The gold rimmed spectacl.., p.1
The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, p.1Giorgio Bassani
The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles
Translated and with an afterword by Jamie McKendrick
THE GOLD-RIMMED SPECTACLES
PENGUIN MODERN CLASSICS
THE GOLD-RIMMED SPECTACLES
Giorgio Bassani was born in 1916. From 1938 onwards he became involved in various anti-fascist activities for which he was imprisoned in 1943. His works include The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, The Heron, Behind the Door and Five Stories of Ferrara, which won the Strega Prize. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was awarded the Viareggio Prize in 1962 and was made into a feature film.
Jamie McKendrick is an award-winning poet and translator. His translation of Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is already available, and he is currently translating the rest of the Ferrara Cycle anew for Penguin Modern Classics.
Time has begun to thin them out, and yet it would be wrong to claim that only a few people in Ferrara still remember Dr Fadigati. Oh yes, Athos Fadigati – they would recall – the ENT specialist who had a clinic and his own house in Via Gorgadello, a short walk from the Piazza delle Erbe, and who ended up so badly, poor man, so tragically. It was he who, when he left his native Venice as a young man, and came to settle in our city, had seemed destined to follow the most regular, the most uneventful, and for that reason, the most enviable of careers …
It was in 1919, just after the other war. Because of my age, I who write this can only offer a rather vague and confused picture of that period. The town-centre caffès spilt over with officers in uniform; lorries bedecked with flags continually passed by along Corso Giovecca and Corso Roma (today rechristened Martiri della Libertà); on the scaffolding covering the facade of the Palazzo delle Assicurazioni Generali, then undergoing reconstruction, in front of the north face of the Castle, a huge, scarlet advertising banner had been unfurled, inviting the friends and enemies of Socialism to come together to drink APERITIF LENIN; scuffles broke out almost every day between farm workers and extremist labourers on the one side and ex-combatants on the other … This climate of fever, of political agitation, of general distraction, which coloured the early infancy of all those who would become adults some twenty years later, somehow worked in favour of the Venetian Fadigati. In a city such as ours, where after the war the youth from good families were more reluctant than anywhere else to enter the liberal professions, it’s easy to understand how he could have put down roots almost unnoticed. The fact is that in 1925, when the fad began to abate even among ourselves, and Fascism, organizing itself into a large national party, was able to offer advantageous positions to all late-comers, Athos Fadigati was already solidly grounded in Ferrara, the owner of a magnificent private clinic, and moreover director of the ENT department of the big, new Sant’ Anna Hospital.
He’d made it, as they say. No longer young, and with the air, even then, of never having been so, he was glad to have left Venice (he once confessed this himself) not so much to seek his fortune in a city other than his own, as to have escaped the stricken atmosphere of a vast house on the Grand Canal in which he had witnessed within the space of a few years the deaths of both his parents and of a much-loved sister. His courteous, discreet manners were much appreciated, as were his evident disinterestedness and the fair-minded spirit of charity towards his poorer patients. But even more than for these reasons, he was appreciated for what he was: for those gold-rimmed spectacles that gleamed agreeably upon the dark earthen colour of his smooth, hairless cheeks, for the not at all off-putting chubbiness of that corpulent frame which belonged to someone with a congenital heart condition, who had miraculously outlived the crisis of puberty and was always, even in summer, wrapped up in thick English wool. (During the war, owing to his poor health, he had not been able to serve in anything other than the Office of Postal Censorship.) In short there was something in him that immediately attracted and reassured people.
The clinic in Via Gorgadello, where he received from four until seven o’clock every day, would later crown his successes.
It was a very modern clinic, the like of which until then no doctor at Ferrara had ever had. Furnished with an impeccable surgery which, as far as cleanliness, efficiency and even size go, could only be compared with those of the Sant’ Anna, it also prided itself on a good eight rooms in the adjoining private apartment in addition to as many small waiting rooms for the public. Our townsfolk, especially the more socially respected, were dazzled by all this.
Having suddenly become intolerant of what could be described as the picturesque, but overfamiliar and finally dubious, clutter in which the other three or four aged local specialists continued to see their respective patients, it induced in them a state of particular respectfulness. At Fadigati’s, they never tired of repeating, where was the interminable waiting, heaped on top of each other like animals, hearing through the frail dividing walls the more or less distant voices of almost always happy and numerous families, while in the feeble light of a twenty-watt bulb, the eye coursing over the sad walls had nothing to rest on but some majolica tile announcing DON’T SPIT, some caricature of a university professor or fellow doctor, not to speak of other even more jinxed and doleful images of patients being subjected to horrendous enemas in front of an entire medical school, or of laparotomies at which, grinning, Death himself officiated dressed as a surgeon? And how on earth had they – until then – put up with such medieval treatment?
Soon enough, going to Fadigati’s became more than a fashion, became a distinct pleasure. Especially on winter evenings, when the icy wind, whistling, threaded its way from the Piazza Cattedrale down Via Gorgadello, it was with frank satisfaction that the rich bourgeois, wrapped up in his fur coat, using the pretext of the faintest of sore throats to slip inside the half-closed little door, would climb up the two staircases and ring the bell at the glass door. Up there, beyond that magical luminous hatch, at which presided a nurse in a white apron, who was always young and smiling, he would find radiators going at full steam, warmer than at his own house, or even, perhaps, than at the Businessman’s Club or the Union. He would find armchairs and sofas aplenty, occasional tables always furnished with the most up-to-date papers and journals, shutters that diffused a strong, white, generous light. He would find carpets that, when one grew tired of being there, snoozing in the warmth or leafing through the illustrated reviews, beckoned him to pass from one waiting room to the next to look at the multitude of paintings and prints, both ancient and modern, hung on the walls. He would find a good-natured and sociable doctor who while personally ushering him ‘in there’ to examine the sore throat, seemed above all anxious to know, like the truly refined gentleman he was, whether his patient had had the opportunity to hear, some evenings before, at Bologna’s Teatro Communale, Aureliano Pertile in Lohengrin; or else, who knows? – if he had looked closely at the De Chirico or that little Casorati hung on such-and-such a wall in whichever waiting room, and if the De Pisis had appealed to him; and then he would express profound surprise if his patient, in response, confessed to not knowing who Filippo de Pisis was, let alone that he was a young and very promising painter from Ferrara. A comfortable, pleasing and refined setting, and what’s more, it even acted as a mental stimulus. A place where time, accursed time, which is always an insuperable problem for the provinces, passed in a delightful way.
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 shu
Everyone knew how he spent his mornings, so no one had anything to say about them.
By nine he was already at the hospital, and with visits and operations (because he also did operations: there was not a day in which he didn’t have to take out a pair of tonsils or take a scalpel to a mastoid) he kept at it until one o’clock. After which, between one and two, it was not unusual to meet him once again walking up Corso Giovecca with a bag of tuna in oil or a packet of sliced ham hanging from his little finger, and with the Corriera della Sera jutting out of his coat pocket. So he ate lunch at home. And since he didn’t have a cook, and the part-time maid who kept his house and study clean only showed up around three, an hour before the nurse arrived, it must have been he – in itself a bizarre phenomenon – who prepared the indispensible plate of pasta.
Even for supper his presence would have been vainly awaited in the few town-centre restaurants which were judged to be of certain decorousness: Vincenzo’s, Sandrino’s, at the Tre Galletti – or even at Roveraro’s, in the Vicolo del Granchio, whose authentic home-cooking appealed to so many other middle-aged bachelors. This did not at all mean, though, that he ate at home as he did at lunchtime. He never seemed to stay at home in the evening. Around eight o’clock, or a quarter past, on Via Gorgadello, it was easy to catch sight of him just as he was leaving. He would linger a moment on the threshold, looking up, looking right, then left, as if unsure of the time or of which direction to take. At last he would set off, merging into the stream of people who at that hour, in summer just as in winter, unhurriedly passed by the lit-up windows of Via Bersaglieri del Po, much as they would along the Mercerie in Venice.
Where was he off to? He was taking a turn, strolling about, here and there, apparently without any particular end in view.
After an intense day’s work he certainly liked to be among the crowd: the noisy, happy undifferentiated crowd. Tall, fat, with his homburg hat, his yellow gloves, or even, if it was winter, with his overcoat lined with opossum fur and with his stick slipped into the right side pocket near the sleeve, between eight and nine o’clock at night he might be seen at any place in the city. Every now and then, one was surprised to find him standing still before some shop window in Via Mazzini or Via Saraceno, looking intently over the shoulders of whoever had stopped in front of him. Often he paused beside the stalls selling trinkets or confectionery, arranged in rows of ten along the southern flank of the Duomo, or in Piazza Travaglio, or in Via Garibaldi, staring fixedly and without a word at the homely goods on display. However, it was Via San Romano’s crammed and impoverished pavements that he preferred to frequent. It was strange to bump into him there, under those low arches, with their acrid reek of fried fish, salt pork, wine and cheap yarn, and above all crowded with lower-class women, soldiers, boys, cloaked peasants, and so on; to see his eyes so vivid, joyful, satisfied, a vague smile spread across his face.
‘Good evening, Doctor!’ someone might shout from behind him.
And it was a miracle if he heard; if, already carried away by the current, he should turn to reply to the greeting.
Only later, after ten o’clock, would he reappear, in one of the town’s four cinemas: the Excelsior, the Salvini, the Rex or the Diana. But even there, he preferred the back rows of the stalls to the seats in the circle, where those of some social distinction gathered together as though in a drawing room. And how embarrassing for those respectable gentlefolk to see him down there, so well dressed, lost among the worst of ‘the seething mob’! Was it really in good taste – they sighed, turning their saddened gaze elsewhere – to take the spirit of bohemianism that far?
So it is quite understandable that around 1930, when Fadigati was already going on forty, not a few began to think it was high time he found himself a wife. This view was whispered between patients on adjacent armchairs in those same waiting rooms in the Via Gorgadello clinic, as they waited for the unsuspecting doctor to show his face in the little doorway reserved for his periodic appearances, and to invite one of them to ‘come on through’. It was referred to later at supper by husbands and wives, taking care that their children, with their noses in the soup and their ears pricked up, should be unable to guess what they were speaking of. And later on too, in bed – but here speaking quite openly – the topic had often already engrossed five or ten minutes of those precious half-hours sacred to confidences and ever-more lengthy yawns, which normally precede the exchange of kisses and conjugal ‘goodnights’.
To the husbands as to the wives it seemed absurd that a man of such quality should not have thought once and for all of establishing a family.
Apart from his temperament perhaps being a bit ‘artistic’, but overall so serious and staid, which other resident in Ferrara with a degree, under fifty years of age, could boast of a better position than his? Good-natured towards everyone, rich (oh yes, as far as money was concerned, he could earn what he wanted!), an active member of two of the more important Ferrara clubs, and so equally welcome to the middle and the lower-middle classes of the professions and the shopkeepers as to the aristocracy, with or without coats of arms, with inherited wealth or estates. He had even been provided with a Fascist Party card which, despite his mild declaration that he was ‘apolitical by nature’, the Federal Secretary in person had at all costs wanted to give him. What was he lacking, now, but a beautiful woman to take to the church of San Carlo or the Duomo every Sunday morning, and to the cinema in the evening, wrapped in furs and bedecked with jewels as is right and proper? And why did he not bother to look around and find himself one? Perhaps, that would be it, perhaps he was embroiled in relations with some working-class woman he couldn’t confess to seeing, like a sewing woman, a governess, a servant or some such. As happens to many doctors, perhaps he was attracted only to nurses: and precisely for this reason, who knows? – those who passed through his clinic were always so good-looking, so provocative! But even admitting that something like this was indeed the truth (and, on the other hand, it was curious that nothing more specific on this matter had ever come to light!), what motive could have prevented him from marrying? Did he want the same fate that, in his time, had befallen Dr Corcos, the eighty-year-old director of the hospital, the most illustrious of the Ferraresi doctors, who, according to what was recounted of him, after having had an affair for years with a young nurse, at a certain point was forced by her family to keep her for life?
And in the city intense speculations abounded as to which girl might truly be worthy of becoming Signora Fadigati – but this one was unconvincing for one reason, that one for another: none of them ever seemed quite right enough for the solitary home-bound figure, who on certain nights could be glimpsed among the crowd leaving the Excelsior or the Salvini in Piazza delle Erbe, or down there, in the depths of the Listone, a moment before he disappeared into the dark lateral crack of Via Bersaglieri del Po … Then all of a sudden – no one knew who started them – strange, no, quite extraordinary rumours began to circulate.
‘Didn’t you know? It seems that Dr Fadigati is …’
‘Wait till you hear the news. D’you know that Dr Fadigati who lives in Via Gorgadello, almost at the corner of Bersaglieri del Po? Well, I’ve heard it said that he’s …’
A gesture, a grimace was enough.
It was enough even to say that Fadigati was ‘like that’, was ‘one of them’.
But sometimes, as happens in speaking of unseemly questions, and particularly of sexual abnormalities, there would be someone who, grinning, would have recourse to a dialect word, which even in our region carries a more malicious edge than the language of the upper classes. And then to add, not without a touch of melancho
‘Oh, it all makes sense.’
‘What a weird type, that’s for sure.’
‘How come we never thought of that before?’
Overall, though, it wasn’t as if they were too unhappy to have figured out Fadigati’s secret vice so late (it had taken them more than ten years to get there, imagine that!), but rather as if they were at some level reassured and, for the most part, were amused by it.
In the end – they exclaimed, shrugging – why should they not be able to acknowledge the sheer style of the man even in the most shameful of irregularities?
What above all disposed them to indulgence towards Fadigati and, after the first recoil of alarmed dismay, almost to admiration, was precisely that, his style, and by style first and foremost they meant one thing: his discretion, the evident care he had taken and continued to take in concealing his tastes, so as not to cause scandal. Yes – they said – now that his secret was no longer a secret, now that everything was clear as could be, at last one could be sure how to behave towards him. By day, in the light of the sun, to show him every respect; in the evening, even if pressed chest to chest against him in the throng of Via San Romano, to show no sign of recognizing him. Like Fredric March in Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dr Fadigati had two lives. But who doesn’t?
Knowing amounted to understanding, to no longer being curious, to ‘letting things be’.
Earlier on, entering a cinema, what used to worry them most – they recalled – was making sure whether he was right at the back as was his custom. They knew his habits, and had noticed that he was never seated. 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 … But now! What was the point now, having just come in, of checking to confirm his presence? And why had they ever waited uneasily each time the lights came on? If at Ferrara there was a middle-class man to whom was conceded the right to frequent the lower-class stalls, to immerse himself as he wished and in full view of everyone amid the unappealing underworld of the one-lire-and-twenty-centesimo ‘seats’, it could only have been Dr Fadigati.
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