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The conformist, p.10
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       The Conformist, p.10

           Alberto Moravia

  The door opened and Giulia came in impetuously, still talking to someone in the hallway, maybe the maid. When she had finished speaking, she shut the door and came quickly toward her fiancé. At twenty, Giulia was as full-bodied as a woman of thirty, with a coarse, almost common shapeliness that was still fresh and solid, revealing both her youth and some unknown, carnal illusion and joy. She had an extremely white complexion and large eyes, limpid, dark, and languid; thick, beautifully wavy chestnut hair; blooming red lips. Watching her come toward him, dressed in a light outfit with a masculine cut from which the curves of her exuberant body seemed to explode, Marcello couldn’t help thinking with renewed pleasure that he was marrying a totally normal, completely ordinary girl, very like the living room that had given him such solace a moment before.

  A similar solace, almost a relief, came over him again when he heard her drawling, good-natured, Roman vernacular saying, “What beautiful roses … But why? I already told you you shouldn’t bother. It’s not as if it’s the first time you’ve come to lunch with us.” Meanwhile she went over to a blue vase perched on a column of yellow marble in a corner of the room, and put the roses in it.

  “I like bringing you flowers,” said Marcello.

  Giulia heaved a sigh of satisfaction and let herself fall full-length on the couch next to him. Marcello looked at her and saw that a sudden embarassment had taken the place of the willful nonchalance of the moment before, an unmistakable sign that she was about to be aroused. All of a sudden she turned to him and threw her arms around his neck, murmuring, “Kiss me.”

  Marcello put his arm around her waist and kissed her on the mouth. Giulia was sensual and during these kisses, almost invariably requested by her from a reluctant Marcello, there was always a moment when her sensuality insinuated itself aggressively into the kiss, transforming the chaste and expected character of their relationship as fiancés. This time again, just as their lips were about to separate, she suddenly shuddered with desire, and encircling Marcello’s neck with one arm, glued her mouth back firmly to his. He felt her tongue thrust between his lips and begin to move rapidly, twisting and rolling in his mouth. Meanwhile, Giulia had grabbed one of his hands and guided it up to squeeze her left breast. She was blowing through her nostrils and sighing heavily, with an innocent, hungry, animal sound.

  Marcello was not in love with his fiancée, but he liked Giulia, and these sensual embraces never failed to excite him. All the same, he didn’t feel inclined to return her rapturous caresses: he wanted his relations with his fiancée to remain within the traditional bounds. It almost seemed to him that greater intimacy might bring back into his life the disorder and abnormality he had been trying so hard to shake off. So after a while he removed his hand from her breast and gently, slowly pulled it away.

  “Uh, how cold you are,” said Giulia, drawing back and looking at him with a smile, “really, there are times I could think you didn’t love me.”

  Marcello said, “You know I love you.”

  Changing subject rapidly, as she often did, she said, “I’m so happy … I’ve never been this happy. By the way, did you know this morning mamma insisted again that we take her bedroom … she’ll move into that little room at the end of the hallway. What do you think? Should we accept?”

  “I think,” said Marcello, “she’d be hurt if we refused.”

  “That’s what I think, too. Imagine, when I was a little girl I dreamed of sleeping in a bedroom like that one someday. Now I don’t know if I like it that much anymore … do you like it?” she asked in a tone both doubtful and pleased, but afraid to hear his opinion of her taste, as if hoping for approval.

  Marcello was quick to reply, “I like it very much. It’s really beautiful.” And he saw that these words gave Giulia visible satisfaction.

  Filled with joy, she planted a kiss on his cheek and then continued, “I met Signora Persico this morning and I invited her to the reception. Can you believe she didn’t know I was getting married? She asked me so many questions … When I told her who you were, she said she knew your mother, she’d met her at the seashore a few years ago.”

  Marcello said nothing. Talking about his mother, with whom he had not lived for years and whom he rarely saw, was always very unpleasant for him. Luckily Giulia, unaware of his discomfort, changed the subject again.

  “Speaking of the reception, we’ve made the guest list. Do you want to see it?”

  “Yes, show it to me.”

  She pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket and handed it to him. Marcello took it and looked at it. It was a long list of people, grouped by families: fathers, mothers, daughters, sons. The men were indicated not only by name and last name but also by their professional titles: doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers; and when they had them, by honorifics: commendatori, high-ranking officers, knights. Next to each family Giulia, to be on the safe side, had written down the number of people in the family: three, five, two, four. Almost all the names were unknown to Marcello, yet he seemed to have known them always: all members of the middle and lower middle class, professionals and state employees; all people who undoubtedly lived in apartments like this, with living rooms like this and furniture like this; and who had daughters very much like Giulia to marry off, and who married them off to young men with degrees and jobs very much (he hoped) like himself. He examined the long list, dwelling on certain of the more common, typical names with a deep satisfaction tinged, nonetheless, with his usual cold and motionless melancholy.

  “Who is Arcangeli, for example?” he asked at random. “Commendatore Giuseppe Arcangeli with his wife Iole, daughters Silvana and Beatrice, doctor son Gino?”

  “No one, you don’t know them. Arcangeli was a friend of poor papà’s, at the ministry.”

  “Where does he live?”

  “Just a minute away, in Via Porpora.”

  “What’s his living room like?”

  “Do you know how funny you are, with your questions?” she exclaimed, laughing. “What do you think it’s like? It’s a living room, like this, like a lot of others … why does it interest you that much to know what Arcangeli’s living room is like?”

  “Are his daughters engaged?”

  “Yes, Beatrice is … But why?”

  “What’s her fiancé like?”

  “Uffa … the fiancé, too … All right, her fiancé has a strange name. Schirinzi, and he works in a notary public’s office.”

  Marcello noted that there was no way to infer anything about her guests from Giulia’s responses. Probably they had no more character in her mind than they had on the page: names of respectable, indistinguishable, normal people. He skimmed the list again and stopped randomly at another name.

  “Who’s Dottor Cesare Spadoni, with his wife Livia and lawyer brother Tullio?”

  “He’s a pediatrician. His wife was one of my friends at school, maybe you’ve met her: really pretty, dark, small, pale … Her brother’s a handsome young man … They’re twins.”

  “And Cavaliere Luigi Pace with his wife Teresa and four sons Maurizio, Giovanni, Vittorio, Riccardo?”

  “Another of poor papà’s friends. The sons are all students … Riccardo’s still going to the liceo.”

  Marcello realized that it was useless to keep asking for details about the people written down on the list. Giulia could not tell him much more than what was on the list itself. And even if she informed him in every particular about the characters and lives of those people, he thought, her information could hardly exceed the extremely narrow confines of her judgement and intelligence. But he was aware of being happy — almost voluptuously though joylessly so — to enter and form part of this ordinary society, thanks to his marriage. A question was still on the tip of his tongue, however, and after a moment of hesitation, he decided to ask it.

  “Tell me, do I resemble your guests?”

  “You mean … physically?”

  “No. I wanted to know if, according to you, I have any points in common with t
hem … in the way I look and act, in appearance … I mean, if I resemble them.”

  “You’re better than any of them to me,” she answered impetuously, “but as far as the rest goes, yes, you’re a person like them. You’re serious, educated, well-mannered, cultured … I mean, you can see that you’re a decent, respectable person, like them. But why do you ask?”

  “Just thinking.”

  “How strange you are,” she said, gazing at him almost curiously. “Most people want to be different from everyone else, but it seems that you want to be just like everyone else.”

  Marcello said nothing and handed her the list, observing mildly, “Anyway, I don’t know a single one of them.”

  “What do you think, that I know them all?” asked Giulia gayly. “Only mamma knows who a lot of them are. Besides, the reception will be over quickly … an hour or so and then you’ll never see them again.”

  “I don’t mind seeing them,” said Marcello.

  “I was just talking … Now, listen to the menu from the hotel and tell me if you like it.” Giulia pulled another piece of paper from her pocket and read aloud:

  “Cold consommé

  Filets of sole alla mugnaia

  Young turkey hen with rice and supreme sauce

  Seasonal salad

  Assorted cheeses

  Ice-cream and cake


  Coffee and liqueurs

  “What do you think?” she asked, in the same doubtful yet satisfied tone with which she had spoken of her mother’s bedroom a little earlier. “Does it sound good to you? Do you think we’re giving them enough to eat?”

  “It sounds very good and generous to me,” said Marcello.

  Giulia continued, “As far as champagne, we’ve chosen Italian champagne. It’s not as good as the French but it’s good enough to make toasts with.” She was silent a moment and then added with characteristic unpredictability, “Do you know what Don Lattanzi told me? That if you want to get married you have to take comunion and if you want to take comunion you have to go to confession … otherwise, he won’t marry us.”

  For a moment Marcello, caught by surprise, didn’t know what to say. He was not a believer and it had been perhaps ten years since he had entered a church for any religious purpose. Besides, he had always been convinced that he nurtured a distinct dislike of all things ecclesiastical. Now instead, he realized to his astonishment, this idea of confession and comunion, far from annoying him, actually pleased and attracted him, somewhat in the same way the wedding reception, those guests he didn’t know, his marriage to Giulia, and Giulia herself — so ordinary, so similar to all the other girls — pleased and attracted him. It was one more link, he thought, in the chain of normality with which he sought to anchor himself in the treacherous sands of life. And what was more, this link was made of a nobler and more enduring metal than the others: religion. He was almost surprised not to have thought of it earlier and attributed this forgetfulness to the obvious and pacific nature of the religion into which he had been born and to which he had always felt he belonged, even without practicing it. He said, however, curious to hear what Giulia would respond, “But I’m not a believer.”

  “So who is,” she replied calmly. “Ninety percent of the people who go to church — do you think they believe? And the priests themselves?”

  “But do you believe?”

  Giulia made a gesture with her hand in the air. “Sort of, up to a certain point … Every once in a while I say to Don Lattanzi: You don’t fool me with all your stories, you priests … I believe and I don’t believe. Or rather,” she added scrupulously, “let’s say that I have a religion all my own … different from the priests’ ”

  “What does it mean to have your own religion?” thought Marcello. But knowing by experience that Giulia often spoke without knowing too well what she was talking about, he didn’t insist. Instead he said, “My case is more radical. I don’t believe at all, and I have no religion.”

  Giulia made a gay, indifferent gesture with her hand. “So what does it cost you? Go all the same … It matters so much to them, and it does you no harm.”

  “Yes, but I’ll be forced to lie.”

  “Words … and anyway, it would be lying for a good end. You know what Don Lattanzi says? That you have to do certain things as if you believed, even if you don’t … faith comes afterwards.”

  Marcello was silent a moment and then said, “All right, then I’ll confess and take comunion.” And as he said this, he felt once more that shiver of dark delight that the guest list had inspired in him earlier. “So,” he added, “I’ll go confess to Don Lattanzi.”

  “You don’t really have to go to him,” said Giulia. “You can go to any confessor, in any church.”

  “And for holy comunion?”

  “Don Lattanzi will do that the day we get married … We’ll take it together. How long has it been since you went to confession?”

  “Well … I don’t think I’ve confessed since I made my first comunion, when I was eight,” said Marcello with some embarassment. “Then I never did again.”

  “Just think!” she exclaimed joyfully. “Who knows how many sins you have to tell!”

  “And if they don’t give me absolution?”

  “They’ll give you absolution for sure,” she replied affectionately, caressing his face with one hand. “Besides, what sins could you have? You’re good, you have a gentle heart, you’ve never done any harm to anyone. They’ll absolve you right away.”

  “It’s complicated to get married,” said Marcello.

  “Yes, but for me all these complications and preparations are so enjoyable … After all, we’re going to be united for the rest of our lives, aren’t we? And by the way, what are we deciding about the honeymoon?”

  For the first time Marcello felt, along with his usual indulgent and lucid affection, a sense of pity for Giulia. He knew that there was still time for him to backtrack, to go somewhere else for their honeymoon instead of to Paris, where he was to carry out his mission. He could tell the minister he declined the task. But at the same time he realized that this was impossible. The mission was perhaps the firmest, most compromising and decisive step on his way to absolute normality. His marriage to Giulia, the wedding reception, the religious ceremonies, confession and comunion were steps in the same direction, but less important ones.

  He stopped only a moment to analyze this reflection, whose dark and almost sinister depths did not escape him, and said quickly, “Well, I thought we might go to Paris.”

  Giulia clapped her hands for joy. “Oh, good, Paris! My dream!” She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him feverishly. “If you knew how happy I am … I didn’t want to tell you how much I wanted to go to Paris … I was afraid it would cost too much.”

  “It will cost about the same as any other place, more or less,” said Marcello, “but don’t you worry about the money. For this once we’ll come up with it.”

  Giulia was ravished. “How happy I am,” she repeated. She pressed herself passionately against Marcello and murmured, “Do you love me? Why don’t you kiss me?”

  And so once more Marcello had his fiancée’s arm around his neck and her mouth on his. This time the ardor of her kiss seemed redoubled by gratitude. Giulia sighed; her whole body wriggled; she took Marcello’s hand and crushed it against her breast, rapidly and spasmodically moving her tongue in his mouth.

  Aroused, Marcello thought, “If I wanted to I could take her now, right here, on this couch,” and it seemed to him that he perceived, one more time, the fragility of what he called normality.

  At last they separated and Marcello said, smiling, “It’s lucky we’re getting married soon. Otherwise I’m afraid we’d become lovers one of these days.”

  Giulia, her face still all flushed from the kiss, shrugged her shoulders and answered with her own kind of exalted and innocent impudence, “I love you so much, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

asked Marcello.

  “Even right away,” she said passionately, “even here, now.…”

  She had taken one of Marcello’s hands and was kissing it slowly, looking up at him with shining eyes full of feeling. Then the door opened and Giulia pulled back as her mother came into the room.

  She too, thought Marcello as he watched her approach, was one of the many people brought into his life by his quest for a redemptive normality. He had nothing in common with this sentimental woman, who was always overflowing with a consuming, yearning tenderness — nothing but his desire to bind himself deeply and enduringly to a solid, established human society. Giulia’s mother, Signora Delia Ginami, was a corpulent woman in whom the breakdowns of advancing age seemed to manifest themselves in a kind of decay both of body and spirit, the first afflicted by a trembling, boneless obesity, the second by a tendency to mawkish, physiological outbursts of sentimentality. With every step she took it seemed that entire parts of her swollen body listed and shifted on their own under her shapeless clothes; and at the least trifle, a wracking emotion seemed to overwhelm her faculties of self-control, filling her watery blue eyes with tears as she joined her hands together in a gesture of ecstasy. Lately the imminence of her only daughter’s wedding had plunged Signora Delia into a condition of perpetual emotionality: she did nothing but cry — for joy, she explained — and she felt a constant need to hug Giulia or her future son-in-law of whom, she declared, she was already as fond as if he were her son. Marcello, whom these effusions filled with embarrassment, understood nonetheless that they were simply one more aspect of the reality in which he wished to insert himself; and as such, he endured and even appreciated them, with the same slightly melancholy satisfaction that the ugly furniture in the house, Giulia’s monologues, the wedding celebrations, and Don Lattanzi’s religious demands inspired in him.

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