This was a strange novel. When it starts, it seems like we may have a serial killer on our hands. Young Marcello is brought up in a loveless household and takes to killing, first flowers and then animals and, in his mind, a friend. Then (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here) the key moment happens. Marcello has not one but two interactions with a stranger, and the second one informs the rest of his life – his choice of a career, his marriage – simply because he wants to, as the title explains, conform. He seeks normality.
But he can’t find it. Or perhaps he learns it doesn’t exist. Not even his superficial wife with her seemingly ordinary needs can provide it for him. As political events unfold, Marcello, on the side of the Italian fascists, wonders whether the desired normality even exists. Was he cast out of it as a child when he went on the attack against flowers, lizards and, probably, a cat?
But for Marcello, there’s no escaping what he melodramatically calls his fate. An unlikely confrontation with someone he hasn’t seen in a while (on the night of the fall of Mussolini) seems to mark the beginning of the end.
Moravia’s writing, particularly in Marcello’s more introspective moments, is sharp but slippery. Is there a personal-political piece going on here? Are we to try to understand the mind of a fascist? Or is this more about fate and the events we think shape our destiny? Or is there a cold, Camus-like existentialism going on here? Are we seeing true evil?
A puzzling, though not compelling book.