a genial Gadda

Introducing Gadda

Federica G. Pedriali

Connais-tu les livres de Gadda, et son dernier: Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana? Je t’en parlais dans ma dernière lettre. La fureur de Sade est inégalable; mais la fureur de Gadda est digne qu’on la dise une véritable fureur. Le récit: c’est Flaubert l’auteur auquel il fait plutôt penser: tout Flaubert, y compris, bien entendu, Bouvard et Pécuchet. Le langage: Gadda sans doute est plus près de Rabelais que de Joyce, tout en suivant naturellement la tradition italienne […]. C’est depuis le Manzoni, notre meilleur romancier.

Giuseppe Ungaretti to Jean Paulhan,
letter of 16 March 1958

Although journeys tend to get most interesting around the middle, it is how we feel at either end that gives them meaning. Despite a richly comic vein, Gadda’s travel through life was marked by ever-present inner despair. His two great novels carry that connotation right into their titles: Acquainted with Grief (1938-41); That Awful Mess (1946). He was born in Milan in 1893, in a street that – by a coincidence that was to haunt him for ever after – bore the name of Italy’s greatest novelist: Alessandro Manzoni. 80 years later, by an equally fortuitous circumstance, his death as a fêted author was to be obscured by the commemorations for the centenary of Manzoni’s death. Rounding off a lifelong obsession, he was to share both month and decade of departure with his great model – May ’73. Gadda missed the exact day by a whisker: he died on the 21st, Manzoni on the 22nd.

Externally, then, Manzoni firmly marks entry and exit points in Gadda’s life. Creatively too, the struggle to live up to the awe-inspiring cornerstone of the modern Italian canon was to inform Gadda’s first large-scale literary attempt, Racconto italiano di ignoto del novecento (1924) – a straggling effort to produce a masterpiece to rival The Betrothed that never got off the ground and whose most famous fragment was a piece published in 1927 in Solaria with the title Apologia manzoniana.

Manzoni had successfully achieved a technically expedient separation between text (the Baroque Racconto attributed to the Anonimo-editor) and author that allowed for a neat and convenient parallelism between the plane inhabited by the text and that by the editor, with the author slipping seamlessly between the two dimensions. The trouble with Racconto is that the manuscript proves intractably un-editable, the ignoto editor impossibly digressive.

As if to take stock of his predicament, Gadda’s next effort will be a Meditazione, qualified by that geographical connotation that seemed inescapable to him: milanese (1928). Largely philosophical in tone, it reflects Gadda’s other great interest beside literature: the investigation of life’s many puzzles by means of heightened rationality. A by-product of his second degree (an aborted dissertation on Leibniz), Meditazione tries to make sense of a personal failure in universal terms. The dialogic structuring of the text continues the split-up flavour of Racconto. The Milanese element reflects, instead, the other pole of Gadda, the genetic one, as it were, loved and despised in equal measure. Forced by the sternness of an unforgiving, forbidding mother into studying engineering for a first degree, as opposed to his wishes to become a writer, Gadda had developed his ‘practical’ (eminently meneghina) side with a mixture of pride and disgust. Meditazione is a curious blend of heterogeneous epistemological appraisals applied to a range of surprisingly mundane objects. The other crucial experiences in his life surface too: his war years as a volunteer Alpine lieutenant and later as a captive in a German prison camp; the death of his beloved younger brother in a flying accident.

So much for his (rather inauspicious) beginnings. Turning now to the other end of the journey, there is a late text, L’ultima rimeditazione (1966), that seems to recall back, at least in its title, some of the fervour of his juvenile writings. It is another stock-taking exercise, but this time brief and bitter, revisiting Racconto and Meditazione from the perspective of a man nearing the final appointment. It is, once again, heavily redolent of Manzonian implications. Of the futile occupations of a fading mind, the act of re-meditating on another man’s great novel (1) is singled out, as if to admit defeat – his two great novels notwithstanding – in the self-engaged race with the Father.

But what had happened in between these two meditations, what is Gadda all about, what keys for the new reader?

The two false starts, Racconto and Meditazione, seemed to confirm, by a perverse reinforcement mechanism of the parental prohibition, the family’s wisdom in steering him away from literature. They are sandwiched between his two periods of work as an ingegnere (the nickname will survive to this day, by the way) that total fifteen years. Despite the intense frustration, Gadda continues to write in his spare time, and in 1931 his first book comes out, La Madonna dei Filosofi. His next book, Il Castello di Udine (1934) wins the Bagutta prize and attracts the attention of Italy’s sharpest critical mind, Gianfranco Contini, who immediately reads through all of Gadda’s themes in a definitive, spectacularly brilliant essay.

By that time, Gadda abandons his day job, no longer able to forsake his ambitions. Both books, though, are strongly fragmentary in character – the short stories range from one to sixty pages in length. For all their virtuosic command of language, they can be (and were at the time) dismissed, superficially at least, as character pieces, with a penchant for the grotesque, the parodic, and a care for exactitude of expression that often borders on the calligraphic.

What struck all critics was the exuberant richness of the writing. Typically, genealogies were quickly traced, parentage attributed, lineages sketched. Gadda, it was reassuringly established, is the last in a long series of macaronic writers, down from Folengo and Rabelais, that has been particularly strong in Lombardy (Dossi) and that uses language as its weapon to satirise society’s incurable ills. Contemporary relations were also identified: Joyce and Céline – the other great engineer, Musil, seemed a tempting comparison, but not so fitting after all.

Had Gadda stopped writing then, his contribution would have amounted to little more than an episode of undoubted flashiness, but only residual depth in Italy’s twentieth-century literature. In 1936, however, Gadda’s mother dies (his father had been dead since 1909). Almost in a trance, in the years that follow Gadda spews out, in a torrent of pained rage, his first great novel. His time, artistically, has finally come. La Cognizione del dolore is published in instalments in Letteratura just as Italy plunges into another war. Critics and colleagues (the happy few) now sit up and take notice. This is no longer a merely brilliant pen, it is a great one too, with hardly any qualifications added.

At the end of the war (in the meantime, Gadda had moved to Florence, signalling his change of status, from ingegnere to writer in sponda d’Arno), another masterpiece will erupt, with surprising speed. In 1946, five instalments of Pasticciaccio are readied and published, again, in Letteratura. In both novels, language is very much at the centre of things, and it is a very heavily hybridised one as well (mock-Spanish in Cognizione, a mixture of Central Italian dialects in Pasticciaccio). For some, this is a sign of continuity with the earlier Gadda, and this may also be viewed reductively. But pages of extraordinary power now confront the reader, with a seriousness of intent unseen since, well, since Manzoni, who else?

To the admiration and esteem of the literati there is little correspondence, as yet, in terms of popular acclaim. And so Gadda takes up another day job, this time, more rewardingly, as a producer for the cultural programmes of Italian Radio. The job is based in Rome, and if the modest apartment proves to be a trying magione for the erstwhile Duca di Sant’Aquila, other aspects of Roman life, not least the good food, offer some belated consolations to Gadda. In 1957 Pasticciaccio comes out in volume form, followed in 1963 by Cognizione, immediately awarded the Prix International de Littérature.

In a kind of critical Indian summer, Gadda becomes the toast of town. Despite his natural disinclination towards social events, it is apparent from the pictures taken around those years how much he must have enjoyed the late success and recognition. To the surprise of his circle of friends and admirers, Gadda is now almost ‘popular’ – a misguided but successful film adaptation of Pasticciaccio by Pietro Germi (1959) had helped create the image of Gadda as a crime fiction writer. His books, once sold by the hundreds, now sell tens of thousands of copies. He seems to offer something to everyone: his linguistic innovations are eagerly adopted by the avant-garde writers of Group 63 (the famous nipotini dell’ingegnere); his erudition and complexity guarantees a lifetime of useful occupation for devoted critics; his Roman crime story appeals to a mass audience with intellectual aspiration (not unlike Camilleri’s Sicilian fiction today); his strong modernist credentials finally give Italy a name to counterpoise to the likes of Joyce and Musil.

There are still some loose ends, though. For a start, both novels are not, strictly speaking, finished. They both end on the edge of a precipice, at a bedside – the dying mother’s (a death in odour of matricide) in Cognizione, and that of the chief suspect’s father (accused of killing a never-to-be mother) in Pasticciaccio. In both cases, the enigma is not solved, the puzzle left unfinished. Did Gadda turn back from Medusa at the very last minute? Or perhaps the books are not finished because they simply could not be finished, they lacked inner structure in the first place, not just a well-rounded dénouement. The page is too often overrun by glossarist’s diversions, the direction of the plot too often thwarted by infinite proliferation. Is it that old malaise – digressive compulsion – that had foiled the juvenile fulfilment of promise rearing its ugly head again? Insomma, is Gadda a great writer or a great writer, quasi?

The ultima rimeditazione mentioned above seems to confirm Gadda’s own doubts regarding his achievements. The youthful sense of desperation over the magnitude of the canon he was taking on seems unmitigated in the 73 year old man. Gadda’s hope was, perhaps, to have at least recorded an existence by means of literature. His pride may reside in the degree of sincerity attained. His shame in the level of dissimulation. What he captured on his page was, he says, at most the shadow, the dream of a deed. Not much more than that.

In 1969, however, Gian Carlo Roscioni published the Disarmonia prestabilita, the first book length study of Gadda. It was to be as seminal an analysis as you can possibly get. It would inaugurate a long, uninterrupted season of Gadda studies that would grow dramatically in stature and breadth. It would catch the attention of Italo Calvino (whose predilection for leggerezza seems at the antipodes of Gadda’s intensity). After Roscioni, Gadda became something more than the sum of his works. What is on the page, we were taught, is only part of the story.

In the intervening years, this essential open-endedness has been judged in varying and conflicting ways, including post-modernist joyfulness at the despatch of both author and plot into incapacitating oblivion. The game is still open. The jury is still out. It is not, it seems, a blasphemous thought that places Gadda as the second greatest writer since Manzoni, perhaps even above him at the best of times. Or perhaps it is Manzoni that posthumously imitates Gadda and comes off worse. The game is not only open, but it is also a highly exciting one. A plunge into Gadda mobilises more things, touches on more disciplines than arguably any other writer. Undoubtedly, the critical work on Gadda now seems an integral part of the primary material, symbiotically grafted onto it, as it were. But let’s start with Gadda proper, first.

For some more details on Gadda’s life here’s a short biographical note


biting the Gaddian apple…


1. During his final years, he would ask friends to read out to him passages from The Betrothed over and over again.

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

ISSN 1476-9859

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artwork © 2000-2017 by G. & F. Pedriali
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