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The conformist, p.14
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       The Conformist, p.14

           Alberto Moravia
 

  “Blows,” he thought, “or bites, from Alberi.”

  But beneath the knee her legs appeared perfect, with tiny feet and straight, narrow toes.

  Marcello would have preferred not to let his mother see his displeasure, but once more he could not hold himself back. “How many times have I told you not to receive me like this, half-naked,” he said in annoyance, without looking at her.

  She replied, impatiently but without rancor, “Oh, what an austere son I have,” pulling an edge of the cover up over her body. Her voice was hoarse, and this, too, was unpleasant to Marcello. He remembered hearing it, in his childhood, as sweet and pure as a song; the hoarseness was the effect of alcohol and abuse.

  He said, after a moment, “So, today we go to the clinic.”

  “Let’s go, then,” said his mother, pulling herself up and looking for something behind the headboard of the bed, “though I don’t feel well and our visit will mean absolutely nothing to him, poor thing.”

  “He’s still your husband and my father,” said Marcello, taking his head in his hands and looking at the floor.

  “Yes, he surely is,” she said. Now she had found the light switch and turned it on. On the bedside table the lamp, which seemed to Marcello to be enveloped in a woman’s blouse, gave out a faint illumination.

  “But even so,” she continued, sitting up in bed and putting her feet on the floor, “I’ll tell you the truth, sometimes I wish he would die … especially since he wouldn’t even be aware of it. And I wouldn’t have to spend any more money on the clinic … I have so little. Just think,” she added, in sudden complaint, “just think, I may have to give up the car.”

  “So, what’s wrong with that?”

  “A lot,” she said, with childish resentment and impudence. “The way things are, with the car, I have an excuse to hire Alberi and see him whenever I want. Afterwards, I won’t have the excuse any more.”

  “Mamma, don’t talk to me about your lovers,” said Marcello calmly, digging the nails of one hand into the palm of the other.

  “My lovers … he’s the only one I have. If you’re going to talk to me about that hen of a fiancée, surely I have the right to talk about him, poor dear, who’s so much nicer and more intelligent than she is.”

  Strangely, these insults to his fiancée, spoken by his mother who could not abide Giulia, did not offend Marcello. “Yes, it’s true,” he thought, “it may even be that she resembles a hen — but I like her the way she is.” He said, in a gentler tone, “All right, will you get dressed? If we want to go to the clinic, it’s time to get moving.”

  “Of course, right away.” Light, almost a shadow, she crossed the room on tiptoes, grabbed the pink robe from the chair in passing and, throwing it around her shoulders, opened the bathroom door and disappeared.

  Immediately, as soon as his mother had gone, Marcello went to the window and threw it open. Outside the air was hot and still, but he still felt an acute relief, as if he were looking out, not onto the stifled garden, but onto an iceberg. At the same time, it almost seemed to him that he could feel the movement of the inside air in back of him, heavy with perfumes gone sour and the stink of animals, as it flowed gradually and slowly out through the window, dissolved into space — as if the air itself were vomiting forth from the jaws of the fouled house. For a long moment he stayed there, his eyes lowered to gaze at the thick foliage of the wisteria whose branches circled the window; then he turned back toward the room. Once again he was struck by its disorder and sloppy shabbiness; this time, however, he was inspired more by sorrow than disgust. He seemed suddenly to remember his mother as she had been in her youth, and experienced a vivid, heartfelt sensation of dismayed rebellion against the decadence and corruption that had changed her from the young girl she had been to the woman she was. Something incomprehensible, something irreparable was surely at the source of this transformation: not age or passion or financial ruin or lack of intelligence, and not any other precise reason — something he felt without being able to explain it and that seemed to him to be all of a piece with that life; indeed, something that had been, at one time, her best quality and which had later become, by some mysterious transmutation, her fatal flaw. He withdrew from the window and approached the chest of drawers, on which, perched among the many knick-knacks, there was a photograph of his mother as a young woman. Looking at that delicate face, those innocent eyes, that sweet mouth, he asked himself with horror why she was not still as she had been. With this question, his disgust for every form of corruption and decadence resurfaced, rendered even more unbearable by a bitter feeling of remorse and filial sorrow: maybe it was his fault that his mother was reduced to such a state, maybe if he had loved her more or in a different way, she would not have fallen into such squalid and irremediable abandon. He noted that at this thought his eyes had filled with tears, so that the photo now appeared all cloudy, and he shook his head hard. At the same moment, the door to the bathroom opened and his mother, in her robe, appeared on the threshold. Immediately she threw up her arm to cover her eyes, exclaiming, “Shut it! Shut that window! How can you stand all this light?”

  Marcello went over swiftly to lower the shutter; then he approached his mother and, taking her by the arm, made her sit next to him on the edge of the bed and asked her gently, “And you, mamma, how can you stand all this mess?”

  She looked at him, unsure and embarassed. “I don’t know how it happens … I know everytime I use something I should put it back in its place … but somehow I never manage to remember.”

  “Mamma,” said Marcello suddenly, “every age has its way of being decorous … mamma, why have you let yourself go this way?”

  He was holding one of her hands; in the other hand she was holding a cane up in the air, from which a dress was hanging. For a moment he seemed to glimpse in those enormous and childishly miserable eyes a sentiment of almost self-aware sorrow; his mother’s lips, in fact, began to tremble slightly.

  Then, suddenly, a spiteful expression drove out all other emotion and she exclaimed, “You don’t like anything I am or anything I do, I know … You can’t stand my dogs, my clothes, my habits … but I’m still young, my dear, and I want to enjoy life in my own way. Now leave me alone,” she concluded, withdrawing her hand abruptly, “or I’ll never get dressed.”

  Marcello said nothing. His mother went to a corner of the bedroom, shrugged her robe off onto the floor, then opened the closet and pulled on a dress in front of the closet-door mirror. Clothed, the excessive thinness of her sharp hips, hollow shoulders, and nonexistent breasts revealed itself even more clearly. She looked at herself for a moment in the mirror, smoothing her hair with one hand; then, hopping a little, she slipped on two of the many shoes scattered all over the floor.

  “Now let’s go,” she said, taking her purse from the bureau and heading toward the door.

  “Aren’t you going to put a hat on?”

  “Why? There’s no need to.”

  They started down the stairs.

  His mother said, “You haven’t talked to me about your wedding.”

  “I’m getting married the day after tomorrow.”

  “And where are you going for your honeymoon?”

  “To Paris.”

  “The traditional honeymoon trip,” said his mother. When they had reached the vestibule, she went to the kitchen door and warned the cook, “Matilde, don’t forget now … Let the dogs back in the house before dark.”

  They went out into the garden. The car was there, black and opaque, parked in the driveway behind the trees.

  His mother said, “So it’s decided, you don’t want to come stay here with me. Even though I don’t like your wife, I would have made the sacrifice … and then I have so much room.”

  “No, mamma,” replied Marcello.

  “You prefer to live with your mother-in-law,” she said lightly, “in that horrible apartment: four rooms and a kitchen.”

  She bent down to pick up a blade of grass, but swa
yed and would have fallen if Marcello, ever ready, had not supported her, taking her by the arm. Under his fingers he felt the meager, soft flesh of her arm, which seemed to move around the bone like a rag tied around a stick, and once again he felt compassion for her. They got into the car; Alberi held the door open, with his cap in his hand. Then Alberi climbed into his own place behind the wheel and drove the car out of the gate.

  Marcello took advantage of the moment when Alberi got out again to shut the gate behind them to say to his mother, “I’d come stay with you gladly, if you fired Alberi and put a little bit of order in your life … and if you quit those injections.”

  She looked at him askance with uncomprehending eyes. But a shiver ran from her pointed nose down to her little, withered mouth, where it turned into a faint, distraught smile.

  “You know what the doctor says? That one of these days I could die from them.”

  “Then why don’t you quit?”

  “You tell me why I should quit.”

  Alberi got back into the car, adjusting his sunglasses on his nose. Marcello’s mother leaned forward and put a hand on the chauffeur’s shoulder. It was a thin, transparent hand, with the skin stretched over the tendons and stained with red and bluish splotches, and scarlet nails so dark they were almost black. Marcello would have preferred not to look, but couldn’t help himself. He saw the hand move across the man’s shoulder to tickle his ear with a light caress.

  His mother said, “Now we’re going to the clinic.”

  “Very good, Signora,” said Alberi, without turning around.

  She closed the dividing glass and threw herself back on the cushions while the car rolled gently forward. As she fell back on the seat, she looked askance at her son and said, to Marcello’s surprise, since he had not expected such intuition from her, “You’re angry because I caressed Alberi, aren’t you?”

  As she said it, she looked at him with her childish, desperate, and slightly feverish smile. Marcello couldn’t manage to modify the expression of disgust on his face.

  “I’m not angry,” he answered. “I would have preferred not to see it.”

  She said, without looking at him, “You can’t understand what it means to a woman not to be young anymore … It’s worse than death.”

  Marcello said nothing. Now the car was rolling silently under the pepper trees, whose feathery branches brushed against the window glass.

  His mother added after a moment, “Sometimes I wish I were already old. I’d be a thin, clean old woman.” She smiled happily, already distracted by this fantasy. “I’d be like a dried flower pressed between the pages of a book.” She put a hand on Marcello’s arm and asked, “Wouldn’t you prefer to have an old woman like that for a mother, well-seasoned, well-preserved, as if she were in mothballs?”

  Marcello stared at her and answered in embarrassment, “Someday you’ll be like that.”

  She became serious and said, looking up at him under her lashes and smiling miserably, “Do you really believe that? I don’t. I’m convinced that one of these mornings you’ll find me dead in that room you detest so much.”

  “Why, mamma?” asked Marcello; but he realized that his mother was speaking seriously and that she might even be right. “You’re young and you have to live.”

  “That doesn’t mean I won’t die soon — I know, they read it to me in my horoscope.” Suddenly she stuck her hand out in front of his eyes and added, without any transition, “Do you like this ring?”

  It was a big ring with an elaborately worked bezel and a hard stone of a milky color.

  “Yes,” said Marcello, barely glancing at it, “it’s pretty.”

  “You know,” said his mother, changing the subject again, “sometimes I think you got everything from your father. When he could still reason, he didn’t like anything, either … Beautiful things didn’t mean a thing to him. All he thought about was politics, like you.”

  This time, he wasn’t sure why, Marcello couldn’t repress his vivid irritation.

  “It seems to me,” he said, “that there’s nothing in common between my father and me. I am a perfectly reasonable, normal person … He, on the other hand, even before he was in the clinic — as far as I recall, and you’ve always confirmed it — was always … how shall I put it? A little overexcitable.”

  “Yes, but you do share something in common. Neither of you enjoy life and you don’t want anyone else to enjoy it, either …” She looked out the window a moment and then added suddenly, “I’m not coming to your wedding. You shouldn’t feel offended, you know I don’t go anywhere. But since you’re my son, after all, I think I should give you a present … what would you like?”

  “Nothing, mamma,” answered Marcello indifferently.

  “What a shame,” said his mother coyly. “If I’d known you didn’t want anything, I wouldn’t have spent the money. But now I’ve already bought it … take it.” She rummaged around in her purse and dragged out a small white box tied with a rubberband. “It’s a cigarette case … I’ve noticed you put the pack in your pocket.”

  She opened the box and drew out a flat, heavily lined silver case and clicked it open, offering it to her son. It was filled with Oriental cigarettes and she took the opportunity to take one of them and ask Marcello to light it.

  A little embarrassed, he looked at the open cigarette case on his mother’s knees without touching it and said, “It’s very beautiful, I don’t know how to thank you, mamma … it may be too beautiful for me.”

  “Uffa,” she said, “how boring you are.”

  She closed the case and stuck it with a graceful, willful gesture into Marcello’s jacket pocket. The car turned a corner awkwardly, and she fell onto him, taking advantage of the moment to put both her hands on his shoulders and say, pulling back a little to look at him, “Give me a kiss for the present, will you?”

  Marcello leaned over and brushed his lips against his mother’s cheek.

  She threw herself back on her seat and said with a sigh, bringing one hand to her breast, “What heat … When you were little, I wouldn’t have had to ask you for that kiss. You were such an affectionate child.”

  “Mamma,” said Marcello suddenly, “do you remember the winter babbo got sick?”

  “Do I,” said his mother easily. “It was a terrible winter … He wanted to leave me and take you away with him. He was already crazy … Luckily, I say luckily for you, he went mad altogether and then they could see I was right to want to keep you with me. Why?”

  “Well, mamma,” said Marcello, careful to avoid looking at her, “that winter my dream was not to live with you, you and babbo, anymore, and to be sent off to a boarding school. It didn’t keep me from loving you, but … you see, when you say I’ve changed since then, you’re saying something wrong. I was the same way then as I am now, and then as now I couldn’t stand all the chaos and disorder … that’s all.”

  He had spoken dryly and almost harshly, but regretted it almost immediately when he saw the hurt expression that darkened his mother’s face. All the same, he didn’t want to say anything that would sound like a retraction; he had told the truth, and unfortunately, could tell nothing but the truth. But at the same time he felt the oppression of his usual melancholy return stronger than ever, reawakened by his unpleasant awareness of having failed in filial pity.

  His mother said, in a resigned tone, “Maybe you’re right.” The car came to a halt.

  They got out and walked toward the clinic gate. The street was in a peaceful neighborhood, on the edges of an ancient ducal villa. It was a short street: on one side five or six small, old palazzi were lined up in a row, partially hidden by the trees; on the other ran the railing of the clinic grounds. At the end, the old gray wall and thick vegetation of the ducal park cut off any further vista.

  Marcello had visited his father at least once a month for many years; all the same, he was not yet accustomed to these visits and felt, every time, a sense of dismay mixed with dejection. It was almost th
e same sensation, but even stronger, than the one inspired in him by his visits to his mother, in the villa where he had spent his childhood and adolescence: his mother’s disorder and corruption seemed still reparable, but there were no remedies for his father’s madness, which seemed to suggest a more general and entirely irremediable disorder and decay. He felt it this time, too, as he entered the clinic at his mother’s side: a hateful uneasiness that oppressed his heart and made his legs fold at the knee. He knew he had turned pale and for a moment, just as he was glimpsing the black lances of the clinic’s railing, he experienced a hysterical desire to renounce the visit and go off on some excuse. His mother, who was unaware of his turmoil, stopped in front of a small black gate, pressed the porcelain button of a doorbell, and said, “Do you know what his latest fixation is?”

  “What?”

  “He thinks he’s one of Mussolini’s ministers … it started up about a month ago … maybe because they let him read the papers.”

  Marcello frowned but said nothing. The gate opened and a young attendant in a white shirt appeared: heavy, tall, blond, with a shaved head and a white, rather puffy face.

  “Hello, Franz,” said his mother graciously. “How are things going?”

  “Today we’re feeling better than yesterday,” said the attendant, with his own particular, harsh German accent. “Yesterday we were doing very badly.”

  “Very badly?”

  “We had to wear the straight-jacket,” explained the attendant, continuing to make use of the plural, like a simpering governess when she speaks of children.

  “The straight-jacket … what a horror.”

  Meanwhile they had entered and were walking along the narrow path between the garden wall and the clinic wall.

  “The straight-jacket, you should see it … it’s not really a shirt but more like two sleeves that hold his arms still … before I saw it, I thought it was a real, true nightshirt like the ones with the fret at the bottom … it’s so sad to see him tied up that way with his arms so tight to his sides.” His mother continued to talk lightly, almost gaily. They circled round the clinic and emerged in a clearing in front of the main facade. The clinic, a white, three-story villa, looked like a normal house except for the bars that obscured the windows.

 
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