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Laguzzi and Company

(Eugenio Montale — Laguzzi e C.)

Signora Laguzzi, who lived in the apartment above ours in Corso Asmara, must not have been on good terms with my mother. So it occurred that when some article of washing which she had hung out to dry fell onto our balcony, our neighbour didn’t think it dignified to come herself to reclaim it, nor even to entrust the affair to a person in her confidence, but leant out of the window with a long stick with a flexible tip — a fishing rod — from which there hung a length of twine and a hook big enough to catch small tuna; and so armed she began an operation which only after many attempts concluded with the recovery of the fallen garment. I was a child, and little inclined to the life of the sea, even though each year I spent no less than three months at the coast; and I must have become fixated on the very idea of that genus of fish, in terms imposed on an infant imagination by the obstinate Signora Laguzzi. From that time on I could no longer see a fish hook without a vision of stray handkerchiefs or underwear or a brassiere attached to the barb. More honest than Shakespeare’s Autolycus, who hung other people’s laundry on the hedges, Signora Laguzzi boldly made use of her own hooks to rescue her own clothing, which to be sure no one prevented her from doing. No one, unless perhaps a little boy (myself in person), who in between each attempt at capture did his best to throw the booty out of range.

The balcony was large, and curved on two sides: the only people who strolled there were my father, before dusk, when supper was over; and I, in the morning about eight, when I remained there a long time looking out for the arrival of the horse-drawn omnibus of the Istituto Vittorino da Feltre, which would take me to school along with a few other privileged children. Corso Asmara was an upward-winding street, not much frequented and at the time a bit cut off from the town. It wasn’t inhabited by elegant people, although from my balcony you could just glimpse around the corner the front gate of a patrician house where lived a family who had horses and a carriage, servants in tailcoats and a high reputation in the city. A world inaccessible even to my most optimistic expectations. The only person I knew in Corso Asmara was the tobacconist, to whom I often went to buy my father’s favourite Cavour cigars and a stick of liquorice for myself. My only possible encounters were with the tremulous ‘Barba I’ — ‘Uncle I’, so called because of the lengthy ‘Ih! Ih!’ calls he uttered while dragging his ice cream cart; and Pippo Bixio, an enemy since infancy who sometimes physically attacked me, robbing me of the cigars and liquorice.

After a few years we moved house, to a different district, to a modern apartment lower down the hill but with every comfort, including a lift, central heating (which was always off), and a dining room with a large veranda, very post-war nouveau riche. Soon after finishing secondary school I was eighteen years old, then twenty, and I began to go out in the evenings. I walked aimlessly back and forth under the arcades; I had no acquaintances and I never happened to go back to Corso Asmara. One day a young sculptor, met by chance, offered to take me under his wing, telling me I had an ‘interesting’ disposition and promising to introduce me to his circle. He was as good as his word, arriving at our next appointment in a bowler hat and patent leather shoes, and half an hour later a carriage he had hired dropped us in front of the fortress I had observed for years from my balcony. I thought I was dreaming.

I was introduced to the mistress of the house, to one of her female relations and to a German governess, all ample ladies whose hands the sculptor kissed; and then the children came forward, blonde haired, two boys and a girl, apparently in great intimacy with the sculptor. The suite of rooms was opulent, and many of the paintings on the walls seemed to be done in stripes or dots, or confetti-style, which everyone said was modern. And we visited the garden, high up above the port, affording a magnificent view. Then we took tea, served from a samovar: a shiny, burbling contraption. Everyone spoke Italian, with great refinement, even if with some timid slippage into the local dialect. An article in Il Caffaro was discussed, about Fogazzaro’s Leila, and a gentleman with long white hair sang ‘Zazà, little gypsy girl’, accompanied by the governess.

A couple of hours passed there, which seemed much too long to me, given my shyness, until I thought I should take my leave. I was told in a whisper to be sure to come again, and I left, kindly accompanied by the younger son, Giacinto, since the enviable sculptor was required to stay for dinner. Giacinto, who was about my age, extended his kindness as far as walking ten steps with me in the direction of Corso Asmara. We arrived directly beneath the balcony of my youth. Here, while the young man shook my hand with an air of protectiveness, I raised my eyes and saw, saw again, my heart thumping, Signora Laguzzi’s fishing rod hanging from her window. Obviously the immortal old woman had managed to fall out with our successors too! It all happened in a moment, but Giacinto and his family (including the sculptor) knew nothing about my past and I had made a firm decision to keep them in that ignorance. So I had the nerve to ask, ‘What the devil is going on here? Are they fishing?’

‘It looks like it,’ said Giacinto, vacantly. ‘I see that fishing rod from time to time, when I’m passing. They’re lower middle class, the people there: riff raff…’

The blow had fallen and I took it without flinching. Only the little thief Pippo Bixio would have been able to meet and unmask me. But the feared encounter didn’t happen, neither that day nor ever again. For me, a new life really was beginning.