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The empty canvas, p.9
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       The Empty Canvas, p.9

           Alberto Moravia
 

  I was surprised at the complete absence of any difference in her tone of voice, whether she was saying something of no importance or whether she was revealing to me that Balestrieri had tried to kill himself on her account. 'So he tried to kill himself? How?' I asked.

  'With those pills that people take for sleeplessness. I don't remember what they're called.'

  'Barbiturates?'

  'That's it, barbiturates.'

  'Was he ill after it?'

  'He was ill for a couple of days, but then he got better.'

  'Did Balestrieri suffer from sleeplessness?'

  'Yes, he took barbiturates for sleeplessness. There were nights when he slept for only an hour or two.'

  'Why?'

  'Why didn't he sleep? I don't know.'

  'Was it because of you?'

  'He used to say that everything that happened to him was because of me.'

  'Didn't he say anything more? Didn't he explain why you were the cause of everything?'

  'Yes, now that I think of it, he used to say I was his drug.'

  'A commonplace, don't you think?'

  'What does a commonplace mean?'

  'Something not at all original, that anybody might say.'

  There was silence again. Finally I went on: 'But why were you a drug for Balestrieri?'

  She in turn asked me, slowly: 'Tell me, why are you asking me all these questions?'

  I answered, with sincerity: 'Because in all this story about you and Balestrieri there is something that makes me curious.'

  'What's that?'

  'I don't know. That's why I ask you these questions. In order to find out why I ask you.'

  She did not smile, but again gazed at me intently though in an expressionless way, leaning towards me so that it almost seemed to me that the warm, simple smell of her body came faintly to my nostrils. Finally she explained: 'I suppose I was like a drug for Balestrieri because he had more and more need of me. He said so himself: "The dose that was sufficient for me once is no longer sufficient now." '

  'In what sense was he always in need of you?'

  'In every sense.'

  'In the sense of love-making?'

  She looked at me and said nothing. I repeated my question. Then she appeared to make up her mind and answered precisely: 'Yes, in that sense.'

  'Did you do it very often?'

  'At first only once or twice a week, then every other day, then every day, then twice a day. In the end I gave up counting.'

  'Why?'

  'He was doing it continually'—she seemed more at her ease now; 'he would make me pose, then he would stop painting and want to make love: and so it went on all day long.'

  'Wasn't he ever satisfied?'

  'He used to get tired. Sometimes he felt ill, too. But it was never enough for him.'

  'And you, did you like all that?'

  She hesitated, and then remarked: 'A woman never minds a man showing that he loves her.'

  'But did he really love you? Wasn't it rather that he needed you as a habit, as a vice, just as, in fact, a person needs a drug?'

  With a touch of warmth she replied: 'No, he really loved me.'

  'How, for instance, did he show that he loved you?'

  'How can one explain? These are things that one feels.'

  'Nothing more than that?'

  'Well, just as an example, he wanted to marry me.'

  'But he was already married, wasn't he?'

  'Yes, but he said he would manage to get a divorce.'

  'And would you have accepted him?'

  'No.'

  'Why wouldn't you have accepted him?'

  'I don't know, I didn't feel like marrying him.'

  'Then you didn't love him?'

  'I never loved him.' She stopped, as if prevented by some scruple, and then added: 'Or rather, perhaps I loved him at the beginning, just after I first met him.'

  There was a long silence. She was very close to me now, almost hanging over me, with her bust inclined forwards and her eyes fixed upon me, giving me a feeling of unsteadiness which made me think of her again as a vessel, a beautiful two-handled vase, slim and big-breasted and brimming with desire, on the point of overflowing and submerging me. Finally I said: 'I have put you through a full-scale cross-examination and perhaps you're a bit tired?'

  She hastened to reply: 'Oh no, you haven't tired me at all, on the contrary.'

  'On the contrary what?'

  'On the contrary you gave me pleasure,' she went on after a moment. 'You've made me think of so many things that I never think about.'

  'Don't you ever think about Balestrieri?'

  'No.'

  'Not even today, when they took him away?'

  'No, today less than other days.'

  'Why less than other days?'

  She looked at me and said nothing. I repeated: 'Why less than other days?'

  She answered at last, quite simply: 'Because today I've only thought of you. I followed the funeral for a little, from some way off, then I couldn't resist any longer and ran back to the studio. I was suddenly afraid they might have changed the lock.'

  'What then?'

  'Then I shouldn't have had any excuse for seeing you.'

  I pretended not to attach any importance to this declaration, and asked her: 'All the same, Balestrieri did mean something to you?'

  'Yes, certainly.'

  'What?'

  She thought for a moment and then replied: 'I don't know. Certainly he meant something to me, but as I've never thought about it I don't know what it was.'

  'Think about it now.'

  'I can't think about it. You can't think on purpose about somebody or something. Either you just think about them naturally or you don't think at all.'

  'At this moment what would you be thinking about, as you say, naturally?'

  'About you.'

  I remained silent for a moment. I lit a cigarette and then said, deliberately: 'Now, you can rest assured, I've finished cross-examining you and I'll come to the point. . . well, then, while Balestrieri did not mean anything much to you, or possibly in fact nothing, you, to Balestrieri, were something very real, very concrete. Something he could not do without, according to his own words; in short—again according to Balestrieri's words—something like a drug. Isn't that so?'

  'Yes.'

  'In other words, you, to Balestrieri, were not merely something very real, but actually the only reality that mattered. In fact, when you told him you wanted to leave him, he tried to kill himself. And he tried to do this precisely because you, by going away, would have been depriving him of everything that was real to him.'

  She looked at me in a gentle, polite, but entirely unconvinced manner; much as a child looks at his mother when she scolds him before giving him a sweet, and waits patiently for the scolding, which matters nothing to him and which he does not understand, to be over, so that he can get possession of the sweet. She said, however: 'Yes, it's true, now that I think of it, I remember his telling me often that I was everything to him.'

  'Well then—d'you see?—Balestrieri, although he was an unhappy lover and a very bad painter, was in a way rather enviable.'

  'Why?'

  'Because he was able to say to someone: "You are everything to me".'

  She was silent again, as though uncertain of the meaning of my words, and anyhow not very desirous of looking for it: it was the sweet that she minded about, not the scolding. I resumed: 'And now that's enough of Balestrieri, let's talk about you and me.'

  She seemed delighted at this, in her own highly discreet, almost imperceptible way, making a slight forward movement with her face, as if to show solicitude and attentiveness, and an even slighter movement of her hips on the divan, as though to come even closer to me. 'For at least three or four months,' I said, 'we've been meeting in the corridor or the courtyard, and every time we meet you look at me and smile at me in a way which is, let us say, significant. Isn't that so? If it's not true, contradict me; it'll mean I
've had a wrong impression.'

  She said nothing, she merely looked at me as if waiting for the end of my speech, and as if all that came in between had no interest for her. 'You don't answer,' I continued, 'so I presume that I'm not making a mistake. Besides, what you want of me seems to me pretty clear. Forgive me, I know I'm being brutal: for four or five months you've been wanting to show me that you're ready to do with me what you used to do with Balestrieri. At least, that's what I've understood. Again, if I'm wrong, tell me.'

  Once more there was silence; her face now expressed a kind of shy satisfaction at having been so well understood. 'Balestrieri,' I went on, 'told you that you were everything to him. And the word "everything" meant, as far as I can see, really everything. Unfortunately I'm in the opposite position. To Balestrieri you were everything; to me you are nothing.'

  I paused for a moment, looking at her, and could not but admire her impassivity. She said modestly, lowering her eyes: 'We've only known each other for half an hour.'

  I hastened to explain. 'I don't want to be misunderstood. It is in fact impossible for you to be everything, or even something, to me, in the sense which is usually given to that expression. It's certainly true, as you pointed out, that we've known each other for barely half an hour. No, this is a question of something different. Do please try and follow me, even if these explanations don't interest you. Well then: I asked you to come here to my studio under the pretext of painting you—isn't that so?'

  'Yes.'

  'It really was a pretext, that is, a lie. Apart from the fact that I haven't painted the human figure or other recognizable objects for years, I lied to you because I'm not a painter, or rather, I haven't been a painter for some time. And I am no longer a painter because I have nothing to paint, that is, I have no relationship with anything real.'

  She answered stubbornly: 'But it doesn't matter whether you paint a portrait of me.'

  I could not help laughing. 'I understand,' I said: 'you don't see the connexion between the fact that I've given up painting and the thing that you seem to have so much at heart. But there is a connexion. Now listen: I said you were nothing to me, but, I repeat, you must not attribute any sentimental significance to that remark. In other words, you are offering yourself to me in the same way as any object, of any kind. Let's take a concrete example. That glass on the table there has not got beautiful eyes like yours, nor that magnificent bosom nor those rounded hips; if I accepted its offer of itself it would not kiss me or embrace me, and yet it offers itself no more and no less than you do. It offers itself without shame, without reserve, without guile, without calculation, just as you do. And I have to refuse it, as I refuse you, because, like you, that glass is nothing to me. I've given the glass as an example, but I could equally well give any other object, even one that isn't noticeable to the senses.'

  'But why is it nothing?' she said this in a low, timid voice, as though more in recommendation of the glass than of herself.

  I answered briefly: 'To explain this thing fully would take me a long way off the point, and in any case it would be useless. Let's say then that the glass is nothing to me because I have no relationship with it, of any kind.'

  She objected, speaking this time in recommendation of herself. 'But these relationships do come into existence, don't you think? It happens constantly that one forms a relationship with people one didn't even know before.'

  'D'you see that canvas on the easel?' I asked her.

  'Yes.'

  'It's an empty canvas, a canvas on which I haven't painted anything. Well, that's the only canvas I can sign. Look.' I rose and went to the easel, took a pencil and signed my name in one corner of the canvas. She followed me with her eyes as I went over to the easel and again as I came back, but she said nothing. Sitting down again, I went on: 'So the only relationship there can be between myself and a woman is nothing, that is, exactly the same relationship that there has been so far between you and me, or rather, that there has not been. I am not impotent, understand that; but in practice it's as if I were, and anyhow you must imagine that I am.'

  I had spoken in a sharp, determined fashion, in order to make her understand that there was nothing more to be said. But when I saw her still sitting there, silent and still, as though she still expected something, I added rather irritably: 'If I feel nothing for you, that is, have no relationship with you, how could I make love? It would be a mechanical, impersonal act, utterly useless and utterly boring. And so . . .'

  I did not finish, but looked at her meaningly, as much as to say: And so there's nothing left for you but to go away. This time, at last, she appeared to understand, and very slowly, with regret, with hesitation, with reluctance, and almost, it might be said, with a lingering hope that I would stop her by taking her in my arms, she started to rise from the divan, though still, so to speak, remaining seated—that is, by gradually raising her hips and keeping her legs bent and the upper part of her body erect. But I did not take her in my arms; and finally she was on her feet in front of me. Humbly, she said: 'I'm sorry. But if at any time you want me as a model, you can telephone me. I'll write down my telephone number.'

  She went across to the table and, holding the towel to her chest with one hand, with the other wrote something on a piece of paper. 'I haven't yet told you my name,' she said; 'it's Cecilia Rinaldi. I've written it down here, with my address and telephone number.'

  She stood up again and walked over, on tiptoe, towards the bathroom. She looked as if she were in evening dress, with the towel leaving her arms and shoulders bare, swathing her hips and forming a kind of train behind her. She disappeared, closing the door after her, and as she made this movement the towel slipped from her and I saw again for a moment, between the door and the wall, the body which Balestrieri had painted so often and which it was impossible to divine underneath her clothes.

  Strange to say, as soon as she disappeared, it was of Balestrieri that I started thinking. I recalled how the old painter had repulsed and avoided her for months, with a kind of animal-like fear or presentiment of what she was destined to be to him; and I wondered what would have happened if, instead of yielding to her the day she presented herself in place of Elisa, he had continued to resist her. Very probably Balestrieri would still be alive, since it was beyond doubt that the not so indirect cause of his death had been his love for the girl. But why then had he not rejected her, seeing that he had felt, from the very beginning, that he ought to do so? In other words, what was it that had brought Balestrieri to accept a destiny of which, so it seemed, he had been conscious, even if only in an obscure way? In short, was it possible for a man to escape his own destiny? And if not, what was the point of knowing what one was doing? Was it possible that there was not some difference between a destiny accepted in a state of unconsciousness and one which was lived out in a state of lucid consciousness?

  And now, thinking over Balestrieri's first, attempted, suicide, a suicide caused by Cecilia's decision to leave him, I seemed to see that the old painter, in carrying on his relationship with Cecilia to its final end, had committed, with complete lucidity, a second and more successful suicide. And so, in a way, he had attempted the first suicide because for a moment it had seemed to him that Cecilia, by leaving him, would not allow him to commit the second.

  Even while I was thinking these things, I was surprised at thinking them; or rather, at being driven to think them not so much by idle curiosity as by a disconcerting sense of fascinated attraction, as though Balestrieri's story concerned me directly and the old painter's destiny were linked with my own. I realized that, if it had not been thus, I should not have put so many questions to Cecilia. No doubt I should have made love with her, just that once, but I should not have questioned her. Instead I had not made love but had questioned her at considerable length, with an insatiable curiosity which, in effect, had remained unsatisfied. As I had told her, I had questioned her mainly in order to find out why I was questioning her: it seemed like a play upon words but ac
tually was not so. In this way I had learned many things; but my lack of satisfaction seemed to make it clear that the thing which really mattered to me had escaped me.

  I was so deeply absorbed in these reflections that I did not notice Cecilia, who in the meantime had come out of the bathroom and was standing near the divan. I started when I heard her voice saying: 'Well then, I'll say good-bye.'

  I rose to my feet, with an effort, and shook her hand, stammering automatically: 'Good-bye.'

  'Don't bother to come with me,' she murmured; and for the last time I had the sensation of her large, dark eyes motionlessly contemplating me. I watched her as she took up her bundle from the table and walked off towards the door, with a slowness that did not appear calculated; it was as though she felt she was attached to me by a strong tenacious bond and it was a great effort to her to move her steps in the opposite direction. I was struck, particularly, by the slight swing of her wide, short skirt and the consequent graceful swaying of the upper part of her body, which rose above her skirt like a rider on his horse. In these two movements, the rotating movement of her skirt and the quivering movement of her body, there was the allurement of a coquetry that was quite unconscious and perhaps for that reason all the more potent and irresistible. I followed her with my eyes until she opened the door and vanished. Then I lit a cigarette and went over to the window.

  The courtyard lay deserted in the bleak, subdued twilight of a sultry day. I could see the other big windows, opposite, of which a couple were already lit up; the acanthus bushes, blackish green, all round the flower-beds; the pavement, of a dull, chalky whiteness. As usual, there were many cats on the pavement, scattered here and there in a mysterious order that did not seem merely casual: some squatting down with their legs folded beneath their bodies, others sitting with their tails wrapped round their feet, others again slowly and cautiously prowling, noses to the ground and tails erect; piebald black and white cats, grey cats, cats completely white or completely black, striped cats and tawny cats. I started looking attentively at the cats, as I often did, for it was as good a way of beguiling the time as any other. Then Cecilia appeared, carrying her big bundle under her arm. She walked slowly, her head bent, amongst the cats which did not move as she passed. As she came below my window, I saw her raise her eyes in my direction, but this time without smiling. I lifted my hand to take the cigarette from my mouth, but instead of doing so I gave her a clear signal to turn back, pointing in the direction of the door that gave access to the corridor. Her eyes showed her assent and, without modifying her slow, dragging step, without hurrying, like a person who has forgotten something but knows he will find it again without fail, she turned and came back. I pulled the curtains across the window and went and sat down on the divan.

 
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