The Conformist, p.21Alberto Moravia
“And now I have to go,” said Marcello, glancing at his watch again. He put the money for their coffees on the table, rose, and walked out, followed at a distance by the agent.
On the sidewalk, Orlando took in the dense traffic in the street — two rows of cars moving at a snail’s pace in opposite directions — and said in an emphatic tone: “Paris.”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve been here, is it, Orlando?” asked Marcello, his eyes roving over the cars in search of a free taxi.
“The first time?” said the agent with a kind of mindless pride, “far from it … go ahead and try, dottore, guess a number.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know.”
“Twelve,” said the agent, “thirteen, this time.”
A taxi driver intercepted Marcello’s glance and came to a halt in front of him.
“Good-bye, Orlando,” said Marcello, climbing in, “I’ll expect your phone call this evening.”
The agent gestured his assent. Marcello climbed in, giving the driver the hotel’s address.
But as the taxi rolled through the streets, the agent’s final words, that twelve and thirteen (twelve times in Paris and this makes thirteen) continued to ring in his ears and arouse ancient echoes in his memory. He was like someone who peers into a cave, shouting, and discovers that his voice is reverberating in unsuspected depths. Then, all at once, reminded by those numbers, he recalled that he would point Quadri out to the agent with a handshake, and he understood why, instead of simply informing Orlando that Quadri was recognizable by his humpback, he had suggested this device of the greeting. His distant, childhood memories of the sacred story were what had made him forget the professor’s deformity, so much more convenient than a handshake as a means of certain recognition. The apostles were twelve; and it was he who was the thirteenth, the one who embraced the Christ to point him out to the guards gathered in the garden to arrest him. Now the traditional figures of the stations of the Passion of Christ, contemplated so many times in various churches, superimposed themselves on the modern scene of a French restaurant, with sumptuously laid-out tables, patrons seated to eat, he himself who rose and walked toward Quadri, offering him his hand, and the agent Orlando, who, sitting to one side, observed them both. Then the figure of Judas, the thirteenth apostle, merged with Marcello’s, wedded itself to his contours, became his own.
He felt an almost amused desire to reflect on this discovery. “Probably Judas did what he did for the same reasons I’m doing it,” he thought, “and he, too, had to do it even though he didn’t like to, because it was necessary, after all, that someone do it … but why be scared about it? Let’s admit right up front that I’ve chosen the part of Judas … so what?”
He realized that he wasn’t at all frightened, in fact. At the most, he thought, he was pervaded by his usual cold melancholy, which he didn’t really mind. Then he thought — not to justify himself but to deepen the comparison and recognize its limits — that yes, Judas was like him, but only up to a certain point. Up to the handshake; perhaps even (to stretch a point, though he wasn’t one of Quadri’s disciples), up to the betrayal, in a very generic sense. Then everything was different. Judas had hung himself, or at least had felt that he could do no other than hang himself, because those same men who had suggested and paid for the betrayal had not had the courage afterwards to support and justify his action. But Marcello would not kill himself, would not even fall into despair, because behind him … he saw the crowds gathered in the squares, cheering on the man who gave him his orders and implicitly justifying him, Marcello, who obeyed them. And lastly, he thought that he received nothing, in a literal sense, for what he was doing. No thirty gold coins. Only “service,” as agent Orlando said. The analogy faded and dissolved, leaving behind it no more than a trace of pride-tinged irony. If anything, he concluded, what mattered was that the comparison had come to mind, that he had explored it and had, for a moment, found it right.
AFTER BREAKFAST, GIULIA wanted to return to the hotel to change clothes before going to Quadri’s. But when they had emerged from the elevator, she put an arm around Marcello’s waist and murmured, “I didn’t really want to change … I just wanted to be alone with you for a little while.”
Walking down the long, deserted hallway between two rows of closed doors, his waist encircled by that loving arm, Marcello realized once again that, while for him this trip to Paris was also, and above all, the mission, for Giulia it was simply their honeymoon trip. Which meant, he thought, that he was not allowed to deviate from the role of new groom he had agreed to play when he climbed onto the train with her; even if sometimes, as was now the case, he was in the grip of an anguish very far from the excitement of love. But this was the normality he had so longed for: this arm around his waist, these looks, these caresses; and what he was about to do with Orlando was the blood-price he must pay for it. Meanwhile, they had reached their room and Giulia, without letting go of his waist, opened the door with her other hand and walked in with him.
Once they were inside she let go of him, turned the key in the lock, and said, “Close the window, will you?”
Marcello went to the window and lowered the blinds. When he turned around he saw that Giulia was standing by the bed, already sliding her dress off over her head, and he thought he understood what she had had in mind when she said, “I just wanted to be alone with you for a little while.” In silence he went to sit on the edge of the bed, on the side farthest from Giulia, who was now dressed only in a slip and stockings. She very carefully draped her dress over a chair near the head of the bed, took off her shoes, and finally, clumsily lifting up first one leg and then the other, stretched out on her back behind him, with one arm folded beneath her neck.
She was silent for a moment and then said, “Marcello.”
“Why don’t you lie down here beside me?”
Obediently Marcello took off his shoes and stretched out on the bed beside his wife. Giulia immediately cuddled up to him, pressing her body against his and asking anxiously, “What’s the matter with you?”
“With me? Nothing. Why?”
“I don’t know, you seem so worried.”
“That’s an impression you must have a lot,” he replied. “My usual mood, you know, is hardly carefree … but that doesn’t mean I’m worried.”
She hugged him silently. Then she said, “It wasn’t true that I asked you to come up here so I could get ready … but it wasn’t true, either, that I just wanted to be alone with you … the truth is something else.”
This time Marcello was caught by surprise and almost felt remorse at having suspected her of simple erotic greed. Lowering his gaze, he saw her eyes looking up at him, full of tears.
Affectionately, although he felt somewhat annoyed, he said, “Now it’s my turn to ask you what’s the matter.”
“You’re right,” she answered. And right away she began to cry, silent sobs that he could feel shaking her body against his own.
Marcello waited a while, hoping that her incomprehsible weeping would cease. But instead it seemed to redouble in intensity. At last he asked, staring up at the ceiling, “Would you please tell me why you’re crying?”
Giulia sobbed a while more and then answered, “No reason … because I’m stupid.” But there was already a hint of consolation in her sorrowful voice.
Marcello looked down at her and insisted, “Come on, why are you crying?”
He saw her gaze at him with those tearful eyes of hers, already shining with a faint hopeful light. She gave him a weak smile and rummaged around for a handkerchief. Then she dried her eyes, blew her nose, put down the handkerchief and murmured, hugging him again, “If I tell you why I was crying, you’ll think I’m crazy.”
“Come on,” he said, caressing her. “Tell me why you were crying.”
“Well,” she said, “during lunch you seemed so distracted, so worried, ac
“You can’t be serious!” exclaimed Marcello in surprise.
“But I was serious,” she said with a smile, flattered by his astonishment. “Just think, while we were in the hotel lobby and you went off for a minute to buy cigarettes, I went to the porter and asked him to reserve me a place in the sleeping car for Rome, tonight … oh, as you can see, I was serious, all right.”
“But you’re crazy,” said Marcello, raising his voice despite himself.
“I told you,” she replied, “that you’d think I was crazy. But at that moment I was sure, absolutely sure that I’d be doing you a favor by leaving you and going away … yes, I was as sure of it as I’m sure now,” she added, pulling herself up enough to brush his mouth with her lips, “that I’m giving you this kiss.”
“Why were you so sure?” asked Marcello, troubled.
“I don’t know … I just was … the way you’re sure of things … without any reason.”
“And so,” he couldn’t help exclaiming, with the very slightest hint of regret, “why did you change your mind?”
“Why? Who knows? Maybe because in the elevator you looked at me a certain way or at least I got the impression you were looking at me in a certain way … but then I remembered that I had decided to leave and had reserved a place on the sleeping car and then when I thought I couldn’t go back on it, I started to cry.”
Marcello said nothing.
Giulia interpreted this silence in her own way and asked, “Are you annoyed? Tell me, are you annoyed because of the sleeping car? But they’ll cancel it, you know … and we’ll only have to pay the twenty percent.”
“How absurd,” he answered slowly, as if reflecting.
“Or,” she said, and stifled an incredulous laugh still trembling with a trace of fear, “are you annoyed because I didn’t really go?”
“Absurd again,” he answered. But this time he felt he was not being wholly sincere. And as if to suppress any last hesitation or remorse, he added, “If you had gone off, my whole life would have collapsed.”
And this time he felt he was telling the truth, however ambiguously. Wouldn’t it be better if his life — the life he had built up since the fact of Lino — collapsed completely instead of being overloaded with other burdens and duties, like some absurd palace to which an infatuated owner keeps adding terraces and turrets and balconies until its solidity is compromised?
He felt Giulia’s arms wrap around him and her voice whispering, “Are you telling the truth?”
“Yes,” he said, “I’m telling the truth.”
“But what would you have done,” she insisted with pleased, almost vain curiosity, “if I had really left you and gone away? Would you have run after me?”
He hesitated before responding, and once again he seemed to hear that far-off regret echoing in his voice. “No, I don’t think so … haven’t I just told you that my whole life would collapse?”
“Would you have stayed in France?”
“And your career? Would you have thrown up your career?”
“Without you it wouldn’t have made sense anymore,” he explained calmly. “I do what I do because you’re here.”
“But what would you have done, then?” She seemed to feel an almost cruel pleasure at imagining him alone, without her.
“Oh, I would have done what anyone does who abandons his own country and profession for this sort of reason … I would have adapted to a job of some kind: bus boy, sailer, chauffeur … or I would have enlisted in the Foreign Legion … But why does it matter to you so much to know?”
“Just because … just talking … the Foreign Legion? Under another name?”
“Where is the Foreign Legion based?”
“In Morocco, I think. And in other places, too.”
“In Morocco … and instead I stayed here,” she murmured, wrapping herself around him with a kind of greedy, jealous strength.
A silence followed; Giulia stopped moving, and when Marcello looked at her, he saw that she had closed her eyes and appeared to be asleep. Then he, too, closed his eyes, hoping to drowse off. But he wasn’t able to go to sleep, although he felt prostrated by a deathly weariness and torpor. He experienced a deep and sorrowful sensation, as if in complete rebellion against his own being; and a strange analogy came to his mind.
He was a wire, none other than a human wire, through which a terrible current of energy was flowing continuously, which was not up to him to refuse or accept. A wire like those high-tension wires attached to poles that say: Danger of Death. He was nothing but one of those conducting wires; and sometimes the current hummed through his body without bothering him, actually infusing him with greater energy instead. But at other times — like now, for instance — it felt too strong to him, too intense, and he wanted not to be a taut and vibrating wire but to be pulled down and abandoned to the rust on some trash heap, at the bottom of some office courtyard. And anyway, why was he the one who had to endure transmitting the current, while so many people were not even brushed by it? And again, why did the current never interrupt itself, why did it never cease, even for a single moment, to flow through him? The comparison split and divided, branching off into questions without answers; and meanwhile his willful, melancholy torpor kept growing, swirling into his mind like fog, obscuring the mirror of his consciousness. Finally he drowsed off, and it seemed to him that sleep had interrupted the current in some way, and that for once he was really a length of rusty wire, thrown into a corner with the rest of the trash. But at that same moment he felt a hand touching his arm; he jerked awake and sat up to see Giulia standing by the bed, completely dressed, with her hat in her hand. She said, in a low voice, “Are you sleeping? Don’t we have to visit Quadri?”
Marcello pulled himself up with an effort and stared into the half-light of the room for a moment, mentally translating, “Don’t we have to murder Quadri?”
Then he asked, almost as if he were joking, “What if we didn’t go to Quadri’s? What if we took a nice nap instead?”
It was an important question, he thought, looking up at Giulia from under his lashes; and maybe it wasn’t too late to throw everything to the wind. He saw her consider it uncertainly, almost unhappy, it seemed, that he was proposing to stay in the hotel now that she had prepared to go out.
Then she said, “But you’ve already slept … almost an hour. Besides, didn’t you tell me that this visit to Quadri was important for your career?”
Marcello was silent for a moment and then replied, “Yes, it’s true, it’s very important.”
“Well, then,” she said gaily, leaning down to give him a kiss on the forehead, “what are you doing thinking about it then? Get a move on, get up and get dressed, don’t be a lazybones.”
“But I’d rather not go there,” said Marcello, pretending to yawn. “I’d like to just sleep,” he added, and this time he felt he was sincere. “Sleep and sleep and sleep.”
“You can sleep tonight,” answered Giulia lightly, walking over to the mirror and looking at herself attentively. “You took on a responsibility, it’s too late by now to change the plans.”
She spoke with good-natured wisdom, as usual; and it was surprising, thought Marcello, and at the same time obscurely significant, that she always said the right things without knowing it. Right then the phone on the bedside table rang. Marcello, lif
“Cancel it,” said Marcello without hesitation. “The lady’s not going now.”
Giulia threw him back a glance of timid gratitude from the mirror in which she had been examining herself.
Marcello hung up the phone and said, “That’s it, then … They’ll cancel it and that way you won’t leave.”
“Are you mad at me?”
“What gets into your head?”
He got out of bed, slipped on his shoes, and went into the bathroom. While he was washing and combing his hair, he wondered what Giulia would have said if he had revealed the truth about his profession and their honeymoon to her. He felt he could safely say that not only would she not have condemned him, but in the end she would actually have approved of him, although she would probably have been frightened and perhaps would even have asked him if it was really necessary that he do what he did. Giulia was good, that went without saying, but not outside the sacred limits of intimate affection; as far as she was concerned, beyond these limits lay a world that was obscure and confused, in which it could even happen that a bearded, hunchbacked professor might be murdered for political purposes. Agent Orlando’s wife, he concluded inside himself as he emerged from the bathroom, must feel and reason the same way.
Giulia, who was waiting for him, sitting on the bed, got up and said, “Are you mad because I didn’t let you sleep? Would you have preferred not to go to Quadri’s?”
“Not at all, you did the right thing,” answered Marcello, preceding her down the corridor. He felt refreshed now and it seemed to him that he no longer felt any sense of rebellion against his own fate. The current of energy was flowing through his body even now, but without pain or difficulty, as if through a natural channel. Outside the hotel, beside the Seine, he gazed at the gray profile of the immense city beyond the parapets, under the vast, cloudless sky. The booths of used books were lined up in front of him and the strolling passers-by stopped to glance over them. He even seemed to see the badly dressed young man, with his book under his arm, walking up the sidewalk toward Notre Dame. Or maybe it was someone else, similar in his way of dressing, his attitude, even his destiny. But he felt he was looking at him without envy, even if it was with an ice-cold, motionless sense of impotence. He was himself and the young man was the young man, and there was nothing to be done about it. A taxi passed and he stopped it with a wave of his hand and climbed in after Giulia, giving Quadri’s address.
The Conformist by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes