If you watch any American television, you may well have noticed that it features a lot of bald or balding men: Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Louie (Louie), Pete Campbell (Mad Men), Homer Simpson (The Simpsons), Larry David, (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Walter White (Breaking Bad). These are characters in TV shows that often deal with the fading power of the American male, what A.O. Scott has called “the end of male authority”.
It is not coincidental that they are balding.
Going bald is something that no man, no matter how powerful, has any control over. It happens, as far as we can tell, actually because of maleness. And, even worse for our poor middle-aged men, it will be noticeable, and often the cause of societal judgement and public shame. Baldness is a visible signifier of decay, of loss of virility, of loss of relevance, of loss of cool, of loss of power. It’s a reminder, every time a balding, tufty skull is glimpsed in a mirror, of a whole range of male anxieties. (There are exceptions of course, often in film: Vin Diesel, for instance, has a head as hairless and shiny as the rims of any of the sports cars he drives out of skyscrapers, and he never seems particularly anxious about his masculinity.)
I think of all these bald patriarchs as I read The Combover, a novella written by the Argentine-Italian author Adrián N. Bravi and translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon. It was published in English by Frisch & Co in 2013 and, as the title suggests, is about a bald man, in this case a professor called Arduino Gherarducci. Gherarducci has developed an elaborate philosophy of baldness. He asserts that it is a mark of pride: “We bald people want to show off our baldness, the humble condition to which we are reduced”. This showing off is a game of concealment, and, just as baldness is a lack of hair, Gherarducci’s pride in his baldness shows from his lack of bald patch, kept out of sight beneath a stylised combover. The combover is a means of giving his appearance “dignity and elegance”, but with honesty. Revealing the bald patch is pathetic, thinks Gherarducci, while shaving the head is disdainful:
I’m proud to belong to a family of combover men, none of whom have ever fallen into the reprehensible trap, so common in our impulsive modern world, of shaving his head to mask his healthy and inevitable baldness. How much shame there is in this new century! How can we fail to see that this change from the combover to the shorn head is a sign of our declining society?
To attempt to conceal the baldness with hair is honest because it is doomed to failure: the combover will always betray itself, and will never pass as ‘natural’ hair. Indeed, throughout the novella characters comment on just how unconvincing Gherarducci’s combover is, unsurprising given his method of “letting the hair grow at the back of the scalp and then training it forward for the necessary amount of time” before combing it forward, like an inverted eighties popstar. The failed artifice of the bald man’s combover, like the holy man’s stigmata or the ascetic’s hairshirt, is a mark of purity and holiness, of submission to a higher power.
This is just the philosophy; in practice, having a combover has far fewer advantages, and frequently results in embarrassment. But the philosophy is what Gherarducci clings to as a means of retaining his sense of importance and self-worth, which is challenged on many fronts by insolent barbers and hirsute students and mothers-in-law who borrow books without asking and never return them. Gherarducci feels anger at these affronts, but he does not direct this, for the most part, at the transgressors, or at the society that, decadently, has stopped appreciating the artistry of the combover. Rather, it is turned against his fellow bald men—against those who suffer the indignity of baldness, but hide it with plugs or hats, or, worst of all, shaven heads, as if their baldness were a choice. Gherarducci finds it difficult to express his anger at others’ failure to follow the code as strictly as he does himself. He is angry at the world’s inability to realign itself to his philosophy.
One of the inevitable consequences of this focus on an unwritten code, and this over-interpretation of minor details in relation to it, is a kind of paranoia. It is this paranoia that bursts forth from Gherarducci at The Combover’s moment of crisis. A student, “a boy with sideburns and long hair” who is “the son of an Argentinian consul” humiliates Gherarducci while he is giving a lecture:
…he pushed back my combover with a gesture that was deliberate but not aggressive—indeed it was almost elegant—exposing my baldness to the whole class. For a few seconds the students sat there looking at me, astonished, without understanding the insult. Then, predictably, they all began to laugh.
The students cannot understand the insult, because they do not understand Gherarducci’s philosophy. However, they understand his shame, so they laugh. Not heartily, in truth; they do not really seem to care. Gherarducci does not know how to react. He continues the lecture. Afterwards, he lets the students leave, staying in the class in an attempt to hide his humiliation (a kind of dishonesty he would not allow himself with his hair). Then he decides to flee, ending up in a town in north-central Italy called Cingoli. As he travels there, “Every passerby had become a potential hair ruffler”. His acute attention to an anxiety about his combover overflows into paranoia.
Gherarducci’s time in Cingoli is spent as a brief and unsuccessful hermit. He walks from the town into the mountains. He asks, “…how could I apply my knowledge of bibliographic data exchange formats up here in the mountains?” He does not find a satisfactory answer. He is discovered by some local children who start a rumour that his combover, if rubbed in the right way, can bring good luck and heal the sick. Soon his cave is filled with pilgrims, eager to stroke his increasingly greasy hair. Gherarducci is unconvinced of the healing efficacy of his combover, but he goes along with it, perhaps because he is glad it is finally getting the kind of reverent treatment he had always hoped it would. Eventually, though, enough is enough, and he flees again: “My combover was created for another purpose, and I couldn’t allow it to become a healing instrument for a band of lepers.”
At the end of the novella, Gherarducci seems to feel rejuvenated and powerful, but we have seen him so often that we are incredulous. During his time on the mountain Gherarducci tries to gain authenticity and balance, to become self-reliant, to find, perhaps, a semblance of old-fashioned masculinity in the rhythms of a pre-modern life. His failure is farcical. He cannot survive on his own, and lives parasitically off his purchases in the town and off the lasagne the combover-stroking pilgrims bring as gifts. His encounters with nature—with deer and storms and a cave he briefly contemplates whitewashing—like his encounters with humanity, end in humiliation. Gherarducci’s masculinity, then, even at its most triumphant, is a posture of deliberate failure. Gherarducci himself seems unaware of this, but he should not be, for the nature of his masculinity’s failure is the same as that of his combover: his masculinity is a pose that reveals its own disappointments, just as his combover proudly emphasises his baldness through failed concealment. It is an absurd construction, an artifice of self-contradiction, and absurdity runs through The Combover, albeit muted by Bravi’s style, which deploys flat irony throughout. This flatness muffles the effect, and The Combover never develops the comic exuberance of, say, ‘The Nose’ by Nikolai Gogol, another story that uses an errant body part as a metonym for male insecurities. Masculinity is examined yet again, and comes out lacking. Like Gheraducci’s combover, the novella itself is an artifice of self-contradiction. It lavishes attention on a topic by now so threadbare that nothing can protect its modesty.
Gherarducci persists with his combover, even though it continues to fail, even though it continues to bring him unhappiness, even though his combover is a promise of elegance that can never be obtained and his masculinity is a promise of power that is looking more and more like an anachronism. As Gherarducci, so Tony Soprano, so Walter White: if only these men could realise their masculinity makes them look as old and absurd as their baldness.
Tim Kennett is a writer who lives in London. Follow his Twitter feed here.
The English translation of The Combover was published in 2013 by Frisch & Co.