Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of around 50 or 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting one each Wednesday to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.
Among the many writers whose father was a doctor was Giorgio Bassani (1916 – 2000). He was also one of those writers whose work was intensely local: other writers wander the world in search of inspiration. The universal can be found either in the strange or in the familiar; it is a matter of temperament where writers seek it.
His novels and stories are set in the beautiful Italian city of Ferrara but at the time of the deep moral squalor of Mussolini’s regime. The contrast between the aesthetic and moral qualities of the setting heightens the drama.
The protagonist of his short novel, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, is a doctor, Dr Athos Fadigati. Dr Fadigati is an ENT surgeon from Venice who sets up an elegant clinic in Ferrara just after the end of the First World War. As such, he becomes a member of the local haute bourgeoisie, but he also becomes the subject of local gossip, increasingly malevolent. The gold-rimmed spectacles of the title are those that the doctor wears and are characteristic of him.
Dr Fadigati is noticed to have odd habits. At the cinema, for example, he sits in the cheap seats, among the poor, for example among the soldiers, rather than in the circle where his fellow bourgeois sits. He is unmarried, and eventually the penny drops: he is homosexual.
His ruination begins when he is seen only too openly in the company of a handsome young man from Ferrara, Eraldo Deliliers, at the Adriatic resort of Riccione, where the entire Ferrarese bourgeoisie spends its summer holidays. A scandal occurs when Eraldo has an argument with his rich, ageing and plump lover in the lobby of the hotel, and punches him.
Dr Fadigati’s practice declines and then dwindles practically to nothing. At the end of the story he is found drowned (by suicide) in the River Po in Pontelagoscuro, a suburb of Ferrara.
The narrator is a young student from Ferrara who, like Bassani himself, studied at the University of Bologna, and belongs to the Jewish bourgeoisie of the city. At the time of Dr Fadigati’s suicide, Mussolini – whom some of the Jewish bourgeoisie had strongly supported in the early days of his regime – opportunistically enacted anti-semitic laws in order to curry favour with his ally, Hitler. Later, after the time in which the novel is set, 96 of the 300 Ferrarese Jews were to be deported to Poland, and only 5 survived.
Clearly, Bassani intends the reader to draw a parallel between the way in which Dr Fadigati is treated and the increasing persecution of the narrator and his co-religionists. The latter is not presented as a plaster saint or an immaculate victim: in the story he has behaved indiscreetly and even foolishly. But he is clearly not a bad man and does not deserve his fate.
Bassani did not deserve his fate either. He had been briefly imprisoned in 1943 for his anti-fascist activities, the regime fortunately collapsing before worse could befall him; but in the last two years of his life there was an unseemly dispute among his relatives as to his capacity to dispose of his property, which depended upon whether he suffered from Parkinson’s disease, which was at least partially treatable, or Alzheimer’s, which was not. Ill-will comes in many guises, perhaps infinitely many.