I found Pontiggia’s The Invisible Player in a favourite second hand bookshop several months ago. Published by the Italian Eridanos press and with small painting on the cover of a red winged figure (angel or devil?) about to fly or fall in a curved baroque space, it attracted me immediately.
Oddly enough another blogging colleague had it languishing on his shelves and we agreed to each make our own review at some future time. I don’t know how he felt when faced with the learned and whimsical actuality of the book, but I felt deeply inadequate. I am neither a Greek/Latin scholar or a philologist, nor am I a chess aficionado. I did call for help from the other Gert who IS a scholar of Greek and Latin (Italian too), but she, ever rigorous in these matters, told me I had taken it on, so it was up to me. So here is my attempt.
We do not have long to wait for the inciting incident. The professor (as he is always called) one bright morning sees his assistant hurrying towards him across the university square. He is the bearer of bad news. The journal, The Voice of Antiquity, which seems to be widely read within this academic community, has an anonymous letter in its Touché column, disparaging the professor and mocking his scholarship. As the anonymous author writes, Is it possible to commit a more unbelievable howler? His argument concerns what he sees as an ‘impropriety’ in the matter of the origins of the word ‘hypocrite’ and how its form and meaning has changed over time. The letter begins thus, Hypocrisy is the water in which we all swim: it keeps us afloat all our lives, and, in the end, sinks us. The professor becomes obsessed with finding the author of this piece and this is where we see the hypocrisy and double-faced nature of the academic world.
In no time his assistant is visiting Professor Salutati described as slouched in weary pinguidity i.e fat and greasy, and the discussion turns to the article. The professor sees them talking and begins to wonder if Salutati could be the author of the letter. Or could it be another colleague, Carulli? Before the book is finished we have had glimpses into the lives of several of those the professor suspects, and all seem to live double lives. The professor himself is also guilty of this. He has a young wife twenty years his junior, but this is not enough for him; he is engaged in a dalliance with a young ambitious poet, to whom he gives grudging and mostly negative opinions on her poetry. One of his major suspects is his colleague, Daverio, who, although married, is madly in love with the Professor’s wife, and is it with him she is having those long telephone conversations?A young man visits a woman who runs an office where she rents out apartments by the hour for dalliance. For whom is he arranging this? All becomes clear later.
During the course of the professor’s interviewing of those he suspects, we come to see into other double lives. Cattaneo, described as an ex-writer has the following philosophy,
Starting with the principle that to maintain a good relationship with one’s wife it is necessary to have a mistress and to maintain a good relationship with a mistress it is necessary to have yet another one…
The professor visits him to get his views on the possible author of the letter. There is a wonderful description of where he lives, in a decrepit area of Rome. Even though this book was written in the Seventies the city still seems to be lagging behind in post war reconstruction. Viz Cattaneo’s home,
Cattaneo lived in the oldest part of the city, a fortress of mangy facades, pierced by low, dark archways leading into squalid courtyards, with exterior stone stairs and creeping vines…here and there, mounds of garbage, pyramids of old tires and car wrecks piled up right below the boarded-up windows of houses…
They discuss the letter. Unfortunately most of the colleagues the professor consults seem to agree with the criticism of his work, which he finds quite enraging. And as in previous discussions the only person they can come up with who might be guilty is Daverio, whom they all seem to look down on as a second-rater.
Now we go more deeply into Daverio’s life and see how really crazy he is – his obsession with the professor’s wife, whose phone conversations he tapes then plays back bit by bit, to say nothing of his obsession with his hair. In one hilarious scene he questions his wife about the response of his hair to the latest treatment he has applied; he is sitting in the bath and calls to her to come and give her opinion.
‘I know you can be objective. I’m counting on it, so, please, be as objective as you can.’
‘All right, I will.’
‘Look,’ he said.
He dropped his head and pushed it forward, as if offering it to the guillotine. Standing perfectly straight, she asked him:
‘Is it about your hair again?’
‘Yes,’ he answered, without changing his posture. ‘Check it out.’
She brought her face a few inches closer.
‘How does it look?’
‘Exactly as it looked the last time,’ she answered.
But he does not leave it there, pages of questioning continue, the long suffering wife trying to gauge the answers Daverio might want.
The lives take twist and turns, we never find out who wrote the letter (at least I don’t think so, but I am willing to be advised otherwise.)
I found this book a fascinating glimpse into a completely foreign world. It felt as if I was in a painting by de Chirico, with strange slants of light on shadowy figures running across quadrangles and between baroque buildings. Although it was written only thirty-six years ago it seems like such a different world it could have been written one hundred years ago. Sadly it seems to be the only book by Pontiggia that has been translated into English. I would love to read L’Arte della Fuga. I have however bought online another Eridanos publication ,The Resurrection of Maltravers by Alexander Lernet-Holenia, about whom I know nothing. Stay tuned.