The Standard Life of a Temporary Pantyhose Salesman by Aldo Busi - a defence and appreciation.
A visit to Bookman's Halt in Hastings when we were last in the UK allowed me to get my hands on some books in English for little money. Hurrah.Ironically, most of them were translations from Italian - a language with which I am regretfully unendowed other than the Latin from school, from speaking English and French (a bit) plus a few remembered phrases - I have to do something about this.....maybe next year.
Anyway, I chose stuff from Alberto Moravia that I had wanted to read for a while, some detective novels to keep me going and a book I had never heard of that had a groovy title and cover. Yes, I am that superficial.
The book was and is called 'The Standard Life of a Temporary Pantyhose Salesman'. It's by Aldo Busi and translated by Raymond Rosenthal. My particular copy is published by Faber and Faber, 1990 and looks like this:
The inside cover reads:
Aldo Busi was born in Montichiari, Italy in 1948. He has translated Goethe, John Ashbery, Christine Stead and J.R Ackerly into Italian as well as Alice in Wonderland. He is the author of 'Seminar on Youth', and 'The Standard Life of A Temporary Pantyhose Salesman'. English translations of his other works; 'La Delfina Bizantina', and 'Sodomie in Corpor II', are forthcoming.
Aldo Busi in 2008
The synopsis tells us:
Angelo Basarovi is drifting into his thirties. By day he writes his thesis, by night he cruises the homosexual beaches of Lake Garda. He is also employed as a salesman by Celestino Lometto, magnate of the underwear trade. Together they set out on a series of hilarious sales trips and have adventures as improbable as those of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
On the surface, most of that information in the synopsis is correct but really does very little to explain what is novel about this novel, and the Don Quixote reference is quite disingenuous and lazy.
I'll have a go at explaining what I found in it.
The way the book started had me worried, I was finding it difficult to follow. The narrative seemed to jump around and events weren't clear as events but seemed like memories that might even be mixed up or misremembered. People arrived and left. I began to enjoy this style after the 4th page and to follow it well after about the 10th. It seemed that we were dealing with different times here - now, a time of reflection; a recent past fairly connected to now; a crucial,eventful past and a developmental pre-past. No future though.
There was a sense of bitterness, loss and worry. Talk of revenge and spite. A sadness that seemed to have deep roots and because 'cruising' around in the homosexual scene at Lake Garda was being decribed, it seemed, as in the synopsis and in other reviews I have since read, that these feelings were simply a result of the lifestyle being described. I was glad to find out that this wasn't the case at all.
Angelo is indeed moving into his thirties and seems older. He has a biting sense of humour, sharp and witty, intelligent and wounded. He seems irreverent and sassy, emptily arrogant perhaps but ultimately lonely and unhappy and it takes the whole book to find out why.
Meeting Celestino is the first identifiable big moment - and is gloriously funny. It begins the 'road movie' element of the novel which kept me gripped. Celestino Lometto's entrance is one-dimensionally absurd, as many of the characters are until we learn to see them. This is one of the things I really enjoyed, that like in life, we can laugh and choose to keep people as a set of characters but we know very well how things can be if we dare to involve ourselves deeper.
As all unfolds, we learn of the dynamics in these relationships and come to learn that Angelo considers and strives for responsibilty, love and morality a good deal more than most.
I don't want to describe in detail what happens in this book because I want people to read it and discover it for themselves. Suffice to say that there is murder, sex, love, hate, fear etc. etc. so don't worry about a lack of action.
I have read other reviews that describe it as a parody of Italian life or even, 'homosexual literature'. I wanted to refute these labels.The first - Italian parody; this book goes way beyond a simple parody of one country although that, and some of Europe and a bit of America is its setting. It deals with the personal politics, moral choices, inherent chracter and beliefs of a person. How that affects our interaction with the world and its estimation of success, wealth and happiness. It's a fairly practical look at human philosophy and some of the types of people we may meet along our way.
The second - Homosexual Literature - this tag just annoys me in general. It makes me want to go round tagging 'Heterosexual Literature' on other books. I know it may help someone find the genres that they are interested in but it will also serve to limit the span of this book. Sexuality is core to the book because the gay narrator, Angelo, is core to the book but the sexuality and sexual life of other 'heterosexual' and 'homosexual' characters is also discussed. Sex is not particularly erotically described, it's not exclusively homosexual, it is part of Angelo's and the character's lives and just as interesting, funny and pertinent as all the other factors in this novel.
The book also is responsible for teaching me some new English words eg. 'propinquity' - you can look it up if you need to!
It is very eloquently written, even sometimes decorated and I appreciated learning a thing or two. I would love to be able to read it in Italian, alas....I'd have to actually get off of my arse and study!
So overall, a great read, I think that is one of those books that will stay with me for life.
Unless I really do have such idiosyncratic taste, (not likely), then this is a book that is grossly misjudged and unjustly ignored.
I hope you will read it and enjoy it as much as I did. I also hope that Aldo himself knows how good it is.