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The conformist, p.8
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       The Conformist, p.8

           Alberto Moravia

  He walked slowly to the counter and gave the file back to the librarian. Then, still with the measured and vigorous composure that was his preferred attitude, he left the reading room and headed down the large stairway toward the lobby. It was true, he couldn’t help thinking as he stepped over the threshold into the strong light of the street, it was true — the news item and his deliberate recollection of Lino’s death had aroused no echo in his heart; but at the same time he did not feel quite as relieved as he had thought himself earlier. He recalled the feeling he had had as he leafed through the pages of the old newspaper: as if he were taking the bandages off a wound and finding to his surprise that it had healed perfectly. And he said to himself that maybe, under the unmarked skin, the old infection was still festering in the form of a closed and invisible abscess. He was confirmed in this suspicion not only by the fleeting quality of the relief he had felt for a moment when he discovered that Lino’s death left him indifferent, but also by the faint melancholy that floated like a diaphanous funeral veil between his vision and reality. As if the memory of the fact of Lino, dissolved as it was by the powerful acids of time, had nonetheless cast an inexplicable shadow over all his thoughts and feelings.

  As he walked slowly down the crowded, sunlit streets, he tried to establish a comparison between his self of seventeen years ago and his self of the present. He recalled that at thirteen he had been a shy boy, a bit feminine, impressionable, disordered, imaginative, impetuous, passionate. Now instead, at the age of thirty, he was not at all a shy man; on the contrary, he was perfectly sure of himself. He was altogether masculine in his tastes and attitudes, calm, orderly to an extreme, almost devoid of imagination, cold and controled. He seemed to remember, too, that there had once been an obscure and tumultuous richness inside him. Now instead, everything in him was clear although perhaps a little dull, and the poverty and rigidity of a few ideas and convictions had taken the place of that generous and confused abundance. Finally, he had been inclined toward intimacy, expansive, at times positively exuberant. Now he was closed, always in the same even-tempered mood, lacking spark and, if not actually sad, at least silent. But the most distinctive trait of the radical change effected in those seventeen years was the disappearance of a kind of excess of vitality caused by the seething of unusual, perhaps even abnormal, instincts; these had now given way, it seemed, to a certain gray and restrained normality. Only chance, he thought again, had kept him from submitting to Lino’s desires; and certainly a clouded, unconscious, sensual inclination, combined with his childish greed, had contributed to his behavior, so full of coquetry and femine despostism, with the chauffeur. But now he was really a man, like so many others. He stopped in front of a store mirror and looked at himself for a long time, observing himself with objective detachment, without pleasure: yes, he was really a man like so many others, with his gray suit, his sober tie, his tall and well-proportioned figure, his dark, round face, his well-combed hair, his dark sunglasses. At the university, he recalled, he had suddenly discovered, with a kind of joy, that there were at least a thousand young men of his own age that dressed, spoke, thought, and behaved as he did. Now that figure could probably be multiplied by a million. He was a normal man, he thought with contemptuous and bitter satisfaction, beyond the shadow of a doubt, even if he couldn’t say how it had happened.

  Suddenly he remembered that he had finished his cigarettes and turned into a tobacconist’s shop in the Piazza Colonna arcade. He went up to the counter and asked for his preferred brand at the same time that three other people asked for the same cigarettes, and the tobacconist slid them rapidly across the marble of the countertop toward the four hands holding out money — four identical packs, which the four hands picked up with identical gestures. Marcello noticed that he took the pack, squeezed it to see if it was fresh enough, and then ripped off the seal the same way the other three did. He even noticed that two of the three tucked the pack back into a small inner pocket in their jackets, as he did. Finally, one of the three stopped just outside the tobacconist’s to light a cigarette with a silver lighter exactly like his own. These observations stirred a satisfied, almost voluptuous pleasure in him. Yes, he was the same as the others, the same as everyone. The same as the men who bought the same brand of cigarettes, with the same gestures, even the men who turned at the passage of a woman dressed in red, himself among them, to eye the quiver of her solid buttocks under the thin material of the dress. Even if, as in this last gesture, the similarity was due more to willed imitation in his case than to any real personal inclination.

  A short, deformed newspaper seller came up to him, a bundle of papers in his arm, waving a copy and declaiming loudly, his face congested by the effort, some incomprehensible phrase in which the words VICTORY and SPAIN were still recognizable. Marcello bought the paper and read the headline that covered the whole top of the page attentively: once again, in the war in Spain, Franco’s followers had won a victory. He was aware of reading this news with true satisfaction — one more demonstration, he thought, of his full and absolute normality. He had seen the birth of the war, from the first hypocritical headline, “What’s Happening in Spain?” The war had spread, grown gigantic, become a dispute not only of arms but also of ideas. And gradually he became aware that he was following it with a singular emotion, completely divorced from any political and moral consideration (although such considerations came frequently to mind), very much like the feeling of a sports fan who roots for one football team against another. From the beginning he had wanted Franco to win, not fervently but with a sentiment both deep and tenacious, almost as if that victory would bring him confirmation of the goodness and rightness of his tastes and ideas, not only in the field of politics but also in all others. Perhaps he had desired and still desired Franco’s victory for love of symmetry, like someone who is furnishing his house and takes care to collect furniture all of the same style and period. He seemed to read this symmetry in the events of the past few years, growing ever clearer and more important: first the advent of Fascism in Italy, then in Germany; then the war of Ethiopia, then the war in Spain. This progression pleased him, he wasn’t sure why, maybe because it was easy to recognize a more-than-human logic in it, a recognition that gave him a sense of security and infallibility. On the other hand, he thought, folding the newspaper back up and putting it in his pocket, it couldn’t be said that he was convinced of the justice of Franco’s cause for reasons of politics or propaganda. This conviction had come to him out of nowhere, as it seems to come to ordinary, uneducated people: from the air, that is, as when someones says an idea is in the air. He sided with Franco the way countless other people did, common folk who knew little or nothing about Spain, uneducated people who barely read the headlines in the papers. For simpatia, he thought, giving a completely unconsidered, alogical, irrational sense to the Italian word. A simpatia that could be said only metaphorically to come from the air; there is flower pollen in the air, smoke from the houses, dust, light, not ideas. This simpatia, then, arose from deeper regions and demonstrated once more that his normality was neither superficial nor pieced together rationally and voluntarily with debatable motives and reasons, but linked to an instinctive and almost physiological condition, to a faith, that is, shared with millions of other people. He was one with the society he found himself living in, and with its people. He was not a loner, abnormal, crazy, but one of them: a brother, a citizen, a comrade; and this, after the long fear that Lino’s murder would divide him from the rest of humanity, was highly consoling.

  Franco or someone else, he thought; in the long run it mattered very little who, as long as there was a link, a bridge, a sign of connection and communion. But the fact that it was Franco and not someone else showed that, aside from being an indication of communion and solidarity, his emotional participation in the Spanish war was right, was real. What else could the truth be, in fact, if not that which was evident to everyone, believed by everyone, held irrefutable? Thus the chain was unbroken, a
ll its links well soldered by his simpatia, felt before any reflection, to the knowledge that this feeling was shared by millions of other people in just the same way; from this knowledge to the conviction of being in the right; from the conviction of being in the right to action. Because, he thought, possession of the truth not only permitted action but demanded it. It was like a confirmation he must offer to himself and others of his own normality, which must be continually deepened, reaffirmed, and demonstrated lest it lose reality.

  By this time he had arrived. The main entrance to the ministry yawned wide on the other side of the street, beyond a double row of moving cars and buses. He waited for a moment and then struck out in the wake of a big black automobile that was headed right to the entrance. He went in behind the car, told the usher the name of the official with whom he wished to speak, and then sat down in the waiting room, almost glad to be waiting like the others, among the others. He did not feel rushed or impatient or intolerant of the order and etiquette of the ministry. On the contrary, its order and etiquette pleased him, seemed to him to be signs of a vaster and more generalized order and etiquette to which he gladly adapted. He felt entirely calm and cold; if anything — but this was not new to him, either — a little sad. It was a mysterious sorrow, which by this time he considered inseparable from his character. He had always been sad like this, or better, lacking in gaiety, like certain lakes whose waters mirror a very high mountain that blocks the light of the sun, making them black and melancholy. One knows that if the mountain were removed, the sun would make the waters sparkle; but the mountain is always there and the lake is sad. He was sad like those lakes; but what the mountain was, he couldn’t have said.

  The waiting room, a little room just beyond the porter’s lodge in the palazzo, was full of odd people, the very opposite of what you would expect to find in the anteroom of a minister like that, famous for his elegance and the worldliness of his officials. Three individuals of a debauched and sinister cast, perhaps informers or plainclothes agents, were smoking and chatting in low voices next to a young woman with black hair and a white and red face, very flashily dressed and made up, to all appearances the lowest kind of prostitute. Then there was an old man, dressed neatly but poorly in black, with a white beard and moustache, maybe a professor. Then a thin little woman with gray hair and a breathless, anxious expression, maybe the mother of a family. Then him.

  He observed all these people from under his lashes with urgent repugnance. It always happened like this: he thought he was normal, like everyone else, when he imagined the crowd in abstract, a great, positive army united by the same feelings, the same ideas, the same aims; and it was comforting to be part of this. But as soon as individuals emerged out of that crowd, his illusion of normality shattered against the fact of diversity. He did not recognize himself at all in them and felt both disgust and detachment. What did he have in common with those three sinister, vulgar individuals, that streetwalker, that white-haired old man, that breathless and humble mother? Nothing except this disgust, this pity.

  “Clerici,” yelled the voice of the usher. He started and rose to his feet. “The first stairway to the right.” Without turning, he headed toward the place the man had pointed out.

  He climbed up a long, very wide staircase with a red carpet snaking up its center and found himself, after the second flight, on a vast landing with three big double doors. He went to the one in the middle, opened it, and stepped into the half-light of a large room. There was a long, massive table in it and in the middle of the table was a globe of the world. Marcello wandered around this room for a few moments; it was probably not in use, judging by the locked shutters on the windows and the dustcovers draped over the couches lined up against the walls. Then he opened one of its many doors and looked out into a dark, narrow corridor between two rows of glass shelves. At the end of the corridor he could see a door that had been left ajar, through which a little light was filtering. Marcello approached it, hesitated, and then very slowly and gently pushed on it. It was not curiosity but the desire to find an usher who could point out the room he wanted that led him to do it. Putting his eye to the crack, he realized that his suspicion of being in the wrong place was not unfounded. Before him stretched a long, narrow room, blandly illuminated by a window curtained in yellow. In front of the window was a table and sitting at the table in profile, his back to the window, was a young man with a broad, heavy face and corpulent body. Standing up against the table with her back to Marcello was a woman clothed in a light dress of big black flowers on a white background, a wide, black lace hat with a veil on her head. She was very tall and very slender in the waist, but broad at the shoulders and hips, with long legs and thin ankles. She was leaning over the table and speaking softly to the man, who was listening to her and sitting still, in profile, looking not at her but at his own hand fiddling with a pencil on the table. Then she came around to the side of the armchair close to the man and began talking to him in a more intimate way, her back toward the table and her face to the window; but the black hat tilted over one eye kept Marcello from seeing her face. She hesitated, then leaned awkwardly to the side with her leg in the air, like someone bending down to a fountain to receive the gush of water in her mouth, and pressed her lips to the lips of the man, who let himself be kissed without moving or giving any sign that the kiss pleased him. She turned, hiding both their faces behind the broad brim of her hat, then swayed and would have lost her balance if the man had not held her up by putting an arm around her waist. Now she was standing up, her body hiding the man in the chair; maybe she was stroking his head. Then his arm, which was still wound around her waist, seemed to relax its hold; his thick, coarse hand slid over the woman’s buttock as if pulled down by its own weight and stayed there, wide open, fingers spread like a crab or a spider resting on a smooth, spherical surface that rejects its grip. Marcello closed the door.

  He turned back down the hallway to the room with the globe. What he had just witnessed confirmed the minister’s fame as a libertine — the man he had watched in the other room was the minister himself; Marcello had recognized him right away. But strangely, considering his tendency to moralize, what he had seen did not shake the foundation of his convictions at all. Marcello felt no simpatia whatsoever for the worldly, womanizing minister; on the contrary, he disliked him; and he felt that this intrusion of his erotic life into his official one was highly improper. But none of this affected Marcello’s political faith even minimally. It was the same when people he trusted told him about other important public figures — that they were stealing, or incompetent, or using their political influence for personal ends. He registered this sort of news with an almost gloomy indifference, as if these kinds of things had ceased to concern him from the moment he had made his choice, once and for all; and he didn’t intend to change it. Besides, such things no longer surprised him, since in a certain sense he had taken them for granted for as long as he could remember, with his precocious awareness of the less amicable aspects of man.

  But above all, he perceived that there could be no relationship between his loyalty to the regime and the extremely rigid morality that informed his own conduct. The reasons for that loyalty had origins deeper than any moral standard, and they were not about to be shaken by a hand feeling up a woman’s bottom in a state office, or by a theft, or by any other crime or error. He couldn’t have said, precisely, what these origins were; the dull, opaque veil of his stubborn melancholy came between them and his thoughts.

  Impassive and calm yet impatient, he opened another door in the big room, peered down another corridor, withdrew, tried a third door, and finally found himself in the waiting room he was looking for. People were sitting on the couches all around the walls; ushers in braided uniforms stood near the thresholds. Speaking in a low voice, he communicated the name of the official he wanted to see to an usher and then went to sit down on one of the couches. He re-opened his paper to pass the time. News of the victory in Spain filled every colu
mn and he realized that this tasteless excess annoyed him. He reread the dispatch in bold type announcing the victory and then passed on to a long comment in italics, which he quit reading almost immediately because the forced and unconvincing martial stance of the special correspondent irritated him. He stopped reading for a moment to wonder how he, himself, would have written the article, and he surprised himself by thinking that if it had been up to him, not only the article from Spain but also all other aspects of the regime, from the least important to the most prominent, would be completely different. Actually, he thought, there was almost nothing about the regime that he didn’t dislike deeply; all the same, this was his path and he had to remain faithful to it. He reopened the paper and skimmed over a few of the other items, carefully avoiding the patriotic articles and the propaganda. At last he raised his eyes from the paper and looked around.

  At that moment there was no one left in the waiting room except one old white-haired man with a round head and a lively face, whose expression was a mixture of impudence, cunning, and greed. Dressed in light-colored clothes, a sporty, youthful jacket ripped down the back, big rubber-soled shoes on his feet and a flashy tie on his chest, he gave the impression of being at home in the ministry, walking up and down the room and carelessly consulting the obsequious ushers posted at the threshold of the doors with an air of playful impatience. Then one of the doors opened and a middle-aged man emerged: bald, thin except for a prominent belly, with an empty yellow face, eyes lost at the bottom of large, dark sockets, and a ready, sceptical, spirited expression on his sharp features. The old man went straight up to him with an exclamation of playful protest; the other saluted him ceremoniously and deferentially; and then the old man, with an intimate gesture, took the man with the yellow face not by an arm but right by the waist, as if he were a woman. Walking across the room beside him, he began speaking to him, whispering urgently in a very low voice. Marcello, who had been following the scene with an indifferent eye, suddenly realized to his astonishment that he was feeling an insane hatred for the old man and he didn’t even know why. Marcello was not unaware that at any moment and for the most diverse reasons one of these excesses of hatred could burst through the deadened surface of his usual apathy; but each time it happened he was amazed, as if faced with an unknown aspect of his own character that gave the lie to all the other known, secure ones. That old man, for example: he felt that he could easily kill him or have him killed; more, that he actually wanted to kill him. Why? Maybe, he thought, it was because scepticism, the fault he hated most, was so clearly painted on that ruddy face of his. Or because his jacket had a tear in the back and the old man, who was keeping his hand in his pocket, was lifting one of the flaps, exposing the back of his pants, which were too big and floppy and made him look disgustingly like a tailor’s dummy. Anyway, he hated him with such great and unbearable intensity that at last he preferred to lower his eyes to his newspaper again. When he raised them once more, after some time, the old man and his companion were gone and the room was deserted.

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