Contempt, p.6Alberto Moravia
Nevertheless, although I thought of these things with despairing resolution, I realized that I could not bring myself wholly to believe in them: in reality I was not yet altogether convinced that Emilia no longer loved me, nor that I should find the strength to part from her, give up my film work and go back to living alone. In other words I had a feeling almost of incredulity, of a painful kind quite new to me, at finding myself faced with a fact that in my mind I now held to be indubitable. Why did Emilia no longer love me, and how had she arrived at this state of indifference? With a feeling of anguish in my heart, I foresaw that this first general conclusion, already so painful, would demand an infinite number of further, minor proofs before I became completely convinced—proofs which, just because they were of lesser importance, would be more concrete and, if possible, still more painful. I was, in fact, now convinced that Emilia could no longer love me; but I did not know either why or how this had come about; and in order to be entirely persuaded of it I must have an explanation with her, I must seek out and examine, I must plunge the thin, ruthless blade of investigation into the wound which, hitherto, I had exerted myself to ignore. This thought frightened me; and yet I realized that only after carrying my investigation through to the bitter end should I have the courage to part from Emilia, as, at the first moment, the desperate impulse of my mind had suggested.
In the meantime I went on eating and drinking and listening to Pasetti, but almost without noticing what I was doing. In due time, however, lunch came to an end. We went back to the sitting-room, and there I had to submit to all the various formalities of the bourgeois guest—coffee with one, or two, lumps of sugar; the offer of a liqueur, sweet or dry, received with the customary refusal; idle conversation to pass the time. Finally, when it seemed to me that I could take my leave without giving an impression of haste, I rose from my chair. But, just at that moment, the Pasetti’s eldest little girl was brought into the room by her nurse, to be displayed to her parents before her daily walk. She was a dark-haired, pale child with very large eyes, of a very ordinary type, insignificant, in fact, like her parents. I remember that, as I watched her letting herself be kissed and embraced by her mother, this thought crossed my mind: “I shall never be happy like them. Emilia and I will never have a child”; and immediately afterwards, as a result of this first thought, a second one, even more bitter: “How shabby all this is, how ordinary, how unoriginal. I am following in the footsteps of all husbands who are not loved by their wives—envying a perfectly ordinary couple while they kiss and hug their offspring...exactly, indeed, like any ordinary husband who finds himself in my position.” This mortifying idea aroused in me a feeling of impatience at the affectionate scene I was witnessing. I declared, brusquely, that I must go. Pasetti accompanied me to the door, his pipe between his teeth. I had a feeling that my leave-taking had astonished and shocked his wife, who was perhaps expecting me to be touched at the edifying sight of her maternal love.
I HAD NO engagement until four o’clock, so that I had an hour and a half to spare; and when I was in the street, I started off, more or less instinctively, towards home. I knew that Emilia could not be there, since she had gone to lunch with her mother; but, filled as I was with distress and bewilderment, I almost hoped that this might not be true and that I should find her there after all: in which case, I said to myself, I would pluck up courage to speak to her frankly, to insist on a decisive explanation. I was aware that upon this explanation depended not only my relations with Emilia, but also my work; but now, after so many pitiful shilly-shallyings and hypocrisies, I felt I preferred any kind of disaster to the prolongation of a situation that was becoming only too painfully clear and less and less tolerable. Perhaps I should be compelled to part from Emilia, to refuse Battista’s second script; so much the better. The truth, whatever it might be, seemed to me now to be infinitely more desirable than my present obscure, degraded position, with falsehood on the one hand and self-pity on the other.
As I came into my own street, I was again seized with perplexity: Emilia was certainly not at home, and I, in that new flat which now seemed to me not so much strange as actively hostile, should feel more lost and miserable than I should in a public place. For a moment I was almost tempted to turn back and to go and spend that hour and a half in a café. Then, with a sudden, providential reawakening of memory, I recalled that I had promised Battista, the previous day, to be at home at that time, so that he could telephone me and arrange an appointment. This would be an important appointment, because Battista was to speak to me at last about the new script, and to make concrete proposals and introduce me to the director; and so I had assured him that I would be at home at that time—as, indeed, I always was. It is true that I myself could have telephoned to Battista from a café; but, to begin with, I was not entirely sure of finding him at home, because Battista often lunched at a restaurant; and, in addition, as I said to myself, I needed some pretext, in my acute state of bewilderment, to go back home; and Battista’s telephone call exactly provided me with such a pretext.
So I entered the hall, crossed to the elevator, closed the doors and pressed the button for the top floor on which I lived. But, while the car was going up, it suddenly came into my head that in reality I had no right to fix this appointment, inasmuch as I was not at all sure that I should accept Battista’s new proposition. Everything depended upon my explanation with Emilia, and I knew that, if Emilia declared explicitly that she no longer loved me, not merely should I not write this new script but I should never write any more film-scripts for the rest of my life. Emilia, however, would not be at home; and when Battista telephoned, I should not be in a position, honestly, to tell him whether I agreed to discuss his proposition or not. Now, amongst all the many absurd things in my life, one of the most absurd would be, I felt, to negotiate a deal and then back out of it. At this thought I was assailed by an almost hysterical impulse of rage and repugnance, and all at once I stopped the elevator and then pressed the button to go down again to the ground floor. It was better, I said to myself, far better not to let Battista find me at home when he telephoned. Later on, that same evening, I would have my explanation with Emilia; and next day I would give the producer an answer in accordance with its result. In the meantime the elevator was going down and I was looking at all those floors going past one after another, behind the ground glass doors, with the desperate eye of a fish seeing the level of the water rapidly descending inside the tank in which it lives. At last the car stopped and I was on the point of opening the doors. But then, suddenly, a new idea made me pause: it was true that my decision about the new job with Battista depended upon my explanation with Emilia; but if it should happen that Emilia, that same evening, made me a fresh avowal of her love, should I not be taking the risk of annoying Battista by not being at home when he telephoned, and thereby losing the job? Producers, as I knew from experience, were as capricious as so many petty tyrants; a hitch of this kind might be enough to make Battista change his mind, and might induce him to choose another script-writer. These reflections pursued one another swiftly through my aching head, producing in me an obscure feeling of acute wretchedness: truly I was an unfortunate creature, I said to myself, torn between egotism and affection, incapable of choice or decision. And I do not know how much longer I should have stayed there, hesitating and bewildered, inside the lift, if a young lady, her arms laden with parcels, had not suddenly thrown open the doors. She uttered a cry of fright on discovering me standing there, stock still, in front of her; then, recovering herself, she too came into the car and asked me which floor I wanted to go to. I told her. “I go to the second,” she announced, and pressed the button. The elevator started to ascend again.
Once on my own landing, I had a sense of profound relief; and at the same time it occurred to me: “What sort of a state am I in, to be behaving like this? How can I have descended so low? What point have I reached?” With these thoughts in my head I went into the flat, closed the door
I must have had a troubled expression on my face, for she, after looking at me, asked: “What’s the matter? What’s happened to you?”
“Weren’t you going to have lunch with your mother?” I said in a stifled voice; “how on earth do you come to be at home? You told me you were out for lunch!”
“My mother telephoned afterwards to say that she couldn’t,” she replied placidly.
“But why didn’t you let me know?”
“My mother rang up at the last moment. I thought you’d have left the Pasettis’.”
Suddenly—why, I could not tell—I was certain she was lying. But, being incapable of producing any proof of it, not merely to her but even to myself, I was silent, and I too sat down on the sofa. After a moment, turning over the pages of the magazine, she asked without looking at me: “And you—what did you do?”
“The Pasettis asked me to stay.”
At that moment the telephone rang. I thought: “It’s Battista. Now I shall tell him I’m not going to do any more scripts. To hell with everything. It’s perfectly clear that this woman doesn’t feel the smallest crumb of affection for me.” Meanwhile Emilia, with her usual indolence, was saying: “Do just go and see who it is...it’s sure to be for you.” I rose and went out.
The telephone was in the adjoining room, on the beside table. Before picking up the receiver, I looked towards the bed, saw the solitary pillow lying at the head of it, in the middle, and felt my resolution harden: all was finished, I should refuse the script and then leave Emilia. I took off the receiver, but then, instead of Battista’s voice, I heard that of my mother-in-law, who asked: “Riccardo, is Emilia there?”
Almost without thinking, I answered: “No, she’s not here. She said she was lunching with you. She’s out. I thought you were together.”
“Why, I telephoned her to say I couldn’t manage it because my maid has her day off today!” she began in astonishment. At that moment I looked up from the telephone and saw, through the door which had been left open, Emilia lying on the divan looking at me; and I noticed that her eyes, which were fixed upon me, were full not so much of wonder as of quiet aversion and cold contempt. I realized that between the two of us, now, it was I who had lied, and that she knew why I had lied. So I mumbled a few words of farewell and then, suddenly, as though correcting myself, I cried: “No...wait...Here’s Emilia just coming in. I’ll send her to you.” At the same time I beckoned to Emilia to come to the telephone.
She got up from the sofa, crossed the room with her head bent and took the receiver from my hand without thanking or looking at me. I walked away towards the living-room, and she made an impatient gesture as if to tell me to shut the door. I did so; and then, my mind filled with confusion, I sat down on the divan and waited.
Emilia was a long time at the telephone, and I, in my painful, apprehensive impatience, almost felt that she was doing it on purpose. But of course, I kept saying to myself, her telephone conversations with her mother were always very long: she had remained deeply attached to her mother, who was a widow and all alone, and she had no one but her; and she seemed to have made her her confidante. At last the door opened and Emilia reappeared. I sat silent and still, fully conscious, from her unwontedly hard expression, that she was angry with me.
And indeed she said at once, as she started collecting the plates and forks on the little table: “Are you crazy? Why on earth did you go and tell Mother I was out?”
Hurt by her tone, I did not open my mouth. “To see if I had told the truth?” she went on; “to see if it was true that Mother had really told me she couldn’t have me to lunch?”
I answered at last, with an effort: “That may have been the reason.”
“Well, please never do such a thing again. I speak the truth, and I’ve nothing to hide from you, and I just can’t endure that kind of thing.”
She spoke these words in a tone of finality and then took up the tray on which she had put together the plates and glasses and went out of the room.
Left alone, I had, for a moment, a bitter feeling of victory. It was true, then: Emilia no longer loved me. In the old days she certainly would not have spoken to me like that. She would have said to me, with a mixture of gentleness and amused surprise: “Perhaps you really thought I had told you a lie?” and then she would have laughed, as if at some childish, easily forgivable error, and finally—yes, finally she would have even shown herself flattered: “My goodness, you don’t mean to say you’re really jealous? And don’t you know I love nobody except you?” It would all have ended in an almost motherly kiss, and a caress of her long, large hands on my brow, as though to chase away all thought and anxiety. But it was also true that in the old days I should never have thought of watching her, still less of doubting her word. Everything was changed: she in her love, I in mine. And everything seemed set for a steady change for the worse.
But man is always ready to hope, even when convinced that there is no hope. I had had a clear proof that Emilia no longer loved me, and yet there was still a doubt in my mind—or rather, a hope—that I might have placed a rash interpretation upon an incident which, fundamentally, was devoid of importance. All at once I said to myself that I must not be precipitate; that I must make her tell me herself that she no longer loved me; that only she could provide me with the proofs that I still lacked...These thoughts pursued each other swiftly through my mind as I sat on the divan staring into vacancy. Then the door opened and Emilia came in again.
She came over to the sofa and lay down again, behind me, and took up the magazine. Then, without turning, I said: “In a few moments Battista is going to telephone and make a proposal for me to do another script...a very important script.”
“Well, you must be pleased, aren’t you?” she said in her calm voice.
“With this script,” I went on, “I shall be able to earn a lot of money...anyhow, enough to pay two installments on the lease.”
This time she said nothing. I continued: “This script, moreover, is important for me because, if I do it, I shall have others to do afterwards...this is to be a big film.”
At last, in the detached voice of a person who is reading and who speaks without looking up from the page, she asked: “What film is it?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. I was silent for a moment, and then, in a rather emphatic tone, I added: “But I’ve decided to refuse this job.”
“And why?” Her voice was still quiet, indifferent.
I rose, walked round the sofa, and came and sat down in front of Emilia. She was holding the magazine in her hand, but when she saw me sit down opposite her, she lowered it and looked at me. “Because,” I said with full sincerity, “I, as you know, hate this work and do it only for love of you...in order to pay the installments on this flat, which means so much to you or seems to mean so much to you. But now I know for certain that you no longer love me...and so all this is useless.”
She was looking at me with her eyes wide open, but she said nothing. “You don’t love me any longer,” I went on, “and I shall not go on doing these jobs. As for the flat...well, I shall mortgage it or sell the lease. The fact is, I can’t go on like this any longer and I feel that the moment has come to tell you so. So now you know. In a short time Battista will telephone and I shall tell him to go to the devil.”
Now I had said it, and the moment had therefore arrived for the explanation I had so long both feared and desired. At this thought I felt almost relieved, and I looked at Emilia with a new frankness as I awaited her reply. She was silent for a little time before she answered me. Obviously my forthright declaration had surprised her. In the end, indeed, rather cautiously and precisely as if she wanted to gain time, she asked: “What ma
“Everything,” I answered with passionate vehemence.
“Tell me first of all whether it’s true or not.”
She insisted, obstinately: “No, you tell me what makes you think that.”
“Everything,” I repeated; “your way of talking to me, of looking at me, the way you behave to me. Everything. A month ago you even insisted on our sleeping apart. You wouldn’t have wanted that, once upon a time!”
She looked at me, irresolute; and then, suddenly, I saw her eyes light up with rapid decision. She had, in that precise moment, I thought, determined upon the attitude to be taken with me, and now would not deviate from her decision, whatever I might say or do. At last she replied, quite gently: “But I assure you, I swear to you. I cannot sleep with the shutters open. I need darkness and silence. I swear it.”
“But I offered to sleep with the shutters closed.”
“Well,” she hesitated, “must I also tell you, then, that when you’re asleep you’re not silent?”
Contempt by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes