The Conformist, p.1Alberto Moravia
Copyright © 1999 by R.C.S. Libri S.p.A. — Milan.
Copyright © 1951 by Valentino Bompiano & Co., S.A.
First published in 1951 by Farrar, Straus and Company.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
For information about permission to
reproduce selections from this book, write to:
Steerforth Press, 45 Lyme Road, Suite 208
Hanover, New Hampshire 03755
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Moravia, Alberto, 1907-
The conformist: a novel / Alberto Moravia;
translated from the Italian by Tami Calliope.
I. Calliope, Tami. II. Title.
PQ4829.O62 C67813 1999
Part I Chapter 1
Part II Chapter 1
THROUGHOUT HIS CHILDHOOD, Marcello was as fascinated by objects as a magpie. Perhaps because at home his parents, more from indifference than austerity, had never thought to satisfy his desire to possess; or perhaps because other instincts, deeper and as yet obscure, took on in him the mask of greed; he was constantly assailed by furious desires for the most diverse objects. A pencil with an eraser at the tip, an illustrated book, a slingshot, a ruler, a portable rubber inkpot — any trifle could stir his soul, first to an intense and unreasoning longing for the coveted thing, then, once he possessed it, to an astonished, enchanted, unlimited satisfaction. Marcello had a room all his own in the house, where he slept and studied. Here, all the objects scattered on the table or closed up in the drawers held for him the character of things still sacred or lately deconsecrated, according to whether their acquisition was recent or long-standing. They were not, that is, similar to the other objects found in the house, but slivers of experience lived through or yet to come, bearing the whole weight of passion and mystery. Marcello was aware, in his own way, of this singular character of his possessiveness and, while he obtained an ineffable enjoyment from it, at the same time he suffered, as if from a guilt that continually renewed itself and left him no time even to feel remorse.
Among all these objects, however, those that attracted him most, perhaps because they were forbidden him, were weapons. Not just the pretend weapons children play with — tin rifles, cap guns, wooden daggers — but real weapons, in which the idea of menace, danger, and death is not conveyed by the familiar shape alone, but is instead the whole reason for their existence. With a toy pistol one played at death without the slightest possibility of actually inflicting it, but with grownup pistols death was not only possible but imminent, like a temptation held in check by prudence alone. Marcello had held these real weapons in his hands a few times, a rifle for hunting in the country, the old pistol that his father had shown him in a drawer one day, and each time he had experienced a thrill of connection, as if his hand had finally found a natural extension in the grip of the gun.
Marcello had many friends among the children of the neighborhood, and he soon realized that his taste for weapons had deeper and more obscure origins than their innocent military infatuations. When they played at soldiers they pretended to be pitiless and fierce, but in reality they pursued the game for love of playing, aping those cruel attitudes without any real participation. For him, instead, it was the opposite: it was cruelty and ferocity that sought an outlet in playing at soldiers and, when that was denied him, in other pastimes all attuned to his taste for destruction and death. At that time Marcello was cruel without remorse or shame, completely naturally, since cruelty provided him with the only pleasures he didn’t consider insipid; and this cruelty was still childish enough so as not to awaken suspicions in himself or in others.
He happened, for example, to go down to the garden in the heat of the day, toward the beginning of summer. It was a small but lush garden in which plants and trees flourished in wild disorder, abandoned years ago to their natural luxuriance. Marcello went down to the garden armed with a length of thin and flexible rush that he had torn from an old carpet beater in the attic; and for a while he wandered aimlessly through the playful shadows of the trees and the blazing rays of the sun, along the graveled pathways, observing the plants. He felt that his eyes were sparkling, that his whole body was opening him to a sensation of well-being that seemed to merge with the general vitality of the luxuriant, light-filled garden, and he was happy. But it was a cruel and aggressive happiness, almost yearning to measure itself in contrast to the unhappiness of others. When he saw, in the midst of a flower bed, a beautiful patch of daisies crowded with white and yellow blossoms, or a tulip, its red corolla upright on a green stem, or then again, a clump of lilies, with their tall, white, fleshy petals, Marcello would strike a single blow with his rush, making it whistle through the air like a sword. The rush sliced neatly through the flowers and leaves, which fell cleanly to earth beside the plant, leaving the stems upright and headless. Doing this, he felt a burst of vitality, the delicious satisfaction from venting an energy too long suppressed, but at the same a precise and inexplicable sentiment of power and justice. As if those plants had been guilty and he had punished them and had felt, too, that it was his right to punish them. But he was not altogether ignorant of the forbidden and blameworthy aspects of this pastime. Every once in a while, almost despite himself, he would turn a furtive glance toward the house, afraid that his mother from the living room window, or the cook from the window in the kitchen, might be observing him. And he realized that what he feared was not so much a scolding as the simple witness of acts that he himself perceived to be abnormal and mysteriously soaked in guilt.
The passage from flowers and plants to animals was imperceptible, as it is in nature. Marcello would not have been able to say when he realized that the same pleasure he experienced when he broke the plants and beheaded the flowers revealed itself to be even more intense, more profound, when he inflicted the same violence on animals. Perhaps it was only chance that thrust him on this path, a blow from the rush that, instead of mangling a shrub, struck a lizard across the back as it dozed on a branch; or perhaps it was a mix of boredom and satiety that prompted him to seek out new targets on which to exercise his as yet unconcious cruelty. In any case, one silent afternoon when everyone in the house was sleeping, Marcello suddenly found himself, struck as if by a thunderbolt of remorse and shame, standing over a massacre of lizards. There were five or six lizards that he had managed, in various ways, to flush out onto the branches of trees or the stones of the garden wall, striking them dead with a single blow of the rush just at the moment in which, suspicious of his looming presence, they sought to escape toward some refuge. Just how he had arrived at this point he would not have been able to say, or rather, he preferred not to remember, but by now it was all over and nothing remained except the sun, blazing and impure, on the bloody corpses, filthy with dust, of the dead lizards. He was standing on the cement walkway on which the lizards lay, the rush gripped in his fist, and he still felt on his face and throughout his body the excitement that had invaded him during the slaughter, no longer pleasurably passionate as it had been then, but already colored by r
That day, to confirm this discovery, so new and painful, of his own abnormality, Marcello wanted a confrontation with a young friend of his, Roberto, who lived in the house next door. Towards dusk Roberto, having finished his studies, came down to the garden; and until the dinner hour, by mutual consent of their families, the two boys played together, sometimes in one of their gardens, sometimes in the other. Marcello waited impatiently for that moment throughout the long, silent afternoon, alone in his bedroom, stretched out on the bed. His parents had gone out and there was no one in the house except the cook, whose voice he heard at intervals as she sang softly to herself in the kitchen, on the ground floor. Usually in the afternoon he played or studied by himself in his room; but that day neither games nor studies attracted him; he felt incapable of doing the least thing and at the same time furiously impatient in his idleness. Alarm over the discovery he seemed to have made and the hope that this alarm would be dissipated by his imminent meeting with Roberto both paralyzed and set him on edge. If Roberto would only tell him that he, too, killed lizards and that he liked to kill them and saw no harm in killing them, it seemed to Marcello that all sense of abnormality would disappear and he would be able to look with indifference on the slaughter of the lizards, as on an incident devoid of meaning and without consequences. He could not have said why he attributed such authority to Roberto. Dimly he thought that if Roberto also did these things and in that way and with those feelings, it would mean that everyone did them; and what everyone did was not only normal but good. At the same time, these reflections were not very clear in Marcello’s mind and presented themselves more as feelings and profound impulses than as precise thoughts. But it seemed to him that he could be sure of one thing: his tranquillity of mind depended on Roberto’s answer.
In this hope and distress, he waited impatiently for the twilight hour. He was just about to doze off when a long, warbling whistle reached him from the garden: it was the agreed-upon signal with which Roberto let him know he had arrived. Marcello got out of bed and, without turning on any lights, in the penumbra of sunset, walked out of his room, descended the stairs, and looked out onto the garden.
In the dim light of the summer dusk the trees were motionless and gloomy; in the shadow of their branches it seemed already night. Floral exhalations, the odor of dust, and heat rising from the sun-warmed earth stagnated in the dense, still air. The gate that divided Marcello’s garden from Roberto’s had vanished completely beneath a gigantic ivy, so thick and deep that it resembled a wall of enveloping leaves. Marcello went straight to a corner at the bottom of the garden where the ivy and the shadows were thickest, scrambled up onto a large stone, and with a single deliberate gesture pushed aside a whole mass of the creeper. It was he who had invented that kind of doorway in the foliage of the ivy, to add a sense of secrecy and adventure to the game. Once the ivy was moved aside, the bars of the railing appeared and, between them, the thin, pale face and blond hair of his friend Roberto. Marcello stood on tiptoes on top of the stone and asked, “Has anyone seen us?”
This was the opening move of the game they shared, and Roberto replied as if reciting a lesson, “No, no one.…” And after a moment: “Have you studied?”
He spoke in a whisper, another agreed-upon procedure. Whispering himself, Marcello replied, “No, today I didn’t study … I didn’t feel like it … I’ll tell the teacher I was feeling sick.”
“I wrote my Italian essay,” murmured Roberto, “and I did one of the arithmetic problems, too … I still have another one to do … why didn’t you study?”
It was the question Marcello had been waiting for. “I didn’t study,” he answered, “because I was hunting lizards.”
He hoped that Roberto would say, “Oh, really … sometimes I hunt lizards, too,” or something of the kind. But Roberto’s face expressed no complicity, not even curiosity. Marcello added with an effort, trying to hide his own embarassment: “I killed them all.”
Roberto asked cautiously, “How many?”
“Seven in all,” replied Marcello. And then, forcing himself to a kind of technical and informative boast: “They were on the tree branches and on the stones … I waited till they moved and then I got them with just one blow of this rush … one blow each.” He made a satisfied face and showed the rush to Roberto.
He saw the other boy look at him with curiosity, not unaccompanied by a kind of amazement: “Why did you kill them?’
“Just because.” He hesitated; he was about to say, “Because I enjoyed it,” but then, without even knowing why, he held back and answered, “Because they’re harmful … don’t you know that lizards are harmful?”
“No,” said Roberto, “I didn’t know that … harmful to what?”
“They eat the grapes,” said Marcello, “about a year ago in the countryside they ate all the grapes off the arbour.”
“But there aren’t any grapes here.”
“And then,” he continued, without bothering to take notice of this objection, “they’re bad … one, instead of running away when it saw me, came right towards me with its mouth wide open.… If I hadn’t stopped it in time, it would have jumped me.” He was quiet for a moment and then added, more confidentially, “Haven’t you ever killed any?”
Roberto shook his head and answered, “No, never.” Then, lowering his eyes, he said contritely, “They say that you shouldn’t hurt animals.”
“They say a lot of things,” said Marcello, ever less sure of himself, “but try it, stupid.… I promise you it’s fun.”
“No, I won’t try it.”
“And why not?”
“Because it’s wicked.”
So there was nothing to be done about it, thought Marcello with disappointment. He felt an impulse of anger toward his friend, who, without even realizing it, had nailed him, confirmed him in his abnormality. Still, he managed to control himself and proposed: “Look, tomorrow I’m going hunting for lizards again. If you come hunting with me, I’ll give you that pack of Neapolitan cards.”
He knew that this was a tempting offer for Roberto, who had expressed a desire to own those cards many times. And in fact Roberto, as if illumined by a sudden inspiration, replied, “I’ll come hunting on one condition: that we take them alive and then shut them up in a little box and then set them free … and you give me the pack of cards.”
“No way,” said Marcello, “The very best part is hitting them with this rush.… I bet you can’t do it.”
His friend said nothing. Marcello went on, “Come on, then, we agree on this … but you have to look for a rush, too.”
“No,” said Roberto obstinately, “I won’t come.”
“Why not? Those cards are new.”
“No, it’s no use,” said Roberto, “I’m not killing any lizards, not even if.…” He hesitated, trying to come up with an object of proportionate value, “not even if you give me your pistol.”
Marcello understood that there was nothing to be done, and all of a sudden he surrendered to the anger that had been boiling for some minutes
“Afraid of what? You make me laugh.”
“You’re afraid,” repeated Marcello, enraged, “You’re a rabbit … a real rabbit.” Suddenly, he thrust a hand through the bars of the railing and grabbed his friend by the ear. Roberto had red ears that stuck out, and it was not the first time that Marcello had grabbed them; but never with so much anger and such a pointed desire to hurt him.
“Confess you’re a rabbit.”
“No, let go of me,” the other boy began to whine, twisting and turning, “Ow … ow!”
“Confess you’re a rabbit.”
“No … let me go.”
“Confess you’re a rabbit.”
In his hand Roberto’s ear was burning, hot and sweaty; tears sprang up in the blue eyes of his victim. He stammered, “Yes, all right, I’m a rabbit,” and Marcello let him go immediately. Roberto jumped down from the gate and as he was running away, he yelled: “I’m not a rabbit … when I said that I was thinking, ‘I’m not a rabbit!’ I tricked you.” He disappeared, and his voice, tearful and mocking, was lost in the distance, beyond the groves of the garden next door.
This exchange left Marcello with a profound sense of distress. Roberto had refused him not only solidarity, but the absolution he sought and which seemed to him to be linked to that solidarity. So he was thrust back into abnormality, but not without having first shown Roberto how much it mattered to him to step out of it, to let himself go — he was perfectly aware of this — and yield to falsehood and violence. Now, added to his shame and remorse at having killed the lizards were the shame and remorse for having lied to Roberto about the motives that had driven him to ask for his complicity and for having revealed himself by that act of anger, when he had grabbed him by the ear. The first sin was joined by a second; and there was no way he could undo either of them.
Every so often, among these bitter reflections, he revisited in memory the massacre of the lizards, almost hoping to find it purified of all remorse, a simple fact like any other. But right away he realized that he wished the lizards had never died; and at the same time, vividly and perhaps not completely unpleasantly — but for this very reason, it was all the more repugnant — he was struck again by that sense of excitement and physical turmoil he had experienced while he was hunting; and this was so strong that it even made him doubt that he would be able to resist the temptation to repeat the slaughter in the days to come. This thought terrified him: so he was not only abnormal, but, besides being unable to suppress his abnormality, he could not even control it. At that moment he was in his room, sitting at the table in front of an open book, waiting for dinner. He rose impetuously, went to the bed, and throwing himself onto his knees on the bedside rug and joining his hands as he usually did when he recited his prayers, said aloud in a tone that seemed to him sincere: “I swear before God that I will never again touch the flowers, or the plants, or the lizards.”
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