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The conformist, p.16
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       The Conformist, p.16

           Alberto Moravia

  “And he poked holes in both our eyes,” finished Marcello.

  “Oh, you already knew,” said his mother, a little surprised. “Well, then, that was the real beginning of his madness. He was obsessed by the idea that you were the son of someone I was seeing back then, from time to time … useless to tell him it was his own imagination … You’re his son, all right, it’s enough to look at you.”

  “Actually, I resemble you more than him,” Marcello couldn’t help saying.

  “Both of us,” said his mother. She put the compact back in her purse and added, “I already told you: if nothing else, you both have this fixation on politics — he as a madman and you, thank God, as a sane person.…”

  Marcello said nothing and turned his face to the window. The idea of resembling his father inspired intense disgust in him. Familiar relationships based on flesh and blood had always repulsed him. But the resemblance his mother was alluding to not only repulsed, but obscurely frightened him. What link was there between his father’s madness and his own most secret being? He recalled the phrase he had read on the scrap of paper, “Slaughter and gloom,” and shivered painfully. As far as gloom went, he wore it like a second skin, more sensitive than his real skin; and as to slaughter.…

  Now the car was traveling through the downtown streets of the city in the false blue light of dusk.

  Marcello said to his mother, “I’m getting out here,” and leaned forward to tap on the glass to let Alberi know.

  His mother said, “Then I’ll see you when you get back,” implying that she would not be coming to the wedding. And he was grateful to her for her reticence; lightness and cynicism were good for that much, at least.

  He got out, closed the door hard, and walked away, losing himself in the crowd.



  AS SOON AS THE TRAIN started moving, Marcello left the window at which he had been standing to converse with — or rather, to listen to — his mother-in-law and went back inside the compartment. But Giulia remained at the window; from the compartment he could see her in the corridor as she hung out the window, waving a handkerchief so anxiously that her otherwise very ordinary gesture was filled with pathos. Doubtless, he thought, she would remain there to flutter her handkerchief until she could no longer see the figure of her mother on the platform; and losing sight of her would be, for Giulia, the clearest sign of her definitive farewell to life as a girl. He knew she both feared and desired this farewell, which, as she departed on the train, leaving her mother behind, assumed a painfully concrete character. Marcello gazed for another moment at his wife as she hung out the window, clothed in a light dress that rode up and wrinkled over the full curves of her body as she raised her arm, and then he let himself fall back against the cushions, closing his eyes. When he opened them after a few minutes, his wife was no longer in the corridor and the train was already rolling through open countryside, an arid, treeless plain wrapped in the shadows of twilight beneath a green sky. Every once in a while the terrain broke out into barren hills; to his amazement, the deep valleys that lay between them were deserted, without houses or human figures. Occasional brick ruins on the hilltops reinforced this sensation of solitude. It was a restful landscape, thought Marcello, conducive to reflection and imagination. In the meantime, the moon had risen over the horizon beyond the plain: a full moon as red as blood, with a shining white star to its right.

  His wife had vanished, and Marcello hoped that she would not come back for a minute or two; he wanted to think and to feel himself alone for the last time. He went over the things he had done in the past few days in his memory and was aware as he did so of feeling a deep and sincere satisfaction. This, he thought, was the only way to change oneself and one’s life: to act, to move through time and space. As usual, the things he liked most were those that affirmed his connection to a normal, predictable world.

  The morning of the wedding: Giulia in her bridal dress, running happily from one room to another in a rustle of silk; he himself, entering the elevator with a bouquet of lilies of the valley in one gloved hand; his mother-in-law throwing herself into his arms, sobbing, as soon as he walked in the door; Giulia pulling him behind the closet door to kiss him at her leisure; the arrival of the witnesses — two friends of Giulia’s, a doctor and a lawyer, and two friends of his from the ministry; leaving the house for the church, while people watched from the windows and sidewalks, in three cars — the first for him and Giulia, the second for the witnesses, and the third for his mother-in-law and her friends.

  On the way to the church, there was a strange little incident. The car had stopped at a traffic light, when suddenly someone appeared at the window: a red, bearded face with a high, bald forehead and prominent nose. A beggar. But instead of asking for money, the man had asked, in a hoarse voice, “Will you give me a confetto, newlyweds?” and at the same time had thrust his hand into the car.

  The sudden apparition of the face at the window and that rude hand reaching toward Giulia had irritated Marcello, who had answered, perhaps with excessive severity, “Go on, get out of here, no confetti for you.”

  At this the man, who was probably drunk, had shouted with what voice he had, “A curse upon you!” and had disappeared.

  Giulia, who had squeezed up against Marcello in alarm, murmured, “He’ll bring us bad luck!”

  And he had replied, shrugging his shoulders, “It’s nothing … a drunk.” Then the car moved forward and he forgot the incident almost immediately.

  In the church everything had been normal, that is, peacefully solemn, ritualistic, ceremonial. A small crowd of relatives and friends had gathered in the first few pews in front of the main altar, the men dressed in dark suits, the women in spring pastels. The church, very rich and ornate, was dedicated to a saint of the Counter-Reformation. Behind the main altar, under a canopy of gilded bronze, there was a statue of this saint in gray marble, larger than life, kneeling with his eyes turned toward heaven and his palms open. Behind the statue you could see the apse, completely covered with baroque-style frescoes, vividly painted and full of scrolls and flourishes. Giulia and he were kneeling in front of the marble balustrade on a red velvet cushion. The witnesses were standing behind them, two by two. The service was long; it had been important to Giulia’s family to give it the utmost solemnity. From the very beginning an organ in the balcony over the entrance had been playing uninterruptedly, sometimes in a low rumble, sometimes in lound, triumphant notes that spread and echoed under the high vaults. The priest had been very slow; so that Marcello, after noting with satisfaction all the details of the ceremony — which was exactly as he had imagined and wanted it to be — and having convinced himself that he was doing precisely what millions of grooms had done for hundreds of years before him, became distracted and began to observe the church. It was not a beautiful church, but it was vast, conceived and constructed with an intention of theatrical solemnity, like all the Jesuit churches. The enormous statue of the saint, kneeling under his canopy in an ecstatic attitude, loomed over an altar painted to resemble marble and crowded with silver candelabras, vases full of flowers, small decorative statues, and hanging bronze lamps. Behind the canopy curved the apse, frescoed by a painter of the epoch: fluffy clouds that might have been painted on a theater curtain at the opera floated in an azure sky streaked with rays of light from a hidden sun; and seated above the clouds were various sacred figures, boldly painted with more of a decorative than a religious spirit. Standing out from the others, towering over them all, was the figure of the Eternal Father; and suddenly Marcello, despite himself, saw in that bearded head adorned with its triangular halo the face of the beggar, who shortly before had stuck his head in at the car window to ask for confetti and then had cursed him. Right then the organ began to play more loudly, with an almost menacing severity that seemed to leave no room for any sweetness; and at that, the resemblance, which in other circumstances would have made him smile (the Eternal Father disguised as a beggar sticks hi
s head in the window of a taxi to ask for sugared almonds) had recalled to mind, he was not sure why, the biblical verses concerning Cain. A few years after Lino’s death he had happened to open a Bible by chance to these words:

  What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand. When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield to thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond thou shalt be in the earth.

  And Cain said unto the Lord: My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, Thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from Thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

  But the Lord said unto him: No, it shall not be so. For whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken upon him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

  That day those verses had seemed written just for him, cursed for his involuntary crime, and at the same time rendered sacred and untouchable by the curse itself. And that morning in the church, as he was looking at the figure in the fresco, they had returned to mind; and once again they seemed to him perfectly adapted to his case. Coldly, but not without a dark conviction of sinking the tool of his reflection into soil fertile with analogies and significance, he had speculated on this point as the service continued: if there was truly a curse, why had it been hurled at him? At this question, his continual stubborn melancholy returned to oppress him. He was like someone who has lost himself and knows that he can do no other but lose himself; and he knew, if not consciously, then at least by instinct, that he was cursed. But not because he had killed Lino; but because he had sought and was still seeking to free himself from the burden of repentance, corruption, and abnormality of that long-ago crime outside of religion and its rites. But what could he do, he thought; that was how he was and it was not in his power to change himself. Really, there was no intentional evil in him, only an honest acceptance of the conditions into which he had been born and of the world in which he found himself living. Conditions very far from religion, a world that seemed to have replaced religion with other things. Certainly he would have preferred to entrust his life to the ancient and affectionate persons of Christian religion: to the Father, so just; to the Virgin, so maternal; to the Christ, so merciful. But at the very moment he felt this desire, he realized that this life did not belong to him and that he could not entrust it to whomever he wished; that he stood outside religion and could not reenter it, even to purify himself and become normal. Normality, he thought, lay somewhere else by now; or perhaps it was yet to come and must be reconstructed with enormous effort, with doubt, with blood.

  At that moment, almost as if to confirm these thoughts, he had looked at the woman beside him who would, in a matter of minutes, be his wife. Giulia was kneeling, her hands joined in prayer, her face and eyes turned toward the altar; she seemed almost rapt, in a happy, hopeful ecstasy of her own. All the same, at his glance — as if she had felt it on her body like the touch of a hand — she had immediately turned and smiled at him with both her eyes and mouth: a tender, humble, grateful smile of almost animal innocence. He had returned the smile, a little less openly; and then, as if it had been born from that smile, he had felt — perhaps for the first time since he had known her — a surge, if not of love, at least of deep affection, all mixed up with compassion and tenderness.

  Then for one strange moment, he seemed to undress her with his glance, to strip the wedding dress and even her most intimate underclothes from her body, and to see her — full-breasted, round-bellied, young and glowing with health — kneeling completely naked on the red velvet cushion beside him, with her hands clasped in prayer. And he was as naked as she was; and outside of every ritual consecration, they were about to join themselves together in truth, to mate like the beasts in the woods; and this union, whether or not he believed in the rite in which they were participating, would really happen, and from it, as he hoped, children would be born. At this thought it seemed to him that he was setting his feet on solid ground for the first time, and he reflected, “In a little while she’ll be my wife … and I’ll take her … and once I’ve taken her, she’ll conceive children. And for now, in the absence of anything better, this will be the departure point for normality.…”

  But right then he had seen Giulia move her lips in prayer, and at that fervent motion of her mouth her nudity had been instantly re-clothed, as if by magic, in the wedding dress; and he had understood that Giulia, unlike him, firmly believed in the ritual consecration of their union. He had not been displeased but relieved at this discovery. For Giulia, normality was not, as it was for him, something to seek or reconstruct; it simply was; and she was immersed in it, and whatever happened, she would never step outside it.

  So the ceremony had concluded with enough emotion and affection on his part; an emotion and affection of which he had always before believed himself incapable and which had been inspired by profound reasons of his own, not suggested by the place and by the rite. In the end it had all worked out according to the traditional norms, in such a way as to satisfy not only those who believed in them, but also himself, who did not believe but wished to act as if he did.

  Coming out of the church with his wife on his arm, he had halted for a moment under the portal above the church steps and had heard Giulia’s mother behind him, saying to a friend, “He’s so, so good … You saw how moved he was. He loves her so much … Giulia really couldn’t have found a better husband.”

  He had been glad to have been able to inspire such an illusion.

  Now, having brought his thoughts to a conclusion, he felt an ardent, almost biting desire to take up his role of husband again, right at the point he had left off, after the wedding ceremony. He turned his eyes from the window, which, with the advent of night, had filled with a black, faintly sparkling darkness, and peered into the corridor looking for Giulia. He was aware of feeling a slight irritation at her absence; this pleased him, since it seemed an indication of how naturally he played his part by now. At this point he wondered whether he should take Giulia in the uncomfortable bunk of the sleeping car or wait until they reached S., where they were stopping after the first stage of their journey; and at the very thought he felt a surge of strong desire and decided he would take her in the train. That’s what must happen on honeymoons, he thought, and besides, that’s what he felt like doing, prompted not only by sexual hunger but by a kind of satisfied loyalty to his part as the groom. But Giulia was a virgin, as he knew for sure, and it would not be easy to possess her. He thought he might like it if, after trying in vain to break through this virginity, he was constrained to wait for the hotel at S. and the comfort of a double bed. These things happened to newlyweds; they might be ridiculous but they were normal. And he wanted to act like the most normal of all normal people, even at the risk of seeming impotent.

  He was about to look out into the corridor when the door opened and Giulia came in. She was only wearing a skirt and blouse; she had taken off her jacket and was carrying it over her arm. Her ample breasts thrust exuberantly against the white linen of the blouse, informing it with the faint rose color of her flesh; her face was lit up with happy satisfaction. Only her eyes, larger, more languid and melting than usual, revealed both trepidation and desire, an almost frightened excitement. Marcello noticed all this with satisfaction: Giulia was truly a bride, on the verge of giving herself up for the first time. She turned a little awkwardly (she always moved awkwardly, he thought, but hers was a lovable clumsiness, as if she were a healthy, innocent animal) to shut the door and close the curtain; then, standing in front of him, she started to hang up her jacket on one of the hooks of the luggage rack. But the train was going very fast; it switched tracks abruptly, and the whole car seemed to tilt. Giulia fell on top of him. She righted herself mischie
vously, by sitting down on his knees and throwing her arms around his neck. Marcello felt the whole weight of her body on his thin knees and put an arm mechanically around her waist.

  She said softly, “Do you love me?” and lowered her face, searching his mouth with her own.

  They kissed for a long time, as the train continued to roll forward with complicit speed, so that at every jolt their teeth bumped together and Giulia’s nose seemed to want to penetrate his face. At last they separated and Giulia, without getting off of his knees, conscientiously took a handkerchief from her purse and wiped his mouth, saying, “You have at least a ton of lipstick on your lips.”

  Marcello, whose knees were growing numb, took advantage of another jolt of the train to slide her heavy body off onto the seat.

  “You bad boy, don’t you want me?” she said.

  “They haven’t come in to make up the bunks yet,” he said, a little embarrassed.

  “Just think,” she said without transition, “this is the first time I’ve ever been in a sleeping car.”

  Marcello couldn’t help smiling at the innocence in her voice and asked, “Do you like it?”

  “Yes, I like it a lot.” She looked around again. “When are they coming to make up the beds?”


  They fell silent. Marcello looked at his wife and realized that she was looking back at him with a new expression, shy and apprehensive, which overlay but did not erase the happy radiance of a moment before. She saw that he was staring at her and smiled at him apologetically; without saying a word, she took one of his hands in hers and squeezed it. Then two tears sprang up in her tender, liquid eyes and slid down her cheeks, followed by two more. Giulia wept even as she kept gazing at him and trying pitifully to smile between the tears. Finally she lowered her head with a sudden impulse and began to kiss his hand furiously. Marcello felt disoriented by these tears; Giulia was generally gay and unsentimental, and he had never seen her cry before.

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