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The empty canvas, p.6
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       The Empty Canvas, p.6

           Alberto Moravia
 

  '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 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 latter, and the son, going off together 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 at the same time both 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 round, 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 window-frame, 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; and 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 into the window of an airline company and see a section of an aeroplane 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, then, 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 towards the centre of my body. Rita was now standing quite still, bending a little forward, her arm stretched out over me, a lively red in her cheeks below the two dark circles of her glasses. Then she said, strangely, in a slow, contented voice: 'How disgusting!'; and I was surprised because those were the words I would have used myself if I had wanted 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 shrugged her shoulders and 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, and then, reluctantly, open 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 after a moment 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 its 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 little big 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's coachwork; 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 all round me. I tore a page out of my pocket-book and wrote on it: 'Thank you, but I would rather keep my old car. Your most affectionate son, Dino.' This I inserted under the blade of the windscreen wiper, in the place where policemen put penalty 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 along the ground floor co
rridor. 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 towards persons of his own sex, whatever might be their condition or age, evidently seeing in them 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 a sex maniac, and that he had begun painting in his youth simply and solely in order to attract women to his studio, under the pretext of painting them. Afterwards, 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.

  Balestrieri's studio was continually visited by a large number of women. I could see them through my own big window as they crossed the courtyard and then disappeared into the door leading to the ground floor corridor. I knew it was Balestrieri they were going to see, because the other two studios were inhabited by two painters who lived in them with their families and who, in any case, did not make use of models because they painted abstract pictures. Balestrieri's women bore witness to a great variety of tastes: they were young and middle-aged, of the working and the upper class, young girls and married women, fair and dark, thin and fat, short and tall; and it became clear that Balestrieri, like all Don Juans of a not very refined type, did not go in for subtleties but was a collector of adventures concerned more with quantity than quality. It was very rarely that Balestrieri had what is called a relationship, that is, a lasting love affair with any one woman; and even when he had, it did not interfere with other less important adventures. Especially during the first years that I lived in Via Margutta, Balestrieri's appearance, and the life he led, filled me with so much curiosity that I even went so far as to spy upon him to some extent. I actually drew up statistics of the women who visited him: as many as five different women in a month, that is, One new woman every six days, and on an average two visits a day. When I saw Balestrieri for the first time, he was fifty-five; at the time during which the events of which I am writing took place, he was sixty-five; yet, during those ten years, I never observed any change in his habits: I saw always the same number of women, more or less, as though time, for him, stood still.

  Or rather, to be more precise, a change there was, but it showed itself, not in a diminution of feminine visits as one might have expected, but in an increase. Balestrieri's eroticism, which I compared often to a volcano in continuous but quiet activity, in fact went through a phase, when he was about sixty-three, which I can only describe as a paroxysm. The women who filed through the courtyard and went and knocked at the old painter's door appeared to be more numerous; furthermore, I noticed that they were now almost always very young girls: like all vicious men, Balestrieri, with the years, inclined towards adolescents. I spoke of a phase of 'paroxysm' in his love life; it would be more correct to say that it was a question, if anything, of a fixation, probably unconscious, upon one single type of woman to the exclusion of all others. Balestrieri, in fact, without realizing it, was at that time ceasing to be the Don Juan, the collector of adventures, that he had always been, and was for the first time devoting himself, or wishing to devote himself, to one woman only. The numerous girls, all more or less of the same age, were therefore nothing more than progressive experiments in a type which, little by little, was becoming precisely defined, tentative approaches towards an ideal figure which, some day, would become flesh and blood. And indeed, all of a sudden the flow of adolescent girls to Balestrieri's studio ceased, giving place to a single feminine visitor for whom, evidently, they had prepared the way and who, in herself, summarized them all.

  I was enabled to observe her with some attention, if only because I became aware, almost at once, that she was observing me. Dressed always like a little ballet-dancer according to the fashion of the moment, in a light puffy blouse and a very short, wide skirt that appeared to be supported by a crinoline, she looked rather like an inverted flower with a crooked, oscillating corolla, walking about on its pistils. She had a round face, like a child; but it was a child that had grown too hastily and had been initiated too soon into the experiences of womanhood. She was pale, with a slight shadow underneath her cheekbones which made her cheeks look hollow, and a mass of thick, brown, curly hair all round her face. Her small mouth, childish both in shape and expression, reminded one of a bud that had withered prematurely on the bough, without opening; and its corners were marked by two thin furrows, which struck me particularly because of the feeling of intense aridity which they suggested. Finally her eyes, her best feature, were large and dark, and they too were childish in shape beneath a rather prominent forehead; and their glance, indefinably remote, indirect, unsteady, was lacking in innocence.

  Unlike Balestrieri's other women, who walked straight and with bent heads towards the old painter's studio, this one crossed the courtyard with what appeared to be a studied slowness, letting herself be drawn along, so it seemed, by the indolent, meditative movement of her hips. She looked not so much as though she were going unwillingly to see Balestrieri, as that on her way she were searching, at the same time, for something else that she herself could not have defined. And almost always, as she crossed the courtyard, she would look up towards my studio, and if—as often happened, since I had my easel close to the window—I were visible behind the glass, she would never fail to accompany her look with a smile. For some time I was uncertain about this smile, which was so slight as to make me doubt whether it was intentional. But later, when I happened to meet her at closer quarters in the corridor, I was forced to the conviction that the smile was for me and that a very precise meaning was attached to it.

  This mute invitation on her part inspired in me an obscure feeling of aversion which I will try to explain. In the first place, I am not given to such adventures, especially if, as was the case here, the adventure is, so to speak, suggested and almost imposed upon me by the woman; in fact, the very persistence of the smile aroused in me an almost spiteful impulse not to return it and to pretend not to have noticed it. In the second place, the girl did not attract me: I had never made love to any but fully grown-up women, and this girl, who could not have been more than seventeen, looked less than fifteen, owing to the slenderness of her figure and the childishness of her face. Finally, there was a third reason, a more valid one if less clear and easy to define, and that was the feeling of nausea that assailed me every time I imagined myself approaching her, speaking to her, and—inevitable consequence—making love to her. This feeling of nausea was not inspired by a direct physical repugnance: the girl did not attract me, it is true, but she was not actually repugnant to me; rather it came from my imaginative picture of the experience in which I should be involved by accepting her invitation. It was, I reflected, the same feeling of nausea that probably everyo
ne experiences when on the threshold of some unknown, vague reality; or perhaps, more simply, of reality unadulterated, if they have become accustomed, over a long period, to not facing it. It was a feeling, as I say, of disgust mingled with apprehension; and it astonished me because the girl, childish and insignificant as she was, did not seem to justify it in any way.

  But it is not easy, when one is bored, to give continuous thought to anything. Boredom, for me, was like a kind of fog in which my thought was constantly losing its way, catching glimpses only at intervals of some detail of reality; like a person in a thick mist who catches a glimpse now of the corner of a house, now of the figure of a passer-by, now of some other object, but only for an instant, and an instant later they have vanished. In the fog of boredom I had caught a glimpse of the girl and of Balestrieri; but without attaching any importance to them, and with my attention being constantly drawn away from them. And so it happened that for weeks I forgot the existence of these two, who nevertheless were living and making love only a few steps away from me. Every now and then I would remember them, almost with astonishment, and say to myself: 'Why, they're still there, they're still making love together!' I forgot Balestrieri to such an extent that, the morning after my flight from my mother's villa, coming back to my studio after having a cup of coffee nearby, and noticing in Via Margutta, right in front of my door, a black and gilt hearse with the usual gilt angels at the four corners and the usual black horses in the shafts, but still empty and without any flowers, I never imagined that it might be waiting there for someone I knew. I went round the hearse, which was blocking the way, and into the entrance-hall, and since I was walking as I habitually do, with my eyes on the ground, I ran straight into the coffin, which four men were at that moment carrying out on their shoulders, bumping my forehead against its lower edge. I immediately jumped back, while the four bearers threw glances of astonished reproof at me; then the coffin went past very close to me, followed by only two persons: a brutal-faced, pock-marked young man in a blue cloth suit, and a woman with her arm in his, of whom I could see nothing as she was smothered in black veils from head to foot. The young man made me think of Balestrieri, possibly because he too had a rather red face and very black eyebrows; at the same moment I heard the caretaker of the building murmuring some comment or other on how sudden some deaths can be, coupled with the name of the old painter. And so I learned that Balestrieri had died, probably the previous day, that this was his funeral and that the woman in mourning was the wife from whom he had been separated for many years and the young man in the blue suit the son whom he had had by her.

 
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