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       Boredom, p.8

           Alberto Moravia
 

  I looked for a long time at the canvas, reflecting that Balestrieri was really an extremely bad painter, even according to the remote naturalistic tradition to which, in a vague way, he was related; then I turned back into the studio and started to examine the pictures hanging on the walls. They were all nudes, all female nudes, most of them posed in unnatural, strained attitudes; and the first thought that occurred to me was that Balestrieri, although he was an extremely bad painter, was nevertheless a very careful painter, accurate, in fact, to the point of pedantry. It was obvious that he did not rely on inspiration and worked rather in the manner of the old masters, by means of successive glazes, coming back again and again to certain details until he was completely certain that he had exhausted all their possibilities. The result, alas, was that special sort of naturalism, photographic, labored and too highly finished, that you can see in the paintings shown in so-called art exhibitions at very commercial galleries. These pictures were perfect of their kind, with the hideous perfection that belongs essentially to pornography. In other words, Balestrieri’s world was a concrete, coherent world without any cracks or pollutions in it, and little did it matter if it gave the impression of madness. Balestrieri himself had been perfectly happy in this world, right up to the moment of his death, without ever doubting it or trying to get out of it. Perhaps he had indeed been a sort of madman, but he was a madman whose madness consisted in an illusion of having a relationship with reality, that is, of being a wise man, as his paintings bore witness; whereas I—as I could not help saying to myself—was possibly a wise man whose wisdom consisted, on the contrary, in a profound conviction that such a relationship was impossible, that is, a wise man who believed himself mad.

  As these thoughts were passing through my mind I had been going all around the walls, looking at the canvases one by one and not finding any in which it was possible to recognize the features of the girl with the childish face. I said to myself that it must have been like that: Balestrieri had never painted his little mistress, he had been content merely to make love to her; exactly the opposite of what might have been expected in view of his advanced age. I was on the point of going away when a sound from above made me raise my eyes. Balestrieri’s girl came out of one of the small doorways leading on to the balcony and started down the stairs, in a leisurely manner and evidently unconscious of my presence; her eyes were cast down, she had one hand on the banister and the other up to her chest, supporting a large bundle.

  When she reached the foot of the stairs she raised her eyes and seemed to be frightened at seeing me standing there in front of her, beside the table in the middle of the studio. But only for an instant; immediately afterward a look of relief and calm spread over her round face, as though the encounter were no surprise to her and she had in fact been prepared for it for some time. I said, in embarrassment: “I live in a studio close by; perhaps you may have seen me sometimes. I came in to have a look at the pictures.”

  Indicating her bundle, she answered: “And I came to get my belongings, before the studio is let. I was his model; he had given me a key, so I was able to get in.”

  I noticed her speech was completely devoid of any kind of accent that might make it possible to guess where she had been born or the social class to which she belonged. Her voice was colorless and neutral, with a preciseness and economy of tone that suggested a certain reserve. Not knowing how to go on, I asked casually: “Did you come and see Balestrieri often?”

  “Yes, almost every day.”

  “But when did he die?”

  “The evening of the day before yesterday.”

  “Were you there when he died?”

  She looked at me for a moment with her big dark eyes that seemed not so much to observe things as to reflect them without seeing them. “He was taken sick while I was sitting for him,” she said.

  “He was painting you?”

  “Yes.”

  I could not help exclaiming in surprise: “But where’s the canvas on which he was painting you?”

  “That’s the one,” she said, pointing to the easel.

  I turned, glanced quickly at the canvas and then, more lingeringly, at her. In the half-darkness that seemed to dissolve and absorb her contours, her figure appeared more than ever slender and childish, with the wide skirt hanging over the thin legs, the narrow torso and the pale face swallowed up by the great dark eyes. I asked incredulously: “Was it really you who sat for that picture?”

  She, in turn, appeared astonished at my astonishment. “Yes,” she said. “Why? Don’t you like the way he’s painted me?”

  “I don’t know whether I do or not, but it’s certainly not like you.”

  “He hasn’t drawn in my head because he always did that last. So how d’you know it isn’t like me?”

  “What I mean is that the figure drawn by Balestrieri doesn’t look like yours.”

  “You don’t think so? And yet it is mine.”

  I was aware of the utter futility and falseness of this pseudo-artistic discussion, over a picture of such a kind and on a question of resemblance, into the bargain. But even though I felt ashamed, just as if there had been a tacit collusion which I ought to reject, I could not refrain from answering in a lively fashion: “It’s not possible, I can’t believe it!”

  “You don’t think so?” she said again. “And yet my figure is like that.” She put down her bundle on the table, went to the easel, contemplated the canvas for a moment, and then turned and went on: “Perhaps there’s a little exaggeration, but on the whole I’m just like that.”

  For some reason, as I saw her standing beside the picture, I recalled my dream of that afternoon. I asked casually: “Is that the only picture Balestrieri did of you, or did he do others as well?”

  “Oh, he painted me over and over again.” She looked up at the walls and began counting, pointing as she went: “That’s me, and that too, and that one up there, and that one there too.” She added conclusively: “He was always painting me. He kept me posing for hours.”

  I was conscious of an obscure impulse to say something nasty about Balestrieri, perhaps in order to force her into a more personal, a more confidential key. I said unkindly: “A great deal of effort for a very poor result.”

  “Why?”

  “Because Balestrieri was an extremely bad painter, in fact he wasn’t a painter at all.”

  She did not react in any way; she merely said: “I don’t know anything about painting.”

  I persisted. “Actually Balestrieri was simply a man who liked women very much.”

  She agreed, with conviction. “Oh yes, there you’re right.”

  She had now taken up her bundle again and was looking at me with a questioning air, as much as to say: “Am I to go now—why don’t you do something to stop me?” With a sudden gentleness of tone, which surprised me because I had neither intended it nor foreseen it, I suggested: “Won’t you come to my studio for a moment?”

  Her face lit up with a prompt, naïve hopefulness. “D’you want me to sit for you?” she asked.

  I felt embarrassed. I had had no intention of lying to her, and now here she was suggesting an artifice which was doubly humiliating to me, partly because it was an artifice, partly because it was the last artifice I should have had recourse to—that of the painter who invites a pretty girl to his studio under the pretext of wanting to paint her; in a word, an artifice worthy of Balestrieri. I asked, rather scornfully: “Did Balestrieri invite you to his studio the first time under the pretext of painting you?”

  “No,” she replied seriously. “No, I went to him to take drawing lessons. Then he wanted to paint me, but that was later.”

  For her, then, the painting artifice was not an artifice at all but a serious thing. She went on: “I’ve nothing to do now. If you like, I could sit for you until dinner time.”

  I wondered whether I ought to explain to her that I was a painter who had given up painting; and that furthermore, during the time when I was painting,
I had never painted figure studies. But in that case, I reflected, I should perhaps have to look for another excuse for inviting her to my studio, since it appeared that she required an excuse of some kind. One might as well accept the excuse of wanting to paint her. So I said, in a light, vague sort of manner: “Very well, let’s go to my studio.”

  “I used always to sit for Balestrieri at this time of day,” she told me, relieved and contented, taking up her bundle from the table. “He painted every day from four till seven.”

  “And in the morning too?”

  “Yes, in the morning too, from ten till one.”

  Meanwhile we had moved toward the door. I was aware that she was seeing, for the last time, the studio in which she had spent so large a part of her life, and I was expecting that, if only out of pity for the old painter who had loved her so much, she would say something or at least look back as she went out. But she merely asked me, with a glance at the walls: “Now that he’s dead, what will happen to the pictures?”

  I answered, again unkindly: “Why, I should think they’ll try and sell them. And then, when they see that no one wants them, they’ll put them away in some cellar or other.”

  “In a cellar?”

  “Yes, they’ll throw them away.”

  “He had a wife from whom he was separated. The pictures will go to her.”

  “All the more reason for her to throw them away.”

  Indifferent, reserved, she said nothing. Now she was walking in front of me along the corridor, and seen thus, from behind, carrying the big bundle in her arms and moving in that characteristic way which appeared so spontaneous and reluctant whereas it was really so strongly and sensually deliberate, she gave the impression of a mere house-moving. Yes, she was moving from Balestrieri’s studio to mine—that was all. I caught up with her, opened my door for her and said: “As you can see, this is a very different studio from Balestrieri’s.”

  She did not reply, just as though she found no great difference between my studio and that of her old lover. She simply went to the table, put down her bundle on it and then turned and asked: “Where is the bathroom?”

  “There, that door over there.”

  She went over to the bathroom and disappeared. I went over to the divan and rearranged the cushions upon which I had slept that afternoon; then I started collecting the numerous cigarette butts I had thrown on to the floor after smoking them. While I was doing these things I thought about the girl, wondering whether she attracted me and whether I wanted to do what she expected me to do, and I realized that I had no desire at all. In the end I said to myself that I would question her further about Balestrieri and her relations with him, about which I felt some curiosity, and that I would then send her away.

  I was so calm and so deeply absorbed in the consciousness of my calmness that I forgot the pretext of painting which the girl had suggested and which I had absent-mindedly accepted. I was startled when the door of the bathroom opened and the girl appeared on the threshold. She was naked, completely naked; she was holding a large towel with both hands against her chest and walking on tiptoe. I realized that Balestrieri had not exaggerated when he depicted her with the well-developed form which had aroused my incredulity. She had in fact a magnificent bosom, full, firm and brown, which did not, however, seem in harmony with her torso—the slender, thin torso of an adolescent girl—and had almost a look of being detached from it. Her waist also was that of a young girl, incredibly slim and supple; but the adult quality noticeable in her bosom was again apparent in her powerful, solid hips. As she walked she thrust forward her bosom and pulled back her belly, and her eyes were fixed almost greedily upon the easel that stood near the window; and when she arrived in front of the canvas she asked, without turning around, in her strangely expressionless, dry, precise voice: “Well, where shall I stand?”

  I wondered whether there might be some hypocrisy in her attitude at that moment, and immediately had to admit that there was not. She had taken her position as a model quite seriously; even if she also perhaps suspected that it was only a pretext for a different sort of relationship. But in her mind, so it seemed to me, there must be a kind of incapacity to connect one thing with another; it was this that permitted her to be sincere. Quietly I said: “Don’t stand anywhere.”

  She turned around in surprise. “Why?” she asked.

  “I’m sorry,” I explained, “but I accepted the excuse of painting you rather lightly. Actually I gave up painting some time ago. And when I did paint, I never painted models or any other object. I’m sorry.”

  Without showing any offense, she said in a tone of indifference: “But you told me you wanted me to come and sit for you.”

  “Yes, that’s true, but forget it.”

  Slowly, and with an air of attaching no importance to what she was doing, she took the towel which she had been holding against her breast and threw it over her shoulders, finally wrapping it around her body. Then she came over to the divan, a timid, diffident look on her face, as though I had asked her to sit down upon it, whereas in reality I had said nothing, and placed herself at the extreme end of it, away from me. There was a moment’s silence; then, all at once, on her childish lips appeared the same smile that she used to bestow upon me when she met me in the corridor. Feeling embarrassed, I said: “Now you’ll think badly of me.”

  She shook her head in denial, without speaking. She was gazing at me with her characteristically expressionless look; it was as if her eyes were two dark mirrors which reflected the outside world without understanding it and perhaps without even seeing it; and I felt my embarrassment increasing. It was clear that she did not intend to go away and that she was expecting me to start the second part, so to speak, of the program. As I searched my mind for a common subject of conversation, Balestrieri, naturally, occurred to me. “How long had you known Balestrieri?” I inquired.

  “Two years.”

  “How old are you?”

  “I’m seventeen.”

  “Tell me how you first met Balestrieri.”

  “Why?”

  “Because—” I thought about it for a moment, and then went on, speaking quite sincerely “—it interests me.”

  “I met Balestrieri two years ago,” she said slowly. “In the house of a friend of mine.”

  “Who was this friend of yours?”

  “A girl called Elisa.”

  “How old is Elisa?”

  “Two years older than me.”

  “What was Balestrieri doing at Elisa’s house?”

  “He was giving her drawing lessons, as he did to me.”

  “What does Elisa look like?”

  “She’s fair,” she replied briefly.

  I thought I could remember one of the many girls whom I had seen passing across the courtyard. “Fair, with blue eyes,” I asked, “with a long neck, and an oval face and tight, full lips?”

  “Yes, that’s her. Do you know her?”

  “No, but I’ve seen her going to Balestrieri’s studio a few times, a little before you started going there. Did Elisa have her drawing lessons at home or at the studio?”

  “At home, and at the studio too; it depended on the days.”

  “You haven’t told me what happened that day when you met Balestrieri at Elisa’s home.”

  “Nothing happened.”

  “I see, nothing happened. But then, in the end, Balestrieri gave drawing lessons to you as well. How did that come about?”

  This time she looked at me and said nothing. “Did you hear what I said?” I persisted.

  Finally she made up her mind to break her silence. “Why do you want to know these things?” she asked.

  “Suppose I’m interested in you,” I said, with the consciousness not so much of lying as of telling a lie which, in the very moment in which I told it, became truth.

  She looked up in the air, like a school girl on the point of reciting a lesson before an exacting master, and then said: “I saw Balestrieri again at Elisa’s be
cause she and I were friends and I used to go there often. One day I asked him to give me drawing lessons too, but he said he couldn’t.”

 
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