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Conjugal love, p.9
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       Conjugal Love, p.9

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  Once I was alone, my anger gradually calmed down. I took off the towel, wiped away the small amount of soap that remained on my face and looked at myself in the mirror. Antonio's cut had been inflicted at the moment when he had almost finished shaving me, so that my face, apart from the long red wound, was smooth. I soaked another piece of cotton-wool in spirit and disinfected the cut thoroughly. I was thinking, in the meantime, about the strange impulse that had driven me to dismiss Antonio, and I realized that the cut had been merely a pretext. I had in truth been wanting to dismiss him all the time; and at the first opportunity I had done so. But it did not escape me that I had dismissed him only when his dismissal no longer harmed me - that is, after I had finished my story. I was aware that, in consequence, I could not represent the barber's dismissal to Leda as a homage to her wishes; for, just as I had kept Antonio, in spite of her accusations, for selfish reasons, so now, for similar reasons, I had got rid of him. At this thought I was conscious of a certain remorse; and for the first time I understood that, perhaps without realizing it, I had not behaved well towards my wife. Meanwhile I was dressing and, when I was ready, I went downstairs.

  She was already in the dining-room, sitting at the table. We ate in silence for some time, and then I said: 'You know, I've sacked Antonio . . . really and truly.'

  Without raising her eyes from her plate, she asked: 'And what will you do about shaving?'

  'I shall try and shave myself,' I answered; 'anyhow, it's only for a few days, because we shall be leaving here, shan't we? . . . I don't know what came over him today, he gave me a cut as long as my finger . . . look.'

  She raised her eyes and scrutinized the wound. Then, apprehensively, she asked: 'You put some antiseptic on it?'

  'Yes . . . And I must tell you that the cut was only an excuse . . . actually I couldn't bear Antonio any longer. . . . You were quite right.'

  'What do you mean by that?'

  I saw that I could not produce Angelo's information without deferring the time when I had received it. And so I lied: 'This morning I talked to Angelo about Antonio ... I discovered that he's an unbridled libertine ... it seems he's extremely well known as such throughout the whole district ... he annoys all the women. So I thought that maybe you were right . . . although there's still no proof that in your case he acted with intention . . . and I took advantage of the cut to get rid of him.'

  She said nothing. I went on: 'It's odd, all the same. You'd never think ... really, I don't know what women can see in him - bald, yellow, short, fat. . . . He's not exactly an Adonis.'

  'Did you find your paper in the town?' she asked.

  'Not exactly . . . but I got some foolscap paper - that'll do.' I saw that the subject of Antonio was displeasing to her and willingly changed the conversation, following her lead. 'I shall begin the typing today,' I said. 'I want to do it in the afternoons and evenings as well.... I shall get it done more quickly like that.'

  She was silent and went on eating in a composed manner. I talked a little more about my book and about my plans, and then said: 'I'm going to dedicate this book to you, because without your love I should never have written it'; and I took her hand. She raised her eyes and smiled at me. This time, the goodwill of which I seemed to catch a glimpse every now and then in her attitude towards me was so obvious that even a blind man would have noticed it. I was struck dumb, and sat holding her hand, my enthusiasm chilled. She was smiling at me just as a mother smiles at a small child which, at a moment when she does not want to be bothered with it, runs up to her panting and says: 'Mummy, when I'm big I want to be a general.' Then she said: 'And what will the dedication be?'

  Mentally I translated this into: 'And which branch of the army d'you want to be in?' I answered, rather embarrassed: 'Oh, something very simple . . . for instance, To Leda ... or, To my wife . . . Why? Would you like a longer dedication?'

  'Oh no, I didn't mean anything.'

  Her attention was certainly elsewhere. And I, withdrawing my hand, fell into an absorbed silence, gazing through the window at the trees outside. I was thinking that one or other of us ought to break this silence, but nothing happened. Her silence, one would have said, was decisive and final; she seemed shut up in her own thoughts and in no way desirous of coming out of them. In order not to show my disappointment, I tried to joke, and said: 'D'you know what dedication a certain writer once made to his wife? To my wife, without whose absence this book could never have been written.'

  She gave a faint smile and I added hastily: 'But of course our case is just exactly the opposite. ... I could never have written it without your presence.'

  This time she did not even smile. I could not restrain myself any longer, and said: 'Well, if you don't want it, we won't put any dedication at all.'

  Some bitterness must have been discernible in my voice, for she seemed to recollect herself with an effort and, taking my hand again, she replied: 'Oh, Silvio, how can you imagine that I don't want it?' But this time again the goodwill was too obvious; it was just like that of a mother whose child, discouraged, says: 'Well then, if you don't want me to, I won't be a general,' and she answers: 'Oh, but I do want you to be one . . . and I want you to win lots of battles.' I saw that this conversation was profitless, and I was seized again by the same irritation that I had felt with Antonio and which I had then attributed to hunger. I rose brusquely, saying: 'I think Anna's already taken the coffee outside.'

  12

  LATER, when she left me to rest, I went up to my study to begin my typing. I arranged my typewriter on the desk, opened it and put the cover down on the floor. On the right of the machine I placed my manuscript, on the left the blank sheets and the carbon paper. I took three sheets of paper, inserted two sheets of copying paper between them, put them into the machine and tapped out the title. But I had not arranged the paper rightly, and the title, as I at once saw, was all to one side; besides, I had forgotten to type it in capital letters. I took out the three sheets and inserted three more. This time the title came out right in the middle, but on examination I found that I had put the carbon paper in back to front, so that the two copies were spoiled.

  Irritated, I tore the sheets out of the machine and put in others; this time I made two or three mistakes which made the title incomprehensible. All of a sudden a feeling almost of fear came over me. I rose from the desk and started wandering round the room looking at the old German prints that adorned the walls - 'The Castle of Kammersee', 'Panorama of the Town of Weimar', 'Storm over Lake Starnberg', 'The Falls of the Rhine'. The house was plunged in a profound silence, the shutters were half closed, and the dim light inside the room invited one to sleep. I reflected that I was tired, that the present conditions were not suitable for me to embark upon my task of copying; so I went and lay down on a very hard sofa, in the darkest corner of the room.

  I stretched out my hand towards a little table laden with knick-knacks that stood beside the sofa, and took up a red leather, gilt-edged memorandum book: it was an old 'keepsake' of 1860. Its former owner had made, on each page, a pen-and-ink drawing of a little landscape - very similar, in their homely style, to the prints I had just been looking at. Beneath each landscape, in a cursive 'English' calligraphy, were reflections and maxims in French. I looked at the landscapes one by one and read through many of these extremely sentimental and conventional reflections. Meanwhile drowsiness was coming over me. I put the book back on the table and dropped off to sleep.

  I slept for perhaps an hour. In my sleep I seemed, every now and then, to wake up, and I could see the desk, the chair, the typewriter, and thought I ought to be working, and was conscious of a bitter feeling of impotence. Finally, as though at a signal, I awoke completely and leapt to my feet.

  The room was plunged in gloom. I went to the window, threw open the shutters; the sky was still luminous, but the sun was low and came in slantingly through the window. Without thinking of anything I sat down at the desk and started typing.

  I tapped out a couple of pages
mechanically and then, at the third, broke off and fell into deep meditation. Actually I was not thinking at all; merely I could not get the sense of the words that I had written with such ardour a few days before. I saw that they were words, but they remained mere words and it seemed to me that they had no weight, no meaning. They were parts of speech, not objects, parts of speech such as are drawn up in rows on the pages of dictionaries, parts of speech and nothing more. At that moment my wife appeared in the doorway, asking whether I wanted to have tea. I welcomed this proposal with relief, glad of some distraction from the feeling of remoteness and absurdity that I experienced in front of my manuscript; and I followed her downstairs. She was already dressed for our customary walk, and tea was on the table. I pulled myself together with an effort and began chatting in a self-possessed manner as I drank my tea. My wife now appeared less abstracted and preoccupied, and this pleased me. After tea we went out and strolled down the drive towards the gate.

  As I have already said, there were few walks in that neighbourhood: and so we turned off down a lane that we knew extremely well, through the fields. I walked in front and Leda followed me. My mind, as I soon realized, was still bogged in that sensation of vagueness and lack of comprehension that my manuscript had aroused in me, but I made an effort - with, to tell the truth, only partial success - to thrust away this preoccupation and to talk lightly of unimportant matters. The lane wound about amongst the fields, according to the lay-out of the various farms, linking the groups of farm buildings together. Sometimes it would coincide with a threshing-floor, in front of an isolated cottage; and then it would start twisting about again between two hedges, or along a ditch beside a vegetable garden, or by the last row of vines at the edge of a vineyard. In the clear, even, brilliant autumn light the entire plain was visible, as far as the eye could reach - every field, every patch of cultivation - flat, luminous, with a few trees here and there, dark against their background of clear sky but with every leaf lit up in the sunshine. When we came to a little hump-backed bridge spanning a deep ditch I stopped to look at the view and my wife went on in front. I remember that she was wearing a coat and skirt of grey cloth flecked with red, green, yellow and blue. When I first glanced after her as she walked ahead I was frightened, because it suddenly seemed to me that she too, like the words of my manuscript, was nothing more than a speck in space. I said, gently: 'Leda', and felt I was saying the most absurd thing in the world. I went on: 'My name is Silvio Baldeschi and I married a woman whose name is Leda'; and I felt I had not said anything at all. It came into my mind, all of a sudden, that the only way I could escape from this atmosphere of unreality was by receiving or inflicting pain - for instance by seizing my wife by the hair, throwing her down on the sharp stones of the path, and receiving from her, in turn, a good kick on the shins. In the same way, perhaps I should awaken to the value of my manuscript by tearing it up and throwing it into the fire.

  These reflections brought me a vivid feeling that I must be mad: was it not then possible to lay hold of one's own, or other people's, existence except through the medium of pain? But I consoled myself slightly with the thought that if it were so, if not only what I had written but also my wife, whom I knew I loved, seemed to me incomprehensible, then this feeling of absurdity did not depend upon the quality of what I had written but upon myself.

  My wife was looking for a place to sit down - a difficult matter in a countryside like that, where every foot of space was cultivated, every plant had its use, and every clod of earth held a seed. We came at last to a cleft in the ground at the bottom of which ran a little stream called - perhaps because of its twisting course - the Ess. At this point the grassy banks sloped gently down, and the stream formed a tiny pool, like a round mirror, of dense green water, overshadowed by three or four poplar trees. A sloping strip of cement, half in and half out of the water, such as is used by women for beating and wringing out clothes, showed that this apparently remote spot was used as a washing-place. But in any case, as Leda said, throwing herself down on the grass, in this part of the country every little corner is put to some use and there is nothing to be done about it.

  We started talking quietly, in that moment just before sunset when both light and sound are softened. My wife had picked a blade of grass and was chewing it; and I, sitting a little lower down the bank, was looking at the vague shadows of the poplars reflected in the glassy water of the stream. We spoke for a little about the day and the place, and then, on a very slight pretext (I had asked her if she would like to go up into the mountains in the winter) she started relating an episode in her past life which had, in fact, occurred in a mountain resort two years before. My wife's first marriage, as I have already explained, lasted only a very short time, and after that, for ten years, she had lived alone and had had, as I was aware, numerous lovers. I had no feelings of jealousy for these predecessors of mine, and she, seeing that I was indifferent, had taken to talking about them, circumspectly at first and then quite openly. Why she should have done so, I do not know: perhaps out of vanity, or - in her present very different circumstances - from a vestige of regret for the uncontrolled freedom she had enjoyed. I cannot say that these stories gave me any pleasure; when I least expected it, I would feel myself giving a start of surprise, the involuntary effect, as it were, of a sensibility I did not know I possessed. Certainly this was not jealousy; nor, however, was it the complete, rational objectivity that I prided myself on being able to display. But when, that day, chewing her blade of grass, her eyes staring fixedly not at me but at something which she perhaps saw in her imagination, she told me the story of one of her adventures, I was aware that the slightly uncomfortable feeling that her reminiscences usually aroused in me was, this time, proving agreeable, like a fortifying tonic to someone who is feeling faint. When I sat down I had been a prey to a distressing sense of unreality; and now that warm, sensual voice of hers was speaking to me of real things, of things which had really happened and which, into the bargain, had happened to her and were displeasing to me. In others, more hot-blooded, these memories might perhaps have kindled a raging hatred; but to me, bloodless as I was, they restored the sense of what I myself was and of what she was to me. Certainly I suffered when I listened to her telling me, quite plainly, how she had allowed herself to be approached by a man she liked, how she had let herself be kissed, how they had slept together; but this suffering, just sufficing, as it did, to re-awaken my failing vitality, became almost pleasant and lost its harmful and gratuitous quality. It was a poison, perhaps, but one of those poisons which, taken in small doses, restore the patient to life.

  She was telling me of an adventure that she had had with a red-haired lieutenant in the Alpini. 'I was in the mountains in March,' she said, 'and since the snow had already gone where I was, I went up and stayed in a climbers' hostel at about 5,000 feet. Nobody ever came there, and I spent the days on the terrace in front of the hostel, in a long chair, reading and basking in the sun. One day a group of Alpini came up from the valley. I was on the terrace, as usual, and they started taking off their skis all round about me, so as to go in and have a drink in the hostel. Amongst them was a young officer, with red hair and a freckled face and blue eyes. He wore no hat or jacket - just a grey-green shirt - and as he stooped down to undo his skis, I saw that his back was youthful and vigorous - powerful, but slim at the waist. When he stood up again he looked at me and I at him, and that was enough for me. A great fear came over me that he hadn't understood - whereas really he had understood perfectly well, as you shall see. I remember that I got up and, all upset, I went into the main room of the hostel. He went and stuck his skis upright in the snow and then came in after me. His companions had already sat down at a table and he sat down with them, with his back to the window and his face to the room. I went to the counter and ordered tea, then took a table opposite theirs. They were laughing and joking, and I, like a fool, was trying to catch his eye. Afterwards he told me that he had observed my manoeuvre; but at the t
ime, seeing that he did not even deign to glance at me, I thought he had not noticed. At last he looked at me, and then, so that there should be no possible mistake, I put my fingers to my lips and threw him a kiss, like a little girl. He saw me do this but gave no sign of having understood; and then I began to be afraid that he didn't like me. As if I had been too hot, I took off my jacket, and, pretending that I wanted to pull up my shoulder-strap under my blouse, I uncovered my shoulder slightly. But next moment I felt angry, and I left the room and went back to my long chair on the terrace. They sat a little longer over their drinks and then they too came out, took their skis and went off. I sat waiting in my chair, still uncertain. The sun went down and still I waited, numb with cold and now almost without hope. I was completely in despair when he suddenly appeared coming down the slope on his skis. I went forward to meet him, filled with joy, and he said: "I had to invent a whole lot of excuses . . . they didn't believe me, but that really doesn't matter." That was what he said, just as though we had always known each other. I didn't answer; I was so excited I hadn't even the strength to speak. He took off his skis very slowly, and I took him by the hand and led him straight to my room upstairs. Fancy! I never knew what his name was!'

  I have written down this story in her own brief, laconic words. She never dallied over the sensual part of these recitals of hers; but she appeared to suggest it by the rich tones of her voice and by a kind of lively, carnal participation of her whole body in what she was saying. She became animated; her beauty was intensified. And that day, when she had finished, I seemed to understand that there was, in her, a vitality stronger than any moral rule; and that I myself had a need to draw upon this vitality if - as, indeed, was the case - it was necessary for me to repress certain reactions of my own sensibility. For a moment I had not, in fact, been a husband listening, with mind disturbed, to the love reminiscences of his wife, but rather a dry clod of earth saved from crumbling into dust by the timely fall of a beneficent shower of rain. I looked at her as she sat there, absorbed in thought, chewing her blade of grass, and I realized, to my surprise, that I was no longer conscious of that painful feeling of unreality.

 
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