Carlo Emilio Gadda - a work of universal significance and protean genius: a rich social novel, a comic opera, an act of political resistance, a blazing feat of baroque wordplay, and a haunting story of life and death

Carlo Emilio Gadda, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, Trans. by William Weaver, NYRB Classics, 2007.

In a large apartment house in central Rome, two crimes are committed within a matter of days: a burglary, in which a good deal of money and precious jewels are taken, and a murder, as a young woman whose husband is out of town is found with her throat cut. Called in to investigate, melancholy Detective Ciccio, a secret admirer of the murdered woman and a friend of her husband’s, discovers that almost everyone in the apartment building is somehow involved in the case, and with each new development the mystery only deepens and broadens. Gadda’s sublimely different detective story presents a scathing picture of fascist Italy while tracking the elusiveness of the truth, the impossibility of proof, and the infinite complexity of the workings of fate, showing how they come into conflict with the demands of justice and love. Italo Calvino, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Alberto Moravia all considered That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana to be the great modern Italian novel. Unquestionably, it is a work of universal significance and protean genius: a rich social novel, a comic opera, an act of political resistance, a blazing feat of baroque wordplay, and a haunting story of life and death.

The dictum ""Le style c'est l'homme"" to a large extent defines the work of Carlo Emilio Gadda; he has had great recognition in Europe, won the $10,000 International Literary Prize in 1963, and this is his most important book. Gadda, whom the translator William Weaver compares with Joyce for his ""fascination with language"" and his revolutionary use of it, has an astounding command of words and they cascade off the page with aural and visual effects, conveying the vociferous vitality of everyday life in Rome. However his very distinctive style is also extremely dense and demanding; sometimes it is allusive to the point of unintelligibility and full of linguistic rarities --i.e. ""To concert with immediate parapathia an encounter, vespertine and casual,"" etc..... Pasticcio, in its primary sense, meaning a work of art made up of fragments, was used in the original title when it appeared in Italian and this further defines the novel which is fragmentary or as Weaver says, the ""perfect parts of impossible wholes."" Physically, it centers around two incidents, a burglary, and three days later, the murder of childless, middle-aged Liliana Balducci, in a middle class section of Rome in 1927. While Ingravallo, assigned to the case, investigates, her family, the occupants of the building, the maidservants, delivery boys, doctor lawyer, merchants, a priest, all pass across the canvas. Actually it is a multi-levelled political and social satire. In a phrase (""he beat her like a rug"" or ""allocated there, in his big chair, amid souffle of cushions"") Gadda can manage a wonderful kind of humor. And from start to unresolved finish, he has recorded the animated, random confusion of life in a remarkable manner...Gadda has had a coterie readership until now; one questions whether it can be extended even with every attention of the publisher and the press. - Kirkus Reviews

Despite his eighty years (1893-1973) and many publications, an air of incompletion lingers about the work of Carlo Emilio Gadda. His most popular novel, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, is an unfinished murder story. His best work, Acquainted with Grief, is again unfinished and again leaves us with an unsolved crime (in this case we are not even sure whether the victim will die or not). Many of Gadda’s shorter pieces turn out to be fragments of unfinished novels, or of almost finished novels that he broke up into fragments, a habit which has prompted critics and editors to spend a lot of time reconstructing possible novels, always unfinished, from the various parts.
This perhaps wilful incompletion (his two best-known novels, according to Italo Calvino, ‘seem to need only a few more pages to reach their conclusions’) goes with a confusion as to the chronology of composition and a concern that the version we hold in our hands is not definitive. First published in book form in 1963, Acquainted with Grief, or early parts of it, had appeared in the magazine Letteratura more than twenty years earlier, while another edition with two entirely new chapters appeared in 1970. That Awful Mess was published in instalments in 1946 and 1947 and then in a much longer book version (but with one crucial chapter now omitted) in 1957. Gadda also wrote a film treatment in which the murder was solved, but it was not used for the film that was actually made, in which the murder was solved differently. From time to time Gadda would promise a second volume of further investigations with a definitive solution. It never appeared.
In short, at a time when traditional realist fiction in Italy was producing some of its most finely crafted and ‘professional’ achievements (in the novels of Moravia, Pavese, Pasolini and many others), Gadda’s writing remained an open workshop where nothing was ever quite put down or properly wrapped up. It’s not surprising that he was taken as a model by the avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s, when notions of the ‘open text’ were in vogue. Still, his work is as far from that avant-garde as it is from the writing of Joyce, to whom enthusiasts are often eager to compare him. Better to say that failure and incompletion are central themes in Gadda’s writing because the problem of how to engage fruitfully with the world was a constant source of anxiety for him.
Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana is the Italian title of the novel that would finally make Gadda famous (he was over sixty when the book version was published). A pasticcio is a ‘mess’, in the sense of a heterogeneous combination of things – un pasticcio di lasagna for example, pasta and meat – but usually with the negative connotation of something badly organised or muddled, so pasticcio is often collocated with brutto: an ‘ugly mess’, or a ‘nasty mess’. The suffix accio adds a further negative and colloquial tone, and makes the word quite a mouthful. Quer (instead of the standard quel, meaning ‘that’) announces that the novel will be mostly written in Roman dialect, which is confirmed by de instead of di. The title thus sets us up for an onslaught of the demotic and confused.
Francesco Ingravallo, a homicide detective, is overweight, like Gadda, of restricted means, like Gadda, single, like Gadda, and, like Gadda, a lover of philosophy, obscure vocabulary, good food and after-lunch naps. What’s more, he has a theory: ‘Unforeseen catastrophes are never the consequence … of a single motive, of a cause singular; but they are rather like a whirlpool, a cyclonic point of depression in the consciousness of the world, towards which a whole multitude of converging causes have contributed.’ Ingravallo thinks of crimes in terms of ‘words like knot or tangle, or muddle, or gnommero, which in Roman dialect means skein’. ‘“If they call me, you can be sure that there’s trouble: some mess, some gliuommero to untangle,” he would say, garbling his Italian with the dialects of Naples and the Molise.’
In the space of a few lines, Gadda has managed to spell the same word two different ways (gnommero, gliuommero). Throughout the book, many words, especially names, will get the same treatment: language is vital and messy and has only an uneasy hold over the muddled world it purports to represent. At the same time, the ideas of mess and tangle will be foregrounded in every possible way: the crime that drives the story is a tangle of two crimes; the condominium in which it takes place is a hotchpotch of people of different social classes from different parts of Italy and speaking different dialects; the murdered woman’s family connections are bewildering, while the lives of the suspects are spectacularly tangled in ways guaranteed to confuse. The separate investigative forces of polizia and carabinieri muddle along in streets crammed with people, animals, food, refuse, excrement. Every space is packed, every shelf and drawer is overflowing with bric-a-brac, every lexical field is brought into play in a mill of high and low, modern and archaic, domestic and technical registers. Hair is tangled, clothes are mismatched: bodies, especially women’s bodies, present strange combinations of contrasting features, of attractive forms and repulsive smells. Crucial conversations are drowned out by background noise; telephone wires are crossed; promising lines of questioning are disrupted by unpleasant odours. Truth messes with falsehood, fantasy with reality, neologisms with misspellings, history with myth, country with city. If Ingravallo has been invited to sort out the worst of tangles, everything about Gadda’s book declares the task impossible. Successful completion of the murder investigation is as unlikely as the discovery of a literary style or structure that might contain and possess the unruly world. Ingravallo never manages even to finish a cigarette.
But above all, the life and emotions of the detective are tangled with those of the victim. No sooner has Ingravallo been introduced than we find him at Sunday lunch with Liliana Balducci and her husband, Remo. Childless, the beautiful, now mature Liliana is obsessed by the desire to have not, as one would expect in a still patriarchal Italy (the story is set in 1927), a son, but a daughter. She has taken to ‘adopting’ a string of ‘nieces’, poor girls from the country who invariably disappoint and have to be sent away and replaced. ‘Yes,’ thinks Ingravallo, ‘behind that noun “niece” there must be hidden a whole tangle … of threads, a cobweb of feelings, of the rarest and most … delicate nature.’
Ingravallo is erotically drawn to Liliana’s ‘nieces’ and the family’s voluptuous maid, yet he has a special affinity with Liliana herself, whose thwarted craving for a daughter has the same quality and intensity as his frustrated yearning for a woman. The reader understands immediately that Ingravallo will be making no approaches to any of these women. ‘He had to repress, repress, assisted in this harsh necessity by the noble melancholy of Signora Liliana.’ Why Ingravallo is bound to repress, why Gadda himself was so painfully shy with women, we do not know, but it is here that the book establishes its emotional urgency.
In the earlier version of the novel, Liliana had had a lesbian relationship with one ‘niece’, who had then had an affair with her husband to blackmail him. The introductions to many editions of the book mention this episode, so that these relationships hover over the text as intriguing possibilities, reminders of the remark that closes Ingravallo’s theory of multiple causes: ‘You’re sure to find skirts where you don’t want to find them.’ Behind every tangle lurks the prime mover of eroticism. An Awful Mess is drenched in sexual innuendo, much of it of an infantile, often morbid nature, as though produced by someone excluded from active sexual life but forever contemplating it with a mixture – or pasticcio – of excitement and disgust.
The widow who lives opposite Liliana on the third floor of the condominium opens her door to a young man who claims to have come to fix the radiators; he robs her of her jewels. The condominium is notorious for being home to a number of rich families. Before knocking on the widow’s door the criminal appears to have knocked on Liliana’s, but she didn’t open it. Ingravallo finds a discarded tram ticket that will lead to an underworld of pimps, gigolos and brothels. Only three days later, however, Liliana is found stabbed to death in her flat. Her jewels have gone. Ingravallo’s horrified impression of the body is one of the book’s major set pieces:
The body of the poor signora was lying in an infamous position, supine, the grey wool skirt and a white petticoat thrown back, almost to her breast: as if someone had wanted to uncover the fascinating whiteness of that dessous, or inquire into its state of cleanliness. She was wearing white underpants, of elegant jersey, very fine, which ended halfway down the thighs with a delicate edging. Between the edging and the stockings, which were a light-shaded silk, the extreme whiteness of the flesh lay naked, of a chlorotic pallor: those two thighs, slightly parted, on which the garters – a lilac hue – seemed to confer a distinction of rank, had lost their tepid sense, were already becoming used to the chill.
This macabre description goes on for two more pages, repeatedly returning to the victim’s garters and stockings, to ‘those legs slightly spread, as if in horrible invitation’, to ‘the furrow of the sex’. ‘It was like being at Ostia,’ Ingravallo reflects, ‘in the summer … when the girls are lying on the sand baking themselves, when they let you glimpse whatever they want.’
For the rest of the book, the vision of the dead Liliana constitutes a limit experience for the detective, as if sexual longing were now irretrievably equated with violent death and hence blocked for ever. As so often in Gadda’s work, attraction and repulsion are superimposed. And we are reminded of a curious detail: when Ingravallo arrived at the victim’s house for lunch, he was greeted by ‘Lulu, the little Pekinese bitch, a ball of fluff’, who first barked quite angrily then sniffed and licked at his shoes. ‘The vitality of those little monsters is incredible,’ Gadda says (something that is true of the whole world as he describes it). And he adds: ‘You feel like petting them, then stamping them.’ The two verbs used in Italian, accarezzare and acciaccare, are so similar in rhythm and sound as to suggest equivalent responses, as if there were little difference between petting and stamping. Ingravallo does neither: repressing both caresses and violence, he investigates.
Common sense would suggest a single hand behind both crimes. Yet although Ingravallo gets his underlings to continue the inquiries prompted by the dropped tram ticket, all his emotional energy is directed towards a ferocious questioning of Liliana’s second cousin, Giuliano, a young womaniser who was first on the scene and whom the detective at once suspects of being Liliana’s lover and killer. Liliana’s husband, away on business at the time of the murder, will also be aggressively interrogated, particularly about his sexual habits. After all, Ingravallo reflects, the husband’s passion is hunting; he thinks of life in terms of prey and victim.
The theme of muddle and multiple causes, so determinedly announced in the opening pages and usually taken to be the intellectual core of the book, is really something of a red herring. A more important question is: how can Ingravallo get involved in life’s tangle when everyone who does so seems to him a potential murderer? When he first meets the second cousin (before the crime is committed), we are told that he is frequently possessed by ‘a kind of prickly jealousy towards the young, especially towards handsome young men, and even more so, the sons of the rich’. When he imagines that the cousin is courting Liliana in return for money, ‘the thought infuriated him: with a secret, dissimulated fury.’
There is a curious irony to these passages. Set in 1927 and begun shortly after the Second World War, That Awful Mess contains a lot of anti-Fascist satire which has always been much appreciated and has given the book, despite its creeping misogyny and occasional racism, a political passe-partout. Calvino went so far as to credit Gadda with ‘a minute, extensive analysis of the effects on the daily administration of justice’ caused by Fascism’s ‘failure to respect the separation of powers’. Readers will struggle to find such a careful analysis; besides which, in Italy, a failure to observe Montesquieu’s ideal separation of powers can hardly be considered a prerogative of the Fascist regime. What is clear is that the violently disparaging terms in which Ingravallo thinks of Mussolini – ‘Death’s Head’, ‘Fierce-Face’, ‘the Autarch Jawbone’ – are entirely in line with his reaction to Liliana’s cousin, her husband, and indeed to any man who imposes himself on the world in response to ‘the dirty tension that compels him to action’. Meanwhile, although we are assured that Ingravallo’s knee-jerk reaction to handsome young men ‘would never have influenced his behaviour as a police officer’, this is exactly what happens. The detective imprisons three men on the slenderest of suspicions, in all cases in response to their sexuality. If there is any danger of a miscarriage of justice, it comes from Ingravallo, not Mussolini.
Unable to solve the crime, Ingravallo alternates between somnolence and frustration, which he vents in questioning as aggressive as it is fruitless. Liliana, it turns out, had vented her frustrations by writing and rewriting her will. In line with the book’s general pasticcio, this document is produced by an ambiguous priest, guaranteed authentic in a telephone conversation with a deaf lawyer and read out to oddly assorted witnesses by a Neapolitan police chief whose mellifluous accent and baritone voice profoundly condition the reactions of all present. As Ingravallo listens to Liliana’s eccentric instructions for the disposal of her belongings (and since the will was revised only two months before the murder, it is as if she had foreseen her death), he speculates that, denied motherhood, she became possessed by a death wish, like a flower ‘giving her petals to the wind’, and looked forward to ‘the unknown liberty of not being’. Ingravallo himself is clearly no stranger to such feelings. Even more evidently, he is not interested in a solution to the murder that does not put it in relation to Liliana’s (and his own) profound emotional turmoil.
But it is the lead provided by the tram ticket that yields results, apparently confirming that the crimes are the work of a common jewel thief. As That Awful Mess proceeds with extravagant caricatures, elaborate set pieces and Shandyesque digressions, a certain circularity establishes itself. From moments of high tension that see Ingravallo raging with grief and frustration, we move into more relaxed and comic territory, where the policeman’s – and Gadda’s – encyclopedic grasp of history and myth, together with an extraordinary linguistic prowess, create an aura of control and power. But then some reference will bring us back to the sources of tension in the detective’s life, and that control is threatened. At one point, for example, in a hilarious description of the priest to whom Liliana consigned her will, we discover that his shoes ‘priapated’ from beneath his cassock. Immediately and absurdly, Ingravallo is suspecting a relationship between Liliana and her confessor.
So long as this oscillation between anxiety and sublimation is kept tight, the book is impressive. But in the second half Gadda allows his alter ego to drop out of the story for long periods as he plays with the comedy of lower-level officers chasing the jewel thief through out-of-town brothels. Packed though it is with word-play and innuendo, galleries of grotesques and vivid descriptions of everything seamy and malodorous, this part of the book lacks urgency and soon begins to irritate.
The widow’s jewels are eventually found in a whore’s chamberpot. Curiously, the policeman who makes the discovery does not check whether any of Liliana’s jewels are among them, leaving Ingravallo free to go on believing that her murderer is someone intimately involved in her life; the detective returns in the final pages for one last furious questioning of the pretty maid who served at Liliana’s Sunday lunch in the book’s opening scenes. Again beauty and death are superimposed, as the girl is questioned in the presence of her dying, perhaps already decomposing, father. Despite the girl’s distress, Ingravallo’s approach is ruthless, but it gets him nowhere. It is as if he, and Gadda, were demanding that the exuberant world of living, loving and dying confess its guilty secrets, instead of constantly playing dumb and eluding him. At this point any actual solution to the crime could only be an anticlimax, and Gadda wisely and abruptly breaks off his narrative.
The decision to abandon Ingravallo for so many pages in the second half of That Awful Mess is a reminder that Gadda started writing the novel after abandoning another work and another alter ego. Acquainted with Grief is blatantly autobiographical and free of any of the distractions of genre fiction or elaborate plotting. In a fictitious South American state, more or less identical to the Milanese hinterland where Gadda grew up, Don Gonzalo lives in a country villa with his mother (as Gadda did for many years). The comic social satire of the opening pages once again establishes a world so corrupt and grotesque that involvement in it could only be demeaning. Almost always designated as ‘the son’, as though to remind us that even in early middle age he exists primarily in relation to his mother, we hear nothing of Don Gonzalo’s job (only that, like Gadda, he is an engineer) and very little of his solitary studies in philosophy, which seem entirely detached from reality. The drama of the book lies in the son’s extremely aggressive behaviour towards his mother, prompted by her relaxed openness to the world. She chatters to filthy peasants, gives French lessons to a local colonel’s moronic son, and buys poor quality produce from pushy itinerant salesmen: he demands that she conserve her dwindling energy and the family money, a veiled protest that none of her attention seems to go his way.
The book takes place in summer. Seething with light and buzzing with cicadas, the vitality of the countryside contrasts with the dark of the shuttered villa and the son’s growing and dangerous depression. An immensely long scene in which a well-meaning doctor seeks to cheer him up with the prospect of meeting one of his five marriageable daughters looks forward to some of the best work of the early Thomas Bernhard and must be among the most powerful passages in 20th-century Italian fiction. As the narrative moves through one painful revelation after another towards a truly ugly dénouement, it is not difficult to understand why Gadda put this book aside for many years and why, when he did take it up again, he decided to leave it unclear exactly how it is that the mother ends up beaten almost to death in her bed. The failure to close the narrative matches the son’s failure, which he acknowledges, to ‘establish a relationship between himself and his fellow citizens’.
On rereading these two books it seems clear that any attempt to establish a readership for Gadda in the English-speaking world must begin with Acquainted with Grief. Not only does much of the comedy of That Awful Mess seem outdated today, but it depends heavily on Gadda’s dense pastiche of dialects and rhetorical styles. To the Italian reader these provide constant if arduous amusement and create an intriguing tension between the pleasures of language and the grossness of the world it is obliged to describe. William Weaver has written convincingly of the problems of translating Gadda, but his 1965 version, reprinted in this new edition, never begins to solve them. It’s full of false or inappropriate cognates (e.g. the unhappy use of ‘infamous’ and ‘sex’ in the passage describing Liliana’s corpse) and has a tendency to follow Italian syntax with scant respect for the rhythms and habits of English prosody, present or past. True, Gadda’s style is very strange and a challenge that most translators would be glad to pass up, but in so far as it is a play of different voices there is no chance of arriving at a satisfactory equivalent if even the most ordinary sentence in Gadda’s Italian becomes extraordinary in English. Of a woman suffering from the cold, Weaver writes: ‘There wasn’t, in her lap, but she would have liked it, the earthenware brazier.’ Of a carabiniere admiring a superior’s intuition: ‘If only he, Pestalozzi, in time, could succeed in having a scent like that!’ A commonplace bureaucratic Italian expression for a phonecall, una communicazione telefonica, becomes ‘a telephonic communication’.
Occasional instances of this kind of translationese would hardly be noticed, but they are wearisomely frequent. Sometimes they make the English incomprehensible. But most of all, this clumsiness prevents the reader from experiencing the paradox at the heart of Gadda’s work: that his achievement in evoking a chaotic world is simultaneously a declaration of his disinclination and perhaps inability to enter into a direct relationship with it. As with the two crimes of That Awful Mess, there appear to be two contiguous worlds, one inside Gadda’s mind and one outside, two worlds that must somehow connect, but never quite do, unless in the extraordinary pasticcio of the author’s style. - Tim Parks

Carlo Emilio Gadda, Acquaintance with Grief, Trans. by William Weaver, George Braziller, 1985.

Acquainted With Grief is an autobiographical story by one of Italy’s most important writers of the post-war era. Referred to by Gadda himself as a "self-inflicted wound," it describes the tormented relationship between a son and his widowed mother.

The setting of this extraordinary novel is an imaginary South American country, but that country, as Gadda makes clear in many hints, is in reality his native Italy. The novel is to a great extent autobiography, and Gonzalo, the central figure, is the author's self-portrait.
"Gadda's description of Gonzalo," writes William Weaver in the translator's preface, "is a lacerating, biting caricature of the sober, fastidiously neat, tall, stooping Gadda who is occasionally--and reluctantly--seen at Roman literary gatherings. Like Gonzalo, the Lombard scene, the bourgeois villas of the Brianza region, the peasants are scrutinized through the same penetrating, but sometimes deforming lens."
The story's central situation is the tormented relationship between Gonzalo and his widowed mother whose social ambitions are summed up in the tenacious possession of an absurd villa in the country. Like Gadda, Gonzalo was brought up in an atmosphere of genteel poverty, "exacerbated by the typically Italian middle-class mania for keeping up appearances, for making a bella figura"-not the least element present in those moments of Gonzalo's magnificent rage against the conditions of his life.
Gadda's War Journal indicates the author's almost pathological attachment to his brother, who was killed in the First World War--an attachment tinged with jealousy of the mother's preference for this older son.
According to Mr. Weaver, who worked closely with Gadda on the present translation, the lasting scars of the relationship explain, in part. why the novel was never finished, and why the incomplete third section. translated here from the manuscript, has never been published in the original Italian, by explicit veto of the author who has referred to it as a self-inflicted wound. "In fact, it is virtually unrevised and, perhaps even in translation, it will be seen to have less Gaddian involution. It is considerably less baroque than the preceding chapters."
The author himself has no use for the term "baroque" when applied to his work. "The world is baroque." he says. "and Gadda has perceived and portrayed its baroqueness."
The fact that 'Acquainted with Grief' (La cognizione del dolore) appeared under Fascism explains the indirectness of Gadda's references to the regime. His anti-Fascism is much more explicit in his novel entitled 'Quer pasticciaccio bruto de via Merulana, published here in translation under the title 'That Awful Mess on Via Merulana.'

Modern Italian literature is not noted for the aristocratic temper. The reigning triumvirate comprises social realism (Silone, Pasolini), psychological realism (Moravia, Pavese), and the fantastic (Calvino). So the stately sardonic work of Carlo Emilio Gadda with its rococo dance through the dictionary (he is sometimes called the Italian Joyce) and its austere sort of playfulness has few forebears and probably no descendants at all. Acquainted with Grief, written between 1938 and 1941, begins as a charade (what is the significance of the strange mock-Spanish dictatorship that serves as the story's locale: Mussolini's Italy in harmless disguise?). It proceeds sinuously while various provincial characters drift past and around the principal players--Gonzalo, the misanthropic bachelor and his poor fluttery mother caught in a web of social pretensions. By the close there is a terrible cry of death and despair not unworthy of the culmination of a Pirandello play. One can look at this bizarre novel as a symbolic attack on Fascism (later corroborated in Gadda's That Awful Mess on Via Merulana) but, as the introductory note makes clear, Gadda is really working out a private obsession-the Oedipal situation of his own life. And the long sequence where the villagers enter the deserted villa and discover the bloody Senora perhaps ""murdered"" by her departed son has a hallucinatory poignancy shocking in its nakedness, moral and otherwise. Here Gadda strikes through his lordly mask and speaks with true power. - Kirkus Reviews

This is the only book in recent memory that had me doubled up in tears with laughter. I did not understand everything I read. As with Moby-Dick, I had the impression that certain of the book’s baroque excesses were excessive by design, verging on a sort of self-parody. But it’s hard to say. Incidentally, this work proved unfinishable for Gadda — the last section is in draft form, far less complex in its syntax than the sections preceding it. Unlike That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, which I haven’t read, this book is sadly out of print; I paid dearly for my copy. Translator William Weaver achieves a rare feat here, of making the work feel like it is essentially his. - bibliomanic.com/

Civil engineer Carlo Emilio Gadda, at some point between the two world wars, worked for a time in South America, in Argentina. But readers of Acquainted with Grief (La cognizione del dolore) would be mistaken if they considered the book – set in an imaginary South American and southern hemispheric country – a realistic chronicle based in any way on Gadda’s experiences during that period. As the author himself makes clear in many hints, veiled and less veiled, the country of Maradagàl is Italy and the Néa Keltiké province is Lombardy. From this equation, others can be derived: Lukones is the town of Longone, where Gadda spent much of his childhood and young manhood; Pastrufazio is Milan; the national poet Caçoncellos, whose toothbrush patriotic literary societies are so anxious to preserve for posterity, surely has many points in common with D’Annunzio; General Pastrufazio is Garibaldi; Maradagàl’s smelly cheese, croconsuelo, is Gorgonzola; the Serruchón mountains are Lombardy’s Resegone, celebrated by Manzoni. And so on.
Naturally, these equivalents are not of any great importance. As the disthiguislied Italian critic Gianfranco Contini says of this novel, «If it is a roman à clef, the key is a skeleton-key». Still, one door – the important one – opened by that key must be identified, especially for the foreign reader not familiar with Gadda’s other work or with the principal facts of his life. La cognizione del dolore is, to a great extent, autobiographical. In fact, as another Gadda authority, Gian Carlo Roscioni, says, «Gadda never invents anything». And, to appreciate fully the profound humanity, the many subtleties of La cognizione del dolore, the reader must realize at once that Gonzalo, the son, the central figure, is the author’s self-portrait.
Self-portrait, not photograph. Gadda’s description of Gonzalo (at the end of the second chapter of the book) is a lacerating, biting caricature of the sober, fastidiously neat, tall, stooping Gadda who is occasionally – and reluctantly – seen at Roman literary gatherings. Like Gonzalo, the Lombard scene, the bourgeois villas of the Brianza region, and the peasants are scrutinized through the same penetrating, but sometimes deforming, lens.
Again it would be a mistake to underline too much the satirical aspect of the novel. With characteristic shyness or slyness, Gadda introduces his protagonist only after a long wait. And immediately the mood, the hue of the book change. As if, after a sprightly prelude, the tempo suddenly shifted to andante. The opening chapter is purposely misleading: we are in a comic-opera land, where even something as bitterly hated as fascism is reduced to the satirically presented Nistitúo (whose sinister capacities are, however, also suggested as the book proceeds). For a moment, it looks as if Gonzalo, too, will be a figure of fun, a greedy misanthrope and malade imaginaire. But even before he finally does appear on the scene, with the conversation between the doctor and the maid Battistina, the son of the Pirobutirro household becomes a darker, fuller character. And, at his entrance, the mood of the book loses its gaiety, which returns, later, only in brief flashes.
Readers of Gadda’s Pasticciaccio (written a few years after La cognizione del dolore) will recall the author’s fine, digressive rages. Several are present here, though it is Gonzalo, rather than the author directly, who is seized by these accesses of fury: against church bells, personal pronouns (symbolically), nouveau riche vulgarity, advertising. The rage also is directed against himself and, especially, against his mother.
In some of his non-fiction works Gadda hints at the profoundly tormented and tormenting relationship between himself and his mother, who – like the Señora in this book – was of German origin, a cultivated woman, a schoolteacher, widowed young and with little means to support her family, yet with social and educational ambitions for them. The social ambitions were summed up in the tenacious possession of the uneconomical villa in the country, one of the leading motifs of La cognizione. Other facts of Gadda’s background may also be helpful to the reader unfamiliar with the rest of his work. His father came from a distinguished Italian family, of some means, which the older Gadda lost in a series of industrial speculations, so that the author was brought up in an atmosphere of genteel poverty, exacerbated by the typically Italian middle-class mania for keeping up appearances, for making a bella figura. The author’s brother, who haunts La cognizione del dolore like an omnipresent ghost, was killed in the First World War. Gadda’s War Journal, recently published in Italy more or less in its entirety, indicates the author’s almost pathological attachment to this brother, an attachment tinged also with jealousy because of the mother’s preference for this older son.
The lasting scars of the relationship explain, in part, why La cognizione was never finished. For the same reason, the incomplete third section (translated here) has never been published in the original Italian, by explicit veto of the author, who has referred to it as a self-inflicted wound. [1] In fact, it is virtually unrevised and, perhaps even in translation, it will be seen to have less Gaddian involution. It is considerably less baroque than the preceding chapters.
Baroque is an adjective often applied to Gadda, and it is one he dislikes. He has written an answer to the critical slogan «Gadda is baroque». «The world is baroque,» he replies, «and Gadda has perceived and portrayed its baroqueness.» And he gives the same response to accusations of being grotesque. In any case, the style of La cognizione del dolore is considerably different from that of Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana. The latter, Gadda’s «Roman» novel, is a dazzling linguistic display, with many passages written in Roman dialect, with liberal admixtures of Milanese, Venetian, and Neapolitan. La cognizione is linguistically (though not stylistically) simpler. An Italian scholar has made an extended study of the language of La cognizione, and he concludes that, in it, dialect accounts for only three per cent of the words. Here, classical influences are much more frequently at work, not only in the direct quotations from Horace and Virgil, but in numerous echoes from other Latin writers. One must, by the way, take Gadda’s Spanish with a grain of salt; as he does frequently with Italian, he has not hesitated to invent Spanish words when he requires them. Proper names, too, often have connotative echoes, and even Maradagàl’s humble maize, or banzavóis, probably derives its name from pancia vuota (empty belly, in Italian).
Written between 1938 and 1941, La cognizione del dolore first came out – like Gadda’s Pasticciaccio in instalments, in the Florentine literary review Letteratura. The fact that the novel appeared under fascism explains the indirectness of Gadda’s references to the régime; his anti-fascism is much more explicit in the Pasticciaccio. The novel was first published, by the firm of Giulio Einaudi of Turin, in 1963. The third part, as indicated elsewhere, was translated from the manuscript. Apparently only a few pages remain unwritten, in which it would have been made clear that the mother’s aggression was the work of the Nistitúo guard, while she could not help but suspect the intervention, too, of her unhappy son.
Again, the translator would like to thank the author for his kind help. For many explanations of particularly obscure passages, he has benefited again from the assistance of Gian Carlo Roscioni.
- William Weaver
Italian novelists—who are they? We don’t find on the peninsula an impressive list to recite, like Flaubert-Balzac-Stendhal-Zola-Proust in the neighbor culture. With some scraping and hauling, we are likely to think of Manzoni, Verga, Svevo, D’Annunzio doubtfully, Fogazzaro perhaps, Pavese, Moravia maybe—it is not a long tradition, and though rich in various ways, it isn’t compact and sequential as various other national traditions obviously are. Carlo Emilio Gadda will certainly be found on future lists—affirming, as each of these novelists does, an extraordinary measure of global independence, a fresh imaginative start, stylistic riches—as well as a thin thread of typically Italian feeling which, though hard to define, is easy to sense.
Gadda is the author of two novels: the second written was the first translated. Quer Pasticciaccio Brutto de Via Merulana (published in Italy in 1957, translated by William Weaver as That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, Braziller, 1965) is, or pretends to be, a Roman detective story. It is written in a pasticciaccio or pastiche of different idioms, primarily the Roman urban dialect, seasoned here and there with some Spanish, Venetian, Greek, French, Milanese, Latin, and gibberish expressions. The central incident, though it starts as a normally nasty homicide on an average grubby street in central Rome, gradually spreads and deepens as Officer Francesco Ingravallo (otherwise Don Ciccio) investigates it. Like a livid stain it spreads—not just the crime itself, or specific responsibility for it, but the squalor and selfishness and pretension of Roman society in early Fascist days, of which the crime is just one random outcome.
We learn to suspect the pretty-boy cousin, the bullock husband, the terrorized, senile tenant, the scabby gangs—and always in the background is heard, or overheard, a thudding drumfire of imperial rhetoric. Language itself seems to break down and decay under the impulse of Gadda’s disgust; the regime is, every so often, reduced to a series of obscene puns on imperial terminologies, foul pomposities. There is no running down of the criminal, no triumphant elucidation, no arrest, no punishment; when the guilt has been sufficiently spread, sufficiently realized, in the midst of one more interminable interrogation, the novel simply stops. It comes to a breakdown, not a proper conclusion; repeating the pattern set by La Cognizione del dolore, Gadda’s first novel, which is only now being translated (again by Mr. Weaver) and published (again by Braziller) as Acquainted with Grief.
This novel was written and partly published (in serial form) more than thirty years ago, just before World War II. It broke off, once again, in the midst of an action, at a moment when the author had touched, so it seemed, an instant of unendurable agony. The present version contains a new chapter, taken from the author’s journals but not reworked by him, carrying the story a little further, but not to any proper conclusion. Gadda is now nearly eighty, and it does not seem likely that he will ever conclude either of his two novels or publish another. There…- Robert M. Adams
The Philosophers’ Madonna cover image

Carlo Emilio Gadda, The Philosopher's MadonnaTrans. by Antony Melville, Atlas Press, 2008.    

This short novel, originally published in 1931, by the author of two of the classics of 20th-century Italian prose (That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, and Acquainted with Grief), weaves together the lives of Maria Ripamonti, daughter of impoverished aristocrats shivering in a castle, and engineer Baronfo, a dyspeptic salesman stressed out by years of getting on and off trains, who has turned to collecting antiquarian tomes on philosophy. The year is 1922 (when the Fascists seized power in Italy), and Gadda leads the story through a characteristic meander of digressions - a lover lost in the First World War, the Madonna’s rescue of a doctor from witches, all the saints named Francis, the Salsomaggiore baths, screaming mistresses and gramophones, Schubert string trios, a certain Mr. Digbens of Chelmsford and his philosophical correspondents - so as to arrive at a series of beautifully crafted coincidences which bring a twist of humour to the melodramatic denouement. This whole narrative is recounted in a language whose virtuosity, swooping from baroque lyricism to authentic dialect or even bad French, puts Gadda in a league with James Joyce or Raymond Queneau. Gadda (1893-1973) was the master portraitist of Italy’s transition from the land of a hundred dialects to its modern linguistic monoculture.

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