Towards the end of 2020, the writer Ronald De Feo sent me this story by Dino Buzzati, “sometimes called the Italian Kafka.” In ‘Seven Floors’, Giovanni Corte arrives at a sanatorium that specialises in the illness from which he is suffering. His case is “extremely slight” so he is given “a cheerful room on the seventh and uppermost floor”, where “only the very mildest cases were treated”. The worse a patient’s condition, the lower the floor on which they are accommodated, with the first floor reserved for “those for whom all hope had been abandoned.” When Corte is moved down to the sixth floor, it is for purely logistical reasons, and so on. It’s a beautifully crafted story, simultaneously uneasy and funny, with a powerful sense of gravity.
Originally published in La Lettura, March 1937. Published in English in Catastrophe and Other Stories, Calder and Boyars, 1965
I think I’d read Buzzati before – I vaguely remember ‘The Falling Girl’ – but it didn’t ‘click’ just then. Probably I wasn’t listening carefully enough. Regardless, I heard the click this time. ‘Seven Floors’ is a Kafkaesque tale (but more deserving of that epithet; Buzzati has a style all his own) about Giuseppe Corte, a mildly feverish man admitted to the highest floor of a sanatorium where he is told his stay will be brief, the lower floors being reserved for the progressively worse.
Corte observes the ground floor with a gloomy fear. Certain circumstances prevail and he is required – only temporarily, he is assured – to be moved to the sixth floor, to the fifth, to the fourth…, the doctors soothing his anxieties each time. That the reader can see what will happen long before Corte does is partly what makes the story. He ends up, inevitably, consigned to a darkened ground floor room. There could be no other ending.
(As a side note, there is another story in this collection about an influenza virus contracted by people who are disloyal to the government, but perhaps that’s a bit too close to the bone for these times.)
From Catastrophe and Other Stories, Alma Press 2018