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Conjugal love, p.6
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       Conjugal Love, p.6

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  And yet, strange to say, there persisted in me the conviction that he had not really dared to raise his eyes towards my wife; and that, as I had at first supposed, he had been led against his will to make his admiration clear to her in his own way. The fact that he was a libertine did not seem to me to destroy this supposition; it appeared, rather, to explain the facility with which he had become excited at the first chance contact — a facility easily understandable in an adolescent whose senses are always ready to trip him up, but unlikely in an experienced man of forty whose ardours may be supposed to have cooled. Only a libertine, accustomed to cultivate certain instincts to the exclusion of all others, could have a sensibility so prompt and so irresistible.

  I went so far as to admit that, all things considered, he had not been altogether displeased at finding himself in that embarrassing situation, and that he had at the same time both encouraged and fought against it. But there seemed to me to be no doubt at all that, in the first instance, it had been not deliberate but accidental.

  It is possible that this inclination on my part to consider Antonio as being initially innocent (and I still consider him to be so), may have derived, partly at any rate, from my own selfishness, that is, from my fear of having to give him the sack and shave myself. But, even if this was true, I was certainly not aware of it. I thought over the whole affair with extreme objectivity; and often there is nothing like objectivity - that is, the forgetting of the links that connect objective and subjective motives - to encourage self-deception. To my conviction of Antonio's innocence, and to the feeling of contemptuous pity that I now had for him, must be added my wife's exaggerated reaction, which, if I had even imagined that I could be jealous, destroyed from the very first moment every reason for jealousy. In any case I am not of a jealous nature - at least, I do not think so. In me every passion is finally dissolved in the acid of reflection - a method as good as any other for subduing passion by destroying, at the same time, both its tyrannical power and the suffering it brings.

  After my conversation with Angelo, I went as usual for a walk with my wife. It was then for the first time that I genuinely felt I was deceiving her. I felt I ought to tell her all I had learned about Antonio; but I didn't want to because I was aware that to do so would be, as it were, to rekindle in her, more strongly than ever, that first flame of anger that seemed now to be spent. Uncertain and filled with remorse, I at last said to her, at a moment when she appeared rather absent-minded: 'Perhaps you're still thinking about Antonio's lack of respect? ... If you really want me to, I'll get rid of him.'

  I think that, if she had asked it of me, this time I should have satisfied her. In effect, my selfishness had received a shock; and I only needed a little encouragement to give her what she wanted. I saw her give a start: '. . . Thinking about the barber? . . . no, no, not at all. ... To tell the truth, I had really forgotten all about him.'

  'But if you want me to, I'll get rid of him,' I insisted, encouraged by this indifference of hers which seemed to be quite sincere, and with the feeling of making a proposal that could not fail to be rejected.

  'But I don't want you to,' she said, 'it doesn't matter to me in the least.. . . Really, as far as I'm concerned, it's just as if nothing had happened at all.'

  'You see, I was thinking . . .'

  'It's a thing that concerns you, and only you,' she concluded with a thoughtful air, 'for the reason that it's only you, now, who can be vexed, or not vexed, by his presence here. . . .'

  'To tell the truth, it doesn't worry me.'

  'Well then, why should you get rid of him?'

  I was pleased at this reasonableness on her part, although I was again conscious of a vague sort of disappointment. But it was my fate, at that period, that the happiness of a creative instinct at last satisfied should have made me fail to analyse carefully any of the feelings which, one after the other, manifested themselves in me. Next day Antonio came again and I noticed with astonishment that that curious charm of his, far from being dispelled by Angelo's information, still remained intact. In fact, the mystery of which I had been aware before I knew anything about him, subsisted even now when I thought I knew everything. This mystery had been thrust back into a less accessible region, that was all. The thought came to me that it was rather like the mystery of all other things, both great and small: everything about them can be explained except their existence.

  9

  DURING the days that followed I went on working with an impetus and a facility that appeared to increase steadily the nearer I approached the end of my task. Antonio continued to come every morning, and I, when the first embarrassment was over, regarded him again with unimpaired, curiosity. I felt that there was now a bond between him and me; I might have severed this bond at the very beginning, if I had dismissed him as my wife had suggested; but I had not done this, and a new relationship, tacit but recognizable, had resulted. I find it difficult to explain the feeling that this relationship gave me. At first there had been, between me and Antonio, the usual relationship that exists between superior and inferior; after my wife's accusation this relationship had been modified: the superior was also the husband whose honour was assailed or who might believe his honour to be assailed, the inferior was also the assailant, or might believe himself to be the assailant. But these two relationships were in fact purely conventional, founded as they were, the first on the fictitious state of dependence and authority conferred by the giving and taking of a wage, the second on the no less fictitious moral obligation imposed by the matrimomal tie. In suggesting that I should replace Antonio, my wife had really suggested that I should accept these two conventions without taking into account the particular effective factors in the case. I, however, had rejected her suggestion, and Antonio had not been replaced. Now I felt that, as a consequence of my refusal, there had grown up between him and me a new relationship, which was certainly much more real because it was founded upon the situation as it was and not as it ought to have been; only this relationship could be neither classified nor defined, and it made possible many consequences. I knew that, having refused to behave as anyone else in my place would have behaved - that is, as a superior and as a husband - I had opened the way to all sorts of possibilities, since everything now depended upon the developments in the real situation, independent of convention, in which we found ourselves. I saw that, in substance, the attitude suggested to me by my wife, conventional as it was, was the only tenable attitude if one wanted the situation to retain a recognizable external appearance. Outside this attitude anything was possible, and everything dissolved and fell to pieces. This attitude allowed each of us to keep to a well-known, pre-established role; outside this attitude our identities became blurred, misty, interchangeable.

  These reflections made me understand the usefulness of moral standards and social conventions, which are, of course, external, but are indispensable for checking natural disorder and bringing it to order. And yet, on the other hand, I saw that, once moral standards and social conventions have been rejected, this same disorder must perforce tend to come to a standstill and systematize itself upon a foundation of sheer necessity. In other words, apart from the solution proposed by my wife, there remained one other solution which would be dictated by the actual nature of the circumstances. It was rather like a river which is either confined between artificial embankments or is allowed to spread out according to the slope and the accidents of the ground: in both cases, though by different methods and with different effects, it will form a bed of its own by which it may run away to the sea. But this second solution, the most natural and the most fateful, was still unlikely to come about, and, as it seemed to me, would perhaps never come about at all: Antonio would continue to come and shave me, I would finish my work and, later on, my wife and I would go away, and I would never know how much truth there had been in my wife's accusations. I can now set forth these reflections of mine in an orderly and lucid fashion. But, at the time, they were not so much reflections as vag
ue feelings, and it was as though they proceeded from an indisposition caused by consciousness, which had taken the place of my previous agreeable unconsciousness.

  It may perhaps seem surprising that I should have thought, or rather felt, in this way at the very moment when the thing was going on and was developing under my very eyes, and when my most precious affections were, or might seem to me to be, threatened. But I wish to repeat what I have already said more than once: I was absorbed in creative activity (or thought I was) and everything else was indifferent to me. Of course I had not ceased to love my wife and to have a natural sense of my own honour; but artistic creation, by a strange miracle, had removed the heavy stamp of urgency from these things and had transferred it to the pages of the book that I was engaged in writing. If my wife, instead of accusing Antonio of being disrespectful to her, had revealed to me that she had seen him wiping his razor on one of the pages of my story, I certainly should not have speculated upon his ignorance or his irresponsibility; I should have dismissed him at once. And yet such a fault was certainly more understandable, more justifiable, more pardonable than the fault that had been imputed to him. What was it that made me indifferent to what he had done in relation to my wife and, on the other hand, made me react so violently to the possibility of his spoiling my work? This was where the mystery came in of which I had been aware in him from the beginning, the mystery that Angelo's revelations had quite failed to dispel and which lay, in truth, more in myself than in him. It was a mystery, when all is said and done, that is created, and always will be created, every time that one leaves the surface of things and descends into the depths.

  As for my wife, she no longer came and joined me, as before, while Antonio was shaving me, and I suppose that, until the barber had left the house, she remained shut up in her own room. In the end this attitude of hers annoyed me because it showed that she was clinging to her first conventional reaction, and had no intention of exchanging it for an approach such as mine, rational, speculative. I asked her - I do not remember how, or on what occasion - why she never appeared now during the morning. She answered me directly, without any irritation but with just a touch of impatience: 'But, Silvio . . . really, sometimes I almost doubt your intelligence . . . how could I possibly appear? That man hasn't been punished for his insolence.. . .If I appeared he might think I have forgiven him - or worse. ... By not appearing I allow him to think that I preferred to avoid a scandal and so didn't tell you.'

  I don't know what demon of subtlety prompted me to reply: 'He may also have thought that you didn't notice. . . . And this makes it worse; you're allowing him to think that you did notice and that, in spite of that, you're not doing anything about it or making me do anything.'

  'The only possible thing,' she answered calmly, 'would have been to give him the sack that same day.'

  10

  AT last the morning came when I wrote the last word at the end of the last line of the last page, and closed the exercise-book which contained my story. It seemed to me that I had made an enormous effort and that I had been working for an infinite time: in point of fact I had jotted down the equivalent of about a hundred printed pages and had worked for little more than twenty days or so. With my exercise-book in my hand I went over to the window and mechanically turned over its pages: tears came into my eyes, whether from joy or from exhaustion at the end of my labours, I did not know. I could not help thinking that in that bundle of sheets was harvested the finest product of my life, everything, in fact, that from henceforth would make life seem worth while, for the past as well as for the future. I turned the pages slowly, and as I gazed at them I became aware that my sight was growing dim and I felt the tears falling upon my hands. Then I saw Antonio crossing the gravel sweep on his bicycle, and hastily I replaced the exercise-book on the desk and wiped my eyes.

  Later, after Antonio had left, I went into my bedroom and, while dressing, I started as usual to think about the work I had done. On other days I had been used to think merely of the pages I had written that same morning, but this day, for the first time, I gloated over the whole story, caressing it in my memory from beginning to end. There in front of me, in fact, was what I now privately called my masterpiece, complete and perfect, and I was at last able to enjoy it in its entirety, as one enjoys a panoramic view after a long and wearisome climb during which one has been able to catch only partial glimpses of it. But these things can only be suggested, not described. All I can say is that, while I was thinking about my story, time seemed to be suspended in a sort of ravishment - and so, indeed, it was. All of a sudden the door opened, and my wife appeared on the threshold: 'What on earth are you doing?' she said. 'Lunch is ready . . . it's been ready for three quarters of an hour.'

  I was sitting on the bed, in my dressing-gown, and my clothes were still lying on the chair on which I had placed them the night before. I looked at the watch on my wrist: Antonio had left at about a quarter to one, and now it was two o'clock. I had spent a whole hour and a quarter sitting on the bed, with one sock on and the other in my hand. 'I'm sorry,' I said, with a violent start of surprise, 'I don't know what can have happened to me . . . I'll come at once.' I dressed hurriedly and joined her downstairs.

  In the afternoon, when that first enthusiasm had subsided, the first questions took shape in my mind. I had decided to read the story to my wife as soon as I had finished it. I trusted her more than I trusted myself, more than I trusted any critic whatsoever. As I have already said, she was not a cultivated woman, she had no knowledge of literary matters, and her interest in books was the interest of an ordinary person who pays more attention to facts than to style. But, just for these reasons, just because I knew that her judgement would be more or less that of the ignorant public, I trusted her. I knew her to be lively, sufficiently intelligent, full of good sense, and, in the long run, incapable of being taken in, though for different reasons from those of a professional man of letters. Her judgement, I was aware, would not perhaps be competent to give me an idea of the strictly literary value of the story, but would certainly enable me to understand whether the book was alive or not. And, after all, in the case of any book whatsoever, the first question to be considered should be that of its vitality as a whole. There are books that are extremely imperfect, badly constructed, jumbled, untidy and yet alive, which we read and shall always read; and there are, on the other hand, books that are perfect in every detail, well planned, well composed, tidy and polished and yet dead, which, with all their perfection, not knowing what to make of it, we reject utterly. This was a conviction I had reached after many years of reading and of practice in criticism. And so, in the first place, I had to know whether my book was alive; and nobody would be able to assure me of this better than my wife.

  I ought to say that I prepared myself for this trial - which, in a way, I considered to be of supreme importance - with complete tranquility of mind. I still had many doubts about the literary qualities of my story, not having re-read it and having, also, the impression that I had perhaps written it in rather a hurry. But with regard to its vitality it seemed to me that there could be no doubts. Had not all those discouraging feelings of sterility, of strain, of inadequacy, of bungling, of sophistry, which had tormented me all my life and which had always, in the end, brought me to a standstill whenever I had tried to write - had not all these gradually fallen away, the further I progressed in my composition? Had I not been conscious, as I wrote, that a kind of dam had burst in my breast, and that all that it had been holding back had escaped, not to run away quietly like a brook, but forcing its way out and swelling like a flood? Had I not, indeed, felt all the time that my essential self was faithfully reflected in what I was writing, as was all that I wrote in my essential self? Other and similar arguments had by now brought me to face with tranquillity any effects that the reading of my story might have upon my wife.

  There were still one or two practical difficulties. The manuscript, though not inextricably confused, contained numbers of c
rossings-out and additions between the lines which might perhaps make the reading of it somewhat muddled and unpleasing. It might happen that, at certain points, I would have to stop and examine the page in order to pick up the lost thread of meaning, thus breaking a charm which I would wish to be uninterrupted and complete. It might also have happened that, in the hurry of this first draft, certain details, certain finishing touches, might have been forgotten. While on a walk with Leda, talking of indifferent matters, I debated the pros and cons of reading the story to her that same afternoon. I decided finally that I must put off the reading for about ten days, during which time I would type out the manuscript. I knew that, as I copied it, many things that might be wrong would come right, and many others that might be lacking altogether could be added. The style would thus be consolidated and all raggedness would be eliminated. Besides - and this was a decisive argument - I would be able, for another ten days, to enjoy my masterpiece in unpublished intimacy. This last reason finally convinced me.

  I had brought my typewriter with me from Rome; it was a new one, or nearly so, for I had used it only for writing business letters and an occasional article. It was an American machine, of the best and most up-to-date kind that could be found, and its high qualities, during my periods of sterility, had sometimes filled me with bitterness. I was, it seemed to me, merely one of those wealthy, incompetent writers who possess everything needed for the writing of a masterpiece - money, time, a comfortable, quiet study, paper of the finest quality, fountain pens of the best make, the last word in typewriters - everything except genius. Such a man comes finally to envy the cheap note-book in which some starving youth scribbles a few lines, every now and then, in pencil, as the fleeting inspiration moves him, sitting in the corner of a cafe or a popular eating-house. Now, however, the bitter sense of sterility aroused in me by my beautiful typewriter and all the other conveniences at my disposal, had disappeared. I had wealth, I had leisure - but I had created; expensive paper, a study, a library, a typewriter were all mine - but I had created. Such superstitions, I believe, fill the lives of men who create - or who think they create.

 
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