Contempt, p.7Alberto Moravia
“What do you mean?”
“You snore.” She smiled faintly and then went on: “You used to wake me up every night...That’s why I decided to sleep by myself.”
I was somewhat disconcerted at this detail of my snoring, of which I was ignorant and which, furthermore, I found it difficult to believe: I had slept with other women and none of them had ever told me that I snored. “And then,” I said, “I know you don’t love me because a wife who loves”—I hesitated, slightly shamefaced—“does not make love in the way you’ve been doing, for some time past, with me.”
She immediately protested, irritably and roughly: “Really I don’t know what it is you want. We make love every time you wish to. And have I ever refused you?”
I knew that of the two of us, in this kind of confidential talk, it was always I who was the modest, the shamefaced, the embarrassed one. Emilia, usually so reserved and proper, seemed, in intimacy, to lose all idea of modesty or embarrassment: in fact, in a way that vaguely astonished me every time and that I found attractive for some quality it had of natural innocence, she used to talk, before, during, and after our love-making, of that love-making itself, without the slightest veil of tenderness or reticence and with a disconcerting crudeness and freedom. “No, not refused,” I muttered; “no...but...”
She resumed, in a conclusive tone of voice: “Every single time you’ve wanted to make love, we’ve done so. And you’re not one to be contented with just the simple act...you’re good at making love, you know.”
“Do you think so?” I asked, almost flattered.
“Yes,” she said dryly, without looking at me, “but if I didn’t love you, the very fact of your being good at making love would irritate me, and I should try to avoid it...and a woman can always find excuses for refusing, can’t she?”
“All right,” I said, “you do it, you’ve never refused me... but the way in which you do it is not the way of a person who loves.”
“Why, in what way do I do it?”
I ought to have answered her: “You do it like a prostitute who submits to her client and wants only that the thing shall be quickly over...that’s how you do it!” But, out of respect for her and for myself too, I preferred to remain silent. And in any case, what would have been the use of it? She would have replied that it was not true, and—quite probably—she would have reminded me, with crude technical precision, of certain transports of sensuality on her own side, in which everything was included—skill, pursuit of pleasure, violent excitement, erotic fury—everything except tenderness and the indescribable abandonment of true surrender; and I should not have known what to say to this; and, into the bargain, I should have offended her with that insulting comparison and thus have put myself in the wrong. And so, in despair, realizing that the explanation I had wanted to bring about had now dissolved into thin air, I said: “Well anyhow, whatever the reason, I’m convinced you don’t love me any more—that’s all.”
Again, before either answering or moving, she looked at me as if to calculate, from the expression of my face, what would be the most suitable attitude for her to take towards me. I noticed then a peculiarity which I already knew: her beautiful, dark, serene face, so harmonious, so symmetrical, so compact, underwent, through the irresolution that cleft her mind, a process almost, as it were, of decay: one cheek seemed to have grown thinner (but not the other), her mouth was no longer exactly in the middle of her face, her eyes, bewildered and dim, seemed to be disintegrating within their sockets as though within a circle of dark wax. I said that I already knew this peculiarity of hers: this same thing did in fact happen every time she had to face a decision which she disliked or towards which she did not feel herself naturally drawn. And then, with a sudden impulse of her whole body, she threw her arms round my neck, saying in a voice that sounded to me false: “But Riccardo, why do you say that?...I do love you...just as much as I did in the past.” Her breath was warm in my ear, and I felt her pass her hand over my forehead, my temples, my hair, and pull my head down against her breast, clasping it tightly between her arms.
But the idea came into my mind that she was embracing me like that so as not to show me the expression on her face, which was perhaps merely bored and at the same time diligent, the expression of a person who does something in which his spirit has no share, purely from volition; and as I pressed my face, in a desperate longing for love, against her breast, half-bared and rising and falling with her calm breathing, I could not help thinking: “These are only gestures...but she is bound to give herself away by some remark or some intonation in her voice.” I waited a little, and then she ventured to say, cautiously: “What would you do if I really had ceased to love you?”
So I was right, I thought in bitter triumph; she had betrayed herself. She wished to know what I would do if she had ceased to love me, so as to weigh up and estimate all the risks of complete frankness. Without moving, speaking into her soft, warm breast, I said: “I’ve already told you...the first thing I’d do would be to refuse Battista’s new job.” I should have liked to add: “And I should part from you”; but I had not the courage to say it at that moment, with my cheek against her breast and her hand on my forehead. In reality I still hoped that she might love me, and I was afraid that this separation, even by the admission of its mere possibility, might really come to pass. Finally I heard her say, while she still went on embracing me closely: “But I do love you...and all this is absurd. Now, you know what you’re going to do? As soon as Battista telephones, you must make an appointment with him and then you must go and accept the job.”
“But why should I do that, seeing that you’ve ceased to love me?” I cried in exasperation.
Her answer, this time, was given in a tone of reasonable reproof. “I love you, but don’t go on making me repeat it...and it means a lot to me to stay in this flat. If it doesn’t suit you to take this job, I shall not make any objection...but if you don’t want to take it because you think I’ve ceased to love you or because you think the flat doesn’t mean anything to me, let me tell you you’re quite wrong.”
I began almost to hope that she was not lying; and at the same time I realized that, at least for the moment, she had persuaded me. And yet, in desperation, I now wanted to know more, to be utterly sure, to have incontestable proofs. Then, as though she had an intuition of my desire, she loosened her hold of me all of a sudden and whispered: “Kiss me—won’t you?”
I raised myself up and looked at her for a moment before kissing her; I was struck by the air of fatigue, almost of exhaustion, that was visible in her face, now more disintegrated, more irresolute than ever. It was as though she had undergone a superhuman strain while she had been speaking to me and caressing and embracing me; and as though she were preparing to undergo another, even more painful, during the kiss. Nevertheless I took her chin in my hand and was on the point of bringing my lips close to hers. At that moment the telephone rang. “It’s Battista,” she said, disengaging herself with obvious relief and running into the next room. From the sofa, where I remained seated, I saw her, through the open door, take off the receiver and say: “Yes...yes, he’s here, I’ll get him at once...How are you?”
A few words followed, from the other end of the line. Then, with a gesture of understanding towards me from where she stood, she said: “We were just talking about you and your new film...”
A few more mysterious remarks. In a calm voice she said: “Yes, we must meet as soon as possible. Now I’ll get Riccardo for you.”
I got up, went into the other room and took the receiver. Battista told me, as I had foreseen, that he was expecting me next day, in the afternoon, at his office. I said I would come and exchanged a few more words with him, then replaced the receiver. Only then did I become aware that Emilia had left the room while I was speaking. And I could not help thinking that she had gone away because she had succeeded in persuading me to agree to the appointment with Battista; there was now no further need either of her presence or of her
I WENT TO MY appointment next day, at the time arranged. Battista’s offices occupied the entire first floor of an ancient palace, once the abode of a patrician family and now—as so often happens—the business premises of a number of commercial concerns. The great reception-rooms, with their frescoed, vaulted ceilings and stuccoed walls, had been divided by him, with simple wooden partitions, into a number of little rooms with utilitarian furniture; where once old paintings with mythological or sacred subjects had hung, there were now large, brightly colored posters; pinned up everywhere were photographs of actors and actresses, pages torn out of picture papers, framed certificates of festival awards, and other similar adornments generally to be found in the offices of film companies. In the anteroom, against a background of faded sylvan frescoes, rose, throne-like, an enormous counter of green-painted metal, from behind which three or four female secretaries welcomed visitors. Battista, as a producer, was still young, and he had made good progress in recent years with films inferior in quality but commercially successful. His company, modestly called “Triumph Films,” was, at the moment, regarded as one of the best.
At that hour the anteroom was already thronged, and, with the experience of film types I had now acquired, I could classify all the visitors with certainty at the first glance: two or three script-writers, recognizable by their look of mingled fatigue and industriousness, by the copy-books they held under their arms, and by the style of their clothes, at the same time both smart and careless; one or two elderly cinema organizers or managers, looking exactly like country estate-agents or cattle-brokers; two or three girls, aspiring actresses or rather walkers-on, young and pretty perhaps, but as it were spoiled in advance by their ambitions, with their studied expressions, their excessive make-up, and their way of dressing from which all simplicity was banished; and finally a few nondescript individuals such as are always to be found in producers’ anterooms—out-of-work actors, suggestion-mongers, cadgers of various kinds. All these people were walking up and down on the dirty mosaic floor, or lounging on the high-backed, gilt chairs round the walls, yawning, smoking and chattering in low voices. The secretaries, when they were not speaking on one of the numerous telephones, remained motionless behind the counter, staring into vacancy with eyes that, from sheer boredom and absence of thought, looked glassy and almost squinting. From time to time a bell rang with violent and unpleasant shrillness; and then the secretaries would rouse themselves, call out a name, and one of the visitors would jump up hastily and disappear through a white-and-gold double door.
I gave in my name and then went and sat down at the far end of the room. I was now in a state of mind just as desperate as the day before, but much calmer. Immediately after my conversation with Emilia, and on thinking it over, I had convinced myself once and for all that she had lied to me in saying that she loved me; but for the moment, partly from discouragement, partly from a punctilious wish to force her into the complete and sincere explanation which I had not yet obtained, I gave up the idea, provisionally at least, of acting in accordance with my conviction. I had therefore decided not to refuse Battista’s new job, although I knew, for certain, that—like all the rest of my life, indeed—it now served no purpose. Later on, I thought, as soon as I had managed to wrest the truth from Emilia, there would always be time to break off the job and throw up everything. In some ways, in fact, I preferred this second and more clamorous solution to the first. The scandal and loss would to some extent emphasize my desperation and, simultaneously, my absolute determination to be done with all hesitation and compromise.
As I say, I felt calm; but it was the calm of apathy and listlessness. An uncertain evil causes anxiety because, at the bottom of one’s heart, one goes on hoping till the last moment that it may not be true; a certain evil, on the other hand, instills, for a time, a kind of dreary tranquillity. I felt tranquil, but I knew that soon I should no longer be so: the first phase, the phase of suspicion, was over—or so I thought; soon would begin the phase of pain and revolt and remorse. All this I knew, but I knew also that between these two phases there could be an interlude of deathly calm, just like the false, stifling calm that precedes the second and worse period of a thunderstorm.
Then, as I waited to be shown into Battista’s room, it flashed across my mind that so far I had restricted myself to making certain of the existence, or non-existence, of Emilia’s love. But now, it seemed to me, I knew for certain that she no longer loved me. Therefore, I thought, almost surprised at my new discovery, I could now turn my mind to a new problem—that of the reason why she had ceased to love me. Also, once I had divined the reason, it would be easier for me to force her to an explanation.
I must admit that, as soon as I had put the question to myself, I was struck by a sense of incredulity, almost of extravagance. It was too unlikely, too absurd: it was quite impossible that Emilia could have a reason for ceasing to love me. From what source I derived this assurance, I could not have said; just as, on the other hand, I could not have said why—since according to me she could have no reason for ceasing to love me—it was quite obvious that she did not love me. I reflected for a few moments, bewildered by this contradiction between my head and my heart. Finally, as one does with certain problems in geometry, I said to myself: “Let us grant it absurd that there should be a reason, although there cannot but be a reason. And let us see what it can possibly be.”
I have noticed that the more doubtful one feels the more one clings to a false lucidity of mind, as though hoping to clarify by reason that which is darkened and obscured by feeling. It gave me pleasure, at that moment when instinct produced such contradictory replies, to have recourse to a reasoned investigation, like a detective in a crime story. Someone has been killed; the motive for which he may have been killed must be sought out; if the motive is discovered it will be easy to trace the criminal...I argued, then, that the motives might be of two kinds: the first depending upon Emilia, the second upon me. And the first, as I immediately realized, were all summed up in a single one: Emilia no longer loved me because she loved someone else.
It appeared to me, on first thinking about it, that this supposition could be rejected without more ado. Not merely had there been nothing in Emilia’s behavior in recent times to lead one to suspect the presence of another man in her life, but there had been actually the opposite—an increase both in the amount of time spent alone and in her dependence upon me. Emilia, I knew, was almost always at home, where she spent her time reading a little or telephoning to her mother or attending to her household chores; and for her distractions, whether going to the cinema, or taking a walk, or dining at a restaurant, she depended almost entirely upon me. Certainly her life had been more varied, and, in its modest way, more sociable, immediately after our marriage, when she still retained a few friendships from the time when she was a girl. But the bonds of such friendships had very soon been loosened; and she had clung ever more tightly to me, depending upon me, as I have already mentioned, more and more, to an extent that was sometimes, for me, positively embarrassing. This dependence, moreover, had not weakened in the least, with the weakening of her feeling for me; she had not sought, even in the most innocent way, to find a substitute for me nor in the slightest degree to prepare for such an eventuality: in the same way as before—except that the love had gone out of it—she would sit at home waiting for my return from work, and she still depended on me for her few amusements. There was, in fact, something pathetic and unhappy about this loveless dependence of hers; it was as if somebody, by nature faithful, went on being faithful even when the reasons for faithfulness had disappeared. In a word, although she no longer loved me, it was almost certain that she had no one but me in her life.
Furthermore, another observation I had made caused me to exclude the possibility that Emilia might be in love with some other man. I knew her, or thought I knew her, very well. And I knew that she was incapable of telling lies, in the first place because of a c
I was so deeply absorbed in these reflections that I did not notice that one of the secretaries was standing in front of me, smiling and repeating: “Signor Molteni...Dr. Battista is waiting for you.” Finally I pulled myself together, and, interrupting my investigations for the time being, hurried off to the producer’s office.
He was sitting at the far end of a spacious room with a frescoed ceiling and walls adorned with gilt plasterwork, behind a desk of green-painted metal, exactly like the secretaries’ counter that encumbered the anteroom. I realize at this point that, though I have often spoken of him, I have not yet described him, and I think it may be expedient to do so. Battista, then, was the kind of man to whom his collaborators and dependents, as soon as his back was turned, referred to with charming names such as “the brute,” “the big ape,” “the great beast,” “the gorilla.” I cannot say that these epithets were undeserved, at least as regards Battista’s physical appearance; however, partly owing to my dislike of calling anyone by a nickname, I had never succeeded in adopting them. This was also because these nicknames erred, in my opinion, in not taking into account one of Battista’s highly important qualities, I mean his most unusual artfulness, not to stay subtlety, which was always present, though concealed under an apparent brutishness. Certainly he was a coarse, animal-like man, endowed with a tenacious, exuberant vitality; but this vitality expressed itself not only in his many and various appetites but also in an acuteness that was sometimes extremely delicate and calculating, especially in relation to the satisfaction of those appetites.
Contempt by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes