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The conformist, p.26
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       The Conformist, p.26

           Alberto Moravia
 

  The wine steward came with the list, and Quadri began to order the wines with minute attention to detail. He seemed completely absorbed in his task and held a lengthy discussion with the steward about the quality of the wines, which he evidently knew very well. At last he ordered a dry white wine to go with the fish, a red wine to accompany the roast, and some champagne on ice. The wine steward left, the waiter appeared, and the same scene was repeated: competent discussions concerning the foods, hesitations, reflections, questions, answers, and finally a decision to order three courses — antipasto, then fish, then meat. In the meantime Lina and Giulia were speaking to each other in low voices, and Marcello, his eyes fixed on Lina, had fallen into a kind of a trance. He still seemed to hear the frenzied striking of the pendulum clock at his back as he shook Quadri’s hand; he still seemed to see Orlando’s bodiless head looking at him in the mirror. And he understood that he had never before this moment found himself so concretely faced with his destiny, as if it were a stone standing in the middle of a crossroads with two roads diverging around it, each different from the other and equally definitive. He came to as he heard Quadri asking, in his usual indifferent tone, “Been around Paris?”

  “Yes, a bit.”

  “Like it?”

  “Very much.”

  “Yes, it’s a lovable city,” said Quadri, as if he were talking to himself and almost making a concession to Marcello, “but I wish you would direct your attention to the point I was making yesterday. This isn’t the vice-ridden city full of corruption the Italian newspapers make it out to be.… You surely subscribe to this idea, which actually has nothing to do with reality.”

  “I don’t have that idea of Paris,” said Marcello, a little surprised.

  “It would astonish me if you didn’t,” said the professor without looking at him. “All the young people of your generation have ideas of this kind. They think that to be strong one must be austere, and in order to feel austere they fabricate scapegoats that don’t really exist.”

  “I don’t think I’m particularly austere,” said Marcello dryly.

  “I’m sure you are, and now I’ll prove it to you,” said the professor. He waited until the waiter had placed the antipasto plate on the table and then went on, “Let’s see … I bet that while I was ordering the wines, you were secretly surprised that I could appreciate such things … isn’t that right?”

  How had he figured that out? Marcello admitted reluctantly, “You may be right, but I wasn’t judging you. It just seemed strange because you seem so — to use your own word — austere.”

  “Nothing like you are, dear boy, nothing like you are,” repeated the professor with pleasure, “and then, let’s go on … tell the truth: you don’t like wine and you don’t understand it.”

  “No, to tell the truth, I hardly ever drink,” said Marcello, “but how important is that?”

  “Very important,” said Quadri calmly. “Extremely important. And I’ll make another bet — that you don’t appreciate good food.”

  “I eat …,” began Marcello.

  “To live,” finished the professor triumphantly, “and that makes my point. And finally, I’m sure you have a prejudice against love. For example, if you’re in a park and you see a couple kissing, your first impulse is condemnation and disgust, and you very probably infer that the city the park is in is shameless … isn’t that how it is?”

  Now Marcello got what Quadri was driving at. He said forcefully, “I don’t infer anything. The truth is I was probably born without a taste for these things.”

  “Not only that, but people who do have a taste for them seem guilty and so despicable to you … confess the truth.”

  “No, that’s wrong, they’re just different from me, that’s all.”

  “Who’s not with us is against us,” said the professor, making an abrupt sortie into politics. “That’s one of the mottoes repeated so cheerfully in Italy and other places, too, these days, isn’t it?

  Meanwhile, he had begun to eat with such vigorous enjoyment that his glasses had fallen down on his nose.

  “I really don’t think,” said Marcello dryly, “that politics enter into these things.”

  “Edmondo,” said Lina.

  “Dear.”

  “You promised me we wouldn’t talk politics.”

  “But in fact we’re not talking politics,” said Quadri. “We’re talking about Paris. And the conclusion — since Paris is a city in which people love to drink, eat, dance, kiss each other in the parks, in other words, have fun — is that I’m sure his judgment of Paris can’t help but be unfavorable.”

  This time Marcello said nothing.

  Giulia replied for him, smiling, “Well, I like the people in Paris a lot. They’re so gay!”

  “Well said,” answered the professor in approval. “Signora, you should heal your husband.”

  “But he’s not sick.”

  “Yes he is, he’s sick with austerity,” said the professor, his head bent over his plate. And he added, almost forcing the words through his teeth, “Or rather, his austerity is only a symptom.”

  Now it was apparent to Marcello that the professor, who, according to Lina, knew everything about him, was amusing himself, playing with him somewhat like a cat with a mouse. Still, he couldn’t help thinking that this was a very innocent game compared to his own, so dark, begun that afternoon at Quadri’s house and destined to end bloodily at the villa in Savoy.

  He asked Lina, with a sort of melancholy flirtatiousness, “Do I really seem so austere, even to you?”

  He saw her look at him with a cold and reluctant glance in which he could read, to his sorrow, the deep aversion she felt for him. Then, evidently, Lina decided to take back up the role of a woman in love that she had set out to play, because she answered, forcing herself to smile, “I don’t know you well enough … but certainly you give the impression of being very serious.”

  “Oh, yes,” said Giulia, gazing with affection at her husband. “Just think, I may have seen him smile a dozen times since I’ve known him … serious is the word, all right.”

  Lina was now staring at him fixedly, with malicious attention. “No,” she said slowly, “no, I was mistaken. Serious is not the word … I’d say he was worried.”

  “Worried about what?”

  Marcello saw her shrug her shoulders in indifference. “I really wouldn’t know about that,” she said.

  But at the same time, to his profound astonishment, he felt her foot under the table slowly and intentionally brush his own and then press against it.

  Quadri said good-naturedly, “Clerici, don’t worry too much about seeming worried! This is all just smalltalk to pass the time. You’re on your honeymoon, and that’s all that should be on your mind.… Isn’t that right, Signora?”

  He smiled at Giulia, with his particular smile that looked like a grimace caused by some mutilation; and Giulia smiled back at him, saying happily, “Maybe that’s exactly what’s on his mind, right, Marcello?”

  Lina’s foot continued to press against his own, and at this contact he almost felt he was splitting in two, as if the ambiguity of his love relationships had invaded his whole life, and instead of one scenario, there were two: the first, in which he pointed Quadri out to Orlando and returned to Italy with Giulia; and the second, in which he saved Quadri, abandoned Giulia, and stayed on in Paris with Lina. The two scenarios intersected and merged like two superimposed photographs, colored variously by his feelings of regret and horror, hope and sorrow, resignation and revolt. He knew beyond doubt that Lina was playing footsie only to deceive him and remain faithful to her role of a woman enamored; all the same, absurd as it was, he hoped that it wasn’t true and that she really loved him. Meanwhile, he was wondering why in the world she had chosen, from the many gestures of sentimental complicity, exactly this one, so traditional and so coarse; and once again he seemed to read her contempt for him in the choice, as if he were someone who didn’t require too much subtlety and inv
ention to be deceived.

  In the meantime Lina was saying — still pressing his foot and staring at him with willful intensity, “And speaking of your honeymoon … I already talked to Giulia about it, but since I know she won’t have the courage to mention it to you, I’m taking it on myself to make the proposal. Why don’t you come spend the rest of it in Savoy? At our place? We’ll be there all summer.… We have a lovely guest room. You can stay for a week, ten days, as long as you want … and then go directly from there back to Italy.”

  So, thought Marcello, almost disappointed, this was the reason for the foot game. He thought once more, but this time with spite, that the invitation to Savoy coincided all too well with Orlando’s plans: by accepting the invitation, they would keep Lina in Paris, and meanwhile Orlando would have all the time he needed to deal with Quadri down in the mountains.

  He said slowly, “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t have anything against a trip to Savoy. But not for another week — not till we’ve seen Paris.”

  “Perfect,” said Lina swiftly and triumphantly. “That way you can come down with me! My husband is going on ahead tomorrow, but I have to stay another week in Paris, too.”

  Marcello felt the woman’s foot stop pressing his. Once the necessity that had inspired it had ceased, the flattering caress ceased as well; and Lina had not even deigned to thank him with a glance. His own gaze passed from Lina to his wife and he saw that she looked discontented.

  Then she said, “I’m sorry I can’t agree with my husband. And I’m also sorry to seem impolite towards you, Signora Quadri … but it’s impossible for us to go to Savoy.”

  “Why?” Marcello couldn’t help exclaiming. “After Paris.…”

  “After Paris, you know, we have to go to the Côte d’Azur to see those friends of ours.”

  It was a lie; they had no friends on the Côte d’Azur. Marcello understood that Giulia was lying to get rid of Lina and at the same time show him her own indifference toward the woman. But there was the danger that Lina, disgusted by Giulia’s rejection, would leave with Quadri. He needed to remedy the situation, then, and make his recalcitrant wife accept the invitation definitively.

  He said hurriedly, “Oh, we can give up seeing them … we’ll have time to see them later.”

  “The Côte d’Azur … what a horror!” cried Lina, glad that Marcello had helped her, speaking gaily, impetuously, in a lilting voice. “Who goes to the Côte d’Azur? The rastà, the South Americans, the cocottes.”

  “Yes, but we made a promise,” said Giulia obstinately. Marcello felt Lina’s foot pressing against his own again.

  With an effort, he asked, “Come on, Giulia, why shouldn’t we accept?”

  “If you really want to,” she said, lowering her head. Marcello saw Lina turn an anxious, sad, irritated, surprised face toward Giulia.

  “But why,” she shouted with a kind of reflective dismay in her voice, “why just to see that horrible Côte d’Azur? That’s so provincial … only provincials want to visit the Côte d’Azur! I’m telling you, no one else would hesitate in your place … Come on,” she added suddenly with desperate vivacity, “there must be some reason you’re not telling us. Maybe my husband and I just aren’t to your liking.”

  Marcello could not help but admire this passionate violence, which allowed Lina to have what amounted to a lovers’ quarrel with Giulia in his and Quadri’s presence.

  Somewhat surprised, Giulia protested, “For goodness’ sake … what are you saying?”

  Quadri, who was eating in silence, seemingly enjoying his food much more than following the conversation, now observed with his usual indifference, “Lina, you’re embarrassing the lady. Even if it were true that she didn’t like us, as you’re saying, she would never tell us.”

  “Yes, you dislike us,” continued the woman without paying the slightest attention to her husband, “or actually, maybe it’s just me you dislike … isn’t that right, dear? You do dislike me! You go around thinking,” she added, turning to Marcello and still speaking with that desperate, worldly, and suggestive vivacity, “that people like you, and sometimes instead the exact people you most wish would like you can’t stand you. Tell the truth, dear, you can’t stand me … and while I’m talking and stupidly insisting that you come visit us in Savoy, you’re thinking, ‘What does this crazy woman want from me? How come she doesn’t realize I can’t stand her face, her voice, her manners, her whole being, in other words?’ Tell me the truth, you’re thinking things like that right this minute!”

  By now, thought Marcello, she had abandoned all caution; and even if her husband failed, perhaps, to attribute any importance to her heartbroken insinuations, Marcello, on whom, according to the fiction, all this insistence was being lavished, could not help but realize to whom they were directed in truth.

  Giulia protested mildly in astonishment, “But … what are you thinking? I’d really like to know why you’re saying these things.”

  “So it’s true!” cried Lina sorrowfully. “You dislike me.” Then, turning to her husband with bitter, feverish satisfaction, she said, “You see, Edmondo, you said the signora wouldn’t tell us … and instead she has: she doesn’t like me.”

  “I didn’t say that,” said Giulia, smiling. “I wouldn’t even dream of it.…”

  “You didn’t say it but you let me know it.”

  Quadri said, without raising his eyes from his plate, “Lina, I don’t understand this insistence of yours. Why should Signora Clerici dislike you? She’s only known you for a few hours, she probably doesn’t feel one way or another.”

  Marcello understood that he would have to interfere again; Lina’s imperious, almost insulting eyes filled with scorn and anger were imposing it on him. Now she was no longer pressing his foot, but when he laid his hand on the table for a moment, she pretended to reach for the salt and squeezed his fingers in a gesture so rash it was hallucinatory.

  He said, in a firm and conciliatory tone, “Giulia and I actually like you very much … and we accept your invitation with pleasure. We’ll definitely come, won’t we, Giulia?”

  “Of course,” said Giulia, suddenly yielding. “It was mostly because of our prior commitment … but we wanted to accept.”

  “Wonderful! Then it’s all set … we’ll leave together in a week.” Radiant, Lina started immediately talking about the walks they would take in Savoy, the beauty of those places, the house they’d be living in. But Marcello noticed that her speech was confused; it seemed to be prompted more by an impulse to song, like a caged bird suddenly cheered by a ray of sun, than by any real need to say certain things or furnish certain information. And as the bird is made more lively by his own song, Lina seemed inebriated by the sound of her own voice, trembling with exaltation and a heedless and unsubdued joy.

  Feeling himself excluded from the women’s conversation, Marcello raised his eyes almost mechanically to the mirror hanging behind Quadri’s back: Orlando’s honest, good-natured face was still there, suspended in the void, beheaded but alive. But it was no longer alone; just as clear and no less absurd, the profile of another head could be seen, talking to Orlando’s. It was the head of some sad and inferior kind of raptor, a bird of prey with nothing aquiline in it: small, dull, deeply sunken eyes under a low forehead; a great, hooked, melancholy nose; hollow cheeks filled with ascetic shadow; small mouth; stiff chin. Marcello observed this person at length, wondering if he had seen him before.

  He started at the sound of Quadri’s voice, asking him, “By the way, Clerici, if I asked you a favor, would you do it for me?”

  It was an unexpected question; and Marcello noticed that Quadri had waited until his wife had fallen silent to ask it.

  “Certainly, if it’s at all possible,” said Marcello.

  It seemed to him that Quadri glanced at Lina before speaking, as if to receive the confirmation of an already discussed and established agreement.

  “This is the thing,” said Quadri, in a tone at once cynical and swee
t. “I’m sure you’re not unaware of my activities here in Paris and why I haven’t returned to Italy. Well, we have friends in Italy with whom we correspond in whatever way we can. One way is to entrust letters to people who aren’t involved in politics and who are therefore not under suspicion as political activists.… I thought you might be able to take one of these letters to Italy and mail it at the first train station you happen to pass through … Turin, for example.”

  A silence followed. Marcello realized now that the only purpose of Quadri’s request was to put him to the test, or at least to embarrass him; and he also understood that this request had been made with Lina’s approval. Probably Quadri, faithful to his methods of persuasion, had convinced his wife that this would be an opportune maneuver, but not enough to lessen her hostility toward Marcello, which he seemed to read in her tense, cold, almost irritated face. For the moment, however, he couldn’t guess what Quadri was really aiming at.

  Playing for time, he said, “But if they discover me, I’ll end up in jail.”

  Quadri smiled and said playfully, “That wouldn’t be so bad … actually, for us it might even be good. Don’t you know that political movements need martyrs and victims?”

  Lina frowned but said nothing. Giulia looked at Marcello anxiously; clearly, she was hoping that her husband would refuse.

  Marcello said slowly, “Actually, then, you almost want the letter to be discovered.”

  “Not really,” said the professor, pouring himself more wine with an amiable nonchalance that suddenly, incomprehensibly inspired Marcello with something close to compassion. “The main thing we want is for the largest possible number of people to put themselves on the line, to struggle with us … going to jail for our cause is just one of many ways to fight the good fight … certainly not the only one.” He drank slowly, then added seriously and unexpectedly, “But I only asked it of you pro forma, so to speak … I know you’ll refuse.”

 
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