A touch of The Leopard and a touch of Death In Venice, two main characters reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s amoral narcissists – a dashing recipe for a slender little book of 151 pages that, on the surface, is about two rich men idling their time away sailing on Lake Maggiore with obliging girlfriends picked up here and there. Oh, there’s a murder too. It was first published in 1976; New Vessel Press has just come out with a translation by Jill Foulston.
The narrator is a wealthy young man who has come back from Switzerland in 1946, just after the end of the war. Presumably he went to Switzerland in the first place to avoid army service. In the terms of this book, there’s no shame in that. He doesn’t need to work and has no pressing inclinations. The boat cruising idly about the haunts of the rich is a perfect metaphor for his life. But this apparent sophisticate is a patsy in the hands of Orimbelli, who latches on to him one evening as he comes into port. A dinner turns into a standing invitation to Orimbelli’s imposing villa; he visits often and stays overnight. To escape his vinegary wife, certainly to enjoy the girls the narrator brings his way, Orimbelli becomes the narrator’s sailing companion. The narrator is dimly aware he’s being outmanoeuvred, with the girls and with some other scheme of Orimbelli’s, but his habitual detachment damps this feeling down. Nothing for him has any moral resonance; life is just a series of fleeting pleasures and mild inconveniences. He prefers to be on the fringes of other people’s lives.
It’s a slow burn, this enveigling little book. You’re uneasy from the start, but you don’t quite know why; you feel more and more repelled, but you know you haven’t got to the heart of it, any more than the narrator has. And the denouement is so beautifully paced that it has the feeling of inevitability but still startles you. Another terrific product of New Vessel Press.