the phase of surprise and complacency at her unhoped-for victory; and was already devoting herself, as could be concluded from the thoughtful expression on her hard, set face, to the organization of that victory—that is, to plans for my future and her own. Finally she remarked, in a casual tone of voice: 'I don't know if you did it on purpose, but anyhow it's a good omen. Today is your birthday and today you've decided to come back and live here. I told you this morning that I've prepared a surprise for you. Now it'll do to celebrate both occasions.'

  I asked without thinking: 'What's the surprise?'

  'Come with me and I'll show you.'

  I said, cruelly: 'In any case let's celebrate only one of these two occasions today—my return home. That's the real cause for rejoicing today.'

  Did my mother notice my sarcasm? Or was she unaware of it? Certainly she said nothing. In the meantime she was walking in front of me round the walls of the villa, towards the open space at the front. I saw her walk in a deliberate fashion up to the beautiful sports car standing near mine and then stop, one hand on the bonnet, more or less in the attitude of a girl being photographed for a car manufacturer's display poster. 'You once told me,' she said, 'that you would like to possess a very fast car. At first I thought of buying you a real racing car, but they're dangerous things and so I decided on this "convertible". The dealer told me it was the very latest model, only a few weeks out of the factory. It'll do a hundred and twenty miles an hour.'

  I approached slowly, wondering how much this car that my mother wanted to give me could have cost: three million lire, four million? It was of foreign make and the coach work was sumptuous: I knew that cars of this kind are extremely expensive. My mother was now talking about the car in the same detached, scientific, curious, almost affectionate tone that she adopted when discussing the flowers in her garden. 'I like this particularly,' she said, pointing to the instrument panel which had a black background against which the various switches and polished metal controls sparkled like diamonds on black velvet in a jeweller's shop; 'I would have bought it simply for this. And then I like it also because it has the solidity of a good pair of strong shoes, handmade and specially designed for long walks. A reassuring solidity. Well, would you like to try it? We've time to take a little turn before lunch, only for a few minutes, however, because there's a dish that can't be kept waiting and the cook is very anxious that you should appreciate it, she's done it specially for you.'

  Staring absent-mindedly at the car, I murmured: 'Just as you like.'

  'Yes, do try it, especially as I have to confirm my purchase of it with the dealer.'

  I said nothing; I opened the car door and got in. My mother got in beside me and, as I started the engine and lowered the gear lever, she informed me in her usual intimate, scientific tone of voice: 'It has a convertible top. The dealer assured me that in the winter not the smallest breath of wind can get in. In any case, there's the heater. In the summer you can put the top down; it's more amusing to drive without the top.'

  'Yes, it's more amusing.'

  'D'you like the colour? I thought it was lovely, so much so that I didn't even want to see any other. The dealer told me that the metallization of the paint is an expensive process but the effect is smarter.'

  'It's much more delicate,' I said vaguely.

  'When it's tarnished, you can have it re-painted,'

  The car gave forth a very loud roar, just like a racing car; then I drove round the open space and moved off swiftly down the drive. The car was at the same time very powerful and very sensitive, as I could tell when I felt it leap forward beneath my feet at the slightest pressure on the accelerator. We went out through the iron gates, and I could not help recalling the sensation I had had a short time before when, on my way up to the villa, I had felt I was re-entering the womb that had given me birth. And now? Now I was inside that same womb and I should never leave it again.

  Outside the gates, I turned to the right and went up the Via Appia in the direction of the Castelli. The dull, sultry day had caused a dark, shifting, volatile ring of thundery-looking clouds to form thickly over Monte Cavo; all along the Via Appia the pines and cypresses, the ruins, the hedges, the fields were dim with dust and burnt up by the heat of summer. My mother went on praising the car to me, in a casual, conversational manner, as though she were gradually discovering its merits. Without saying a word, I drove on up the Via Appia as far as the fork, bore to the left, very fast all the time, went down to the Via Appia Nuova, turned ro
und at the traffic signals and came back again.

  'What d'you think of it?' asked my mother, as we came again into the Via Appia Antica.

  'I think it's a splendid car in every way. Anyhow, I knew it already.'

  'What d'you mean, when it's a new type that's scarcely been out a month?'

  'I mean, I already knew cars of this make.'

  We reached the gates, the drive with the cypresses, the villa with the open space in front of it. I did a half turn, stopped, pulled up the hand-brake, and then, after sitting motionless and silent for a moment, turned abruptly to my mother and said: 'Thank you.'

  'I bought it,' she answered, 'mainly because I liked it so much. If I hadn't bought it for you, I should have bought it for myself.'

  It appeared to me, however, that she was expecting something more—to judge, at least, from her discontented, exacting expression. 'I do really like it very much; thank you,' I said again. And, leaning forward, I lightly touched with my lips the dry, rough make-up on her thin cheek. In order, perhaps, to conceal the satisfaction that my affectionate gesture gave her, she said: 'The dealer suggested that, before using the car, you should read the instructions for the driving and maintenance of it in this little book'; and she opened a little locker in the instrument panel and showed me a yellow handbook; 'because these cars are delicate and easily damaged.'

  'Yes, I'll read it.'

  'With this car you could do long-distance touring. For instance, when the autumn comes, you could go to Spain, or to France.'

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