17. The Provident Young Man
Oh such grief I feel, such misery, / To think, My Lord, that I offended Thee… Did they teach me that at the Oratorio, or did I sing it after going back to the city?
In the city, lights come back on at night, people take to the streets again even in the evenings, to drink beer or eat gelato in the recreational clubs along the river, and the first open-air movie theaters arrive. I am alone, missing my Solara friends, and I have not yet reconnected with Gianni, whom I will see again only when high school begins. I go out with my parents in the evening, ill at ease, because I no longer hold their hands but they will not yet leave me alone for long. I had more freedom at Solara.
We often go to the movies. I discover new ways to fight a war in Sergeant York and Yankee Doodle Dandy, where James Cagney’s tap dancing opens my eyes to the existence of Broadway. "I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy …"
I first encountered tap in the old Fred Astaire films, but Cagney’s style is more violent, liberating, assertive. Astaire’s was a divertissement, Cagney’s feels to me like a duty, in fact it is even patriotic. A patriotism expressed through tap dancing is a revelation, metal-tipped shoes instead of grenades in hand and a flower between our teeth. Then there was the allure of the stage as model of the world and of destiny’s inexorability: The show must go on. I learn about a new world through musicals, which are arriving late.
Casablanca. Victor Laszlo singing the Marseillaise… So I had at least met with tragedy on the side of right… Rick Blaine shooting Major Strasser… Gragnola was right, war is war. Why did Rick have to abandon Ilsa Lund? Does that mean we are not supposed to love? Sam is certainly Major Muddy, but who is Ugarte? Is he Gragnola, the lost and luckless coward who in the end will be taken by the Black Brigades? No, with that sarcastic sneer Gragnola is more like Captain Renault, who will in the end go off into the fog with Rick to join the Resistance in Brazzaville, cheerfully facing his destiny with a friend…
Gragnola however cannot follow me into the desert. With Gragnola, I experienced not the beginning but the end of a beautiful friendship. And I have no letters of transit to get me out of my memories.
The newsstands are full of papers with new mastheads and provocative magazines featuring cover girls with plunging necklines or blouses so tight they outline the nipples. Ample bosoms dominate movie posters. My world is reborn in the shape of a breast. But also a mushroom. I see the photo of the bomb falling on Hiroshima. The first images of the Holocaust appear. Not yet the heaps of corpses we will see later, but the first photos of the liberated, with hollow eyes, skeletal chests showing each rib, enormous elbows joining the two sticks of each arm. Until now my news of the war has been indirect, sums (ten planes shot down, this many dead and that many prisoners), rumored executions of Partisans in the area, but except for the night in the Gorge I have never been exposed to the sight of a debased corpse-and not even that night, actually, since the last time I saw the two Germans they were still alive, and the rest I witnessed only in nightmares. I scan the photos for the face of Signor Ferrara, who knew how to play marbles, but even if he were there I would not recognize him now. Arbeit macht frei.
At the movies we laugh at the funny faces of Abbott and Costello. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope arrive, along with Dorothy Lamour in her obligatory sarong, traveling toward Zanzibar or Bali (Road to…), and everyone thinks, and has since 1944, that life is beautiful.
Each day at noon I ride my bike to a black marketeer who always sets aside, for us kids, two rolls of white bread, our first white bread after several years of chewing yellowish, poorly baked sticks, made from a thready fiber (bran, they said), that sometimes contained pieces of string or even cockroaches. I ride my bike to claim this symbol of our renascent wealth, and I stop in front of the newsstands. Mussolini’s corpse hung upside down in Piazza Loreto, along with Claretta Petacci’s, her skirt safety-pinned between her legs by some pious hand to spare her that final indignity. Celebrations honoring the partisans who had been killed. I did not know they had shot and hung so many. The first death tolls appear for the war that has just ended. Fifty-five million, they say. What does Gragnola’s death matter in the face of such slaughter? Might God truly be evil? I read about the Nuremburg trials, all of them hung but Goring, who poisons himself with cyanide that his wife passed him during their final kiss. The Villarbasse massacre signals the return of open violence-now you can kill people again for merely personal reasons. The killers are arrested, executed by firing squad one morning. Executions continue in peacetime. Leonarda Cianciulli is convicted of turning her victims into soap during the war. Rina Fort beats her lover’s wife and children to death with an iron bar. A newspaper describes the whiteness of her bosom, which had so overwhelmed her lover, a skinny man with teeth as rotten as Uncle Gaetano’s. The first films to which my parents take me reveal a postwar Italy that is home to disquieting "segnorine"-every evening beneath the streetlamp’s glow, as before. Alone through city streets I go…
It is Monday, market morning. Cousin My-eye shows up around noon. What was his real name? Ada came up with "My-eye"- according to her, he said "my eye" instead of "may I," which seems impossible to me. Cousin My-eye was an extremely distant relative, but he had known us in Solara and could never come into the city, he said, without saying hello. Everyone knew he expected an invitation to lunch, because he could not afford to go to a restaurant. I never figured out what kind of work he did, other than looking for work.
I can see Cousin My-eye at the table, sipping his ditalini in broth, not leaving a drop, with his tan, hollow face, what little hair he had left combed carefully back, the elbows of his jacket worn. "You know, Duilio," he would say each Monday, "I don’t want a fancy job. Just an office job, with a state-run company, the minimum salary. A drop is all I ask. But every day that drop, and every month thirty drops." He made a Bridge-of-Sighs gesture, mimed the drop that would land on his nearly bald head, and beamed at the thought of that beneficent torture. One drop, he repeated, but every day.
"Today I almost got it, I went to talk with Carloni, you know, the fellow from the agriculture consortium. A bigwig. I had a letter of recommendation-nowadays, you know, without a recommendation you’re nobody. When I went out this morning, at the station, I bought a paper. I don’t follow politics, Duilio, I just asked for any old paper, and then I didn’t even read it because I had to stand on the train and I was holding on to keep from falling. I folded it up and put it in my pocket, like a person does with a paper-even if you haven’t read it, it’s still good the next day for wrapping something. I go see Carloni, he greets me all friendly, he opens the letter, but I can see him eyeing me over the page. Then he sends me on my way with a few words, says we won’t be hiring anytime soon. As I’m leaving I realize that the paper I’ve got in my pocket is L ’ U n i t `a. Now Duilio, you know I agree with the government, I always do, I just asked for any old paper, I didn’t even realize what I was getting. But that man saw a communist paper in my pocket and sent me on my way. If I had folded the paper the other way, at this very moment I might… When you’re born unlucky… It’s fate."
The city has a new dance hall, and its star is my Cousin Nuccio, finally free of boarding school: he is a young man now, or, how should I say, a dandy (he already seemed terribly adult to me back when he was flogging Angelo Bear). To the great pride of his relatives, a local weekly even runs a caricature of him that shows him bent into a thousand contortions (like an Uncle Gaetano, only less disjointed), doing that dance craze, the boogie-woogie. I am still too young, would not dare, and could not enter that hall, whose rituals feel to me like an affront to Gragnola’s cut throat.
We have come back at the very beginning of summer, and I am bored. I ride my bike at two in the afternoon through the nearly deserted city. I wear myself out with open spaces in order to bear the tedium of those muggy days. Or perhaps it is not the mugginess, but rather a great melancholy I carry inside me, the one passion of my fevered, lonely adolescence.
I ride my bike, without a break, between two and five in the afternoon. In three hours you can circumnavigate the city several times, you need only vary your route: speed through the city center toward the river, then take the ring road, head back in where it crosses the provincial road that goes south, pick it up again with the cemetery road, veer left before the train station, go through the city center again but this time on secondary roads, straight and empty, enter the big market piazza, too wide, surrounded by arcades that are always sunny, no matter where the sun is, and that at two in the afternoon are more deserted than the Sahara. The piazza is empty, you can bike across it without worrying about anyone watching you or waving to you from afar. Because even if someone you knew were walking over in that far corner, he would look too small, as would you to him, just shapes haloed by sunlight. Then you wind around the piazza in wide concentric circles, like a vulture with no carrion in sight.
I am not wandering at random, I have a goal, but I pass it by, often and on purpose. I have seen, at the train station newsstand, an edition, perhaps several years old, judging by what looks to be a prewar price, of Pierre Beno^it’s Atlantida. Its attractive cover depicts a large hall full of stone guests and promises a tale like no other. It is cheap; in my pocket I have the exact sum and no more. Occasionally I risk it: I stop at the station, rest my bike on the sidewalk, go in, and contemplate the book for fifteen minutes. It is in a display case, so I cannot open it to get a sense of what it might offer me. On the fourth visit, the vendor begins eyeing me suspiciously, and he can watch me all he wants, because there is no one else in that concourse-no one arriving, no one leaving, no one waiting.
The city is nothing but space and sunlight, a track for my bike with its pitted tires, and the book in the station is the only guarantee that, through fiction, I will be able to return to some less desperate reality.
Around five o’clock, that long seduction-between me and the book, between the book and me, between my desire and the resistance of infinite space-that amorous pedaling through the vacuous summer, that excruciating concentric escape, comes to an end: I have made my decision, I withdraw my capital from my pocket, purchase Atlantida, and head home to curl up and read it.
Antinea, the gorgeous femme fatale, appears dressed in an Egyptian klaft (what is a klaft? it must be some magnificent and tempting thing, veiling and revealing at the same time) that flows down around her thick, wavy hair, so black it is blue, until the two points of its heavy, golden fabric reach down to her slim hips.
"She wore, beneath a black veil that glittered with gold, a flimsy, loosely fitting tunic, barely held closed by a white muslin sash embroidered with irises made of black pearls." Beneath those garments, a slender girl with long black eyes and a smile unheard of among the women of the Orient. You cannot see her body through those diabolically sumptuous vestments, but her tunic is audaciously open on the side (ah, the slit), her delicate bosom is exposed, her arms are bare, and mysterious shadows can be glimpsed beneath the veils. A temptress, bitterly virginal. For her, a man could die.
I close the book, embarrassed, when my father comes home at seven, but he thinks I am simply trying to conceal the fact that I am reading. He remarks that I read too much and am ruining my vision. He tells my mother I should get out more, go for a nice bike ride.
I dislike the sun, and yet I did not mind it at all at Solara. They observe that I often squint, crinkling my nose: "You act like you can’t see, but it’s not true," they scold. I am waiting for the fogs of autumn. Why should I love the fog, since it was in the fog of the Gorge that my night of terror was consummated? Because even there it was the fog that protected me, leaving me with the ultimate alibi: it was foggy, I saw nothing.
With the first foggy days, I rediscover my ancient city, and those exaggerated, sleepy spaces are erased. The voids disappear and out of that milky grayness, in the light of the streetlamps, outcroppings, corners, and sudden facades emerge from nowhere. Comfort. As during the blackouts. My city was made, conceived, designed by generation after generation to be seen in this penumbral light as you walk, sticking close to the walls. Then it becomes beautiful and protective.
Was it that year or the next that saw the appearance of Grand Hotel, the first comic book for adults? The first image of that first photo-romance led me toward temptation, but I fled.
That was tame compared to something I later came across in my grandfather’s shop: a French magazine that as soon as I opened it made me burn with shame. I filched it, slipping it in my shirt and leaving.
I am home, stretched out in my bed on my stomach, and as I flip through the pages I press my crotch into the mattress, just as they advise you not to do in the devotional handbooks. On one page: a photo, fairly small but immensely evident, of Josephine Baker, topless.
I stare at her shadowed eyes so as not to look at her breasts, then my gaze shifts, they are (I believe) the first breasts of my life-the ample, flaccid things on the `a poil Kalmyk women were something else entirely.
A wave of honey surges through my veins, I feel an acrid aftertaste in the back of my throat, a pressure on my forehead, a swoon in my loins. I stand up frightened and moist, wondering what terrible disease I have contracted, delighted by that liquefaction into primordial soup.
I believe it was my first ejaculation: more forbidden, I think, than cutting a German’s throat. I have sinned again-that night in the Gorge was the mute witness to the mystery of death, and this moment is the interloper penetrating the forbidden mysteries of life.
I am in a confessional. A fiery Capuchin entertains me at length on the virtues of purity.
He tells me nothing I have not already read in those little handbooks at Solara, but perhaps his words were what sent me back to Don Bosco’s Provident Young Man:
Even at your tender age the devil is laying snares to rob you of your soul… It will aid greatly in preserving you from temptation should you remain far from opportunities, from scandalous conversations, from public spectacles, from which no good can come… Endeavor to keep busy at all times; when you do not know what to do, adorn altars, straighten images or small pictures… If afterward the temptation persists, make the sign of the Holy Cross, kiss some blessed object and say: Saintly Aloysius, let me not offend my God. I give you this saint’s name because the Church has declared him the special protector of youth…
Above all else, flee the company of persons of the opposite sex. Understand well: I mean to say that young men should not ever enter into any familiarity with girls… The eyes are windows through which sin makes its way into our hearts… thus you must never stop to gaze upon that which is contrary in the slightest to modesty. Saint Aloysius Gonzaga did not want even his feet to be seen as he put himself to bed or rose from it. He did not permit his own mother to look him in the eyes… He spent two years with the queen of Spain as a page and never once gazed upon her face.
Imitating Saint Aloysius is not easy, or rather the price of fleeing temptation seems rather exorbitant, given that the young fellow, having scourged himself bloody, would put pieces of wood beneath his sheets, to torture himself even in his sleep. He hid riding spurs beneath his clothes because he had no hair shirts; he sought his displeasure wherever he stood, or sat, or walked… But the exemplar of virtue my confessor proposes to me is Domenico Savio, whose trouser legs were misshapen from too much kneeling but whose penances were less bloody than Saint Aloysius’s, and he also exhorts me to contemplate, as an example of holy beauty, Mary’s exquisite face.
I try to become infatuated with a sublime and sublimated femininity. I sing in the boys’ choir, in the apse of the church or at other sanctuaries during Sunday field trips:
Thou risest at dawn full of beauty to gladden the earth with each ray. The sky puts its night stars away, for none is so lovely as Thee.
Lovely Thou art as the sun, white as the light of the moon, and the loveliest star is but a far candle to Thee.
Thine eyes are more lovely than oceans,
the color of lilies Thy brow,
Thy cheeks are two roses, kissed
by the Son, and Thy lips are a flower.
Perhaps I am preparing myself, though I am not yet sure, for my encounter with Lila, who must be equally unreachable, equally splendid in her empyrean, her beauty gratia sui, free from the flesh, able to dwell in the mind without stirring the loins, with eyes that gaze elsewhere, above and beyond me, rather than fixing slyly on me like Josephine Baker’s.
It is my duty to pay, by means of meditation, prayer, and sacrifice, for my sins and the sins of those around me. To devote myself to the defense of faith, as the first magazines and the first wall posters begin telling me about the Red Menace, about Cossacks waiting to water their horses at the holy-water fonts in Saint Peter’s. I wonder, confused, how in the world the Cossacks, who were Stalin’s enemies and had even fought alongside the Germans, have now become communism’s messengers of death, and whether they will also want to kill all the anarchists like Gragnola. These Cossacks look to me very like that evil Negro who was raping the Venus de Milo, and perhaps they were drawn by the same artist, reinventing himself for a new crusade.
Spiritual exercises, in a little monastery out in the countryside. A rancid smell from the refectory, strolls through the cloister with the librarian, who advises me to read Papini. After dinner we all go into the choir of the church, and illuminated by a single candle we recite the Exercise for a Good Death.
The spiritual director reads us the passages on death from The Provident Young Man: We do not know where death will surprise us- you do not know if it will take you in your beds, as you work, in the street or elsewhere; a burst vein, a catarrh, a rush of blood, a fever, a sore, an earthquake, a bolt of lightning-any could be enough to deprive you of your life, and it could happen a year from now, a month, a week, an hour, or perhaps just as you finish reading this passage. In that moment, we will feel our head darkened, our eyes aching, our tongue parched, our jaws closed, heavy our chest, our blood cold, our flesh worn, our heart broken. When we have breathed our last, our body, dressed in a few rags, will be thrown into a ditch, and there the mice and the worms will gnaw away all our flesh, and nothing of us will remain save a few bare bones and some fetid dust.
Then the prayer, a long invocation recounting each of the last throes of a dying man, the pangs in his every limb, the first tremors, the rising pallor leading to the facies hippocratica and the death rattle. Each description of the fourteen stages of our final passage (only five or six come clearly to mind) concludes, after defining the body’s attitude and the moment’s anguish, with merciful Jesus, have pity on me.
When my motionless feet shall warn me that my time on this earth is nearing its end, merciful Jesus, have pity on me.
When my numb, tremulous hands shall no longer be able to grasp you, my blessed Crucifix, and against my will shall let you fall onto the bed of my suffering, merciful Jesus, have pity on me.
When my eyes, darkened and stricken with horror by death’s imminence, shall fix their enfeebled and moribund glances on You, merciful Jesus, have pity on me.
When my pale, leaden cheeks shall inspire compassion and terror in onlookers, and my hair, damp with death’s sweat, shall stand erect, announcing the nearness of my end, merciful Jesus, have pity on me.
When my imagination, agitated by terrible, fearsome specters, shall be immersed in mortal sorrows, merciful Jesus, have pity on me.
When I shall have lost the use of all my senses, and the entire world shall have vanished from me, and I shall moan in death’s final, anguished throes, merciful Jesus, have pity on me.
Singing psalms in the dark thinking about my own death. It was just what I needed, to stop me thinking about other people’s. I relive that exercise not with terror, but with a serene consciousness of the fact that all men are mortal. That lesson in Being-toward-Death prepared me for my destiny, which is everyone’s destiny. In May, Gianni told me the joke about that doctor who advises a terminally ill patient to take sand baths. "Do they help, doctor?" "Not really, but you’ll get accustomed to being underground."
I am getting accustomed.
One evening the spiritual director stood in front of the altar balustrade, illuminated-like all of us, like the entire chapel-by that single candle that haloed him in light, leaving his face in darkness. Before dismissing us, he told us a story. One night, in a convent school, a girl died, a young, pious, beautiful girl. The next morning, she was stretched out on a catafalque in the nave of the church, and the mourners were reciting their prayers for the deceased, when all of a sudden the corpse sat up, eyes wide and finger pointing at the celebrant, and said in a cavernous voice, "Father, do not pray for me! Last night I had an impure thought, a single thought-and now I am damned!"
A shudder travels through the audience and spreads to the pews and the vaults, seeming almost to make the candle flame flicker. The director exhorts us to go to bed, but no one moves. A long line forms in front of the confessional, everyone intent on giving in to sleep only after the merest hint of sin has been confessed.
In the menacing comfort of dark naves, fleeing the evils of the century, I spend my days in icy ardors, in which even Christmas carols, and what had been the comforting cr`eche of my childhood, become the birth of the Child into the horrors of the world:
Sleep, do not cry, oh my sweet Jesus,
sleep, do not cry, my beloved Redeemer…
Oh beautiful child, hasten to shut
your sweet-natured eyes in horror extreme.
That’s why they sting, the straw and the hay,
Because your bright eyes are shimmering still.
Hasten to close them, so sleep at least may
offer its remedy for every ill.
Sleep, do not cry, oh my sweet Jesus,
sleep, do not cry, my beloved Redeemer…
One Sunday, Pap`a, a soccer fan and a bit disappointed in that son of his who spends his days ruining his eyes over books, takes me to a match. It is a minor contest, the stands are nearly empty, speckled with the colors of the few onlookers, blotches on white bleachers that are scorching hot in the sun. The game is stopped by a referee’s whistle, one captain protests the call, the other players move around the field aimlessly. Two colors of jerseys in disarray, bored athletes milling about a green field, a scattered mess. Everything stalls. What happens unreels now in slow motion, as in a parochial movie theater when the sound suddenly cuts off with a meow, movements become more careful, then jerk frame by frame to a stop on a single image, which dissolves on the screen like melting wax.
And in that moment I experience a revelation.
I realize now that it was a painful sense that the world is purposeless, the lazy fruit of a misunderstanding, but in that moment I was able to translate what I felt only as: "God does not exist."
I leave the match in the grip of lacerating regrets and run straight to confession. The fiery confessor from my previous visit now smiles, indulgent and benevolent, asks me how I got such a silly notion in my head, mentions the beauty of nature, which points to a creative and ordering will, then talks at length about the consensus gentium: "My child, the greatest writers, Dante, Manzoni, Salvaneschi, have believed in God, and great mathematicians like Fantappie, and you want to be lesser?" The consensus of people, for the moment, calms me. It must have been the match’s fault. Paola told me I never went to soccer matches, at most I would watch the finals of the World Cup on television. I must have had it in my head, from that day on, that going to a match meant losing my soul.
But there are other ways to lose it. My schoolmates begin telling stories in whispers and giggles. They drop hints, they share magazines and books stolen from home, they speak about the mysterious Casa Rossa, which we are not yet old enough to visit, they empty their wallets at the cinema on comedies featuring scantily clad
women. They show me a photo of Isa Barzizza in skimpy panties, on stage in a variety show. I cannot refuse to look without seeming like a pharisee, so I look, and as we know anything can be resisted except temptation. I enter the movie house furtively, early in the afternoon, hoping not to run into anyone who knows me: in The Two Orphans (with Tot`o and Carlo Campanini), Isa Barzizza and several other convent girls, in defiance of the mother superior’s orders, bathe naked.
The girls’ bodies cannot be seen, they are shadows behind the shower curtains. They throw themselves into their ablutions as if it were a dance. I should go to confession, but those transparencies remind me of a book I once clapped shut in Solara, fearful of what I was reading: Hugo’s The Laughing Man.
I do not have it in the city, but I am sure my grandfather has a copy in his shop. I find it, and while my grandfather converses with someone I curl up at the foot of the bookshelf and turn feverishly to the forbidden page. Gwynplaine, horribly mutilated by comprachicos who turned his face into a freak-show mask, cast off from society, finds himself suddenly recognized as Lord Clancharlie, heir to an immense fortune and a peerage. Before he fully understands what is happening to him, he is taken, wearing the splendid garb of a gentleman, to an enchanted palace, and the series of marvels he discovers there (alone in that resplendent desert), the fugue of rooms and chambers, makes not only his head spin, but also the reader’s. He wanders from room to room until he comes to an alcove where he sees, upon a bed, near a tub of water ready for a virginal bath, a naked woman.
Not literally naked, notes Hugo slyly. She was dressed. But in a chemise so long and sheer as to make her appear merely wet. And here follow seven pages describing how a naked woman looks, and how she looks to the Laughing Man, who until then had loved, chastely, only a blind girl. The woman looks to him like a dozing Venus amid an immensity of sea foam, and as she sleeps her slow movements draw and erase enticing curves with the vague dynamics of water vapor forming clouds in the blue sky. Hugo remarks: "A woman naked is a woman armed."
Suddenly the woman, Josiane, the queen’s sister, awakes, recognizes Gwynplaine, and makes a frenzied effort to seduce him, one the wretch is by this point unable to resist, except that she has brought him to the brink of desire without yet yielding herself. She launches into a series of fantasias more disconcerting than her nakedness, presenting herself as virgin and as prostitute, eager to enjoy not only the pleasures his deformity promises, but also the thrill of defying the world and the court, prospects which intoxicate her: Venus on the verge of a double orgasm, from both the private possession and the public exhibition of her Vulcan.
Gwynplaine is ready to yield, but a message arrives from the queen, who informs her sister that the Laughing Man has been recognized as the legitimate Lord Clancharlie and that she is to marry him. Josiane declares, "So be it," rises, points to the door, and (shifting from the tu to the vous) tells the man with whom she had wanted to couple wildly: "Begone." She explains: "Since you are my husband, begone… You have no right to be here. This is my lover’s place."
Sublime corruption-not of Gwynplaine, of Yambo. Not only does Josiane offer me more than Isa Barzizza had promised from behind her curtain, but she wins me over with her shamelessness: "You are my husband, begone, this is my lover’s place." Could sin possibly be so heroically overpowering?
Are there, in the world, women like Lady Josiane and Isa Barzizza? Will I ever meet them? Will I remain thunderstruck by them-sffft-just punishment for my fantasies?
There are, at least on the screen. On another afternoon, furtively, I went to see Blood and Sand. The adoration with which Tyrone Power presses his face into Rita Hayworth’s belly persuades me that some women are armed even when they are not naked. As long as they are brazen.
To be intensely educated about the horror of sin and then to be conquered by it. I tell myself that it must be prohibition that kindles fantasy. Thus I decide that, if I am to escape temptation, I must avoid
the suggestions of an "education in purity": both are the devil’s stratagems, and each sustains the other. This intuition, however heterodox, hits me like a whip.
I withdraw into a world all my own. I cultivate music, always glued to the radio in the afternoon hours, or the early morning, and sometimes they play a symphony in the evening. My family would prefer to listen to other things. "Enough with these dirges," complains Ada, impervious to the muses. One Sunday morning I encounter Uncle Gaetano, now an old man, on the street. He has lost even his gold tooth, or maybe he sold it during the war. He asks benevolently after my studies, and Pap`a has told him that these days I am obsessed with music. "Ah, music," he says with delight, "how well I understand you, Yambo, I adore music. And all kinds, you know? Any sort, as long as it’s music." He reflects for a moment, then adds: "As long as it’s not classical. Then I turn it off, of course."
I am an exceptional creature exiled among philistines. I sequester myself ever more proudly in my solitude.
In my high school’s first-year reader, I stumble on the verses of several contemporary poets. I discover that one can be illumined by immensity, encounter the evil of living, be pierced by a ray of sunlight. I do not fully understand it, but I like the idea that this is the one thing we can tell you now: what we are not, what we do not desire.
In my grandfather’s shop I find an anthology of the French symbolists. My ivory tower. I merge into a shadowy and profound unity, seeking everywhere de la musique avant toute chose, listening to silences, noting the inexpressible and determining vertigoes.
But to confront such books freely, one must first be freed from many interdictions, so I choose the spiritual director Gianni told me about, the broad-minded priest. Don Renato had seen Going My Way, with Bing Crosby, in which American Catholic priests play piano in their clergyman suits and sing too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, too-ra-loo-ra-li to adoring girls.
Don Renato cannot dress like the Americans, but he belongs to the new generation of priests who wear berets and ride mopeds. He does not play the piano, but he has a small collection of jazz records and loves good literature. I tell him that I was advised to read Papini, and he tells me that Papini was most interesting not after he converted, but before. Broad-minded. He loans me The Failure, perhaps thinking that temptations of the spirit may save me from temptations of the flesh.
It is the confession of someone who was never a baby and who had the unhappy childhood of a thoughtful, peevish old toad. That is not me, my childhood was (nomen omen) sunny. But in Solara, in a single haunted night, I lost that. The peevish toad about whom I am now reading is saved by his thirst for knowledge and loses himself in volumes "with green, ragged spines, with huge, wide, crinkled pages, reddish from moisture, often ripped in half or ink-stained." That is me, not only as a child in the attic at Solara but also in the life I later chose. I never emerged from books: I know it now in the continuous wakefulness of this sleep, but I first grasped it in the moment I am presently recalling.
This man, a failure since birth, not only reads, he also writes. I could write, too, could add my own monsters to those that scuttle with their ragged claws across the silent sea floors. That man ruins his eyes over pages on which he sets down his obsessions in muddy ink from inkwells whose bottoms are thick with sludge, like Turkish coffee. He ruined them as a boy, reading by candlelight; he ruined them in the penumbra of libraries, his eyelids reddening. He writes with the help of strong lenses, dogged by fears of going blind. If not blind, then paralytic-his nerves are shot, he has pains and numbness in one leg, his fingers twitch involuntarily, his head shakes badly. He writes with his thick glasses nearly touching the page.
I can see fine, I ride my bike, I am no toad-I may already have my irresistible smile, but what good does it do me? I do not complain that others do not smile at me; it is because I find no reason to smile at others…
I am not like the failure, but I would like to become so. To fashion from his bibliomaniacal fury an opportunity for my own nonmonastic escape from the world. To build a world that is all mine. But I am not moving toward a conversion, if anything, I am coming back from one. Seeking an alternative faith, I become enamored of the decadents. Brothers, sad lilies, I pine for beauty… I become a Byzantine eunuch watching the great white barbarians go by and composing indolent acrostics; I install, by means of science, the anthem of spiritual hearts into the work of my patience, scour atlases, herbals, and rituals.
I can still think of the eternal feminine, as long as I am dazzled by artifice and by some sort of sickly pallor. I read, and am aroused- above the neck:
This dying girl whose garments he was touching inflamed him as did the most ardent of females. There was no bayad`ere on the banks of the Ganges, no odalisque from the baths of Istanbul, no naked Bacchante who ever existed whose embrace could have made his bone marrow boil as much as the touch, the simple touch of that fragile, febrile hand whose sweat he could feel through the glove that covered it.
I do not even have to confess to Don Renato. It is literature, I am permitted its company, even if it speaks to me of perverse nudities and androgynous ambiguities. They are far enough from my experience that I can yield to their seduction. It is word, not flesh.
Toward the end of my second year of high school, I stumble on `A rebours, by Huysmans. His hero, Des Esseintes, comes from a long line of grim, muscular warriors with yataghan mustaches, but ancestral portraits reveal a gradual impoverishment of the stock, sapped by too much inbreeding: his forebears already appear weakened by an excess of lymph in the blood, exhibit feminine traits and anemic, nervous faces. Des Esseintes is marked from birth by these atavistic evils: his is a dismal childhood, fraught with scrofula and stubborn fevers, and his mother, long, silent, and pale, always entombed in a dark room in one of their ch^ateaux, in the faint glow of a lampshade that shields her from excessive light and noise, dies when he is seventeen. Left to himself, the boy looks through books on rainy days and in nice weather goes for walks in the country. "His greatest pleasure was going down into the gorge as far as Jutigny," a village at the foot of the hill. Into the Gorge. He stretches out in the fields, listens to the muffled sound of the water mills, then climbs to the top of a ridge from where he can see the Seine valley,
with its river disappearing into the distance, merging with the blue of the sky, and the churches and towers of Provins, which seem to tremble in the sun, in the golden dustiness of the air.
He reads and daydreams, relishing his solitude. As an adult, disappointed by life’s pleasures and by the pettiness of men of letters, he dreams of a refined retreat, a private desert, a snug, still ark. Thus he builds his completely artificial hermitage where, in the aquarial half-light of windowpanes that cut him off from the dull spectacle of nature, he transforms music into flavor and flavor into music, revels in the halting Latin of the Decadence, runs his pallid fingers over dalmatics and semiprecious stones, and has the shell of a living tortoise set with sapphires, occidental turquoise, hyacinths from Compostela, aquamarines, and slate-gray rubies from S"odermanland.
The chapter I love most of all is the one in which Des Esseintes decides to leave his house for the first time to visit England. He is prompted by the foggy weather he sees around him, the vault of heaven that stretches uniformly in all directions like a gray pillowcase. In order to feel in tune with the place he is going to, he selects a pair of socks the color of dead leaves, a mouse-gray suit with lava-gray checks and sable-brown dots, then he dons a derby, takes a collapsible suitcase, a carpetbag, a hatbox, umbrellas and canes, and sets out for the station.
Already exhausted when he reaches Paris, he travels around the rainy city in a carriage to pass the time until his departure. Gaslights flicker through the fog, ringed by yellowish haloes, putting him in mind already of an equally rainy, colossal, and vast London, with its cast iron smell, its smoky mist, its rows of docks, and cranes, and capstans, and bales Then he enters a tavern of sorts, a pub frequented by the English, its walls lined with casks emblazoned with royal arms, its tables laden with Palmers biscuits, savory cakes, mince pies, and sandwiches, and he looks forward to the array of exotic wines on offer there: Old Port, Magnificent Old Regina, Cock-burn’s Very Fine… Around him sit the English: pale clerics, men with tripe-butcher faces, others with collars of whiskers similar to those of certain large apes, towheaded men. He abandons himself, in that fictive London, to the sound of foreign voices and the honks of tugboats on the river.
He leaves in a daze, the sky having now settled down around the bellies of the houses, the arcades of Rue de Rivoli reminding him of the gloomy tunnel carved out beneath the Thames, then enters another tavern, where he sees beers spilling forth from pumps that rise from the bar and robust Anglo-Saxon women with paddle-sized teeth and long hands and feet attacking a "rump-steak pie"-meat cooked in a mushroom sauce and cloaked in a crust, like a pastry. He orders an "oxtail" soup, a "haddock," some "roast beef," and two pints of "ale"; he nibbles on some "Stilton"; he chases it all with a glass of "brandy."
As he asks for the bill, the tavern door opens and the people who enter bring with them the odor of wet dog and fossil coal. Des Esseintes wonders why he should bother crossing the Channel: he has in effect already been to London, has smelled the smells, tasted the foods, seen the typical decor-he has gorged himself on British life. He has his driver take him back to the Sceaux station, and he returns, with his suitcases, his bags, his traveling rugs and his umbrellas, to his familiar refuge, "feeling all the physical exhaustion and moral fatigue of a man returning home following a long, perilous journey."
That is how I become: even on spring days I can be wrapped in a uterine fog. But only illness (and the fact that life refuses me) could fully justify my refusal of life. I must prove to myself that my escape is good, is virtuous.
Thus I find that I am ill. I have heard it said that heart disease manifests itself through the violet color of the lips, and during those very years my mother is showing signs of heart trouble. Not serious, perhaps, but the whole family gets more caught up in it than we should, to the point of hypochondria.
One morning, when I look in the mirror, my lips seem purple. I go down to the street and start sprinting like a madman: I gasp for breath, I feel an abnormal throbbing in my chest. So, I have a bad heart. Consecrated to death, like Gragnola.
Heart disease becomes my absinthe. I track its progress, watching my lips grow ever darker, my cheeks ever gaunter, as the first blooms of teen acne lend my face a morbid flush. I will die young, like Saint Aloysius Gonzaga and Domenico Savio. But my spirit has asserted itself, and I have slowly reformulated my Exercise for a Good Death: little by little I have given up hair shirts for poetry.
I live in a dazzling crepuscular light:
The day will come: I know that this my ardent blood will of a sudden slow, and that my pen, not dry, will clatter down on wood… it’s then that I will die.
I am dying, no longer because life is evil, but because in its madness it is banal, monotonously repeating its rituals of death. A secular penitent, a logorrheic mystic, I convince myself that the most beautiful island is the one that has not been found, that sometimes appears, but only in the distance, between Tenerife and La Palma:
Their vessels sail along that blessed shore: the dense green sacred forest scents the air; over the nameless flowers, huge palms soar; cardamom weeps, the rubber trees perspire…
The unfound isle, announced by fragrances, like courtesans … But like vain semblances, when pilots sail too near it vanishes, turning that shade of blue that distance is.
Faith in the ungraspable allows me to close my penitential parenthesis. Life as a provident young man had promised me, as a reward, she who was lovely as the sun and pale as the light of the moon. But a single impure thought could snatch her away from me forever. The Unfound Isle, however, since it is unattainable, remains forever mine.
I am educating myself for my encounter with Lila.