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The conformist, p.11
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       The Conformist, p.11

           Alberto Moravia
 

  This time, however, Signora Delia was not tender but indignant. She was waving a piece of paper in her hand and after she had greeted Marcello, who had risen to his feet, she said, “An anonymous letter … But first of all let’s go eat, it’s ready.”

  “An anonymous letter?” cried Giulia, rushing after her mother.

  “Yes, an anonymous letter. How disgusting people are, really.”

  Marcello followed them into the dining room, trying to hide his face with his handkerchief. This news of an anonymous letter had deeply shaken him and it was important to him not to let the two women see it. Hearing Giulia’s mother exclaim, “An anonymous letter,” and immediately thinking, “Someone wrote about what happened with Lino” had been one and the same thing for him. At this thought the blood rushed from his face, he couldn’t breathe; he was assaulted by feelings of dismay, shame, and fear — inexplicable, unexpected, lightning-swift — that he had never experienced since the first years of his adolescence, when the memory of Lino had still been fresh. It was stronger than he was; and all his powers of self-control had been swept away in one moment, the way a thin cordon of policemen is swept away by the panicked crowd it was supposed to contain. He bit his lips till the blood came as he approached the table. So he had been mistaken, in the library, when he had looked up the news of the crime and been convinced that the ancient wound was completely healed: not only was the wound not healed, but it was also much deeper than he had suspected. Luckily his place at the table was against the light, with his back to the window. Silently, rigidly, he sat down at the head of the table, with Giulia on his right and Signora Ginami on his left.

  The anonymous letter now lay on the tablecloth, next to Giulia’s mother’s plate. Meanwhile, the child-maid had come in, holding in both hands a platter heaped with spaghetti. Marcello sank the serving fork into the red, oily skein of spaghetti, lifted out a small amount, and deposited it on his plate.

  Immediately the two women protested, “Too little … what, are you fasting … take some more.” Signora Ginami added, “You’re a working man, you need to eat.”

  Giulia impulsively forked up some more spaghetti from the tray and put it on her fiancé’s plate.

  “I’m not hungry,” said Marcello, in a voice that seemed to him absolutely anguished and spent.

  “Appetite comes with eating,” replied Giulia emphatically as she served herself.

  The little maid left, taking away the almost empty platter, and the mother said immediately, “I didn’t want to show it to you … I didn’t think it was worth it. What a world we live in, though …”

  Marcello said nothing, but bent his head over his plate and filled his mouth with spaghetti. He was still afraid that the letter had to do with Lino, although his mind told him that this was impossible. It was an irresistible fear, stronger than any reflection.

  Giulia asked, “Well, for goodness’ sake, will you tell us what’s written in it?”

  Her mother answered, “First of all, though, I want to tell Marcello that even if they had written things a thousand times worse, he could still be sure that my affection for him would stay the same … Marcello, you’re a son to me, and you know that a mother’s love for her son is stronger than any insinuation.” Her eyes suddenly filled with tears and she repeated, “A real son.” Then, grabbing Marcello’s hand and bringing it to her heart, she said, “Dear Marcello.”

  Not knowing what to do or say, Marcello remained still and said nothing, waiting for the effusion to be over.

  Signora Ginami gazed at him with soft eyes and added, “You have to forgive an old woman like me, Marcello.”

  “Mamma, that’s ridiculous, you’re not old,” said Giulia, too used to these maternal outbursts to give them any weight or even be surprised by them.

  “Yes, I’m old, and I don’t have many years left to live,” replied Signora Delia. This imminent death was one of her favorite subjects, perhaps because she thought it had the power to move others as much as it moved her. “I’ll die soon and that’s why I’m so happy to be leaving my daughter with a man as good as you, Marcello.”

  Marcello, whose hand Signora Delia was pressing against her heart, and who found himself in an uncomfortable position over his spaghetti, could not repress a very slight movement of impatience, which did not escape the old woman. However, she took it as a protest of her excessive praise.

  “Yes,” she said emphatically, “you’re good … so good. Sometimes I say to Giulia: You’re lucky to have found such a good young man. I know very well, Marcello, that in these days goodness is no longer fashionable, but let someone tell you who’s a lot older than you are: nothing matters in this world but goodness … and luckily you are so, so, so good.”

  Marcello frowned and said nothing.

  “Let him eat, poor thing,” exclaimed Giulia. “Don’t you see that you’re getting sauce on his sleeve?”

  Signora Ginami let go of Marcello’s hand and, picking up the letter, said, “It’s written on a typewriter … with a Roman postmark. I wouldn’t be surprised, Marcello, if one of your office colleagues had written it.”

  “Oh, mamma, would you just tell us what’s written in it?”

  “Here it is,” said her mother, handing the letter to Giulia. “Read it … but don’t read it aloud. They’re ugly things that I don’t like to hear … Then when you’ve read it, give it to Marcello.”

  Not without anxiety, Marcello watched his fiancée read the letter. Then, twisting her mouth in contempt, Giulia said, “How disgusting.” And she handed it to him.

  The letter, written on onion skin, contained only a few lines typed out on a faded ribbon:

  “Signora, in allowing your daughter to marry Dottor Clerici, you are doing something worse than making a mistake, you are committing a crime. Dottor Clerici’s father has been shut away in an insane asylum for years, being afflicted with a madness that is syphilitic in origin, and, as you know, this illness is hereditary. You still have time: stop the marriage. A friend.”

  “So that’s all it is,” thought Marcello, almost disappointed. He understood, then, that his disappointment was even greater than his relief; he had almost hoped that someone else would learn of his childhood tragedy and free him, at least in part, from his burden of knowledge. He was struck, all the same, by the phrase: “As you know, this illness is hereditary.” He knew very well that the source of his father’s madness was not syphilitic, and that there was no danger that he would go mad someday like his father. Still, it seemed to him that that sentence, so menacing and malignant, alluded to another sort of madness, which actually could be hereditary. This idea, immediately rejected, did no more than lightly brush his mind. Then he gave the letter back to Giulia’s mother, saying mildly, “There’s no truth to that.”

  “Well, I know there’s no truth to it,” she replied, almost offended. After a moment she added, “I only know that my daughter is marrying a good, intelligent, honest, serious man … and a handsome boy,” she concluded, somewhat flirtatiously.

  “Above all a handsome boy, you can say it loud and clear,” confirmed Giulia, “and that’s why whoever wrote that letter is insinuating that he’ll go crazy like his father. Seeing him so handsome, they can’t believe he doesn’t have a screw loose … idiots.”

  “Who knows what they’d say,” Marcello couldn’t help thinking, “if they knew that when I was thirteen I almost had sexual intercourse with a man and that I killed him.” He realized, now that the fear roused by the letter had passed, that his usual melancholy, speculative apathy had returned. “Probably,” he thought, looking at his fiancée and Signfora Ginami, “they wouldn’t even care … Normal people have thick skins.” And he understood that he envied the two women, once again, their “thick skins.”

  Suddenly he said, “Actually, I have to go visit my father today.”

  “Are you going with your mother?”

  “Yes.”

  The pasta was finished; the young maid came back in, changed th
e plates, and set a tray full of meat and vegetables on the table. As soon as she had left, the mother picked up the letter again and examined it, saying, “I really would like to know who wrote this letter.”

  “Mamma,” said Giulia suddenly, instantly and excessively serious, “hand that letter over to me.”

  She took up the envelope, looked at it attentively, then took out the piece of paper and scrutinized it, frowning. Finally she exclaimed in a high, indignant voice, “I know very well who wrote this letter, there’s no doubt about it … oh, wicked!”

  “So who is it?”

  “A bad man,” replied Giulia, lowering her eyes to the table.

  Marcello didn’t say anything. Giulia worked as a secretary in a lawyer’s office; probably, he thought, the letter had been written by one of the many assistants.

  Her mother said, “Someone who’s jealous, for sure … Marcello has a position at thirty that a lot of older men would like to have.”

  Although he wasn’t really curious, Marcello asked his fiancée, pro forma, “If you know the name of whoever wrote the letter, why don’t you say it?”

  “I can’t,” she answered, by now more thoughtful than indignant, “but I told you: he’s a bad man.”

  She gave the letter back to her mother and served herself from the tray the maid was holding out for her. For a moment none of the three said a thing. Then Signora Ginami began again, in a tone of sincere incredulity, “But I just can’t believe that there’s someone so evil that he’d write this sort of letter about a man like Marcello.”

  “Well, not everyone loves him like we do, mamma,” said Giulia.

  “But who?” asked her mother emphatically. “Who couldn’t love our Marcello?”

  “You know what mamma says about you?” asked Giulia, who now seemed restored to her usual gaiety and volubility. “That you’re not a man, but an angel. So that one of these days, you never know, instead of coming into our house through the door … you’ll come in through the window, flying.” She suppressed a laugh and and added, “That should please the priest when you go to confess, finding out you’re an angel. That’s not something he does every day, I bet, listening to the confession of an angel.”

  “Now she’s making fun of me, as usual,” said her mother, “but I’m not exaggerating at all. For me Marcello is an angel.” She gazed at Marcello with intense, saccharine tenderness and immediately her eyes filled visibly with tears. After a moment she added, “I’ve only known one man in my life who was as good as Marcello … and that was your father, Giulia.”

  This time Giulia became serious, as was suitable to the subject, and lowered her eyes to her plate. Meanwhile, her mother’s face was undergoing a gradual transformation: her eyes were overflowing with tears, while a pathetic grimace was twisting her soft, swollen face under her tufts of disheveled hair, so that colors and features seemed to merge and waver, as if seen through a glass pane submerged in deep waters.

  She rummaged around hastily for her handkerchief and stammered, bringing it up to her eyes, “A truly good man … a real angel … and we were so happy together, the three of us … and now he’s dead and gone … Marcello reminds me of your father because of his goodness, and that’s why I love him so much … When I think that that good, good man is dead, it just breaks my heart.” Her final words were lost in the handkerchief.

  Giulia said tranquilly, “Eat, mamma.”

  “No, no, I’m not hungry,” sobbed her mother. “You two must excuse me … You’re happy and happiness shouldn’t be troubled by the sorrow of an old woman.” She rose abruptly and went out the door.

  “Just think, it’s been six years,” said Giulia, looking after her, “and it’s as if it were always the first day.”

  Marcello said nothing. He had lit a cigarette and was smoking with his head lowered. Giulia reached out and took one of his hands in hers. “What are you thinking about?” she asked almost pleadingly.

  Giulia often asked him what he was thinking; the serious and closed expression on his face roused her curiosity and sometimes even alarmed her.

  Marcello answered, “I was thinking about your mother. Her compliments embarrass me. She doesn’t know me well enough to say I’m good.”

  Giulia squeezed his hand and said, “She’s not just doing it to flatter you. Even when you’re not here, she often says to me, ‘How good Marcello is.’ ”

  “But how can she know that?”

  “You can just tell these things.” Giulia got up and came to stand next to him, pressing her round hip against his shoulder and passing a hand through his hair. “Why? Don’t you want people to think you’re good?”

  “That’s not what I’m saying,” answered Marcello. “I’m saying that maybe it isn’t true.”

  She shook her head. “Your trouble is that you’re too modest. Look: I’m not like mamma, who wants to think everyone’s good … For me, there are good people and bad people. Well then, as far as I’m concerned, you’re one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. And I’m not just saying that because we’re engaged and I love you … I’m saying it because it’s true.”

  “But what does this goodness consist of?”

  “I told you, you can just see some things. Why do you say a woman is beautiful? Because you can see that she’s beautiful … the same way one can see that you’re good.”

  “That may be,” said Marcello, lowering his head. The two women’s conviction that he was good was not new to him, but it always disconcerted him deeply. What did this goodness consist of? And was he really good? Or was the quality Giulia and her mother called goodness actually his abnormality, that is, his detachment, his distance from ordinary life? Normal men weren’t good, he thought, because normality must always be paid for at a high price, whether consciously or not, by various but always negative complicities, by insensitivity, stupidity, cowardice, even criminality.

  He was roused from these reflections by Giulia’s voice saying, “By the way, you know the dress has arrived. I want to show it to you … wait for me here.”

  She rushed out impetuously and Marcello rose from the table, went to the window, and opened it wide. The window looked onto the street, or rather, since it was the top-floor apartment, onto a ledge of the palazzo that jutted so far out that you could see nothing below it. But on the other side of the void, the top floor of the palazzo opposite was visible: a row of windows with their shutters flung open, through which you could see the inside of the rooms. It was an apartment very similar to Giulia’s: a bedroom with what looked like unmade beds; a “good” living room with the usual fake, dark furniture; a dining room with a table around which three people were currently sitting, two men and a woman. These rooms opposite him were very close because the street was narrow, and in fact Marcello could distinctly see the three people eating together in the dining room: a stocky older man with a great white mane of hair; a younger man, thin and dark; and a mature, blonde, rather opulent woman. They were eating tranquilly at a table like the one at which he himself had sat a few minutes ago, under a chandelier not much different than the one in the room he was in now. Nonetheless, even though he could see them so clearly he almost had the illusion he could hear the things they were discussing, they seemed incredibly distant and remote, perhaps because of the sense of abyss created by the projecting ledge. He couldn’t help thinking that those rooms represented normality, were normality. He could see them; by raising his voice just a little he could even have spoken to the three people eating, yet he remained outside, in a moral as well as a physical sense. Yet for Giulia that distance and extremity did not exist; they were purely physical facts, and she was inside those rooms, had always been inside them. If he had asked her to, she would have furnished with complete indifference all the information she possessed on the people who lived there, just as she had done shortly before with the guest list for the wedding reception. It was an indifference that denoted not only familiarity, but careless familiarity. In truth she had no name fo
r normality, since she was in it up to her eyes, the way we believe that animals, if they talked, would give no name to nature, being an integral and undivided part of it. But he remained outside, and for him normality was called normality precisely because he was excluded from it and because he felt it to be in such contrast to his own abnormality. To be like Giulia, you had to be born that way, or.…

  The door behind him opened and he turned around. Giulia stood before him in a wedding dress of white silk, holding the full veil falling from her head in both hands so that he could admire it.

 
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