Monday, 27 July 2015

The Conformist

The Conformist - Alberto Moravia
Translated by Angus Davidson
"I shall flare up and then die down again without reason and without result . . . just a little piece of destruction hanging in the blackness of night."

A few years ago I wrote a piece about the film version of The Conformist and recently, (*It was recently when I started writing this but ain't so recent now) seeing as Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos was having a bit of a Moraviafest I decided to join in and finally read the novel. And I'm glad I did. The Conformist is a stylish book written in a terse style with great clarity and powerful use of imagery. Bertolucci's use of contrasting light and dark stripes in the film was something I felt the director may have added to the mix but it is almost a defining aspect of the novel. Moravia seems to revel in dialectics, setting up contrasts at every opportunity and exploring how each action leads by often subterranean routes to the next.

The conformist of the title is Marcello Clerici, who is driven towards conformity by his sense of his own abnormality. The book opens in Marcello's childhood, then moves forward to the period leading to his marriage and finally the immediate aftermath of the downfall of Italian fascism and the end of the Second World War.

The opening lines set out Moravia's style, with the suggestion that Marcello's hunger for objects may be an expression of more deep rooted and less defined desires: "Marcello, as a child, was fascinated , magpie-like, by objects. It may have been because his parents, from indifference rather than austerity, had never thought to satisfy his instinct for property; it may have been because other instincts, more profound and still vague, were, in him, masked by avidity." There is so much here, the magpie suggesting Marcello may steal (although this may be more to do with identity than property), his parent's indifference and the inference that there are powerful subterranean desires shaping his future.

Shakespeare's flies were at the mercy of 'wanton boys' but Marcello is tortured as well as torturing and progresses from beheading flowers to hunting down lizards in a mild frenzy of blood lust, to the killing of a cat with a slingshot, when he thought he might actually be shooting at the boy next door. What pleasure he gets from these acts quickly turns back on him and he is wracked by the feeling that he is not a normal person, that he is somehow wrong: "..he still felt, all through his body and in his face, the excitement that had filled him during the slaughter - no longer pleasantly glowing, however, as it had been then, but already becoming tainted with remorse and shame."

But this remorse and shame doesn't bring his desires under control, but threatens to bring them from play into the arena of life. "Of all objects, however, those that attracted him most strongly, perhaps because they were forbidden, were weapons."  Why? We are told this is different from the 'normal' interest in weapons that his friends have and that "his taste for weapons had deeper and obscurer origins than their innocent military infatuations. They would play at soldiers with a pretence of ruthlessness and ferocity, but really their interest in the game was really love of the game itself, and they aped the postures of cruelly, actor-like, without any real participation of feeling. In him, on the other hand, just the opposite occurred; it was his ruthlessness and ferocity which sought an outlet in playing at soldiers, or, when there was no game of that kind, in other pastimes which accorded with his taste for destruction and death."

Marcello casts around for some way of proving his normality to himself, of trying to find others who share his bloodlust, his guilty secrets, because that would mean that "everybody did them, and what everybody did was normal or right.". He tries to involve the boy next door but he refuses to consider killing lizards and this leaves Marcello feeling even more abnormal.  He tries to tell his parents but their indifference seems so complete that they don't even hear him. He is riven between his desire for absolution and his fear of his abnormality being known. Trying to tell his parents "it was not only the scolding he dreaded, but the mere witnessing of acts which he himself realised to be abnormal and mysteriously imbued with guilt." Under it all is his growing sense "that he was predestined, in some mysterious and fatal way, to accomplish acts of cruelty and death."

He finds himself wanting punishment, even though he is terrified of his father's outbursts of violence towards him. ("All of a sudden, after some complaint from Marcello's mother or the cook, he would remember that he had a son, would start shouting at him, getting into a rage with him and striking him.") He wants to be sent to boarding school: "he was surprised to find himself violently desiring this sort of penance. It was his unconscious weariness of a family life which was disorderly and lacking in affection that expressed itself in this desire..."

When Marcello is approached by Pasquale, a chauffeur who seems to struggle with his pederasty like Marcello struggles with his sadism Pasquale discovers the boy's desire to own a weapon can give him leverage over the child. The indifference of his mother and the indifference mixed with violence of his father has made Marcello vulnerable to any attention. However when Pasquale, after once sending Marcello off with instructions to ignore him in future, gets the boy back to his room Marcello gets his hands on the chauffeur's revolver....

At this point we are flung forward to the adult Marcello, looking through dusty newspaper archives to find if there was any coverage of the shooting. There is a wonderful tirade against newspapers:
"The headings had lost their original brightness, the blackness of the print having turned almost green; the paper was yellowed; the photographs looked faded and confused, lacking light and shade. He noticed that, the bigger and more extended the heading, the greater the sense of futility and absurdity it gave; announcements of events that had lost their importance and significance by the evening of the very day on which they had appeared, now, with their noisy incomprehensibility, were repugnant, not only to the memory but to the imagination as well."

Marcello has searched out the report on the shooting in order to see how he feels and "From this feeling" .. "judge whether he was still the boy he had once been, obsessed by his own fatal abnormality, or the new, completely normal man that he had since intended to be and that he was convinced he was." He felt relieved and astonished to find the news  "aroused no appreciable echo in his mind" but later worries that maybe "the old poison was still lurking in the form of a closed, invisible abscess." A vague memory that he was attracted to Lino by a "confused, unconscious inclination of the senses" almost upsets his confidence that "now he was, really and truly, a man just like any other man." He looks back for security to his time in college where "he had discovered all of a sudden, with a kind of delight, that there were at least a thousand young men of his age who dressed, spoke, thought and behaved like him."

Over the course of these pages it becomes clear that the normal that Clerici is embracing is the normal of Mussolini's Italy and that he is a functionary of the party. Moravia unites his desire to be normal and the power and danger of fascism. Can there be too large a bridge between wanting to be part of the crowd and wanting to shape the crowd "He observed all these people stealthily, with a strong feeling of repugnance. This was what always happened to him: he thought he was normal and just like everyone else when he pictured the crowd to himself as an abstract whole, as a great existing army held together by common feelings, common ideas, common aims, an army of which it was comforting to form a part. But as soon as individuals rose to the surface of this crowd, his illusion of normality broke to pieces against their diversity, since he failed completely to recognize himself in them and felt at the same time repugnance and detachment. What was there in common between him and those three sinister, vulgar men, between him and that woman of the streets, between him and that white-haired old man, between him and that humble, worn out mother? Nothing at all, except for the repulsion, the pity, that he felt." The child is visible in the man. The child who was never a part of even his own family: "He was allowed to go into his mother's room at any moment, an inquisitive and ignored spectator of an intimacy in which he had no place."

Clerici is given a job to do for the regime, taking on the role of Judas with an old lecturer. He pairs this with his honeymoon, marrying a woman who represents normality to him, and also seems a direct repudiation of his parents. He seems to have no real belief in the party or in his marriage but he needs both to fill the absence which is at his core. He offers to combine his mission for the party with his honeymoon, an offer which goes beyond what the party was asking him. Like the earlier incident with Pasquale, Marcello will find that this event has a long tail, and will resurface later.

Marcello finds the home of his fiancée "a kind of temple elevated, in a rather touching manner, in honour of the twin divinities of respectability and normality." This seems to be what he wants to marry, for when the selfsame Giulia clearly desires him pre-nuptially we find that"Marcello was not in love with his future wife; but he liked Giulia and these sensual embraces never failed to excite him. He did not, however, feel inclined to reciprocate her transports: he wished his relations with his fiancée to be kept within the bounds of tradition, feeling, so to speak, that a greater intimacy would reintroduce into his life the disorder, the abnormality that he was all the time seeking to banish." His normality is on a shallow foundation, unlike that of his fiancée, who can treat all eventualities as normal: "For Giulia, normality was not, as for him, a thing that had to be found or reconstructed; it was there; and she was immersed in it and, whatever happened, would never forsake it."

Marcello's mother is not invited to the wedding and he refuses her offer of living in his childhood home with her, although it is much larger than Giulia's mother's apartment. His father is in an asylum and his mother is paying the chauffeur for more than driving. Marcello cannot really deal with either of them. He is disgusted by his mother and horrified by his father. His attitude to the house and it's disorder is wonderfully expressed in this passage: "Immediately, as soon as his mother had gone out, Marcello went over to the window and opened it wide. The air outside was hot and still; yet he seemed to feel an acute sense of relief, as though he were looking out on to a glacier rather than a stuffy garden. At the same time he seemed almost to be aware of a movement of the air in the room behind him; heavy with stale perfumes and with the stink of animals, it seemed to stir gradually, to pass slowly out through the window and then dissolve into space, like a huge aerial vomit overflowing from the throat of the polluted house."

It is possible to see Marcello himself as something like this, a man poured forth like pollution from the breast of his dysfunctional family. Indeed Marcello later describes himself as "an empty shell". No matter how much he dresses up in the clothes, career and family life of the normal man he carries, as he has feared since childhood, an inner void. Any disorder threatens to throw him into this void. When looking at the women in a brothel he has to meet a party member in on his way to Paris he is horrified by their abnormality: "it was the same thing that made him shudder with horror in the face of his mother's nudity and his father's madness, and which was at the source of his almost hysterical love of order, quietness, tidiness, composure." Whenever Marcello feels he has put the past behind him and attained some kind of normality something happens to destroy his comfort. His responses are often highly amplified: "His sensation of anguish, however, made him suspect the existence of a panic relationship between himself and outside events." I love the phrase 'panic relationship' and must note that one of the pleasures of this book is the clarity and fluency of the translation, which never feels forced or stilted.

Moravia weaves themes other than family into this picture of Marcello. Religion plays a big part, at least in descriptions. Penance and guilt soak the pages. Marcello, as I have already noted, is given the role of Judas, and he is strongly aware of this: "Then the figure of Judas, the thirteenth apostle, became confused with his own, coalesced with its outlines, in fact was his own." His old professor, Quadri, who he is to identify, is an anti-fascist who is always pushing his ideology. He too is described in religious terms: "'Then perhaps we can hope to make a conquest of you,' speaking in a sweet, melting, heart-broken tone of voice, like a priest talking to an atheist."

Sexuality too, is omnipresent, from the early taunts of his schoolfellows about Marcello's femininity, a trait he feel Pasquale the pederast picked up on, through his uneasiness around the desire of his wife and her own sexual revelations. There are further attempted seductions and a highly charged scene in a brothel. Finally there is almost a replay of the early abduction when an older gay man tries to get Marcello to come back to his house, clearly convinced that Marcello is also gay:  "Like his schoolfellows, this old man did not believe in his virility; like his schoolfellows, he insisted on considering him as a kind of female." Marcello is, one feels, always trying to prove himself in one way or another.

The act of writing is treated in the figure of Marcello's father, a position that can be read as Moravia's. In a scene where Marcello visits the asylum his father plays the role of a functionary of the regime, mirroring Marcello's own position. He is also continually writing and declaiming: "with a strange, wild craziness, he threw a sheet of paper up into the air over his own bopped head. It landed in the middle of the room, and Marcello bent and picked it up: it contained nothing but a few incomprehensible words in a writing full of flourishes and underlinings. Marcello could not even be sure they were words. While he was examining the piece of paper, the madman began throwing more pieces into the air, still with the same gesture as though he were furiously busy. The sheets of paper came flying up over his white head and were scattered all over the room. As he threw them up in the air, his gestures became more and more violent, and soon the whole room was full of little sheets of squared paper. 'Poor dear,' said Marcello's mother, 'he always did have a passion for writing.'"

He also seems a parodic demagogue with tirades of words delivered so rapidly and breathlessly as to seem one word: "The words, thought Marcello, must be melting on his tongue even before he uttered them, as though the devouring fire of madness had dissolved their shapes like wax and fused them into a single oratorical substance, of a soft, elusive indistinctness."

This could never be said of Moravia, who writes with great clarity of style and structure, with events being reflected and refracted through each other. If I were to pick one weakness it would be that the tying up of one loose end felt a little unnecessary to me, even bordering on trite, and was revealed through the office of extreme coincidence. However, this is really just nit picking and this is a really good read, whether as a psychological novel, a spy novel, a political novel or just as a book. It has inspired me to pick up a couple more Moravia's, which I hope to get to before I die.


  1. It's good to see the return of posts here, Seamus, especially with one as great as this. Moravia wrote The Conformist a few years after the novel I read (Agostino) and I think it shows in your review. It sounds more complex, more visceral and more political than Agostino...more everything, really. The quotes give a real sense of that. Looks like I'm going to have to add this to The List.

    Your closing comments remind me of the way I feel about the Javier Maris novels I've read - one can interpret them in so many different ways.

    1. Thanks Jacqui - it feels good to actually finish a post again. Hopefully I can get some more done now that I've remembered how. I found The Conformist a real page turner, an easy read with depth.

  2. Terrific review, Séamus. I can get a flavor from it of the same painstaking dissection of a state of mind that Moravia provides in Contempt, but clearly here aiming more at the psychology underpinning fascism. And even from the few quotations, I'm impressed again by what you call Moravia's "great clarity of style and structure" - even at the sentence level. He's simply one of the most meticulous modern writers I've read. And that passage in the asylum you quote at the end is just fantastic.

    1. One of many terrific passages. The translation is as good as I've read, which may be partly a result of Moravia's clarity of style. This has me toying with a reread of Canetti's Crowds and Power (which I really only dipped into many years ago) just to see if there are many parallels.

  3. Great review. I think you're spot on with your comments about Moravia's style. This sounds like another Moravia novel I'll have to pick up!

    1. Thanks Grant. I certainly recommend this one, although unable to place it in the Moravia constellation until I read more myself.