The Real Face

The Turin-born Guido Gozzano was the first and finest representative of the Crepuscolari, the poets of the Twilight. Before his tragically early death from consumption at the age of thirty-five he produced two short volumes of verse, La via del rifugio and I colloqui, the latter rendered into English as The Colloquies, which quickly became renowned for their quietly perfect evocations of nature, melancholy, tenderness and nostalgia. But unknown to most English speakers Gozzano also wrote short stories, contes cruels influenced by Poe and Maupassant and aesthetic prose nightmares, both of which display the same delicate crepuscular style and sense of tragic absurdism. These were recently published for the first time outside of Italy in Requiems & Nightmares (Hieroglyphic Press, 2012), translated by Brendan and Anna Connell. We’re delighted to reprint a selection from that collection here, “The Real Face.” — The Editors

***

And Nino Prandi?”

Mad.”

No!”

Raving mad. For nearly two years now he has been at the Villa Claudia, on the Colle D’Antale. It’s over for him … Of course, if you recall, he has always been rather odd.”

And his mother?”

She died, a little before the catastrophe; — better for that fine old woman …”

Nino mad! …”

Exactly. Not even thirty years old, and already done with, having almost reached glory, wealth …”

And have you seen him since?”

No. Once, a long time ago, I went for an excursion in the country, to Vareglio di Sori.… With many women, many young ladies. Possibly too many. We were not allowed to see him. And I never went back.… In any case,” — and my friend lit a cigarette, sheltering the match inside the hollow of his hat — “in any case, the mad are like the dead, like the departed: they are no more; it is cruel, but one must forget about them; life is pressing …” 

After the theatre, my friend and I, a journalist from Genoa, were walking down the windy Via Caffaro and he was telling me about everything that had changed in Italy during the two years of my absence. I had disembarked in Genoa a few days previous, returning from Libya, without glory and without wounds, with pronounced anaemia and pronounced sadness; but none of the sad news found in my homeland had struck me as much as this catastrophe.

The mad are like the dead: one must forget about them; life is pressing.

Ah! No! I wanted to see him again, be recognised, make him talk.

And the next day, alone and on foot, I took the same road to Vareglio d’Altano. I followed the path along the sea, closed in between the high walls of the patrician villas, walking with my head bent, distracted, absent, mechanically guided by the narrow red brick strip which marks the middle of all the lanes of seventeenth-century Genoa; the silence was being pointed out, rather than broken, by the echo of my rhythmic steps, by the distant roar of the dynamite intended since years previous to demolish the beautiful cliffs, to prepare new space for the town closed in between the mountain and the sea. And I remembered having passed along those same small lanes with Nino Prandi, years before, and recalled the artist’s complaints about the tranquil dying suburb.

At intervals, the raw walls, defended on top by fragments of glass, sparkling under the lively March sun, would open up into gardens with palms and eucalyptuses, delimited by two zones of different cobalt; the sky and the sea. Poor Nino! What a strange and candid painter, what a pleasant friend!

He lived with his mother in via Embriaci, below Ripa, in one of those immense human beehives, brightly coloured, facing the port. He lived, despite his growing prosperity, in a neat and minute lodging, on the fifth or sixth floor, and from there one flight up to his studio — the terrace of the building, which had been converted into a huge conservatory from which it was possible to look over the Alps and the Apennines, the sky, the whole port, the entire sea.  Almost no furniture, no decor; the flowers of the season renewed each day with fabulous abundance, some canvasses, the latest portrait on an easel, and between the verdure, well hidden, were the cages large and small, the boxes, the aquariums of his dear beasts: his mania, his menagerie. I do not know from what strange atavistic recurrence sprang this refined artist of a Genovese family of merchants: his father, who had been dead for years, if I remember correctly, had been a ship-owner from Camogli; his mother, together with certain relations, at that time ran a prosperous imports shop. According to the common ambition of merchants, they had wanted little Nino to became a graduate; but he, after his first years at University, left for the Academy, then almost immediately left the Academy for art, an art totally his own; a few paintings at the expositions of Venice, Paris and Munich confirmed him to be a great, a colossal artist, and at twenty-eight years of age he had the unique good fortune to see himself recognised by the most severe artistic circles and to see his work requested in the most aristocratic and wealthy social surroundings: it was glory and riches: gold and laurels. But neither the one nor the other had changed that extraordinary, that simple and good-hearted young man in any way.

He was an exquisite connoisseur not only of paintings, but also of poetry, music and the natural sciences; he had that kind of Leonardesque quality which is indispensable — he would say — to all painters. He lingered meticulously over the smallest details of his paintings and meditated for a long while over the shading of a drop of water, over the elytra of an insect, over the geometrical exactness of a refracting ray. And he was not a poseur; elegant thought, refined observation were innate in him. With his family he spoke in the dialect of Genoa of the rarest things, and there was nothing I liked more than this contrast: noble thoughts, à la Ruskin, Maeterlinck and Oscar Wilde, expressed in the dialect of Balilla …

But animals were his great passion. He had converted his studio into a zoo well hidden among the flowers.

Visitors — ladies especially — passed hours in gay curiosity. He had a fox, a lynx, a squirrel, an ermine, a caiman, a giant squid, all the most distinctive birds, the most stylised — from the flamingo to the royal owl.

The painter guarded, personally looked after, with jealousy, his vast menagerie. And, his passion being notorious and his knowledge infinite, he often received specimens; and in the bright studio, the various sized cages and aquariums multiplied. Sometimes he appeared in front of us completely radiant.

Have you sold the painting at the Salon? Will you do the portrait of the Queen of Holland?”

Come now! I have received a young kangaroo from the Consul of Melbourne …” And he dragged us to see the new guest and for days, for weeks, would not talk of anything else, would not see anything else, neglecting his painting, disregarding his friends.

He passed hours and hours in front of his prisoners:

It’s very strange,” he said, after long observation, “but each animal reminds one terribly of certain men.”

On the street, he considered one by one the passers by: “ … and each man reminds one terribly of certain animals.”

He did not smile. And he managed to carry this passion even into his paintings, even into his portraits. Next to a beautiful, elegant woman, between the silky spirals of her train, on the back of a chair, in a dark angle in the background, he accurately painted, although almost invisible, the animal that recalled the face of the protagonist.

He thus had a series of ladies and gentlemen from the squirrel, from the lizard, from the sea horse, etc.

On the face of the person being portrayed he laid a very light mask of animal-like sympathy with a symbolic little animal hidden in a corner of the painting, an expression just slightly perceivable to the initiates, his friends and accomplices, but of a really great finesse and irony. Sometimes the bestial caricature was very obvious indeed.

Nino! You are exaggerating! They will sue you! It is impossible not to see that this gentleman is a toad, that this lady is a duck …”

But the gentlemen and the ladies did not see; and the fame and fortune of Nino Prandi grew.

When asked who it was that he was portraying, he answered seriously, which was for us quite amusing:

The Pangolin will be finished next month; — it has turned out rather good;” (the pangolin was a Miss, incredibly long, sharp, elusive); “on Tuesday I will have the first sitting with the Condor: I will make something atrocious;” (the Condor was a Genovese financier: skinny, bald, fierce, with a long neck and goitre emerging simultaneously from the rich fur of his overcoat). “I had to refuse Countess Gribaudi: it’s useless, I don’t feel the Platypus …”

We laughed, but he did not. He did not even smile.

When he came to say farewell to me, to embrace me on the Sardegna before my departure for Libya, he begged me to bring him back a couple of chameleons.

Well then, in a few minutes I will see him again!

I turned onto the enormous Villa Riborsi, onto the Colle D’Antale, and there above, half way up the hill, appeared the Villa Claudia, the madhouse, ironically gay and pretty, completely pink against the intense green of the pines.

Now that the destination was near I slackened my pace, I hesitated, panted — and not simply because of the ascent — the emotion made my heart beat fast, so very fast. I was soon to see him again, and to see a demented friend again is something terrible, as frightening as lifting up the slab of marble which closes off the corpse of someone who was once very dear …

And here I am in front of the door: I ring the bell with a trembling hand.

Hic quies hic sanitas is written above the architrave of the entrance. Nobody comes. I ring again; another electrical sound replies, more distant, and then a step, a jangling of keys, a great noise of bolts and the heavy door opens up slowly, a door-keeper examines me with circumspection.

Signor Nino Prandi? Is it possible to see him?”

Come in; I will call the director.”

A long period in the banal waiting-room. I go out into the spacious garden, with laurels, pines and magnolias; the sad seclusion is very well hidden. The bars of the windows do not have the typical shape of a prison’s, but are folded in leaves, flowers, liberty volutes; a plaster Diana bends her bow toward an invisible prey; through the open space between the verdure appears the blue trembling of the sea.

In the waiting-room I am met by the director, a squat figure, with a sharp face, terribly squinting eyes and a glabrous mouth, cloven all the way up to his extremely mobile ears.

You are here to see Prandi? Who are you? A relative?”

More than a relative.… It is not just curiosity, believe me. My visit might do him good.”

But he doesn’t recognise — he doesn’t recognise anybody!”

He will recognise me. He cannot not recognise me!”

The director smiles, as if this was an absurdity.

I insist; he resigns himself to my demand, presses an electrical button, and an attendant appears; another strange figure — long, wiry, with an interminable neck surmounted by a microcephalic head on which only an enormous nose is encamped, curved, carnivalesque.

I would smile at these two diverse ‘grotesques’, but feel an anxiety, an invincible panic; I tremble slightly and now wish the director would deny the consent he has already given; instead he stands up, invites me with a gesture, and I must follow the two through rooms, corridors and galleries furnished with mysterious and disquieting electrotherapeutic devices.

Is he raving?”

No, not at all. He has a tranquil dementia, but complete and without a moment of clarity. Are you seeing him again for the first time?”

Yes, since the catastrophe.”

Well then, we will find out what kind of beast you are …”

I started and looked at the director.

What did you say? Explain to me …”

It is not necessary, you will soon understand.”

The two look at each other, laughing; the attendant cautiously opens the door of a room — candid, clean and sparsely furnished.

Nino Prandi sits at a writing-desk, in front of the window, with his back toward us as we enter.

I recognise him.

Prandi! Oh! Prandi!”

He does not turn around. Not daring to advance, I stand on the threshold with the director. The attendant approaches Nino, takes him by the arm and, with gentle violence, forces him to advance, to turn toward us. And when he turns, I no longer recognise him.

Ah, that face is no longer his! It is true, just as one does not look upon corpses, so one should not look on the mad! That inanimate face becomes more and more spastic, and those eyes light up with a flash that might be the astonishment, the increasing joy of seeing me again! He recognises me!

Do you recognise me? Prandi, it’s me, I am back! Safe and sound!”

He approaches, slowly, — and I would flee, if I did not see that his arm is properly grasped by the attendant and if I did not have the director next to me. He approaches with his hand outstretched, as if for a light caress. Oh! how I shiver when his fingers graze my cheek, my hair …

Prandi, do you recognise me?”

He speaks. But with such a voice! It is a voice that comes through a closed door, through a passage, defeated by echoes; he smiles with satisfaction.

Are you happy to see me again?”

With a blissful smile, he speaks.

Ah, what a rarity! But this is a rarity.… It was believed to be lost forever … a telegraph must be sent to London …”

But do you know who I am Prandi? Answer.”

The director intervenes.

Answer my good fellow: who is this gentleman?”

The lunatic looks around dreamily, then gestures somewhat disapprovingly against the ignorance of the two.

It is the Alca inpennis, a rarity …”

The two laugh, but I step back behind the threshold, annihilated.

The madman, seeing me escaping, attempts to follow, but is detained by the two hands of the brutal attendant. The door is being closed, and I can still hear that choked voice protesting: “The Alca inpennis … a rarity …”

I return to the study with the director, in silence, followed soon afterwards by the attendant.

Has he calmed down?”

No, Signor Director, he is in a frenzy. He will be like this for at least an hour, so I have locked him up.

The director turns toward me, annoyed and satisfied at the same time.

You see! Everything is in vain. Undoubtedly this form is incurable.”

But the causes? Atavistic?”

I don’t believe so. It is probably some sort of youthful breakdown aggravated by excessive intellectual work.”

But his frenzy of a moment ago?”

Have you not understood? He also took you for a beast. Among his other manias he has one which I would call, Zoomorphic: every person appears to him with an animal-like face. He is not the first of this kind. The form is rare, but it is classified and studied: Professor Majer deals with it in his colossal work, and it is also dealt with by Professor …”

While the director was talking, I did not listen to his words, but observed his figure against the black background of the study, illuminated by a zone of oblique sun. Those circular, squinting and independent eyes, that depressed face, mouth cloven all the way up to his small pointed and extremely mobile ears, that double chin which trembled during his learned disquisition, what kind of beast could they ever evoke?

Truly none … well, no actually; maybe some sort of anti-diluvian monster.

But you, and others whom he is familiar with, how do they appear in his eyes?”

The Professor laughed loudly, shaking.

Beasts; we are also beasts. Myself, for example … ? Well, I am not as formidable in natural science as your poor friend. Ah yes, I am an …”

Maybe an iguanodon?”

Ah yes, an iguanodon.… How did you know?”

The professor looked at me, perplexed. I was left speechless by my enormous and irreparable blunder, and also left speechless by the correlation of my own thoughts with those of the madman. I sprang out of my chair; my legs, trembling continuously, shamefully, hardly supported me.

The director smiled again, motioning toward the attendant. “This one, for example, is less rare: he is a flamingo.” I rapidly looked over that profile, entirely nose, and shivered violently: it was true.

I went out, escaped from the lunatic asylum.

 *

In the evening, in the silence, in the darkness of my bedroom, I could not fall asleep. Certainly I had a fever; my memory was tormenting itself to recall the name that my friend had given me. All of a sudden, the syllables flashed through my mind unexpectedly: Alca inpennis.

I stood up, switched on the light, opened the encyclopaedia, and found it almost immediately:

Alca inpennis or Patagonian Penguin. Type of web-footed bird, today extinct. In the past, it inhabited Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego; its inability to fly and to walk, condemned it to a complete destruction; one specimen only, in poor condition, is being preserved in the London museum …”

The text was supplemented by a beautiful engraving: the border of an ice-bank, with the upright form of that strange bird which looked as if it were dressed in a man’s dinner jacket.… But that high forehead, surmounted by a wavy tuft, that long and straight beak, that outstretched neck, were they not my exact caricature, that which had appeared in a humorous newspaper a few days ago?

Resolutely I carried the heavy volume over to the big triple-pane mirror and contemplated alternately my profile and the profile of the strange bird.

It was me!

I closed the mirror, laid down the volume and took refuge in bed, feverish, after having swallowed a double dose of sleeping potion. And sleep came quite soon, but webbed with indescribable dreams, like an immense, animated engraving of Speaking Animals.