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The conformist, p.19
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       The Conformist, p.19

           Alberto Moravia
 

  Although he was repulsed, Marcello felt that he must make some response to Gabrio’s affability, so he said, “But with the whorehouse right here around you, you must not get too bored.”

  Gabrio shook his head. “Pah, how the hell can you have fun with that recruited mass of flesh they sell for so much a pound? No,” he went on, “the only real resource here is the casino. Do you play?”

  “No, never.”

  “Still, it’s interesting,” said Gabrio, settling back into his chair as if to signify that their conversation was over. “Fortune can smile on anyone, on me or on you … They don’t call her a woman for nothing. It’s all a matter of grabbing her in time.”

  He rose, went to the door, and threw it open. He was truly small, observed Marcello, with short legs and a rigid chest stuffed into a green jacket cut in the military style. He stood still for a moment in a ray of sun that seemed to accentuate the transparency of his clear, pinkish skin and said, staring at Marcello, “I don’t suppose we’ll see each other again. You’re returning directly to Rome after Paris.”

  “Yes, almost certainly.”

  “Do you need anything?” asked Gabrio suddenly, with reluctance. “Have they provided you with enough funds? I don’t have much here with me … but if you need something.…”

  “No thanks, I don’t need anything.”

  “Well, good luck, then — break a leg.”

  They shook hands and Gabrio closed the door in a hurry. Marcello headed toward the gate.

  But when he was back on the path between the dusty hedges, he realized that in his furious escape from the salon, he had forgotten his hat there. He hesitated; it disgusted him to think of going back into that big room that stank of old shoes, face powder, and sweat, and he also feared the flattery and bawdy witticisms of the women. Then he decided; he turned back and pushed open the door, setting off the same doorbell.

  This time no one appeared, neither the maid with the face of a ferret, nor any of the girls. But the loud, well-known, good-natured voice of agent Orlando reached him from the salon through the open door; and, encouraged, he peered in from the threshold.

  The room was empty. The agent was sitting in a corner next to a woman Marcello didn’t remember having noticed when the girls had presented themselves at his first entrance. The agent had put his arm around her waist in an awkward, intimate gesture and didn’t bother to remove it when he saw Marcello. Embarrassed and vaguely irritated, Marcello averted his eyes from Orlando and looked at the woman.

  She was sitting up rigidly, almost as if she wished in some way to drive off or at least distance her companion. She was a brunette with a high, white forehead, clear eyes, a long, thin face, and a large mouth, enlivened by dark lipstick and an expression of what looked like contempt. She was dressed almost normally, in a white, sleeveless, low-cut dress. The only whorish thing about her was the split in her skirt, which opened just below the waist to reveal her belly and groin, and her long, dry, elegant, crossed legs, as chastely beautiful as the legs of a dancer. She was holding a lit cigarette between two fingers, but she was not smoking; her hand lay on the armrest of the sofa and the smoke spiraled up in the air. Her other hand lay abandoned on the agent’s knee as if, thought Marcello, on the faithful head of a big dog. But what struck him most was her forehead, not so much white as illuminated in some mysterious way by the intense expression of her eyes, with a purity of light that made him think of one of those diamond tiaras that women crowned themselves with long ago at gala balls. Marcello stared at her, astounded, for a long time; and as he looked, he realized he was feeling an incomprehensibly painful regret and irritation. Meanwhile, Orlando had risen to his feet, intimidated by Marcello’s insistent stare.

  “My hat,” said Marcello.

  The woman remained seated and was now looking at him, in her turn, without curiosity. The agent crossed the room quickly to retrieve the hat from a distant divan. Suddenly, then, Marcello understood why the sight of the woman had inspired that painful sense of regret in him: actually, he realized, he didn’t want her to do the agent’s bidding, and seeing her submit to his embrace had made Marcello suffer as if confronted with an intolerable profanity. Surely she knew nothing about the light radiating from her forehead, which did not belong to her anyway, as beauty does not generally belong to the beautiful. Just the same, he felt it was almost his duty to keep her from lowering that luminous forehead to satisfy Orlando’s erotic whims. For a moment he thought of using his authority to take her out of the room; they could talk a while and then, as soon as he was sure the agent had chosen another woman, he would go. Crazily, he even thought about rescuing her from the whorehouse and getting her started on another sort of life. But even as he was thinking these things, he knew that they were fantasies; she could not help resembling her companions, like them irreparably and almost innocently ruined and lost. Then he felt a touch on his arm: Orlando was holding out his hat. He took it mechanically.

  But the agent had had time to consider Marcello’s long, strange look. He took a step forward and proposed, pointing to the woman the way someone might offer a drink or something to eat to an honored guest, “Dottore, if you wish, if this one pleases you … I can always wait.”

  At first Marcello didn’t understand. Then he saw Orlando’s smile, at once respectful and malicious, and felt himself blush right up to the ears. So Orlando was not renouncing her, only adapting, from friendly courtesy and bureaucratic discipline, to the situation, letting Marcello go first — just as if they were at the counter of a bar or the table of a buffet.

  Marcello said quickly, “No, you’re crazy, Orlando … do what you want, I have to go.”

  “In that case, dottore,” said the agent with a smile. Marcello saw him recall the woman with a nod and then, to his sorrow, he saw her — tall and straight, with her diadem of light on her forehead — rise immediately and obediently at that nod and move toward the agent without hesitation or protest, with professional simplicity.

  Orlando said, “Dottore, we’ll see each other soon,” and stood aside to let the woman pass. Marcello drew back as well, almost despite himself; and she walked unhurriedly between the two of them, her cigarette between her fingers.

  But when she was in front of Marcello, she stopped for an instant and said, “If you want me, my name is Luisa.”

  Her voice, as he had feared, was loud, hoarse, and indelicate; and feeling she should add some enticing gesture to her words, she stuck out her tongue and licked her upper lip. This gesture, combined with her words, rescued Marcello in part from the regret he was feeling for not having kept her from going with Orlando.

  Meanwhile Luisa, who was preceding the agent, had reached the stairway. She threw her lit cigarette on the ground, crushed it out with her foot, lifted up her skirt with both hands, and started climbing the stairs in a hurry, followed one step behind by Orlando. Finally they disappeared behind a corner of the landing. Now someone else, probably one of the girls and her client, was coming downstairs, talking. Marcello rushed out of the house.

  3

  AFTER CHARGING THE HOTEL porter to call Quadri’s number, Marcello went to sit down in a corner of the lobby. It was a big hotel and the lobby was vast, with columns supporting the vaults, groups of armchairs, writing desks and coffee tables, and glass cases displaying luxury items; a lot of people were coming and going from the entrance to the elevator cage, from the porter’s counter to the management’s counter, and from the restaurant to the lounges that opened up beyond the columns. Marcello would have liked to distract himself by watching the spectacle in this gay and crowded lobby while he was waiting, but despite himself his thoughts, as if dragged down toward the depths of memory by his present anguish, turned to the first and only visit he had ever made to Quadri, many years ago.

  Marcello was a student then and Quadri was his professor; he had gone to Quadri’s home in an old red palazzo near the station, to consult him about his thesis. As soon as he had entered he had been struck
by the enormous number of books accumulated in every corner of the apartment. Even in the entrance hall he had noticed some old curtains that appeared to be drawn over doorways; but pushing them aside, he had discovered rows and rows of books lined up in the recesses of the walls. The maid had proceded him down an extremely long and tortuous hallway that seemed to wind all around the courtyard of the palazzo, and it, too, was cluttered with shelves full of books and papers on both sides. Finally they had reached Quadri’s study, and Marcello had found himself between four walls densely packed with books, reaching from the floor to the ceiling. More books were on the desk, placed one on top of another in two orderly stacks between which, as if through a crack, the bearded face of the professor could be seen. Marcello noticed right away that Quadri had a curiously flat and asymetrical face, like a papier-mâché mask with the eyes rimmed in red and a triangular nose, to which, lower down, a beard and false moustache had been carelessly glued. Even on his forehead, his wet, too-black hair resembled a badly applied toupé. Between his toothbrush moustache and mutton-chop beard, both suspiciously black, you could glimpse a very red mouth with shapeless lips; and Marcello couldn’t help wondering whether all that badly distributed hair was hiding some kind of deformity — for instance, a total lack of chin or a frightening scar. All in all, it was a face in which he could see nothing true or secure; everything in it was false, just like a mask.

  The professor had risen to welcome Marcello, and with this gesture had revealed his small stature and the hump, or rather, the deformity of his left shoulder, which added a sorrowful air to the excessive, affectionate sweetness of his manner. Shaking hands across his books, Quadri had gazed at his visitor near-sightedly, peering over his thick glasses, so that for a moment Marcello had had the sensation of being scrutinized not by two eyes, but by four. He had also noticed Quadri’s old-fashioned style of dressing: a jacket a financier might wear, black with silk lapels; striped black trousers; a white shirt with starched cuffs and collar; a gold chain draped over his vest. Marcello did not particularly like Quadri; he knew him to be anti-Fascist; and in Marcello’s mind Quadri’s political stance, his cowardly, unwarlike character, his unhealthiness and ugliness, his erudition and books — everything about him, in fact — seemed to represent to perfection the conventional image of the negative and impotent intellectual, which the party’s propaganda was continually holding up to scorn. And Quadri’s extraordinary sweetness repulsed Marcello, as well; it had to be phony; it seemed impossible to him that a man could be so gentle and kind without deceit and hidden agendas.

  Quadri had welcomed Marcello with his usual expressions of almost saccharine affection. He had asked him a number of questions, frequently interjecting them with words like “dear boy,” “my son,” and “dear son,” and waving his little white hands over the top of his books. First he had asked him about his family and then about him personally. When he had heard that Marcello’s father had spent years in a clinic for the mentally ill, he had exclaimed, “Oh, poor boy, I didn’t know, what a misfortune, what a terrible catastrophe … and science can do nothing to lead him back to reason?”

  But he had not listened to Marcello’s response and had passed on immediately to another subject. He had a throaty voice, modulated and pleasant, extremely sweet and full of aprehensive solicitude. But curiously, within this declarative and mawkish solicitude, Marcello had seemed to glimpse, like a watermark on paper, the most complete indifference: it was possible that Quadri, far from being truly interested in him, didn’t even see him. Marcello had also been struck by the entire absence of nuance and inflection in Quadri’s voice; he always spoke in the same uniformly affectionate and sentimental way, whether the subject merited such a tone or not. At the conclusion of his numerous questions, Quadri had finally asked whether Marcello were Fascist. Receiving an affirmative answer, he had explained almost casually, without changing tone or appearing to have any reaction, how difficult it was for him, whose anti-Fascist sentiments were well known, to continue teaching subjects like philosophy and history under the Fascist regime. At this point Marcello, embarrassed, had tried to bring the conversation back to the reason for his visit.

  But Quadri had interrupted him immediately. “Perhaps you’re asking yourself why in the world I’m telling you all these things … dear boy, I’m not saying them idly or to unburden myself to you … I wouldn’t dream of wasting your time, which you must devote to your studies. I’m telling you this to somehow justify the fact that I’ll be unable to give you or your thesis any attention. I’m leaving teaching.”

  “You’re leaving teaching,” Marcello repeated, caught by surprise.

  “Yes,” said Quadri, stroking his mouth and moustache with one hand in a habitual gesture. “Although I do so with sorrow, with real sorrow, since up until now I’ve devoted my whole life to you students. But I really feel I must leave the school.” After a moment the professor had added, with a sigh but without emphasis, “Eh, yes, I’ve decided to pass from thought to action … The phrase may not be new to you, but it mirrors my situation faithfully.”

  Right then Marcello had almost smiled. In fact, it had seemed funny to him that this professor, this little man in a banker’s suit, hunchbacked, near-sighted, and bearded, sitting in an armchair between his stacks of books, was declaring that he had decided to pass from thought to action. What he meant by the phrase was perfectly clear: Quadri, after years of opposing the regime passively, cloistered in his thoughts and his profession, had decided to become politically active, perhaps even to engage in conspiracy.

  Marcello, with an instant surge of hostility, had not been able to keep himself from warning the professor, in a cold and threatening tone, “You do yourself a disservice, telling this to me. I’m a Fascist and I could denounce you.”

  But Quadri had replied with extreme gentleness, switching from the more formal Lei he had been using to the informality of tu, “I know that you’re a good, dear boy, an honest and upright boy, and I know that you would never do anything of the kind.”

  “He can go to hell,” Marcello had thought in annoyance. And he had answered sincerely, “Yet I could denounce you. Honesty, for us Fascists, consists precisely in the denunciation of people like you, and in removing them from positions where they can do harm.”

  The professor had shaken his head. “My dear son, you know even as you speak that what you’re saying isn’t true. You know it, or your heart knows it … and in fact, honest youth that you are, you wanted to warn me. Do you know what someone else would have done, a real informer? He would have pretended to approve of me and then, once I was compromised by some really indiscreet statement, he would have denounced me. But you warned me.”

  “I warned you,” Marcello had answered harshly, “only because I don’t believe you’re capable of what you call action. Why aren’t you satisfied just being a professor? What kind of action are you talking about?”

  “Action … it’s not important to say what it is,” Quadri had replied, staring at him fixedly. At these words, Marcello had not been able to keep from raising his eyes toward the walls and their shelves full of books.

  Quadri had intercepted his glance and had added, still with the utmost sweetness, “It seems strange to you, doesn’t it, to hear me talk about action? Surrounded by all these books? Right now you’re thinking, ‘What action is he prattling on about, this little humpbacked, crooked, near-sighted, bearded man?’ Tell the truth, that’s what you’re thinking … Your party’s pamphlets have described the man who can’t act, doesn’t even know how to act, the intellectual, so many times for you, that now you smile compassionately, recognizing me in that image … isn’t that right?”

  Surprised by such acumen, Marcello had exclaimed, “How did you know that?”

  “Oh, my dear boy,” Quadri had answered as he stood up, “my dear boy, I knew it right away. But it’s not written anywhere that you have to have a golden eagle on your beret or braid on your sleeves to take action. Good-bye, at any
rate, good-bye, good-bye and good luck … good-bye.”

  And so saying, he had gently, inexorably pushed Marcello out the door.

  Now Marcello, thinking back to that encounter, realized that a lot of youthful impatience and inexperience had contributed to his rash disdain for Quadri, bearded, hunchbacked, and pedantic as he may have been. Quadri himself, by his subsequent deeds, had been the one to show Marcello his error: he had escaped to Paris shortly after their conversation, and once he was there, had swiftly become one of the leaders of anti-Fascism — perhaps the most able, prepared, and aggressive of them all. His specialty, it seemed, was recruitment. Profiting from his experience as a teacher and his knowledge of the workings of young men’s minds, he was often successful at converting those who had been indifferent or even opposed to his stance, and then pushing them into enterprises which were daring, dangerous, and almost always disastrous — if not for him, their inspiration, at least for the actual executors. He did not seem to feel, as he cast his disciples into the conspiratorial struggle, any of those humanitarian concerns that one would have been tempted to attribute to him, given his character. On the contrary, he sacrificed his disciples with nonchalance in desperate actions that could only be justified by extremely long-range plans requiring a cruel indifference to human life. Quadri, in other words, had some of the rare qualities of a true politician, or at least a certain category of them: he was at once astute and enthusiastic, intellectual and active, open and cynical, thoughtful and daring. In the course of his work, Marcello had had frequent occasions to study Quadri, whom the police defined as “a very dangerous element,” and he had always been struck by the man’s ability to accomodate so many contrasting qualities in one profound and ambiguous character. In this way, slowly but surely, because of what he had managed to learn at a distance from information that was by no means always precise, Marcello’s initial contempt had turned into an irritable respect. His original dislike had held firm, however, because he was convinced that courage was not to be counted among Quadri’s many qualities. He based this assumption on the fact that, although the professor thrust his followers into mortal danger, he never exposed himself personally.

 
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