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The conformist, p.17
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       The Conformist, p.17

           Alberto Moravia
 

  However, she left him no time for supposition, since she stood up and said hurriedly, “Excuse me for crying … but I was thinking how much better you are than me and how unworthy I am of you.”

  “Now you’re talking like your mother,” said Marcello with a smile.

  He watched her blow her nose and then answer calmly, “No, mamma says these things without knowing why. But I have a real reason.”

  “What reason?”

  She looked at him for a long moment and then explained, “I have to tell you something and after I do maybe you won’t love me anymore … but I have to tell you.”

  “What?”

  She replied slowly, gazing at him attentively, as if she wanted to discover the expression of contempt she feared at the first moment of its appearance, “I’m not what you think I am.”

  “Meaning?”

  “I’m not … I mean, I’m not a virgin.”

  Marcello looked at her and suddenly understood that the normal character he had until now attributed to his wife did not, in reality, exist. He did not know what was hidden beneath that initial confession, but he now knew for certain that Giulia was not, according to her own statement, what he had believed her to be. He was struck by a sense of satiety already at the thought of what he was about to hear and felt a desire, almost, to refuse the confidence. But above all, he needed to reassure her; and this would be easy, since in truth he cared nothing at all about her famous virginity, whether or not it was intact. He replied in an affectionate tone, “Don’t worry about it … I married you because I love you, not because you were a virgin.”

  Giulia said, shaking her head, “I knew it, I knew you had a modern mentality … that it wouldn’t be that important to you … but I had to tell you all the same.”

  “A modern mentality,” Marcello couldn’t help thinking, almost amused. The phrase was so like Giulia; it made up for her missing virginity. It was an innocent phrase, though of an innocence different than what he had supposed. He said, taking her hand, “Come on, let’s not think about it anymore.” And he smiled at her.

  Giulia smiled back. But as she smiled, tears filled her eyes again and ran down her cheeks.

  Marcello protested: “Come on, what’s wrong now? When I told you it doesn’t matter?”

  Giulia made a strange gesture. She threw her arms around his neck but hid her face against his chest, bending her head so that Marcello could not see it.

  “I have to tell you everything.”

  “Everything what?”

  “Everything that happened to me.”

  “But it doesn’t matter.”

  “I beg of you … maybe it’s a weakness … but if I don’t tell you, I’ll feel like I’m hiding something.”

  “But, why?” asked Marcello, caressing her hair. “So you’ve had a lover … someone you thought you loved … or someone you really loved … why should I know about it?”

  “No, I didn’t love him,” she replied immediately, almost spitefully, “and I never thought I loved him. We were lovers, you could say, right up to the day you proposed to me. But he wasn’t young like you … he was an old man of sixty, disgusting, harsh, demanding, bad … a family friend, you know him.”

  “Who is he?”

  “The lawyer Fenizio,” she said briefly.

  Marcello started. “But he was one of the witnesses.…”

  “Right, he insisted. I didn’t want him there, but I couldn’t refuse. It was already a lot that he let me get married.…”

  Marcello recalled that he had never liked the lawyer, Fenizio, whom he had often encountered at Giulia’s house: a little, bald, blondish man with gold glasses, a sharp nose that wrinkled when he laughed, a mouth without lips. A very calm and cold man, he remembered, but even in that calm coldness, aggressive and petulant in his own unpleasant way. And strong: one day when it was hot he had taken off his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves, revealing large white arms swollen with muscles.

  “But what did you see in him?” he couldn’t help exclaiming.

  “He saw something in me … and very early … I wasn’t just his lover for a month or a year, it was six years.”

  Marcello made a rapid mental calculation: Giulia was twenty-one now, or anyway, just a little over that. Stunned, he repeated, “Six years.”

  “Yes, six years. I was fifteen when … do you understand what I’m saying?”

  Giulia, he observed, although speaking of things that to all appearances still grieved her, talked in her usual drawling, good-natured tone of voice as if relaying the most irrelevant gossip. “You might say he began abusing me the same day poor papà died … if it wasn’t that same day, at least it was that same week. Well, actually, I can tell you the exact date: just eight days after my father’s funeral … my father, mind you, whose intimate and trusted friend he was.…”

  She fell silent for a moment, as if to underline by her silence the impiety of the man; then she went on: “Mamma did nothing but cry, and naturally, she was in church a lot … He came by one evening when I was alone in the house; mamma had gone out and the maid was in the kitchen. I was in my bedroom sitting at my desk, concentrating on writing my homework for school … I was in the fifth form at the ginnasio and was getting ready to earn my diploma … He came in on tiptoes, walked up in back of me, bent over my homework, and asked me what I was doing. I told him, without turning around — I wasn’t suspicious at all, first of all because I was as innocent, and you can believe this, as a two-year-old baby, and then because he was almost like a relative to me … I called him “uncle,” just imagine … so I told him that I was working on my Latin essay and he — do you know what he did? He grabbed me by the hair, with just one hand, but hard … he did that often, as a joke, because I had magnificent hair, long and wavy, and he used to say that it tempted his fingers. Well, feeling him pull on it, I thought it was a joke this time, too, and I said to him, ‘Stop it, you’re hurting me,’ but instead of letting me go, he forced me to get up and, holding me at arm’s length, he guided me toward the bed, which was where it is now, in the corner near the door. Just think, I was so innocent I still didn’t understand, and I said to him, I remember, ‘Let me go … I have to do my homework.” Right then he let go of my hair … but no, I can’t tell it to you.…”

  Marcello was about to ask her to go on, thinking that she was ashamed; but Giulia, who had only stopped to increase the effect of her story, continued: “Although I wasn’t yet fifteen, I was already very developed, like a woman … well, I didn’t want to tell you because just to talk about it still hurts me … He let go of my hair and grabbed my breasts, so hard that I couldn’t even scream and I almost passed out … maybe I really did faint … then, after he grabbed me, I don’t know what happened. I was stretched out on the bed and he was on top of me and I understood everything and all my strength had left me and I was like an object in his hands, passive, lifeless, without any will of my own. So he had his way with me.… Later I cried, and then, to console me, he told me he loved me, that he was crazy about me, you know, the usual things. But he also told me, in case I wasn’t convinced, that I shouldn’t talk about it to my mother unless I wanted to ruin him. It seems that papà, at the end, made some business mistakes and that now our living conditions depended completely on him, Fenizio … He came back other times after that day, but not with any consistency, always when I didn’t expect him. He would come into my bedroom on tiptoe, lean over me, and ask me in a severe voice, ‘Have you done your homework? No? Then come do it with me.…’ and then usually he would grab me by the hair and lead me at arm’s length to the bed. I’m telling you, he had a real thing about taking me by the hair.” She laughed almost affectionately at this memory, this habit of her old lover’s, as one might laugh at some characteristic and lovable trait. “We went on that way for almost a year. He kept swearing that he loved me and that if he didn’t have a wife and children he’d marry me … and I’m not saying he wasn’t sincere … but if he really loved m
e the way he said he did, there was only one way to show it: leave me alone. After a year, I’d had enough … I was desperate, I made an attempt to free myself. I told him I didn’t love him and that I would never love him, that I couldn’t keep going on this way, that I couldn’t manage to do anything anymore, that I was struggling, that I hadn’t gotten my diploma, and that, if he didn’t leave me alone, I would have to give up my studies … And then he — do you know what he did? He went and told mamma that he understood my temperament and was convinced I wasn’t cut out for studying and that since I was sixteen already, it would be better for me to go to work. Right off he offered me the position of secretary in his office … understand? Naturally, I resisted as hard as I could, but mamma, poor thing, told me I was an ingrate, that he had done and continued to do so much for us, that I shouldn’t let a chance like that slip out of my fingers, and finally, I was forced to accept … Once I was in the studio with him all day long, as you can imagine, there was no way to quit. So I started up again and finally I just got into the habit of him and stopped rebelling, you know how it is. I thought there was no more hope for me, I had become a fatalist. But a year ago, when you told me you loved me, I went straight to him and told him that this time it was over for good. But he’s vile, he’s a coward; he protested, threatening to go and tell you everything … do you know what I did then? I grabbed a sharp paperknife that he had on the desk and I put the point to his throat and I said, ‘If you do, I’ll kill you,’ and then I said, ‘He’ll find out about our relationship … that’s only right … but I’ll be the one to tell him, not you … from today on, as far as I’m concerned, you don’t even exist. And if you just try to put yourself between him and me, I’ll kill you, I may go to jail but I’ll kill you,’ and I said it in a certain tone so that he knew I meant it. And from then on he didn’t breathe a word, except to avenge himself by writing that anonymous letter where he talked about your father.…”

  “Ah, that was him,” Marcello couldn’t help exclaiming.

  “Of course. I recognized the paper and the typewriter right away.”

  She was quiet for a moment; then, immediately anxious, she took Marcello’s hand and added, “Now I’ve told you everything and I think I feel better … but maybe I shouldn’t have told you, maybe now you won’t be able to stand me, maybe you’ll hate me.”

  Marcello did not answer her; he remained silent for a long time. Giulia’s story had roused neither hatred in him toward the man who had abused her, nor pity for her whom he had abused. The apathetic and reasonable way in which she had told it, even as she was expressing disgust and contempt, excluded feelings as clear as anger and pity. As if by contagion, he even felt inclined to a viewpoint much like hers, a mixture of indulgence and resignation. What he did feel was an overwhelmingly physical sense of astonishment, disconnected from any judgement whatsoever, as if he had fallen into an unforeseen pit. And on the rebound, his habitual melancholy deepened, confronted with this unexpected confirmation of a norm of decadence to which he had hoped that Giulia would prove an exception. But strangely, his conviction of Giulia’s profoundly normal character remained unshaken. Normality, as he suddenly understood, did not consist in staying away from certain experiences, but in the way these experiences were evaluated. Destiny had dictated that both he and Giulia would have something to hide, and consequently to confess, in their lives. But while he felt entirely unable to speak of Lino, Giulia had not hesitated to disclose her relationship with the lawyer to him; and she had chosen the most suitable moment to do so, according to her own ideas: the moment of matrimony, which, in her mind, abolished the past and opened the door to a whole new way of life. This thought pleased him because, despite everything, it confirmed Giulia’s normality, which consisted precisely in her capacity for redemption through the customary, ancient means of religion and love. Distracted by these thoughts, he turned his eyes to the window without realizing that his silence was frightening his wife.

  Then he felt her try to hug him and heard her voice asking him, “Aren’t you going to say something? Then it’s true … I disgust you … Tell the truth: you can’t stand me anymore and I disgust you.”

  Marcello would have liked to reassure her, and moved to turn around and hug her. But a jolt of the train led his gesture astray so that, without wanting to, he poked her in the face with his elbow. Giulia interpreted this involuntary blow as a gesture of rejection and stood up immediately. At that moment the train entered a tunnel, with a long, melancholy whistle and a thickening of shadows against the glass of the little windows. In the midst of the roar and rumble, doubled by vaults’ answering echo, he thought he heard a wailing cry emerge from Giulia as, holding her arms stretched out in front of her, swaying and stumbling, she moved toward the door of their compartment.

  Surprised, he called without getting up, “Giulia!”

  As answer he saw her, still in that sorrowful, stumbling way, open the door and disappear into the corridor.

  For a moment he stayed where he was, then, suddenly alarmed, he rose and went out, as well. Their compartment was in the middle of the car; right away he saw his wife moving hurriedly down the deserted corridor toward the end where the exit door was. Watching her flee down the broad, soft carpet between the mahogany walls, the threat she had made to her old lover came back to him: “If you talk, I’ll kill you,” and he thought that he had perhaps ignored, till now, an aspect of her character, mistaking her easygoing good nature for a passive cowardice. In the selfsame moment he saw her lean down and jerk at the handles of the door. In one leap he reached her and grabbed her by the arms, forcing her to stand back up.

  “What are you doing, Giulia?” he asked in a low voice, despite the rumbling of the train. “What did you think? It was the train … I wanted to turn around and instead I hurt you.”

  She was rigid between his arms, as if preparing for a struggle. But at the sound of his voice, so tranquil and so sincerely surprised, she seemed to calm down immediately. She said after a moment, bowing her head, “Forgive me, maybe I was mistaken, but I had the impression you hated me and so I wanted to end it all … It wasn’t an act, if you hadn’t come I would really have done it.”

  “But why? What were you thinking of?”

  He saw her shrug her shoulders. “Just because, just to stop struggling so hard … For me, getting married was a lot more important than you thought. When I seemed to … when I thought you couldn’t stand me anymore, I felt, I just can’t go on anymore.…” She shrugged her shoulders again and added, lifting her face at last toward his and smiling, “Think, you would have become a widower the day you were married.”

  Marcello gazed at her for a moment without speaking. Clearly, he thought, Giulia was sincere; she had truly attached much more importance to getting married than he could imagine. Then, with a sense of astonishment, he understood that this humble statement demonstrated a complex participation in the wedding ritual, which was for Giulia — unlike himself — truly what it should and must be, neither more nor less. Thus it was hardly surprising that after such passionate devotion, she should think of killing herself at the first disappointment. He told himself that this was almost a kind of blackmail on Giulia’s part: either you forgive me or I kill myself; and once more he experienced relief, at finding her to be so completely what he had wanted. Giulia had turned around again and seemed now to be looking out the little window. He put his arms around her waist and murmured in her ear, “You know I love you.”

  She turned immediately and kissed him with a passion so violent that Marcello was almost frightened. This is the way, he thought, that certain devotees kiss the feet of the statues, the crosses, the reliquaries in churches. Meanwhile, the noise of the tunnel gave way to the usual swift beat of the wheels running in open air; and they separated. Still, they remained standing one against the other, hand in hand in front of the window, contemplating the darkness of the night.

  “Look,” said Giulia finally, in a normal tone of voice, “lo
ok down there … what can it be? A fire?”

  And in fact a fire now shone in the center of the dark glass like a red flower.

  Marcello said, “Who knows?” and lowered the window.

  The mirrorlike gleam of glass disappeared from the night, a cold wind blew in their faces, but the red flower remained — whether far or near, high or low was hard to tell — mysteriously suspended in the dark. After looking for a long time at those four or five petals of flame, which seemed to shift and throb, he turned his gaze toward the escarpment of the railroad track along which the faint lights of the train were sliding, as were his and Giulia’s shadows, and was suddenly seized with an acute sense of bewilderment.

  Why was he on that train? And who was the woman standing by his side? And where was he going? And who was he, exactly? And where did he come from? This bewilderment caused him no suffering; on the contrary, it pleased him, being an emotion with which he was familiar and which constituted, perhaps, the very foundation of his most intimate being.

  “Yes,” he thought coldly, “I’m like that fire, down there in the night … I’ll flare up and then I’ll go out, without reason, without sequel … a bit of destruction suspended in the dark.”

  He was roused by the sound of Giulia’s voice saying, “Look, they must have made up the beds already,” and understood that, while he had been lost in contemplation of that faraway fire, she had never ceased thinking about their love or, to put it more precisely, the imminent union of their two bodies — what she was doing in the moment, in other words, and nothing else. She was already headed, with a kind of contained impatience, toward their compartment; Marcello followed her at a little distance.

 
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