Tubes and Interludes

Editor’s preface

Plato tickles Socrates in the back. Supposedly sent by Derrida many times, the thirteenth century illustration and Bodeleian Library postcard now carries messages of titillating ambiguity on both sides. A theory of the text as postcard has thus been put into practice. Double-faced, worse double-tongued, the text, any text, is ultimately the sender’s perfect envoy. It recommends prudence yet will talk to anyone, its public and private success depending largely on our talent for picking illustrations. Too little to do with us? Not at all.

So, starting from (the titillation caused by) postcards, take the one Gadda sent to Ugo Betti in the summer of 1930, compliments of his German hosts, Kaiserhof, Sterkrade, Rheinland. It shows the local attractions: cooling towers, pipes, ladders, the outer shells of an industrial metabolism hidden from view, happening deep inside the plant. These are definitely not pipes, but a soulscape – a series of surfaces telling what they can of a depth, an icon representing an absence, a message displayed for few to notice, a Munchian cry for which the subject is only minimally responsible. After all, the message on the back is simply asking a friend to send more than just the signature to the above address next time.

Yet, bypassing the words, the other message, the commercial self-portrait, the pre-made man of pipes – as in an Arcimboldo painting, but one in which the observing eye is being encircled by a proliferating, advancing model –, has also spoken of the plight of one very specific sender. Appropriated and re-coded within a system of ongoing messages, and as thorough as it could be in its latest debriefing, the envoy waits for the addressee to make the significant connection.

«There are live ammunitions under Gadda’s novels», thus Pedullà a few years ago, aphoristic and insightful as ever. Dynamite and dynamis could be indeed the upcoming ideas in Gadda studies. Amigoni, for his part, has already worked out a full electrical plant from Quer pasticciaccio. With those extraordinary energy outputs, he argues, this prose must rely on machinery, and machinery requires construction.

The discipline is changing in character. We are, as in the past, examining the texts. Only, we are beginning to treat them as postcards, the conviction now being that not enough connections have been made regarding the paratextual aspects of the message, the sender’s exploitation of the commercial code, or his speaking in tongues and in icons to outwit the censors (self-censorship). The change has to do with recent literary theory and even more with good old-fashioned philology. In the wake Isella’s successes over the last two decades, a passion for boxes of spares and variants, for closer scrutiny of a number of related sources and interconnected narrative systems is growing, in fact, even on the non philologically-minded.

Will it then be the mechanism, its pushing of part against part, that finally reveals the thought? Certainly not is the most likely reply, even though many of us are right in the middle of disassembling Gadda’s latest posthumous work, just reassembled by Isella, Un fulmine sul 220. Despite, that is, our newly found enthusiasm for the workings of the Gadda plant, we already heed Leibniz’s warning, from the Monadology, and avoid expecting too much of our pipes. The worrying prospect, but it worries only those who have believed in Calvino’s kind of next millennium, is that what we are looking for will be found «in the simple substance, and not in the composite, or in machine». Still quoting from Leibniz: «that is all we can find within a simple substance, namely perceptions and their changes; and that is all that the internal actions of simple substances can consist in». The subject as simple substance then?

Somewhere, as Vela has put it, Gadda transforms into Gadda whatever he touches. If we tap on the pipes, check the gauges, measure what emissions we can, it is to approximate our distance from the source of the process, to keep ourselves trained and alert. How many times, in what combinations, and to which effect does Gadda use the word tubi? We will soon be making those figures part of our research as more of us travel to the CNR, Pisa, to question the finally obliging engineer through the services of DBT 4 Gadda 2000.

In the meantime, and while drawing lists of what we will digit on the day, we may be struck by the first signs of firm acceptance of Gadda’s roundness (as in spherical but also as in harmonious and classical). Yes, the discipline has gone a very long way since the 1970s and ’80s. Segre now speaks of Gadda’s three revolutions, all to do with keeping to the traditional novel formula, by the way. Is the tradition, then, the revolution we have got to interrogate from the Pisa terminals? that incredible mental technology or super-cohesive Victorian cement whose secret recipe, some now say, Gadda even improved? For indeed, is there anything in the language that sounds remotely as accomplished, as fully and classically expressed in its disruption of the code, as the best Gadda?

What is certain is that driven by a rediscovery of the old technology and waiting for applications of the new one, the discipline has become extremely productive, almost hyper-active. Five monographs have come out in the last twelve months. The first issue of Isella’s Quaderni dell’ingegnere is a few days away from publication. Over 27,000 visits have been made to the Journal since January. And as the Edinburgh Arts Faculty server has been busy with increasing levels of Gadda traffic, the current issue has been steadily putting on bytes. To its six new perspectives, all previously unpublished, taking over from last year’s Retrospective and tackling issues of time (Lugnani), space (Pedriali), metaphorical excess (Stracuzzi), construction through prefatorial provocation (Savettieri), lexical build-up (Lampugnani), and the self as structure of plot (Vassileva), we also add the first in the monographic series that will accompany our yearly issues, a book-length study of L'incendio di via Keplero by Andrea Sarina. All the contributions are sizeable and significant measurements if not of the energy produced by Gadda, at least of the machinery in sight in the illustrations he picked for his postcards. We could safely claim that we are responding, that the significant connections are being made.

Consider a typical Gadda anachrony. Adalgisa is telling her story. Suddenly, the involved persona of an extradiegetic narrator appropriates the Benveniste I and takes over the scene, or rather his memory does, twice allowing the same connection between the past and the war dead to disrupt the narrative continuum. Or re-read Quer pasticciaccio where the text observes Liliana’s dead body. Again, the narrator blows the fuses and a seemingly unrelated remark solders together the dead woman, a mother (whose mother?) and WWI shade of red. As analepses go, Lucio Lugnani argues in the opening essay, the phenomenon is indeed quite puzzling. Yet, through the incoherence suffered at the level of discourse, the text reproduces the way the mind works with great psychological accuracy. If time must be narrated in order to be experienced, Ricœur’s idea, and if the mind short-circuits in the process, Gadda’s conviction, the experience, the fact that the energy flow at no point becomes interrupted, the pain of the uninterruptible narrative and of its fixed connections, all this must be told in as unmitigated a form as possible. Not only compulsion and self-censorship are behind the technique, but also an uncompromising poetics.

Space too is a matter of voltage. A human dynamo, Gadda charges up the page by moving between points of created space. It is in this way, according to Federica Pedriali, that the Gaddian subject renders its one and only public service: the invention of reality through explorative mental mapping. Unfortunately for such well-meaning mind, space is also a failed democratic principle, the argument made by Deleuze and Guattari. For no good reason at all, in fact, our subject is barred from his mission and confined to a modestly-sized prison cell – the size of a nation one could say –, in a region of space where reason stagnates, incapable of progress. This being Gadda, the reaction to a spatial life sentence cannot but be highly mobile and structured in its violence, all taking place within the cell. And this is why, already in Meditazione milanese and in I viaggi, la morte, an anti-Leibnizian novelist-to-be works on a narrative model involving vectors and points of accumulated tension, and raises icons that function as road signs indicating the direction one has to take if a retributive geometry is to be delivered on life’s symbolic doorstep: via Merulana 219, Rome.

The line of escape of the signifier is the object of enquiry in the following essay. The rules of its imprisonment are recovered by Riccardo Stracuzzi using standard thriller theory. Since no escape can be affected under such auspices, Quer pasticciaccio breaks down the genre’s code by reversing all processes of reader gratification. However, what replaces the code is neither a philosophy of mind narratively put, nor a narrative without a rhetorical code to manage it. In truly anti-Aristotelian fashion, in fact, Gadda keeps thought suspended and yet, a better Aristotelian than most, also delivers a creative text that works. To understand how the mechanisms of Gadda’s protest could produce such a text, Stracuzzi engages with notions of build-up of intransitivity of meaning caused by excess expansion of similes and metaphors, the frames of reference here being Garavelli and the theorists of the Group μ. In a relentless process of self-distancing or accumulation of semantic non sequiturs, the hypodiegetic level is thus seen to de-narrate the narrative, leaving language in place of the referent.

A different branch of rhetoric is tackled in the next work. Gadda’s prefatorial devices do not always depart from the norm, even though their mediatory intent is doubtful in most cases, witness the opening paragraphs of La cognizione del dolore, where the spatio-temporal formula is correctly over-applied to a grotesque effect. But when they do break away from tradition, as happens in La meccanica and L’Adalgisa, they impact the whole narrative – to what purpose, is the question here. With rare exceptions, critics have dismissed the phenomenon under the heading unrelated exercise in style, an opinion that is bound to be reinforced if, as Cristina Savettieri has done, one looks into the boxes of spares and variants. Stylistic excess increases, in fact, to the point of meaninglessness in the reworking of these passages. However, style also crucially forces the reader to review the subject matter, the mechanics of decay and death, from a perspective other than ordinary or merely narrative. Life’s scandal may be humorously scrubbed off the backside in the irresistible closing scene of L’Adalgisa. Yet it is the mystical positivism of Notte di luna or the Est quod est of the incipit of La meccanica that, by placing terminal transformation within the wider mechanical perspective, makes it acceptable somehow.

Put it less mystically, and self-perpetuating rot is all there is to life. Having met with a potent correlative objective in the Milanese garden of Eden (the jam of Tigre nel parco) and having pondered over the subject’s imperishable substance («il pollo qua e là putrescente» of Meditazione milanese), Gadda comes upon the formulation of his pear theory well before La cognizione del dolore – from pear to pear, from rot to rot, this already in the anti-Ciceronian San Giorgio in casa Brocchi. Raffaele Lampugnani too reflects on the matter, the puzzling phrase hacer una pera having come to his attention following Grignani’s recent update on Manzotti’s earlier reading of an in-house feat of philology in the supposedly South American novel. The meanings of the phrase remain as previously established: the literal/Spanish fare una pera (we won’t complicate matters by attempting further translations), the extended/Argentinean gabbare, the Milanese/reversed fà on per, far cilecca, the authorial/pseudo-erudite fare una grande azione. To the received exegesis Lampugnani adds the results of a fresh lexical enquiry, conclusively clarifying the cycle of verbal derision unleashed by Gadda at the expense of human generation with one single expression. As always, Contini’s original thought is proved right as an entire philology is needed to explain just a couple of Gadda’s words.

Extruded, self-indulgent, stamped all over with the mark of the beast yet convinced that corruption comes from the outside, the Gaddian subject has one more thing to be concerned about: not being recognised as himself, and, by duplication of the problem, that someone else may be recognised as him, the classic scenario of the double. To this, Borislava Vassileva brings a winning package: two strong candidates to the category, Gonzalo and Gaetano, from La cognizione, and a versatile frame of reference including Baudrillard, on the double as prosthesis, Freud, on the uncanny as a product of compulsion, and a number of formalist notions on the double as a structure of plot that decides both the classes of actors and the sub-fabulae. The rural scandaletto that should have taken no time at all for the narrator to recount (and instead runs subterraneously through the entire novel), is thus fully fleshed out critically. Superfluous and necessary, corpulent and of the substance of thought, Gaetano materialises, literally, from Gonzalo’s physical and mental attributes. It is therefore on the evoker that the neurotic paradox ultimately lies. While, in fact, struggling to offend as little as possible with what he regards as an offensive body, Gonzalo is compulsively offending to the extreme with his mind, calling up his double from the psyche’s deepest dynamics to commit the perfect crime by prosthesis in the concluding pages of the novel.

But the agency of the double is not exclusively human. The elements too – wind, storm, above all lightning, and fire occasionally – are enlisted to deliver retribution on the nation-prison, its army of engineers, the mothers expecting their only surviving sons to be for ever meting out electricity. And electricity in the end they all get, though not in the appropriate amounts (ask the lovers caught in the storm in what should have been the close of Un fulmine sul 220). When, in the 1930s, Gadda started to work on a multiple Milanese fresco (it was recently unveiled as a triptych in the philological reconstruction of the projects of that decade carried out by Isella, Italia and Pinotti under the title Disegni milanesi), the overall picture would have been sequenced on the breaking out of youth (San Giorgio in casa Brocchi), the breaking out of a fire (L’incendio di via Keplero, where with perfect combustion logic even the astronomer gets his due for spelling out the laws of regulated universal motion), and the conclusive grand Fulmine, a high voltage title that was to remain only partially realised.

The trouble with retribution, even when based on a thoroughly provoked and therefore just distribution of kilowatts, is that it leaves an aching conscience behind. The gravity of the condition depends, of course, on the target, the action taken and the agency chosen. Yet somewhere, in that conscience, such poetics is invariably perceived as indefensible or, worse, as morally and aesthetically wrong despite the Hamletian duty to straighten human affairs, not the kind of public service one had been training for. No wonder, then, combustion ultimately combines with self-censorship, urgency with project implosion. It is the typical Gadda parabola: from cramming notebooks to delaying publication. The challenge, for the philologist in particular, is to represent the materials still to be recovered in ways that serve both the author and the scholars, since their respective needs – volubility and self-effacement in the face of an uncomfortable content versus bringing the texts to account – can clearly be at odds.

In a massive recovery operation of the three compositional phases that lead to the independent publication of L’incendio in 1940, Sarina meets that challenge by retracing the basic narrative structure of the Kepler blaze while at the same time examining its evolving appendixes. Interestingly, of the original multi-part plan – a complex satire aimed at an entire society –, only the fire survives. Gadda, that is, in the end keeps the agent active and drastically reduces the number of stories that should have become its victims. In a sense, it is measure that for once prevails and to the greater effect, the fire thus loosing none of its sweeping speed. Even more significantly, whatever dilation of the original fire sketch took place in the various reworkings of the story, the definitive version shows no substantial departure from the narrative syntax of the first draft. So, should the burning writer have stuck to the more high-in-energy, less personally involved formula in all of his projects?

Certainly not is again the reply, as suggested not only by Sarina but also by the volume as a whole, as it compares, say, the Kepler and the Merulana energy releases, the minor and the major blazes in Gadda’s output. On this relative certainty the essay section of the volume draws to its close. To complement its findings and to assist new research on the subject more generally, a number of appendixes are published, including Sarina’s annotated edition of L’incendio di via Keplero, Arnold Hartley’s brilliant English translation of the same story, and the long-awaited catalogue of the Fondo Gadda, Burcardo Library, Rome, published earlier this year by Bulzoni and now in the Journal by kind permission of the project’s editors, Andrea Cortellessa, Giorgio Patrizi and Maria Teresa Iovinelli. Also in the appendixes are extracts from Il naso a l’anima (2000) by Giancarlo Leucadi and La verità sospetta (2001) by Federico Bertoni. For the comparative-minded, a book card, with details of Norma Bouchard’s Céline, Gadda, Beckett. Experimental writings of the 1930s (2000). Given the size of the current issue and of the Journal in general (see our statistics page for some interesting figures), visitors will welcome the new site-wide search facility.

Federica G. Pedriali
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, November 2001

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

ISSN 1476-9859
ISBN 1-904371-02-7

© 2001-2024 Federica G. Pedriali & EJGS. First published in EJGS. Issue no. 1, EJGS 1/2001.

Artwork © 2001-2024 G. & F. Pedriali. Framed image: after M.C. Escher, Cubic space division, 1952, with a photograph of Gadda superimposed.

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