‘The Adventure of a Bather’ by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver

* Picked by CD Rose

Several years ago, having just returned to England after a long time living in Italy, a group of newish acquaintances invited me to spend a day at the beach with them. I happily accepted the offer, though on arriving was disappointed to find that all the men, despite being mostly in their mid-to late 30s and early 40s, were wearing these absolutely fucking hideous ‘board shorts’ things, looking like they were all off to see Carter USM or some such horror at the Camden Underworld in 1991. I’d turned up wearing a pair of proper swimming trunks, which caused these overgrown man-children much hilarity, the ladhood (and I use the phrase carefully: it is a universal truth that irrespective of age, ethnic background, sexual orientation, level of education, income, or political affiliation, any group of more than three men immediately become the lads) attempting to mock my choice of (stylish, practical) costume. 

Later, out in the water (freezing, gusty), a larger than anticipated wave sunk us all, and on finding our feet again in the shallows several of my companions were horrified to find that the force of the water had filled their ghastly baggy apparel completely, like sails, and swiftly removed them. Their shock rapidly turned to hilarity (they were, after all, the lads) but few were spared the sight of pallid, eggy buttocks, shrivelled scrotums and tiny wriggly penises (in all fairness, it was the North Sea, whose cold spares no one.) My snug trunks, however, remained firmly in place. 

I tell this story not out of mere schadenfreude, nor because it is one of my few personal anecdotes that does not end up with me being the rube, but because it is – indirectly – the premise of Italo Calvino’s story ‘The Adventure of a Bather.’ Signora Isotta Barbarino loses her cozzy while out swimming at the beach (though her misfortune is attributed to poor quality of manufacture rather than poor sense of style), and treads water, then hangs onto a convenient buoy for most of the day. It’s a tiny thing, but with Calvino’s characteristic leggerezza it becomes a story about bodies, shame, men and women, small acts of kindness, reflections on a life, and even – that dread phrase – what it might mean to be alive, in not much more space than it has taken me to tell you this story.

First published as L’avventura di una bagnante, from Gli amori difficili, 1957. Translation first published in Difficult Loves, 1983

C.D. Rose’s The Blind Accordionist is out now in paperback from Melville House Publishing. You can read his own Personal Anthology here.

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