Conjugal Love, p.4Alberto Moravia
Later, at table, I ate with a hearty, automatic appetite, feeling, almost, that I was not a human being at all but an empty machine that required to be filled up again with fuel after several hours of fierce efficiency. As I ate I laughed and joked and even made puns - quite a new thing for me, who am usually serious and thoughtful. As always happens with me when, for some reason or other, I yield to enthusiasm, there was a sort of indiscreet quality, almost an immodesty, in this exuberance of mine: I was aware of it, but whereas once I should have been ashamed of myself for giving way to it, I was now almost pleased with myself for displaying it. There I was, sitting at table, facing my wife, in the act of eating; but really I was not there at all. The best part of me had remained in my study upstairs, at the writing table, pen in hand. The rest of the day passed in the same atmosphere of gaiety - the rather disconnected, extravagant gaiety of a drunkard.
Had I been less enthusiastic, less intoxicated with good fortune, I might perhaps have recognized in the productiveness of those days the presence of that same quality of goodwill that I sometimes thought I could detect in my wife's attitude towards me. To express it differently, and without inferring that the story I was in process of writing was not the masterpiece I believed it to be, the thought might have entered my head that all this was too good to be true. Perfection is not a human thing; and more often than not, it resides in falsehood rather than in truth, whether that falsehood becomes established in the relations between us and other people or presides over the relations between us and ourselves. For, in order to avoid the ugly irregularities and roughnesses of the truth, a fabrication which achieves its purpose without obstacles or misgivings is more effective than a scrupulous mode of action which sticks closely to the matter in hand. As I have said, I might have become suspicious of my affairs going so smoothly, after ten or more years of fruitless attempts. But happiness, besides making us selfish, often makes us thoughtless and superficial as well. I told myself that my meeting with my wife had been the spark which had at last set alight this great and generous blaze; and beyond the recognition of this fact I did not go.
I was so much absorbed in my work that I did not pay much attention to a small but curious incident that took place at that time. I have a very sensitive skin and shaving is always a difficulty to me - that is, it is always inclined to produce a rash or other irritations. For this reason I-have never been able to shave myself and have always made use, as I still do, of the services of a barber. Even at the villa, as everywhere else, I arranged to be shaved by a barber every morning. He came from the village near by, where he kept the only barber's shop, which was, in truth, a very modest one. He used to come on a bicycle, and made his appearance exactly at half-past twelve, having in fact closed his shop at twelve. His arrival was the signal for me to stop work. It coincided likewise with the best moment of my day, with the release of that indiscreet and entirely physical gaiety I have already described, which came from a sense of work well done.
This barber was a short, broad-shouldered man, completely bald from front to back, with a thick neck and a plump face. In figure he was thickset but not fat. In his face, which was of a uniform yellowish brown so that he looked as though he still had the remains of an attack of jaundice, the most noticeable feature was the eyes, large and round with very conspicuous whites, and with a clear, questioning, surprised, possibly ironical look in them. He had a small nose and a wide but lipless mouth, in which his rare smiles disclosed two rows of dark and broken teeth. His chin retreated sharply, and in it was a strange, repellent dimple, like a navel. Antonio's voice - for that was his name - was soft and extraordinarily quiet; and his hand, as I noticed from the very first day, had an uncommon lightness and dexterity. He was a man of about forty and, as I knew, had a wife and five children. One last detail: he was not a Tuscan but a Sicilian, from a village in the middle of Sicily. As the result of an amorous connexion which he had formed during his military service, he had been induced to marry and settle down in this village, where he had subsequently opened a barber's shop. His wife worked on a farm, but she left it on Saturdays and went and helped her husband to shave the numerous clients who flocked to the shop on the day before the holiday.
Antonio was very punctual. Every day at half-past twelve I could hear, through the open window, the crunching of the gravel beneath his bicycle wheels in the drive below; and this, for me, was the signal for breaking off work. A moment later he would be knocking at the door of my study; and I, rising from my desk, would shout joyfully to him to come in. He would open the door, enter, close it again carefully and, with a slight bow, wish me good morning. With him came the maid, carrying a small jug of boiling water which she would put down on a little wheeled table where soap, brush and razors were laid out. Antonio would push this little table close to the armchair in which I, in the meantime, had seated myself. He would spend some time stropping the razor, with his back turned to me; then, having poured some of the hot water into a small basin, he would wet the brush and stir it round and round for a long time in the soap-bowl. Finally, holding up the foamy brush in the air like a torch, he would turn towards me. The process of soaping me was interminable; he never left off until the whole of the lower part of my face was enveloped in an enormous mass of white froth. Only then did he put down the brush and take up the razor.
I have described these perfectly ordinary actions in minute detail so as to give a feeling of the slowness and precision of his movements - and at the same time to convey an idea of the readiness of my own mind to endure, in fact to enjoy, that slowness and that precision. Usually I do not enjoy being shaved, and the stupid fussiness of some barbers irritates me. But with Antonio it was different. I felt that the only time that had any value was the time that I spent at my desk, before his arrival. Afterwards, whether the time was devoted to shaving, or to reading, or to conversation with my wife, it was all the same to me. It was all time that did not count, from the moment that it had nothing to do with my work; and how I employed it was a matter of in-difference to me.
Antonio was taciturn; I, on the other hand, was not, for, after the restraint and the effort of my work, I felt an irresistible need for some sort of outlet for my happiness. And so I talked to him about anything that came into my head, about life in the village, about its inhabitants, about the harvest and his family and the local gentry and things like that. One subject that interested me more than others was, I remember, the contrast between the barber's birthplace in the south and his country of adoption. Nothing could be more different from Sicily than Tuscany. And indeed, more than once, I succeeded in drawing curious remarks from him about Tuscany and the Tuscans in which I thought I could detect a tinge of contempt and disgust. But for the most part Antonio would answer with extreme sobriety; yet, as I noticed, with remarkable exactness. He had a way of speaking that was terse, reticent, sententious, perhaps ironical, but with an irony so slight as to be intangible. Sometimes, if I was roaring with laughter at one of my own jokes or if I became heated as I was speaking, he would stop soaping my face or shaving me and, holding the brush or the razor in mid-air, would wait patiently until I was silent and calm again.
IN talking to him, I had no definite purpose in mind, as I think I have already made clear; yet, after some time, I realized that, in spite of all the confidences I had forced from him, I had never penetrated the centre of his mind nor fathomed its chief preoccupation. Although he was poor and had a large family, he did not seem to worry much about money. He spoke of his family with detachment, without either affection or severity or any other particular feeling, as one speaks of something inevitable and perfectly natural. In politics, as I at once saw, he took no interest at all. His trade, although he knew it thoroughly and liked his work, did not appear to mean anything more to him than the mere means of earning a living. In the end I said to myself that there was something mysterious about him; but not more so than in the case of many people of the working class, to whom wealthie
While Antonio was shaving me, my wife would usually come into the room and sit in the sun in the open window, with her manicure-case or else a book. I do not know why, but this morning visit of my wife's while Antonio was shaving me gave me great pleasure. Like Antonio, she was a mirror in which I gazed at the reflection of my own happiness. Like Antonio, though in a different manner, by coming in and sitting down in the room where I had just been working, she helped to carry me back into the atmosphere of everyday life - I mean that indulgent, calm, ordered atmosphere which permitted me to go forward with my work in security and tranquility. Every now and then I would interrupt my chatter with the barber and ask her how she was, or what book she was reading, or what she was doing. She would answer quietly, soberly, without raising her eyes and without breaking off her reading or the filing of her nails. The sun shone on her fair hair falling loose in two long waves on either side of her face; behind her bent head I could see, through the wide-open window, no less luminous, the trees in the garden and the blue sky. This same sunshine awakened tawny reflections in the furniture, darted blinding rays from Antonio's razor, and spread benignly from the window-sill to the most distant corners of the room, bringing to life the faded colours and dusty surfaces of the worn stuffs and the old tables and chairs. I was so happy that I thought, on one of those mornings: 'As long as I live, I shall remember this scene . . . myself lying back in the armchair, with Antonio shaving me . . . the window open, the room filled with sunshine and my wife sitting over there, in the sun.'
One day my wife came in in a dressing-gown and told Antonio that she wanted him to dress her hair for her. All that was needed, she said, was a touch with the curling-iron; she had already washed it herself, that morning. She asked Antonio whether he knew how to wave hair, and when he said yes, she requested him, after he had finished with me, to go to her room. When my wife had gone out, I asked Antonio if he had ever been a ladies' hairdresser and he replied, not without vanity, that all the girls of the countryside came to him to have their hair done. I was surprised, and he confirmed that nowadays even the most rustic peasant-girls wanted permanent waves. 'They're more particular than town ladies,' he concluded with a smile; 'they're never satisfied . . . sometimes they're enough to drive you mad.' He shaved me with his usual slowness and precision. Then, after putting the razors all in order, he left me and went to my wife's room.
After Antonio had gone, I sat down in the sun in the armchair in which my wife generally sat, a book in my hand. I remember that it was Tasso's Aminta, which I had started to re-read at that time. I was conscious of being in a particularly lucid and sensitive state of mind, and the charm of that graceful poem, which accorded so well with the luminous, gentle quality of the day, soon made me forget that I was waiting. Now and then, at a more than usually melodious line, I would raise my eyes to the window, repeating it in my mind; and each time I made this movement I seemed to become conscious of my happiness, like someone who moves about in a well-warmed bed and is conscious, each time he moves, of its comfort. Antonio's job with my wife took about three-quarters of an hour. Finally I heard him go out on to the drive, say good-bye to the maid in a quiet voice, and then I heard the crunch of the gravel under his bicycle wheels as he went further and further away. A few minutes later my wife came into the room.
I rose to my feet in order to look at her. Antonio, so it seemed, had solved the problem by covering her whole head with curls and transforming the smooth, loose arrangement of her hair into a sort of eighteenth-century wig. All those curls piled one on top of another and sprouting out round her long, thin face gave her, at first sight, an odd appearance, like a smartly dressed peasant woman. This look of rusticity was enhanced by a little bunch of fresh flowers - I think they were red geraniums - pinned on just above her left temple.
'Splendid!' I cried, with a burst of gaiety. 'Antonio's certainly a wizard. . . . Mario and Attilio in Rome can go and bury their heads, they're not worthy even to tie his shoes.. . . You look just like one of the little peasant girls from round about here when they go to the fair on Sunday . . . and those flowers are really marvellous. . . . Let's look at you.' As I said this I tried to make her turn slowly round, so as better to admire the barber's achievement.
But, to my surprise, my wife's face was clouded by an ill-humour that I could not account for. Her big lower lip was trembling - always a sign of anger with her. Finally, with a movement of intense disgust, she pushed me away, saying: 'Please don't make jokes.. . . I'm not at all in the mood for joking.'
I did not understand, and I went on: 'Come on, you don't need to be ashamed. I assure you, Antonio's done an excellent job. . . you look splendid.. . .Don't worry, you'll cut a good figure at the fair next Sunday - and if you go to the dance, you'll certainly have several proposals of marriage!'
As can be seen, I imagined that her ill-humour was due to what Antonio had done: I knew her to be extremely vain and it would not have been the first time that an unskilful hairdresser had aroused her anger. But she thrust me away again, this time with a look of resentment, and repeated: 'I've already asked you not to make jokes.'
It suddenly dawned upon me that her displeasure was caused by something other than her coiffure. 'But why?' I asked. 'What has happened?'
She had walked over to the window and was looking out, her two hands on the sill.
Suddenly she turned. 'What has happened is that tomorrow you must kindly do me the favour of changing your barber. I don't want that Antonio here any more.'
I was astonished.' But why? He's not a town barber, I know that of course . . . but he does all right for me. . . . You don't have to make use of him again.'
'Oh, Silvio,' she burst forth in anger, 'why won't you understand me? It's not a question of whether he's good at his job - what does that matter?'
'But what's it all about, then?'
'He was disrespectful to me . . . and I don't want to see him any more - ever again.'
'He was disrespectful to you? What d'you mean?'
There must have been in my expression and the tone of my voice still something of the thoughtless indifference that possessed me every morning at that time, for she added scornfully: 'But what does it matter to you if Antonio is disrespectful to me? Of course, it means nothing to you.'
I was afraid I had offended her; going up to her, I said, seriously: 'Forgive me . . . perhaps I hadn't quite understood. But do please tell me in what way he was lacking in respect.'
'I tell you, he was disrespectful,' she cried with sudden rage, turning towards me a second time, with nostrils quivering and an expression of hardness in her eyes; 'that's quite enough. . .. He's a horrible man ... send him away, get someone else. ... I don't want him about the place any more.'
'I don't understand,' I said; 'he's a man who's usually most respectful - serious, in fact. ... A family man. . . .'
'Yes,' she repeated, with a sarcastic shrug of the shoulders, 'a family man.'
'But now will you please tell me what he did to you?'
We went on disputing like this for a while, I insisting on knowing in what way Antonio had shown lack of respect, and she refusing to provide any explanation but merely repeating her accusation. In the end, after a great deal of furious wrangling, I thought I understood what had happened. In order to dress her hair, it had been necessary for Antonio to stand very close to the armchair in which she was sitting. It had appeared to her that more than once he had tried to brush against her shoulder and her arm with his body. I say it appeared to her; for she herself admitted that the barber had continued his work imperturbably, remaining all the time silent and respectful. But these contacts, she swore, were not fortuitous; she had observed that they had an intention, a purpose behind them. She was sure that-Antonio had intended, by means of these contacts, to establish a relationship with her, to make her an improper
'But are you quite sure?' I asked at last, astonished.
'How could I not be sure? Oh, Silvio, how can you doubt what I say?'
'But it might have been just an impression.'
'Impression? - nonsense. . . . Besides, it's enough just to look at him. He's sinister, that man . . . completely bald, and with that neck and those eyes that always look up at you from under his eyelids and never straight in the face. . . . That man's baldness is outrageous. . . . Don't you see what I mean? Are you blind?'
'It might have been an accident.... A barber's work forces him to come very close to his client.'
'No, it wasn't an accident. . . . Once might perhaps have been an accident, but several times, all the time - no, it wasn't an accident.'
'Let's see,' I said; and I cannot deny that I felt some amusement in carrying out this species of inquest: 'you sit down on this chair. ... I'll be Antonio. Now, let's see.'
Conjugal Love by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes