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The conformist, p.28
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       The Conformist, p.28

           Alberto Moravia
 

  He noticed that Lina seemed out of sorts. When she was seated, she opened her compact with a piqued and hurried air and powdered her nose and cheeks swiftly, with repeated, angry little stabs. In contrast, Giulia appeared to be placid and indifferent. She sat down next to her husband and took one of his hands under the table with an affectionate gesture, as if to confirm her repugnance for Lina. The manager with the monocle came back and, curling her smooth and pallid face into a honeyed smile, asked in an affected voice if all was well.

  Lina replied dryly that everything couldn’t be better.

  The manager bent down to Giulia and said to her, “This is the first time you’ve come here … May I offer you a flower?”

  “Yes, thank you,” said Giulia, surprised.

  “Cristina,” called out the manager. A girl — she, too, in a man’s vest — very different than the plump, pretty flower girls usually found in dance halls, approached the table. She was pale and haggard, without makeup, and had an Oriental face with a large nose, big lips, and a bald and bony forehead under hair cut very short and very badly, as if some illness had thinned it. She held out a basket full of gardenias, and the manager chose one and pinned it to Giulia’s breast, saying, “Compliments of the management.”

  “Thank you,” said Giulia.

  “Don’t mention it,” said the manager. “I’m guessing the signora is Spanish. Am I right?”

  “Italian,” said Giulia.

  “Ah, Italian … I should have known … with those black eyes.…” The words were lost in the din of the crowd, as the manager and the thin and melancholy Cristina walked away together.

  The orchestra began to play again. Lina turned to Marcello and said to him, almost ironically, “Why don’t you invite me to dance? I’d like to.” Without saying a word, he rose and followed her toward the dance floor.

  The began to dance. Lina held herself so far from him that Marcello couldn’t help remembering, to his sorrow, the possessive affection with which only a short time before she had pressed herself against Giulia. They danced for a while in silence and then Lina said suddenly, with an anger in which her pretence of loving complicity was strangely tinged with aversion and rage, “Instead of kissing me in the car where there was the danger that my husband might see us, you could have pressed your wife to let me come along on the trip to Versailles.”

  Marcello was astonished at the natural way she was able to graft her real anger onto their false relationship of love, as well as at the ease with which she had suddenly slipped into calling him tu, the more intimate form of address, like a woman without scruples about betraying her husband; and for a moment he said nothing.

  Lina, interpreting this silence in her own way, insisted, “Why don’t you talk now? Is this your love? You’re not even capable of making your silly wife obey you.”

  “My wife isn’t silly,” he answered mildly, more curious than offended by her strange rage.

  She hurled herself immediately into the breach he had opened by his response. “What do you mean, she’s not silly,” she exclaimed irritably, almost surprised. “My dear, even a blind man could see it … She’s lovely, of course, but perfectly stupid, a beautiful beast. How can you not be aware of it?”

  “I like her the way she is,” he said.

  “A goose … an idiot … the Côte d’Azur … a little provincial without a crumb of a brain. The Côte d’Azur, really … why not Montecarlo or Deauville? Why not just the Eiffel Tower?”

  She seemed out of her mind with frustration, a sign, thought Marcello, that there had been some unpleasant discussion between her and Giulia while they were dancing. He said gently, “Don’t worry about my wife. Tomorrow morning come to the hotel … Giulia will have to accept your being there. And then the three of us will go to Versailles together.”

  He saw her look at him with a gleam of hope. Then her anger prevailed and she said, “What an absurd idea! Your wife has already said very clearly that she doesn’t want me there, and I’m not in the habit of going where I’m not wanted.”

  Marcello replied simply, “Well, I want you to come.”

  “Yes, but your wife doesn’t.”

  “What does my wife matter to you? Isn’t it enough that we love each other?”

  Restless and diffident, she drew back her head to consider him, her soft, swelling breasts pressing against his. “Honestly … you talk about ‘our love’ as if we had been lovers forever. Do you really believe that we love each other?”

  Marcello would have liked to say to her, “Why don’t you love me? I’d love you so much.” But the words died on his lips, like echoes silenced by an unbridgeable distance. It seemed to him that he had never loved her so much as now, when she was forcing pretence to the point of parody by asking him falsely whether he was sure he loved her.

  Finally he said sadly, “You know I wish we would love each other.”

  “Me, too,” she answered distractedly; and it was obvious that she was thinking of Giulia. Then she added, as if waking up to reality with a sudden resurgence of anger, “Anyway, please don’t kiss me in the car or anyplace like that again … I’ve never been able to stand that kind of public display. I consider it a lack of respect and even of manners.”

  “But you,” he got out between his clenched teeth, “still haven’t told me whether you’re coming to Versailles.”

  He saw her hesitate, and then she asked uneasily, “Do you really think your wife won’t be annoyed when she sees me coming? She won’t insult me the way she did today at the restaurant?”

  “I’m sure she won’t. She might be a little surprised, maybe, that’s all … But before you come over I’ll have managed to persuade her.”

  “You’ll do that?”

  “Yes.”

  “I have the feeling that your wife can’t stand me,” she said, in an interrogative tone, as if expecting him to reassure her.

  “You’re wrong,” he answered, faced with her now blatant desire. “The truth is, she likes you a great deal.”

  “Really?”

  “Yes, really. She was telling me so just today.”

  “What did she say?”

  “Oh, God, nothing in particular … that you were pretty, that you seemed intelligent … the truth, in other words.”

  “Then I’ll come,” she decided. “I’ll come right after my husband leaves, at about nine, so we can take the ten o’clock train … I’ll come to your hotel.”

  Marcello resented her haste and relief as one more insult to his love. But burning with he knew not what desire for a love of any kind, even pretended and ambiguous, he said, “I’m very happy you decided to come.”

  “Yes.”

  “Yes, because I think you wouldn’t have if you didn’t love me.”

  “I could always have done it for some other reason,” she replied maliciously.

  “What reason?”

  “We women are spiteful … I could be doing it just to spite your wife.”

  So, she was still, and always, and only thinking of Giulia. Marcello said nothing but, still dancing, he guided her toward the door. Two more turns and they found themselves in front of the coatroom, a step from the door.

  “Where are you taking me?” she asked.

  “Listen,” pleaded Marcello, in a low voice so that the coatroom attendant standing behind her counter couldn’t hear him, “let’s go out into the street for a minute.”

  “Why?”

  “There’s no one there. I’d like you to give me a kiss … spontaneously … to show me you really do love me.”

  “I wouldn’t dream of it,” she said, becoming angry again.

  “But why not? The street is dark, it’s deserted.”

  “I already told you I can’t stand these public displays of affection.”

  “I’m begging you.”

  “Let me go,” she said in a hard, high voice; and she wrenched herself free, immediately walking back toward the dance hall. As if he had been shoved out by her furious g
esture, Marcello reeled over the threshold and found himself in the street.

  It was dark and deserted, as he had told Lina; no one passed him on the sidewalks, only faintly illuminated by infrequent lampposts. A few cars were parked in a row on the other side of the street under a garden wall. Marcello drew out his handkerchief and dried the sweat from his forehead, looking at the leafy trees overhanging the wall. He felt stunned, as if he had received a sharp, hard blow on the head. He did not remember ever having begged a woman so hard and he was almost ashamed of having done so. At the same time, he realized that all hope of making Lina love him or even understand him had vanished.

  At that moment he heard the sound of a car engine behind him, and then the car slid up beside him and stopped. The light was on inside; and at the wheel Marcello saw the figure, like a man on a family outing, of the agent Orlando. His companion sat to one side, the man with the long, thin face of a bird of prey.

  “Dottore,” said Orlando in a low voice.

  Marcello approached mechanically.

  “Dottore … we’re taking off. He’s leaving tomorrow morning in his car and we’ll follow him.… We probably won’t wait till we get to Savoy.”

  “Why not?” asked Marcello, without really being aware of what he was saying.

  “It’s a long road and Savoy’s far away.… Why wait for Savoy if we can do it sooner under better conditions? Good-bye, dottore … see you in Italy.”

  Orlando gestured as if to salute him and his companion nodded his head. The car slipped away, reached the end of the street, turned the corner, and disappeared.

  Marcello stepped back onto the sidewalk. He walked through the door and headed back into the dance hall. The music had started up again while he was gone, and he found no one but Quadri at the table. Lina and Giulia were dancing together again, he observed, half-lost in the thickening crowd on the dance floor. He sat down, lifted his glass, still full of iced lemonade, and emptied it slowly, staring at the piece of ice at the bottom.

  Suddenly Quadri said, “Clerici, do you know you could be very useful?”

  “I don’t understand,” said Marcello, putting his glass back down on the table.

  Quadri explained without any embarrassment, “I might suggest simply staying here in Paris to someone else … there’s enough to do here for everyone, I assure you, and we have great need of young men like yourself. But you could be even more useful to us by remaining where you are, in your position.”

  “By giving you information,” finished Marcello, looking him in the eyes.

  “Precisely.”

  At these words, Marcello couldn’t help remembering Quadri’s eyes — shining with emotion, almost tearful, sincerely affectionate — as they had been shortly before, when he was holding him by the lapels of his jacket. That emotion, thought Marcello, was the sentimental velvet in which the cold claws of political calculation were concealed. It was the same emotion, he thought, that he had noticed in the eyes of some of his superiors, although of a different kind, patriotic instead of humanitarian. But what did these justificatory feelings matter if, in both cases, in all cases, they gave rise to no consideration for him, for his essence as a human being — if he were nonchalantly understood to be no more than one means among many to achieve certain ends? He thought with almost bureaucratic indifference that Quadri, by his request, had countersigned his own death warrant.

  Then he raised his eyes and said, “You speak as if I had the same ideas you do … or as if I were about to. If that were the case, I would have offered you my services myself. But things being what they are, that is, my not sharing and not wanting to share your ideas, what you’re asking me to do is simply a betrayal.”

  “Betrayal, never,” said Quadri readily. “Traitors don’t exist for us … only people who realize the error of their ways and mend them. I was, and am still, convinced that you are one of those people.”

  “You’re wrong.”

  “Let it be as if it had never been said, then, as if it had never been said.… Young lady!”

  Hastily, perhaps to hide his disappointment, Quadri called over one of the waitresses and paid the bill. Then they fell silent, Quadri looking around the room with the expression of a tranquil spectator, Marcello sitting with his back to it, his eyes lowered. Finally he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard Giulia’s slow, calm voice saying, “So, shall we go now? I’m so tired.…”

  Marcello stood up immediately, saying, “I think we’re all feeling sleepy.”

  He noticed that Lina’s face looked haggard and intensely pale, but he attributed the first to exhaustion from the evening and the second to the livid neon light. They left and walked toward the car, parked at the end of the street. Marcello pretended not to hear his wife whispering to him, “Let’s sit where we did before,” and climbed in quickly beside Quadri. During the entire course of the trip not one of the four said a word.

  Except that Marcello, halfway through it, asked casually, “How long will it take you to get to Savoy?”

  And Quadri replied, without turning, “It’s a fast car, and since I’ll be alone and won’t have to make any stops, I think I’ll reach Annecy by nightfall … the next day I should be on the road by dawn.”

  They got out of the car in front of the hotel to say good-bye. Quadri, after shaking Marcello’s and Giulia’s hands in a hurry, sat back down in the car. Lina lingered a moment to say something to Giulia, and then Giulia said good-bye and went into the hotel. For an instant Lina and Marcello remained alone together on the sidewalk.

  He said, in embarrassment, “Till tomorrow, then.”

  “Till tomorrow,” echoed the woman, tilting her head with a worldly smile.

  Then she turned her back to him; and he caught up with Giulia in the lobby.

  10

  WHEN MARCELLO WOKE UP and raised his eyes to the ceiling in the uncertain half-light of the shutters left ajar, he remembered immediately that at that hour Quadri was driving down the roads of France, followed at a short distance by Orlando and his men; and he understood that the trip to Paris was over. The trip was over, he repeated to himself, although it had barely begun. It was over because with Quadri’s death, which he already took as a fait accompli, that period of his life during which he had sought by any means to free himself from the burden of loneliness and abnormality that Lino’s death had left him with had come to an end. He had managed to do it, at the cost of a crime — or rather, of what would have been a crime if he had not known how to justify and make sense of it. As far as he was concerned personally, he felt sure that such justification would not be lacking: he would be a good husband, a good father, a good citizen, also thanks to Quadri’s death, which definitively precluded any going back, and he would watch his life slowly but surely acquire the certainty and solidity that up until now it had lacked. In this way Lino’s death, which had been the chief cause of his obscure tragedy, would be resolved and annulled by Quadri’s, just as in the past the expiatory sacrifice of an innocent human being had served to resolve and annull the impiety of a previous crime. But he was not alone in this matter; and the justification of his life and of Quadri’s murder did not depend on him alone.

  “Now,” he thought lucidly, “the others need to do their duties, too … Otherwise I’ll be left alone with this dead man in my arms and in the end I will have achieved nothing, nothing at all.”

  “The others,” as he knew, were the government he had understood he was serving with that murder; the society embodied by that government; and the very nation that accepted guidance by that same society. It would never be enough for him to say, “I’ve done my duty; I acted this way under orders.” Such a justification might be enough for agent Orlando, but not for him. What he needed was the complete success of that government, that society, that nation; and not only an outer, but also an intimate and crucial success. Only in this way could what was normally considered a common crime become, instead, a positive step in a necessary direction. In other words, thanks
to forces that did not depend on him, a complete transmutation of values must take place: injustice must become justice; betrayal, heroism; death, life. He felt the need at this point to express his situation to himself in coarse, sarcastic words, and he thought coldly, “In other words, if Fascism falls on its face, and if all the bastards, incompetents, and imbeciles in Rome drag the Italian nation down into ruin, then I’m nothing but a miserable assassin.” But right away he corrected himself mentally: “But things being as they are, I couldn’t have acted any differently.”

  Beside him Giulia, who was still asleep, began to move, and with a slow, strong, gradual motion wrapped first her arms, then her legs around him, laying her head on his breast. Marcello let her do so, and stretching out one arm, picked up the small phosphorescent alarm clock from the bedside table and looked at the time: it was quarter past nine. He couldn’t help thinking that, if things had gone the way Orlando had assumed they would go, at this very moment Quadri’s car was lying abandoned in a ditch somewhere in France with a corpse at the wheel.

  Giulia asked in a low voice, “What time is it?”

  “Quarter past nine.”

  “Uh, how late it is,” she said without moving. “We slept almost nine hours.”

  “Obviously we were tired.”

  “Aren’t we going to Versailles, then?”

  “Certainly we are. Actually, we should get dressed now,” he said with a sigh. “Signora Quadri will be here soon.”

 
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