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The conformist, p.25
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       The Conformist, p.25

           Alberto Moravia
 

  A lamp shone on the bedside table; the rest of the room was wrapped in shadow. He saw Giulia sitting against the bolster, her back against the pillows, all wrapped up in a white cloth: the thick, soft towel from the bathroom. She was holding the towel to her breasts with both hands, but seemed unable or unwilling to keep it from opening widely at the bottom to reveal her belly and legs. Crouching on the floor at Giulia’s feet, within the circle of the wide, white skirt, in the act of embracing her legs with both arms, her forehead pressed to Giulia’s knees and her breasts against Giulia’s shins, was Lina. Without reproof, on the contrary, with a kind of amused and indulgent curiosity, Giulia was stretching her neck to observe the woman who, because of her own somewhat supine position, she could see only imperfectly. Finally Lina said in a low voice, without moving, “You don’t mind if I stay here like this for a little while?”

  “No, but soon I’ll have to get dressed.”

  Lina went on, after a moment of silence, as if picking up a previous conversation, “You’re so stupid, though … what would it matter to you? When you yourself said that if you weren’t married, you wouldn’t have anything against it.”

  “Maybe I said that,” replied Giulia flirtatiously, “so as not to offend you. And anyway, I am married.”

  Watching, Marcello saw that now, even as she was talking, Lina had withdrawn an arm from Giulia’s legs and was sliding her hand slowly, tenaciously up her thigh, pushing back the edge of the towel in her progress. “Married,” she said with intense sarcasm, without interrupting her slow advance, “but look at who you’re married to.”

  “He’s fine with me,” said Giulia.

  Now Lina’s hand had crept from Giulia’s hip to her naked groin, as hesitant and insinuating as the head of a snake. But Giulia took it by the wrist and pushed it back down, saying in an indulgent tone, rather like a nanny reproaching a restless child, “Don’t think I don’t see you.”

  Lina held Giulia’s hand and began to kiss it slowly, reflectively, every once in a while nuzzling her whole face in its palm forcefully, like a dog. Then she said breathily and with intense tenderness, “Silly little thing.”

  A long silence followed. The concentrated passion that emanated from Lina’s every gesture was in singular contrast to Giulia’s distraction and indifference. She no longer seemed even curious and, while abandoning her hand to Lina’s kisses and caresses, looked around like someone in search of a pretext. Finally, she reclaimed her hand and started to get up, saying, “Now I really have to get dressed, though.”

  Lina was quick to jump to her feet and exclaim: “Don’t move! Just tell me where the stuff is, I’ll dress you myself.”

  Standing up with her back to the door, she hid Giulia completely. Marcello heard his wife’s voice say, with a laugh, “So you want to be my maid, as well.…”

  “Why not? It means nothing to you … and it gives me so much pleasure.”

  “No, I’ll get dressed by myself.” Giulia emerged, completely naked, from the clothed figure of Lina as if splitting off from her, passed on tiptoes in front of Marcello’s eyes, and vanished at the bottom of the room. Then he heard her voice saying, “Please don’t watch me. Actually, turn around. You make me embarrassed.”

  “Embarrassed in front of me? I’m a woman, too.”

  “You’re a woman in a manner of speaking. You look at me the way men do.”

  “Then say straight out that you want me to go.”

  “No, stay here, just don’t look at me.”

  “I’m not looking at you, silly, do you think it matters to me whether I look at you?”

  “Don’t get mad, try to understand me. If you hadn’t talked to me that way at first, I wouldn’t be embarrassed now and you could look at me as much as you like.” This came out in a suffocated voice, as from inside a dress being pulled over her head.

  “Don’t you want me to help you?”

  “Oh, God, if you really want to so much.…”

  Decisive yet unsure in her movements, at once hesitant and aggressive, aroused and humiliated, Lina moved, passed for a moment in profile in front of Marcello, and disappeared toward the part of the room from which Giulia’s voice was coming. There was a moment of silence and then Giulia exclaimed, impatiently but not angrily, “Auffa, how tiresome you are!”

  Lina said nothing.

  Now the light from the lamp fell on the empty bed, illuminated the dip left by Giulia’s hips in the damp towel. Marcello withdrew from the crack and went back down the hall.

  After he had taken a few steps away from the door, he became aware that his surprise and distress had made him do something significant without realizing it: he had crushed the gardenia the old man had given him, and which he had intended to give to Lina, mechanically between his fingers. He let the flower drop onto the carpet and headed for the stairs.

  He went down to the ground floor and out along the Seine, in the false, misty light of the dusk. Lights were already lit — the white lamps in clusters on the far bridges, the paired yellow headlights of cars, the rectangular orange illuminations of windows; and the night was rising like dark smoke to the clear green sky behind the black profiles of the spires and roofs on the opposite shore. Marcello walked over to the parapet and leaned his elbows on it, looking down at the darkened waters of the Seine, which now seemed to bear streaks of jewels and circles of diamonds on the back of its black waves. What he was feeling was already more like the mortal quiet that follows the disaster than the tumult of the disaster itself. He understood that for a few hours that afternoon he had believed in love. Now instead he realized that he was wandering through a profoundly shaken, parched, and soured world, in which the gift of real love did not exist, only sensual relations, from the most natural and common to the most abnormal and bizarre. Certainly what Lina had felt for him had not been love; nor was love what Lina felt for Giulia; his own relationship with his wife could not be called love; and maybe even Giulia — so indulgent, almost tempted by Lina’s advances — didn’t love him in the true sense of the word. In this dark and flashing world, like some stormy twilight, these ambiguous figures of men-women and women-men who crossed paths at random, doubling and mingling their ambiguity, seemed to allude to an equally ambiguous significance connected, he felt, to his own destiny and to the proven impossibility of escaping it. Since love was not, and for this reason alone, he would carry out his mission and persist in his intention to create a family with the animal-like and unpredictable Giulia. This was normality: this makeshift solution, this empty form. Outside of it, all was confusion and anarchy.

  He also felt pushed to act this way by the clarity that now illuminated Lina’s behavior. She despised him and probably hated him, as well, as she had declared when she was still being honest; but in order not to cut short their relationship and so preclude the possibility of seeing Giulia, whom she wanted so badly, she had pretended to be attracted to him. But now Marcello understood that he could expect neither comprehension nor pity from her; and faced with this irremediable and definitive hostility, armored by sexual abnormality, political aversion, and moral contempt, he felt a sharp and powerless pain. So, that pure and intelligent light spilling from her eyes and forehead that had so fascinated him would never be bent over him, lovingly to calm and illumine him. Lina preferred to abase and humiliate it in sensual flattery, supplication, and hellish embraces. At this point he recalled that when he had seen her thrust her face against Giulia’s knees, he had been struck by the same sense of profanation that he had felt in the brothel at S., watching the prostitute Luisa let Orlando embrace her. Giulia wasn’t Orlando, he thought; but he had not wanted that forehead to abase itself before anyone, and he had been disappointed.

  Night had fallen while he had been thinking. Marcello straightened up and turned toward the hotel. He was in time to glimpse the white figure of Lina coming out and moving hurriedly toward an automobile parked close by beside the sidewalk. He was struck by her happy and almost furtive air, like a marte
n or weasel escaping from a hen house with her prey in her mouth. It was not the attitude of someone who has been rejected, he thought; quite the opposite. Maybe Lina had managed to wring some promise out of Giulia; or maybe Giulia, from weariness or sensual passivity, had yielded to some caress that meant nothing to her, as indulgent as she was toward herself and others, but precious to Lina. Meanwhile the woman had opened the car door and gotten in, sitting down sideways and then drawing in her legs. Marcello watched her drive by, her beautiful face in profile both elegant and proud, her hands on the wheel. The car continued on into the distance, and Marcello went back into the hotel.

  He walked upstairs and entered the room without knocking. Everything was in order. Giulia was completely dressed, sitting in front of the bureau mirror, combing her hair. She asked calmly, without turning around, “Is that you?”

  “Yes, it’s me,” answered Marcello, sitting down on the bed. He waited a minute and then asked, “Did you have fun?”

  Immediately his wife turned halfway around on her seat and said vivaciously, “Yes, a lot … we saw so many beautiful things! I left my heart in at least ten stores.”

  Marcello said nothing. Giulia finished combing her hair in silence and then got up and came over to sit beside him on the bed. She was wearing a black dress with a wide, low neckline from which the two dark, glowing, solid spheres of her breasts thrust up like two beautiful fruits from a basket. A scarlet cloth rose was pinned near one shoulder. Her sweet young face with its large, shining eyes and luxuriant mouth was wearing its usual expression of lazy sensuality. She smiled, perhaps unconsciously, and between her lips painted with vivid lipstick, he saw her regular, brilliantly white teeth.

  She took his hand affectionately and said, “Guess what happened to me.”

  “What?”

  “That lady, Professor Quadri’s wife … just think, she’s not a normal woman.”

  “Meaning?”

  “She’s one of those women who love women. And the thing is, if you can imagine it, she fell in love with me, just like that, at first sight.… She told me so after you left. That’s why she was so insistent that I stay at her house to rest. She made me a real, proper declaration of love … who would have thought it?”

  “And you?”

  “I really wasn’t expecting it. I was about to fall asleep because I was so tired … I didn’t understand her at first. Finally I got it, and then I wasn’t sure what to do.… It was a real, furious passion, you know, just like a man’s. Tell me the truth, would you have expected that from a woman like her, so controlled, with such a good hold on herself?”

  “No,” replied Marcello gently, “I wouldn’t have expected it … just as,” he added, “I wouldn’t expect you to reciprocate such effusions.”

  “What’s this? Are you jealous by any chance?” she cried, bursting into joyful, flattered laughter. “Jealous of a woman? Even if, let’s say, I had paid any attention to her, you still shouldn’t be jealous … a woman’s not a man. But don’t worry, almost nothing happened between us.”

  “Almost?”

  “I’m saying ‘almost,’ ” she replied in a reticent tone, “because, seeing her so desperate, I let her hold my hand while she was driving me back to the hotel.”

  “Just hold your hand?”

  “Well, well, you are jealous,” she exclaimed again, very happy. “You’re jealous for sure. I didn’t know this aspect of you. All right then, if you really want to know,” she added after a moment, “I let her give me a kiss, too … but like a sister kisses a sister. Then, since she was so demanding she was annoying me, I sent her away — that’s all. Now tell me, are you still jealous?”

  Marcello had insisted that Giulia talk about Lina chiefly to rediscover yet one more time the basic difference between him and his wife: he, shaken to the core all his life by something that had never happened; his wife, instead, open to all experiences, indulgent, her flesh shedding its memories even before her mind forgot them.

  He asked gently, “But you … have you ever had this kind of relationship in the past?”

  “No, never,” she answered decisively. This curt tone was so unusual in her that Marcello knew she was lying right away.

  He insisted, “Come on, why lie? A person who didn’t know about these things wouldn’t behave the way you did with Signora Quadri. Tell the truth!”

  “But why does it matter to you?”

  “It interests me to know about it.”

  Giulia lowered her eyes and was silent for a moment; then she said slowly, “You know the story about that man, that lawyer? Up until the day I met you he’d given me a real horror of men … so I had a friendship, but it didn’t last long … with a girl my own age, a student. She really loved me and it was this affection, above all, at a time when I needed it so much, that convinced me. Then she became possessive, demanding, and jealous and so I broke it off … every once in a while I see her in Rome, here and there. Poor thing, she still loves me.”

  Now, after a moment’s reticence and embarrassment, her face resumed its usual placid expression. Taking his hand, she added, “Don’t worry, don’t be jealous. You know I only love you.”

  “I know it,” said Marcello. Now he recalled Giulia’s tears in the train and her suicide attempt, and he understood that she had been sincere. While she had seen, in a conventional way, betrayal in her missing virginity, she actually attached no importance to these past mistakes of hers.

  Meanwhile, Giulia was saying, “I tell you, that woman is really crazy … you know what she wants? She wants to take us all to Savoy in a few days, they have a house there. Just think, she’s already drawn up a schedule.”

  “What schedule?”

  “Her husband’s leaving tomorrow. She’s going to stay a few more days in Paris, though.… for her own business, she says, but I’m convinced she’s staying because of me. She wants us to all leave together and go spend a week with them in the mountains. That we’re on our honeymoon doesn’t enter her head … for her, it’s as if you didn’t exist. She wrote me the address of their house in Savoy and made me swear I’d persuade you to accept the invitation.”

  “What’s the address?”

  “There it is,” said Giulia, pointing to a piece of paper on the marble of the bedside table, “but why? You’re not thinking of accepting?”

  “No, but you, maybe.”

  “For God’s sake, do you really think I attach any importance to that woman? When I told you I sent her away because she was annoying me with her demands.…”

  Meanwhile, she had risen from the bed and, still talking, left the room. “By the way,” she yelled from the bathroom, “someone called for you a half an hour ago … a man’s voice, an Italian.… He didn’t want to say who he was. But he left me a number and asked you to call as soon as you could.… I wrote the number down on that same piece of paper.”

  Marcello picked up the paper, pulled a notebook out of his pocket, and carefully wrote down the address of the Quadri’s house in Savoy, as well as Orlando’s number. He felt, now, as if he had come back to his senses after the ephemeral exaltation of that afternoon; he knew it, above all, by the automatic quality of his actions and the melancholy resignation that accompanied them. So it was all over, he thought as he put the notebook back in his pocket, and that fleeting apparition of love in his life had been nothing more in the end than a shock in the process of settling down to that same life in its definitive form. He thought of Lina again for a moment and seemed to glimpse a manifest sign of destiny in her sudden passion for Giulia, since it had not only furnished him the address of the house in Savoy, but had also made sure that when Orlando and his men showed up, she would not yet be there. Quadri’s solitary departure and Lina’s decision to stay in Paris suited the mission’s plan perfectly; if things had gone otherwise, he didn’t see how Orlando and he could have carried it out.

  He got up, shouted out to his wife that he would be waiting for her in the lobby, and left. There was a telepho
ne booth at the end of the hall and he walked toward it slowly, almost automatically. Only when he heard the agents’ voice asking him jocularly from the receiver, “So, dottore, where are we having this little dinner?” did he emerge from the fog of his own thoughts. Calmly, speaking softly but clearly, he began to inform Orlando about Quadri’s trip.

  8

  WHEN THEY GOT OUT OF the taxi on a little sidestreet in the Latin Quarter, Marcello looked up at the sign. Le Coq au Vin was written in white letters on a brown background on the second-floor level of an old gray house. They went into the restaurant. A red velvet sofa ran all around the sides of the room; the tables were lined up in front of the sofa; old rectangular mirrors in gilt frames reflected the central chandelier and the heads of the few customers in a tranquil light. Marcello recognized Quadri right away, seated in a corner next to his wife, smaller than her by a head, dressed in black, studying the wine list over his glasses. Lina, on the other hand, who was sitting up straight and immobile in a black velvet dress that emphasized the whiteness of her arms and breasts and the pallor of her face, seemed to be anxiously watching the door. Seeing Giulia, she stood up suddenly and behind her, almost hidden by her, the professor stood up, too. The two women shook hands. Marcello raised his eyes casually and saw, suspended in the unremarkable yellow light of one of the mirrors, an incredible apparition: the head of Orlando, watching him. At the same moment, the restaurant’s grandfather clock roused itself; its metallic bowels began to writhe and complain; at last it began to strike the hours.

  “Eight o’clock,” he heard Lina exclaim contentedly. “How punctual you are.”

  Marcello shivered and, as the clock continued to strike, each stroke lugubrious, solemn, and sonorous, he held out his hand to shake the hand that Quadri was offering him. The clock struck the last hour loudly and then he remembered, pressing his palm against Quadri’s, that this handshake, according to the agreement, was to point out the victim to Orlando. Suddenly he was almost tempted to lean over and kiss Quadri on the left cheek, just as Judas — with whom he had jokingly compared himself that afternoon — had done. In fact, he seemed to feel the rough touch of that cheek beneath his lips and marveled at the power of the suggestion. Then he lifted his eyes to the mirror again: Orlando’s head was still there, suspended in the void, his eyes fixed on them. Finally all four of them sat down, he and Quadri on the chairs and the two women opposite them on the divan.

 
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