Subscriber Only

The Catholic School: 1,300 pages of masculinity explained

Book review: Edoardo Albinati’s novel moves between fiction and philosophy to explore violence

I have read The Catholic School so you don’t have to. And that, my friends, is true Catholicism.

This much-lauded and hefty novel, originally published in Italy in 2016, appears now for the first time in English. The impetus of Albinati’s novel is to explain; however, he doesn’t do this through the form of the novel, but mostly through the form of a sociological tract. Though the book does have some interesting things to say on fascism and its endurance, these are buried amongst such a heavy word-load that such insights are practically impenetrable.

Beginning in the Catholic school of the title, and exploring its repressive culture alongside that of 1970s Italy, the novel is delivered in the first person. “The same character who narrates the story in the first person singular”, Albinati explains in an author’s note, “may well differ to some extent from the author cited on the cover.”

If that seems somewhat slippery such slipperiness plays to Albinati’s advantage. Certainly I don’t see that many people would want to be identified with the narrator of this novel.

There is, principally, something deeply unsettling about the way that Albinati chooses to withhold the central incident of the book (a violent rape and torture which leaves one teenage girl dead and another managing to escape only by playing dead) as though it is bait or an incentive to continue. The Circeo rape of 1975 is an historical crime, and thus Albinati’s book moves between fiction, history, memoir and philosophy in order to explore violence as a product of the culture and the institution that produced the murderer-rapists.

“This crime which, page by page, I’m coming closer to exploring and treating (too slow, too rambling, this journey of mine, you might well say?) He certainly is taking his time about it? You’re right: but it was the very nature of this crime that demanded that its background and preliminaries be recounted; […]and if you have the patience to follow me through this, we’ll find out together.”

The patience, yes, but also the stomach. A more ethically-minded book would have put the rape (if it needed to be included at all) at the beginning, avoiding its use as a device to create this sort of narrative suspense.

I am reminded of the ingenious structure of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. In Tartt’s book the murder occurs in the opening chapter, with the rest of the novel acting as a “why-dunnit” rather than a whodunnit. Thus Tartt’s exploration of the repressive class system of her isolated college is effective and gripping without tantalising the reader with the promise of a murder.

In contrast, Albinati withholds the central incident, meaning that throughout the meandering (and often dull) prologue – which extends for around 400 pages – one finds oneself reluctantly and disturbingly wishing he would get on with it.

We do not want to read the central incident, and yet if we are to read the novel we know it is approaching. A novel that puts the reader in such a position, even if that disturbance is its aim, is plotted at the expense of the female victims of the crime. In other words it leeches its narrative energy from their rape and murder.

There is, to my mind, a deep irony in a book that attempts, over nearly 1,300 pages, to explain masculinity to its reader. This is a profoundly masculine endeavour, and one which I imagine most readers will tire of quickly.

It is hard to tell whether the novel’s speaker is supposed to be intensely unlikable, or whether the writer is unconscious of the odiousness of many of the opinions put forward. I am inclined to be kind to Albinati in presuming the former.

Surely he has created a character who exemplifies a particularly unpalatable masculinity. But if that is the case why use this character as the primary voice through which many of the book’s theories of masculinity are delivered?

Either we are supposed to take the book’s sociology as decidedly prejudiced, or we are supposed to take it as enlightened (which it is not). Regardless, it is a feat to spend more than an hour or so in the company of the speaker whose theories on homosexuality, sexual desire, and the construction of gender read like those of a man who wants to perform his liberal credentials but just hasn’t quite got it.

The apparatus which Albinati employs to “explain” the crime is also quite retrograde or basic sociology/psychology, and again feels like the protagonist is mansplaining core concepts as though he has invented them.

Throughout the narrator implores the reader to stick with him as he digresses, but we are never rewarded with much insight. “A male isn’t someone who is male, but someone who has to be male” (the citation of Judith Butler is, strangely enough, missing). “Many sexual behaviours have a non-sexual motivation” (see also the entirety of Freudian psychoanalysis).

There are paragraphs devoted to the “dazzling beauty of a pair of breasts”, and to strange pseudo-“woke” theories on what homosexuality is. As a homosexual reader, I can assure you that my homosexuality is not a “flight from the essence of virility”.

Even if Albinati would defend his character as representative of the toxic masculinity the book seeks to explore, surely we have heard enough from such voices. Any woman or LGBTQ+ person has endured such explanations and provocations on innumerable occasions. We do not need more novels that simulate the experience.

Seán Hewitt

Seán Hewitt, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a teacher, poet and critic