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The conformist, p.23
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       The Conformist, p.23

           Alberto Moravia

  “Have you already seen the fashion stores, the seamstresses, the milliners? Rue de la Paix, Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Avenue de Matignon?”

  “Not really,” said Giulia, with the air of someone hearing those names for the first time, “actually, no.”

  “Would you like to see those streets, go into some of the shops, visit some high-fashion houses? I assure you, it’s very interesting,” continued Signora Quadri with an insistent, insinuating, enveloping, protective cordiality.

  “Ah, yes, certainly.” Giulia looked at her husband and then added, “I’d like to buy something, too … a hat, maybe.”

  “Do you want me to take you?” proposed the woman, reaching the obligatory conclusion of all those questions. “I know some of the high-fashion places really well … and I could also give you some advice.”

  “That would be nice,” said Giulia, grateful but insecure.

  “Shall we go today, this afternoon, in an hour? You’ll allow me, won’t you, to carry off your wife for an hour or so?”

  These last words were directed toward Marcello, but in a very different tone of voice than the one she had used with Giulia: brisk, almost contemptuous.

  Marcello started and said, “Of course, if Giulia wants to.”

  He intuited that his wife would have preferred to escape Signora Quadri’s protective guardianship, based on the interrogative glance she turned toward him; and he was aware of responding in his turn with a look that ordered her to accept it instead. But right afterward he wondered: Am I doing this because I like the woman and want to see her again, or am I doing it because I’m on a mission and it’s not convenient to cross her? Suddenly it felt agonizing to him not to know if he was doing things because he wanted to do them or because they suited his plans.

  Meanwhile, Giulia was objecting, “Really, I was thinking of going back to the hotel for a minute.…”

  But the other woman didn’t let her finish. “Do you want to freshen up a little before you go out? Touch up your face? You don’t have to go all the way back to the hotel … if you want, you can lie down and take a nap on my bed. I know how tiring it is when you travel, walking around all day without a moment’s rest, especially for us women … Come on, come with me, dear.”

  Before Giulia even had time to breathe, she had already pulled her up from the couch; and now she was pushing her gently but firmly toward the door. When they were on the threshold she said in a bittersweet tone, almost as if to reassure her, “Your husband will wait here … don’t worry, you won’t lose him.” Then, putting an arm around Giulia’s waist, she drew her into the hallway and closed the door.

  Left alone, Marcello rose to his feet swiftly and took a few steps around the room. It was clear to him that the woman nurtured some unshakable aversion for him and he wanted to know the reason for it. But at this point his emotions became confused: on the one hand, this hostility on the part of a person he wished would love him, instead, grieved him; on the other, the thought that she might know the truth about who he was worried him, since in that case the mission would be not only difficult but dangerous. But what made him suffer the most, perhaps, was feeling how these two different anxieties were mixed up in his mind, so that he was no longer capable of distinguishing one from the other — that of the lover who sees himself rejected from that of the secret agent who fears he will be discovered. And of course, as he understood with a revival of his old melancholy, even if he managed to disarm the woman’s hostility, he would be constrained one more time to put the relationship that might follow at the disposal of the mission. Just as when he had proposed to the minister that he combine his honeymoon trip with his political duty. As always.

  The door opened behind him and Signora Quadri came back in. Approaching the table, she said, “Your wife was very tired, I think she dozed off on my bed … Later we’ll all go out together.”

  “This means,” said Marcello calmly, “that you’re sending me away.”

  “Oh, Lord, no,” she replied in a cold and world-weary voice, “but I have a lot to do … so does the professor. You’d have to stay here alone in the living room … There are better things for you to do in Paris.”

  “Excuse me,” said Marcello, putting both hands on the back of an armchair and staring at her, “but I’m getting the impression that you feel hostile toward me. Isn’t that right?”

  She answered immediately, recklessly, fearlessly, “And that surprises you?”

  “Yes, actually,” said Marcello. “We don’t know each other at all, today is the first time we’ve seen each other.…”

  “I know you very well,” she interrupted, “even if you don’t know me.”

  “Here it comes,” thought Marcello. He realized that the woman’s hostility, indubitably confirmed by now, struck at his heart with a pain so sharp he almost cried out. He sighed in anguish and said softly, “Ah, so you know me?”

  “Yes,” she replied, her eyes sparkling aggressively, “I know that you’re an agent of the police, a paid spy of your government. Does my hostility surprise you now? I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never been able to stand les mouchards — spies,” she added, translating from the French with insulting courtesy.

  Marcello lowered his eyes in silence for a moment. His suffering was acute; the woman’s contempt was like a thin knife probing pitilessly in an open wound. Finally he said, “Does your husband know?”

  “Of course he does,” she replied, with insulting amazement, “how could you think he wouldn’t know? It was he who told me.”

  “Ah, they’re well informed,” Marcello couldn’t help thinking. But he said, in a reasonable tone, “Then why did you receive us? Wouldn’t it have been simpler to refuse to see us?”

  “Actually, I didn’t want to let you come by,” she said, “but my husband is different … My husband is a kind of saint. He still believes that kindness is the best system.”

  “A very sly saint,” Marcello would have liked to answer. But it came to him that that’s just how it was: all the saints must have been very sly. And he remained silent. Then he said, “I’m sorry you dislike me so much, because … I like you very much.”

  “Thanks, your friendship horrifies me.”

  Later, Marcello had to wonder what had come over him that moment: a dazzling light that seemed to emanate from the woman’s luminous forehead and at the same time a profound, violent, powerful impulse, a mixture of excitement and desperate affection. Suddenly he realized that he was very close to Signora Quadri, that he was encircling her waist with his arm, pulling her to him, saying to her in a low voice, “And also because I find you very attractive.”

  Pressed against him so that Marcello could feel the swollen tenderness of her breasts throb against his own, she stared at him dumbfounded for a moment, then cried in a shrill and triumphant voice, “Oh, perfect! Perfect! On his honeymoon and already eager to betray his wife … perfect.”

  She made a furious gesture to free herself from Marcello’s arm, saying, “Let me go or I’ll call my husband.”

  Marcello let go of her immediately, but the woman, transported by her own hostile impulse, fell back against him as if he were still holding her and slapped him on the cheek. She seemed to regret her gesture immediately. She went to the window, looked outside for a moment, and then turned back around, saying, “Forgive me.”

  But it seemed to Marcello that she was not so much penitent as afraid of the effect the slap might have produced. There was, he thought, more will and calculation than remorse in the reluctant and still malevolent tone of her voice.

  He said decisively, “Now there’s really nothing left for me to do but go … please go tell my wife and have her come here. You’ll make our excuses to your husband about this evening … You can tell him I had forgotten I had another appointment.”

  This time, he thought, it was really over; and the mission as well as his love for the woman was hopelessly compromised.

  He stood back to let her pass and go t
o the door. But instead, he saw her stare at him fixedly for an instant, twist her mouth in an expression of sulky discontent, and then come toward him. Marcello saw that a dark, decisive flame had leapt up in her eyes.

  When she was only a step away from him, she raised one arm slowly and, still keeping her distance, brought her hand to Marcello’s cheek and said, “No, don’t go … I like you a lot, too … if I was so violent, it was just because of that, because I’m attracted to you … don’t go. Forget what just happened.”

  Meanwhile, she was slowly caressing his entire cheek with an assured yet clumsy gesture full of imperious wilfulness, almost as if to cool the burn of her slap.

  Marcello looked at her, stared at her forehead; and under her own gaze, at the slightly rough touch of her masculine hand, he felt — to his amazement, since this was the first time in his life that he had felt it — a profound disturbance and excitement full of emotion, full of affection and hope, swell his breast and cut off his breath. She stood before him, her arm outstretched to caress him, and in a single glance he experienced her beauty as something that had been destined for him forever, as if it were his whole life’s vocation. And he understood that he had loved her always, even before this day, even before he had felt her coming toward him, in the woman of S. Yes, he thought, this was the love he would have nurtured for Giulia if he had loved her, but which he felt instead for this woman he did not know. Then he moved toward her, his arms outstretched to embrace her. But the woman freed herself, though in a way that seemed to suggest affection and complicity, and putting a finger to her lips, murmured, “Now go away … we’ll see each other tonight.”

  Before Marcello was even aware of it, she had pushed him out of the living room and into the hallway, she had opened the door. Then the door closed and Marcello found himself alone once more on the landing.


  LINA AND GIULIA WERE going to rest and then go visit the fashion shops. Then Giulia would return to the hotel, and later the Quadris would come to pick them up and they would all go out to supper together. It was about four o’clock, four hours to go before supper, but only three till Orlando called the hotel to find out the address of the restaurant. So Marcello had three hours in which to be alone. What had happened at Quadri’s house made him want to be alone, if for no other reason than to try to understand himself better. Because, he thought as he went downstairs, while Lina’s behavior — with a husband so much older than herself who was completely absorbed in politics — was not surprising, his own, instead, since he was on his honeymoon only a few days after his wedding, both astonished and frightened, as well as vaguely pleased him. Up until now he had believed that he knew himself fairly well, and that he could control himself in any situation that came up if he wanted to. But now he realized that he might have been mistaken; and he wasn’t sure whether this realization satisfied or alarmed him.

  He walked from one alley to another for a while and finally emerged onto a broad street sloping slightly upward, the Avenue de la Grande Armée, as he read on the corner of a house. And in fact when he raised his eyes, the upright rectangle of the Arc du Triomphe appeared before him in profile at the end of the street. Massive yet almost mythical, it seemed suspended in the pale sky, perhaps because of the summer haze that tinted it with blue. As he was walking, his eyes fixed on that massive, triumphal shape, Marcello suddenly felt an intoxicating sensation of freedom and utter liberty that was entirely new to him, as if, without warning, some huge weight that had been oppressing him had been lifted from his back. His step became lighter; he almost felt that he was flying. He wondered, for a moment, whether he should attribute this enormous relief to the simple fact of finding himself in Paris, far away from his familiar, narrow streets, in front of this grandiloquent monument; sometimes you could mistake ephemeral sensations of physical well-being for deep spiritual responses. Then, thinking back over it, he realized that the sensation had arisen from Lina’s embrace, instead: the tide of tumultuous, disturbing thoughts that rushed into his mind at the very thought of her touch made him aware of this. He passed his hand mechanically over his cheek, where she had laid hers, and couldn’t help closing his eyes for the sweetness of it; it was as if he were reexperiencing the touch of that bold hand stroking his face, almost as if lovingly learning its contours.

  What was love, he asked himself, walking up the broad sidewalk, his eyes turned toward the Arc du Triomphe, what was love — for which, he realized, he was now ready to unravel his entire life, abandon the wife he had barely married, betray his political faith, risk everything in an irreparable love affair? He recalled that many years ago this question, posed to him by a girl at the university who was stubbornly resisting his courtship, had led him to answer bitterly that for him, love was the cow standing still in the middle of the meadow in spring, and the bull rising up on his hind legs to mount her. That meadow, thought Marcello now, was the middle-class carpet in Quadri’s living room, and Lina was the cow and he the bull. Naked — the difference of place and the fact that they did not have the limbs of beasts notwithstanding — they would be like the two animals in every way. And the fury of desire, expressed with awkward, urgent violence, would be the same, as well. But this was where the similarities, at once so obvious and so unimportant, stopped. Because, by a mysterious and spiritual alchemy, that fury soon turned into completely different kinds of thoughts and emotions, which received the seal of necessity from lust but could never, in any way, be attributed to lust alone. In reality, desire was no more than the urgent, powerful help of nature to something that had existed before it and without it. It was the hand of nature, pulling the wholly human and mortal infant of future things out of the womb of the time to come.

  “To put it bluntly,” he thought, seeking to cool and reduce the extraordinary exaltation that taken hold of his spirit, “to put it bluntly, I want to abandon my wife during our honeymoon trip and desert my post during a mission, in order to become Lina’s lover and live with her in Paris. To put it bluntly,” he continued, “I will do these things for sure if I find out that Lina loves me as I love her, for the same reasons and with the same intensity.”

  If he was left with any doubts about the seriousness of his decision, they vanished completely when, reaching the end of the Avenue de la Grande Armée, he raised his eyes toward the Arc du Triomphe. Now in fact, recalled because it was an analogy to this monument built to celebrate the victories of a glorious tyranny, he seemed almost to feel regret for the other tyranny, the one he had served up to this point and was preparing to betray. Lightened, rendered almost innocent by his anticipatory sense of this betrayal, the part he had played until this morning now seemed more comprehensible, as well as more acceptable to him: no longer, as he had thought until this moment, the fruit of an external wish for normality and for redemption, but almost a vocation, or at least an inclination that was not altogether artificial. On the other hand, this detached and already retrospective regret was a sure indication in itself of the irrevocable nature of his decision.

  He waited a long time for the carousel of cars driving around the monument to open up. Then he crossed the piazza and walked directly to the Arc, taking off his hat to go in under the vault, to the tombstone of the Unknown Soldier. There it was, on the walls of the Arc du Triomphe: the lists of battles won, each of which had signified for innumerable men a loyalty and devotion of the kind that had linked him, until a few minutes ago, to his own government. Here was the tomb, watched over by the perennially burning flame, symbol of other, no less complete, sacrifices. Reading the names of the Napoleonic battles, he couldn’t help remembering something Orlando had said: “Anything for the family and homeland”; and he suddenly understood that what distinguished him from the agent, so convinced, yet so powerless to justify rationally his conviction, was simply his capacity to choose; and the sadness that had persecuted him for as long as he could remember gave him away. Yes, he thought, he had made choices in the past and he would start to make choices ag
ain. And his melancholy was that kind of sorrow mixed with regret that sparks off thoughts of how things might have been, things that his choice required him absolutely to renounce.

  He emerged from under the Arc, waited once more for the flow of moving cars to open up, and reached the sidewalk of the Avenue des Champs Elysées. It seemed to him that the Arc extended like an invisible shadow over the rich and festive street that descended from it; and that an indubitable connection linked that warlike monument and the happy, peaceful prosperity of the crowd moving along the sidewalks. This too, he thought, was an aspect of what he was renouncing: the great, bloody acts of injustice, which later metamorphosed into a joy and wealth that were ignorant of their origins — a cruel sacrifice which, with time, became power, liberty, and wealth for generations to come. Another argument in favor of Judas, he thought with amusement.

  But now the decision had been made, and he had only one wish: he wanted to think about Lina and why and how he loved her. With his heart full of this desire, he walked very slowly down the Avenue des Champs Elysées, stopping every once in a while to look at the shops, the newspapers displayed on the kiosks, the people sitting down to their coffees, the movie posters, the theater signs. The dense crowd on the sidewalks surrounded him on every side, with a swarming movement that seemed to him to be the movement of life itself. With his right eye he caught the four rows of cars, two for each direction, that climbed up and rolled down the broad street; with his left, the wealthy shops alternating with bright signs and packed cafés. As he kept on walking, he gradually stepped up his pace, almost hoping to leave the Arc du Triomphe behind. And in fact, as he realized at some point when he turned around to look, he had left it in the distance; faraway, wrapped in the summer haze it looked wholly immaterial. When he reached the bottom of the street, he searched out a bench in the shade of the trees in the garden and sat down with relief, happy to be able to think about Lina in peace.

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