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       Boredom, p.4

           Alberto Moravia
 

  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 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: “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 around the walls of the villa, toward 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 hood, 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 months 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 a foreign car and the coach work was sumptuous: I knew that cars of this kind were 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 jeweler’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 color? 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 repainted.”

  The car gave a very loud roar, just like a racing car; then I drove around the open space and moved off swiftly down the drive. The car was 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 around 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 do 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 driving and maintenance,” and she opened a compartment 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 go touring. For instance, when the autumn comes, you could go to Spain, or to France.”

  “I’ll go in the spring, I can’t go this autumn.”

  “Yes, of course, in the spring too. The car has a big luggage compartment. It’ll take three suitcases.”

  My mother seemed now to be really satisfied; so much so that some of her “good form” had given way and it could be seen distinctly—which was most unusual—that she was content. As we walked across to the house my mother pointed to the left, to a long, straight path, narrow and flanked by tall laurel bushes, at the far end of which one caught a glimpse of a small, red, building. “Your studio,” she said. “It’s remained exactly as it was. Nothing has been touched. If you like, you can go and start painting there tomorrow.”

  “But I’ve already told you I’ve decided to give up painting.”

  She made no repl
y; perhaps she had pointed out the studio to me merely in order to make me repeat that I had in truth given up painting. By now we had arrived at the front door. My mother preceded me into the hall, saying in an authoritative tone of voice: “Now go and wash your hands, because lunch will be ready at once.”

  She opened a small door which led into a passage to the kitchen. I went by another door to the cloakroom. Surrounded by the four blue walls of the bathroom, I automatically looked at myself in the mirror above the wash basin while my hands twisted and turned in the soapy lather, under the jet of warm water. Just at that moment the door behind me opened and I saw in the mirror the head, with its short, badly cut hair, of the maid who had greeted me on my arrival a short time before.

  Looking at her reflection and without turning, I asked: “What’s your name?”

  “Rita.”

  “I’ve never seen you before.”

  “I’ve only been here a week.”

  I bent down and vigorously soaped my face, although there was no need to do so: I felt I was dirty because of the thoughts that oppressed me. While I was washing, I heard Rita’s soft voice telling me: “I’ve put the towel here,” and I nodded my head. When I lifted my face, the girl had gone. I left the bathroom and, crossing the hall, went toward the drawing room, or rather toward the four or five sitting rooms, anterooms and drawing rooms that occupied the ground floor of the villa.

  These rooms, used by my mother both for living in and for entertaining, communicated with each other by means of arches or doorways with no doors in them, so that they formed, almost, a single large room; and they were furnished in an entirely impersonal manner, with the opulent, tedious impersonality of furniture that has been chosen solely on account of its commercial value. You could be sure that in those rooms there was not a single object that was not the most expensive, or anyhow among the most expensive, in the category to which it belonged. My mother had neither taste, nor culture, nor curiosity, nor love of beauty; her one criterion in any sort of acquisition was always its price, and the higher the price the more completely was she persuaded that the object possessed the qualities of beauty and refinement and originality which otherwise she would have been incapable of recognizing. My mother, of course, did not throw money down the drain; on the contrary she was always extremely careful, and more than once I had heard her exclaim, in a shop: “No, it’s too dear, it’s not even to be thought of.” But I knew that this exclamation on her part referred to her own financial position and not to the real value of the object in question, about which she understood nothing and which, though out of reach of her purse, nevertheless remained desirable precisely because it was expensive.

  The result of this criterion of choice was, as I have already said, a collection of furniture without character and without intimacy, but robust and imposing, for my mother laid great importance not merely on money value but also on solidity and size, these being two other qualities that she was capable of judging and appreciating. And so everything in these rooms—deep sofas, enormous armchairs, gigantic lamps, massive tables, heavy curtains, monumental fittings—conveyed the idea of a luxury that was substantial and of good quality. And in every darker corner of the rooms light was reflected from waxed floors, from surfaces of well-kept wood, from gleaming brass and silver; extreme cleanliness was another characteristic of the house. I noticed that as usual there were a number of large vases here and there, filled with slightly funereal bunches of flowers which my mother, as I knew, went to pick early every morning in the greenhouses. I realized that I was looking at all these things with an eye that was different from usual, less absent-minded, less detached, as though I were trying to discover the effect they made upon me, now that I had decided to come back and live with my mother. And I found that I had a feeling of mean and disgusted complacency, as if faced by an old temptation, now victorious but still as repugnant as ever. I went over to the antique, heavily framed mirror that hung above a console table at the far end of the drawing room, looked at myself and suddenly felt a need to shout an insult at myself, whether from hatred or joy, I did not know. “Idiot!” I cried. Almost at the same moment I heard a rustling sound behind me.

  I turned and saw the maid Rita standing a few paces from me beside a wheeled bar-table and looking at me with a questioning air through her thick black-rimmed glasses. I wondered whether she had seen me while I was hurling insults at myself; I looked at her pale, sly face and could tell nothing. After a moment’s silence she said: “The Signora will be down in a moment. She told me to offer you a drink in the meantime. What would you like?”

  Again I wondered whether her voice contained the irony that was not shown in her face. But no, it was a serious, or at the least a hypocritically serious, voice. I said I would like some whisky and with precise movements she took the whisky bottle, poured some into a glass, added a chunk of ice and some water and handed it to me, asking: “Is there anything else you would like?”

  I said I wanted nothing more, and watched her go noiselessly away in her felt-soled shoes. Then I sat down with my whisky in one of the vast armchairs; I lit a cigarette and started to ponder. Why had I abused myself like that in front of the mirror? Obviously, I concluded, the danger of this sort of prodigal son comedy was that, when I least expected it and, as it were, in spite of myself, I might be suddenly tempted to utter profanities or create a scandal. In other words, I was a prodigal son of a particular type who, at the very moment when he was clasped in the embrace of his aged parent, felt a temptation to give the latter a good kick in the shins, and who, after devouring the festive banquet, went out and vomited it up in a corner of the garden. I had no time to go deeply into this interesting speculation as my mother came suddenly into the room. “Did Rita give you a drink?” she inquired.

  “Yes, thank you. But who is this Rita?”

  “She’s new here, she had very good references, she’d been with some Americans who have left. Really she was a sort of nursery governess, but as there aren’t any children here I said to her: ‘My dear girl, I’m forced to demote you into a parlor maid. You’re free to accept or not as you like.’ Naturally she agreed, of course she did, with all the unemployment there is....” My mother went on talking about Rita even after we had gone into the dining room, where Rita herself was standing at the sideboard, with cotton gloves on her hands, a lace cap on her head and a little oval apron at her waist. I wanted to say to my mother: “Be careful, you’re talking about Rita and Rita is here,” then I looked at the girl’s sly, bespectacled face and I was absolutely sure that she had seen me when I leaned forward in front of the mirror and called myself an idiot. I felt that this idea was not altogether displeasing to me, as though from that moment a kind of complicity had been established between myself and Rita. I sat down, and my mother, as she also took her seat, said: “Rita, Signor Dino is my son and tomorrow morning he’s coming to live here. Now don’t forget: if anyone asks on the telephone for a gentleman called Dino, that means my son.”

  We were now sitting facing one another at a small round table in a room which was not large but which had a very high ceiling. On the Florentine lace tablecloth were plates of German porcelain flanked by spoons and forks of English silver and glasses of French crystal. Behind my mother’s chair the golden inlay of a Dutch dresser gleamed in the half-light; behind me, as I knew, stood a Venetian sideboard. The French window giving on to the garden was wide open but the curtains were half drawn because my mother did not wish, in her own words, that some gardener or other should count the mouthfuls as she was eating. My mother herself helped me to wine from a crystal and silver carafe, then told Rita that she could serve the lunch. The girl took from the sideboard a porcelain dish standing on a salver and went across to my mother. The latter said sharply: “Serve Signor Dino first.”

  “Why? You first,” I said.

  “No, I...”

  “Rita, serve the Signora first.”

  “But I eat practically nothing,” said my mother, an
d she served herself a tiny portion of food with the point of the spoon. Rita came over to me and then I understood the good smell of cooking I had noticed when we were in the garden—a macaroni pie. “I knew you liked it,” said my mother, “I had it made specially for you.”

  “Good, good, good,” I said with masochistic satisfaction, and I deposited an enormous helping of it on my plate. As a rule I ate little, and this type of food, particularly, I did not eat at all. I could not help thinking that this was a continuation of the comedy of the prodigal son, and I burst out laughing. My mother asked in alarm: “Why are you laughing?”

  “I remember having read somewhere,” I replied, “an amusing parody of the parable of the prodigal son—you know, the one in the Gospels.”

  “What was that?”

  “In the parable, the prodigal son returns home and his father welcomes him with all sorts of attentions and kills the fatted calf for him. In the parody, on the other hand, the fatted calf runs away in terror as soon as the prodigal son comes back, knowing well what his fate is to be. So they wait for him to return. The fatted calf keeps them waiting quite a long time and then decides to come back. In the intensity of his joy the father, in order to celebrate the return of the fatted calf, kills the prodigal son and makes a feast of him for the calf.”

  My mother believed in nothing—except money. She did rely, as I have already said, upon what she called “good form,” and this required, among other things, that she should be a practicing Catholic, or anyhow that she should respect things connected with religion. So I saw her assume a wooden expression, and then she said in her most disagreeable voice: “You know I don’t like you to make jokes about sacred things.”

 
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