The Conformist, p.22Alberto Moravia
WHEN MARCELLO ENTERED Quadri’s house, he was immediately struck by how different it was from the apartment in which he had visited him for the first and last time in Rome. This apartment house, situated in a modern neighborhood at the end of a winding street, and which looked, with its many rectangular balconies protruding from a smooth facade, like a big bureau with all its drawers open, had already given him the sense of a retiring and anonymous lifestyle, devoted to a kind of social camouflage; as if Quadri, establishing himself in Paris, had wished to mingle with and become lost in the undifferentiated mass of the well-to-do French bourgeoisie. Then, once he had entered the building, the difference became even greater: the residence in Rome had been old, dark, cluttered with furniture, books, and papers, dusty and neglected; but this place was bright, new, and clean, with very little furniture and not a trace of the scholarly life. They waited for some minutes in the living room, a bare, spacious room with a single group of armchairs confined to a corner around a low table with a glass top. The only sign of taste beyond the common was a large painting hung on one of the walls, the work of a Cubist painter: a cold and decorative mixture of spheres, cubes, cylinders, and parallel lines in various colors. Of books — all those books that had struck Marcello in Rome — there was not a one. He seemed to be, he thought — looking at the wooden, wax-waxed floor, the long light curtains, the empty walls — on a modern theater stage, in a brief and elegant production whose set was designed for a drama of few characters and only a single situation. What drama? Doubtlessly his and Quadri’s; but, although the situation was known to him already, he felt inexplicably that not all the characters had revealed themselves yet. Someone was still missing, and who knows? That person’s arrival might completely change the situation itself.
Almost as if to confirm this faint presentiment, the door at the end of the living room opened and instead of Quadri, a young woman came in, probably the same woman, thought Marcello, with whom he had spoken in French on the phone. She walked toward them across the mirrorlike floor. She was tall and singularly elastic and graceful in her way of walking, dressed in a white summer dress with a flared skirt. For a moment Marcello couldn’t keep himself from staring, with a sort of furtive pleasure, at the shadowed outline of her body, whose contours were visible within the transparency of the dress; the shadow was opaque but its outlines were precise and elegant, as if she were a gymnast or a dancer. Then he raised his eyes to her face and felt sure that he had already seen her before, although he didn’t know where or when. She approached Giulia, took both her hands in her own with an almost fond familiarity, and explained to her, in correct Italian flavored with a strong French accent, that the professor was busy and would be a few more minutes. She greeted Marcello much less cordially, he thought, almost obliquely, keeping her distance; then she invited them both to sit down. While she talked with Giulia, Marcello studied her attentively, trying to pinpoint the faint memory that led him to think he had seen her before. She was tall, with large hands and feet, broad shoulders, and an incredibly slender waist that emphasized her generous breasts and ample hips. Her long, slender neck supported a pale face innocent of rouge, young but weary, as if consumed by some worry, with a spirited, anxious, restless, intelligent expression. Where had he seen her? As if she felt observed, she suddenly turned toward him; and then he understood, from the contrast between her intense, troubled gaze and the luminous serenity of her high white forehead, where he had already met her, or rather, where he had met someone like her: in the brothel at S., when he had gone back in to retrieve his hat and had found Orlando in the company of the prostitute Luisa. To tell the truth, the similarity consisted completely in the particular shape, whiteness, and radiance of the forehead, which resembled a royal diadem in both of them; in all other respects the two women differed appreciably. The prostitute had had a wide, thin mouth, while this woman’s mouth was small, full, and tightly closed, like a tiny rose, thought Marcello, with thick, slightly wilted petals. Another difference: the whore’s hand had been womanly, smooth, and fleshy, while this one had almost a man’s hand, hard, red, and nervous. Lastly, Luisa had possessed that horrible, hoarse voice so frequently heard in women of her profession, while this woman’s voice was dry, clear, and abstract, pleasing as elegant, rational music is pleasing — a classy voice.
Marcello noticed these similarities and differences; and then, while the woman was talking with his wife, he also noticed the extreme coldness of her attitude toward him. Maybe, he thought, Quadri had informed her about his past political stance, and she would have preferred not to receive him. He wondered who she could be. Quadri, as far as he remembered, was not married; judging from her unofficial manner, she might be a secretary, or simply an admirer in the guise of a secretary. He thought back to the feeling he had experienced in the brothel at S., when he had watched the whore Luisa go upstairs followed by Orlando: an emotion of impotent rebellion, of harrowed pity. And all of a sudden he understood that that emotion had been, in reality, sensual desire masked by spiritual jealousy, which he was now feeling in its entirety, completely unmasked, for the woman sitting in front of him. She pleased him in a disturbing, even overwhelming way that was new to him, and he wanted to please her, too; and the hostility revealed by her every gesture pained him as if he were still an adolescent.
At last he said, almost despite himself, and thinking not of Quadri but of her, “I get the impression that our visit is not to the professor’s liking … perhaps he’s too busy.”
The woman replied immediately, without looking at him, “On the contrary, my husband told me that he would be very pleased to see you. He remembers you very well … everyone who comes from Italy is welcome here. He is very busy, it’s true … but he especially appreciates you coming to visit … wait a minute, I’ll go see if he’s ready.”
These words were uttered with an unexpected solicitude that warmed Marcello’s heart.
When she had left, Giulia asked without showing any real curiosity, “Why do you think Professor Quadri doesn’t want to see us?”
Marcello answered calmly, “The hostile attitude of the signora made me think it.”
“How strange,” exclaimed Giulia. “She gave me the exact opposite impression. She seemed so happy to see us … as if we already knew each other. Had you already met her before?”
“No,” he replied, feeling as if he were lying, “never before today. I don’t even know who she is.”
“Isn’t she the professor’s wife?”
“I don’t know. As far as I know, Quadri’s not married … maybe she’s his secretary.”
“But she said ‘my husband,’ cried Giulia, surprised. “Where was your head? She said it just like that: ‘my husband.’ What were you thinking about?”
So, Marcello couldn’t help thinking, the woman disturbed him to the point that he was rendered deaf by his distraction. This discovery pleased him and for a moment he felt a strange desire to talk to Giulia about it, as if it didn’t concern her at all, as if she were some uninvolved person in whom he could confide freely.
But he said, “I was distracted … his wife? Then he must not have been married for long.”
“Because when I knew him he was single.”
“But didn’t you and Quadri write to each other?”
“No, he was my professor, then he went to live in France, and today I’ll be seeing him for the first time since then.”
“Funny, I thought you were friends.”
A long silence followed. Then the door Marcello had patiently been staring at opened, and someone appeared on the threshold whom he did not immediately recognize as Quadri. Then, shifting his eyes from the man’s face to his shoulder, he recognized the hump that raised it almost to his ear, and understood that Quadri had simply shaved his beard. Now he rediscovered the bizarre, almost hexagonal shape of the face, its one-dimensional quality, as if it were a flat, painted mask topped with a black wig. He recognize
Instead of the banker’s suit Quadri had been wearing the first and last time Marcello had seen him, he was now wearing (with a hunchback’s preference for light shades) a sporty outfit in dove-gray. Under his jacket he wore a red-and-green checked shirt, like an American cowboy, and a flashy tie.
Coming toward Marcello, he said in a tone at once cordial and completely indifferent, “Clerici, right? But of course, I remember you well … especially since you were the last student to come visit me before I left Italy. I’m delighted to see you again, Clerici.”
Even his voice, thought Marcello, had stayed the same: at once deeply sweet and casual, affectionate and distracted. Meanwhile, he was introducing Giulia to Quadri, who, with a perhaps ostentatious gallantry, bent down to kiss the hand she was extending toward him.
When they had resumed their seats, Marcello said in embarrassment, “I’m on my honeymoon in Paris, and so I thought I’d come see you … you were my professor … but maybe I’ve disturbed you.”
“No, no, dear boy,” answered Quadri with his usual honeyed sweetness, “on the contrary, I’m very pleased. You did very well to remember me … and anyone from Italy, if only because they speak to me in the beautiful Italian language, is welcome here.” He took up a box of cigarettes from the table, looked inside, and seeing that there was only one left, offered it to Giulia with a sigh. “Go ahead, signora. I don’t smoke and neither does my wife, so we always forget that other people love it … So, do you like Paris? I don’t imagine it’s the first time you’ve been here.”
So, thought Marcello, Quadri wanted to make conventional conversation. He answered for Giulia, “No, it’s the first time for both of us.”
“In that case,” said Quadri quickly, “I envy you. I always envy anyone coming to this beautiful city for the first time … and on your honeymoon, besides, and in this season when Paris is most lovely.” He sighed again and asked Giulia politely, “And what impression has Paris made on you, signora?”
“On me?” asked Giulia, looking not at Quadri but at her husband. “Actually, I haven’t had time to see it yet … we only arrived yesterday.”
“You’ll see, signora, it’s a very beautiful city, truly truly beautiful,” said Quadri in a generic tone, as if he were thinking of something else. “And the longer one lives here the more one is conquered by this beauty. But signora, don’t just look at the monuments, which are wonderful, of course, but not in any way superior to those in Italian cities … Walk around, have your husband accompany you through the different quarters of Paris … life in this city has a really surprising variety of aspects.”
“We haven’t seen much yet,” said Giulia, who seemed unaware of the conventional and almost ironic character of Quadri’s conversation. She turned to her husband, caressed his hand briefly with her own, and said, “But we will walk all around, won’t we, Marcello?”
“Sure,” said Marcello.
“You should, above all, get to know the French people,” Quadri went on in the same tone. “They’re a very likeable people … intelligent, liberated … and though it contradicts in part the usual image of the French, good, too. Their intelligence, so sensitive and subtle, becomes a form of goodness … Do you know anyone in Paris?”
“No, we don’t know anyone,” answered Marcello, “and I’m afraid, besides, that that won’t be possible. We’ll barely be here a week.”
“That’s a shame, a real shame. You can never appreciate the true worth of a country if you don’t get to know the inhabitants.…”
“Paris is the city of nightlife, isn’t it?” asked Giulia, who seemed perfectly at ease in this conversation right out of a tourist manual. “We haven’t seen any yet, but we’d like to go … There are a lot of dance halls and nightspots, aren’t there?”
“Oh, yes, the tabarins, the boites, ‘the boxes,’ as they call them here,” said the professor with a distracted air. “Montmartre, Montparnasse … to tell the truth, we’ve never frequented them much. Sometimes when an Italian friend passes this way, we take advantage of his ignorance of the subject to learn about it ourselves. They’re always the same old things, though … although they’re brought off with the grace and elegance native to this city. You see, signora, the French people is a serious people, a very serious people … with strong family attachments. Maybe it will surprise you to know that the great majority of Parisians have never set foot in the boites. Family is important here, even more so than in Italy. And they’re often good Catholics, more so than in Italy, with a less formal, more substantial faith … So it’s not surprising that they leave the boites to us foreigners. Yet it’s an excellent source of income for them … Paris owes a good part of its prosperity to the boites and to its nightlife in general.”
“That’s funny,” said Giulia. “I always thought the French partied a lot at night.” She blushed and added, “I was told that the tabarins stay open all night and are always packed … like us once, during Carnival.”
“Yes,” said the professor absently, “but it’s mostly foreigners who go there.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Giulia. “I’d still really like to see at least one, if only to be able to say I was there.”
The door opened and Quadri’s wife came in, supporting in both hands a tray with coffeepot and cups.
“Excuse me,” she said gaily, shutting the door with one foot, “but French maids aren’t like Italian ones. This was my maid’s day off, so she left right after breakfast … we’ll have to do everything ourselves.”
She was truly happy, thought Marcello, in a wholly unexpected way; and there was much grace in her gaiety and in the gestures of her large, light, confident body.
“Lina,” said the professor, perplexed, “Signora Clerici would like to see a boite. Which one should we recommend to her?”
“Oh, there are so many to choose from,” she said happily as she poured coffee into their cups, supporting her entire weight on one leg, the other extended behind her as if to show off her large foot in its flat shoe, “there’s one for every taste and every purse.” She handed Giulia her cup and added carelessly, “But we could take them to a boite ourselves, Edmondo … It would be a good opportunity for you, you could distract yourself for a while.”
Her husband passed a hand over his chin as if he wished to stroke his beard and answered, “Sure, all right, why not?”
“You know what we’ll do?” she continued, serving coffee to Marcello and her husband. “Since we have to eat out anyway, we can have supper together in a little restaurant on the right bank called Le Coq au Vin. It’s inexpensive but the food is good … and then after dinner we can go see a really bizarre nightspot. But Signora Clerici musn’t be scandalized.”
Giulia laughed, cheered by Lina’s gaiety. “I’m not that easily shocked.”
“It’s a boite called La Cravate Noire, The Black Tie,” she explained, sitting down on the couch next to Giulia. “It’s a place where the clientele is a little peculiar,” she added, looking at Giulia and smiling.
“Women with special tastes … you’ll see. The owner and waitresses all dress in tuxedos with black ties … you’ll see, they’re so funny.”
“Oh, now I understand,” said Giulia, a little confused. “But can men go there, too?”
This question made the woman laugh. “Of course! It’s a public place, a little dance hall. It’s run by a woman with particular tastes, very intelligent actually, but anyone who wants to can go there. It’s not a convent.” She laughed in small bursts, looking at Giulia, and then added vivaciously, “But if you don’t like it, we can go somplace else … less original, though.”
“Wretched women,” said the professor generically. He got up. “Dear Clerici, I want to tell you what a pleasure it’s been to see you and how much I look forward to dining with you and your wife this evening … We’ll talk … Do you still have the same ideas and feelings you had then?”
Marcello answered calmly, “I don’t keep up with politics.”
“All the better, all the better.” The professor took Marcello’s hand and, pressing it between both his own, added, “Then we can hope, perhaps, to win you over,” in a sweet, yearning, heartfelt tone, like a priest speaking to an atheist. He brought the hand to his breast right over his heart, and Marcello could see, to his amazement, that his large, round, protruberant eyes were shining with tears that made them appear to be beseeching him. Then, as if to conceal his emotion, Quadri hurried away to say good-bye to Giulia and then left the room, saying, “My wife will work out the details for tonight with you.”
The door closed and Marcello, somewhat embarrassed, sat down in an armchair facing the couch both women were sitting on. Now that Quadri had left, his wife’s hostility seemed very evident to him. She pretended to ignore his presence, speaking only to Giulia.
The Conformist by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes