Bruno Corra, Sam Dunn is Dead: Futurist Novel, Trans. by John Walker, Atlas Press, 2015.
Sam Dunn is Dead was described by its author Bruno Corra (1892-1976) as a "Futurist Novel" and was first published in book form by Filippo Marinetti's Edizioni Futuriste in 1917. Yet one will search in vain for any mention of this work in anthologies of Futurism. The novel's erasure is doubtless because it is so unlike anything else produced by Futurism (an ardent, masculine, positive and absurdly serious movement). Sam Dunn is Dead, a small masterpiece of black humor, is none of these things.
Not only is Sam Dunn at once funny, despairing, cerebral and ludicrous, it also traces a history in miniature of the modern spirit. It commences with a description of its eponymous hero, a languid 1890s poet who is about to unleash a thoroughly contemporary apocalypse upon the world. Subsequent chapters could be mistaken for Dadaist or Surrealist texts (but written a decade before their time), and then the whole edifice is fatally undermined by forces that are both banal and unusual (to avoid revealing too much). Corra subsequently considered his novel a failure, but today his sensitivity to the great undertows of history seems alarmingly prescient, and neither opinion should interfere with the reader's simple enjoyment of this novel's deliriously ebullient nihilism.
First up, an uncharacteristic example of Futurism, long out of print in Italy and never in print in English, here’s a ‘bitter wit’, as John Walker precisely renders it in his introduction, where ‘… never has disenchantment been depicted with such verve and gusto.’ Corra was the pseudonym of Bruno Ginanni Corradini, an aristocrat born in 1892. With his brother Ginna he studied art, alchemy, oriental philosophy, theosophy, occult science generally and published ‘The Art of the Future’ in 1910 which is one of the first explorations of the avant garde written anywhere. He wrote a manifesto alongside Marinetti on Futurist theatre, authored another on Futurist cinema and experimented with Futurist films to create with his brother the first Futurist film, ‘Futurist Life’, in 1916. He co-authored the novel ‘The Island of Kisses’ with Marinetti in 1918 and prefaced his brothers’ collection of short stories ‘Trains with Socks On’ in 1919. But then he tired of Futurism, dropped it completely and wrote conservative novels until he died in 1974.
According to the intro by Walker the novel ‘Sam Dunn is Dead’ works more according to principles he outlined in his manifesto for theatre rather than for any kind of novel. It is, according to Corra in his preface to the 1928 edition, the first ‘synthetic novel’ because it cuts out ‘… preparatory chapters, superfluous sections, pointless detail, or drawn-out, lazy clichés… etc… etc.’ It’s a novel that moves from Paris, the Ligurian Riviera to the Ffords of Norway. There are few authorial asides or comments. He plays a few meta-literary games :
‘… while he was uttering these monosllables his eyes were fixed, in an attitude of immense concentration, on the spiral of smoke rising from the cigarette held tightly between his pale fingers as it insinuated itself into the warmth of the atmosphere.
A moment. To each his own. This “ insinuated itself” is not mine. In a peculiar way it is not even my idea to emphasise it.’ And that’s it. But the novel has a dandy feel to it, a disturbed strangeness belied by its smooth surface, a John Steed tonal accomplishment that fixes up a cosmopolitan archness with debonair magus atmospherics.
The Sam Dunn character is a genius of the occult, taking energies from the people around him, having powers that may lead to a new world. Rosa Rosa’s illustrations are limpid and strange in keeping with the odd text. It is lighter and funnier than the usual Futurist mélange, and less infused with the muscular techno-thrill power- kick machismo that seems to fuel so much of the movement and its sometimes nasty, fascist politics. Carra’s exit from the movement strikes us now as well judged. But nothing is ever quite as it seems in this sort of set-up. If the need is to unfreeze oneself from the folded, frozen self of the tamed and the humble then Carra’s exit from the movement can be understood as another way of continuing. It’s never clear who remains conscious of their revolutionary destiny once lives pan out and terribly mundane details accumulate and fuss around a biography. Rene Daumal (who we’ll come to later) in one edition of ‘Le Grand Jeu’ writes: ‘ Man or society must, at every moment, be on the point of exploding, at every moment renouncing this explosion, and always refusing to rest in a defined form…. resignation, as opposed to abjection, is power itself, for the body replaced in the world thereby participates in all of nature.’ So it could be Carra was somehow staying true to his original crack at utopianism by stepping aside. Perhaps he agreed with Ballard that smiling whilst being suburban was the genuine revolutionary life. But then we recall that Stewart Home called out Ballard as being no more than a ‘travel writer.’ This is the territory where jokes are just ways of walking in an opposite direction.
Maybe Carra’s writing is tamer than it needs to be. The mind-altering frenzy and psychopathic energies of audacity, derangement and shamanic glut are missing. But perhaps that’s the point. There is a devious humour in the decadent surrealism of the character and the scenes depicted and the events recounted. There is a wind-up quality to it all, a refined aristo pitch that lounges around like an insane episode of ‘Made in Chelsea’, cutting its own elegant throat but with creepy style. This is a Futurism that senses the danger of silk scarves rather than fast cars, jet engines and bullets. As such it’s probably less tired than the rather clichéd tropes of the movement now seem, but more exhaustingly sarcastic. The lightness of the writing is part of a refined and rather brilliant antinomianism that refuses to consent to anything, including the perpetual motifs of Futurism found even within itself.But my take on Futurism is a little awry, spinning the line that at its core this was a fascist movement. It wasn’t. It was the start of contemporary utopianism in its modern idiom. In Stewart Home’s authoritative ‘Assault on Culture’ Home shoes how utopian projects aimed at bringing about collective unity by fusing categories that were separate in their own settings. So during the medieval times utopianists sought to break down the separation of religion and the world by bringing about heaven on earth. In contemporary times religion is replaced by art and utopianism attempts to fuse art with politics.
“So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here they are! Here they are!… Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!… Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded!… Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!” proclaims the ‘First Futurist Manifesto’. Futurism was the kick-start movement that replaced religion with art as the key idiom of utopianism.
Carra’s novel makes clear that Sam Dunn is not merely an artist but is rather the apotheosis of the absolutist Futurist project: the character transforms more than just art by fusing together the whole world, its politics, fashion, technologies and its sense of time and event, space and dream as well as art via Sam Dunn’s transformational powers.
What followed the Futurist pioneers of the modern utopian idiom were the Dadaists. Richard Huelsenbeck gave the modernist utopianism a stronger theoretical grip than anything the Futurists managed in his Dada manifesto ‘”What Is Dadaism and What Does It Want in Germany?” Later, in his 1920 essay “En Avant Dada: A History of Dadaism” he writes: “The Dadaist considers it necessary to come out against art because he has seen through its fraud as a moral safety valve”. And further, that “Dada is German Bolshevism. The bourgeois must be deprived of the opportunity to ‘buy up art for his justification’. Art should altogether get a sound thrashing, and Dada stands for that thrashing with all the vehemence of its limited nature.” Clearly Dada wasn’t just an art movement.
As late as 1936 he was writing against all attempts to brand it as such, and in so doing attacked the Surrealists:
‘”Tzara, in Paris, eliminated from Dadaism its revolutionary and creative element and attempted to compete with other artistic movements… Dada is perpetual, revolutionary ‘pathos’ aimed at rationalistic bourgeois art. In itself it is not an artistic movement. To quote the German Chancellor, the revolutionary element in Dada was always greater than its constructive element. Tzara did not invent Dadaism, nor did he really understand it. Under Tzara in Paris Dada was deformed for the private use of a few persons so that its action was almost a snobbish one.” - Richard Marshall