Introduction to Acquainted with Grief

William Weaver

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.

Monte San Savino,
May 1968

A chapter from Acquainted with Grief


[1] [eventually published in 1970 – N.d.E.]

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

ISSN 1476-9859

– previously published as the Introduction to Acquainted with Grief, 1969

Please note that the above excerpt is for on-line consultation only.
Reproduced here by kind permission of Einaudi Editore, Turin © 1963 & Peter Owen Ltd ©1969 & George Braziller Inc ©1968

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artwork © 2000-2022 G. & F. Pedriali
framed image: The Gadda family in front of the Longone villa superimposed to Giorgio de Chirico, The Anguish of Departure, 1914, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

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Dynamically-generated word count for this file is 1398 words, the equivalent of 4 pages in print.