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Alberto Moravia: Il conformista (The Conformist)

Many people – myself included – read this book after having seen the fantastic Bertolucci film version. My recommendation is both to see the film and to read the book. Moravia based the plot on the story of his cousins, Carlo and Nello Rosselli, who were anti-fascists, murdered in France by the Fascists. The anti-hero of this novel is Marcello Clerici. He is not a nice boy, killing lizards and the like. He is abused by his father who, we learn, is slowly going mad. The other key event in his childhood is his shooting of a defrocked priest, who was trying to sexually assault him.

As an adult Marcello is a good Fascist, a good state employee and a good family man. He is asked to help infiltrate an anti-fascist organisation in France run by a former professor of his called Quadri and uses his impending honeymoon as cover. En route to Paris, he learns (in a brothel) that he is, in fact, to help kill Quadri. While in Paris he meets both Quadri and his young wife, Lina, whom Marcello thinks he is falling in love with. Lina, however, tells him that they know he is a Fascist spy. Meanwhile he finds that Lina is more interested in his new wife, Giulia, than in him, though her interest is not reciprocated. The novel moves towards the inevitable climax, with death and bloodshed all round.

The character of Marcello is a fascinating one. As the title clearly indicates, he is obsessed with conforming, hence the collaboration with the Fascists, the bourgeois marriage and the rejection of his parents. Moravia makes clear here, as he did elsewhere, that, for him, Fascism is itself an abnormality, including sexual abnormality. But Marcello, of course, the more he tries to conform, the more he tries to be normal, the more difficult it all becomes for him. His past keeps rearing up – his insane father, the defrocked priest and, later on, the murder of Quadri and Lina – in classic Freudian passion. What is normal? For Moravia, it is clear that it isn’t Fascism and it isn’t Marcello.

Publishing history

First published 1951 by Bompiani
First English translation 1951 by Farrar, Straus