The adventure of a bather by Italo Calvino

Vincenzo Canto
10th January 2021

"Difficult loves" were published by Italo Calvino for the first time in 1958, in the anthological volume I racconti, to be then reissued in the 1970s with the addition of new contents (the period of composition of the novellas in fact extends from 1949 to 1967). The title of this collection- section speaks for itself: at the centre of each of these 'adventures' (a term to be understood more in its Latin etymological sense - from "adventura", 'the things that will happen' - which well expresses the fortunate, unpredictable and impervious character of the dynamics narrated), the author places the story of a series of complicated 'loves' of which the fundamental component is silence, in its oscillating nature of emblem of the incommunicability between lovers and essence of love itself, almost necessary for its authenticity. But “Difficult loves" is not only this: love and silence are in fact engines of much wider and complex reflections which, in their articulated dimensions, become the real 'adventure' of the title more than the actions themselves. Among these, "The adventure of a bather" (The adventure of a bather) is particularly interesting because of its strong topical accent. Isotta Barbarino, the 'bather' of the title, suddenly finds herself in a circumstance of great discomfort: during her relaxing and liberating swim, she notices, some distance from the beach, that she has lost the lower part of her swimming costume. Unaware of where it might have gone, she begins her silent, exhausting wait for someone to rescue her. But all around her is emptiness and absence: she remains alone, half-naked, with the voice of her conscience as her only companion. At this point the narrative moves according to the movement of the protagonist's thoughts, in a series of reflections that can be traced back to the two main thematic nuclei of the story: the problem of nudity and the difficult relationship between woman-man and woman-woman.

Between codes and stereotypes: the solitude of the sexes

The nudity of the body is revealed to the protagonist as an epiphanic revelation that immediately becomes for her a reason of unspeakable shame, such as to push her "to toil, to change the way and sense of swimming" in a desperate attempt to hide that "offensive naked body" that "came after her". An impossible escape, like the man's escape from his shadow, an escape from nudity "as from another person whom she, Mrs Isotta, could not save in a difficult situation, and could only abandon to her fate". A nudity that is therefore intended to be irrevocable, irretrievable, dead. This is despite the fact that in the past it was for her "one of her glories, one of her reasons for pleasure". What is it that makes this nudity something from which Isotta would like to deprive herself as if of an ignoble mark? Certainly, in the first place, the 'contradictory chain of apparently sensible circumstances'. Finding oneself naked in such a context, on a public - and not nudist - beach crowded with men and women of all ages is undoubtedly a first, major reason for a woman's discomfort, and for several reasons: the fear of being noticed, 'seen', by others against her will (which is to conceal herself as much as possible) and of being, rightly and wrongly, misunderstood and therefore judged; the consequent terror, much stronger, to establish a contact with the Other so that he may become her 'saviour', for the possibility that the same outcomes of the first circumstance listed above may occur, but above all for the sensation (not so delirious) of a total absence of solidarity, closeness and intention to collaborate on the part of the same Other to whom she would like to turn and ask for help. Here is the first (visual) paradox of the narrated dynamic: Isotta does not want but has to be noticed if she wants to hope for her rescue; at the same time she does not have to show herself and wishes not to, given the possibility of incurring the unpleasantness mentioned above. The following pages are particularly eloquent in this sense: imagining her 'saviour' in male form, the woman looks at the crowds of men who populate the beach and the waves with intense, penetrating, desperately pleading eyes; a gaze which has the effect of awakening them from the "absorbed or restless nirvana" of their activities, but which provokes in them the much-feared misunderstanding of Isotta's intentions: and so "hedges of malice and subtext, a bush of stinging pupils, of incisors uncovered in ambiguous laughter, of sudden interrogative pauses in the oars at the water's edge" rise up to "her need for confidence". A game of glances that immediately becomes dangerous. Isolde would now also like to flee from them, not only from her nakedness, but she is now hopelessly sunk in the 'network of obligatory allusions [...] already stretched around her'. This is because she is a woman, and therefore the primary object of the man's sexual desire, here disturbingly portrayed as an obscure figure of a predator patiently waiting for his perverse fantasy to be fulfilled: "as if each of these men had been fantasising for years about a woman to whom what happened to her should happen, and spent their summers at the seaside hoping to be there at the right moment". And it is not by chance that the author speaks of 'obligatory allusions': the attitude of the man described here is not presented and is not the 'fruit' of a natural instinct (it would otherwise be everyone's, and the ending confirms the contrary: in fact, it will be a young boy and his father who save the woman) but as the 'product' of a precise behavioural code, designed to regulate the relationship of that specific sex towards the opposite one. And adhering to its norms, which are nothing more than stereotypes, is obligatory (like the 'allusions' in the story, the effect of a codified prejudice of men against women; and at this point one might even think that the man is a 'predator', but as a consequence of his being a victim of the code imposed on him). Returning to the narrative, Isolde finds herself at a dead end: she cannot escape and cannot even ask for help from those men, no longer her possible saviours but rather her patrons. Having therefore discarded the hypothesis of the man-saviour, Isolde reflects on another option that she had not initially considered, perhaps deliberately ignored: looking for salvation from the female side, staking all her agony on the hope of finding unchanged still a glimmer of humanity in the solidarity between women, united in fortune and danger by the same sex. But this too will prove to be an illusory delusion: if on the one hand, on closer inspection, relationships-meetings with men are animated by a "dangerous ease", on the other hand, contacts with women constitute "rarer and more uncertain occasions", weakened by a "mutual distrust [...]", by the shared blame for the femininity, always questionable, of the other. Feelings that almost seem to hide a more terrible one: the underlying envy for which the man himself seems to be responsible. Further on, in fact, we read: "Signora Isotta then realised how lonely a woman is, how rare among her peers [...] is sympathetic and spontaneous goodness"; and then, in brackets: "perhaps broken by the pact made with the man". Woman, in other words, is not and cannot be 'good' and 'supportive' of the other because she is in competition with it, taking part in a continuous challenge aimed at conquering man and fulfilling the 'pact' she has made with her gender. The man as a trophy and gratification of the woman, therefore, the central objective of her social fulfilment, to be achieved, however, respecting certain rules. As if the same necessary and fundamental code of behaviour also existed among women: either one follows the rules and therefore the stereotypes, or one is stained with ignominy (in the eyes of both women and men). In short, beyond any generalisation or extreme (hyperbole certainly intended for communicative purposes), Calvino's is a social criticism that is unfortunately still relevant today: in a society like today's, where time passes all too quickly and everything is reduced to a race to the top from which only blame and condemnation will move, even in simple and primitive human contact it cannot be otherwise: competition and contest, victory and defeat. Through a simple and almost banal episode, the author skilfully restores to us the image - dystopian but prophetic - of a society whose single individuals do not form the whole, but rather each one constitutes a subset in itself; a society made up of lonely men and women, condemned to a self-inflicted solitude between barriers of codes and stereotypes, between which the encounter can only be a clash. And don't think differently in the case of the man: if in the place of the protagonist there had been her male counterpart, the consequences would not have changed: object of derision by men, accused of 'bad intentions' by women.

Between codes and stereotypes: the nude scandal

The question of the difficult relationship between the two sexes finds its basis in the already mentioned 'shame' related to the nudity of the body: a nudity that 'belongs little', representing more "an unconscious state of nature that [reveals] itself from time to time arousing wonder in human beings" rather than something common and familiar. Calvin perhaps wishes, with this, to emphasise a fact: that centuries of progressive civilisation have led to consider as unnatural something which, on the contrary, is among the most natural in man's possession; that centuries of continuous and imposed interventions have made it necessary to hide, mask, cancel this 'unnaturalness' even when circumstances would make it, instead, natural (as in the intimacy between husband and wife, where being naked becomes almost the "joyful camouflage" of "a kind of secret carnival between spouses"). And the author is not the only one to make such a statement: the German sociologist Norbert Elias, 'The process of civilisation' published in 1939, states that from the Middle Ages to the end of the 19th century there was a rather uniform process of raising the threshold of modesty and self-control due to the action of the distinctive strategies of the social elites and the centralising drive of the states: an, if you like, 'instrumental' intervention of the state and ruling class towards citizens on the ethical-moral level of custom whereby men and women of a society are obliged, in order to be part of it, to adhere to specific indications dictated by the 'common sense' determined by power; an invitation, this, to recognise themselves in something common (a code, such as the male and female code mentioned above) which is an invitation to conformism, and therefore to homologation and therefore to control (of the human being on the human being). Hence the second, great paradox (conceptual, properly Vichian): man, from the summit of his most complete and absolute civilisation, risks and falls into brutal, into unnaturalness, into bestialisation; his civilisation of nature has been nothing other than a contrary action of incivility, of unnaturalness, an act literally 'against nature' (and to remind us, with these same words, is also Ungaretti interviewed by Pasolini in his Comizi d'Amore).It is not only this: that attribute of sexual ambiguity affixed to the image of the naked body, reified as a mere object of carnal desires and perversions, a source of malice and condemnation (for men and women respectively), makes that same body and its nudity a reality too uncomfortable for oneself as well as for others, a fact which, not respecting the social norms of morality, must be forced into the shadow of clothes upon clothes (which, paradoxically, reduce the person to a thing more than nudity itself); a traumatic revelation which, like any other unpleasant memory, must be thrown into the dark corner of the unconscious and forgotten. Only in this way, by denying one's nakedness and accepting the grotesque and unnatural image of the clothed human being, does one feel adequate, civilised, human.

Human' absurdity

Loneliness, shame, death: all this is set against the backdrop of Isotta's deafening fear of death, that is, of dying forced into the immobility in which she finds herself chained: because of the impossibility of sincere contact with others, because of the impossibility of accepting oneself in one's natural state of nakedness, because of one's own and others' inability to cross the threshold of one's own pre-constructed mental schemes. A death, therefore, which would be absurdly murder-suicide. Fortunately, this is not the ending of the Calvinian tale analysed so far.

Bibliography and external references

All the quotations quoted about the story "The adventure of a bather" are taken from: Italo Calvino, “Difficult loves", Mondadori editore, Oscar moderni series, 2017. Pier Paolo Pasolini's interview with Giuseppe Ungaretti is contained in the documentary-investigation "Love Meetings" (1964); here is the link to the full version on the YouTube platform: The essay by the German sociologist Norbert Elias "The process of civilisation" was published in Italy for the first time in 1988. The most rigorous edition is certainly the one edited by il Mulino, but it does not seem to be available at the moment.

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