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The empty canvas, p.8
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       The Empty Canvas, p.8

           Alberto Moravia
 

  For some reason, as I saw her standing beside the picture, I recalled my dream of that afternoon. I inquired 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 up there too.' She added conclusively: 'He was always painting me. He kept me posing for hours.'

  All at once 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. 'Ah 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. In fact 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 informed 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 towards 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, as it were, 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, after all, 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 off towards the bathroom and disappeared into it. I went over to the divan and rearranged the cushions upon which I had slept that afternoon; then I started collecting the numerous cigarette-ends which, as I smoked, I had thrown on to the floor. 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 for it 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 as to forget the pretext of the painting which the girl had suggested and which I had absent-mindedly accepted. And so I was positively amazed when the door of the bathroom opened and the girl appeared on the threshold. She was naked, completely naked; she was holding a towel with both hands against her chest and walking on tiptoe. When I saw her, I could not help thinking that Balestrieri had not exaggerated when he depicted her with the well-developed forms 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, so to speak, 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 round, 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 round 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 offence, 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 so far been holding against her breast and threw it over her shoulders, finally wrapping it round her body. Then she came over to the divan, a timid, diffident look on her face, as though I had invited 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 had been accustomed 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 m
y 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 programme. 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.'

  'But 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. D'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 true.

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

  I had always thought that Balestrieri ran after all the women he happened to come across; and now, here he was refusing the pretext which the girl offered him. 'Why d'you think Balestrieri refused?' I asked.

  'I don't know, he didn't want to.'

  'Perhaps he was in love with Elisa.'

  'I don't think so.'

  'Then why didn't he want to?'

  Uncompromisingly she replied: 'At first I thought it was Elisa who had persuaded him: then I found out that Elisa knew nothing about it. He didn't want to, that was all. I thought he was annoyed at the idea of my coming to the studio and I suggested he should give me the lessons at my home, but he refused again. In fact, he didn't want to.'

  'But you, why were you so anxious for Balestrieri to give you lessons?'

  She hesitated, and then I saw her pale face grow red, in an uneven way, in light patches that succeeded one another. 'I had fallen in love with him,' she said, 'or rather, I thought I had.'

  'And he paid no attention to you? But why?'

  'I don't know.' She hesitated again, then, as though she had succeeded in finally overcoming her last remnant of waywardness, she broke into a kind of loquacity which, though still precise and economical, had in it less of reserve than her former manner. 'I suppose I didn't attract him, and that was all there was to it. We went on in that way for two or three months, and by then he was positively avoiding me and it made me unhappy. At that time I was really in love with him. In the end I resorted to a trick.'

  'A trick?'

  'Yes. One day when Elisa was due to go to his studio and I knew about it, I asked Elisa to lunch and told her he had telephoned to tell her not to come after all because he was busy, and I went myself instead.'

  'How did Balestrieri take your trick?'

  'At first he wanted to send me away. Later on he became kinder.'

  'You and he made love that day, did you?'

  Again she blushed, in the same gradual, uneven way, and nodded her head in assent, without speaking.

  'How about Elisa?'

  'Elisa never knew that I had gone in her place. But she and Balestrieri parted, shortly afterwards.'

  'Are you still friends with Elisa?'

  'No, we never see each other now.'

  Silence followed. I realized that I was cross-questioning her almost like a policeman, and that further more she seemed to submit to my examination quite willingly; and I asked myself what it was that I really wanted to know. It was clear that it was not so much the facts that interested me as something which lay beyond the facts and which constituted their background and their justification. But what was this something? I asked bluntly: 'Why did you fall in love with Balestrieri?'

  'What d'you mean?'

  'What I mean is—why, exactly, with Balestrieri, a man old enough to have been your father's father?'

  'There's no reason for falling in love with someone. You just fall in love and that's that.'

  'There are always reasons, for everything.'

  She looked at me and, in some strange way, seemed now to have come closer to me on the divan on which we were both sitting. Or was this possibly an optical illusion due to the cross-questioning which was making her gradually better known and more recognizable to me? At last, leaning slightly forward and gazing straight at me, she said faintly: 'I felt very strongly attracted to him.'

  'What kind of attraction was it?'

  She said nothing, but merely looked at me. 'Well?' I insisted.

  'Oh well, I'll tell you. Balestrieri was a little like my father, and when I was younger I had a real passion for my father.'

  'A passion?'

  'Yes, I used to dream about him at nights.'

  'So you fell in love with Balestrieri because he was a little like your father?'

  'Yes, that was part of the reason.'

  There was silence again, and then I went on: 'But why d'you think it was that Balestrieri refused to have anything to do with you, at the beginning?'

  'I've already told you: I didn't attract him.'

  'To say that you didn't attract him doesn't explain anything. There are so many reasons why a person may not be attractive.'

  'That may be so. But I don't know what they are.'

  'But you might guess them. Do you think Balestrieri '

  refused to have anything to do with you because you were too young?'

  'No, not that.'

  'Or because he had the same feeling about you that you had about him—I mean that he looked upon you rather like a daughter?'

  'I don't think so. Otherwise he would have told me.'

  I paused a moment, engrossed in thought. It had now become clear to me that I was questioning the girl about Balestrieri in order to find out something about myself: I too, in fact, had so far repelled her advances, and with me too she appeared to have fallen in love. 'Or don't you think, perhaps,' I said, 'that Balestrieri was afraid of getting to know you?'

  'Afraid, why afraid?'

  'Afraid because he foresaw what did in fact happen afterwards: that he would fall in love with you. Love does sometimes frighten people.'

  'It doesn't frighten me,' she said mysteriously.

  'You haven't answered my question,' I insisted. 'Did Balestrieri avoid you because he was afraid?'

  'No, he wasn't afraid. In fact I remember now, by the way, that he once said to me: "If you hadn't played that trick on me, I should never have paid any attention to you, you didn't attract me."' She was silent a moment, and then went on: 'That's all there is to it, I don't know anything more.'

  I saw I should make no furthe
r headway in the direction I had so far taken, so I abruptly changed my line of approach. 'But afterwards,' I said, 'afterwards he fell in love with you, didn't he?'

  'Yes.'

  'Very much so?'

  'Yes, very much.'

  'Why?' She bent forward and looked at me. She was quite close to me now. It was no longer a question of an optical illusion; her knees were touching mine.

  'I don't know,' she said.

  'But didn't he talk about his love for you?'

  'Yes, he talked about it.'

  'And what did he say?'

  She seemed to be reflecting, and at the same time I noticed her drooping over towards me, as if she were going to fall on top of me. Or rather, owing perhaps to the kind of sheath-like wrapping formed by the towel rolled round her body, she seemed like a vessel full of some liquid or other tilting further and further towards me, as though to make it possible for me to drink from it. Finally she answered: 'I don't remember what he said. I remember what he did.'

  'What did he do?'

  'He used to cry, for instance.'

  'To cry?'

  'Yes, all of a sudden he would take his head between his hands and start crying.'

  I thought of Balestrieri as I had always seen him: old, certainly, but robust, broad-shouldered, firm on his legs, his red face full of vitality beneath his white hair; and I could not help feeling disconcerted. 'Why did he cry?' I asked.

  'I don't know.'

  'Didn't he tell you why he cried?'

  'No, he only said he cried because of me.'

  'Perhaps he was jealous?'

  'No, he wasn't jealous.'

  'But did you give him reason to be jealous?'

  She looked at me for a moment in silence, as though she had not understood, then she replied briefly: 'No.'

  'Did he cry like that in silence, without speaking?'

  'No, he always said something.'

  'Well then, you see, he did speak. And what did he say?'

  'He used to say, for instance, that he couldn't do without me.'

  'Ah, then, there was a reason for his crying; he would have liked to do without you and he couldn't.'

  She corrected me pedantically. 'No, he simply said that he couldn't do without me. He never said that he wanted to do without me; on the contrary, in fact, once when I wanted to leave him he tried to kill himself.'

 
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