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       Boredom, p.6

           Alberto Moravia
 

  “That’s right, on the bedside table.”

  I fell silent, with a sense of satiety, of futility. I might, I reflected, go on questioning my mother for hours and still not come to a conclusion about anything: her life, and she herself, had by now attained a degree of utter meaninglessness which amounted, in the long run, to a sort of mystery at the same time both dull and impenetrable. My mother asked: “Is the cross-examination over, then? Or do you want to know what dreams I have while I am asleep?”

  “I’m satisfied.”

  There was silence again. Then my mother unexpectedly said: “Your mother is a woman who lives alone and who has no one but you and is happy that you are coming back to live with her.”

  I realized, from the fact that she spoke of herself in the third person, that she was moved. I thought of saying something affectionate, but I couldn’t find anything to say. Luckily Rita, at that moment, handed me a dish containing a very elaborate pudding which I pretended to admire. “What a wonderful pudding!” I said.

  “It used to be your favorite.”

  I helped myself and was aware that Rita held back a small distance from the table. I did not know whether she was doing this from aversion or from that special kind of coquettishness which simulates aversion. My mother, who had not touched the pudding, gazed at me fixedly and implacably the whole time I was eating it. Finally she made a sign to Rita which I did not understand. The girl went out and a moment later reappeared with a bucket in which was plunged a bottle of champagne.

  “Now let us drink a glass of champagne to your health.”

  I watched Rita as, with movements which bore witness to a long-established habit, she drew the bottle from its bucket, undid the silver paper and, almost without any sound or gush of foam, pulled out the big cork. She poured champagne into our glasses and then hurried out of the room, as though she did not wish to disturb the festive rite with her presence.

  There was I, then, champagne glass in hand, standing opposite my mother, who had also risen to her feet and was holding out her glass toward me. “Many happy returns of the day!” I exclaimed, not knowing what to say.

  My mother started laughing. “It’s I who ought to say that to you,” she said. “You’re forgetting that it’s your birthday, not mine.”

  I could not help replying: “The real celebration is yours. I’ve given up painting, I’m coming back to live with you, and so—many happy returns of the day!” And I bent forward and clinked glasses with my mother, who, this time, pretended not to have heard what I said. Then, after drinking, she placed her glass on the table and said: “It’s not cold enough.”

  “Why? It seems to me very good.”

  “Yes, but it hasn’t been long enough on the ice.”

  She took up her glass again and emptied it completely. Then she pressed a bell on the table. Rita reappeared. My mother made the same remark to her about the champagne not being cold enough, without receiving or, apparently, expecting, any reply. Then she added that we would have our coffee in the study. Luncheon was over.

  We left the dining room and went into the study, a not very large room occupying a corner of the ground floor. I had never willingly gone into the study, in fact I avoided entering it because it was a kind of temple of a religion which certainly was not mine. Indeed in this room my mother, seated in a big, leather, gilt-studded chair in front of a large baroque table of carved oak, and against a background of bookshelves in which there were few books but many rows of files, devoted herself, either alone or in company with her men of business, to the ritual, so deeply moving to her, of the management of her affairs. That day, too, I followed her unwillingly: and, once we were in the study, I could not help asking her: “Why here? Couldn’t we go into the drawing room?”

  My mother appeared not to hear me. She installed herself behind the table, beckoning to me to sit down opposite her in the armchair usually reserved for those who came to talk to her on business. Then she fumbled in her bag, pulled out a key, drew back slightly, opened a drawer and took out a long, narrow ledger which struck me as looking like a book to be used in church, or anyhow connected in some way with religion. However, as I suddenly recollected, it was the ledger in which a list of all our property was kept, tidily and in order. My mother closed the drawer, put down the ledger on the table in front of her, looked intently at me for a moment with eyes glassier than ever, and then said: “A few minutes ago you asked me if we were rich, and I preferred not to answer because the maid was present. All the same, I’m glad you asked me that question. And now I’ll give you all the information you wish—partly because,” she added at this point in a reasonable tone of voice, “partly because I should very much like you to help me in the management of our affairs and to gain experience and take my place in a number of ways. As you’ve given up painting, you’ll have plenty of time to do this.”

  I could not repress a shudder at these last words. How serenely, how complacently my mother had pronounced the phrase, “as you’ve given up painting”—without the least idea that, for me, it was equivalent to hearing someone say, “as you’ve given up living.” With an effort, but this time without any spiteful intent, I asked: “Well then, are we rich or are we not?”

  For a moment she sat silent, looking at me with a strange solemnity. Then, leaning toward me and lowering her voice, she said: “We are not rich, Dino, we are very rich. Thanks to your mother, you are a very rich man.”

  “What does ‘very rich’ mean?”

  “‘Very rich’ means something more than merely ‘rich.’”

  “But less than ‘extremely rich’?”

  “Yes, less than ‘extremely rich.’ ”

  My mother this time answered me a little absent-mindedly. She had put on a pair of nunlike spectacles, rimless and with gold arms, and was turning over the pages of her black ledger: “Anyhow,” she said, “there’s nothing better than figures to make you understand, and so...and so...where is it?...ah, here we are...to make you understand, as I was saying, what being very rich means.”

  I realized that she was on the point of providing me with the statement she had promised me, and all at once I was filled with an uncontrollable repugnance. “No, no, please,” I exclaimed eagerly, “I don’t in the least want to know what being very rich means. I’ll take your word for it.”

  My mother raised her eyes from the ledger, took off her spectacles and looked at me. “But you’ve got to know,” she said, “if only, as I said before, so that you can help me with the management of our property.”

  I was on the point of crying out violently: “But I don’t want to help you with the management,” when fortunately Rita came in with the coffee tray. My mother, at the sight of her, seemed to retreat into herself, like a priest at the approach of an unbeliever. She closed the ledger with a sharp snap and said: “You pour the coffee, Rita.” Then, while Rita, standing beside me, was pouring the coffee, I kept wondering how I could possibly escape this intolerable thing: the explanation of what it meant to be very rich. Rita was close to me again now and—whether on purpose or not, I did not understand—was lightly touching my knees with her leg. Then she turned toward me and held out my cup. Almost instinctively I jerked my arm. The cup upset in the saucer and the coffee slopped on my light-colored trousers so that I felt it warm and wet on my skin. Pretending to be alarmed, I exclaimed: “Oh hell, my trousers!”

  “Rita, why can’t you be more careful?” said my mother reprovingly, having neither seen nor understood anything of what had happened.

  “Rita had nothing to do with it,” I hastened to say, “it was my fault. But now my trousers are a mess.”

  “It’s nothing,” said Rita; “there was no sugar in it. I’ll bring some water and wash out the stain.”

  This solution did not please my mother, who at once protested authoritatively, in her most unpleasant voice: “Not at all, stains can’t be washed out of clothes when people are wearing them. Signor Dino must take off his trousers, then you can
wash out the stain and iron the trousers.”

  I looked at Rita as she stood beside the table, her face set in an expression of obsequious patience. Then, in a serious voice, she asked: “Is Signor Dino going to take off his trousers at once, or am I to wait?”

  “Coffee leaves a mark,” said my mother; “better take them off at once, Dino.”

  “But I can’t take them off here, in this room.”

  I noticed that Rita turned her head aside, perhaps to hide a smile. “Go upstairs then, to your own room,” said my mother. “Take off your trousers and give them to Rita. Then put on the dressing gown which is in the cupboard and come down again. In the meantime I’ll be getting ready some papers that I want to show you.”

  So we went out, Rita and I, she almost running in front of me and saying: “I’ll go on ahead because that room has been shut up for a long time and at any rate I can open the windows,” and I following her and reflecting, with some degree of astonishment, that everything was working out according to the unwritten but inflexible rules for situations of this particular type: the mother who herself provides the son with a pretext for retiring with the maid; the maid and the son going off to the bed upon which they will lie together, each pretending to the other to take seriously the pretext provided by the mother; the maid excited and obsequiously eager; the son also excited but at the same time humiliated by stooping so low. With these thoughts in my mind I reached the first floor and went to my room, whither Rita had preceded me. I found her leaning out of the window, opening the shutters; when she turned around, rather red in the face from the effort, and from running, and also, perhaps, from excitement, I said to her abruptly: “Wait outside a moment and I’ll call you.”

  As soon as she had left the room I went slowly to the window and for a moment stood there, my back against the windowframe, gazing dreamily at the Italian garden which lay below. I am not given to remembering the past nor becoming emotional over places connected with the past, but that day I had decided to come back and live with my mother after an absence of ten years, and I could not help comparing my present state of mind with that of ten years earlier. And then, looking first at the fine Empire furniture in the room and then at the geometrical design of the Italian garden, all of which had remained exactly the same, I realized that I felt a sort of dismal relief at the idea that, fundamentally, I too was unchanged. No, I had not changed, and now I was coming back to live with my mother and I should resume the old habits of ten years ago; perhaps, gradually, I might even begin painting again, down there in the studio at the bottom of the garden, which had also remained unaltered. In fact it might even come about that, just as at one time going to live in Via Margutta had served, for a little, to renew my confidence in my work, so now, coming back to my mother’s villa would inspire in me once again—even if only for a short time—the illusion offered me by painting: life, in essence, consisted merely in this continual change of position; it was like being in an uncomfortable bed in which it was impossible to sleep for long on one side. But when my eyes came to rest on the bed inside the room and I saw that it had neither blankets nor sheets and that the mattress was rolled up, as is always done in uninhabited rooms, I became suddenly aware that the unchanging quality in things and in myself was not after all so positive as, for a moment, it had appeared to me. It was true that nothing had changed, but I was again going to find myself face to face with despair, with the same despair, also unchanged, that had formerly made me run away. Nothing was changed, but since time does not pass to no purpose, everything had become a little worse, even though remaining substantially unaffected. And so, while my mother was waiting for me downstairs in the study in order to explain to me, her papers ready in her hand, what it means to be rich, Rita was waiting outside the door for me to call her in and jump on her: two things apparently very remote from one another but in reality connected by a secret, rigorous mechanism. This mechanism was not unknown to me, indeed I had always suspected its existence; but I had never seen it with such clarity as I did now—just as you can look at the window display of an airline company and see a section of an airplane engine, with all its numerous and complicated parts. It was, in fact, the mechanism of despair, which, if I returned to live with my mother, would cause me to recoil from money into a state of impotence, from impotence to boredom and from boredom to Rita or to some other degradation of a similar or parallel kind. Better to go back to the studio in Via Margutta, where despair expressed itself, at least, in the empty canvas upon which I would never paint.

  At this point in my thoughts I heard a discreet, but obviously impatient and confidential scratching at the door; and before I realized what I was doing I had undone my belt, slipped off my trousers, then thrown down the mattress and laid myself flat on the bed. Then I called to Rita to come in.

  She came in immediately, assured herself by a quick glance that I was on the bed, and then turned to close the door. I lay with my whole body quite still, except in that place to which desire sent a surge of excited blood: I stared fixedly at my belly, my chin glued to my chest, just as a corpse lying on a catafalque seems to be staring at its own body after it is laid out and ready to be carried to the cemetery. Rita, meanwhile, had come forward and was standing close against the bed; she appeared to be contemplating me, through her hypocritical glasses, as one contemplates an object which one has never seen before and which is worth studying. Then I put out my hand and took hold of her hand which was hanging at her side and pulled it forward in the way one pulls at the bridle of an animal that is not so much recalcitrant as timid; and I felt her whole body following the direction of her hand. I guided her hand toward the center of my body, and as soon as I was sure that her hand had closed, I let go of it. She was now standing quite still, bending slightly forward, her arm stretched out over me, a lively red in her cheeks below the two dark circles of her glasses. Then she said in a slow, contented voice: “How disgusting!” and I was surprised because those were the words I would have used myself to express the mingled feeling of repugnance and excitement that I had at that moment.

  I heaved a deep sigh and asked, finally, in a low voice and without looking at her: “Why did you come here?”

  She said nothing; she seemed incapable of speaking.

  “To take the stain out of my trousers? Well then, go and do it. What are you waiting for?”

  I saw her give a start, as though I had hit her in the face. Reluctantly, she opened her fingers, one after the other, then she went out of my field of vision. I realized she had gone out of the room too, for I heard the sound of the door opening and shutting. As soon as I was sure she had gone, I jumped off the bed and went and opened the wardrobe. As I was hoping, beside the silk dressing gown which, according to my mother’s advice, I ought to be putting on, there was hanging in a cellophane bag the only suit I had not taken away with me when I had gone to live in the studio—my dinner jacket and trousers. I took out the trousers and put them on. They fitted me pretty well, though perhaps a bit large in the waist; I had been fatter ten years ago, for my mother’s food was richer and more nourishing than that of the modest restaurants I had been frequenting recently. I looked at myself in the glass; with my brown linen jacket and black trousers I had the appearance of an unemployed waiter. Very slowly I opened the door and, seeing that there was no one there, ran hurriedly downstairs and, avoiding the reception rooms, went along the passage into the hall and so out of the front door.

  The two cars, the old and the new, were standing there side by side in front of the house. The cloudy sky, the trees, the villa were vaguely reflected in the clear glossiness of the new car; the old car, on the other hand, looked dull and dim—with the same kind of dullness, I could not help saying to myself, with which boredom usually veiled the world around me. I tore a page out of my pocket notebook and wrote on it: “Thank you, but I would rather keep my old car. Your most affectionate son, Dino.” This I inserted under the windshield wiper, in the place where policemen put parking
tickets. Then I got into my car, started the engine and went away.

  2

  IN THE SAME building in Via Margutta in which I lived, an elderly painter called Balestrieri had a studio three doors beyond mine on the ground floor corridor. I used often to meet him and had exchanged a few words with him, but was not in the habit of visiting him; like all men who think of nothing but women, Balestrieri behaved with extreme, almost insulting coldness toward persons of his own sex, whatever might be their condition or age, evidently seeing them as just so many potential rivals. Balestrieri was a small man with very broad shoulders and very large feet—two disproportions which he took no trouble to conceal; in fact he drew attention to them by wearing enormous check sports jackets and old-fashioned pointed, patent-leather shoes. Balestrieri’s face had in it a strong look of the carnival mask or the Pompeian satyr: the hair silvery white, the skin a hectic red, eyebrows black as coal, a prominent nose, a large mouth, a pointed chin. The expression of his face was slightly doll-like, and yet, underneath, there was a look of uneasiness. I had heard from one or two elderly painters who knew Balestrieri well that he was very erotic, and that he had begun painting in his youth solely in order to attract women to his studio, under the pretext of painting them. Afterward however, the habit of painting, so to speak, had remained with him—which for him meant, above all things, painting the female nude. Balestrieri, who was comfortably off, did not depend on his work for a living; he never exhibited and, in a way, painted for himself only; his friends told me that, so great was his affection for his pictures, on the rare occasions when he decided to give one of them away he used to make a copy and give it in place of the original. As for their quality, all his friends were agreed that he was an extremely bad painter. Once or twice, seized with curiosity, I tried to get a glimpse of Balestrieri’s pictures from the courtyard, through his big window; and I caught sight of a few large, dark canvases upon which could be distinguished, with some difficulty, enormous female nudes with exaggerated forms, in attitudes far from natural.

 
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