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       Contempt, p.5

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  The script I was writing for Battista meanwhile was nearing its end; and at the same time Battista mentioned a new undertaking to me, of much more serious importance than the first, in which he wanted me to have a share. Battista was a hurried, evasive sort of man, like all producers; and the very fleeting hints he gave me never went beyond such remarks as: “Molteni, as soon as you’ve finished this script, we’re going to start at once on another...a really important one”; or: “Molteni, be prepared, one of these days...there’s a proposal I’ve got to make to you”; or again, rather more explicitly: “Don’t sign any contracts, Molteni, because in a fortnight’s time you’re going to sign one with me.” So I knew that, after this first, comparatively unimportant script, Battista was preparing to give me another, more important one to do, for which, naturally, I should be far better paid. I must confess that, in spite of my growing distaste for this type of work, the first thing I thought of, instinctively, was the flat and the money that still had to be paid on it; and I was delighted at Battista’s proposal. In any case, that is what film work is like: even when, as in my case, one is not in love with it, every new offer is agreeable, and if offers do not arrive, one becomes suspicious and fears that one is being excluded.

  But I said nothing to Emilia of this new offer of Battista’s, and that for two reasons: in the first place because I did not yet know whether I should accept it; and also because I had by now realized that my work did not interest her and I preferred not to speak of it, so as not to provoke some further confirmation of her coldness and indifference, to which, however, I persisted in paying no importance. These two things, furthermore, were linked together in a manner of which I was vaguely conscious: I was not sure about accepting the job precisely because I felt Emilia no longer loved me; whereas if she had loved me I should have talked about it to her, and talking about it to her meant, really and truly, accepting it.

  I went out one morning in order to go and see the director with whom I was working on script No. 1 for Battista. I knew it was the last time I should be going there, because there were now only a few pages left before the end, and this thought cheered me: at last this toil was on the point of finishing and I should again be my own master for at least half the day. Besides, as always happens with filmscripts, two months of work had sufficed to imbue me with a profound dislike for the characters and the story of the film. I knew that I should very soon find myself at grips with a set of characters and a story destined quickly to become, in their turn, no less intolerable; but in the meantime I was escaping from the first set, and the prospect of this was enough to bring me considerable relief.

  My hope of approaching freedom caused me to work, that morning, with unusual facility and inventiveness. In order to complete the script, not more than two or three points, of little importance, required touching up; upon these, however, we had been hesitating for some days. But, carried away by my inspiration, I succeeded, from the very beginning, in guiding the discussion along the right lines and solving, one after the other, all the outstanding difficulties, so that, after barely a couple of hours, we realized that the script was really finished, this time beyond question. In the end—just as happens with a certain kind of interminable, unnerving mountain excursion, when the goal, by now despaired of, appears suddenly at a bend in the path—I wrote down a sentence of dialogue and then exclaimed in surprise: “Why, it can finish here!” The director, who was walking up and down his study while I was writing at the desk, came across to me; he looked over my shoulder at the page and then he too said, in a surprised, almost incredulous voice: “You’re right, it can finish there.” So I wrote the words THE END at the bottom of the page, closed the copybook and rose to my feet.

  For a moment we said nothing, both of us looking at the desk upon which lay the portfolio, now closed, containing the completed script—indeed rather like two almost exhausted mountain-climbers looking at the little lake or rock which it has cost them so much toil to reach. Then the director said: “We’ve done it.”

  “Yes,” I repeated, “we’ve done it!”

  This director was called Pasetti and was a fairish young man, angular, thin, precise and clean-looking, with the appearance of a meticulous geometrician or accountant rather than of an artist. He was about the same age as myself; but, as always happens with script-writing, the relations between him and me were those of superior and inferior, for the director always has greater authority than any other of the collaborators. After a moment he resumed, with his characteristically cold, awkward pleasantness: “I must say, Riccardo, I must say, you’re just like a horse that smells its own stable. I was certain we’d have to work for at least four more days...and now we’ve polished it off in two hours. It was the prospect of the cash, was it?—that inspired you!”

  I did not dislike Pasetti, in spite of his mediocrity and his almost unbelievable psychological obtuseness; and there had grown up between us a relationship that was in a way well-balanced, he being a man without imagination and without nerves, but conscious of his limitations and fundamentally modest, while I was all nerves and imagination, morbidly sensitive and complex. Adopting his facetious tone and joining in the joke, I answered: “Of course, what you say is quite true—it was the prospect of the cash.”

  Lighting a cigarette, he went on: “But don’t imagine the game is finished. All we’ve done is the main part of the job; we’ve got to revise the whole of the dialogue...You can’t rest on your laurels yet.”

  I could not help noticing, yet again, how he expressed himself almost entirely in commonplaces and ready-made phrases; and I looked discreetly at the clock. It was almost one. “Don’t worry,” I said; “I shall be at your service for any touching-up that’s needed.”

  Shaking his head, he replied: “I know my own chickens. I shall tell Battista to hold up the last installment of your pay until you can’t hold out any longer.”

  He had his own way, facetious yet authoritative, and surprising in one so young, of spurring on his collaborators by alternating praise with blame, flattery with reserve, entreaty with command; and in this sense he might even have been called a good director, since directing—two thirds of it, anyhow—consists in having a shrewd knowledge of how to get others to do one’s bidding. I answered, drawing him out, as usual: “No, you get him to pay me the whole installment and I promise you I’ll be at your service for any touching-up that’s needed.”

  “But what do you do with all this money?” he asked, awkwardly jocose; “it’s never enough for you...and yet you haven’t any mistresses, you don’t gamble, you haven’t any children...”

  “I have to pay the installments on the flat,” I replied seriously, lowering my eyes, slightly annoyed at his indiscreetness.

  “Have you much to pay still?”

  “Almost the whole amount.”

  “I bet it’s your wife who bullies you until you get yourself paid what’s owing to you. I can hear her saying, ‘Now, Riccardo, remember to make them pay you that last installment!’”

  “Yes, it’s my wife,” I lied, “but you know what women are. Their homes are immensely important to them.”

  “You’re telling me!” He started talking about his wife, who very much resembled him and whom he, nevertheless—or so I gathered—considered to be a bizarre creature, full of caprices and all sorts of unexpected things—in fact, a woman. I listened with an attentive expression, though in point of fact I was thinking about something else. He concluded in an unforeseen manner: “That’s all very well...but I know what you script-writers are: you’re all the same, the whole lot of you. After you once get your money, one’s lucky to see you again. No, no, I shall tell Battista to keep back the last installment!”

  “Come on, Pasetti, do what I ask!”

  “Well, well, I’ll see. But don’t count on it.”

  I glanced stealthily at the clock again. Now I had given him the chance to flaunt his authority and he had taken it: so I could go away. I began: “Well, well, I’m pleas
ed to have finished the job—or rather, as you say, the main part of it. But now I think it’s time for me to go.”

  He exclaimed, in his blundering, vivacious way: “Not at all, not at all; we’ve got to drink to the success of the film. My goodness, of course we have. You’re not going away like that, after finishing the script!”

  I answered resignedly: “If it’s a question of a drink, I’m all for it.”

  “Come this way, then. I think my wife would be pleased to have a drink with us.”

  I followed him out of the study, and along a narrow passage, bare and white and smelling strongly of cooking and baby’s garments. He preceded me into the sitting-room, calling out: “Luisa, Molteni and I have finished the script. Now we’re going to drink to the success of the film.”

  Signora Pasetti rose from her armchair and came forward to meet us. She was a small woman with a large head and two bands of smooth black hair framing her long, oval, very pale face. Her eyes were large but light in color and inexpressive, and they became animated only when her husband was present: and then she never took them off his face for one single moment, like an affectionate dog with its master. But when her husband was not there she kept them lowered, with an almost stubbornly modest air. Fragile and minute in figure, she had brought four children into the world in four years of matrimony. With his usual embarrassing cheerfulness, Pasetti now said: “Today we have a drink. I’m going to make a cocktail.”

  “Not for me, Gino,” Signora Pasetti warned him; “you know I don’t drink.”

  “We’ll drink, then.”

  I sat down in an armchair of sand-papered wood with a flowered cover, in front of a red-brick chimney-place; and Signora Pasetti sat down on the other side of the fireplace, on another identical chair. The sitting-room, I noticed, when I looked round, was an accurate copy of its master: furnished with a “suite” in sham rustic style, it was bright and clean and orderly but at the same time rather bleak—like the house of a meticulous accountant or bank clerk. I had nothing to do but look, for Signora Pasetti did not appear to feel any need to speak to me. She sat opposite me with eyes lowered, her hands in her lap, quite motionless. Meanwhile Pasetti went over to the other end of the room, to an extremely ugly composite piece of furniture, a radio containing a bar; then he stooped down twice, on his thin legs, and, with precise, angular movements, took out two bottles, one of vermouth and one of gin, three glasses and a shaker. He placed them all on a tray and carried the tray over to a small table in front of the fireplace. I noticed that the bottles were both of them sealed and intact: it did not look as if Pasetti often allowed himself the drink he was now about to prepare for us. The shaker, too, was bright and shining and appeared quite new. He announced that he was going to fetch some ice and went out.

  We sat a long time in silence, and then, in order to say something, I said: “We’ve finished the script, at last!”

  Without raising her eyes, Signora Pasetti replied: “Yes, so Gino said.”

  “I’m sure it will make a fine film.”

  “I’m sure it will too; otherwise Gino would not have agreed to do it.”

  “Do you know the story?”

  “Yes, Gino told it me.”

  “Do you like it?”

  “Gino likes it, so I like it too.”

  “Do you always agree, you two?”

  “Gino and I? Yes, always.”

  “Which of the two of you is in command?”

  “Gino, of course.”

  I noticed that she had contrived to repeat the name of Gino each time she had opened her mouth. I had spoken lightly and almost jokingly; she had answered me all the time with the utmost seriousness. Then Pasetti came in again with the ice-pail and called out to me: “Your wife’s on the telephone, Riccardo.”

  For some unaccountable reason I felt my heart sink, with a sudden return of my usual unhappiness. Mechanically I rose and started towards the door. Pasetti added: “The telephone’s in the kitchen—but if you like you can answer it here...I’ve switched it through.”

  The telephone was, in fact, on a cabinet beside the fireplace. I took off the receiver and heard Emilia’s voice say to me: “I’m sorry, but today you’ll have to go out to lunch somewhere...I’m going to my mother’s.”

  “But why didn’t you tell me before?”

  “I didn’t want to disturb you at your work.”

  “All right,” I said, “I’ll go and eat at a restaurant.”

  “We’ll meet later; good-bye.”

  She rang off and I turned towards Pasetti. “Riccardo,” he asked at once, “are you not lunching at home?”

  “No, I’m going to a restaurant.”

  “Well, stay and have lunch with us...pot-luck, of course... but we’d be very pleased.”

  An inexplicable feeling of despondency had come over me at the thought of having lunch alone at a restaurant, probably because I had been looking forward with pleasure to announcing to Emilia that the script was finished. Perhaps I should not have done this after all, knowing, as I have said, that she was no longer interested in what I did; but at first I had yielded to the old habit of our past relationship. Pasetti’s invitation gave me pleasure; and I accepted it with almost excessive gratitude. He, in the meantime, had uncorked the two bottles, and now, with gestures more like those of a chemist calculating a dose of medicine rather than of a drinker, he was pouring the gin and the vermouth into a measure and then transferring them into the shaker. Signora Pasetti, as usual, never took her eyes off her husband. At last, when Pasetti had thoroughly shaken the cocktail and was about to pour it out into the glasses, she said: “Only just a drop for me, please. And you too, Gino, don’t drink much; it might do you harm.”

  “It isn’t every day that one finishes a script!”

  He filled our two glasses, and in the third put only a little of the cocktail, as his wife had requested. We all three took our glasses and raised them in a toast. “To a hundred more scripts like this one!” said Pasetti, just wetting his lips and putting his glass down again on the table. I emptied mine at one draught. Signora Pasetti drank with little sips and then got up, saying: “I’m going to the kitchen to see what the cook is doing...if you’ll allow me.”

  She went out. Pasetti took her place in the flowered armchair, and we started chattering. Or rather, he chattered, talking mostly about the script, and I listened, showing my approval by muttered words and nods of the head, and drinking. Pasetti’s glass was always at the same point, not even half emptied; but I had already emptied mine three times. I now, for some reason, had an acute feeling of unhappiness, and I drank in the hope that tipsiness would drive it away. But I can stand a lot of alcohol and Pasetti’s cocktails were light and watered down. And so those three or four little glasses served no purpose except to increase my obscure sense of wretchedness. All at once I asked myself: “Why do I feel so unhappy?”; and then I remembered that the first stab of pain had come when, shortly before, I had heard Emilia’s voice on the telephone, so cold, so reasonable, so indifferent; and above all so different from that of Signora Pasetti, whenever she pronounced the magic name of Gino. But I was unable to analyze my thoughts more closely, because, shortly afterwards, Signora Pasetti appeared in the door and told us we could come through into the dining-room.

  Pasetti’s dining-room resembled his study and sitting-room: neat, cheap, coquettish furniture of sand-papered wood; colored earthenware crockery; glasses and bottles of thick green glass; tablecloth and napkins of unbleached hemp. We sat down in this tiny room which was almost entirely taken up by the table, so that the maid, when handing round the dishes, could not help disturbing first one, then another of the party; and then started eating apologetically and in silence. Soon the maid changed the plates, and I, to get the conversation going, asked Pasetti some question or other as to his plans for the future. He answered me in his usual cold, precise, undistinguished voice, in which modesty and lack of imagination seemed to be responsible not merely for the choice of
words but even for the slightest variation in tone. I was silent, finding nothing to say, for Pasetti’s plans did not interest me and, even if they had, that monotonous, colorless voice of his would have made them tedious. But, as my bored glances wandered from one object to another without managing to find anything to detain them, they came to rest at last upon the face of Pasetti’s wife who was also listening, her chin supported on her hand and her eyes fixed, as usual, upon her husband. Then, as I looked at her face, I was struck by the expression in her eyes—amorous, melting, a mixture of humble admiration, unlimited gratitude, physical infatuation and a sort of melancholy timidity. This expression astonished me, partly because the feeling behind it was, to me, utterly mysterious: Pasetti, so colorless, so thin, so mediocre, so obviously lacking in qualities that might please a woman, seemed an incredible object for attention of that kind. Then I said to myself that every man always ends by finding the woman who appreciates and loves him, and that to judge of other people’s feelings on the basis of one’s own is a mistake; and I had a feeling of sympathy for her, in her devotion to her man, and of satisfaction on Pasetti’s behalf, for whom, as I have already said, I cherished, in spite of his mediocrity, a sort of ironical friendship. But, suddenly, just as I was losing interest and turning my eyes elsewhere, I was transfixed by a thought from I know not where, or rather, by a sudden perception: “In those eyes is the whole love of this woman for her husband...he is content with himself and with his own work because she loves him. But it is a long time since that feeling showed itself in Emilia’s eyes. Emilia does not love me, she will never love me again.”

  At this thought, which revived in me a deep-seated pain, I had a sense almost of physical shock; so much so that I made a grimace, and Signora Pasetti asked me anxiously if by any chance the meat I was eating was tough. I reassured her: the meat was not tough. Meanwhile, though I still pretended to listen to Pasetti who went on talking about his plans for the future, I tried to analyze that first sensation of pain, so acute and at the same time so obscure. Then I understood that, during the last month, I had been seeking all the time to accustom myself to an intolerable situation, but that I had not, in reality, succeeded: I could not endure to go on living in that way, what with Emilia who did not love me and my work which, owing to her not loving me, I could not love. And suddenly I said to myself: “I can’t go on like this. I must have an explanation with Emilia, once and for all...and, if necessary, part from her and give up my work as well.”

 
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