The Bishop’s Bedroom: Piero Chiara

I still think about Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signor Guilia, so I was delighted to see a translation of The Bishop’s Bedroom. The New York Times Book Review compared the book to a Patricia Highsmith novel, but I basically ignored and forgot that comment. But it’s a well deserved comparison, and I wasn’t too far into the novel when Highsmith popped into my head. This is a suspense/crime novel set against post war Italy. The dreariness and deprivation of war is over, and those who have survived, at least most of the characters in the book, are approaching life with new attitudes. There’s a sense that leisure and pleasure are to be valued above all else. The war is in the past, a shadow that still can be seen with a backward glance.

The Bishop's bedroom

It’s 1946, and WWII has ended, yet the ripples of the conflict still extend in Italian society in spite of the book’s emphasis on relaxation, leisure, and sun. The unnamed narrator, a man in his 30s who has recently returned from Switzerland, has a sailboat and he spends his life sailing around putting off the day he must pick up responsibilities again. The narrator is a consummate bachelor (lothario), and with a knack with women, some of them married, he picks one up, takes her for a sail and then drops her back home. There are no commitments, no broken hearts, and no demands.

One day he sails into the port of Oggebbio on Lake Maggiore and a local man named Orimbelli, who reminded me of an oily Peter Lorre, strikes up a conversation. The narrator finds that he can’t quite read his new acquaintance:

He smiled often, sometimes for no reason, as if to seem obliging, but with the world weariness of a gentleman, or a man who’s lived a lot. His voice was somewhat nasal and yet not the least bit affected. He wore a gold ring on his little finger, and a fancy wristwatch, the kind that tells the day and month as well as the hour. It was immediately obvious that he was someone of a certain refinement, but it wasn’t easy to pin down his class. Clearly, he wasn’t a businessman or industrialist. Perhaps a doctor or notary, or just a rich idler who had established himself by the lake before the war, someone who’d stuck his head out after the army had gone by, to see which way the wind was blowing. 

One thing leads to another and Orimbelli, who tells his story of how he spent some of the war in Ethiopia,  followed by a stay in Naples for health reasons,  invites the narrator to his villa for dinner. Orimbelli lives at the Villa Cleofe with his older “very thin, schoolmarmish” wife and his sister-in-law, the lush widow Mathilde. While the villa is gorgeous, the atmosphere around the dinner table is suffocating, so it seems no surprise that Orimbelli should want to lighten the domestic atmosphere with the diversion of a guest. And neither is it too surprising that Orimbelli expresses an interest in sailing away with the narrator.

Over time, the narrator and Orimbelli, who connect over the pursuit of women*, make a number of sailing excursions together with the narrator sleazily picking up various women for himself and Orimbelli. If the idea is that Orimbelli needs to escape from his wife’s scrutiny for a while, then Orimbelli, once off leash, knows no restraint. Orimbelli has the annoying habit of shamelessly poaching the narrator’s women, and in spite of the fact that he’s not particularly attractive, he’s remarkably successful with women, perhaps because he’s so persistent.

While the story is set mostly in sun-filled days spent on the water, there’s a dark thread which runs through the plot. Is Orimbelli just the overweight, harmless married man he appears, or is there something far more sinister afoot? After a few incidents, the narrator, who calmly observes Orimbelli, decides he’s a “well-mannered monster, a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” but even after that recognition, Orimbelli’s deviousness still catches the narrator off guard.

The Bishop’s Bedroom, incidentally, the room in which the narrator stays in at the Villa Cleofe is a lavish red and gold bedroom–a creepy shrine like room with a morbid atmosphere.

Soon the sun would flood the bishop’s bedroom, rendering it violet rather than red in the first light, and transforming it into a first-class mortuary with its canopy, the altar-like chest of drawers, the walnut wardrobe with large panels. the prayer stool and crucifix between two purple festoons.

*It’s possible to say the two men also connect over sailing, but IMO, the boat is a means to an end.

translated by Jill Foulston

Review copy

27 Comments

Filed under Chiara Piero, Fiction

27 responses to “The Bishop’s Bedroom: Piero Chiara

  1. I liked Signora Giulia too, and my library has this one. Thanks!

  2. It’s good to see the publication of another Chiara, especially in such a stylish edition (that cover is very appealing). Like you, I was very taken with Signora Giulia…

  3. Sounds great and the cover is attractive.

  4. Is this from Pushkin Vertigo again? The cover, which I agree is very good, doesn’t look like them. I did like Disappearance as I recall.

  5. A piece of fluff, but then, it’s so well done, elegant, and the characters are such predators. At it’s core, it’s pretty darn sick. I only know Highsmith from a movie or two, but the tone is similar, creepy! I liked all the detail about sailing on the Great Lake, and found myself thinking of Shelly’s drowning a lot.

    • If you get a chance, read Strangers on a Train.

        • The book is a little more twisted IMO

          • Right after Four Novellas of Fear 😀

          • Wow, Strangers on A Train was great!!! Never read any of her books before. She certainly is great at doing the sickly rich and, from Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Ripley, the decadent preppie type. But this book was so much deeper and darker than the film (as you have said),and which I do also like very much. The dynamic between Granger and Walker nicely captures the tone of the book, I think.

            I know it’s pointless to create hierarchies of the arts, like the Renaissance ‘paragone’, but this adaption is a good example of why I have always found it difficult to take cinema all that seriously even though I like to watch lots of movies. And why cinema theory bores me to tears. I just don’t think the medium is all that good at expressing ideas, which happens to be something I care about. Occasionally, some great artist brings it off, but mostly it’s just an entertaining experience, maybe thought provoking…which is what they were originally intended to be, and that’s quite enough too.

  6. If you have netflix, check out Lady J

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