31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 26: “The Adventure of the Bather” by Italo Calvino

May 26, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Difficult Loves

Italo Calvino’s 1951 story “The Adventure of the Bather” follows a woman named Isotta Barbarino, who suffers “an unfortunate mishap” while swimming. In the opening paragraph of the story, Signora Isotta, having swum far from shore, realizes that it is time to come in from the water, but that she has somehow managed to lose the bottom half of her two-piece bathing suit: “At some twist of her hip, some buttons must have popped, and the bottom part, reduced to a shapeless rag, had slipped down her leg.” Out of this embarrassing and frankly comical situation, Calvino constructs a parable about loneliness, isolation, and existential unease.

Back on land prior to the incident, Signora Isotta dons her two piece suit for the first time and realizes that it makes her “feel a bit ill-at-ease” in the company of the other people on the beach. Once she is in the water, however, she feels free and unencumbered, “like being naked.” Alone with the “intimacy” of the water, where she is able to feel “a part of that peaceful sea,” Signora Isotta is at ease, troubled only by her continued awareness of the figures on the beach. Whereas being in the sea is like being naked, while in her bathing suit on shore, Signora Isotta feels naked and exposed to the potentially erroneous judgment of her fellow beach-goers:

It was not unreasonable: her future beach acquaintances would perhaps form an idea of her that they would have to some extent modify later: not so much an opinion about her behaviour, since at the seaside all the women dressed like this, but a belief, for example, that she was athletic, or fashionable, whereas she was really a very simple, domestic person.

The unease and distrust that Signora Isotta feels toward her fellow bathers becomes magnified by her humiliation and mortification at the prospect of having to walk out of the water in an actual state of undress. When she looks to the shore after realizing her predicament, the bathers are described in language that renders them almost inhuman: beach umbrellas cast black shadows “in which the bodies became flat,” the “teeming of the bathers spilled into the sea,” and a “horde of children was roiling” behind a line of safety ropes. Signora Isotta observes this maelstrom and thinks, “Just off that beach, she was naked.”

Several times swimmers pass her but we are told that she “distrusted these men and evaded them.” She perceives “the front of preordained male insinuations” that “extended to all men,” and even suspects, in a paranoid way, that some of the men had been fantasizing about a woman losing her bathing suit and hoping that they might be around to witness the event.

Signora Isotta’s discomfort is not specific to her current situation; it becomes clear by way of her stream-of-consciousness ruminations that her fear of physical – and by extension, psychic – exposure extends even to her husband. She thinks of the times she has been alone with him, and the way in which “she had always surrounded her being naked with and air of complicity, of irony, part embarrassed and part feline, as if she were temporarily putting on joyous but outrageous disguises.” She accepts her body with “reluctance,” and must use metaphor and irony to distance herself from the physical reality of her corporeal existence. She thinks that perhaps her life really exists only when she is clothed, and that “her nakedness hardly belong[s] to her.”

As the story progresses, the day drags on and gradually darkens; Signora Isotta takes refuge clinging to a nearby buoy and watches from afar as the other bathers exit the rapidly cooling water. She recalls “the marvelous weariness of those returns” to shore, and ponders the camaraderie of friends who call from one to another, “We’ll meet on shore!” or “Let’s see who gets there first!” These friendly shouts fill her mind “with a boundless envy.”

Although she initially assumes that there is no one who could breach the “preordained male insinuations” and allow them to rescue her from her embarrassment, she is eventually approached by a boat containing a man and a boy, who offer her a skirt and delicately avert their eyes while she climbs aboard and dresses herself. Her relief at having found her longed-for “savior” is tinged with irony, however, once she realizes what the two were doing in the water:

They started the motor, and seated at the prow in a green skirt with orange flowers, she saw on the bottom of the boat a mask for underwater fishing and she knew how the pair had learned her secret. The boy, swimming below the surface with mask and harpoon, had seen her and had alerted the man, who had also dived in to see. They had motioned her to wait for them, without being understood, and had sped to the port to procure a dress from some fisherman’s wife.

Surprisingly, Signora Isotta is not made uncomfortable by the prospect of the two having witnessed her nakedness. On the contrary, we are told, “since someone had perforce to see her, she was glad it had been these two, and also glad that they had felt curiosity and pleasure.” Her sense of calm seems to indicate a subtle shift in her existential anxiety; her discomfort has not entirely vanished, but has diminished sufficiently that she is able to observe the man bent over the motor of his boat, his “brick-red back divided by the knobs of the spine, on which the hard, salty skin rippled as if moved by a sigh.”

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