Unable to convince her family and desirable fiancé that she is going blind, early 19th-century Italian contessa Carolina Fantoni turns to her dreams and an eccentric local inventor when she loses her sight, inspiring the inventor’s development of the first typewriter.
THE BLIND CONTESSA’S NEW MACHINE has a title that is borne out of necessity. Strictly speaking, it should be called THE BLIND CONTESSA and leave it at that, for Carolina Fantoni is the focus of the book. Her “new machine” — a prototype of what would become the typewriter — is at once peripheral to the story but central to our historical understanding of it. If it were not for Pellegrino Turri’s gadget, designed to help the Contessa Fantoni write letters, their story would have been long forgotten, and gifted author Carey Wallace likely never would have thought to write about it. But it’s not that important to the novel itself.
What is important here is blindness, beauty, dreams, love, and the beauty of the written word. THE BLIND CONTESSA’S NEW MACHINE has the hazy lyricism of a summer’s day spent under a shady tree by a cool pond, with the dappled leaves reflecting off the ripples in the water. It invites close concentration in the construction of its sentences, but also rewards a longer view, taking in the rush of words and images at full speed.
Carolina Fantoni is a young woman of the 19th century, enveloped in a richly imagined Italian villa, who is slowly going blind. It starts at the edges and progresses inward, inexorably, like time or tragedy or fate. Carolina tracks her loss of vision by means of a familiar landscape, which disappears, piece by piece, leaf by leaf, tree by tree. By the time it is gone, she is ensorcelled in an arranged marriage with a local landowner who is by turns patronizing and limiting.
Only Turri understands her, and Turri is older, feckless and married. (That Turri comes up with the typewriter at all is a monument to the randomness of ingenuity, as his other scientific activities seem pointless or silly.) The attraction between them is indelible but elastic, and the back-and-forth of their love story is what drives the plot.
But this is not a plot-driven book, or anything like it. It is not really even character-driven, although readers will find great empathy for the stricken Carolina and her plight. It is instead largely a meditation on the beauties of the natural world, as seen from the perspective of the Italian villa. (Those of us who reside in the decayed urban centers of the Northeast, or similarly blighted areas, may appreciate the contrast more than others.)
It is not saying much to point out that an author writes about beautiful things in a beautiful way. It is in the nature of beautiful things to inspire just such a response. What is difficult, and what Wallace has done here, is to write about such things in the context of blindness — to see the things that we love, that are lovely, in the mind’s eye and nowhere else. Wallace’s lush, languorous prose style is perfectly matched for her story, particularly in the scenes where Carolina and her maid pore over the deeply illustrated pages of imaginary books.
THE BLIND CONTESSA’S NEW MACHINE is a small book, but every word brings clarity and focus to the wonder of the world and the people who live in it. If nothing else, it may lead readers to get up from their modern-day typewriter and spend an afternoon reading at the closest shady pond.