The Conformist

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The Conformist

by Alberto Moravia

THE LITERARY WORK

A novel set in Italy in 1920, 1937, and 1945; published in Italian (as Il Canformista) in 1957, in English in 1957.

SYNOPSIS

Dispatched to Paris on an undercover mission, the protagonist must help kill his former college professor as proof of his loyalty to the Fascist regime.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Novelist, playwright, essayist, short-story writer, travel writer, film reviewer, and activist, Alberto Pincherle (1907-90) was one of Italy’s key early-twentieth-century intellectuals. His father’s wealthy Roman family’s was Jewish. Young Alberto suffered from tuberculosis until the age of 18 and started to write early in life to combat the loneliness of his ailment. At 22, under the name Alberto Moravia, the seasoned writer published his first novel, Gli indifferenti (1929; The Indifferent Ones) to literary and popular acclaim. He went on to compose works critical of totalitarianism and to become active in the pacifist movement, at the same time gaining a reputation for being sexually liberal. Together these qualities made Moravia a controversial figure in Italy until his death in 1990. He became romantically involved with two female writers, Elsa Morante, whom he married and divorced, and Dacia Maraini (see A History and The Silent Duchess , also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Just four years before his death, Moravia married a young Spanish woman, Carmen Llera. In the postwar years, he cofounded (with Alberto Carocci) a literary journal, Nuovi argomenti (New Arguments), to help bridge the gap between communists and liberals in Italian culture. Moravia wrote more than a dozen novels, which can be grouped into periods. Agostino (1944) marks the end of his moralistic stage, featuring characters who face ethical dilemmas, while La Romana (1947; The Woman of Rome) marks the beginning of a decidedly Catholic period, stressing purgation and guilt. It is in this last period that Moravia created ll Conformista (1957), a novel about a society that is obsessed with sex, money, and power, and that drives the protagonist to the brink of his own destruction.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The rise of Fascism

The protagonist of The Conformist, Marcello, is a product of the Fascist regime in Italy, with all its contradictions. Gathering into its fold different political models, Fascism came to power as a revolutionary force bent on striking a third way between communism and capitalism, between socialism and democracy. The champions of this third way found themselves entering the political system of a country traumatized by the First World War and gripped by economic crisis. Fascism began with the promise of renewal after the failure of a liberal period in Italy under Giovanni Giolitti (1901-14), followed by economic-related violence in the late 1910s. A wave of strikes and riots wracked the country in 1919-20. Landlords and industrial leaders looked to Fascist paramilitary squads to defeat the gains made by the Socialists, the political representatives of the workers and peasants. Especially in rural Central Italy, a lorry full of Fascist squad members (ex-soldiers and students) “would descend on some village at night, beat up the local unionists, ‘purge’ them of their inequities by making them drink castoroil, burn down the local party offices, and depart” (Clark, p. 216). Sometimes these attack even transpired with the help of peasants who were discontented over the tight grip the Socialists had assumed over their area. The Fascist squads made violence a legitimate tactic in Italian politics.

A wave of strikes and riots coursed through Italy in 1919-20, and the Fascist paramilitary squads promised to control what no doubt seemed like mayhem. Close to 3,500 industrial strikes and 400 agricultural strikes erupted during this interlude (known as the Biennnio Rosso or “Red Biennium,” meaning two years of bloodshed). It was in this atmosphere that Benito Mussolini founded Fasci Italiani del Combattimento (leagues of ex-servicemen), an organization that gave rise to paramilitary squads and evolved into the Fascist Party. The organization spoke of mounting a preventive counter-revolution against the prospect of Russian-style Bolshevik socialism in Italy. To this end, its squads attacked politicians and union and newspaper headquarters, as well as peasant and working-class activists. By 1921, the Fascist Movement had gained enough momentum to become a political party, one that, despite its newly official status, continued to use strong-arm tactics. These climaxed with a revolutionary march on Rome in October 1922. Directed by Mussolini, about 30,000 black-shirted Fascists converged on the city, and the threat of force achieved its aim. The Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III, appointed Mussolini prime minister on October 30, 1922.

Violence would continue to figure prominently in Mussolini’s Fascist regime (1922-43). The regime set out to fashion a “new Italian,” the tough conqueror, to this end insisting on the use of the disciplined military goose step, emotional and physical self-control, and strict conformity to Fascist organizations and policies. This new Italian was to be Catholic, apolitical, athletic, virile, unemotional, and patriotic. These were pillars of the Italian razza (race) upheld by the regime in the mid-1920s.

The Fascist regime

After Mussolini gained power in 1922, he organized his squad members (squadristi) into the Fascist Militia (Milizia Volontaria di Sicurezza Nazionale), an armed body whose members answered only to him. Mussolini, now addressed by the title Il Duce (the leader), also created his own extralegal government body, an assembly of Fascists (the Gran Consiglio del Fascismo); though this assembly was not officially recognized, it made the decisions that Parliament would rubber stamp. Then, in April 1924, in an election rife with manipulation and intimidation, the Fascist Party won a majority of seats in Parliament (356 out of 535). Two months later, a group of Fascists murdered Giacomo Matteotti, a Socialist deputy who in a speech in Parliament denounced the strong-arm tactics used by the Fascists in the April elections. Matteotti’s murder prompted anti-Fascist lawmakers to quit Parliament, a drastic ploy to force the king to dismiss Mussolini. But the order his regime had brought to society and his own clever public relations campaign had won Mussolini the support of the middle class and of Italy’s powerful elites—the Church, king, army, industry leaders, and landowners. In a speech to Parliament on January 3, 1925, Il Duce assumed responsibility for all that happened in Italy—including Matteotti’s murder—then began to establish his full dictatorship of the country. With his leading opponents gone from Parliament, his path was clear. He lacked, though, the support of artists and intellectuals. Mussolini set about enlisting them into his regime, leaving the exact meaning of fascism open to interpretation. In 1926-27, the regime debated Fascist art, initiating vigorous discussions on the relationship between art and politics. The regime adopted a benchmark slogan that summarized its desire for conformity in art, as in every other aspect of Fascist life: “Everything within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”

The regime gave high priority to making itself the central authority at every level of Italian society. This process, commonly referred to as the “Fascistization of Italy,” began with reforms in education, then moved to censorship of the press and the formation of Fascist-led workers’ unions (corporations) that regulated work contracts. The Fascists organized separate groups for youth and for women too. In cultural affairs, Fascism took over the Dante Alighieri Society (the most prominent organization for the protection of the Italian Culture), and created corporations to which all intellectuals had to belong. The regime took control of key newspapers and of the radio and cinema industries. New legislation in 1925 introduced two repressive institutions: first, a branch of the police (named OVRA) to suppress anti-Fascist activity; second, a “Special Tribunal for the Defense of the State,” empowered to use martial law for dealing with anti-Fascists. But while the Fascist regime repressed intellectuals, it also attempted to win them over by turning Italy into a patron state that gave out subsidies, grants, and prizes. The regime established a Ministry of Popular Culture that hired photographers, filmmakers, and artists for propaganda purposes. It also hired reporters, critics, and writers to censor their colleagues. Made up of some 40 employees, the ministry’s book division reviewed 700 titles a month, with a heavy hand: “Books and stories were routinely confiscated, altered by the censors, or condemned to oblivion through press directives that commanded critics to ignore them” (Ben-Ghiat, p. 47).

Moravia, along with many others, was initially caught up in the excitement the regime generated. In the 1920s, he was a regular guest in the cultural circle around Margherita Sarfatti, a prominent figure in Italian art and Mussolini’s mistress. Then, in 1929, Moravia published Gli Indifferenti, or The Indifferent Ones, featuring an apathetic middle-class family’s, victims of the mother’s selfish lover. Had this novel been published after 1933, it probably would have been censored. Moravia’s later novel La mascherata (1941; The Masked Ball) met with official resistance. The regime banned any review of the book, after which Moravia published under another name, Pseudo.

THE ROSSELLI BROTHERS, SILENCED

Nello and Carlo Rosselli, cousins to Moravia, were two promising historians who, although trained by the leading historian of the Fascist regime (Gioacchino Volpe), became outspoken anti-Fascists, Carlo, who immigrated to France, founded the radical group Justice and Liberty (Giustizia e Libertà) in 1929. Justice and Liberty called on its members to fight for the overthrow of the Fascist dictatorship and for the victory of a free, democratic republican regime in Italy. The group attracted intellectuals in Italy and abroad. Committed to acting on his beliefs, Carlo volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War against the forces of Francisco Franco. He had returned from Spain and was recovering at a health resort outside Paris on June 9,1937, when his wife, Marion, and Nello arrived for a visit After dropping Marion at the train station, the two brothers were ambushed and killed on a deserted road by French assassins, members of a right-wing sect (the Cagoule) known for the hooded cape its members wore. Moravia later recalled being shaken to the core by news of their murders, “which were not discussed at home for fear of informers” (Ben-Ghiat, p. 162).

There were authors who continued to write, and even to oppose the regime, which succeeded only partly in its effort to “fascistize” society. Though some genuinely supported the regime, others merely played the game, agreeing only outwardly with Fascist authorities. Many Italians in the larger population behaved similarly, never becoming devoted to Fascism despite its propaganda. Most of those who opposed the Fascist order outright were punished. Italy’s most renowned intellectual, Benedetto Croce, went so far as to write a Manifesto of the Anti-fascist Intellectuals (1925), which was tolerated by the regime because of his international stature. But those who signed his manifesto were punished for it; the regime withheld grants from these intellectuals for years to come. More outspoken anti-Fascists, like the Rosselli brothers (Moravia’s cousins) and Antonio Gramsci, paid for their outspokenness with imprisonment, exile, and even death (see Croce’s History as the Story of Liberty and Gramsci’s Letters from Prison , both also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times).

CONFORMITY AND WOMEN

As part of its propaganda campaign, the regime put out Decahghi (decalogues)—lists of ideas, rules, or norms aimed at transmitting Fascist ideas in a simple, efficient manner. These decalogues, which Italians would learn by heart, served as tools of conformity. There was the Decalogue for the Young Fascist, the Decalogue for Women, the Decalogue for Cyclists, and more. Introduced in 1925, Decalogue for Women celebrated the traditional roles of wife and mother. While Fascism reinforced such roles with fervor, it also gave Italian women a new sense of themselves by having them join volunteer organisations and stressing the importance of their contribution not only to the home but also to the state.

Decalogue for Women

  1. With Cod, she serves the Patria [homeland, fatherland] and the Family, and with the Patria and the family’s, mankind.
  2. Don’t waste your energy on laziness and emptiness; respect the Woman in yourself, the one who elevates.
  3. Honor in yourself the Mother, in whom the new sons and the new worker of Italy will take bodily form.
  4. For the man who loves you, be the sweet and secure companion who shares with the same tempered strength the bread of happiness and the bread of pain.
  5. Remember that true love, the one that purifies, renews and saves, is the sacrificial spirit.
  6. The center of your life is your house, which you will enrich with the endless wealth of your heart
  7. But if your Patria asks for your house and heart, give it to him; he will make rocks for bigger walls and lights for more families.
  8. Work in silence, with patience, tenacity and serenity.
  9. Believe in Duty as the only element of peace.
  10. Consider life like a wonderful gift, which you will have to return and whose hours and days are being counted. Nurture it so it will raise you, here, not anywhere else.

(Perduca in Galeotti, p, 147; trans. J. Minguell)

Fascism loses its grip

While the 1920s witnessed the Fascist regime’s consolidation, the 1930s saw the first symptoms of its decline. Though prominent individuals, like the Rosselli brothers, were silenced, socialists and communists went underground and conducted activities throughout the Fascist period. Students, workers, and intellectuals gathered to criticize the regime and circulate dissident writings (like the Rossellis’ Justice and Liberty, a weekly journal put out by the group of the same name). Meanwhile, international events worked to alert Italians to the dangers of Fascism. The Spanish Civil War (1936–39), in which Republicans fought Francisco Franco and his Nationalists, provided radical anti-Fascists with a slogan: “Today Spain, Tomorrow Italy.” The racist and expansionist doctrines of Nazi Germany provided another frightening example of Italy’s possible fate.

Domestic problems also caused the regime to falter. When the children of the 1920s grew into the workers, clerks, and government ministers of the 1930s, it became impossible for the regime to tightly control the ideas fed to these Fascists as it had when they were young. To compensate for this failure, the regime tried to control adult behavior. In 1938, it outlawed shaking hand (only the Roman Salute was permissible) or wearing a hat while seated. Italians everywhere resisted such controls. Also in 1938 Mussolini introduced a set of anti-Semitic laws that drove 6,000 Jews to emigrate and alienated many of their non-Jewish countrymen and women. Even before the war, the population was divided.

In May 1940 Italy entered the Second World War on the side of Nazi Germany, with Mussolini thinking the war would end quickly and he would consolidate Italy’s hold on its lands in the Mediterranean region. But he was wrong. One military disaster followed another. In the Balkans, the Italians lost a part of their colony of Albania. Their campaigns in Eritrea, Somaliland, and Ethiopia—Italy had colonial interests in all three—were disastrous. And Mussolini’s aid to the Germans on the Soviet front (he sent 227,000 troops) lost him support at home, where doubts mounted about Fascist foreign policy. World War II turned into a military fiasco for Italy’s troops, who struggled with old commanders, outworn strategies, and rusty weaponry that became the subject of enemy jokes. On May 13, 1943, Allied troops landed in Sicily, and soon after Mussolini fell from power. King Victor Emmanuel III signed an armistice with the Allies, and Italy split into two, southern Italy falling to the Allies, central and northern Italy to the Germans. The Germans rescued Mussolini, propped him up as leader of a breakaway Italian republic, and continued to do battle in Italy for another two years, finally losing to the joint Italian Resistance fighters and the Allied forces on April 25, 1945. By popular demand, Mussolini was executed in a public square in Milan on April 28, 1945; the date of his execution is commonly referred to as the end of Fascist Italy.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

In the prologue, Moravia portrays the main character, Marcello Clerici at the age of 13. Born to a wealthy Roman family’s, Marcello grows up in the household of a domineering, impulsive father and an absent mother. He uses objects as a substitute for contact with people and seeks approval for everything he does. At school the others ridicule and taunt him, calling him “Marcellina” because of his feminine attributes. One day after class, Lino, a chauffeur, rescues him from the hands of his schoolmates. Marcello, unaware of Lino’s sexual intentions, agrees to go to the chauffeur’s house in exchange for a revolver. Once there, the chauffeur represses his sexual desires and asks Marcello to leave. The following day, Lino waits for Marcello after school and lures him to the house, again with the promise of a revolver. In Lino’s bedroom, where a confusing attempt to seduce Marcello occurs, the boy shoots Lino and escapes.

The action resumes in 1937, when Marcello is 30 years old. In a library, he reads an old newspaper to verify the murder of Lino—it seems that Marcello’s youthful shooting of the chauffeur killed him. Because of this act, and his sexual ambivalence, Marcello becomes obsessed with normalcy. The fixation motivates him to work as a state bureaucrat and to wed the beautiful but common Giulia. At the Ministry he is asked by the secret service to infiltrate a community of Italians in exile in Paris and to provide the government with information about one of his former university professors, Edmondo Quadri. Without knowing that his superiors intend to have the professor murdered, Marcello agrees to the assignment. He will gather the information about Quadri during his own honeymoon. Before getting married, Marcello visits his parents. His mother, a drug addict, is having an affair with her chauffeur; his father, now in a mental asylum, is often delirious.

After the wedding, Marcello and Giulia leave for Paris. On their way, they stop in the unnamed village of “S,” where Marcello receives detailed orders in a house of prostitutes. On the train, Giulia confesses to Marcello that she is not a virgin and that she had an affair with the witness to their wedding, an elderly lawyer named Fenizio. Excited by the transgression, Marcello consummates the marriage on the train.

Once in Paris, they meet the doomed Quadri and his wife, Lina, a young lesbian who reminds Marcello of one of the prostitutes in “S.” Marcello is immediately attracted to Lina, who, in turn, tries to seduce Giulia. After Marcello declares his feelings for Lina, and her advances on Giulia are spurned, Lina and her husband leave for the south of France and are murdered en route. Back in Italy, Marcello reads of the murders in a French newspaper and begins to suspect that Giulia knew about his mission.

The epilogue is set in 1945 after the Fascist regime has been defeated. Giulia and Marcello are back in Italy, living in Rome with their six-year-old daughter. One day during a walk Giulia confesses that she knew about his mission. Liberated, Giulia and Marcello start to make love at Villa Borghese when they are surprised by a park guard. The guard happens to be Lino, the chauffeur, who did not in fact die from Marcello’s gunshot wound. Lino had married but returned to pedophilia when his wife died. At the park, Marcello realizes the fierce degree of emotional denial in his life and of conformity to authoritarian dictates, a habit that enables him to avoid personal development. The novel ends with the couple going off to their summer home and dying in the Allied bombing of Rome.

Homosexuality and Fascism

The protagonist of The Conformist aspires to be a model of the Fascist era—a virile bureaucrat educated by the regime who lives a pleasant middle-class life. A bureaucrat was a highly respected occupation at the time. The State safeguarded its employees in various ways, providing them secure positions in times of inflation and unemployment. As Marcello saw it, working for the government would guarantee him the stability and structure he needed to become part of normal Italian society. His assumptions about the economic wisdom of working for the State were in fact justified at the time. After the First World War and the global economic crisis of 1929, Italy weathered an unstable period. Prices fluctuated rapidly and salaries did not keep pace with prices, which led to mounting household debts and business failures that caused unemployment to soar. A government position in such troubled times brought not only social prestige but also economic security. Happily for those in search of such jobs, the Fascist bureaucracy grew exponentially. During the 1930s its work force (mostly men) doubled from 500,000 to one million employees. A strong Fascist middle class developed as the decade progressed, composed in no small part of these workers.

The second half of normalcy in Marcello’s eyes is connected to the virile image of the steely tough man so strongly touted by the regime. From a very young age, Marcello feels he must hide his homosexual tendencies. He struggles to define his sexual nature in a period ill-suited to such introspection. While most societies discriminated against homosexuals in the 1930s, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany developed distinct anti-homosexual policies. Nazi Germany saw homosexuals, like Jews, as genetic aberrations who ought to be annihilated to purify the Aryan race. In the Nazi penal code, the infamous paragraph 175 outlawed sexual relations between men. There was no such law in Italy; here sexual repression was a result of public opinion and conditioning rather than law. While homosexual relations between males was socially unacceptable, the Fascists never thought of it as a genetic aberration. Rather they saw homosexuality as a threat to the hearty, forceful Italian Race being fashioned. In the Codice Rosso (the Facist Penal Code) of 1931, there is no mention of homosexuality. The only relevant legal measure, also of 1931, was the Testo Unico delle Leggi di Pubblica Sicurezza (Unique Text of Laws for Public Security), which said any citizen who committed attegiamento scandaloso (scandalous behavior) towards the Italian race was a candidate for confino (geographical displacement) or another such measure (such as house arrest). Judges interpreted the vague law differently, using it from 1936 to 1939 to convict 90 Italian males of scandalous behavior and to dispatch them to the South. In many of these cases, the active partner was not regarded as a homosexual, only the man being penetrated, a perception that would endure for years to come. The passive partner’s behavior was also regarded as anti-Italian, a widely shared perspective.

Sources

Moravia drew on a mix of personal experiences to write The Conformist, involving the real-life novelist Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957); Moravia’s wife, the writer Elsa Morante; and the murder of the Rosselli brothers. In 1934 Moravia and Malaparte traveled together to Paris, where Malaparte introduced his friend to some of its most renowned intellectual figures of the day, including Jean Giono, Jean-Paul Fargue, and Paul Valéry. Moravia used this firsthand glimpse of modern Paris to situate part of his novel here just a few years later.

Elsa Morante provided Moravia with another important source of inspiration. Morante told her husband that once she had a male lover (“T.”) who happened to be bisexual and who had a male lover in addition to her. One night Elsa’s lover appeared at a party with a gun and, under the influence of alcohol, asked T. to kill him. T. did so before the whole crowd. The incident inspired the Lino-Marcello-Giulia triangle in the novel, as well as Marcello’s homosexual ambivalence.

Another tragic event that shaped the basic plot of II Conformista was the previously noted murder of Moravia’s cousins, Nello and Carlo Rosselli in 1937. Tailed at intervals by the Fascist police and otherwise closely watched, Moravia would express his grief and anger about their death in a novel. He would write their story, but invert the perspective, telling the tale from the view-point of someone who contributed to their killing, stressing what he saw as the tragic elements of the incident.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Postwar renewal?

On June 2, 1946, Italy voted to abandon monarchy as its form of government and became a democratic republic. Despite the revolutionary hopes of many who had fought in the anti-Fascist Resistance, there was rampant corruption in the postwar Republic of Italy. Favors were traded, compromise became standard, and unethical behavior poisoned much of the official bureaucracy. The nation was meanwhile transfigured, due largely to the discovery of natural gas (in the Po Valley) in 1944 and some oil off Sicily, from a land populated by mostly peasants into a modern industrial nation. The face of Italy, especially North and Central Italy, under-went dramatic transformation, seemingly over-night. Southerners began a heavy migration from rural to urban Italy, but were mostly left out of the economic boom that ensued. With all these developments came new opportunities for corruption. In exchange for votes, Christian Democrats showed preference when it came to passing out contracts or jobs. Civil officials and politicians looked out for themselves, putting friends and supporters into appointed posts and into their debt. “The state bureaucracy came to resemble a medieval kingdom: a patchwork of feudal lordships,” each somewhat independent and willing if necessary to “rebel against the centre” (Duggan, p. 268). Meanwhile, the masses had to do with out. Not until after the release of Moravia’s novel would the economic picture brighten considerably, with unemployment falling from 1,500,00 in 1957 to 500,000 in 1963.

Neorealism

In the postwar period, Italian intellectuals argued about the reasons behind the rise and fall of Italian Fascism and the role they ought to play in a society under reconstruction. Since the early twentieth century, writers and artists had been preoccupied with realistic depictions of life. Moravia himself spoke in the 1920s of the urgent need for a “true and above all convincing representation of life” (Moravia in Ben-Ghiat, p. 48). His words pointed to a tendency toward realism in the arts. In literature, realism implied an approach more than a given set of principles. The approach consisted of the impetus to become socially engaged through one’s writings, an impetus that grew stronger as the 1920s and the 1930s unfolded. Different varieties of realism emerged. Some wrote in an elliptical style, setting stories in faraway places or otherwise cloaking their meaning to bypass the censors (see Acquainted with Grief , also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Others acted on the idea that authors ought to do more than register reality; they ought to write works to transform it. These writers created psychologically complex characters whose behavior was motivated by a concern for doing the ethically right thing and thought it fine to manipulate reality in ways that would help convey their moral vision. In the early 1940s, writers tended to depict human hardships of the era, using art as an agent for social liberation. Moravia, now using the pen name Pseudo to escape the censors, had by this time grown disenchanted with Fascism, as had others, who now used story to express thoughts and feelings they could not yet openly share. Such creative effort continued to be risky, but some anyway attempted to effect change through their art, feeling the kind of urgency that follows: “It is not necessary for a painter to be of one party or another, or for him to make a war or a revolution but it is necessary that when he paints, he acts in the same way as someone who does—like someone who dies for a cause” (Guttuso in Ben-Ghiat, p. 198). Artists of cinema and literature showed the same conviction. Neorealist thought influenced the era’s films and novels, including Open City (Roma, Cittá Aperta, 1945), directed by Roberto Rossellini and The Path to the Spiders’ Nests (II sentiero dei nidi di ragno, 1947), written by Italo Calvino (also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times).

Like others in the postwar era, Moravia faced serious economic difficulties. The success of his novel The Woman of Rome (1947) provided some relief. But the experience of war and of Fascism left Moravia despondent about Italy’s future, and postwar developments did little to lift his spirits. Seeing no real difference between the policies of the Fascists and their successors, the newly elected Christian Democrats, he regarded hopes for freedom as unrealistic, illusory. Indeed there was much cause for distress at the time; apart from all the corruption, a 1951–52 government survey determined that a quarter of the population was “poor” or “needy.” Concentrating on this sector, Vittorio de Sica made the film Umberto D. (1952), about relations between the government and the powerless, conveying such a pessimistic view that he received a public scolding from a government official. The filmmaker apparently shared Moravia’s negative outlook. In Moravia’s view the postwar population would have to reflect deeply on what Italy had just endured if it was to become a fully modern state. It was to this end that he founded his journal Nuovi Argomenti (New Ways of Thought), which would investigate the psychological connections between the Fascist regime and the Italians. Moravia wanted also to figure out how best to create literature in postwar Italy.

Reception and impact

When The Conformist was published, critics faulted the work for being too simplistic with regard to Fascism. Carlo Muscetta, an influential literary critic, dismissed the main character as an idiot and said that not even Moravia seemed interested in him. Muscetta saw Marcello as a typical conspirator, someone lacking in political or psychological complexities. His review accused Moravia of adopting a snobbish tunnel vision, of mistaking a segment of the populace for the whole, and of pandering to the two opposing sides of controversial positions. In Muscetta’s words, “Moravia has quite a negative concept of what he loves to call ‘Italian Society,’ but which in effect is limited to certain … middle and petty bourgeoisie in decay”; and he furthermore tries to strike a “balance … between pornography and morality … between fascism and superficial anti-fascism” (Muscetta, pp. 322-25; trans. J. Minguell). But other readers reacted much more approvingly, finding unique, positive characters in this and other writings by Moravia. In 1970 Bernardo Bertolucci would adapt the novel to cinema, creating a film of the same name, which became one of the director’s masterpieces.

—Jorge Minguell

For More Information

Ben-Ghiat, Ruth. Fascist Modernities. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Clark, Martin. Modern Italy 1971-1995. New York: Longman, 1996.

Duggan, Christopher. A Concise History of Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Dunnage, Jonathan. Twentieth Century Italy: A Social History. London: Longman, 2002.

Elkmann, Alain. Life of Moravia. Milan: Bompiani, 1990.

Galeotti, Carlo. Mussolini ha Sempre Ragione: I Decaloghi del Fascismo. Milan: Garzanti, 2000.

Kline, Jefferson. “The Unconformist.” In Modern European Filmmakers and the Art of Adaptation. Ed. A. Horton and J. Magretta Horton. New York: F. Ungar, 1981.

Moravia, Alberto. The Conformist. Trans. Angus Davidson. New York: Straus and Young, 1951.

Muscetta, Carlo. “Il Conformista di Moravia.” In Realismo, Neorealismo, Controverismo. Milan: Garzanti, 1976.

Peterson, Thomas E. Alberto Moravia. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Pillitteri, Paolo. Il Conformista Indifferente e il Delitto Rosselli. Milan: Edizioni Bietti, 2003.

Pugliese, Stanislao G. Carlo Rosselli: Socialist Heretic and Antifacist Exile. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.