The great thing about an unswerving, even slavish, devotion to a series of books is that even if not everything you read is to your tastes, you still encounter authors and titles you would never have considered otherwise. My fetish for Penguin Modern Classics this week led me to Vitaliano Brancati’s Beautiful Antonio (1949).
It’s easy to presume that a book labelled a Modern Classic, particularly in translation, is going to be obscure or forbidding. But Beautiful Antonio is accessible, playful and funny.
Antonio Magnano, from Catania in Sicily, is 26 years old when the story begins in 1932, and is already famous for being the most beautiful man anyone has seen. Female observers “sweetly burned” in his presence, “and went mad with a pleasure so intense as to make them think themselves possessed by some severe aberration which jumbled up pleasure and pain.” Even his male friends are in love with him. This is something to do with his “olive-skinned visage … athletic limbs” and “eyes [that] seemed to glint with tears that sat on the uppermost curve of the cheeks.” Furthermore:
photographs of him … would halt even middle-aged women in their tracks, though laden with shopping and dragging along toddlers in floods of tears with the very hand just used to box their ears.
So nobody is surprised when Antonio marries Barbara Puglisi, the daughter of a notable figure in the town, who is almost as beautiful as he is. Everyone is surprised, however – and shocked – when three years later, it turns out the marriage has not yet been consummated.
All this gives Brancati opportunity for comic expansiveness, in a tone that straddles a line somewhere between satire and farce, with plenty of salty dialogue. He explores the macho culture of Sicily, and the peculiar position of the Church where marriage without sex is as reprehensible as sex without marriage.
“Nothing but a flop for three years?”
“Nothing but a flop.”
“Every night a flop?”
“Every night a flop.”
“How on earth?”
“Go and ask Our Father which art in heaven, he’s the one who cooks up these things.”
“I could understand it once or twice, or three times… I’ll be generous – five times. Which of us hasn’t done a flop?”
“I tell you no lie, friend. I never have.”
“In a certain sense, in the sense of a complete and hopeless flop, neither have I.”
At the same time, the background of the rise of the Fascists in Italy in the 1930s, and the people’s simultaneous hatred of them and fear of the alternative, seems to parallel Antonio’s mixed feelings on sexuality. Antonio’s uncle expresses himself accordingly when rumours reach him that Mussolini doesn’t have cancer, but just a syphilitic ulcer:
“Hell and dammit, we’re ruined. Two injections and your syphilitic ulcer goes kaput… On the other hand what happens if he dies? Who seizes power? His bunch of cut-purse henchmen? They’d slit each other’s throats while they were carving up the spoils. So then, it’s the Communist gaolbirds? Worse than the Fascists! At least the Fascists are incompetent scoundrels, and whatever crimes come into their minds they make a hash of, whereas the other lot are stern and upstanding, and make a clean job of ’em.”
Beautiful Antonio was previously published in the UK as Antonio: The Great Lover. Neither really rolls off the tongue, and I think The Beautiful Antonio would be a fuller translation of the title (the original is Il Bell’Antonio) and would just sound better. Tim Parks, who provides the introduction to this edition, clearly agrees, as he refers to the book as The Beautiful Antonio throughout.