Sunday, 24 April 2011

Penguin no. 2020: The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles
by Giorgio Bassani

Yes, they said: now that his secret was no longer a secret, now that everything about him was clear, they knew at last how to treat him. By day, in the sunlight, to take off their hats to him at once; at night, even if it meant squeezing up against the crowd in Via San Romano, to look as if he was a stranger. Like Fredric March in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dr Fadigati had two lives. But who hasn't?

This short novel is set in the northern Italian town of Ferrara. It has a strong sense of place: the streets, the landmarks, the churches, the castle and the local football team are referred to throughout, so that the town itself becomes as important as any character in the story. It seems to be a beautiful medieval town; it is impossible not to feel a little wistful at never having ever been there, in order that the named streets could call into my mind the images they were clearly intended to evoke.

But alongside these references to the town there are descriptions of the social structure of village life between the wars. And it is something that sounds familiar, something that is evident to any visitor to Italy, watching the Italians stroll through their city streets in the early evening. It is the sense of the inhabitants forming a coherent community, with every member understanding the structure and timetable of their shared lives. And in the time and place described here, it seems integral to village life, with everyone regulating their lives to a common pattern: knowing when they should walk through the streets, or dine, or holiday, and where they should go. This is a story about belonging and conforming, but told from the perspective of the outsider, of those who inhabit the town but who come to feel excluded from this social world.

The narrator is never identified. It is probably the author, recalling his younger self, for we know the narrator to be a young Jewish man who has always lived in Ferrara, and who attends the University in Bologna to study literature, travelling there each day by train. It's a description that fits Bassani himself. His tale is of Athos Fadigati, the wearer of the gold-rimmed spectacles,  who is an outsider from the beginning. He comes from Venice and moves to Ferrara at the end of the war, in 1919. He introduces something unfamiliar to the medieval town: the modern world, a new way of doing things, in the guise of his clean, well-furnished, pleasant surgery. And most importantly he regulates his life to conform to the ways of the town. He doesn't stand out, and so he comes to be welcomed and accepted.

But we are warned it will be a tragic tale in the opening paragraph. Things begin well for Fadigati, his life seems solid and successful, but with each chapter a new disturbing element is introduced.The solid facade gradually crumbles away. The townfolk begin to notice that he doesn't conform completely: he frequents the seedier parts of town, he doesn't get married. It becomes clear that there is something different about him, but even when they work it out they continue to accept him, admiring his discretion, content to simply to look the other way. But Fadigati is weak: he pays a beautiful young man to be his lover, a man without morality or empathy, who taunts and humiliates him publicly.  The relationship leaves him wretched and costs him everything. But in the end it is the lack of discretion he is punished for.

The story of Athos unfolds through the years that fascism takes hold in Italy. The Jewish community is well established in Ferrara; it has always been a town without a ghetto. But as Mussolini comes under the influence of Hitler, and the Race Laws are proposed, anti-Semitism begins to take hold, and the narrator comes to feel like an outsider, and to empathise with the ostracised Fadigati. The story is a study in how the community adapts to the changing political reality, and absorbs its values. And of the subtle and unsubtle ways in which those no longer acceptable are excluded.
'What does that mean?' she retorted at once, with the compassionate and patient air of a school-mistress ready to justify any amount of cheating in her brightest pupil. 'That's political necessity, alas. Let's leave our personal likes or dislikes out of it: the fact is that in certain circumstances the head of a government, a statesman worthy of the name, must for the good of his own people pass over the sensibilities of ordinary people...little people like ourselves.' And she smiled proudly, completely contradicting her last words.
It is short, conversational and easy to read. And sombre, compelling, and tragic.

2 comments:

  1. I'll keep an eye open for this one, it sounds good. I have always avoided sad and tragic books, but I'm trying to be braver!

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  2. Hi Joanne, this one is certainly worth reading: it only takes an evening to read, and despite the tragic element, you learn something of what Italy was like when Mussolini was in charge. I notice that it has been made into a movie as well called Gli Occhiali d'oro.

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