The Empty Canvas, p.4Alberto Moravia
'I'll go in the spring, I can't go this autumn.'
'Yes, of course, in the spring too. The car has a very big baggage boot. 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 she 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, one-storied 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 reply; 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 went through, as I knew, into a passage leading to the kitchen, and vanished. 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 looking-glass, in the gap between the door-post and the door itself, 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 in the mirror, and without turning round, I asked: 'What's your name?'
'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 shook my head to show that that was all right. When I lifted my face, I found that the girl had gone. I left the bathroom and, crossing the hall, went towards the drawing-room, or rather towards 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 entertainment, 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, in fact, 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 she made was, always, its price, and the higher the price the more completely was she persuaded that the object to be sold 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 possibilities 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 lampshades, 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 wax-polished floors, from surfaces of well-kept wood, from gleaming brass and silver: extreme cleanliness was another characteristic of the house. And finally 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 drinks-trolley 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 from it. 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 she, with very precise movements, took the whisky bottle, poured out some into a glass, added a block 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 went and sat down in one of the vast armchairs, taking my glass of whisky with me; I lit a cigarette and started to ponder. Why had I abused myself like that in front of the mirror? Obviously, I concluded in the end, the danger of this sort of prodigal son comedy that I was acting to myself was that, when I least expected it and, as it were, in spite of myself, I might be subject to sudden temptations 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 parlour-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 already 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 should have liked 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 all of a sudden was absolutely sure that she had seen me when I leant forward in front of the looking-glass 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 from tomorrow morning he's coming to live here. Now don't forget: if anyone asks on the telephone for a gentleman called Dino, that m
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; and she took a little piece of something with the point of the spoon and put it on her plate. Rita came over to me and then I understood what the good smell of cooking had been that 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. Now, in the ordinary way 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. All of a sudden I burst out laughing. My mother asked in alarm: 'Why are you laughing?'
'I remembered 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, as I knew, believed in nothing—except money. She did believe, however, as I have already said, in what she called 'good form', and this required, among other things, that she should be a practising 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.'
'On the contrary, I'm not joking. What, in fact, does my return signify, if not the sacrifice of the Prodigal Son—that is to say, myself—for the advantage of the fatted calf, which is all this?'—and I gave a wave of my hand to indicate the expensive furniture all round me in the room.
'I don't understand you.' My mother, in her own way, was not lacking in a curious, rather gloomy, mechanical sense of humour; without smiling, she added: 'Anyhow I think that, after the macaroni, there happens to be some veal coming—whether from a fatted calf or not, I don't know.'
I said nothing, but started devouring my helping of pie with a mixed feeling of joy and remorse, because I was really hungry and the pie was good and yet at the same time I felt angry at liking it. Then I looked up at my mother and saw that she was watching me with disapproval. 'You ought to chew your food more thoroughly,' she said. 'The first stage of digestion takes place in your mouth.'
'How very disgusting! Who told you that?'
'All doctors say so.'
Her blue, glassy, utterly expressionless eyes brooded over me in an indefinable manner above the two crossed, ring-laden hands upon which she supported her chin. I finished clearing my plate in a mad hurry; then my mother, in her cold, toneless voice, said: 'Offer Signor Dino some more'; and Rita, who all this time had remained standing with her back to the dresser behind my mother, took up the dish again and came over and handed it to me. I helped myself with one hand only, leaving my other hand where it was, resting on the edge of the table. Then I felt the hand with which Rita was supporting the dish press lightly upon mine, in a way that might or might not have been intentional. I did not stop more than an instant to consider this possibility, but started eating again. Finally I asked my mother, in a tone of slight amusement: 'What do you do, all the time?'
'What d'you mean?'
'I mean exactly what I say: what do you do all the time?'
'Oh, my life is the same as ever, you know.'
'Yes, but in all these years that I've been away from home I've never asked you what you did. Now, perhaps because I'm on the point of coming back, I have a curiosity to know about it. Why, it's quite possible that everything's changed.'
'I don't like changing anything. I like to think that I live now as I lived ten years ago, and as I shall be living in ten years' time.'
'But, all the same, I don't know how you live; let's see now, what time d'you wake up in the morning?'
'At eight o'clock.'
'As early as that? But I've often telephoned at nine and been told: "The Signora's still asleep".'
'Yes, sometimes I sleep later because I've been late the evening before.'
'And when you wake up, what do you do? Do you have breakfast?'
'Yes, of course.'
'In your room or in the dining-room?'
'In my room.'
'In bed or at a table?'
'At a table.'
'What d'you have for breakfast?'
'Tea and toast, as I always did, and orange juice.'
'And after breakfast what d'you do?'
'I have a bath.' My mother answered my questions in a tone which was slightly resentful and at the same time both dignified and surprised, as though I had been seriously in doubt as to whether in fact she breakfasted or washed.
'A bath or a shower?'
'D'you wash yourself or d'you get your maid to help you?'
'The maid sees to the temperature of the water, puts in the bath salts, and then, when the bath is ready, helps me to wash the parts of myself that I can't reach.'
'Then I get out of the water, dry myself and dress.'
'Does the maid help you to dress too?'
'She helps me to put on my stockings. But not my clothes; I prefer to dress myself.'
'D'you talk to the maid while you're having your bath and dressing?'
My mother suddenly started laughing, unwillingly, it seemed, with a kind of nervous irritation. 'D'you know, you're very odd, with all your questions? After all, I might not wish to answer them. My private life is a thing that has nothing to do with anyone but myself.'
'I didn't ask you what you think but what you do. Do try and understand me. I'm coming home after an absence of almost ten years. It's quite right that I should want to reacclimatize myself. Well then, do you talk to the maid?'
'Of course I talk to her; she's not an automaton, she's a human being.'
'When do you put on your jewellery, before or after dressing?'
'I put it on at the end, the last thing.'
'In what order—that is, which pieces first and which afterwards?'
'D'you know what you remind me of? A policeman in a detective story, when he has to investigate a crime.'
'The fact of the matter is that I have to investigate something too.'
'I don't know, something or other. Well, in what order do you put on your jewellery?'
'First my rings and bracelets, then my necklace and then my earrings. Now are you satisfied?'
'After you're dressed, what do you do?'
'I go downstairs, and then I go and give the cook her orders for the day.'
'You mean, you write down the menus for her, for lunc
'Then I go into the garden, I pick flowers and bring them into the house and put them in vases. Or I walk about and talk to the gardeners. In fact, I busy myself in the garden.'
'After the garden, what then?'
I saw her look at me for a moment, and then she answered, almost solemnly: 'I go into the study and attend to the management of our affairs.'
'Yes, every day, there's always something to be done.'
'What do you do?'
'Well, I write, or I see people.'
'You mean that lawyers, tax collectors, stockbrokers, trustees and people like that come to see you?'
Suddenly she started laughing again, but this time in a self-satisfied, almost sensual way, showing that I had touched a sensitive spot. 'Perhaps you imagine,' she said, 'that what I do is an easy job? It's not like painting, I admit, but all the same it's a most exhausting job and it keeps me busy the whole morning and sometimes the afternoon as well.'
'Oh well, it's a good thing to be busy, isn't it?'
'Some days I get a steady pain, here, at the back of the neck.'
'You ought to try and spare yourself.'
My mother considered me for a moment—with affection, it may have been—and then said, in her ugly, croaking voice: 'It's for you I do it, so that your property may be safeguarded and increased.'
'My property? No, no, yours'
'When I die it will be yours.'
'You're quite young still; I shall certainly die first. Of boredom. Anyhow, let us say, our property. How's it getting on, then, our property? How's it getting on?'
'You know, you really are very strange. It's getting on well, thanks to my efforts. Certainly, if it hadn't been for me, we shouldn't have a penny left by now.'
'We're very rich, then, aren't we?'
To this question my mother made no answer at all; all she did was to look at me with a wooden face and glassy eyes. Then she said: 'Rita, what are you doing standing there like that? Why don't you go and see if the second course is ready?' Rita shook herself as though she had been dreaming and went out. My mother immediately went on: 'I do beg of you, as I've always told you, not to speak of money affairs in front of the servants.'
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes