Boredom, p.7Alberto Moravia
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 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 went so far as to spy upon him to some extent. I 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 the events I am writing about 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, there was a change, 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 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 toward adolescents. I spoke of a paroxysm in his love life; it would be more correct to say that it was a fixation, probably unconscious, upon one single type of woman to the exclusion of all others. Balestrieri, 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 toward 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 able 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 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 around 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. Their glance, indefinably remote, indirect, unsteady, was lacking in innocence.
Unlike Balestrieri’s other women, who walked straight and with bent heads to 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, but as though while on her way she were searching for something else that she herself could not have defined. And almost always, as she crossed the courtyard, she would look up toward my studio, and if—as often happened, since I had my easel close to the window—I were visible, 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 the adventure is 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 mature 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 even 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 everyone experiences when on the threshold of some unknown, vague reality; or perhaps, more simply, of reality unadulterated, if one has become accustomed, over a long period, to not facing it. It was a feeling 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 when one is bored it is not easy 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, before they vanish. 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 were living and making love only a few steps away from me. 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 near by, 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 around 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 glared at me reprovingly, then the coffin passed close to me, followed by only two persons; a brutal-faced, pock-marked young man in a blue cloth suit and a wo
As I have already said, my mind at that time had been distracted by boredom to such a degree that I had forgotten the existence not only of Balestrieri but also of the girl. Therefore it was without surprise that I realized I had been in my studio during the last two days without knowing that, three doors further on, Balestrieri had been taken ill, had died, had been watched over through the night, had been placed in his coffin, had been carried away. Heaven knows, I thought, someone may have spoken to me of Balestrieri’s illness, and I, while hearing, had not listened, lost in boredom as I was; just as it sometimes happened that I read carefully the headlines in the newspapers and discovered a moment later that I had no idea of what they said. It had required the coffin, or rather the painful blow from the coffin on my forehead, to make me remember the painter’s existence, at the same moment when I became aware of his death.
Balestrieri’s death, moreover, had not been so simple a matter as might appear at first sight. That same day, partly through the shocked allusions of the caretaker, partly through the more explicit comments of a group of friends whom I met at the café, I was able to reconstruct the old painter’s end. It seemed that Balestrieri had died at a very special moment, that is, while he was in the act of making love with the girl who had so often smiled at me. Furthermore, this lovemaking had not been of a normal kind—meaning by “normal” the act which leads to procreation—but rather a distortion of it, an erotic speciality, so that Balesterieri had been killed not by lovemaking but by the manner in which he had done it. The caretaker refused to be explicit, she merely alluded to the matter with indignation; my friends at the café, on the other hand, had been cheerfully liberal with details, as though they had been present in Balestrieri’s studio at the moment of his death; but, as I finally managed to establish, this was all a question of supposition. In reality Balestrieri had felt sick and had died under the frightened eyes of the girl; that was all that was known for certain. The fact that the girl was his mistress, that he had been found half-naked on the bed, and that the girl herself had run out and called the caretaker, wearing a dressing gown with nothing underneath—all this seemed to confirm the gossip about a sudden death which had taken place at the moment of pleasure. But those who were unwilling to believe this pointed out that the girl was in a dressing gown because she was a model and was sitting to Balestrieri, and that the latter, in the summer, always used to work in a sleeveless vest and a pair of swimming trunks. On the other hand, in support of the “love-death” gossip, there was the reported statement of the doctor who had been summoned to the death bed: “If this man had realized that there are certain things that cannot be done at his age, he would still be alive.” Others, however, maintained that, after examining Balestrieri, all the doctor had said to the girl was: “Signorina, you killed him,” adding immediately afterwards: “Or rather, you helped him to kill himself.” But no one knew who this doctor was nor where he was to be found; he might have been called in through one of the numerous drugstores in the neighborhood; nor did I trouble to track him down.
That same day, after having lunch in a little restaurant in Via Margutta, I went back to my studio and found a parcel with a note from my mother. In her note, my mother gave me a lesson in good manners: “Another time, instead of running away like that, do at least come and say good-bye to me.” In the parcel were my dinner jacket and the light trousers which the good Rita had cleaned and ironed. I threw the whole lot onto the floor, lay down on the divan and lit a cigarette. I was suffering as usual from a cruel sense of boredom, and it seemed odd to me that other people did not notice my boredom—they did not realize that, for me, they and the whole world did not really exist. It seemed odd that, like my mother, they should continue to behave toward me as though I were not bored. As I lay there smoking, I gradually began to reflect upon my situation, which was obviously going from bad to worse every day; and finally I asked myself what there was left for me to do, now that I had given up painting and had nevertheless not had the courage to accept my mother’s money. I realized that there was little to be done, in the sense of any action that would introduce some really substantial change; but that I could always do what many people do when they find themselves in an unendurable situation: accept it and adapt myself to it. Fundamentally, I thought, I was like some scion of a noble but decayed family who obstinately tries to go on living on the same sumptuous scale as his ancestors. The day he accepts a situation which hitherto has seemed to him unendurable, and which, on the other hand, is the normal situation of an immense number of people, he ceases to suffer and realizes that everything which seemed intolerable at one level is no longer so at a lower level. In reality, what made me suffer was not so much boredom itself as the idea that I could, and should, not be bored. I also belonged to a noble and very ancient family which had never been bored, which had always had a direct and concrete relationship with reality. I had to forget this family and to accept, once and for all, the position in which I found myself. But could one live in a state of boredom, could one live without any relationship with anything real, and not suffer from it? Here was the whole problem.
As I meditated thus I became drowsy and fell heavily asleep, with a sensation of drowning rather than sleeping. I had a very vivid dream: I seemed to be standing in front of my easel, my palette in one hand and a brush in the other. On the easel stood the usual empty canvas, and beside the easel—a curious thing, because it was several years since I had done any figure painting—stood a model. She was a young woman with a sage, bespectacled face very reminiscent of Rita’s, and with a curiously flat, unsubstantial body against whose bloodless whiteness the twin dark spots on the breast, like big, dark coins, and the black public triangle, stood out startlingly, like those of a corpse. I was, supposedly, painting the model; and indeed my hand, armed with a brush, was moving and evidently painting on the invisible surface of the canvas. I went on painting with care, with concentration, with assurance; the picture was going well, the model did not breathe or move and would have seemed to be really dead if it had not been for the gleam of her spectacles and the faintly ironical smile that curled her lips. Finally, after a very long sitting, the picture was finished and I moved back a step or two so as to contemplate it at leisure. To my amazement, the canvas was empty, blank, clean; no female nude was visible upon it, either drawn or painted; I had certainly been working but I had done nothing. Frightened, I seized the first tube of color that came to hand, squeezed out a jet of paint on to the palette, dipped the brush in it and frantically flung myself upon the canvas again. Nothing: the canvas remained blank and meanwhile the girl was smiling more and more mockingly at my vain efforts, all the time retaining the sage, hypocritical expression imparted by her big tortoise-shell glasses. Then a hand was placed on my shoulder; Balestrieri—Balestrieri and none other—a fatherly smile upon his red face, took the brush and palette from me and planted himself in front of the canvas, turning his back toward me. He was wearing a sleeveless vest, and a pair of swimming trunks, and his get-up reminded me of Picasso, to whom I suddenly found he bore some resemblance. Now Balestrieri was painting and I was looking at the back of Balestrieri’s neck over which fell his thick, silvery hair and I was thinking that Balestrieri was painting whereas I had not succeeded in doing so. Then Balestrieri’s picture was finished; Balestrieri had gone; and I was standing in front of the picture. I did not know if it was good or bad, but anyhow it had been pai
It was a cloudy day and the studio was filled with a subdued, gray, melancholy light. I jumped off the divan and, acting as though I knew what I was doing, rushed to the door, opened it and went out into the corridor. It was empty and the four doors were closed, but as I looked more carefully I noticed that the door of Balestrieri’s studio was ajar. Without thinking, and still acting in an almost mechanical way, I went to this door, pushed it and walked in.
I had never before penetrated into the old painter’s studio; so I was now able to imagine that it was merely curiosity which brought me there. The curtains were drawn and the studio was almost in darkness; a lamp with a red shade, on a carved and gilded wooden stand—a piece of church furniture, probably—stood burning on a table covered with purple damask. In the blood-red light from this lamp I was able to see that Balestrieri’s studio was very different from mine. In the first place it was larger, with a staircase leading to a wooden gallery on to which two small doors opened. Furthermore, my studio had the look of a real painter’s studio, sparsely furnished and very untidy, but Balestrieri’s, I noticed with a vague feeling of repugnance, was furnished and decorated like an old-fashioned middle-class drawing room of forty or fifty years ago; nobody could have imagined that a painter had lived there, had it not been for the famous nudes hanging close together on the walls from floor to ceiling, and for a monumental easel placed in a good light near the big window, with an unfinished canvas upon it. I was struck particularly by the gloominess of the furniture, most of it antique or sham antique, in the Renaissance style. The walls behind the pictures were hung with red damask; on the floor, in confusion and one on top of another, were Persian carpets of dark, close design. I closed the door behind me and then, looking about me and sniffing in the curious smell that hung in the air, a mingled smell of death chamber and domestic interior, I walked slowly across to the easel. The unfinished picture could only be the one that Balestrieri, just before his death, had been painting of his youthful mistress; and I was seized with curiosity to see what her figure was like. But when I stood in front of the canvas I had a feeling of incredulity and disappointment. Balestrieri had made a charcoal sketch of a figure which I found very difficult to connect with the slender body and childish face of the young girl who had so often smiled at me. It was one of his usual exaggerated nudes, portrayed, into the bargain, in a strained attitude, squatting down on folded legs but with hands clasped behind the back of the neck in such a way as to give the greatest prominence to the breast and hips, two parts of the female body for which Balestrieri seemed to have a special partiality. I was particularly struck by the amplitude of the loins and the heaviness of the breast which I did not remember having noticed in the model. The slim waist, on the other hand, and the slender shoulders and arms might well have been hers. It was significant that Balestrieri had forgotten, or not troubled, to draw the face, so that any identification, for me at any rate, was impossible.
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