Authors: Alberto Moravia
TRANSLATED BY ANGUS DAVIDSON
IN ASSOCIATION SECKER AND WARBURG
Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, Middlesex
Penguin Books Pty Ltd, 762 Whitehorse Road,
first published 1951
This translation first published by Seeker and Warburg 1051
Published in Penguin Books 1964
Copyright © Alberto Moravia, 1951
Made and printed in Great Britain
by Cox and Wyman Ltd,
London, Reading, and Fakenham
Set in Monotype Garamond
of all I wish to speak of my wife. Loving, apart from many other things, means taking a delight in looking at and watching the loved one. Taking a delight, that is to say, in contemplating not merely the beauties but also the defects, whether they be few or many, of that person. From the very first days of our married life, I found an inestimable pleasure in looking at Leda (that is her name), and in studying even the most insignificant and fleeting movements and expressions of her face and body. My wife, at the time we were married (later, after she had borne three children, certain of her characteristics were, I do not say changed, but to some extent modified), was just over thirty years old. She was, if not exactly tall, above the middle height; and her face and figure were both very beautiful, though far from perfect. Her long, thin face had a withdrawn, dazed, almost obliterated look, like that of a classical deity in some old picture of mediocre quality in which the vagueness of the painting is increased by the patina of age. This strange look of intangible beauty which, like a gleam of sunshine on a wall or the shadow of a cloud passing over the sea, might vanish at any moment, came without doubt partly from her hair, which was of a metallic fairness and always a little untidy, with long trailing locks that seemed to suggest a flutter of fear or flight, and partly from her blue eyes, which were enormous and slightly slanting, with dilated, glistening pupils whose troubled, evasive glance suggested, as did her hair, a state of mind both frightened and shy. Her nose was large and straight and nobly formed, her wide red mouth unusually sinuous in shape, and with a look of surly, heavy sensuality, the lower lip curving deeply back over a chin which was too small. It was an irregular face, but nevertheless a very beautiful one, with, as I have already said, an intangible beauty which at certain moments and in certain circumstances, as I shall explain later, seemed to dissolve and disappear. The same might be said of her body. From the waist upwards she was as slim and delicate as a young girl; on the other hand her hips, her belly, her legs, were solid, strong, adult, full of muscular energy and swagger. But this lack of harmony, like the lack of harmony in her face, was neutralized by the beauty which enveloped her from head to foot, in a halo of perfection, as though it were an impalpable attendant aura or a mysteriously transfiguring light. Strange to say, sometimes, as I looked at her, I actually thought of her as a person of classical form and features, without defects, all harmony and serenity and symmetry: to such an extent did this beauty, which for want of other words I am compelled to call spiritual, beguile and seduce me. But there were moments when the golden veil was torn, and then not only were the many irregularities revealed to me but I was also witness of a painful transformation of her whole personality.
I made this discovery during the first days of our married life and, for a moment, I had almost the feeling of having been deceived, like a man who, having married for money, discovers after the wedding that his wife is poor. For, at times, my wife's whole face would be twisted into a heavy, mute grimace in which fear, anguish and waywardness all seemed to be expressed, and, at the same time, an unwilling sexual attraction. This grimace would cause the natural irregularity of her features to leap to the eye, so to speak, in a most violent manner, giving her whole face the repellent appearance of a grotesque mask in which, for the sake of a particular comic quality, partly obscene and partly painful, certain features had been deliberately exaggerated, to the point of caricature: the mouth especially, and also the two lines at the sides of the mouth, and the nostrils and the eyes. My wife had the habit of painting her lips heavily, with scarlet lipstick; and also, being pale, she used to put rouge on her cheeks. These artificial colours were not noticeable when the expression of her face was calm, since they harmonized with the colour of her eyes, of her hair and complexion. But when she grimaced, they stood out, crude and flaming, and her face, which a moment before had been so serene, so luminous, so classically beautiful, brought to mind the ridiculous highly-coloured features of a carnival mask. And to this there was added that touch of obscenity that such physical distortions acquire from the softness and warmth of living flesh.
Similarly her body, like her face, had a way of putting to flight the enchanted air of beauty, of performing ugly contortions. She would crumple up completely, as though in fear or disgust; but at the same time, like a certain kind of dancer or mime whose aim is to excite her audience, while her arms and legs were thrust forward in an attitude of defence or aversion, her body would bend backwards in an inviting, provoking posture. She would indeed appear to be thrusting away some imaginary danger, and yet, at the same moment, to be indicating by that vehement twisting of her hips that the danger or assault was not unwelcome. It was a graceless attitude and, accompanied as it sometimes was by the facial grimace, it made one doubt, almost, whether one was still face to face with the same person who, a moment before, had been so composed, so serene, so unspeakably lovely.
I have said that loving means loving everything about the beloved person, the defects, if there are any, just as much as the beauties. These grimaces, these distortions, although extremely ugly, were soon just as dear to me as the beauty, the harmony, the serenity of the better moments. But loving sometimes also means not understanding; for if it is true that there is one form of love that implies full comprehension, it is also true that there is another more passionate form that makes one blind with regard to the loved one. I was not exactly blind; but I lacked the mental lucidity of a tested, long-standing love. I knew that my wife, in certain circumstances, became ugly and graceless; this seemed to me a curious fact and, like everything else about her, lovable; but beyond the establishment of the fact I was neither able, nor did I wish, to go.
I ought, at this point, to say that the grimace and the distortion occurred very rarely and never at intimate moments in our relationship. I do not remember any word or gesture of mine ever producing that strange transmutation of her face into a mask or of her body into a marionette. On the contrary, in our moments of love making she seemed to achieve the highest degree of that unbelievable, unspeakable beauty of hers. At such times the dilated, moist pupils of her great eyes held a troubled appeal that was gentle and sweet and more expressive than any speech; her mouth seemed to proclaim, through the sensuality and the sinuosity of her lips, a capricious, intelligent kindness all its own; and her whole face welcomed my gaze like a mysterious but reassuring mirror to which the fair, tousled hair made a worthy frame. Her body too seemed then to fall into its loveliest shape, lying there innocent and languid, without strength and without shame, like a promised land that displayed itself to the first glance all open and golden, with its fields and its rivers, its hills and its valleys, to the furthest horizon. The grimace and the distortions, on the other hand, were produced by the most unexpected and unimportant circumstances; it will be enough if I mention just a few of them. My wife has always been a great reader of detective stories. I noticed that, when she reached the point where the plot became most enthralling and most frightening, her face would gradually twist itself into that grimace; and it would not disappear again until the end of the passage that had induced it. My wife was likewise very fond of gambling. I was with her at Campione, at Monte Carlo, at San Remo: and every single time, after she had made her stake, while the wheel was going round and the little ball jumping from number to number, her face would take on that ugly grimace. Finally, even the act of inserting a piece of thread into the eye of a needle sufficed to make her grimace; or a child running along the edge of a brook at the risk of falling in; or even a drop of cold water down her back.
I want, however, to mention at greater length two cases in which it seemed to me that this strange transformation of hers had more complicated origins. One day we happened to be in the garden of our country villa and I was struggling to pull up a tall, overgrown weed, almost a bush, which, goodness knows how, had grown up in the middle of the open space in front of the house. It was not easy, because the green, moist plant was slippery to my grasp and also, obviously, had very deep roots. While intent on this operation, for some reason I raised my eyes in the direction of my wife, and was astonished to see that both her face and body were completely transformed by the usual ugly grimace and contortion. At the same moment the plant, yielding to my weight, leapt out of the ground with its single long, sinewy root, and I fell over backwards on to the gravel.
On another occasion we had invited a few friends to dinner at our house in Rome. Before the guests arrived my wife, already dressed for the evening and wearing her jewellery, decided to pay a visit to the kitchen to see that all was in order. I followed her. We found the cook in a state of terror over a lobster, an enormous creature with formidable claws and still half alive, which she did not dare to grasp and throw into the pot. Without the slightest fuss my wife went over to the table, picked up the lobster by the back and plunged it into the boiling water. In order to do this, she had, I admit, to keep herself as far away as possible both from the creature and from the cooking-stove. But this prudence on her part only partly explains the ugly, grotesque face that she made and the clearly visible movement of her body, which for a moment looked as though she were trying to execute a provoking shake of the hips beneath the glossy silk of her evening dress.
I imagine that my wife must have gone through these grimaces and contortions countless times and on the most diverse occasions. There remain, however, certain incontestable facts. The contraction of the face and body never happened during love making. Such contractions, also, were accompanied always by the most profound silence, a silence of suspense which nevertheless seemed more like a repressed cry than a mere calm absence of speech. Finally, the grimace and the contraction of the body seemed always to arise from fright at some unexpected, sudden, lightning-like occurrence. It was a fright, as I have observed, that was closely mingled with sexual attraction.
So far, I have spoken of my wife; it is time that I said something of myself. I am tall and thin, with an energetic face and marked, sharp features. Perhaps, on closer examination, certain weaknesses might be discerned in the form of my chin and the shape of my mouth; but the fact remains that I have a strong, determined face which does not at all represent my true character, though it partly explains some contradictions in it. Perhaps my most noteworthy characteristic is lack of depth. Whatever I do or say, the whole of me is contained in what I do or say, and I have nothing in reserve upon which to fall back in the event of my having to retreat. I am, in fact, a man all vanguard, without any main body or rearguard. From this characteristic comes my proneness to enthusiasm: I get excited over any trifle. This enthusiasm of mine, however, is rather like an uncontrolled horse taking a very high fence, having already thrown its rider, who lies biting the dust ten yards behind. What I mean is that it is an enthusiasm that almost always lacks the support of the intimate, effective strength without which any kind of enthusiasm dwindles into mere foolish desire and rhetoric. And I am, in fact, inclined to rhetoric - that is, to the substitution of words for deeds. My rhetoric is of the sentimental kind; I want, for instance, to be in love and often deceive myself into thinking that I
in love, when all that I have done is to talk about it - with great feeling, no doubt, but simply to
about it. At such moments tears come easily, I stammer, I assume all the attitudes of overflowing emotion. But beneath these outward signs of fervour I often conceal a bitter, a positively mean, kind of subtlety which makes me deceitful and does not represent any real strength, being merely the expression of my egoism.