A Geometry of His Own
Trans. Jamie McKendrick
The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles
Writing of the Jewish community in the northern Italian city of Ferrara during the advent of Fascism, Giorgio Bassani is loyal to political facts of time and place. This loyalty shadows his characters with the certainty of their destruction. In 1943, all 183 members of Ferrara’s Jewish community were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. This is the community in which Bassani was raised and came of age and its annihilation is the outstanding experience surrounding much of his fiction. Yet for the author, there is nothing so banal as documentary historical fact or unbridgeable ideological divide. He does not scrutinise the Holocaust. He does not display an ideological commitment. He does not pontificate, denounce, or sensationalise. Where the presence of history is most vivid, Bassani focuses most intensely on the individual personality. History’s enclosure is rigid and unyielding, but at its centre Bassani recognises a vanishing point of vivid, palpitating experience—a cyclone of private truths that defy the potential inertness of the past.
The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles was published this spring by Penguin as part of an ongoing project by poet and translator Jamie McKendrick, who is due to release the rest of Bassani’s short fiction to the English-speaking world. McKendrick’s lucid translation takes over from the first clogged and graceless English rendition, which dates back to 1963. Though it stands alone as a novel, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles was first published in 1958 among a collection of short stories titled L’odore del fieno (The Smell of Hay)—all set among the Jewish families of Fascist-era Ferrara. Like Bassani’s second and most famous novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962), The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is narrated by an unnamed Jewish university student whose experiences so closely resemble Bassani’s that it has become customary for critics to call him “B.” The fate of the young protagonist is interwoven with the tragedy of Dr Fadigati, whose acceptance and adoration by the Ferrarese community is shattered by the cruel public exposure of his homosexuality. He is quietly plagued and persecuted until he has isolated himself from society. The Jewish narrator is similarly displaced from the only world that could seem truly his own.
But the gradual crescendo of the 1938 anti-Semitic Racial Laws plays in the background as a fizz of white noise. History seems to happen at a distance and its unfolding takes on the quality of a deepening dream. The question for the reader becomes, then, how much of the characters’ trials can be determined by their historical circumstance and how much by the caprices of the characters themselves? The answer is not so simple. Bassani composes a portrait of a society that thrives on schism and collectivism; one that at a moment takes up the lives of its members as public property and at another balks at private revelation. At the outset, there is an undercurrent of the constant opposition of terms in this environment:
Nothing so excites an indiscreet interest among the small circle of respectable society as that rightful impulse to keep the private and the public separate in one’s life. So what on earth did Athos Fadigati get up to after the nurse had shut the glass door behind the last patient? The far from evident or at least hardly normal use that the doctor made of his evenings added to the curiosity that surrounded his person. Oh yes, in Fadigati there was a hint of something hard to fathom. But even this, in him, had an appeal, was an attraction.
“Respectable society” has deemed Fadigati, here described in the early days of his residency in Ferrara, worthy of their interest and analysis. He occupies a safe, in-between space, marooned within a protective wall of privacy, safe-guarded from the curiosity of a closely-knit community but “appealing” enough in his mystery to stave off a breach in his solitude. What is interesting here, and characteristic of the Storie ferraresi, is the chilling in-betweenness of the narrative voice behind the seeming “lightness” of the prose. It is not quite the narrator, nor entirely the paraphrased perspective of the public, but the mediated marriage of the two. The Ferrara represented here, the Ferrara speaking through the narrator, is not always a metropolis that confers indifferently protective anonymity upon its inhabitants, but one with a desire for an impossible closeness. It is in view of this closeness that the general acceptance, even docility, shown by the people of Ferrara following Fascism is a shocking breach of trust, and an integral part of the monstrosity of the historical events that surround the narrative.
When Fadigati’s secret first begins to circulate around the city, it is treated not as a shameful revelation but as an amusing “irregularity”: “What above all disposed them to indulge towards Fadigati was … his discretion, the evident care he had taken and continued to take in concealing his tastes, so as not to cause scandal.” The collective admiration of discretion again places Fadigati in a privileged position of ambivalence, balanced between the enlarged scrutiny of his private life and the willful remnants of mystery with which he is still able to shroud himself. His privacy is not yet so outsized as to seem unacceptable. B continues, “Knowing amounted to understanding, to no longer being curious, to ‘letting things be.'”
In the same passage, B paints a luminously evocative portrait of Fadigati’s solitary figure entering the cinema, pinned in the sight(s) of the haunting collective “they”:
Fixing their gaze in the shadows, beyond the circle’s balustrade, they sought him out down there, along the sordid sidewalls, near the security doors of the exit or of the toilets, without finding any peace until they had glimpsed the fitful, characteristic glint of his gold-rimmed spectacles in the smoke and darkness: a tiny restless flash emitted from an astounding, really an infinite, distance…
Bassani’s piercing visual imagination is on display here, demonstrating a spatial acuteness that points toward his preoccupation with the shaping of narrative. (As McKendrick mentions in his introduction to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Bassani maintained a close friendship with the great art critic Roberto Longhi, whom he met during his studies at the University of Bologna.) Every added detail is heightened without seeming to amount to a series of deadened, contrived set-pieces. In his own criticism, he writes of the conceptions of his work in geometric terms: in one story he envisioned parallel lines vanishing back into space; in other, independently rotating spheres orbiting on different axes. Likewise, the image underpinning this scene could stand for the contours of the narrative itself: characters are silhouetted in few words, objects and gestures circled with shifting, elusive significance; history’s rigid chronicle of fact encircles the true and “infinite” reality of the individuals within. There are multiple dimensions at play in this tale, combining an unobstructed view of the past, present, and future that are denied to the narrator and Dr. Fadigati. Events occur in an internal succession that is as spatial as it is temporal: the past is relived in the present and we are forcibly detached from the temporal fixity and permanence with which historical data might assuage us.
Our last glimpse of Fadigati poised between the public and the private, just before his spiraling descent into isolation and exile, occurs on an interim journey between Ferrara and Bologna. He has met the narrator and his university friends—former patients of his when they were children—on the train platform and is performing one of his many attempts to strike up a friendship with the group:
And suddenly Fadigati, who had arrived last of all, just a moment before, and was also waiting for the tram on the same platform, to start off a conversation, finding nothing more inspired than some observation upon the “splendid day, almost springlike,” not to mention a remark on the Mascarella tram being “so comfortable that it would probably be easier going by foot.” Generic phrases, said in a low voice not to any one of us, but to all of us en masse and to no one in particular: as if he did not know us, or rather did not wish to risk admitting that he knew us, even by sight.
The heart-wrenching subtlety of this scene, so typical of Bassani, lies in the quietly desperate, unobtrusive tenacity of Fadigati, who finds himself speaking to all and yet to no one in particular. He catalyses the conflicting desire for solitary refuge and redeeming contact. It is all the more affecting when read in the light of the rest of the story, when his privacy is finally wrenched away. Henceforth, the discrepancy between what Fadigati thinks he is revealing to others and the motivation that implicitly marks his behavior widens steadily. His life becomes public property, by analogy to that of the narrator. Fadigati becomes a prisoner gazing out upon the world.
Sarah Hopkins graduated with a Masters in American Literature from Wadham College, Oxford.