The Conformist, p.6Alberto Moravia
“I warn you, I’m not even going to look at you,” Marcello informed him for the last time.
He saw Lino make a gesture he didn’t understand, but that seemed one of desperate assent. Then the car moved away, distancing itself slowly in the direction of the avenue.
EVERY MORNING MARCELLO was awakened at a fixed hour by the cook, who felt a particular affection for him. She would come into his bedroom in the dark carrying a breakfast tray, which she would place on the marble top of the chest of drawers. Then Marcello would watch as she hung onto the cord of the Persian blinds with both arms and pulled it up with two or three jerks of her robust body. She would put the breakfast tray on his knees and stand there to watch him eat, ready, as soon as he had finished, to throw back his covers and urge him to get dressed. She helped him with this, handing him his clothes, sometimes kneeling to put on his shoes. She was a lively, merry woman, full of good common sense; she had conserved the accent and affectionate habits of the province in which she was born.
That Monday Marcello woke up with a confused memory of having heard, while he was sleeping the night before, a burst of angry voices coming either from the first floor or from his parents’ bedroom. He waited until he had consumed his breakfast and then casually asked the cook, “What happened last night?”
The woman gazed at him in pretended and exaggerated surprise. “What do I know, nothing.”
Marcello understood that she had something to say: the false surprise, the mischevious sparkle of her eyes, her whole attitude denoted it.
He said, “I heard some yelling.…”
“Oh, yelling,” said the woman, “but that’s normal. Don’t you know that your papà and mamma yell at each other a lot?”
“Yes,” said Marcello, “but they were yelling louder than usual.”
She smiled and, leaning over with two hands on the headboard of the bed, said, “At least if they yell they may understand each other better, don’t you think?”
This was one of her habits: to ask questions that required no answer, that were actually affirmations. Marcello asked, “But why were they yelling?”
The woman smiled again. “Why do people yell? Because they don’t get along.”
“Why don’t they get along?”
“Them?” she cried, glad of the boy’s question. “Oh, for a thousand reasons.… One day it might be because your mamma wants to sleep with the window open and your papà doesn’t … another day because he wants to go to bed early and your mother likes to go to bed late.… There’s never a shortage of reasons, is there?”
Marcello said suddenly, with gravity and conviction, as if expressing a long-held sentiment: “I don’t want to stay here anymore.”
“And what would you like to do?” cried the woman, even more gaily. “You’re little, you can’t just run away from home … you have to wait till you’re big.”
“I would prefer it,” said Marcello, “if they put me in a boarding school.”
The woman looked at him tenderly and then declared loudly, “You’re right … in a boarding school at least you’d have someone who gave you a thought. Do you know why they were yelling so much last night, your papà and mamma?”
“Wait, I’ll let you see.” She went to the door quickly and disappeared. Marcello heard her rush down the stairs and wondered once more what could have happened the night before. In a moment he heard the cook climbing back up the stairs; then she came into the bedroom with an air of gay mystery. She held in her hand an object Marcello recognized right away: a large photograph, taken when Marcello was scarcely more than two years old. You could see his mother, dressed in white, with her son, also in a little white gown, in her arms, a white bow in his long hair.
“Look at this photograph,” cried the cook happily. “Your mamma came back from the theater last night and walked into the living room and the first thing she saw, on the piano, was this photograph.… Poor thing, she almost fainted … just look at what your papà did to this photograph!”
Marcello looked at the photograph in astonishment. Someone, using the point of a pen knife or bodkin, had pierced holes in the eyes of both mother and son and then, with a red pencil, had drawn many small marks under both of their eyes, as if to indicate bloody tears spurting from the four holes. The thing was so strange and unexpected and so obscurely dismal that Marcello didn’t know what to think for a moment.
“It’s your papà that did this,” cried the cook, “and your mamma was right to yell at him.”
“But why did he do it?”
“It’s a piece of witchcraft, do you know what witchcraft is?”
“When you want to harm someone … you do what your papà did … sometimes instead of poking holes in the eyes, you poke holes in the chest … right around the heart … and then something happens.”
“The person dies, or some accident happens to him … it depends.”
“But,” stammered Marcello, “I’ve never done anything wrong to papà.”
“And what has your mamma done to him, then?” shouted the cook indignantly. “But do you know what your father is? Crazy! And you know where he’ll end up? In Sant’Onofrio, in the madhouse! And now get up, get dressed, it’s time you went to school … I’m going to put this picture back.” She ran off, wholly happy, and Marcello was left alone.
Feeling blank, unable to explain the incident of the photograph in any way to himself, he started to get dressed again. He had never experienced any particular feeling for his father, so that his hostility, justified or not, did not grieve him; but the cook’s words about the maleficent powers of witchcraft gave him something to think about. Not that he was superstitious and really believed that all it took to harm someone was to poke holes in the eyes of a photograph; but this madness of his father’s reawoke in him an apprehension that he imagined he had definitively put to rest. It was the terrified and powerless sense of having entered into the orbit of a disastrous destiny, which had obsessed him all summer, and which now, as if answering the call of an evil attraction when faced with that photograph stained with bloody tears, was rekindled in his soul and stronger than ever.
What was disaster, he asked himself, what was it if not the black dot lost in the azure blue of the most serene skies that all of a sudden enlarges, becomes huge, becomes an awful, pitiless bird swooping down on its chosen one like a vulture on carrion? Or the trap that you have been warned against, that you can even see perfectly clearly, and in which, all the same, you can’t help putting your foot? Or even a curse of clumsiness, imprudence, and blindness insinuated into your gestures, your senses, your blood? This last definition, he felt, was the most appropriate one, since it traced the source of disaster to a lack of grace, and the lack of grace to an intimate, obscure, native, inscrutable fate, to which his father’s act, like a sign pointing to the entrance of a grim and fatal road, had recalled his attention. He knew that this fate required him to kill; but what frightened him most was not so much the thought of homicide as the sense of being predestined for it, whatever he might do. He was terrified, that is, by the idea that even his awareness was ignorance — but ignorance of so particular a kind that no one would deem it such, least of all himself.
But later, at school, with childish inconstancy, he suddenly forgot these premonitions. His desk-mate happened to be one of his tormentors, a boy by the name of Turchi, the oldest and most ignorant student in the class. He was the only one who, having taken a few boxing lessons, knew how fistfight professionally; his hard and angular face under crewcut hair, with its snub nose and thin lips, sunk down into an athlete’s sweatshirt, already seemed that of a professional boxer. Turchi understood nothing of Latin; but when the boys gathered in clusters on the streets outside of school, and he raised a gnarled hand to remove the last tiny vestige of a cigarette butt from his mouth and, wrinkling the many lines on his low forehead into a look of suff
Profiting from a moment when the geography professor had turned to indicate the map of Europe with his long pointer, he scribbled quickly in his notebook: “Today I’m getting a real pistol,” and then shoved the notebook toward Turchi. Now, Turchi, his ignorance notwithstanding, was a model student as far as behavior. Always attentive, motionless, almost gloomy in his blank and and dull solemnity, his inability to come up with answers to the teacher’s simplest questions, every time he was called on, astonished Marcello profoundly. He often wondered what in the world the boy was thinking about during lessons and why, if he didn’t study, he was pretending to be so diligent. Now, when Turchi saw the notebook he made an impatient gesture, almost as if to say: “Leave me alone … don’t you see that I’m listening to the lesson?”
But Marcello insisted, nudging him with an elbow; and then Turchi, without moving his head, lowered his eyes to read the writing. Marcello saw him pick up a pencil and write in his turn: “I don’t believe you.”
Stung to the quick, he rushed to confirm it, in writing again: “Word of honor.”
Turchi wrote back suspiciously: “What make is it?”
This question disconcerted Marcello; still, after a moment of hesitation, he replied: “A Wilson.” He was mixing it up with Weston, a name he had heard dropped by Turchi himself some time ago.
Turchi wrote right away: “Never heard of it.”
Marcello concluded: “I’ll bring it to school tomorrow,” and the dialogue suddenly ended because the professor turned around and called on Turchi, asking him to name the longest river in Germany. As usual, Turchi stood up and, after long reflection, confessed without embarrassment — almost with a kind of sporting honesty — that he didn’t know. Right then the door opened and the janitor looked in to announce the end of lessons.
He must make sure at all costs that Lino kept his promise and gave him the pistol, thought Marcello later, hurrying through the streets toward the avenue of the plane trees. Marcello realized that Lino would give him the weapon only if he wanted to, and as he walked, he asked himself what attitude to take, what behavior to engage in to accomplish his purpose most surely. While he had not penetrated the true reason for Lino’s yearning, with an instinctive, almost feminine coquetry he intuited that the quickest way to enter into possession of the pistol was the one suggested last Saturday by Lino himself: to pay no attention to him, to scorn his offers, to reject his supplications, to make himself precious, that is; finally, not to agree to get in the car until he was good and sure the pistol was his. But why Lino should feel so strongly about him and why he should be able to get away with this kind of blackmail, Marcello couldn’t have said. The same instinct that suggested he blackmail Lino allowed him to glimpse, behind his relationship with the chauffeur, the shadow of a strange affection, as embarrassing as it was mysterious. The pistol was foremost among his thoughts; but at the same time he could not have claimed that Lino’s affection and the almost feminine part that was his to play were truly disagreeable to him. The only thing he would like to avoid, he thought, bursting out onto the avenue of the plane trees, all sweaty from his long run, was Lino putting his arm around him as he had done in the hallway of the villa the first time they saw each other.
As on Saturday, the day was stormy and overcast, buffeted by a hot wind rich with spoil it had snatched up here, there, and everywhere in its turbulent passage: dead leaves, pieces of paper, feathers, down, twigs, dust. On the avenue the wind had just that moment swept down on a pile of dead leaves, lifting great numbers of them high, high among the stripped branches of the plane trees. He amused himself by watching the leaves as they whirled through the air against the background of dark sky, like innumerable yellow hands with their fingers spread apart; and then, looking down, he saw through all those hands of gold twirling in the wind, the long, black, shining shape of the automobile, parked against the curb. His heart began to beat more swiftly, he would not have known how to say why; however, faithful to his plan, he did not hurry his steps, but walked forward until he was level with the car. He passed its window slowly, and right away, as if at a signal, the car door opened and Lino, without his cap on, stuck his head out, saying, “Marcello, do you want to get in?”
He couldn’t help marveling at this very serious invitation after the vows of their first encounter. So Lino does know himself well, he thought, and it was even amusing to see him do something he had foreseen, despite all his determination to resist. Marcello walked on as if he hadn’t heard and then realized, with obscure satisfaction, that the car was moving and following him. The wide sidewalk was deserted as far as the eye could see between the regularly spaced factories full of windows and the great, slanting trunks of the plane trees. The car was following him at his own pace, with a low rumble that almost caressed the ear; after about twenty meters, it passed him and stopped some distance ahead; then the car door opened again. He passed it without turning and heard once more the strained and urgent voice, pleading, “Marcello, get in … I beg you … forget what I told you the other day … Marcello, do you hear me?”
Marcello couldn’t help telling himself that that voice was a little disgusting; why did Lino have to whine that way? It was lucky that no one else was going down the avenue, otherwise he would have felt ashamed. All the same, he didn’t want to discourage the man completely, so this time as he passed the car, he turned round halfway to look behind him, as if to invite Lino to persevere. He realized he was launching an almost flattering, flirtatious glance in his direction, and all of a sudden he felt the same unmistakeable sensation of not unpleasant humiliation, of not unnatural pretence, that he had felt two days ago for a moment when his companions were tying the skirt around his waist. Almost as if, at heart, it wouldn’t displease him — on the contrary, maybe he was made for it by nature — to act the part of a disdainful, flirtatious woman. Meanwhile the car had come up behind him again. Marcello queried himself as to whether it was yet time to surrender and decided, after reflection, that the moment had not yet come. The car passed him without stopping, only slowing down. He heard the man’s voice calling to him: “Marcello.…” and then, right afterwards, the sudden roar of the car taking off. Now he worried that Lino had lost patience and left; he was invaded by a great fear of showing himself the next day at school with empty hands; and he started to run, shouting, “Lino! Lino, stop, Lino!”
But the wind carried his words away, scattering them through the air with the dead leaves in an anguished and resonant tumult. The car dwindled in the distance; evidently Lino had not heard him and was going away; and he wouldn’t have the pistol; and Turchi would tease him one more time. Then he breathed again and began to walk at an almost normal pace, reassured: the car had pulled ahead, not to escape him, but to await him at a cross street; in fact, now it was parked there, blocking the whole width of the sidewalk.
He was assailed by anger with Lino for having provoked that humiliating thumping of his heart; and in that same heart he decided, with a sudden impulse of cruelty, to make him pay for it with calculated harshness. Meanwhile, without hurrying, he had reached the cross street. The car was there, long, black, gleaming with all its old brasses and antique body. Marcello started to go round it, and right away the door opened and Lino looked out.
“Marcello,” he said with desperate decision, “forget what I said
Marcello had halted near the hood of the car. He took a step backwards and said coldly, without looking at the man, “I’m not coming. But not because you told me not to come on Saturday.… It’s just because I really don’t want to.”
“Why don’t you want to?”
“Why should I? Why should I get in the car?”
“To give me pleasure.…”
“But I don’t want to give you pleasure.”
“Why not? Do I disgust you?”
“Yes,” said Marcello, lowering his eyes and playing with the handle of the car door. He knew he was making a worried, hostile, reluctant face and he no longer understood whether he was playacting or doing it in earnest. It was certainly a play, this thing he was enacting with Lino; but if it was a play, why was he experiencing such a strong and complicated feeling, this mix of vanity, loathing, humiliation, cruelty, and spite?
He heard Lino laugh softly and affectionately and then ask: “Why do I disgust you?”
This time he raised his eyes and gazed in the man’s face. It was true, Lino did disgust him, he thought, but he had never asked himself why. He looked at his face, almost ascetic in its thin severity, and realized then why he didn’t like Lino: it was because, he thought, it was a double face, in which fraud had found an exact physical expression. It seemed to him, looking at it, that he recognized this fraud above all in the mouth: thin, dry, disdainful, chaste at first sight; but then, if a smile opened and turned out the lips, shining, in the exposed and inflamed inner membranes, with the mysterious saliva of desire. He hesitated, gazing at Lino, who was smiling, waiting for his answer, and then he said sincerely, “You disgust me because you have a wet mouth.”
The Conformist by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes