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The conformist, p.4
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       The Conformist, p.4

           Alberto Moravia
 

  But his inexperience and candor made him awkward and uncertain when faced with those other rules, tacit yet extant, which governed relationships between the boys themselves, apart from school and its discipline. This, too, was an aspect of the new normality, but one more difficult to master. He experienced it the first time he was called to the teacher’s desk to show him his written homework. After the professor had taken the notebook from his hand and, setting it in front of him on the desk, had begun to read it, Marcello, accustomed to the affectionate and familiar rapport he had enjoyed with the tutors who had, until now, instructed him at home, rather than standing to one side of the dais to wait for a response, very naturally put an arm around the teacher’s shoulders and lowered his face so that they could read the homework together. The professor limited himself, without showing any surprise, to removing the hand Marcello had laid on his shoulder and freeing himself from the boy’s arm; but the entire classroom burst into rowdy laughter in which Marcello seemed to perceive a disapproval different from the professor’s, much less indulgent and understanding. With that naive gesture, he couldn’t help reflecting later, as soon as he had managed to overcome the distress of his shame, he had failed to conform to two different norms — the scholastic one that demanded he be disciplined and respectful toward the professor, and the schoolboy one that required him to be spiteful and cagey in his affections. And what was even more singular, these two unspoken rules did not contradict each other; indeed, they complemented each other in some mysterious way.

  But, as he understood right away, if it was easy enough to become an efficient scholar in a short span of time, it was much more difficult to become a shrewd and nonchalant schoolboy. This second transformation was hindered by his inexperience, his familiar habits, and even his physical aspect. Marcello had inherited from his mother a perfection of features that was almost precious in its regularity and sweetness. He had a round face with dark, delicate cheeks, a small nose, a sinuous mouth with a sulky, capricious expression, a prominent chin, and, under chestnut bangs that hid almost his entire forehead, eyes somewhere between gray and blue with a downcast, yet innocent and endearing expression. It was almost the face of a young girl; but the boys, uncouth as they were, would perhaps not have realized this had it not been confirmed by a few characteristics so very feminine as to make them wonder whether Marcello were not actually a girl dressed in boy’s clothes: an unusual tendency to blush easily, an irresistible inclination to express his tenderness of spirit by caresses, a desire to please taken almost to servility and flirtatiousness. These traits were native and unconscious in Marcello. By the time he realized that they rendered him ridiculous in the other boys’ eyes, it was already too late; even had he been able to control, if not to suppress them, his reputation as a sissy in long pants was already established.

  They made fun of him almost automatically, as if his feminine character was by now beyond question. Sometimes they would ask him in make-believe earnest why in the world he didn’t sit at a girl’s desk and what idea had possessed him to exchange his skirt for pants; sometimes, how he spent his time at home, whether in embroidering or playing with dolls; sometimes, why he didn’t have holes in his earlobes so that he could wear earrings. Once in a while they would sneak a small piece of cloth with a needle and spool of thread into his desk — a clear allusion to the type of work he should devote himself to; sometimes it was a compact for face powder; one morning it was even a pink brassiere that one of the boys had stolen from his older sister. And from the beginning, changing his name into a girl’s nickname, they had called him Marcellina. When they teased him like this, he felt a mixture of anger and flattered satisfaction, as if a deep part of him were not altogether unhappy about it; however, he would not have been able to say if this satisfaction was due to the character of the teasing or just because, even though they were making fun, they were paying attention to him. But one morning when they were whispering behind his back as usual: “Marcellina … Marcellina … is it true you wear girl’s underpants, mutandine?” he stood up and, raising his hand for permission to speak, complained loudly in the sudden silence of the classroom that he was being called by a girl’s nickname. The professor, a large, ugly, hirsute man, listened to him, smiling through the gray hair of his beard, and then said, “So they’re calling you by a woman’s name … and what is that?”

  “Marcellina,” said Marcello.

  “And you don’t like it?”

  “No … because I’m a man.”

  “Come here,” said the professor. Marcello obeyed and came forward next to the platform. “Now,” continued the professor pleasantly, “show your muscles to the class.”

  Marcello obediently bent his arm, flexing his muscles. The professor leaned over from his desk, touched his arm, shook his head in sign of ironic approval, and then turned to the other pupils and said “As you can see, Clerici is a strong boy, and he’s ready to demonstrate that he’s a man and not a woman … who wants to take him up on it?”

  A long silence followed. The professor looked all around at the class and concluded: “No one … well, that’s a sign that you’re afraid of him, so stop calling him Marcellina.”

  The whole classroom burst into laughter. Red in the face, Marcello returned to his place. But that day, instead of ceasing, the taunts redoubled, worsened perhaps by the fact that Marcello, as the boys let him know, had told on them, thus betraying the unspoken law that united them: conspiracy of silence.

  Marcello realized that to put a stop to the teasing he needed to show his companions that he was not as effeminate as he seemed; but he knew intuitively that flaunting the muscles in his arm, as the professor suggested, would not be enough to pull it off. He needed to do something more unusual, something that would seize their imaginations and rouse admiration. What? He wouldn’t have known how to say it, precisely, but in a general sense it would have to be an action or object that suggested ideas of strength and manliness, maybe even of downright brutality. He had noticed that his companions admired a certain Avanzini very much, because he owned a pair of leather boxing gloves. Avanzini, a skinny blond who was smaller and weaker than Marcello, didn’t even know how to use those gloves; all the same, they had conferred a special status on him. Similar admiration was granted a certain Pugliese because he knew, or at least pretended to know, a Japanese wrestling move guaranteed, to hear him tell it, to put your adversary on the ground. Put to the test, actually, Pugliese had never known how to execute it, but this did not keep the boys from respecting him the way they respected Avanzini. Marcello understood that he had to either flaunt the possession of an object like the gloves or think up some feat like Japanese wrestling. But he also understood that he was not as shallow and amateur as his schoolmates; that he belonged, whether he liked it or not, to the race of those who take life and its responsibilities seriously; and that, in Avanzini’s place, he would have broken his adversary’s nose and that, in Pugliese’s place, he would have broken his neck. This incapacity of his for rhetoric and superficiality inspired in him an obscure diffidence directed toward himself, so that, while he wanted to provide his companions with the proof of strength they seemed to require in exchange for their esteem, he was at the same time dimly frightened.

  One day he became aware that some of the boys, among them his fiercest tormentors, were whispering together, and he understood from their glances that they were hatching some new plot against him. Still, the lesson hour proceded without incident: only looks and whispers confirmed his suspicions. The bell rang for dismissal and Marcello, without looking around him, began to walk home. This was in the first days of November; the air was stormy yet mild, and the last warmth and perfume of the summer, already dead, seemed mixed together with the first, uncertain rigors of autumn. Marcello felt vaguely excited by this atmosphere of stripping bare and natural havoc, in which he perceived a yearning for destruction and death very similar to that which, months ago, had made him behead the flowers and murder the lizards.
Summer was a motionless, full, perfect season under the serene sky, trees laden with leaves and branches crowded with birds. Now he watched with delight as the autumn wind lacerated and destroyed that perfection, that fullness, that immobility, driving dark, torn clouds across the sky, ripping the leaves from the trees and whirling them to earth, chasing away the birds, which, in fact, could be glimpsed between the leaves and the clouds, migrating in black, orderly flocks. At a bend in the road Marcello became aware that a group of five boys was following him — there was no doubt that they were following him, since two of them lived in the opposite direction — but, immersed in his autumnal sensations, he paid them no heed. Now he was in a hurry to reach a broad avenue planted with plane trees from which, by way of a cross street, he could arrive at his own house. He knew that the dead leaves in that avenue were piled up in the thousands on the sidewalks, yellow and crackling, and he was looking forward to dragging his feet through the piles, kicking them around and making them rustle. Meanwhile, almost in fun, he was trying to shake off his followers, now slipping into a doorway, now losing himself in the crowd. But the five boys, as he soon realized after a moment of uncertainty, always found him again. By now the avenue was close, and Marcello was ashamed to be seen amusing himself with the dead leaves. So he decided to confront them; turning around suddenly, he asked: “Why are you following me?”

  One of the five, the little blond with the sharp face and the shaved head, answered quickly, “We’re not following you, the street belongs to everyone, doesn’t it?”

  Marcello said nothing and began to walk again.

  Here was the avenue, between the two rows of bare, gigantic plane trees, with the houses full of windows lined up behind them; here were the dead leaves, as yellow as gold, scattered on the black asphalt and heaped up in the ditches. He could no longer see the five boys — maybe they had stopped following him and he was alone on the wide street and deserted sidewalks. Without haste he set his feet into the foliage scattered on the pavement and began to walk slowly forward, enjoying sinking his legs up to the knee in that light and mobile mass of sonorous leaves. But as he was leaning down to grab a handful of them, intending to throw them up in the air, he heard the taunting voices again: “Marcellina … Marcellina … show off your underpants, mutandina.”

  Then he was suddenly overtaken by an almost pleasureable desire to fight, which lit up his face with an aggressive excitement. He straightened back up and walked decisively over to his persecutors, saying, “Do you want to go away or not?”

  Instead of responding, all five of them jumped on top of him. Marcello had thought that he would act a little like the Horatios and Curatios in the anecdotes of the history books: take them on one at a time, running here and there and striking each of them some great blow, so that they would be convinced to abandon their undertaking. But right away he realized that this plan was impossible: prudently, all five of them had closed in on him at once and now they held him, one by the arms, another by the legs, and two by the middle of his body. The fifth, he saw, had meanwhile hurriedly opened a bundle and was now approaching him warily, holding a little girl’s skirt of dark blue cotton suspended from his hands. They all laughed now, still holding him firmly, and the one with the skirt said: “Come on, Marcellina … let us do this … we’ll put the little skirt on you and then we’ll let you go home to your mamma.”

  It was exactly the sort of joke Marcello had expected, suggested as usual by his insufficiently masculine mien. Red in the face, furious, he started to struggle with extreme violence; but the five were stronger than he was and, although he managed to scratch one on the face and punch another in the stomach, he felt that, gradually, his movements were being reduced. Finally, as he moaned, “Let go of me … idiots … let go of me,” a cry of triumph issued from the mouths of his persecutors: the skirt had slipped over his head and by now his protests were lost as if in a sack. He struggled on, but in vain. The boys easily slid the skirt down to his waist, and he felt them tie it on him with a knot at the back. Then, while they were yelling, “Pull it … give it to him … tighter,” he heard a tranquil voice ask, more in a tone of curiosity than of reproof: “Would you like to tell me what you’re doing?”

  The five boys let go of him immediately and ran away; he found himself alone, all disheveled and panting, the skirt tied around his waist. He raised his eyes and saw the man who had spoken standing before him. Dressed in a dark gray uniform, its collar tight under his throat, pale, gaunt, with deep-set eyes, a large, sad nose, scornful mouth, and crew-cut hair, he gave the impression at first of almost excessive austerity. But then, as Marcello noted after a second glance, some traits revealed themselves that were not at all austere, on the contrary: the anxious, ardent look in his eyes; something soft and almost overripe in his mouth; a general insecurity in his attitude. He bent down, gathered up the books that Marcello had let fall to the ground in his struggles, and said, holding them out to him: “But what did they want to do to you?”

  His voice, too, was severe, like his face, but not without a strangled sweetness of its own.

  Marcello answered irritably, “They’re always playing jokes on me … they’re really stupid.” Meanwhile he was trying to untie the waistband of the skirt from the back.

  “Wait,” said the man, leaning down and undoing the knot. The skirt fell to the ground and Marcello stepped out of it, stamping on it and then kicking it away, onto a heap of dead leaves. The man asked, with a kind of timidity, “Weren’t you, perhaps, on your way home?”

  “Yes,” answered Marcello, looking up at him.

  “Well, then,” said the man, “I’ll take you there in my car,” and he pointed out, not too far away, an automobile parked next to the curb. Marcello looked at it: it was a kind of car he didn’t know, maybe foreign, long and black with an antiquated body. Strangely, it came to him that that motionless car, right there, only a few feet away from them, suggested a premeditation in the man’s casual approaches. He hesitated before responding; the man insisted: “Come on, before bringing you home I’ll take you for a nice ride … would you like that?”

  Marcello would have liked to refuse, or rather, felt that he should. But he didn’t have time: the man had already taken the bundle of books from his hand, saying, “I’ll carry them for you,” and was moving toward the automobile. He followed him, somewhat surprised by his own docility, but not unhappy. The man opened the car door, had Marcello climb into the seat next to his own, and threw the books onto the back seat. Then he got in behind the wheel, closed the door, drew on his gloves, and started up the car.

  The automobile began to roll forward slowly, majestically, with a low rumble, along the tree-lined avenue. It really was an antique car, thought Marcello, but kept in perfect working order, lovingly polished, all its brasses and nickel platings gleaming. Now the man, keeping one hand on the steering wheel, had reached out with the other for a visored cap, which he adjusted on his head. The cap emphasized his severity of aspect and added to it an almost military air. Marcello asked, embarrassed, “Is this your car?”

  “Call me tu,” said the man, without turning, using his right hand to squeeze the bulb of a serious sounding horn as antiquated as the car. “It’s not mine … it belongs to the person that pays me … I’m the chauffeur.”

  Marcello said nothing. The man, keeping his profile to him and continuing to drive the car with a detached and elegant precision, asked, “Does it bother you that it isn’t mine? Are you ashamed?”

  Marcello protested quickly, “No, why?”

  The man smiled slightly with satisfaction and accelerated their pace. He said, “Now we’ll be going up a hill for a while, up Monte Mario … all right?”

  “I’ve never been there,” replied Marcello.

  The man said, “It’s beautiful, you can see the whole city.” He was quiet for a moment and then added, gently, “What’s your name?”

  “Marcello.”

  “Oh, right,” said the man, as if speakin
g to himself, “They were calling you Marcellina, those friends of yours.… My name is Pasquale.”

  Marcello scarcely had time to think that Pasquale was a ridiculous name before the man, almost as if he had intuited his thought, added, “But it’s a ridiculous name … you can call me Lino.”

  Now the car was rolling down the broad and dirty streets of a run-down neighborhood, between squalid apartment buildings. Groups of breathless urchins playing in the middle of the street parted for them; disheveled women and ragged men watched their passage, so out of the ordinary, from the sidewalks. Marcello lowered his eyes, ashamed before their curiosity.

  “It’s the Trionfale,” said the man, “but here’s Monte Mario.”

  The car left the poor neighborhood and followed a tram up a broad, spiraling street between two rows of ascending houses.

  “What time do you have to be home?”

  “There’s time,” said Marcello, “we never eat before two.”

  “Who’s waiting for you at home? Your papà and mamma?”

  “Yes.”

  “Do you have brothers and sisters, too?”

  “No.”

  “And what does your papà do?”

  “He doesn’t do anything,” replied Marcello a little uncertainly.

  At a bend in the road the car overtook the tram and the man, in order to take the turn as tightly as possible, leaned his arms on the steering wheel without moving his upper body, with an elegant dexterity. Then the car, still ascending, began to pass long, high, vine-covered walls, gates of villas, wooden fences. Every now and then an entranceway decorated with Venetian lanterns or an arch with a sign the color of ox blood revealed the presence of some restaurant or rustic inn. Lino asked suddenly: “Do your papà and mamma give you presents?”

 
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