«Enciclopedie aperte»: Self and World in Joyce’s and Gadda’s Modernist Novels

Katrin Wehling-Giorgi

Loredana Di Martino, Il caleidoscopio della scrittura: James Joyce, Carlo Emilio Gadda e il romanzo modernista, Naples, Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 2009, 224pp., ISBN 978-88-495-1660-9

Since Contini first pointed out the analogies between Gadda’s and Joyce’s linguistic expressionism in his introduction to the first edition of La cognizione del dolore, further affinities have been identified by both Gian Carlo Roscioni and Italo Calvino. While Contini contrasts Joyce’s «inaudita introversione» with Gadda’s external «espressionismo naturalistico» (Contini 1963a) and Roscioni points out the specific similarities between the oneiric maternal figures in Ulysses and La cognizione del dolore (Roscioni 1975: 168-69), Calvino associates the two authors’ plurilingual style with the postmodernist hyper-novel, the «enciclopedia aperta» of modern narrative referred to in the last chapter of Lezioni americane, positing them as examples of the epistemological scepticism of the 20th century novel. (1)

While the special affinities between Joyce and Gadda have been acknowledged on several occasions, Loredana Di Martino’s recent volume, entitled Il caleidoscopio della scrittura: James Joyce, Carlo Emilio Gadda e il romanzo modernista, offers the first comprehensive study of the two authors’ texts, providing a long awaited contextualisation of Gadda’s works in the European literary landscape, as well as contributing to the ongoing debate on modernism and postmodernism in Gadda studies. After the publication of Norma Bouchard’s Céline, Gadda, Beckett: Experimental Writings of the 1930s (Bouchard 2000a), which has to be credited with emphasizing the importance of a comparative re-assessment of Gadda’s works, (2) Di Martino’s work addresses precisely this need by reconsidering the author’s position in European modernism. A comparative reading of Gadda’s writings indeed remains, to adopt Stellardi’s words, «cruciale per la comprensione di aspetti essenziali dell’anima del novecento» (Stellardi 2004), and Di Martino’s in-depth study provides an illuminating insight into formerly un-(or under-)explored parallels between two of the most significant 20th century authors of Western European literary tradition.

Unlike previous studies, Di Martino’s analysis identifies the affinitive point of departure in Joyce’s and Gadda’s dual heritage, consisting in both their «espressionismo realistico» and their plurilingual relativisation techniques (see also Di Martino 2004). Bouchard’s comparative study of Gadda, on the other hand, had situated the author in a «genealogy of postmodernity» by attempting to redefine a generation of «experimentalist» writers whose early works foreshadow postmodernist practices. While sharing Bouchard’s ambition to reassess Gadda’s modernism, Di Martino crucially explores the importance of Joyce’s and Gadda’s realist heritage whilst arguing that both authors only break with fin-de-siècle, auratic tradition in their mature works, Ulysses and Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana. Featuring an impressively detailed analysis of textual affinities in a broad selection of works (ranging from Gadda’s Racconto italiano di ignoto del Novecento to Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana and from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Ulysses), Di Martino’s study provides a decisive step forward in the re-evaluation of the Continian position.

Positing Gadda and Joyce as exponents of Eco’s opera aperta in their deterritorialisation of monolingual cultures, Di Martino’s critical reading of the two authors’ works establishes a link between modern and postmodern discourses. Their respective «missione gnoseologica», i.e. the epistemological bases of their literary quest, reveals a number of affinities which previously lacked a detailed scholarly analysis: «[entrambi] hanno deformato i meccanismi formali a cui fa appello la narrativa per raggiungere un’illusione d’ordine e di univocità basata su un approccio monologico alla realtà» (23). Despite the presence of Joyce’s works in Gadda’s personal library (including Dedalus, Dubliners and Ulysses, with occasional markings), as well as Gadda’s repeated attempts to disassociate himself from symbolist-modernist auratic art, (3) the links explored by Di Martino rely on the two authors’ respective «consonance of poetics» rather than any direct literary influences. Adopting a broad theoretical framework ranging from Calvino, Eco and Moretti to Deleuze and Guattari, it is a careful textual study of two authors’ plurilingual and encyclopaedic style which remains at the heart of Di Martino’s work.

To begin with, Di Martino establishes the «dual literary humus» of the «special strain of modernism» represented by Joyce’s and Gadda’s novels (Sbragia’s Preface, p. 9). According to the critic, the two authors’ mature poetics signals a departure from their predecessors’ auratic modernist practices, whilst preserving parallels with the self-reflexive realist tradition of authors such as Cervantes, Diderot and Sterne. Basing herself on claims by Calvino and McHale, who both dwell on the epistemological uncertainty lying at the basis of postmodernism’s «ontological plurality», Di Martino identifies a continuity between the «open novels» of modernism and the so-called «hyper-novels» of postmodernism, the pluralism and self-referentiality of which have their origins «nell’instabilità e nella precarietà che caratterizza opere come quelle di Joyce e di Gadda» (47). Rather than limiting her comparative approach to an identification of the «postmodernist» elements in Joyce’s and Gadda’s novel, Di Martino locates both authors’ texts in a continuing novelistic tradition, tracing back the origins of its «war on totalitarianism» as far as early realism (Rabelais), Sterne and Diderot.

Having established the critical coordinates of her study, Di Martino proceeds to the first part of her comparative reading of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Gadda’s Racconto italiano and La cognizione del dolore. In their renunciation of the hermeneutical limits of the 19th century novel, she posits the two novels as formative Künstlerromane which in their critique of monological forms of discourse foreshadow the decentred format of the mature works, Ulysses and Quer pasticciaccio. Stephen Dedalus’ macaronic register, as she argues, constitutes a rebellion against conformism and «schiavitù linguistica» (in the specific Irish context, it is directed against the language of the colonisers, English and Latin, and the «Celtic Revival» of the ethnical purists), as well as constituting a form of aesthetic experience reminiscent of the Nietzschean expression of «artistic genius». (4) In its rebellion against the literary mainstream, Gadda’s linguistic pluralism according to Di Martino similarly preserves an ethical dimension in its critique of the bourgeois classes, whilst at the same time presaging the polyphony of his later works.

While Di Martino in this context highlights some significant parallels in the two authors’ early anti-conformist linguistic and conceptual practices, there remains in my view a major difference between the epiphanic notion of art and the role of the artist in Joyce’s Portrait on the one hand, and the far more disillusioned account which transpires in Gadda’s Racconto italiano and La cognizione on the other. While the ethical dimension of Joyce’s and Gadda’s linguistic subversion certainly is a central element in both works, an important contrast emerges in their respective «aesthetics». Whilst Joyce’s Dedalus parallels the figure of the artist with the «God of creation, [who] remains within or behind or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent» (cit. 67), Gadda professes his lack of authorial control from the very start of his literary career, putting into question the role of the omniscient, controlling author. Moreover, his view of aesthetic experience seems far more reductive than the «epiphanic’, Nietzschean account of art which transpires in Joyce’s early writings. While Di Martino documents Gadda’s early compositional failures and insecurities, little emphasis is put on the contrasts emerging in the two authors’ respective Künstlerroman. Already in Racconto italiano, indeed, Gadda laments the lack of homogeneity in the «variabilità, eterogeneità, mancanza di fusione, mancanza di armonia, et similia» (SVP 461) of his text, as well as professing the «maggiore difficoltà» in finding a coherent «intreccio» or plot in his novel, ultimately resulting in the failure to complete the narration. In his later essay Come lavoro he contrasts the idea of the traditional author, the «rappresentatore-creatore veduto nella sua saldezza» (also referred to as «idolo tarmato», SGF I 431), with the humble idea of his own «esigua e frammentaria poetica» (SGF I 427), and with his own existence as a «ferito, […] smarrito, […] povero, […] “dissociato noètico”» (SGF I 431). In accordance with his notion of the self as «un groppo, o nodo, o groviglio, di rapporti fisici e metafisici» (SGF I 428), which Di Martino later refers to in the context of his mature works (152), it seems to me that Joyce’s Portrait preserves a degree of faith in the creative powers of the artist and the «cathartic» effect of the Word of which there is no equivalent in Gadda’s early writings, which already document his compositional failures and doubts in the «salvific» power of art instead. (5)

In this context, an interesting parallel emerges between Gadda’s notion of authorial impotence and Samuel Beckett’s distancing process from the Joycean concept of artistic creation. Indeed, there are some notable analogies between the two authors’ critique of their literary predecessors, the most eminent of which are of course Joyce and Manzoni. Despite the obvious differences between the two, both Gadda and Beckett went to some length to distance their respective notions of aesthetic experience and their sceptical approach to language from their forefathers’ practices. (6) While the author of Ulysses, Beckett felt, was «tending towards omniscience and omnipotence as an artist», aspiring to the creation of an infinite totality, he sees himself as «working with impotence, ignorance» instead, dealing with «that whole zone of being that has always been set aside by artists as something unusable – as something by definition incompatible with art». (7) Beckett does not share the lofty ambitions of his precursor, and his works specifically lack the aesthetic «quest» often associated with Joyce’s works: whereas Joyce «tried to conquer the universe by […] elaborating its internal tensions», his disciple limits himself to «control[ling] [the universe] by canceling it out». (8) As early as in the notes to Il secondo libro della Poetica (1927) Gadda, on the other hand, reiterates the difference between his «heterogeneous» prose and the canonical 19th century writers who appear in this context, among which Manzoni features as one of the principal sources of inspiration. Gadda’s admiration for Manzoni at this early stage of his career turns into an openly critical approach in his later writings, in which he mocks his predecessor’s «monolithic» linguistic canon («monolingua ottocentesca»; Lingua letteraria e lingua dell’uso, SGF I 490) and his cohesive narrative style instead: «Dò palla nera alla proposta del sommo e venerato Alessandro, che vorrebbe nientedimeno potare, ecc. ecc.: per unificare e codificare  […]. Non esistono né il troppo, né il vano, per una lingua» (SGF I 490). While Di Martino dedicates the last two chapters to a detailed discussion of Joyce’s and Gadda’s pluralistic narrative practices, focusing mainly on their mature works, in my view there remains a contrast in the two authors’ respective account of artistic experience, consisting in the remaining elements of a «cathartic», epiphanic quality of art in Joyce’s early works and the lack of a «transcendent» aesthetical value in Gadda’s texts.

In the third chapter, Il plurilinguismo come strategia comunicativa, Di Martino explores Gadda’s and Joyce’s plurilingualism as a form of «linguistic deterritorialisation» in their mature works, Ulysses and Quer pasticciaccio. In both texts, as Di Martino argues, the heterogeneous register serves to question and subvert monolingual practices, unveiling the subversive potential of the two polyphonic works in question. Basing herself on McHale, the critic claims that plurilingualism and polyphony are common features of postmodern texts, employed as an expression of the multiplicity underlying the ontological systems which form modern society (91). While Joyce draws linguistic inspiration from a broad variety of registers, including classical sources, Gadda prevalently resorts to the plurilingual nature of various Italian dialects, to which he ascribes an intrinsically heuristic value.

Furthermore, Di Martino provides an in-depth comparative reading of how the chaos which informs the two novels’ heterotopic sites affects the very notion of the self. This issue is investigated in some detail in the last two chapters, providing an analysis of how Joyce’s and Gadda’s polyphonic practices subvert the fundamental notions of character and plot. Both authors explore the multiplicity of experience, which affects not only the representation of the characters but the subject itself. The critical analysis benefits from an impressively detailed and convincing analysis of the affinitive features in the two authors’ texts. It is perhaps in this context that Di Martino’s comparative reading of Gadda’s and Joyce’s pluralistic forms of writing is most compelling, providing some significant new insights into the parallels between the two authors’ pasticci onomastici (155) and polyphony affecting both the character and the text, as well as exploring the subversive thrust of their register on both an ethical and an epistemological level.

Di Martino’s study not only provides an exciting new perspective on Gadda’s position within European modernism, acknowledging his unique contribution to the movement, but her study also provides a challenge to the author’s frequent confinement to an exclusively Italian literary and linguistic canon. Her meticulous textual analyses provide an unprecedented insight into the complexity of the plurilingual, polyphonic practises of two of the greatest 20th century European authors, further substantiating the relevance of a comparative contextualisation of Gadda’s works within a broader literary context.

St. Anne’s College, Oxford


1. Italo Calvino, Lezioni americane. Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio (Milan: Mondadori, 2002), 127. In this context, Calvino also refers to Gadda as «una sorta d’equivalente italiano di Joyce» (116).

2. Bouchard’s attempt to provide a reading of Gadda’s writings as foreshadowing postmodernist, experimental practices focuses on the author’s early writings from the 1930s, including La cognizione del dolore. As Stellardi has argued, Bouchard’s account fails to take into account the complexity of Gadda’s «poetics», which in some aspects is still intrinsically linked to 19th century fiction whilst maintaining a «lyrical», «tragic» essence (see Stellardi: 2004). Moreover, Di Martino’s comparative analysis is well-documented with compelling textual examples, while Bouchard’s work lacks an in-depth analysis of textual affinities.

3. See Albert Sbragia’s preface to Di Martino’s work, Joyce, Gadda and Literary Modernity, pp. 7-17 (8).

4. Di Martino argues that there is a gradual development in the Joycean concept of «epiphany», which foreshadows the mature poetics of Ulysses. She distinguishes between the «epifanie di ispirazione dannunziana e yeatsiana», in which the young Joyce «scopriva l’essenza delle cose attraverso momenti di stasi dell’animo», the epiphanies as «emozioni pre-estetiche» and the final dramatic stadium, in which the artist «perderà il suo ruolo centralizzante ed il potere di influenzare e di mediare il rapporto tra arte e vita, interpretando e trasfigurando la quidditas oggettiva delle cose» (66). It is the first two stadia of epiphanic experience, as I shall argue below, which are incompatible with Gadda’s account of aesthetics.

5. See also Julia Kristeva’s account of the cathartic value of Joyce’s work. Contrasting Joyce’s texts with Céline’s, she argues that there is a salvific element in the former author’s «rhetoric of the pure signifier», the cathartic effect of which has been lost in latter’s employment of language. Again one might draw a parallel between Céline’s and Gadda’s heterogeneous use of language in this context. Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror, transl. by L.S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 23.

6. The first dissenting voices towards their predecessors can be identified in Gadda’s and Beckett’s respective debut novels. Gadda’s Racconto italiano di ignoto del Novecento, which was written in 1924 but was only first published in 1983, constitutes his first attempt at writing a novel. It abounds in direct and indirect Manzonian allusions, providing the first step in a long distancing process from his literary predecessor. Beckett’s first novel, on the other hand, which, by critical consensus, has long been considered a failure, is Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which was written in 1932 but was first published only in 1992. While his early work still bears the mark of Joyce, Beckett critically engages with novelistic tradition and deliberately parodies his eminent predecessor’s style.

7. See Isreal Shenker, interview with Beckett, New York Times, 5 May 1956. Cited in James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), 772, n. 57.

8. See David Hayman, A Meeting in the Park and a Meeting on the Bridge: Joyce and Beckett, in James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 8.4, 1971: 372-84 (382).

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

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© 2011-2022 by Katrin Wehling-Giorgi & EJGS Reviews. First published in the Edinburgh Gadda Reviews, EJGS 7/2011-2017.

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