After almost half a century, I still dream that I am back at St. Peter’s, the Catholic boarding school in Wexford, Ireland, where I spent two years before I went to university. What is strange is how oddly comforting some of the images are. Even the dormitory, with its narrow cubicles, and the timetable, which began with morning mass and included daily rosary, with benediction before study during months that were deemed to be especially sacred, hold no terror. The diocesan priests who were our teachers seem warm, friendly presences, even though a couple of them, in reality, were great brutes. The most disturbing part of the dream is that in it I am me now. And I am ready, despite everything, to be embraced by the orderliness of life in that school, by the all-male company, by the possibility of intense friendships, by the many rules and regulations, by the thought that I can decide almost nothing for myself.
Soon after I left St. Peter’s, I found myself one day in the studio of the Irish painter Paul Funge, who had also been a student there. He handed me a book, saying that it was possibly the most accurate version of our experience at boarding school. It was The Confusions of Young Törless (1906) by Robert Musil.
Despite the fact that my dreams of St. Peter’s are benign, Musil’s unsettling account of all-male school life seemed accurate to me, down to small details such as a moment early in the book after Törless has left home for boarding school, when his relationship with his parents becomes strained and uneasy. Once he has recovered from missing them, he grows distant from them. His being away from home induces in him a kind of coldness that no new-found independence will assuage.
Young Törless deals most forcefully with violence and bullying. Like St. Peter’s, Musil’s academy is an old building with unused rooms and hidden spaces. It is to one of these that Törless and his two friends Beineberg and Reiting take their classmate Basini to whip him, sexually abuse him, and torture him. They do this ostensibly because they believe that he has been stealing. But their real motive, it seems, is that they do it because they can, and because they enjoy it. They take their time humiliating the boy, thinking of further, more rigorous punishments for him, taking him to that hidden, private space night after night.
Musil charts Törless’s engagement with this abuse, using subtle terms to invoke “the strange attraction that Basini exerted upon him.” It is clear that, while not the leader of the campaign against Basini, Törless is the one most affected by what he witnesses, and the one who derives the most pleasure from it. While the assaults on Basini are done in secret, it is as though the institution itself gives permission for them to occur, or creates the conditions, both physical and moral, whereby such a cruel vendetta could be carried out. What happens to Basini is presented as ritual rather than outrage. It is almost normal; it happens calmly rather than as a result of flared tempers. And it appears to satisfy something deep within the perpetrators.
In Musil’s novel, normal school life goes on as though the nightly attacks on Basini were merely a sideshow. At St. Peter’s, I always had the sense that something else was happening that was hidden from us, or that some set of codes were in use that had not been fully disclosed. At night, in my second year there, I often had reason, once my dormitory became quiet, to make my way to another dormitory, using a shadowy cloister, dark stairways, long corridors. There was not a sound. But a few times I had to move quickly into a doorway as a priest’s footsteps could be heard approaching. I wondered where he was going, what he was doing, at this time of night. He might have wondered the same about me.
Although the teaching priests all had apartments close to the dormitories, one priest was lodged in an older part of the school, away from the dormitories and his colleagues. In 2005 it emerged in The Ferns Report, the result of an official Irish government inquiry into clerical sex abuse in the diocese of Ferns (which included Wexford and St. Peter’s), that this priest, whose sexual interest in the students had come to the attention of the bishop, was placed in that old building so that he would be away from the dormitories. He later served a prison sentence for abuse of students in the school.
What Musil writes well about is the mixture of pure normality and high artificiality in an all-male academy. At St. Peter’s, aged sixteen, I was fascinated by Brendan Behan’s autobiographical novel Borstal Boy (1958), which dealt with the incarceration of a boy more or less my age. He not only experienced loneliness and loss in prison but also became used to its routine and rules. Slowly it became normal, not a microcosm of the outside world or anything as simple as that, but rather a place apart, fully enclosed by its own systems.
During the Christmas holidays of 1970, a friend told me about a film showing in Dublin called if…, directed by Lindsay Anderson and set in an English boarding school. I managed to convince my family that I needed to attend the Young Scientists’ Exhibition in Dublin with a school group—there were special cheap train fares for visitors to this—but once the train hit Dublin I slipped away from the group and found the right cinema and attended the early afternoon showing.
The regime in Anderson’s film was harsher and more stylized than that at St. Peter’s. The sexual tension in this boarding school was more apparent than in ours, and the brutality and bullying more fierce. The boys in if… were also more obviously beautiful than any of my schoolmates. But the film brought into the open what was kept hidden by the dull routine at St. Peter’s that I had assented to.
And that was the idea of conformity, how easy it was to impose conformity. The main fear at St. Peter’s was not that you would be beaten up or attacked, but that you would be excluded. Everyone’s behavior was fine-tuned to make sure that he fit into the system created by his fellow students. In his novel The Catholic School, Edoardo Albinati writes about the need not to stand out:
No one realizes just how far a boy would go in order to win the approval of his classmates and pals; the quantity of abuse that he can make up his mind to tolerate, whether inflicted upon himself or inflicted upon others, in order to earn recognition.
The Catholic School centers on San Leone Magno, a fashionable school in Rome run by the Marist Brothers, and a gruesome crime that took place in 1975 when three former students were found to have tortured two young women, then raped them and murdered one of them. Albinati, born in 1956, attended San Leone Magno and was acquainted with the perpetrators. The Catholic School, all 1,268 pages of it, is an effort to explore why boys from such a privileged and settled background would commit such a crime. It pays little attention to the crime itself; we learn hardly anything about the victims other than that they are from a lower class than the perpetrators. Instead, most of the book muses on the meaning of masculinity, on the family and the middle class, on rape, violence, the penis, sadism and masochism, not to speak of morals and manners among Italians of a certain income bracket.
Albinati writes about how he “loved to go to school” and the “intolerable” idea “of going home when lessons were over.” He uses Musil’s novel as a template: “What happened to me was the exact opposite of what happened to young Törless as a student.” At home, he missed his “classmates. And the gym, the courtyard, the chapel, the priests.” While Törless suffers from homesickness and recovers, he does not revert to his previous self: “The disappearance of his yearning did not bring with it any long-awaited contentment, but left a void in the soul of young Törless.” It is that void that concerns Albinati, the strangeness that develops in an all-male institution as Musil describes it: “Here, where young, impulsive forces were imprisoned behind grey walls, the boys’ imaginations were crammed full with random, voluptuous images that robbed more than one boy of his senses.”
The Catholic School has scenes that mirror moments in Young Törless, including one in which several boys whip a fellow schoolboy. Albinati’s “Now you could hear the whistle and snap of the cords on our classmate’s flesh” echoes Musil’s “From the sounds that reached him, Törless could make out that they were taking Basini’s clothes from his body and whipping him with something thin and flexible.”
In both books, the boys believe that they belong to an exclusive world and have a duty to detect and exclude anyone who does not belong to it. In Musil’s novel, one of the most violent characters says: “After all, we’re being educated together because we belong to the same society.” In Albinati’s, the school leaves a mark of privilege that lasts for life, “practically an emblem, a trademark, to such an extent that nearly ten years later, a young woman would notice it, that indelible brand. ‘Say, by any chance, did you go to a school run by priests?’”
This strange forced cohesion that develops in an all-male school can be quickly broken, as Anderson makes clear in if… when the students, formerly so willing to take part in the set of hierarchies that the school represents, stage an armed revolt on the roof of the school. Albinati describes going to a screening of if… himself and witnessing the joy when the headmaster is shot. “We all leapt to our feet.”
At St. Peter’s, it was taken for granted that some priests had a sexual interest in the students. It was never spelled out but was part of a system of sly jokes and sneering whispers. At San Leone Magno the chemistry teacher, Svampa, an “elderly priest with [a] thin, nasal voice…would scrutinize each of us with a gaze that seemed to physically palpate the face and grope the body.” Since the brothers or priests in the school devote themselves to teaching academic subjects to rich boys rather than, say, visiting the sick and spreading the word of God, it is hard to understand precisely what their function as clergy is. Albinati sees the effect this has on them:
The member of a male community, who lives in it for a long time or even for his entire life, is generally sadistic, narcissistic, obsessed with the power that he exercises and submits to on a daily basis, and homosexual, either practicing or latent. Otherwise, he won’t be able to hold out.
In The Catholic School, the male students “hold out” through the intensity of their response to women: “For the males, the simplest way of proving that they are, in fact, male is to hold femininity in contempt.” And through their fear:
The true opposite of masculinity wasn’t femininity but homosexuality: a perilous border. The masculine ideal could be defined as a negation: the exact opposite of a man wasn’t a woman, it was a queer.
The most intolerable fear for us males was that someone might laugh at us…
Toward the end of the book, Albinati has an evocative account of being fondled by a priest in the sick bay, but he also has descriptions of homoerotic moments between the boys themselves, such as a scene in which two of them, with their backs to each other for the sake of modesty, remove their swimsuits.
It is the absence of women in the school that creates an intensity around male behavior: “In an all-male school,” Albinati writes, “the threat can be sensed in a physical way, as it is among dogs…. Males are monotonous, and monotony tends to evolve into frustration, and frustration in its turn splits into melancholy or aggression.” There is also the matter of insecurity: “The abstract ideal of virility, well, it’s almost impossible to nail it, the vast majority of men fail to come even close over the course of a lifetime.” Instead, there is “fragility, sense of inadequacy, anxiety, fear of judgment, of being unable to satisfy the expectations of others, fear of failure.”
Albinati’s book, made up of many short sections, is long and long-winded. It lacks what we might call the literary tone, showing no signs of irony, inwardness, self-consciousness, or ambiguity. Most of the time it is simply garrulous. Reading it is like being buttonholed by a man in a bar who wishes to speak at length about sex and men and rape. Some of the comments in the book are startlingly crass. After giving some illustrations of male insecurity, for example, Albinati writes:
There’s probably a connection between this insecurity and the number of women raped: as the insecurity increases, the number of rapes rises correspondingly. And the rape isn’t caused by testosterone, if anything, it’s a surrogate for it.
The word “probably” here doesn’t help; it makes the conclusions even more glib. While Albinati has a great deal to say about why men commit the crime of rape, his observations sound half-baked and spurious. The tone he takes is filled with provocative assertion and blockheaded theory, but also a lack of awareness of what his own voice sounds like as he rattles on about testosterone and masculinity.
The central question around which the book circles is: “Why shouldn’t our bourgeoisie, with its frenzy, its thirst for recognition, why shouldn’t it produce criminals?” In Albinati’s version of bourgeois life and male insecurity, something untoward is bound to occur. “Some of the most respected scholars of violence,” he writes,
maintain that there is no violence more bloodthirsty than bourgeois violence. No revolution has ever been as ferocious as the ones led by intellectuals of bourgeois extraction and education (such as Pol Pot).
No matter what the subject, Albinati has an opinion on it. “In five-a-side soccer, you can’t camouflage or disguise your nature.” “The religious sentiment does not depend on any particular process of reasoning.” “All this sex, all this violence could always be legitimized as a reaction against bourgeois hypocrisy, conformism, the stupidity of the world of television and consumerism.” “The underlying paradox of the family is that it originates from sexuality but is destined to become an institution.” “A cock is a tool with all the sensitivity of a hammer.”
Albinati refers to his own verbose tendencies. At the opening of chapter 9 we are given permission to skip “to the next, decisive chapter.” At the opening of chapter 14, having asked, “Are you still listening to me?,” he writes that he “could recommend skipping a few chapters and go directly to Part V.” Later, on page 855, he writes, “I will be repetitive, obsessive.”
One small reason not to skip any part of this book may arise from a note at the end telling us that it was begun in 1975 and finished forty years later. These are years in which so much changed in the conversations about the relationship between men and women. What is fascinating about The Catholic School is that it enacts, in the most extreme way, the very sounds some men might have made before they were invited to become more mannerly, more intelligent, more alert, more sensitive, and less stupid. The book was finished in a time when men were often asked to shut up completely and let someone else talk. The Catholic School is, sometimes, a good example of what it was like before this had any real effect.
At other times, however, it is a good example of nothing at all, other than the author’s boorishness. Toward the end of the book, Albinati writes:
The feminine sex organ sits there, anonymous, dark, concealed beneath layers of fabric but, so to speak, always present, always perceptible in its hiding place between the thighs, another hole just an inch or so from the hole that everyone has, even men.
The best that can be said about this observation is that it occurs on page 916. Most readers will surely have become too exhausted by the book’s tediousness to get that far.
Not long afterward, in his analysis of the motives that he imagines lie behind rape, Albinati writes with an even more intense crudeness:
In rape, the targets are interchangeable: it depends on opportunities.
Proof of this is the fact that when it was a matter of abusing well-to-do young women, before the CR/M [the crime that is the subject of the book], the boys certainly hadn’t been shy about it. You can find just as many reasons to rape a rich little bitch as you can to rape a working-class slut. In different but every bit as intense ways, you can feel provoked and challenged by both categories of girls, you can get the same itch on the palm of your hands, the same yearning to crush them underfoot, humiliate them, punish them.
The only possible excuse for this passage, and many like it, is that Albinati may not, in fact, be speaking in his own voice, and that these opinions may belong to others. He is perhaps letting us know, as graphically as he can, what they sound like. Because the tone is often so glib, gross, and offensive, it might seem impossible that the author and the narrator could be one and the same. And it is thus tempting to feel that the author may merely be letting us know how men who take rape lightly speak when no one else is listening. In the following passage, for example, it appears almost unimaginable that a writer could offer these words to us as his own opinions rather than something overheard or ascribed to others:
If a woman gets uppity, if she denies or concedes herself to too many men, the rape will put her back in line. If she likes solitude, or fun, or books and concerts, or if she goes around without an escort in the illusion that she is independent, autonomous, or if she is too demanding because she wants to be loved and understood, then rape will make it clear to her just where she was wrong. When it’s time to give her a lesson, rape is always handy, within reach.
But there is no evidence at all that Albinati is reporting how others speak or feel, or that these passages in his book are acts of ventriloquism. In The Catholic School, the writer makes clear that his narrator is not a persona or a created voice. A number of times in the book, Albinati lets us know about his own life—his time teaching in a prison, for example, or the year and place of his birth—thus emphasizing that the first-person singular here is not a literary invention but the author himself, an author who asserts that “feminist thinkers have set records for appearing equally brilliant and deranged” but who doesn’t name any of these thinkers or quote from any texts by them on the subject of rape, violence against women, class, and masculinity.
It might have added a degree of subtlety to Albinati’s book had he become involved in a discussion with those who have put serious thought into the subject of rape. When he writes about rape not as a crime but as an aspect of sex between men and women, instead of quoting from research on the subject, or testimony from women who have been raped or from rapists, he offers his own offhand views as though they should be taken seriously:
In every relationship between male and female, between any male and any female, rape is present. Even where there has been no coercion; even where there is love and tenderness, there is rape. Rape is the simplified paradigm of relations between the sexes, its energy-saving mode, its substantial diagram, and it lies at the foundation of every relationship, of every act of intercourse, not necessarily brutal ones.
A decade ago, I spent time in a village near Rome, often using a network of narrow roads to drive between the city and the village. The more deserted the stretch of road, the more likely I was to see prostitutes, usually of African origin, standing alone, waiting for clients. They were totally vulnerable, at the mercy of pimps who had dropped them there, and at the mercy of those who might pick them up. For anyone driving by, I thought, this was a forlorn, miserable, desperate sight.
Albinati witnessed a similar scene. When he writes about this, he registers no pity, no worry, no outrage. Instead, he sees African prostitutes as they “extend their rounded asses toward the road and those who are driving along it.” They do this, he writes, “even today, Easter Sunday.” He notices that they displayed their bottoms openly, “while simultaneously concealing the least attractive aspect, because their faces are ugly, extremely ugly, bad enough to drive away anybody.”
Twenty pages later, he mentions advice from a friend when he found that a “homely” young woman, Maria Elisa, was interested in him, but her “pretty girlfriend” was not:
“Don’t start thinking about how homely Maria Elisa is. Instead, think about what fantastic blow jobs she would give you. Often that’s the way real dogs are: they know they aren’t pretty, so they make an effort to bridge the gap by becoming first-class cocksuckers.”
Albinati creates the impression that men, by virtue of having a penis and testosterone, are somehow irredeemable. He seems determined to become an example of what he also manages, at times, to deplore. The author gives the impression that he has thought deeply on these matters, an impression belied by the crudity of his language and his oafish attitudes.
When he writes, “A man may make use of a female body in one of four ways: by paying the woman for her services; by viewing an image of her body, nude or clothed, in still photo or film; by seducing her; or by kidnapping her,” one wonders not only where he had been since 1975 that he could equate these four things, put them in the same list, but where his editors have been, and where the jurors of the Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award for a novel, have been, since they gave this book the prize in 2016.
Sometimes, Albinati makes clear that he is writing about Italy rather than the wider world. In this passage, for example:
Bourgeois joy consists of the sentiment of contrast: possessing what others do not and what they therefore envy. Apartments, suits, automobiles, and women, wives or lovers selected like pieces of fine silver or paintings or tapestries or rare furniture.
He must be in Italy too when he writes about people “always setting the table with double sets of utensils and two glasses, even when there’s nothing to eat.” But it is hard to know where in the world he is describing when he writes: “There is not a more ascetic creature in existence than the well-to-do housewife.”
To write this book, Albinati emphasizes, he consumed “shelves full of books and a plethora of cases that actually happened; nearly every paragraph from here [page 855] to the end of Part VII of this book will be a condensed version.” Despite the length of the novel and the amount of detailed argument and heated assertion and digression, it is clear that rape and violence against women cannot be usefully dealt with in a tone that is so assertive, self-confident, and creepy. As he circles his subject, Albinati, who seems pleased with himself, lets us know in passing that he would like to have a street named after him, “just a little, out-of-the-way street.” To suit its name, the street would, of course, have to be long as well as out-of-the-way, and it might lack a number of necessary signs suggesting caution.
While Albinati’s descriptions of school life, of all-male enclaves and their discontents, are accurate and sharp, his ability to write about rape is limited. While his sense of class and privilege is perceptive, as is his version of Catholicism, the minute he begins to generalize he loses the plot. Because he has, it seems, no sense of his own limits, and because he gives the impression of someone who feels entitled to be heard, his book is of value only as an unexpurgated version of a dark unconscious, or a mind unfettered by circumspection, or a man who feels free to say whatever comes into his mind. It would be too cruel to suggest that this book is necessary reading for anyone, but it may be useful for those who wish to see an example of how little progress we have made over the past forty years, or for those who wish to experience an interminable display of loquaciousness and idiocy masquerading as a novel.