Here’s what’s so remarkable about Fante’s work. I’m not sure that the following hypothetical would change much at all. The question is an important one, however, as the chief merit of Fante’s work is his unflinching portrayal of the truth. Bukowski, who famously claimed, ‘Fante was my God’, praised him for writing the truth, and for being a man ‘who was not afraid of emotion’.
Hypothetical: What if Arturo Bandini realised that he was in love with a lesbian?
In an interview with Ben Pleasants, John Fante reveals the following:
The love affair in that book is a true love affair, and there’s only one thing missing from it that I failed to mention and I didn’t mention it because I don’t think I could’ve handled it and that was the fact that the girl in it, Camilla, was a lesbian. And I didn’t know it really until after the book was published.
Notice how he fumbles slightly with his reasons for not mentioning the girl’s homosexuality: ‘I didn’t mention it because I don’t think I could’ve handled it’ becomes ‘I didn’t know it really until after the book was published’. He’s pulling a bit of a Bandini on us here. If the first claim is true, and he is now conscious of having suppressed what he doesn’t feel he ‘could’ve handled’ at the time, then the last sentence must be slightly disingenuous.
How fitting that the man behind the alter-ego Arturo Bandini should be a bit of an illusive narrator himself, and to similar ends. The second claim in the quotation is defensive of his younger self’s unwillingness to come to terms with reality.
I don’t think he gives himself enough credit. Ask The Dust does not explicitly address the issue, but doesn’t avoid it either. Rather, it represses it. Whether intentional or subconscious, the result is that the portrayal of the girl’s unattainability is compatible with, though not necessarily suggestive of, her homosexuality. This becomes obvious in the relationship between Arturo and Camilla:
Even in believing her to be straight, Arturo knew Camilla to be unattainable. Sexually, yes, he was able possess her, but even then it was not the girl he wanted, but the knowledge of his ability to possess her: ‘the delight to know that I could possess her now if I wished.’ He does not wish it, though, for he has had his love — a fantasy during a real sexual encounter with, ironically, a girl named Vera (from the latin verum, meaning truth):
There were no scars, and no desiccated place. She was Camilla, complete and lovely. She belonged to me, and so did the world. And I was glad for her tears, they thrilled me and lifted me, and I possessed her.
Even talking to Camilla on that night when he finds his ability to possess her, the girl is just a medium. He entertains the real drama in his mind:
Arturo Bandini was pretty good that night, because he was talking to his true love, and it wasn’t you [Camilla], and it wasn’t Vera Rivken either, it was just his true love.
Arturo has other reasons for loving Camilla, she is a potent symbol – an embodiment of his fears, powerlessness, and otherness. He needs to possess her because he needs to overcome these inhibitions. Therefore, his moment of climax is not sexual, but a realisation of fearlessness, a power over himself and Camilla, and a liberated sense of national identity:
But I didn’t kiss her. I wasn’t through. It had to be my way or nothing. ‘I’m a conqueror,’ I said. ‘I’m like Cortes, only I’m an Italian.’
Camilla, too, is in love with ideas. Whether or not she is truly in love with Sammy, she certainly is in love with what she cannot have. Arturo realises as much:
I understood it. She did not hate Arturo Bandini, not really. She hated the fact that he did not meet her standard. She wanted to love him, but she couldn’t. She wanted him like Sammy: quiet, taciturn, grim, a good shot with a rifle…
Camilla can posses neither man. Arturo cannot possess her, and Sammy will not. In the end, only the dog, Willie, ‘possessed her completely.’ The relationships in the novel, while intimate, are in no straightforward way heterosexual.
Fante’s masterpiece has not suffered as a result of its author’s flinching at Camilla’s homosexuality. This is what is so admirably honest about his work — it draws attention to the truth by casting the spotlight on a man doing everything in his power to remain ignorant of it. Arturo is a millionaire until his 100 dollars dry up; a conquistador until he falls asleep; a white man in the company of Jewish and Mexican women; he would be the lover of a lesbian up until she disappeared into the desert, just the same.
Have another look at the book, the hints are plentiful when you’re looking for them. Let us know what you think!