Conjugal Love, p.3Alberto Moravia
The thing which, on the other hand, did not go too well, though conditions were so favourable, was my work. My idea was to write a long story or short novel, and the subject, the story of a marriage, interested me passionately. It was our story, the story of my wife and me, and I felt that I had the whole thing already fixed in my mind, separated into single, distinct episodes, so that it could be filled out with the greatest ease. But when I sat myself down in front of my paper and started trying to write, the thing would get all tangled up. Either the sheet would be filled with words and phrases crossed out, or I would go straight ahead for a page or two and then realize that I had been piling up a mass of vague generalizations and sentences without concrete meaning; or again, after writing the first few lines, I would stop and remain motionless and absorbed in front of the blank page, looking as if I were in the act of reflecting deeply, but, in reality, with an empty head and a mind that had ceased to function. I have a highly developed critical sense, and for some years I wrote criticisms for newspapers and reviews; and I very soon realized, therefore, that my work was not merely not progressing but was actually going worse than it had before. Formerly I had been capable of fixing my mind on a subject and developing it, so to speak, in an orderly manner without, it is true, ever attaining to poetry, but always keeping up a certain standard of elegance and clarity in my writing. Now, on the other hand, I saw that it was not only the subject-matter, but also my former control of style, that was eluding me. In spite of myself, some malign force would cram my page with repetitions, solecisms, obscure, limping sentences, vague adjectives, over-emphatic idioms, commonplaces, hackneyed phrases. But above all, I was clearly conscious that what I lacked was rhythm - I mean that regular, harmonious breath that sustains the process of development in prose, as metre sustains and regulates that of poetry. I remembered that once upon a time I had possessed this rhythm - in a very measured and modest, but still sufficient, degree. But that too had now deserted me: I stumbled and stammered and lost myself in a ferment of discord and clamour.
Perhaps I should have let my work go altogether, since the love I felt for my wife sufficed for my happiness, if it had not been that she herself urged me to persevere. Not a day passed that she did not ask me, with an affectionate, and at the same time exacting, solicitude, how my work was going; and I, ashamed of confessing that it was not going at all, answered her rather vaguely that it was progressing steadily. She seemed to attach the greatest importance to this work, as though it were something for which she herself was responsible; and I felt more strongly every day that I now owed it not so much to myself as to her to accomplish the writing of my story. It was a proof of love that I had to furnish for her, as a demonstration of the profound change that her presence had wrought in my life. That was what I had meant when I had embraced her and whispered that henceforth she would be my Muse. With that daily inquiry of hers about the employment of my morning, she had, without knowing it, ended by making it a point of honour with me - rather like the mythological ladies who ask the knight to slay the monster and bring back the golden fleece; and never has the fable been known in which a cowed and contrite knight has returned empty-handed, confessing that he had been unable to find the fleece and that he had not had the courage to face the dragon. This point of honour took on an even more urgent and peremptory aspect owing to the particular character of her insistence, which was not that of a cultivated woman versed in the problems of intellectual labour, but that of an ignorant and ingenuous mistress who probably imagined that writing poetry was, after all, a simple matter of will and application. Once, during our daily walk, I tried to draw her attention to the many difficulties and the not infrequent impossibilities in literary creation; but I saw at once that she could not understand me. 'I'm not a writer,' she said, after listening to what I had to say, 'nor have I any literary ambitions . . . but, if I had, I think I should have lots of things to say. . . and, in the conditions for working that you have here, I'm sure I should be able to say them very well.' She looked at me sideways for a moment and then added, with grave coquettishness: 'Remember you promised to write a story with me in it . . . and now you must keep your promise.' I said nothing, but I could not help thinking angrily of the many pages bristling with cancellations and superimposed lines piling up on my desk.
I had noticed that in the morning, after passing the night, or part of the night, with my wife, when I sat down to work I felt an almost uncontrollable inclination to let my mind wander and do nothing; my head felt empty, I had an odd sensation of lightness at the back of my neck and a sort of lack of solidity in my limbs. Our moral relationship with ourselves is sometimes extremely obscure; not so the physical relationship, which, particularly at a mature age, if a man is well-balanced and healthy, reveals itself with perfect clarity. It did not take me much time or thought to conclude, rightly or wrongly, that this inability to work, this impossibility of keeping my mind on the subject, this temptation to idleness, must be attributed to the physical emptying of myself that occurred always after making love the previous night. Sometimes I would rise from my desk and look at myself in the mirror: in the tired, relaxed muscles of my face, in the shadows under my eyes and their lustreless expression, in the languid slackness of my whole attitude, I could recognize precisely the lack of that vigour of which, on the other hand, I was conscious in myself every night, at the moment when I lay down and took my wife in my arms. I realized that I did not attack my paper because, the evening before, I had exhausted all my aggressive force in my wife's embrace; I knew that what I was giving to my wife I was taking away, in equal measure, from my work. This was not a precise thought - not as precise, anyhow, as it now appears when I express it; rather it was a diffused sensation, a persistent suspicion, almost the beginning of an obsession. My creative force, I felt, was drained out of me every night from the middle of my body; and next day there was not enough left to rise upwards and fortify my brain. The obsession, as can be seen, took shape in images, in comparisons, in concrete metaphors which gave me a physical, almost a scientific, sense of my own importance.
Obsessions either close up like abscesses which can find no outlet and slowly mature until their final, terrible outburst, or else, in more healthy persons, they find, sooner or later, some adequate means of elimination. I went on for several more days making love to my wife at night and spending the day thinking that it was just because I had made love to her that I could not work. At this point I ought to say that this obsession made no change whatever, not merely in my affection for my wife, but even in the actual physical transport: at the moment of love I forgot my scruples and almost deceived myself, in the temporary arrogance of desire, into thinking that I was strong enough to carry through both love making and work. But next day the obsession would return; and at night I found myself seeking love again if only to console myself for having been defeated in my work and in order, at the same time, to rediscover the fleeting illusion of inexhaustible vigour. At last, after spinning round for some time in this vicious circle, I decided, one evening, to speak. I was encouraged to do this also by the idea that it was she, after all, who urged me to work, and that if it was really of importance to her, as it seemed to be, that I should write the story, she would understand and accept my reasons. When we were lying side by side on the bed, I began: 'Listen, I must tell you a thing that I've never told you before.'
It was hot, and we were both lying naked on top of the bedclothes, she on her back, with her hands clasped at the back of her neck and her head on the pillow, and I at her side. Scarcely moving her lips, and looking at me in her usual troubled, elusive way, she said: 'Tell me.'
'It's this,' I went on. 'You want me to write this story?'
'Certainly I do.'
'This story which tells about you and me?'
'With things as they are now, I shall never succeed in writing it.'
'What d'you mean, things as they are now?'
I hesitated a moment, and
She looked at me with those huge blue eyes of hers, which were dilated, one would have said, by the effort of understanding me. 'But how do other writers manage?' she asked.
'I don't know how they manage. . . . But I imagine that they lead chaste lives, at any rate while they're working.'
'But D'Annunzio,' she said, 'I've heard that he had such a number of mistresses. . .how did he manage?'
'I don't know,' I answered, 'whether he had such a great number of mistresses. What he had was a few celebrated mistresses, about whom everybody talked, he himself most of all. . . but in my opinion, he arranged his life very well. . . . Now Baudelaire's chastity, for instance, is well known.'
She said nothing. I felt that all my reasoning came painfully close to the ridiculous, but I had begun now and I had to go on. I resumed, in a gentle, caressing tone of voice: 'Look, I'm not really set on writing this story nor, in general, on becoming a writer. I'll give it up with the greatest ease. . . . The important thing, for me, is our love.'
She answered at once, with a frown: 'But I want you to write it. I want you to become a writer.'
'Because you're a writer already,' she said rather confusedly and almost with irritation.' I feel that you've got a great deal to say. . . . Besides, you ought to work, like everyone else. You can't just lead an idle life and be content merely with making love to me. You've got to become somebody.' She stumbled over her words, and it was clear that she did not know how to express that stubborn desire of hers to see me do what she wanted me to do.
'There's no need for me to become a writer,' I answered, though this time I felt I was telling anyhow a partial lie; 'I can perfectly well not do anything ... or rather, I can go on doing what I've done hitherto - read, appreciate, understand, admire the works of others . . . and love you. Or again, so as not to be idle, as you say, I could perhaps take up some other profession, some other occupation. . . .'
'No, no, no,' she said hastily, shaking not only her head but her body too, as though she wanted to express this refusal with her whole self, 'you've got to write - you've got to become a writer.'
After these words we remained silent for a moment. Then she said: 'If what you say is true . . . then we must change everything.'
'What d'you mean?'
'We mustn't make love any more until you've finished your story. . . . Then, when you've finished, we'll begin again.'
I must confess that I was immediately tempted to accept this strange and slightly ridiculous proposal. My obsession was still strong and it made me forget how much selfishness, and therefore falseness, had been at the root of it. But I repressed this first impulse and, embracing her, said: 'You love me and this proposal of yours is the greatest proof of your love that you could give me. . . . But the fact that you've made it is enough for me. Let's go on loving each other and not think about anything else.'
'No, no,' she said imperiously, pushing me away, 'that's what we must do - now that you've told me.'
'Are you offended?'
'Really, Silvio, why should I be offended? I truly want you to write that story, that's all. . . . Don't be silly.' And as she said this, as if to underline the affectionate quality of her insistence, she put her arms round me.
We went on like this for a little, I defending myself and she insisting, imperious, inflexible. Finally I said: 'All right, I'll try. . . it may be that all this isn't true and that I'm simply a person without any literary talent.'
'That isn't true, Silvio, and you know it.'
'All right then,' I concluded with an effort, 'as you like. . . . But remember it was you who wished it.'
We were silent again for some little time, then I made a movement as if to take her in my arms. But she at once pushed me away: 'No,' she said, 'from this evening onwards we must stop doing that.' She laughed and, as if to soften the bitterness of her refusal, took my face between her long, slim hands - delicately, as one takes hold of a precious vase - and said: 'Now you'll see you'll write all sorts of fine things - I'm sure of it.' She looked closely at me, and then added in a strange way: 'D'you love me?'
'You don't need to ask me that,' I said, deeply moved.
'Well, you shall have me again only when you've read me the story. . . . Remember that.'
'And supposing I'm not able to write it?'
'You've got to be able.'
She was imperious; and this imperiousness of hers, ingenuous, inexperienced, but at the same time inflexible, was strangely pleasing to me. I thought again of the knight in the legend whose lady, in exchange for her love, demands that he shall kill the dragon and bring back the fleece; but this time I thought of him without anger, almost with admiration. She knew nothing of poetry, just as the lady probably knew nothing of the fleece and the dragon; but just because of this her command pleased me. It was as though it were a confirmation of the miraculous, heaven-sent character of all creative work. All at once there came to me a sudden exaltation mingled with confidence and hope and gratitude. I put my face close to hers, kissed her tenderly and whispered: 'For love of you, I will become a writer . . . not on my own merit, but for love of you.' She said nothing. I got down from the bed and slipped out of the room.
After that I took up my work again with renewed courage; and I soon realized that my calculations had not been wrong and that, somehow or other, even if there was not that connexion between love and work that I had tried to perceive, the obsession of impotence that had oppressed me hitherto could never have been dispelled except in the way I had chosen. Every morning I felt myself stronger, more aggressive, as I faced my paper, more - at least, so it seemed to me - creative. And so, after love, the greatest aspiration of my life was fulfilled: poetry, too, smiled upon me. Every morning I wrote from ten to twelve pages, my pen flowing rapidly and impetuously but in no disorderly or uncontrolled fashion; and then, for the rest of the day, I was left dazed, stunned, half alive, with the feeling that, outside my work, nothing now mattered in my life, not even my love for my wife. All that remained after those ardent morning hours was the residue, the ashes and cinders of a glorious blaze; and until the new blaze was kindled, next morning, I was left strangely inert and detached, filled with an almost morbid sense of well-being, indifferent to everything. I saw that, if this rhythm continued, I should soon have finished my work, perhaps even earlier than I had foreseen; and I felt that I must exert myself in every possible way to gather in the last grain of this bountiful and unexpected harvest: nothing else, for the moment, mattered. To say that I was happy would be saying too little, and at the same time too much: I was, for the first time in my life, outside myself, in an independent, perfect world all made up of harmony and certainty. This state made me selfish; and I suppose that, if my wife had fallen ill at that moment, I should have felt no other anxiety but that of a possible interruption of my work. Not that I did not love my wife; as I have said, I loved her more than ever: but she was, as it were, relegated to a detached, remote region, together with all the other things that had nothing to do with my work. I was, in fact, convinced, for the first time in my life, not merely that I had found self-expression - a thing that I had attempted a thousand times without success-but also that my self-expression was taking a perfect and complete form. In other words, I had the precise sensation, founded, it seemed to me, on my experience as a man of letters, that I was writing a masterpiece.
AFTER working all the morning, I spent the afternoon in the usual way, being careful only to avoid sudden emotions and shocks and distractions; though in appearance far removed from literature, I was in reality, in the dark depths of my mind, gloating with affectionate delight over what I had written during the morning and what I intended to write next day. Later, at bed-time, I said goo
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