By Alberto Moravia; Trans. by Tami Calliope
Zoland Books, $17.00 paper
What drives someone to cruelty? Were the perpetrators of the crimes against humanity in the Second World War psychopaths from childhood? Did some event occur to turn them against their fellow human beings?
The answers to these questions become clearer through the lens of history. Alberto Moravia attempts to analyze what makes a fascist by using a fictive narrative. His main character, Marcello Clarici in the novel, The Conformist, displays many of the traits of a psychopath from early in his childhood. Moravia also gives us some suggestions on how a person’s experiences and genetic history might push him toward anti-social, murderous behavior.
Marcello cannot locate his emotional center from the start of the novel. He studies others to see their emotional reactions and then apes them in order to manipulate. As the novel opens, Marcello is a child torturing and killing lizards in his Italian garden. When his friend, Roberto, expresses horror at Marcello’s shredding of the lizards with a rush, he becomes angry enough to fire off his slingshot at Roberto’s hedge availing himself of the opportunity to at the very least, scare his friend, but also quite cognizant that he could potentially harm or even kill him. Marcello succeeds only in killing Roberto’s cat, but this is a powerful scene because of Marcello’s lack of empathy for the suffering of the animal. Instead, he finds himself terrified because he confessed to killing a cat the night before to his mother to see her reaction. Now, he is faced with the fact that he has actually killed the pet, and confessed it to his mother. This, he believes, is “an uncontestable sign that he was, in some fatal mysterious way, predestined to commit acts of cruelty and death.”
Beyond this experience, Marcello suffers with his feelings of abnormality. He is abused by his father, a man later imprisoned in a mental asylum because he believes he is one of Mussolini’s men. His mother lives in squalor, a woman who lacks the sense to know the difference between sex and abuse. His schoolmates taunt and abuse Marcello because they consider him too feminine. When the boys attack him on the street and attempt to dress him in a skirt, a chauffer named Lino comes to his rescue, only to attempt to molest him in exchange for a real gun. Marcello does not understand the defrocked priest’s motives, but he dearly wants the gun in order to commit more mayhem. Marcello’s childhood comes to a close when he shoots Lino during an encounter in the chauffeur’s bedroom. The boy leaps out the window, believing he has killed the older man.
From here, we jump to Marcello as an adult, about to be married, and searching for normalcy in his life as a way of hiding his secret work for the fascists as Italy ramps up to the war. He agrees to take his honeymoon in Paris in order to renew his acquaintance with a former teacher, a man named Quadri. Moravia takes us through Marcello’s thinking, driven by wanting to be normal, something Roberto denied him in childhood, but which Marcello has searched for all his life. He harbors no real dislike for his teacher, but he is an anti-fascist agitator and therefore must be eliminated. The novel takes an interesting turn when Marcello, his new bride, Giulia, Quadri and his partner, Lina meet up in Paris. Marcello sees his betrayal of Quadri as similar to Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus. He even considers kissing his former teacher on the cheek to identify him to the assassin, another agent named Orlando.
Moravia should also be credited with writing scenes of frank and open sexuality in the novel. Lina, Quadri’s partner, wants to start a lesbian affair with Giulia, who rebuffs her. Meanwhile, Marcello develops an obsession with Lina and believes they are secretly destined to be together. She, of course, wants nothing to do with him since her sights are focused on Giulia.
The novel and the characters are twisted and deformed by their lives. This is not a study of fascism per se, nor even of Italy during the war. Moravia truly focuses his work on characters. How does one reach such a level of depravity? Is there any such thing as redemption for someone so devoid of emotion and so bent on murder? The resolution of these conflicts in Marcello’s life makes for powerful reading, and in the end, themes of lost innocence and the confusion of normalcy with conformity, hence the title, come to a satisfactory if somewhat coincidental conclusion. The reappearance of Lino is especially too easy, offering Marcello a chance to confront the person he believes set him on the path to ruin.
Moravia writes in spare, poetic prose, relishing in the details and brilliantly lit Italian landscape. Although Marcello displays many of the stereotypical traits of a fascist, Moravia avoids the clichés by making his character an individual. The thread of sexuality that runs through the story borders quite often on the perverse, assuring the connection between sexual repression and fascism in the novel.
Alberto Moravia, who died in 1990, is a challenging and powerful writer. He resists the standard existential angst of more famous work such as Camus’, The Stranger. It might be easy for some readers to dismiss Marcello’s evil as a product of his abnormal nature, but psychosis does not happen in a vacuum, and the depravity of the fascists cannot be explained away as simply a matter of dysfunction. Moravia knows better; he recognizes and develops the psychology of evil, and in the end, the reader can actually feel for Marcello even as we identify him as a monster. This is what makes Alberto Moravia a good writer and The Conformist an engrossing and compelling novel.