Thursday, September 1, 2011

Don't Talk to Me about the Weather

Italo Svevo
The latest ebook published by Fario is a recent translation of work by Italo Svevo. Two Plays includes An Unpublished Play, in which Elena ("My husband exists only insofar as he bores me") bemoans her broker husband's plan for their move to Venice, and Before the Ball, the entire text of which appears below.

Before the Ball
CLARA (towards the entrance). Yes, Mother, I will be modest, I won’t make a fuss, I’ll say I like everyone and everything, and I won’t dance a lot. (Towards the audience.) At boarding school people said I was a good daughter, and as such when mother tells me to do something it’s my duty to listen and to promise to obey. That way, she sleeps easy here, and I dance with a clean conscience there. It’s just my second ball, but our experiences are so different we don’t understand each other anymore. She has been to so many balls… and has never understood anything about them. Unless the balls and the dance partners of her time were different.
(Listening.) The carriage! No! It went by. My aunt, to be chic, is in the habit of turning up late at balls, and because of this idea from the old days or from fools of the present day, you miss the real dancers, who, to tell the truth, are fairly rare.
I was so modest and respectful at the other ball I got bored. I didn’t have any great hopes for it, and even before I was laughing at the naivety of my mother, who was describing, in her way, the good time I was going to have. But I was surprised by the reality. The men don’t know how to woo or don’t want to; they go to balls to escort their sister or their sister-in-law or maybe their wife or they get dragged along by a friend who has a sister or a sister-in-law or a wife there. They are never dragged along by a desire of their own. Put them in front of a modest and quiet young girl and they will ask for nothing better. They’ll leave her in a corner and go about their business.
And it’s not just my experiences that make me think this way, even though they alone would also be enough. I watched how the girls people say are the most pursued get treated. They have a lot of men around them, but the men seem more eager to be wooed than to woo. Finelli, for example, one of the girls people mention most often. She said to an old woman who was beside me that she had no preference and that she was indifferent to all of them, and since her tone was angry I believed her. The ways she must be wooed! I bet a quick look from my literature teacher at school is worth more. It’s true that Finelli is very stupid, or so they say, but there aren’t any other girls to pay court to. Ah, yes, that corn-colored blonde whose name I don’t remember has a reputation for being stupid, too, and so does that other girl whose figure, a real broomstick, people admire. Because modern men, when they finally reveal their preferences, reveal at the same time a certain taste. Signor Mastroni was praising all three of them to me, and I interrupted his enthusiastic words to say: “Yes, she dresses well, very well.” Then I said I liked the Finelli girl’s nose, an odd nose that guards her mouth, the broomstick’s prominent ears, and the other girl’s forehead, because, covered as it as by a disheveled mass of hair she tries in vain to get into people’s eyes, at least you can’t see it. (Touching her head.) It’s not as if you need that much hair when it’s the desired color.
For a first ball, and bearing the burden of mother’s advice, it wasn’t too bad.
As for me, I have the consolation of not being wooed either well or badly. Here is my dance card from the other ball; poor little skeleton! Two empty contra-dances and the others badly penciled in. I want to keep to savor all the more the revenge I will take. (Tries to read the dance card.) An illegible name, my first partner, but an unforgettable person. Yesterday, modestly, but with absolute determination, I snubbed him to keep from having to waste my dancing time with him. Imbecile! He led me to the dance floor without opening his mouth, but smiling as if he were promising very witty things. During the first figure, he said to me: “Are you enjoying yourself?” Then he went quiet for half an hour. Then he said to me: “This is the first quadrille.” And again he went lost in thought. And, finally, just before taking leave of me, still smiling wittily, he said to me: “I really like dancing.” And I thought: “You wouldn’t know it.” There was nothing to say, but my mouth was still tired from the long period of inactivity.
(Reading.) Rialti. Another person to avoid. Before he had even taken my hand as a token of having made my acquaintance, he started complaining, yes, complaining, and in such a whiney voice it was awful to listen to him. He complained about his management for one reason and about his partners for another, and then about the color of the room, and that the company was better in the arcade than in the ballroom and that the reading room wasn’t located by the other entrance and that the girls were engaged a month beforehand…
“A pity I can’t change all that,” I burst out.
It didn’t do any good. Shortly afterwards, he started whining about excessive luxury and about how people nowadays no longer know how to dance or be witty. It was a lancers… a real torture.
The others (looking at the dance card), neither good nor bad. A little wit, a lot of presumptuousness, and when they know something they try to bury the poor girl who has been entrusted to them under it.
But Mastroni—oh!—the most hateful of them all. He gets introduced to me at the start of the ball by a director who later tells me he had been asked explicitly for the introduction.
“Good start,” I said to myself, “it’s one at least.”
Deceiver! The unspeakable tedium of the first hours is lessened by the surprise of not seeing signor Mastroni turn up anymore. Did he perhaps dislike my voice? It would be another sign of the impoverished taste of the times. No! After dinner, I see him, in a corner of the room, putting on his gloves, looking at himself in the mirror, and then making a move. I couldn’t tell which person he was moving towards, because I was watching him in a mirror, and descriptive geometry has never been a strength of mine. All at once I see him in front of me, and only then do I understand: before dinner, he hadn’t had the courage, and to muster it up he had needed a glass of Marsala. There was no reason to bear a grudge against him. On the contrary!
I respond kindly to his greeting:
“Are you enjoying yourself, Miss?”
“Not with any help from you, you bumpkin,” I thought, saying to him instead: “Yes, very much.”
“I’m not,” he said sincerely. “I don’t like dancing.”
“Then don’t come,” I think, and I say, looking at him with interest, because you could tell it was what he wanted: “Ah!”
“I dance reluctantly; if you allow me to keep you company for a bit, the ball will take on a different aspect for me.”
“Here’s a fellow who’s about to offer me his hand,” I thought.
And I looked desperately around in search of a friend from whom I could get information about that gentleman’s station. Instead, and even though he had seen one free on my dance card, he didn’t even ask me for a contra-dance.
That gentlemen was a good talker, but he wasn’t fooling me. You need only to have read a novel or two by Kock to be a good talker at a ball. He told me that he regretted deeply being unable to have a good time, but that it wasn’t his fault.
“I am of my time, which is serious,” he told me, which meant: “My brain is too developed for me to be able to have a good time, and you who dance are fools.”
This evening, if he says the same things to me, I will say frankly to him:
“Let people who are cut out for studies alone stick to studying; it’s a pity for their studies if they leave them.”
And modesty with these people? Let them bore you that way? We’ll see how it goes tonight. Even people who aren’t expecting them will get some insolent remarks. If anyone talks to me about the weather, for example, I’ll say: “It’s my second ball, and I already know everything there is to know about winter weather. Wait for summer and we’ll talk about it again.” We’ll try that method.
The problem is that my dance card is still empty, except for the first quadrille, which I have to dance with an old friend of father’s. These old men! I’d sooner not dance at all: dancing with old men, I run the risk of becoming too respectable. If only I could get rid of it…
Here’s the carriage. I’m coming! (Remains lost in thought.) That’s enough! If I find a nice young man right away, I’ll leave father’s friend in the lurch. Heaven knows! Maybe a duel will come out of it. A pity if the old man turns out not to be too willing to risk his hide. I get the shivers when I think he may be dancing for his health.
  Original title: Prima del ballo


  1. This certainly isn't Jane Austen. Perhaps Italo Svevo is accurately describing what has now become common in Italy: women are not interested in marriage, men live with their parents, and the birth rate is declining.

  2. I'm not sure Svevo's work is an accurate description of the Italian way of life now. Perhaps in some ways. But I do know that if I were a thirty-year-old Italian and could bring my girlfriend(s) home to my parents' house, plus have "mamma" do my laundry for me, I wouldn't be in a big rush to move out, either.

  3. Svevo was probably writing as an observer, noting a woman's distaste for the social rituals imposed upon her. Yet there may be an element of female independence here which later expressed itself as the emancipation of women and, consequently, the marginalization of men, in some developed countries such as Italy.

  4. In a country like Italy, which apparently has a larger gap between the wages of men and women than any other country in western Europe (or perhaps all of the EU), and in which many of the top-ranking women in politics are former showgirls, it's kind of hard to speak of the marginalization of men. Maybe it's more that they've been infantilized. I read somewhere, for example, that something like an ungodly 70 percent of Italian men had never operated a washing machine.

    And Svevo's Clara is being irreverent here, even insolent, but she also seems genuinely disappointed not to have been properly wooed or even to have her hand asked for. Maybe it's men's attitudes that _Before the Ball_ somehow prefigures.

  5. That could be it. I don't have any direct experience of contemporary Italian men or women, but when I was growing up in New York I had a friend whose parents were Italian immigrants. His mother coddled the boys like babies well past their adolescent years.