A rather wonderful coincidence happened last week.
First I had better set the scene. I was in London, in my flat. It was raining. It had not stopped raining for months. In an attempt to look on the bright side I had written a blog for the Spectator about what happens when it rains in novels (here) … but I was nevertheless feeling glum. In part to cheer myself up, I began to read Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge, the sort of charming, witty, graceful 1930s novel for which I have a particular weakness. Daunt Books has just republished it rather prettily. It begins with a very good line:
Lady Kilmichael took her seat in the boat train at Victoria hurriedly, opened The Times, and hid behind it.
Oh how I longed to hide behind a paper on a boat train to Venice! Lady K, as we will come to know her, sojourns at Venice before going on to Croatia. Venice is where she meets young Nicholas, who she will befriend and help to become a painter.
My thoughts right then were: 1. I bet an Illyrian spring is better than a London one, especially as I still need my winter coat outside and 2. wouldn’t it be heaven to be in Venice!
That’s when the husband said, Ems, do you think we could go to Venice on Saturday?
Now, much as I would love to be the sort of person who might just happen to pop over to Venice – or, come to think of it, Florence, Rome, Naples or anywhere else hot and foreign, preferably Italian – just for the day, I should admit that we were actually already going to Italy for a friend’s wedding. The wedding was on Friday, by Lake Garda, so going over to Venice on Saturday suddenly seemed surprisingly feasible.
It transpired that the husband had architectural reasons to be in Venice. The fact that they just so happened to coincide with my own reading was fortuitous to say the least. And so on Saturday, not unlike Lady K, I found myself on a train bound for Venice. Although I wasn’t hiding behind a newspaper. By then I wasn’t even hiding behind Illyrian Spring, having polished it off on the way to the airport; I was hiding behind Giorgio Bassani’s The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles.
I first came across Giorgio Bassani a couple of years ago, when I was last in Italy and read The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. (Here is my post about it.) I very much enjoyed it, with its coming-of-age story set on a tennis court amongst the Jews of Ferrara. Set in the 1930s, you know it’s only going to end badly for them – and you’re told that right at the start – but it’s beautifully written and terribly poignant.
Well evidently I wasn’t the only one to appreciate Bassani’s work, as Penguin seems to be on a drive to publish new translations of the rest of his ‘Ferrara Cycle’. First out is The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles. Perhaps it’s the first as it’s so short – really more a novella than a novel – but perfect for a quick Italian mini-break (and lighter than a Kindle!).
I’ve a feeling I’m going to enjoy the Ferrara Cycle, as it seems as though Bassani does that clever and deeply satisfying thing of sharing characters between books – a character who gets the limelight in one book plays a cameo in another. (This tends to happen in the best sort of short story collections, which I wrote about here.) So in The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, originally published four years before The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, we get a mention of the F-Cs while the narrator’s non-Jewish friend is talking about the ominous Racial Laws:
That kind of policy could ‘operate’ only if there were more cases like that of the Finzi-Contini family, with their most atypical impulse to segregate themselves and live in a grand, aristocratic house. (Although he himself knew Alberto Finzi-Contini very well, he had never succeeded in getting himself invited to play tennis at their house, on their magnificent private court!)
It certainly whets the appetite for a glimpse of their ‘magnificent private court’, on which so many games of tennis will be played in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.
As well as characters, the two books share many of the same preoccupations: a coming-of-age moment, Jews, bicycles, tennis and local dialects. The latter is particularly interesting for a foreigner travelling around Italy and naively imagining that everyone there speaks the same language, Italian. Not so. Bassani’s characters often have recourse to a word or expression in their native local dialect to express something more deeply felt. For instance, at one poignant moment, the narrator’s father says of Fagati – the wearer of those spectacles – ‘Puvràz’, meaning ‘Poor thing’ in the Ferrara dialect. It feels like a more heartfelt, more genuine expression than if he’d used the standard Italian term.
It’s interesting that Bassani has called his book The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, whereas of course it’s not about those actual specs, it’s about the wearer of them – Fadigati. The title suggests that those spectacles are – sorry to use a silly word – a synecdoche of Fadigati, i.e. they represent him. Indeed, a glint of the gold rims in the darkened cinema is all that’s needed to betray his presence. And, if Bassani’s saying that these specs represent Fadigati, he’s also inviting us to take it along a step and wonder who Fadigati represents.
Fadigati is rich, cultured and gay. Let me remind you that this is 1930s provincial Italy, a time and a place where being outwardly gay was socially unacceptable. Fadigati does fine while his sexuality is under wraps, but as soon as it’s out in the open he is cast out from society. Then it’s a pretty rapid downward spiral. You better read it to find out how it ends.
Given the background to the novella is the introduction of the Racial Laws, which essentially legislated to cast Jews out from society, I don’t think it’s a leap to take Fadigati as representative of the Jews. So in writing about this outsider, Bassani is obliquely writing about these other outsiders. As in the Finzi-Continis, one worries that it can’t end well.
Inevitably Illyrian Spring was a much happier book than The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles. While there is a journey of realisation in both of them, things wind up rather better for Lady K than they do for Fadigati or for the narrator of the latter.
A feeling of optimism pervades the first, whereas the second is laced with doom. The self-discovery of Illyrian Spring is joyful, self-affirming, full of excitement at the future (albeit tinged with a pang of lost love), but that of The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is the realisation of forever being an outsider:
The sense of solitude that during the last two months had never left me, at that very moment became, if that were possible, even more acute: absolute and definitive. From my exile, I would never return. Never.
Of course this is the opposite of Lady K, who returns from her exile into the loving arms of her husband and fond embrace of her daughter. Her exile is self-imposed, not demanded by society.
The timing of the two books is uncanny – Illyrian Spring was first published in 1935 and, although The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles wasn’t published until 1958, it is set in 1937-8, just two years later. Two novels that meander by the Adriatic in the mid-1930s could not have more different narratives. Reading them one after the other, I couldn’t help but think just how much one’s fate was determined by class and by ethnicity. Thank god that these days there’s more of a level playing field.