The Death of Lucano: a novella by Alberto Moravia (Racconti Surrealistici e Satirici)
Morte di Lucano: una novella di Alberto Moravia
When Lucano learned that they would have spared his life if he had consented to reveal the names of his accomplices in the Pisone conspiracy, the air of conventional and rhetorical stoicism that he had assumed since the beginning of the trial fell off him like oversized clothes, and he felt pervaded by a morbid and agitated disquiet. In his original desperation he had considered everything: the proud answers he would give the judges, the noble dignity he would retain during the trial, the verses he would recite at the point of death, his premature end framed by an aureola of fame, strength and virtue, his contemporaries and descendants. In his vain agony, he had considered everything short of being able, at the price of cowardice, to save his life. He had gone to great lengths to alleviate and adorn this death, which he had thought fatal, with all the frills of rhetoric of which he was a master. And in the submission forced onto him, these frills seemed to him like memorable gestures and laments torn away from his soul by the extreme danger threatening him. Yet now, that same death that he could not help disguise and mask in the latest fashion, appeared to him almost as a safe refuge, a warm comfortable den, compared to the doubt that the judges' promise had instilled in him; he was no longer consoled by the vainly sweet rhetorical image of a valiant death. During those dark and grievous days following the discovery of the conspiracy, he had already seen himself outside his life, in a grey and mournful zone, amidst those shadows whose example he was thinking of following. But now the wicked and calculated promise of the judges, along with his hope and desire to live, gave him back a burden heavier than life itself – that of conscience having to deliberate upon which conduct to follow. During that night of death, from which the judges' promise would take him away, there was nothing but horror; but now, the new dawn that seemed to rise for him contained an even greater horror: the requirement, perfectly new for him, to act no longer as a courtier whose manifold talents were admired and praised everywhere, but as a man. He was asked to choose in such conditions where he could not be assisted by his many natural gifts, and without a distinction being made between him, who had almost facetiously taken part in the conspiracy, and his companions who had plotted it and would have gained the princedom had it been successful. His easy, fatuous and vain life found him unprepared for such a lack of choice, and embittered by the unfairness of his destiny, Lucano felt almost unable to mentally capture the seriousness and importance of the dilemma he had been presented with. And instead of real people and facts he saw rhetorical shadows as far from him as Caesar, Brutus and the ghosts of Pompei evoked in the Pharsalia. My mother, my friends – he kept saying to himself; but his mother and his friends remained pale and still, and their worthiness was difficult to determine outside a world full of those declaimed and rigid moral rules from which he had taken his characters. Betraying one's friends, one's mother, he thought, is a base shameful action. But in what world were these actions base and shameful? In that where he had lived so far, or in the theatrical one of Uncle Seneca's plays? In reality, he no longer saw the meaning of this unworthiness; in committing it, he didn't know what he would have lost, but only what he would have gained. He felt fake and conventional when facing the duty that was hanging over him; real and humane when considering the prize he would have gained by failing to fulfill this duty. In front of his mother and his friends was the stoic character of a tragedy, standing draped in his toga, the arm stretched, the mouth open pleading; however, in front of the life he would obtain in exchange for his betrayal, it was him, Lucano. That Lucano with his hair tousled by horror, without any tears left to cry nor voice to scream, soiled and ragged from so much struggling; that Lucano who was frightened and did not want to die. “Timorum maximum” - that is what he had called the fear of death in the Pharsalia. And was it perhaps due to this fear that, in front of the pallour and coldness of his mother and his friends, life was in his eyes so colourful and gracious? Firstly the sun, the sweet sun, scorching in the summer, tired and red in the autumn, merry in the spring, grateful in the cold winters, was waiting for him outside the prison, offering him, who had reported his own mother, the same light as to the noblest of men. The land would have smiled at him too, with its rivers meandering through the blue mountains and flowing into the sea, its forests full of birds and docile beasts, and its vast sky where winds were moving the clouds. He would have still walked this land, if he had lived. But even sweeter than sun and earth, a sufficient enough reason for living even for men with no honour, was to him the charming and greedy profession of man of letters. Who, he thought, would not commit the worst of betrayals knowing with certainty that he would then write a poem, beautiful and perfect like Homer's? Or fantasy of heroes, battles, gods, marvels, choose words from the profoundness of an inspired mind, put them carefully together in long phrases, read with insight, discuss with sharpness, and endlessly meditate; and then declaim, win the applause, listen to praise and criticism, see his name spread – what more on earth could anyone want? Surely not the sterile and dusty fame of stoic virtue; as a single verse of Virgil was worth more than all of Cato's intrepid obstinacy. Now Lucano was only twenty-seven and he thought that if he were to live, he would be capable of writing things more beautiful than Virgil's; things that, he was trying to convince himself, would more than justify any betrayal. Victim of an agitated disquiet and with these thoughts in his mind, Lucano spent that day. And in the evening, the judges came back to interrogate him: “Atilia”, he said, “my mother Atilia is amongst the accomplices of Pisone”. One of the judges was sitting and writing, the second was interrogating him and the third carried a sword in his hand. And the one with the sword, no sooner had Lucano reported his mother and friends, said to Lucano who was anxiously looking at him: “The promise will not be kept. You must die”. At these words Lucano, realizing he had lost at once his reputation, his mother and his life, threw himself to the ground imploring and screaming. But the judges were already walking away, outside the closed door and along the corridors. The following day, reciting some of his verses about a dying soldier, Lucano held out his wrists to the surgeon. At twenty-seven, while the sun continued to shine and the celestial bodies turned in a perpetual movement, he knew he was dying for futile reasons, for cowardice that no poetic dignity could ever redeem. Who would henceforth talk about him? Grammarians and rhetoricians. Having recited the first verses, he looked at the blood flowing out of the large veins on his wrists and with thinner streams, like some kind of malignant root, coating his ten fingers spread and dangling up to his nails. In spite of his continual recitation, he knew that there was no remedy to those open, broken veins, and that the blood dripping from his fingers would not go back into the veins; and his voice trembled and grew into a liquid and vast affliction. Look, he wanted to scream, look at how I die. But death was already being described in his verses, nor was there time. Thus, once his brief song finished, his life faded away.
- The end -