Surfing the Knot

Editor’s Preface

Qualche volta penso a un ipertesto realizzato da Pynchon o anche da Gadda. L’Adalgisa di Gadda, con quelle digressioni, è un ipertesto, anche se realizzato nel 1944.

Sandro Veronesi
winner of the Viareggio
and of the Campiello Prizes, 2000.

A virtual Gadda? In his Story of the Days to Come (1899), H.G. Wells imagined a book-less future where education would be administered by means of lectures over the telephone. We are not there quite yet. Mercifully, the incessant growth of tele-sales bombarding our homes seem to have by-passed culture, at least for the time being. Come the beginning of a new term, we still make our way to crowded lecture theatres and more intimate seminar rooms, where the exchange of knowledge is still reassuringly conventional. Interactivity, in such contexts, usually range from the contagious sweep of a yawn in the former case, to exalted discussion in the latter.

The telephone lines, nevertheless, have become the tireless carriers of a truly new way of crystallising ideas, well beyond anything Wells had in mind. While surfing the net is mostly seen as a convenient way to book holidays, keep in touch with friends, and generally wallowing in the deep shallowness of all-pervasing tit-bits infotainment, the origins of the world wide web are firmly rooted in the strictest rigours of academia – an unexplained gift from the military to the university community. Now that the medium is slowly coming of age, both in the refinement of its tools and in the maturity of its users, the full implications for the canon have started to unfold. Borges famously hailed the book as the privileged human tool, in that unlike conventional apparatus it provided not just an extension of the body, but of the mind also. By offering an additional meta-extension (of the book as well as of the mind, that is), the net appears to widen the relevance of this concept even further. In short, it seems reasonable to get very excited about the new, previously undreamt-of spatial dimension that the new media offer when applied to literature.

There is, however, a strange timidity in most of the academic-oriented sites currently around, as if the web could not aspire to be something more than a book. The structure of the screen space – its plan, its plot, so to speak – shows a marked reluctance to loosen its links with the printed paper. To put it another way, a book is thought of along linear lines, on a horizontal plane, as it were, with the world forced to fit onto its mono-dimensional vectors. The net, by contrast, is eminently spherical, page-less, omnidirectional. Notwithstanding all the fuss about the supposed triumph of hypertextuality, though, the stress is still very much on the text, rather than on the hyper-, and most literary sites appear to function in a book-like manner. Hence, one often perceives a certain rigidity to them, bordering on the apologetic – this is only a pointer towards the real thing, folks. The truth, they imply, is in the books, not on the net.

For most authors, this seems accurate. They are at their most comfortable within the well-defined boundaries of bookdom. Entrapped by the containing powers of the cover, their plots develop nicely from page one to the end, with barely any overspill. The world is safely encased within. End of the story, more or less.

A virtual Gadda? Well, the temptation is to say, of course! Isn’t Gadda the virtual author by definition? Perhaps the trouble is that we always try to solve the knot, his celebrated gnommero. What if we chose instead to amplify it, to surf boldly on its perilous crest, to magnify it beyond the limitations of the means he has struggled with all his life?

Faced with the neat, reassuringly finite set of five elegant blue cofanetti of the Isella edition, Roscioni ventured the doubt that perhaps Gadda was not really there. His meticulously worked out pages, his painstakingly handwritten snippets of reality had been lovingly classified and sorted out, grouped together with a semblance of completeness, of roundness, of closure. But wasn’t that missing the whole point about Gadda? For Gadda wrote guided by the eye of a painter and the mind of a philosopher. With such premises, the world could hardly be matched by the word, any word.

Proust took his book in the meanders of time and memory, without ever losing a firm grip on the cohesion between means and intent. Joyce plunged his pen into the bottomless seas of language, achieving all the furiously unremitting lucidity of a Wittgensteinian language-game that rattles the cage of meaning – but again, without doubting for a moment the appropriateness of the means.

In Gadda’s case, instead, the ambition was much greater, and unlike his most celebrated fellow-modernists, his work bends the very fabric of writing so hard that it seems to leave only a senseless body to the ground for us to examine, coroner-like. Indeed, if we overcome the narrow confines of temporal causality, Gadda’s opus looks like two huge tomes dropped to earth by a raging demon, with the fallout from the ensuing cloud scattering shrapnels of wisdom in the many scritti dispersi that gravitate around the two masterpieces, at either chronological end.

To re-emerge from these metaphorical excesses, the trouble with Gadda, with this cumbersome corpse being shifted around – and the present diatribe about the ownership of his mortal remains encapsulates very neatly the long standing Hitchcockean comedies already played out in the exegesis over the other corpus –, is that his writing is far too precise to be captured by a book, just as it is far too precise for translation.

The world, if seen by a painter, can only be hinted at on a canvas – not vainly described by the congenitally crippled language of use. The world, if questioned by a philosopher, can never be satisfactorily resolved on the written page – for philosophy, notoriously, is inconclusive. Gadda’s pen is as precise as a writer’s tool can ever hope to be. If it fails – and let’s leave aside here the undoubted role played by a scarred psyche in this assumed failure –, if it fails, then, it is because the means fails, not the author himself. Gadda’s vision was simply too great even for a pen as masterful as his.

It is a colossal claim to make, obviously, and enormously risky too. But could the net provide the ideal receptacle for Gadda, this most spherical of writers? The essential openness of his work, opera apertissima indeed – does that not cry out for a non-linear, hypertextual dimension, where the irreducibile complexity of the world is not regimented by the constraints of the printed paper? And that intensely visual quality of the Gadda page, that chromatic plasticity of the sentences, could that not be better rendered with the ever-expanding resources of the web medium? After all, did not Pasticciaccio finally come to life as spoken word of unerring, devastating beauty in the Ronconi/Bertolucci stage and television adaptation? Could it not be that Gadda was ahead of his time, as the resourceful ingegnere that he was, in technological, rather than in poetic terms?

The answers, if any, to questions such as these may only emerge after this site reaches some sort of completion (which may take another year or so) and of course from the reaction of users and colleagues. It is offered as a labour of love, and as an experiment in how to engage with tradition. It will stand or fall by the feedback, suggestions, contributions from all Gadda scholars, and as such it is intended as an all-embracing experience – vide the variety of approaches within the Editorial Board. By a happy coincidence, our on-line venture gets underway as Dante Isella and his Garzanti team are about to launch the Quaderni dell’ingegnere, a hard copy journal entirely devoted to Gadda – proof, if needed, of the tremendous vitality in our field of research.

We do not have recourse to cofanetti here, blue or otherwise, but some sort of structure is necessary all the same, on pain of user rejection. Turning to Roscioni – who else? – for some indication as to how to proceed would give us a despairingly limitless linkage blueprint: «In Gadda, […] tutto è collegabile a tutto». Wonderful as it may be conceptually, this principle needs to be mediated by the qualification that in any case our relationship to the whole is perforce channelled through well-defined, inevitably limiting viewpoints – after all, any epistemology is a naturalised one. And so the 800-odd files that make up the site at present are called-up from their unsistematic slumbers on the Edinburgh University server in two separate chunks: the Journal proper and the Resource Centre.

This first division outlines two different viewpoints in terms of audience: the hardened specialist should head for the Journal, the interested visitor should tap into the Resource centre. But viewpoints, even when well-endowed with all the appropriate facilities, are rarely exhaustive of all the angles in existence. And so the site comes into its own when the invitation to follow the ever-growing network of internal links (spinning like a patiently insistent spider, the site will add more and more of them as it grows – return visits are therefore recommended…) is followed across the external rigidity of that two-fold surface subdivision.

The Guide to the Resource Centre gives a flavour of what is available in the site’s other half, but a visitor to the Journal côté will in any case be exposed to those riches via links to classic articles nesting in what is the heart of the whole site, the Archive. There is also a Reviews section which does straddle both halves by presenting historical and contemporary recensioni of Gadda & Gaddists. Incidentally, the source reference system used throughout the site is accessible by using the Abbreviations, and the Primary or Secondary Bibliography links. Amongst the many firsts in the Resource Centre, an anthology of the best of Gadda is provided with the all-too-neat separation into Selected Fiction, and Selected Essays. The creaks of artificial division (already a painful reality in the Garzanti cofanetti) are more strident than ever here – for, in the Gaddian pack, where do Come lavoro or Apologia really belong?

Given that the site is geared towards an English-speaking audience, it seemed a natural move to offer an English Section that would assemble enough material to get one started on Gadda. A notch down from that, the Companion is mainly intended as a multiple curtain opener on the canonical Gadda themes. It is firmly aimed at newcomers to Gadda and makes no apology for the occasional crude simplification, nor for what some may find an extravagantly liberal use of imagery. In fact, most of the site takes on a strong visual content. That it should be necessarily so is vindicated by the profoundly visual quality of Gadda’s writing. Imagination, in his case, amounts to nothing less than the literal meaning of the word.

If curiosity encourages a dip from the well-rehearsed scholarship of the Journal into the astrigent freshness of the Student portfolio, one will find welcome reassurance there as to the relevance of Gadda for today’s students. A further browse in the Course Material, and a smile may perhaps be raised by a little saunter around the squares of the Alì Oco game – follow the links from square 1, for instance, and you’ll end up four layers down into cyberspace.

The journeying works both ways too. For undergraduate students may start by attending a virtual lecture by Ezio Raimondi (to Wells’ satisfied grin), then click on the Further Readings Card, which may take them straight into the specialistic domains of the Journal by way of Raimondi’s penetrating essay on Le incidenze lombarde della luce, an expanded and deepened reflection on the topics touched upon in that lecture. There are countless such pathways linking together the various parts of the site. If successful, the picture that should emerge is of a bound-less Gadda, where all confines are annulled, few categories survive, and the full impact of that questioning mind finally hits home.

Take just one more example from Maria Antonietta Terzoli’s Immagini della memoria. Before our electronic version this perceptive article knew two printed incarnations. Originally, as a little gem of a book published by Effigie, then later as the centerpiece of the excellent collection Le lingue di Gadda. In both guises it afforded the reader a rare glimpse into Gadda’s indestructible palimpsest: the family album he was to embed compulsively in his works. Leafing through it in its traditional format (the Effigie edition even had the photographs framed and held in position by what looked like photoholders, thus strengthening the feeling of a family album being passed around) one already became aware that Gadda had moved among these photographs with the haunted gestural repetitivity of the imprisoned ghost – a sensation eerily reinforced by watching the 1972 television interview, where they are seen being re-examined by his frail hands. As intensely private images, they could not and should not inhabit our world, even though, as words, in La cognizione, they would.

Once transposed to the electronic medium, however, they loose their collection status. Instead, they – literally – pop up, as ideas, flashbacks and images do in our brain. They slowly (depending on modem speed…) coalesce on screen (Gadda would perhaps say coagulano), insubstantial, beyond our reach. In print, the suture between biography and work is never fully healed. Here, the images regain the function they had for Gadda, their inextricable bond with the texts is re-established, while the family album connection is obliterated. Also, details that were crucial to Terzoli’s argument can now be better identified. One such detail was the figura femminile sul terrazzo that inspired one of the most oft-quoted passages from Cognizione. The picture is usually reproduced as a blurred photograph dominated by the house. In our version, we have enlarged the figure with the head out of focus, probably in the same probing fashion that Gadda himself will have exercised by using the magnifying glass shown in the 1972 interview. The disturbing, faceless detail suddenly triggers a whole series of connections, linking it to the dream scene as sketched in the compositional notes: «Citare il sogno della mamma morta sul terrazzo. […] sul terrazzo la figura nera della madre […] La visione della morte sul terrazzo (mio sogno)»; and from there to the faceless «figura di tenebra» evoked in Gonzalo’s account to the doctor in chapter III of La cognizione. Somehow, the vision behind the page comes back to us from within, rather than by its more usual ab exteriore route, with a floating (and fleeting!) quality that is strangely involving.

Ultimately, it is the extraordinary power of the Gadda word that is striking – and this is what the site really celebrates. Laid out on a white screen as if on a pristine canvas, liberated by the oppression of established completeness that frustrated Gadda all his life (for a journey in webdom is never-ending), his pen sounds ever more definitive than when glanced off a book page. The visual context and the ceaseless weaving of links do not seem to detract from the enjoyment of the writing. On the contrary, placing some memorable pages within elbowing distance of equally memorable critical reflections on them (and can one think of a writer, any writer, better served by his critics than Gadda?) seems to liberate all the implications of the original, to unfold all its recalcitrant plis.

and now for a synopsis of the Journal articles…

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

ISSN 1476-9859
ISBN 1-904371-01-9

© 2000-2024 by Federica G. Pedriali & EJGS
artwork © 2000-2024 by G. & F. Pedriali

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Dynamically-generated word count for this file is 2685 words, the equivalent of 8 pages in print.