The New York Times Book Review
Open City: Seven Writers and Romeby William Weaver (Introduction), Ignazio Silone, Giorgio Bassani, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante
A MAGIC DECADE OF Italian writing followed the fall of Benito Mussolini's Fascist government and the liberation of Rome in 1944. Ignazio Silone, author of one of the great novels of the 1930s, Bread and Wine, returned from exile. Alberto Moravia, who helped define the modern conscience with his novel The Time of Indifference, left the mountains outside Rome, where he had been hiding from the Germans. Rome filled with veterans of the partisan war, of the underground, of the anonymity and silence of the Italian police state. The suffering of the war, the bold hopes which blossomed after Fascism's overthrow, were described in a torrent of films, stories and novels, bringing a kind of climax to one of the great national literatures of the twentieth century.
William Weaver, who drove an ambulance for the British Army during the war, also arrived in Rome in the late 1940s, fell in love with the Italian language and literature, and found a career in translating the writers he met there. Open City is an anthology of the writers Weaver admired most, described in a long introductory memoir - Silone, Moravia, Elsa Morante, Carlo Levi, Giorgio Bassani, Natalia Ginzburg, Carlo Emilio Gadda. No other book offers such a comprehensive sampling of the political seriousness and lyrical realism which were the gift of the Italians to modern writing.
The New York Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
The Nameless One
from House of Liars
translated by Adrienne Foulke with the editorial assistance of Andrew Chiappe. First published in the United States in 1951 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.
Pock Face Appears On The Stage.
The First Of his Swaggering Scenes.
The dark young stranger was the first visitor Edoardo received after his illness. Some days earlier he had moved from his bed to an easy chair where he lay most of the day half reclining. Occasionally his fever-wasted hands played absently with his curly hair or he would slowly swing his slippered foot but even these simple motions tired him. Several times he had tried to get up and had dragged himself as far as his mirror to stare at the gaunt face and the deeply circled, haunted eyes that seemed hardly to be his own. But his strength ebbed quickly and he fell back in his chair overcome by dizziness and nausea. The lethargy of convalescence alternated with a nervous eagerness to be active and up and about; and this brought about capricious, unpredictable moods. Oppressed by boredom, he sometimes insisted that his mother or sister sit with him until he would suddenly wish to be alone and abruptly order them away. He would ask them to read aloud to him and then would rudely interrupt the reader, saying her voice was monotonous or the book dull. Sometimes his heart swelled with the joy of knowing that he was well, his thoughts turned to theoutside world, to travel and adventure and all that life and health have to offer to a young man of his class. He was swept with impatience to tear himself from that chair and that room, but his impetuous desire soon subsided into exasperated self-pity.
For the first time in his short life he felt weak and imprisoned; his will was no longer absolute. He was likely to pass from a lighthearted mood into a passionate frenzy in which he would behave violently toward the nurse or members of the family who were attending him. He might be about to break into an affectionate laugh full of all his old fervor when his emaciated face would darken and for no reason he would shout insultingly at his companion: "Why are you always here? Leave me in peace! Get out! Get out!" To amuse him, his mother had had his piano moved into the bedroom and his sister often played his favorite music to him. Sometimes it soothed him, sometimes it only increased his irritability and anxiety. Music did not always free his thoughts from the burden, of reality or desire but instead filled his brooding imagination with visions of the activity and freedom still forbidden him. Instead of thanking poor Augusta, he mockingly criticized her style and accused her of playing as colorlessly as a boarding-school girl. He longed to play himself but had not the strength; and he sometimes thought of writing a poem or a song, or of painting as he had before he was ill; but weakness had killed the impulse and he had to give up in disgust. Fearing that he would tire, the doctors still forbade him to receive visitors except for the family; but he had no wish to see any of his old friends. The summer of his illness seemed in memory like a dark, fiery journey through shadowy images and incoherent voices. He felt as if he had buried his past, all his adolescence in this dark valley; he wanted new, unknown things and spurned the people who had once been dear, as though they were characters in a play who are no longer interesting because one knows the plot by heart. During his illness strange figures born of his fever but full of independent life and pain, had flashed across his vision. Now it seemed to him that these figures roamed the squares and streets of the city waiting to meet him, while he grew better all too slowly. But he missed their rendezvous and they scattered to other cities, created also by his fever. A stormy, dramatic light illuminated these phantoms, and rendered them rare and desirable. Fabulous mistresses moved before him in this light, docile opulent girls who bowed their heads that he might gather their heavy hair in his hands. What wonderful golden hair! No woman he had ever known could compete with the beauties of his fancy.
Thus he spent the days of his convalescence, torn between contempt for his past life and the desire to live again, never satisfied with the solitary pleasures of imagination but sensing that reality could never match his languid dreams in richness.
This afternoon Edoardo was more talkative than usual. His health had improved considerably; after lunching with a good appetite, he had been able to walk around his room a little and had ventured as far as the terrace which looked out over the garden. This had brought back to his joy a faith in his own strength. He imagined love affairs, travels, parties such as he had never known; as he talked about the future he glanced with vengeful triumph at the bed in which he had raved and suffered. "I am no longer your prisoner," he seemed to be saying to the hated bed. "I have been tied to you for so long but now the spell is broken, I am well, I'm free!"
Concetta, faithful attendant of his recovery, shared his happiness. But her son's tremendous pride frightened her; for she was sure his recovery was due to her prayers. Not one day had passed during his illness that she had not arisen at five to hurry to early Mass. She had sacrificed her richest jewels on the altars. In every church in the city the candles she had offered were burning, masses for the health of her beloved son had been celebrated everywhere, and everywhere Te Deums were being sung in thanks for his recovery. Without telling him, she had sewed little squares of lace painted by the Sisters with holy images in his mattress, under his pillows and even in the hems of his blankets and shirts. She had slipped around his thin, feverish throat the gold chain with his baptismal medal which with precocious impiety he had refused to wear as a child. The most powerful and illustrious saints of the heavenly hierarchy had received Concetta's homage and supplications. And now, her prayers having been granted and she herself been freed from her day-and-night vigil by the invalid's bedside, she allowed herself daily pilgrimages to the dwellings of her Holy Ones. Proud of performing her sacred duties, she had herself driven to this or that church, bowing in casual acknowledgment of the respectful greetings of the townspeople along the way. She passed through the rich chambers, the dim naves of the sacred buildings and approached the High Altars, disdaining to glance at the humble worshippers kneeling here and there; so the king's favorite might make his way to the throne through the throng of envious courtiers. If someone had arrived before her and was already kneeling before the High Altar, the maid who always accompanied Concetta would hurry over to the daring soul, whisper the illustrious name of her mistress and the intruder would hastily remove himself. Then, on her knees, as prescribed by the ceremony of the heavenly court, Concetta was finally face to face with the Throne. A sense of power, of regal confidence and privilege, would fill her heart. Her burning eyes, coal black in her white nun's face, regarded the candles that flamed on the altar in her name, the golden offerings emblazoned with her coat of arms, the precious chalices and the embroidered cloths, all offered by her. By virtue of her rank and her gifts she felt certain she deserved the place of honor in those beautiful, holy places. But like the faithful wife who avails herself of the king's friendship to beg a favor for her husband, Concetta prayed not for herself but for Edoardo. For though she trembled at her son's irreverence she felt she might redeem him by her own devotion.
Edoardo had scarcely regained consciousness before he took off the little baptismal chain and gave it back to his mother with a mocking smile, saying that he could not bear the weight of it. She crossed herself and, kissing the holy medal, put it around her own throat and prayed that she might thus win forgiveness for her son's sacrilege. Edoardo had not noticed the little images which she had sewn in his mattress and pillow while he slept or was delirious and his mother congratulated herself on her foresight, thanks to which her unsuspecting son would still receive divine protection.
That afternoon as Edoardo was boasting about his plans for the future, Concetta's joy was overshadowed by pious apprehension. With burning zeal she urged her son not to forget the gratitude he owed the Saints who had brought about his recovery. But in the self-confident tone his mother had encouraged in him from childhood, Edoardo laughed at her for her crazy ideas. Warming to the sport, he began to tease her and make fun of her revered saints and their illustrious names. She was horrified by his impiety and begged him to be still; this only excited him to greater irreverence. He went so far as to hurl his defiance at the whole heavenly hierarchy: "I don't believe in you!" he cried, looking up at the invisible spirits, "I swear that I have got well because I wanted to! Let me see you, if you dare! Show yourselves and contradict me! What? Does no one come? Are you afraid?" And he laughed gaily as if it were all a game, although he knew how scandalized and terrified his mother was. She was finally moved to anger and with a heavy sigh bitterly reproached him. His face darkened and he told her to go to her saints and leave him alone; scenes like this tired him, he said, and brought back his fever. As he spoke, he took a mirror from the table beside him and studied the marks of illness on his face, to which a healthier color was slowly returning. Fearing to upset him further, his mother grew quiet and hiding her rosary in her ample sleeves, she sat secretly telling her beads. Edoardo was downcast to see how thin his face was and what deep shadows ringed his eyes. "How ugly I've become," he said. To his mother these words sounded no less impious than his blasphemies of a few minutes earlier. "Ugly!" she exclaimed heatedly, in a voice still unsteady with tears. Shaking her head, she added: "You're handsomer than before, my Edoardo. Believe your mother." She wanted to convey to him with this her loving intention of making peace and her dark, tear-filled eyes regarded her son with the same expression they had in church, when she contemplated the ciborium. "Ugly!" she repeated, with a fresh, youthful laugh as if to confute such a heresy by uttering it with her own lips. She went to him and in the soft, singing voice in which the women of the South speak of love, she began to praise his beauty; calling him the delight of all women, his mother's own treasure, the handsomest man in the city. Then, impetuously pressing his cheeks between her palms, she kissed his lips and exclaimed rapturously: "He's well again, the prince of the house is well again, my beautiful man, my angel, my baby, my little one!" Edoardo reminded her laughingly that he was no longer a baby but a grown man now; even as he contradicted her, he submitted willingly to her compliments and kisses. He was demonstrative by nature and now, weakened by illness, he longed all the more to be made much of. While he laughed at his mother, he held her tight in his arms and covered her faded face with kisses and then playfully he began to remove her hairpins one by one. This childish game had once made her angry but as her beautiful gray hair fell about her shoulders now, she sighed with pleasure. While he was delirious, she had suddenly remembered this old trick of his; her heart had grown sick with remorse for having scolded him so for it and today she felt it a miraculous privilege to submit to his old, affectionate teasing. She pretended to threaten him but then broke into a happy laugh, lavishing the most tender names on her beloved one. As he let his mother's hair ripple through his fingers, he repeated: "What beautiful hair the lady has. What a beautiful, little, silver head."
The bell for vespers rang at that moment and she hastily did up her hair in front of the tall mirror. From the door she turned and in a voice of passionate authority reminded her son of the various medicines he was to take and what he was and was not to do while she was out. But already weary of her attentions, he interrupted her brusquely: "Good-bye, Concetta." From childhood he had occasionally amused himself by calling her by name, knowing that it displeased her. This time, however, she answered her son's farewell with a laughing nod and disappeared.
As she went down to her carriage, she turned over in her heart a thought common to all mothers, high or low; that for a mother, a son is always a baby. During the summer now almost over, Edoardo had been hers as he had been years ago, even though she had had to contend with Death for possession of him. If she left his bedside for a moment, the invalid had sought her even in the grip of delirium and she ran back to him, triumphant in the midst of her anguish. Weak and uncertain, he gave himself over entirely into his mother's hands; in his room she was mistress and queen. It was she who received his mail and she who answered his letters. No one could contest her right. And the other women outside, Edoardo's friends, had to come to his mother to have news of him; they presented themselves, curtseyed with humble trepidation, commiserated with her if he was worse, rejoiced with her if he had improved. They were grateful to her for her condescension, knowing that he belonged only to her. Ah, now that the danger was over, she thought back on that painful summer and had to confess that it had not been without its moments of glory!
Lost in such thoughts, she drove along in her carriage; it was then that the wheels almost brushed the skirts of her enemy, Anna, the rival she most hated, the only one who had not dared appear before Edoardo's mother to ask for news of him. Concetta, however, did not notice Anna. A few minutes later the girl received Edoardo's letter from the servant.
Her cousin had written the letter a few days earlier and when he had sealed it, he handed it to the servant with instructions to give it to the young lady the next time she came. He was aware that his cousin had come to ask for him more than once; and he knew she could never have borne the anguish of not knowing about his health, in spite of the many reasons which closed the doors of his home to her. Edoardo learned of her visits with complete indifference. As he thought back on it, his passion for his cousin seemed to him a little like places we knew in childhood which then appeared to us vast and endless but which, when we revisit them as adults, turn out to be quite small and narrow, so that we say to ourselves in amazement: "Was it really like this?" His love for her, like so many other things, belonged to another age: he repudiated it entirely. It seemed strange to him that his cousin should not understand how much he had changed and when he decided to write to her, he wrote purposely in that cold, merciless style. "She must be convinced," he thought, "that everything is over, my letter must hurt her to the quick." The letter was sent accordingly on its mission but Edoardo immediately began to think of Anna with a curiosity and an ardor free of any remorse. The letter would be delivered, it did not occur to him to take it back; it was an instrument of Fate, and he was Fate. The thought even now gave him a profound pleasure; not a frivolous, but a grave, mysterious pleasure such as a tyrant might feel as he disposed of the lives of his subjects according to his own will. He pictured his cousin's proud face when she received his cold message from the servant; he saw her small teeth bite her lips to hold back the tears, saw her tall, slender figure hurry away, watched her choose the less busy streets, seeking to hide herself and her humiliation. With his love, all traces of jealousy had also vanished from Edoardo's heart: he no longer doubted that his cousin loved him to the exclusion of anything or anyone else in the world. He knew he held her fate in his hands so completely that, for example, he could if he wished transform the girl's present despair into unlooked-for happiness. He imagined how, once he was better, he might climb up to the squalid little apartment where she was eating out her heart. She would come to the door herself, as usual; he would say that he had come to warn her in person, to impress firmly on her mind what his letter might not have explained clearly enough. Now: she was to make very sure never to come to the palace again for any reason whatsoever; she must know how unwelcome and useless such visits were. Furthermore, everything was over between them, he had come to tell her this for the last time. He would advise her never to try to reach him again in any way; she must convince herself that he no longer existed for her. All of this he would say in a dry, hostile voice; he would watch her sink down, pale and wordless, and then suddenly he would catch her to him and kiss her furiously. Even now he could feel the taste of her tears on his tongue, he could see those enchanted, questioning eyes: "But none of this will ever be," he told himself, "for I do not love her."
As he lay daydreaming, the servant boy brought him a visiting card; the card itself was quite ordinary but the printing was most elaborate and pretentious. The young gentleman of the card wished to know, explained the servant, when the master could receive him and was awaiting a reply in the antechamber. He said young gentleman but in a rather scornful tone and it was quite evident that in his opinion young gentlemen were of a very different breed from this one. On the card was engraved the name Baron Francesco de Salvi, surmounted with a tiny coronet. Edoardo did not know this baron and had never heard of his family. However, his impulsive curiosity had revived since his illness and persuaded him to receive the stranger at once.
* * *
Since the autumn twilight was falling fast, the servant who accompanied the visitor brought a lamp and placed it on the table near Edoardo. The latter rose slightly from his armchair and glancing at his caller with pleased curiosity, excused himself for having to receive him in his bedroom. He held out his hand which the other shook timidly.
The visitor was a robust young man who could not have been much more than twenty. His features were handsome and regular but his face was corroded and pitted by the deep scars of smallpox. In this face, with its high forehead and dusky pallor, his intelligent, melancholy eyes gleamed darkly. His hair, as we said before, was curly and very black. He wore a faded, rather worn suit which was if anything too sharply creased. The clumsiness of its cut betrayed the country tailor and his cheap but brilliantly colored cravat revealed, in addition to bad taste, the desire for elegant effect. It was secured by a pin of some ordinary metal worked into the form of a capital "R" and set with imitation pearls.
His velvet eyes, shadowed by long, soft lashes, glanced surreptitiously at the rich appointments of the room and in that glance there was a suggestion of insult or defiance. In an almost belligerent voice the young man hastened to explain the reason for his visit. He wanted, he said, to have news or at least to learn the present whereabouts of a certain Nicola Monaco who had at one time given him this address. He asked to be excused, he added, for the intrusion but he had preferred to speak to the master of the house rather than get his information from the servants, since his visit was in connection with a private matter.
He had said a certain Nicola Monaco but it was clear that this person held a high place in his estimation. When he said a certain, it was obviously only to conceal behind a feigned disdain the high opinion he had of the man, an opinion that he must have supposed was shared by many. Also, in spite of his rather aggressive manner he was careful to speak with deliberate precision and not without a slight ostentation. But even in the course of his simple remarks, he became confused and stammered more than once; this seemed to annoy him and his eyes grew dark and gloomy.
The visitor whom chance had brought to Edoardo, made one think of a wild bird borne by the wind into some city room where a sickly boy lies languishing. Full of wonder, the boy takes the proud, winged creature in. But the bird is not used to being confined and beats its wings clumsily against the walls and tries to escape while, at the same time, it is grateful to be sheltered from the storm. The boy, for his part, looks upon it with envy because it is free and can fly. Its awkward struggling seems ridiculous to him and yet it also wounds him; but above all, he wants to capture his unexpected guest to keep as a pet, and he starts at once to consider how he may catch him and clip his wings.
Having heard the young man's request, Edoardo looked at him appraisingly; after thinking for a moment, he replied that he did indeed remember that a certain Nicola Monaco had served his family as administrator until five or six years before. Here Edoardo paused to ask the other if Monaco was by chance a relative or a friend of his since, he explained hastily, the last news of him was not exactly pleasant. To this question the other responded in a precipitous, ironic manner and with a rather insulting laugh begged him to have no scruples and to speak frankly. With that man he had nothing but business connections.
As he listened to the stranger, Edoardo's heart began to beat quickly; he was like a man on the verge of a dangerous, harrowing adventure which, for just those reasons, he finds fascinating. His sense of malice helped him to see that the young man had lied, that Nicola Monaco must hold a very different place in his heart from that which he, whether because of pride or stubbornness or for some other mysterious reason, wished to suggest. The young man's reply opened the way for Edoardo to enter freely into this delicate region of the feelings, and to trample it or turn it upside down as he liked. On such a tedious afternoon the prospect offered our malicious cousin the foretaste of a delightful, wicked pleasure, such as he felt when he blasphemed the saints dear to Concetta. Strange as it may seem, such pleasure does not spring only from cruelty but is also mixed with a kind of tender compassion and love. In fact, is not one of the first pleasures of love perhaps the permission, whether granted or forced, to invade and even to lay waste forbidden, mysterious and holy places? And have you ever noticed with what an air of defiance and at the same time of perdition a boy will take pleasure in destroying some object dear to his small brother, if the child out of pride insists on telling him: "I don't care"? Of such mixed kinds, alas, are the few pleasures bequeathed to us by our father Adam.
And so there was a note of excitement in Edoardo's quiet, insidious voice when, not from any scruple of conscience but to prolong his own pleasure, he persisted gently: "But ... excuse me, has it been a long time since you have heard of this gentleman?" As he spoke, he looked at the man with a rather sad, subtle solicitude, as if to say: "Give yourself up and I'll be good to you."
"Not for more than ten years," the other replied quickly but apparently annoyed to have said this much, as if it were some jealously guarded secret, he added brusquely: "But I only asked for an address, not for any personal news."
"Excuse me, but you began by asking me for news and I warned you that what you would hear would be unpleasant," Edoardo retorted. The young man grew completely confused and stammered his apologies. Striving to regain his self-possession, he said crudely: "Well, tell me what you have to say. And speak plainly." Glancing at him obliquely and speaking in the detached, neutral tone in which employers refer to their servants, Edoardo told him what he knew of Nicola Monaco. And how, after serving the family for many years, he had been dismissed because of certain irregularities in his management of the estates.
"What irregularities?" Francesco demanded abruptly. "Well," replied Edoardo, "if you want me to use the exact term for it, I will tell you that our Monaco was a thief."
As if this were a personal offense, Francesco reddened violently but he said nothing. The other continued, explaining how after such a discovery, naturally, all connections between Nicola and the Cerentanos were severed. Nothing more had been heard of Nicola until about a year ago when word had spread among the household servants of the misfortune which befell him. Before describing this misfortune, Edoardo interrupted himself again; leaning his head a little to one side, he said he was reluctant to tell what he knew; it would be unwelcome, perhaps, to the other's ear. But again Francesco protested and as if offended by Edoardo's doubts, he declared that he had nothing in common with Nicola beyond a matter of business. He laughed again the same ironic, rude laugh as before, but this time it was muffled and tremulous; then abruptly he stated that Monaco owed him money.
"Ah, if that is it," Edoardo said, with smiling eyes, "I am afraid your money is lost and you will have to give up the hope of recovering it." He explained then that according to the servants, although, Nicola lost his post with the Cerentanos, he did not lose his vices with it, unfortunately. He had finished, as was to be expected, in jail, where he had died a year ago.
Francesco turned pale. "What! Oh, yes," he said, and he smiled gently, revealing imperfect, broken, almost childish teeth. He rose from his chair quickly and glanced around him with a grim, miserable expression as if he were seeking some sign, having momentarily lost his way. "Well, thank you, then," he went on in his violent, impulsive manner. "Thank you, I shan't disturb you further. I have found out what I wanted to know," he concluded, forcing his childish grimace of a moment ago into a smile. "The address I was looking for is the cemetery. Thank you." And with this sarcastic jest, he turned hurriedly toward the door.
"What are you doing? Are you leaving so soon? Wait!" exclaimed Edoardo in alarm, half rising from his chair. As the other stood stock still in confusion by the door, he continued with restless urgency: "Stay a bit longer, I beg of you! Sit down again, please do, I ask it as a favor. Today is the first time," he went on with an embarrassed, humble little smile, "today is the first time that I have had anyone to talk to since I fell sick. I've been sick for more than two months and alone all the time. I would so like to talk to someone ... you would be doing me a real favor." He accompanied these remarks with an urbane smile but he was so afraid the other might refuse that his eyes had grown clouded and his voice did not so much ask as command. He brightened when he saw that Francesco was intimidated and did not dare refuse; as he thanked him, a slight flush spread over his cheeks.
Then, whether out of gratitude or to win somehow his guest's consent and persuade him to stay, he began to talk about Nicola Monaco again, but in quite a different way. We saw before how Nicola had seemed at one time a most attractive, colorful person to his little master. Now Edoardo tried to recreate that shadowy figure in his memory, to piece together a kind of funeral, eulogy. Enriched and enlivened by his desire to please, his words evoked the administrator in heroic proportions. He praised the dead man's good looks, his blond beard and his infectious laugh. He celebrated his operatic gifts and his skill at the piano when he had played dance tunes for them as children, while they leaped about the room in time with his music. He recalled funny stories that Nicola Monaco had told him and which made him laugh even now when he remembered them; he was delighted to see that Francesco laughed with him. Francesco's eyes brightened at every fresh compliment to Nicola; apparently the praise awoke some secret, nostalgic memory. He was no longer the aggressive person of some moments before but seemed almost defenseless; an ill-concealed shyness, an almost harsh modesty controlled his movements. If he sat down, he sat on the edge of his chair as if he were holding himself in readiness for the first sign of dismissal from his host; to express his satisfaction he dared do no more than mutter hurried little phrases like: "Yes, he had a good voice" or "Yes, he was rather tall." But in spite of his efforts, his stiff reserve was as unavailing as a thin veil thrown over the splendor of a king's treasure. It betrayed such helpless involvement or, rather, such an absurd devotion that Edoardo was again moved by his temptation to malice. The style of his remarks changed from the complimentary and even heroic to a lighter tone and gradually his voice reacquired the dispassionate haughty note of the master speaking of his servant. Little by little, the traits in Nicola that had just received his praise became the butt of mocking ridicule. Nicola talked about Art as if Art were a woman who had given the key of her room only to him, while actually the noble lady distributed her favors to a very different sort than Nicola who, even to see her, had to climb the servants' stairs and peek at her through the keyhole. To hear him, however, it was the fault of his family, especially his wife, for having kept him from an artist's life. He went about telling whoever would listen to him what an artist he was, what a misunderstood man, what a gentleman, no less! And the day when his trickery came to light, he said that he was highly astonished (he used to use expressions like that) and began to swear on the heads of his children and the holy memory of the dead, as if his children or the dead counted for more than a rotten apple to a type like him! "Yes," Edoardo concluded, "I never saw such a liar, perjurer and clown! But I liked him," he added and broke into a spontaneous, provocative laugh, which his listener forced himself to echo.
"Do you want to know how I feel about it?" Edoardo went on, assuming a careless, skeptical tone and looking at the other's face to see the effect of his words. "I will tell you. It's a shame that I was still a boy when the man was thrown out. Because if I had been the master here, he would still be our manager today. The fact is I liked our old Nicola and what do I care whether he stole or not? My father felt the same way I do, but unfortunately he died too soon and the house fell into the hands of the women, and women spoil everything; they, have no imagination, they like to scratch and scrape in the fields but they understand nothing about a garden. Look at their religion; every morning they're off, all dressed up, to deposit their Ave Marias, prayers, genuflections, their little flowers, the way you deposit savings in a bank. They count on amassing a capital of blessings sufficient to live on their income in Heaven forever; they are not capable of taking in another thought.
"But to go back to our manager: you see, I come from a noble family; I am rich and as I see it, the first advantage of being rich is that you needn't bother about money; otherwise the rich would be slaves, of money no less than the poor. For example, today I ate a chicken, very well prepared, from a hand-painted porcelain dish, and I ate it with pleasure, without caring to know how it was killed, plucked or cooked, otherwise its taste would have been revolting. I don't want to know anything about the kitchen; that's the cook's business. My job is to keep myself nourished and at the same time to enjoy my food. The same goes for everything else, the managing of the estate and so on. They bring me a certain Nicola, a nice enough looking man, pleasant, who amuses me, knows how to sing, and they tell me: "This man will look after your money, take care of all the tiresome messy business matters for you, leaving you only the duty of spending your income. But he steals! 'Let him steal,' I say to them, 'and don't bother me any more with your boring chatter. In olden times did not gentlemen allow themselves the luxury of keeping a dwarf? Well, I want the luxury of keeping a thief. He may be a thief but he knows how to play my fool and keep me amused better than any of you.' There, that would have been my answer when they accused Signor Monaco."
During Edoardo's speech Francesco had not said a single word; his silence made him seem ill at ease and he tried to hide it with forcedly casual gestures. For example, he pulled his trousers up slightly so that the crease would not be spoiled or he fingered his cravat, pretending to adjust the knot. But Edoardo's eyes rested for a moment on those coarse, red hands with wrists like a farmer's and Francesco noticed the look. A deep, mottled flush covered his face and immediately he dropped his hands and tried to hide them; but as he did so, a sudden anger made him turn pale. Jumping unexpectedly to his feet and clenching his fists threateningly, he said in a choked voice:
"I won't allow ... I won't allow anyone to talk about him like that.... I forbid you to insult him.... Respect ... have some respect for the dead!"
At this outburst Edoardo grew pale in a flash of anger that surprised him, since he had provoked and had even longed for the visitor's outburst. "How dare you ... in my own house!" he exclaimed and, supporting his trembling arms on the arms of the chair, he tried to rise but this simple defensive gesture shook him so that sweat broke out on his forehead.
His desire for revenge was mixed with astonishment at seeing how weak he was, how helpless before this stranger. With an angry sigh he fell back in his chair as he searched wildly for some way to punish Francesco and then his eye fell on the visiting card the servant had brought, which still lay on the table beside him. His lips curled in a little sneer and he said: "Excuse me, Baron, I thought there was nothing in common between you and Signor Monaco."
This was enough to bring a flush again to Francesco's face. "What do you mean?" he said, in confusion. "Naturally ... in fact ... I have nothing to do with ... I told you so already. I told you," he repeated, arming himself with a simulated boldness, "and I repeat it! What connection is there between the two questions? I am speaking out of general principle, not out of any regard for that man. What could he have meant to me, that ... individual?"
Then, thinking he detected a slight smile on Edoardo's lips, he was overcome by anger again: "You," he continued, with angry emphasis, "you have no right to judge him. You're rich, you live in a princely house, lying in your armchair, with everyone bowing and scraping to you, you can't judge someone who worked all his life, a poor devil.... Do you know for sure how you would have behaved in his place? I am talking in a general way, about a sacred principle, a right.... "
The guest's fresh impertinences might have provoked another haughty reply from Edoardo but at that point a bell sounded from below; in the Cerentano household this was a signal that dinner would be served in another quarter of an hour. As if the sound were the signal for his dismissal and meant You are in the way, Francesco was upset when he heard it, and interrupted his sermon, murmuring in a stunned voice: "I am disturbing you ... I am going ... Excuse me ..." and he turned once more to the door.
"Wait a minute!" Edoardo called him back once more with a sudden expression of pain and displeasure on his bloodless face. "You are going away," he went on bitterly, "without even giving me your hand." He held out his hand to his guest with a smile in which there was nothing if not liking, even a gentle affection, and he added: "It is you who must excuse me, the fault is all mine. I am weak and nervous from my illness. I beg your pardon. Won't you forgive me? I beg your pardon," he insisted with warmth. At that, the other, who had heavily retraced his steps, thrust out his hand in a shamefaced, awkward gesture, standing before the invalid with his head bent, his forehead creased in a frown under his heavy black curls. He cast a fleeting, sidelong glance at Edoardo and murmured in embarrassment: "Thanks ... thanks ... it's time for me to be going...." But Edoardo held his hand, pressing it between his thin fingers so it could not escape and with anxious impatience, he said: "One thing more before you leave. Would you be displeased if we became friends? Wouldn't you like to be my friend?"
Francesco stammered I don't know what in reply and glanced quickly at Edoardo with a timid, humble smile. Looking at him, he seemed only now to notice the pallor and the restlessness of that thin face and he was filled with pity. "You have been sick," he observed, remorseful and almost paternally protective. "I shouldn't have come." In reply, Edoardo laughed affectionately and contentedly; then, with impetuous haste he said to his visitor: "Listen, you live here in town, don't you? But your address is not on your card. Write it down for me, please, here is a pen, write it down and as soon as I am better, I shall come to see you. I'll come to see you the first day I can go out. Perhaps in a week I'll be able to go out, perhaps even the day after tomorrow. I shall come to you at once, at once." He waited anxiously for the other to write. But his visitor hesitated, held back by a strange reluctance. "Look," he said finally, with an effort, "if you don't mind, it would be better for me to come back here," and he spoke vaguely of a family that lived far away, certain complicated studies, the lack of a fixed address ... and so on.
Edoardo's face grew long, darkened by suspicion and disappointment. "A moment ago," he said, frowning, "you said your address was here in town and now you deny it.... Why don't you want me to come? Perhaps you find me hateful, and you don't want to be my friend? And now you promise me to come back, but probably you will never come and I will wait for you day after day. ..." Edoardo's lips twitched and with a nervous little laugh, he continued: "But I can see in your eyes that you are lying when you say you have no address." In a willful, wheedling voice, as if to have that address were the supreme goal of his life, he begged. "Write it down! Do! Write it for me!"
Francesco could only give in. Murmuring that it was a provisional address, a temporary lodging, that for certain reasons, and so on, and so on, he wrote with trembling fingers on his own card, under the printed Francesco de Salvi (he now drew a little line modestly through the Baron): in care of Consoli, Vico Sottoporta 88. His face beaming with pleasure, Edoardo was standing near Francesco with his elbows on the table and one knee on the arm of his chair; leaning over the other's shoulder, he watched him write the address. Then he repeated the words over to himself, drew a long sigh and taking possession of the card, he put it carefully in his pocket.
A clock in the hallway struck the hour; the door opened and Concetta, wearing a black felt hat, appeared in the doorway. She asked her son if the servant could bring his dinner tray but then, seeing the stranger, she added: "Ah, excuse me, I didn't know you had visitors," and she went out immediately, leaving the door ajar, however. That apparition robbed Francesco of any remaining shred of composure. "I am going ... thanks ... excuse me ..." he stammered while he looked for his hat, quite forgetting that he had left it downstairs with a servant. "I'll see you soon," Edoardo told him, holding his hand with a friendly, meaningful smile. When the other was already on the threshold, he added: "Meantime, while you wait for my visit, come back and see me here. I'll be waiting for you. Come back tomorrow!" But this invitation received no reply from Francesco who scarcely heard it for he was already out of the room and down the hall where he almost collided with the servant bringing the dinner tray.
Although he did not really count on his visit (sensing that out of shyness he would not appear), Edoardo was disappointed and piqued the next day when Francesco did not come. He waited in vain during the days that followed and such futile waiting sharpened his desire to see him again. He began to suspect that the address his visitor had given him might be false and he dispatched Carmine to Vico Sottoporta, 88. The coachman returned to report that a Francesco de Salvi, student, lived at that address in a furnished room, in the house of a cabdriver. This pacified Edoardo somewhat; and no sooner was he able to leave the house than he went to visit Francesco de Salvi, as he had promised.
Meet the Author
WILLIAM WEAVER has been the leading translator of Italian writing into English for half a century and several samples of his own work are included in Open City. Among his previous books is A Legacy of Excellence: The Story of Villa I Tatti. Weaver divides his year among Italy, New York City, and Annandale-on-Hudson, where he is on the faculty of Bard College.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews