Edoardo Albinati on Masculinity, Italy, and Fascism
The Author of The Catholic School in Conversation
with Francesco Pacifico
Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School is a recent winner of Italy’s biggest literary prize, il premo Strega, and is coming out in the United States this month. Albinati’s novel is about a number of things—fascism, the petite bourgeois, Rome in the 1970s, growing up in a private all-boys school—and it revolves around the true story of an abduction and gruesome attack of two working class young women by men who attended the same school as Albinati.
I fell in love with Albinati’s poems two decades ago, when I was looking for writing that could both reflect society and inner life, that was neither cheap nor highfalutin. Albinati’s prose is the best Italian you can find. His books that precede The Catholic School are short works of nonfiction or “autofiction” that would make a lot of sense in the United States’ current literary scene. Back then, the best Italian authors were writing that weird, poetic stuff that Americans have learned to love in recent years. Twenty years ago, it was as if everybody in Italy was a Ben Lerner or a Sheila Heti. Albinati has always been one of the best in that tradition, so it’s fantastic that American readers can read The Catholic School now.
The following conversation about The Catholic School was recorded at his place earlier this summer, on a hot July day.
Francesco Pacifico: The story or the stories you tell in The Catholic School trace their roots back to a neighborhood in Rome and a notorious murder from 1975 that graduated from a simple item in the local crime pages to go down in history as “The Circeo Murder.” How can a novel that reconstructs the petite bourgeoisie of a Roman neighborhood—recounting at the same time the story of fascism, organized crime, insanity, and self-satisfied respectability, as well as the sentimental education of its boys—be presented and understood by an American readership, or perhaps in more general terms, by English-language readers?
Edoardo Albinati: I have no idea which of the themes of my book might be more or less interesting for an American reader or, in any case, an English-language reader. I myself experienced them as new territories which I was discovering even as I wrote. It took me nine years to write the book, and the novel’s landscape never stopped changing. In 1,300 pages, there is a complete revolution, as of a planet orbiting around the sun. The main prompt, so to speak, the radioactive core at the heart of the book, in any case, remains the story of these young men from a good family who attend a school, and I say it’s a private school because the element of social class is perhaps even more important than the fact that the school in question was religious and Catholic in orientation—but what matters even more is the fact that the student body consisted exclusively of males. Therefore, you went in at the age of six and you left at the age of nineteen, and that whole time you’d had only males as classmates and as teachers.
Well, three of those classmates in September of 1975 kidnapped two young women from a lower social class and told them they were taking a trip to the beach; once there, they took them to a remote and isolated villa on the Circeo promontory, a vacation spot not far from Rome, and yet mysterious and somehow threatening in its stark beauty. And there for two days they tortured them, raped them, and then murdered them, though one actually survived by pretending to be dead. Then the killers took them back to the city, locked in the trunk of their car. The one surviving girl managed to raise the alarm by banging on the inside of the car trunk. The police rescued her, arresting two of the young men in the course of a few hours. The third killer would never be captured. Well, those were my schoolmates, a year older than me.
FP: We never had the Manson Family; this story may have played a similar role in Italian culture, but in so doing it also highlights the differences between our world and the world of America. What story were you trying to tell, by placing it at the center of your book?
EA: The Circeo murder case became a watershed, marking a clear point in time, dividing before from after. But for me, this story would have lain buried in my memory, if it hadn’t been that in 2005, exactly thirty years later, one of these three men, Angelo Izzo, still serving his sentence but on day release, killed again, strangling two women, a mother and her teenage daughter. The past, in other words, wasn’t the past at all.
That’s when I too awakened from my sleep and decided that I was ideally suited to be able to write about it, because I knew a great deal about it, and at the same time I knew nothing about it at all. That is, what I did know had nothing to do with the murder case, but I knew with my eyes shut and could easily tell the story of the families, the homes, the school, the neighborhood which was, of course, middle class and bourgeois, the same neighborhood that I had grown up in: a peaceful life, a world constructed especially to ensure that nothing dramatic would ever happen. . . a bland, Catholic education, highly traditional and yet permissive. Very permissive!
FP: And yet one of the crucial and underlying themes is something else entirely, something that emerges little by little over the course of the novel, namely a deeper reflection on what it means to be male, the authentic nature of maleness, which is both obliged to conform to stereotype and yet recoils from it completely.
EA: Yes, the aspiration to shake off the feminine element as if it were something unnecessary and dangerous, but at the same time, attractive, like a handicap or temptation to be resisted or overcome, or even punished. . . . In my agenda as a novelist, I had made absolutely no plans to take on this theme, but it sank its roots into the book in an irresistible fashion. How does a boy develop in an exclusively male setting, in accordance with which models? I knew the answer, since this had been my actual life, but I hadn’t thought about it and I’d never told the story, and the way I did it was by using memory plus research plus invention.
FP: Sexual segregation winds up convincing itself that it has practically created an independent species. . . .
EA: In exclusively male worlds, amusements, intellectual exchanges, but also emotional ones, friendships, and sex all ran through a milieu and a setting that consisted of only one gender. These gated settings, these exclusive clubs, where there is no mixing and where you are never contaminated by anything different from you, are increasingly rare, in the West, but for that very reason they remain interesting laboratories where a male identity is created and then reinforced with a relentless process of negation. Fundamentally, in order to be male, it seemed to be enough merely not to be female. At least that was true when I was a boy! For that matter, a few years after I graduated, that school, San Leone Magno, went co-ed: but not out of any ideological reform, merely because there was a decline in enrollment!
FP: Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about convents as a place where, over two thousand years of Christian history, women have been able to take shelter, lead a utopian life, live in safety and be able to interact with each other, protected from the male threat. . . . It would be a very interesting story, and it would demonstrate once again the practical cunning of the Catholic Church, which created a place that, in one sense offered a safe and protected setting meant only for those very women, who, in another sense, that same church was persecuting.
EA: Maybe so. In any case, exclusively male settings bore me and a little bit, they embarrass me: barracks humor, boys’ poker nights, even watching Lazio soccer matches together with a gang of hysterical males. . . .
FP: Well, those are excessively sexualized situations! The absence of women, meaning the disappearance of the corollary obligation to control yourself, to respect taboos, makes it a possibility to unleash a truly terrible sensuality and Eros. . . .
EA: Exactly! They make me uncomfortable. It might be because I can’t forget that sort of latter-day Mount Athos that the San Leone Magno school really was, with our priest teachers who were, above all, devoted heart and soul to the Virgin Mary, that is to say, the only woman present at that school. And the mothers who came to drop off and later pick up their sons from a school that they, as women, would never be able to attend. . . in other words, the manifestation in real life of, I think it was Groucho Marx’s famous line, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members,” needless to say, a fine paradox.
It’s noteworthy how nonetheless and in spite of everything, in Italy, education and upbringing took place under the sign of the feminine: we were raised in homes where mothers reigned supreme, as absolute monarchs, and set out from there to schools run by men who were in any case maternal, visually made women by their tunics, their skirts. So we passed from our mothers’ skirts to the skirts of the priests who were our teachers. . . a sort of extended maternage.
FP: Now then: a book like The Catholic School, where from the first page to the last it is a male who is allowed to speak, and who speaks to other males—in America that’s a sensitive issue, these days.
EA: The answer, on a general level, is this: a writer must be willing, when necessary, to take a certain amount of punishment. That’s the risk that goes along with his or her mission. If the writer isn’t willing to take it, then he might as well change profession. Turning to the specifics of my novel, in Italy it met with a surprising but, if you stop to think clearly about it, at the same time, obvious response: the most clear-minded and heartfelt readings came from women, and in particular from the variegated feminist universe, and in certain cases from women who, given their generation, had fought at a very young age and in person the battles that were waged as a direct result of the Circeo murder case and the sensational trial that ensued.
The surprise and the enthusiasm were due to that exact aspect: finally, there was a man who in a brazen manner told the story of male misdeeds, but without claiming to be on the side of the angels, without carefully sparing his own soul in the narrative by stating: the ones who raped and murdered were monsters and I have nothing in common with them. That’s always the simplest way of solving a problem: declaring yourself extraneous to it. But when you do, there’s not the slightest chance you’ll be able to understand it. And you tend to indulge in two-bit, mediocre moralizing. To me this was not just a moral issue, but also one of literary depth and subtlety: it was neither possible nor plausible that the narrator of stories of male violence should claim to have had no part in it all.
As a middle-class Roman male “born in the Fifties,” in point of fact, I share 90 percent of the human and social DNA of the Circeo murderers: same neighborhood, same school, families more or less equivalent, and so on. Not the deeds, but the settings, you see. . . . A world of dangerous similarities, in other words, not of saving differences.
FP: Well, that’s the same neighborhood my father came from. . . which is why I’m so interested in the way you plumb the depths of the Fascism and the violence that to my mind are intrinsic to these well maintained, decorous streets. . . .
EA: And that puts you at risk. If you admit that you share 90 percent of what characterizes a gang of murdering rapists, then it’s clear that you’ve exposed yourself and you must be ready to face the consequences. If you confess, you’ll be obliged to pay the appropriate penance. My book has the tone and the radical openness of a confession, the way that novelistic narratives sometimes do. For that matter, the only confession worth undertaking is the unconfessable: who really gives a damn about anything else? I felt a certain pleasure in being uninhibited, in purging myself of any ideological protection or pretense, showing off something that I could sense was part of male human nature, and mine in particular: an unstable cocktail of aggressivity and weakness, something fragile that attempts to conceal itself by masquerading under a “virile” posture. . . .
FP: In my review of your book, it was no accident that I made mention of Montaigne. It seemed to me that you used the approach of the essay, of the test, the attempt: you open your mouth, you uncap your pen, you see what comes out, you see what you really think after all. . . . Which makes me think: in that case, why not call it, instead of The Catholic School, for instance, The Boy’s School? Why did you use that term, “Catholic,” which means universal? Is there a hint of irony, perhaps, in the use of such a strong and demanding word in the title?
EA: In common parlance, in Italy, if you attended a Catholic school what you say is, “I studied with the priests,” or “with the nuns,” so at first the book was titled The Priests’ School. But that might have been confusing, making people think that I was talking about the seminary, the school where you study to become a priest. Just think about that twist! I acknowledge the ambiguity, the megalomania, and perhaps a hint of irony in the use of such a broad-ranging and solemn term as “Catholic.” But there is absolutely not a hint of foolish diatribe. For that matter, that kind of school, as it existed at the time, can no longer be found, it’s all been swept away, there are practically no traces nowadays of that way of life, of those crowded middle-class families, and that’s an advantage when you write because it allows you a nice margin of liberty.
FP: You’re making me think that one aspect of your story that suits this period is precisely the self-isolation of groups of males. This is the time of incels, who live alone and are therefore alone in devising their own idea of what a woman is and what they want from men.
EA: I could offer an example of a very different sort that has to do with where I work. I’ve been teaching for 25 years in a men’s prison, where some of the inmates are transsexuals who, however, are still considered male by the state. They live in a separate wing, of course, but we’ve managed to arrange for them to attend the school in the mornings, along with the other convict students. Well, aside from a few occasional minor issues, the positive effect of the presence of what are to all intents and purposes women, in fact, in many cases, super-women, turbo-women, in the midst of their male fellow inmates, is unmistakable. If there is a female anywhere around, there’s not much you can do about it, the males are more attentive, they take better care of themselves, they shave more often, they do their best to be agreeable, gallant, witty, in other words, so to speak, they become civilized. . . .
Then there’s another aspect that has to do with times of great changes: while there was a general tendency in that period that was, shall we say, progressive in nature, even more interesting and characteristic of the time were those opposed to that progressivism, who were trying to stem the tide, to turn backward. Reactionaries, in other words. The counter-trend. So while you can say that in Italy in the 1960s and 70s the youth movements were by and large leftist in orientation, there was also a minority movement that can be described as Neo-Fascism. There were people who wanted to turn back the clock, restore by violent means the sense of order that was being smashed to bits. And so, if women were becoming emancipated, then it was necessary to whip them back into line, give them a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget before they could actually become liberated.
That is why the Circeo massacre revealed its essential nature of a reprisal: rape in fact used as tool of reprisal, as a political act that was arbitrary but therefore, for that very reason, demonstrative.
FP: In narrative terms, these characters and these counter-movements are very attractive, in that they offer all possible registers and allow you to tell the story of an era and its exact opposite at one fell swoop. . . .
EA: Well, perhaps the ideal literary character is none other than the renegade. The one that offers the greatest contrast, not outside of himself, but inside. Because he has lived and experienced diametrically opposed extremes.
FP: One last thing before bringing this conversation to a close, and it has to do with your language, the way you write. It’s a language that I’ve been trying to achieve all my life, a natural, elegant, solidly bourgeois Italian, that is, capable of hitting various registers and including an array of levels and yet which is capable of preserving a texture all its own without overdoing things or fobbing off counterfeit poetry
EA: The relationship between lengthy and brief, between the extended and the contracted, between the part and the whole, that has been my focus as long as I’ve been writing, my desire and my ambition. I was by no means an early blooming writer but ever since I was a child, in my head I always played at forming sentences, varying them, alternating lengthy, extended thoughts with other, breathless ones, a little bit the way it is when you breathe. Handling phrases was my personal pleasure and an instinctive propensity upon which I later worked hard, examining other writers in various languages and hand-copying individual paragraphs or whole pages.
What I love above all else is syntax and its portentous elasticity. It’s all right there, loving the complex systems of languages and at the same time, writing modestly in your own language, hurrying with bated breath through a single paragraph, and at the same time standing back and admiring from a distance the bulk of the book as a whole, glimpsed from a distance like some monument.
–translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar
Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School is out now from FSG.