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The conformist, p.24
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       The Conformist, p.24

           Alberto Moravia
 

  He wanted to go back, in his memory, to the first time he had intuited her existence: to his visit to the brothel at S. Why had the woman he had glimpsed in the salon next to agent Orlando inspired in him such a new and violent emotion? He recalled that he had been struck by the luminosity of her forehead, and understood that what had first attracted him in that woman and later, more completely, in Lina, was the purity he seemed to perceive there — mortified and profaned in the prostitute, triumphant in Lina. He now understood that only the radiant light emanating from Lina’s forehead could dissipate the disgust for decadence, corruption, and impurity that had burdened him all his life and which his marriage to Giulia had in no way mitigated. It seemed to him that the coincidence of the names — Lino, who had first inspired that disgust, and Lina, who would free him of it — was a good omen. So naturally, spontaneously, by the strength of love alone, he would find through Lina the normality he had dreamt of for so long. But not the almost bureaucratic normality he had pursued all those years, but another, almost angelic kind of normality. And before this luminous and ethereal normality, the heavy harness of his political duties, his marriage to Giulia, and his dull, reasonable, ordered life revealed itself to be nothing but a cumbersome image he had adopted while he was waiting, all unaware, for a worthier destiny. Now he was liberated from all of that and he could rediscover himself.

  As he was sitting on the bench lost in these thoughts, his idle glance fell suddenly onto a large car descending in the direction of Place de la Concorde, which seemed to be slowing down gradually; and in fact, it pulled up to the sidewalk not far from him and came to a stop. Although it was a luxury car, it was old and black, so old-fashioned that the almost excessive elegance and polish of its body’s nickel-plating and brasses seemed out of place. A Rolls Royce, he thought; and all of a sudden, he was seized by an anxious fear, mixed — he was not sure why — with a terrifying sense of familiarity. Where and when had he seen that car before? The driver, a thin, gray-haired man in a dark blue uniform, was quick to get out and run to open the passenger door as soon as the car stopped. His action triggered an image in Marcello’s memory, the answer to his question: the same car, of the same color and make, parked at the streetcorner on the broad avenue near the school, and Lino leaning out to open the passenger door so that he could get in and sit next to him.

  In the meantime, as the driver was standing by the door with his beret in his hand, a masculine leg in gray flannel trousers, terminating in a foot shod in a polished yellow shoe as shining as the brasses on the car, stuck itself out carefully; then the driver stretched out his hand, and Marcello watched the entire person emerge painfully onto the sidewalk. Marcello judged him to be an elderly man, thin and very tall, with a florid face and hair that may still have been blond. He walked unsteadily, leaning on a cane with a rubber tip; yet he appeared strangely youthful. Marcello observed him attentively as he slowly approached the bench, wondering what gave the old man such a youthful air. Then he understood: it was his hairstyle, parted on one side, and the green bowtie he wore around the collar of a vivid shirt striped in pink and white. The old man was walking with his eyes to the ground, but when he reached the bench he raised them, and Marcello saw that they were a limpid blue, with a young, ingenuously hard expression to them. At last the man sat down with an effort next to Marcello, and the driver, who had been following him step for step, handed him a small, white paper package. Then he bowed briefly, returned to the car and got in, sitting stock-still at his place behind the windshield.

  Marcello, who had been following the old man’s progress, now lowered his eyes in reflection. He wished with his whole heart that he had not felt such horror at the very sight of a car like Lino’s; and this in itself was enough to disturb him. But what frightened him most was the vivid, bitter, sinister sense of submission, powerlessness, and servitude that accompanied his repugnance. It was as if all those years had never passed, or worse, had passed in vain; and he was still that little boy, and Lino was waiting for him in the car, and Marcello was about to get in, obeying the man’s invitation. It seemed to him that he was submitting once more to the ancient blackmail; but this time it was not Lino hooking him with the bait of the gun, but his own mindful and troubled flesh. Terrified by this sudden, disturbing outbreak of a fire he had long thought extinguished, he heaved a sigh and rummaged mechanically through his pockets in search of a cigarette.

  Instantly a voice said to him in French, “Cigarettes? Here.”

  He turned and saw that the old man was offering him an unopened pack of American cigarettes, holding it out in a red, somewhat tremulous hand. Meanwhile, he was looking at Marcello with a strange expression, both imperious and benevolent. Extremely embarrassed, Marcello took the pack without thanks, opened it hurriedly, shook out a cigarette, and gave it back to the old man.

  But taking the pack, the man tucked it with an authoritative hand into Marcello’s jacket pocket and said in a suggestive tone of voice, “They’re for you … you can keep them.”

  Marcello felt himself blush and then pale with a mixture of anger and shame he could not explain. Luckily, he lowered his eyes toward his own shoes: they were white with dust and shapeless from much walking. It dawned on him that the old man had probably taken him for someone poor or unemployed; and his anger died. Simply, without ostentation, he drew the pack from his pocket and placed it on the bench between them.

  But the old man, no longer concerned with him, was unaware of the restitution. Marcello watched him open the package the driver had given him and take out a roll. He broke it slowly and laboriously with trembling hands and threw two or three crumbs to the ground. Immediately a big, plump, friendly sparrow flew out of one of the leafy trees shading the bench and landed on the earth. It hopped up to one of the crumbs, cocked its head two or three times to look around, and then grasped the bread in its beak and began to devour it. The old man threw down a few more bits of roll, and more sparrows flew down from the tree branches onto the sidewalk. Marcello observed the scene, the lit cigarette between his lips and his eyes half-closed. The old man might be bent in the back and his hands might shake, but he still conserved something of the adolescent about him, or rather, it took no great effort to imagine him as an adolescent. Seen in profile, his pouty red mouth, strong straight nose, and blond hair falling in an almost boyish lock over his forehead made one think, in fact, that he must have been a very lovely adolescent — one of those Nordic athletes, perhaps, that unite girlish grace with virile strength. Folded over himself with his head resting thoughtfully on his breast, he crumbled up the rest of the roll for the sparrows.

  Then, without moving or turning, he asked, still in French, “What country are you from?”

  “I’m Italian,” answered Marcello briefly.

  “Now why didn’t I figure that out?” exclaimed the old man, slapping his own forehead hard with a kind of lively, quick temper. “I was just asking myself where I might have seen a face like yours, so perfect … damn, how stupid of me, in Italy! What’s your name?”

  “Marcello Clerici,” replied Marcello after a moment’s hesitation.

  “Marcello,” repeated the man, lifting his face and gazing into the air in front of him.

  A long silence followed. The old man appeared to be lost in reflection; or rather, thought Marcello, he seemed to be making an effort to remember something.

  At last he turned toward Marcello and recited, with an air of triumph, “Heu miserande puer, si qua fata aspera rumpas, tu Marcellus eris.”

  Marcello knew the verses well; he had been required to translate them in school, and at the time they had made him the brunt of the other boy’s jokes. But uttered at that moment, coming right after the offer of the cigarettes, those famous words gave him an unpleasant sense of awkward flattery.

  This changed to irritation as the old man launched a long, summary look at him from head to toes and then said informatively, “Virgil.”

  “Yes, Virgil,” replied Marcello
dryly, “and what country are you from?”

  “I’m British,” said the man — suddenly, bizarrely speaking in a refined and perhaps ironic Italian. Then, even more bizarrely, he began mixing Neapolitan with the Italian: “Aggio vissuto a Napoli … I lived in Naples for many years.… Are you Neapolitan?”

  “No,” said Marcello, taken aback by the man’s sudden switch from voi to the more intimate tu. By now the sparrows had devoured all the crumbs and flown away again; a few steps away, the Rolls Royce was parked by the sidewalk, waiting.

  The old man grasped his cane and rose to his feet with an effort. He said to Marcello, this time in French, in a tone of command, “Will you accompany me to the car? Do you mind giving me your arm?”

  Marcello rose mechanically and held out his arm. The pack of cigarettes was still on the bench where he had left it.

  “You’re forgetting your cigarettes,” said the old man, pointing to the pack with the tip of his cane. Marcello pretended not to hear him and took the first step toward the car. This time the old man did not insist but went with him.

  He walked slowly, much more slowly than when he had walked alone shortly before, supporting himself on Marcello’s arm with one hand. But this hand didn’t stay in one place; it moved up and down the young man’s arm in an already possessive caress. Suddenly Marcello felt his heart stop, and when he lifted his eyes he understood why: the car was there, waiting for both of them, and he knew that he would be invited to get in, as he had so many years before. But what terrified him the most was knowing that he would not refuse the invitation. With Lino he had felt, aside from his desire for the gun, a kind of unconscious flirtatiousness; with this man — he realized in amazement — he felt a sensation of subjection steeped in memory, as of someone who, having been subjected once already in the past to a dark temptation, is caught by surprise many years later in the same trap and can find no reason to resist. As if Lino had taken his pleasure with him, he thought; as if in reality he had not resisted Lino and had not killed him. These thoughts passed through his mind extremely rapidly; they were almost more illuminations than thoughts. Then he raised his eyes and saw that they had reached the car. The driver had gotten back out and was waiting next to the open door, his beret in his hand.

  Without letting go of Marcello’s arm, the old man said, “So, do you want to get in?”

  Marcello replied immediately, happy with his own resolution, “Thank you, but I have to get back to my hotel. My wife is waiting for me.”

  “Poor little thing,” said the old man with mischievous familiarity, “let her wait a while. It will do her good.”

  So he would have to explain himself, thought Marcello. He said, “We’re not understanding each other.” He hesitated, then glimpsed a young man of the streets, who had stopped beside the bench where they had left the cigarette pack, out of the corner of his eye and added, “I’m not what you think I am. Maybe he would be more to your liking.” And he pointed to the vagabond who was, just that moment, furtively pocketing the cigarettes in one swift motion.

  The old man looked over at him, too, smiled, and replied with playful impudence, “I have more than I need of those.”

  “I’m sorry,” said Marcello coldly, feeling completely reassured; and he started to go. But the old man held him back.

  “At least allow me to accompany you.…”

  Marcello hesitated and glanced at his watch. “All right, drive me there … since it gives you pleasure.”

  “It gives me great pleasure.”

  They climbed in, first Marcello and then the old man. The driver closed the door and sat down quickly behind the wheel.

  “Where to?” asked the old man.

  Marcello said the name of the hotel; the old man turned to the driver and said something in English. The car drove off.

  It was a soft-riding, silent car, as Marcello noticed while it ran rapidly and quietly beneath the trees of the Tuileries in the direction of the Place de la Concorde The inside was upholstered in gray felt; a crystal flower vase of old-fashioned design, affixed next to the door, held several gardenias.

  After a moment of silence, the old man turned toward Marcello and said, “Forgive me for those cigarettes.… I took you for a poor man.”

  “It doesn’t matter,” said Marcello.

  The old man was quiet for a bit and then went on, “I’m so rarely mistaken. I could have sworn that you … I was so sure of it that I was almost ashamed to use the cigarettes as an excuse. I was convinced that a look would be enough.”

  He spoke with light, cynical, civil nonchalance; it was clear that he still considered Marcello to be a homosexual. In fact, his tone of complicity carried such authority that Marcello was almost tempted to please him by responding, “Yes, maybe you’re right, and I am … without even knowing it, despite myself. And the proof is that I agreed to get in your car.”

  Instead he said dryly, “You were mistaken, that’s all.”

  “Right.”

  The car was now circling the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde. Then it stopped abruptly before the bridge. The old man said, “You know what made me think it?”

  “No, what?”

  “Your eyes. They’re so sweet, they’re like a caress even as you’re trying to frown … they speak for you despite yourself.”

  Marcello said nothing. After a brief halt, the car began to move again. It crossed the bridge and then, instead of taking the road beside the Seine, it turned into the streets behind the Chambre des Deputée. Marcello started and turned toward the old man.

  “But my hotel is on the Seine.”

  “We’re going to my house,” said the old man. “Wouldn’t you like something to drink? You’ll stay a while and then go back to your wife.”

  All of a sudden Marcello felt that he was experiencing the same sense of humiliation and powerless fury that he had felt so many years ago, when his companions had tied the skirt around him and teased him by yelling, “Marcellina!” The old man did not believe in his virility any more than those boys, and like them he insisted on considering him a kind of woman.

  Marcello said, between clenched teeth, “Please take me to my hotel.”

  “Oh, come on, what does it matter? Just for a moment.”

  “I only got in because I was running late and it was convenient for you to drive me there. So now drive me there.”

  “Funny, I thought you wanted to be kidnapped, instead. You’re all like that, you want to be forced.”

  “I assure you that you’re mistaken, adopting this tone of voice with me. I’m not what you think I am at all. I’ve already told you that and now I’m telling you again.”

  “How suspicious you are! I don’t think anything … go on, don’t look at me that way.”

  “You asked for it,” said Marcello, thrusting his hand into the inside pocket of his jacket. When he had left Rome, he had brought a little pistol with him; and instead of leaving it in the suitcase where Giulia might find it, he always kept it on him. He drew the weapon out of his pocket and pointed it discreetly, in such a way so that the driver couldn’t see it, at the old man, who had been regarding him with an air of affectionate irony. But then he lowered his eyes. Marcello saw him become suddenly serious and make a perplexed, almost uncomprehending face.

  Marcello said, “You see? And now order your driver to take me to my hotel.”

  The man grabbed the microphone immediately and shouted out the name of Marcello’s hotel. The car slowed down and turned off into a cross street. Marcello put the gun back in his pocket and said, “That’s better.”

  The old man said nothing. He seemed to have recovered from his surprise now and was looking at Marcello attentively, studying his face. The car came out onto the river road and started running beside the parapets. Suddenly Marcello recognized the entrance to his hotel, with its revolving door under the glass roof. The car stopped.

  “Allow me to offer you this flower,” said the old man, taking a gardenia out of the v
ase and holding it out to him. Marcello hesitated, and the man added, “For your wife.”

  Marcello took the flower, thanked him, and leapt out of the car in front of the driver, who was waiting bareheaded beside the open door. He seemed to hear — or maybe it was a hallucination — the voice of the old man saying, in Italian, “Good-bye, Marcello!” But he did not turn around; squeezing the gardenia between two fingers, he walked swiftly into the hotel.

  7

  HE WENT TO THE CONCIERGE’S desk and asked for the key to the room.

  “It’s up there,” said the concierge, after peering into the key cabinet. “Your wife took it. She went upstairs with a lady.”

  “A lady?”

  “Yes.”

  Wildly disturbed and at the same time immensely happy, after his encounter with the old man, to be excited in this way just at the news that Lina was in the room with Giulia, Marcello headed for the elevator. Stepping into it, he glanced at his wristwatch and saw that it was not yet six. He had all the time in the world to carry Lina off on some pretext, sit down with her in some dark corner of the hotel lounge, and decide about the future. Right after that he would make a definitive break with agent Orlando, who was to call at seven. These coincidences felt like good omens. While the elevator was ascending, he glanced at the gardenia he was still squeezing between his fingers and was suddenly sure that the old man had given it to him, not for Giulia, but for his real wife, Lina. It was up to him now to give her some token of their love.

  He rushed down the corridor to his room and entered without knocking. It was a large room with a double bed and a small entrance hall that also led to the bathroom. Marcello approached the door noiselessly and hesitated a moment in the darkness of the vestibule. Then he realized that the door to the bedroom was ajar and that light was seeping through it, and he was seized with a desire to spy on Lina without being seen himself, thinking of it, almost, as a way to make sure whether Lina really loved him. He put his eye to the crack and looked in.

 
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