Crivelli Detail

Gadda and the Form of the Novel

Guido Guglielmi

In his preface to the Einaudi edition of Gadda’s Racconto italiano di ignoto del novecento, or Cahier d’études (1924), Dante Isella reminds us that in Les faux-monnayeurs (1925) Gide laid the theoretical foundation for a kind of novel no longer conceived as a tranche de vie and no longer based on plot, but rather constructed en largeur and en profondeur (as opposed to en longueur).

In addition to self-reflection, the materials making up the new novel are the attendant circumstances of its composition. The notebook is itself the novel, to the extent of being a notebook of a notebook. Gide’s protagonist and spokesman puts it as follows: «I would like to include everything in the novel. I shall not cut any of its substance for effect. For more than a year I’ve been working on it, I put nothing into it that I did not experience and I did not want to include; everything I see, everything I know, everything I learn from others’ lives and from my own». (1)

The novel in Gide’s formulation is conceived as a heterogeneous work in progress. Whether he himself succeeded in creating such a novel is another question. His reflections on the matter, nevertheless, are pertinent to Gadda. (2)

The 19th century classical novel is a structured, yet organic work that does not want to appear as an artistic construct; its form, its unifying principle is its disguise. It presents itself as anti-rhetorical, or rhetorically impalpable, designed wholly in relation to the realities it describes, comments on and narrates. Although its claims are pluralistic, it creates its own materials, homogenises and reduces them to a formal and thematic unity, imposing, so to speak, order on chaos.

By contrast, the new novel described by Gide belongs to a lineage that dismantles form, which can be called mannerist in the broad sense of the term. The text discloses its own strategies, enlarges particular details, dwells at length on the disorganic and the fragmentary, counterposes disharmony to harmony, converts simplicity into complexity and identity into difference. In its rejection of unity, the pictures it presents are unfinished. For example, Svevo, it is commonly agreed, created in effect only one character and wrote only one novel. But only La coscienza di Zeno represents a new kind of novel. Each of its chapters enjoys – the same could be said of Joyce’s Ulysses – full autonomy in that it recounts the character’s entire life on the basis of a single theme. The chapters are not linked together in a functional relationship, organised according to plot, nor do they blend into a superior, epic unity of meaning. Their governing principle is co-ordination, rather than subordination.

Pirandello called our attention to such a principle in his essay on Humour, a text that, in its inventory of humour, details some of the main characteristics of Gadda’s art, such as the priority of dialect over rhetorical and humanistic monolingualism, the eccentricity of style, a writing technique based on splitting and doubling, and the humorist’s disdain for idealising syntheses and moral edification. Pirandello believed that the major obstacle to the development of a humorist art in Italy was rhetoric. (3) Lombard Romanticism – the movement to which Manzoni belonged in principle – represented in his view the last stronghold in the battle of the will and emotion against a literature of «abstract rules and compositional norms» (Pirandello 1960: 107). Humorist writers spoke for the unofficial, subterranean line of literature. They were all solitary spirits, intolerant of rhetoric and fond of dialect. Humour, he remarks: «by virtue of its intimate, specious, essential process, decomposes and disintegrates, while art, as we learn in school and from rhetoric, is above all formal composition, alogically ordered harmony of parts» (49).

It is then not difficult to understand why in Meditazione milanese Gadda refers to Pirandello as il «nostro grande tragico» (SVP 815). In Gadda, the humorist co-ordination by incongruous contrast, as outlined by Pirandello, becomes co-ordination by polarity, that is, the disjunction of points of view, and noetic dissociation. I do not mean to imply that Gadda had found already in 1924 the path he was to follow. Racconto italiano is a search for method. We sense the presence of a great writer, but all we have are notes. The poetic art that makes Quer pasticciaccio the masterpiece it is has yet to be found.

In 1923, Giuseppe Antonio Borgese had published Tempo di edificare, a work which in proposing a return to 19th century narrative models captured the general feeling that the novel’s time had come. Racconto italiano is further verification of this new moment. Following the realist and naturalist traditions, Gadda invents numerous characters and explores the possibility of ordering them within an organically conceived plot. The protagonist (Grifonetto), a Fascist architect with whom the narrator identifies (in Gadda’s project notes), ends up killing himself, involved as he was, à la Foscolo’s Ortis,in a tragic emotional and political love affair. Gadda sees his novel as the expression of social and political actuality, a chronicle of contemporary history. But in direct reference to the Manzoni classical narrator, who has to keep the threads of his story together lest they unravel, Gadda experiences the principal difficulties associated with narration. He finds the job difficult, especially the construction of the kinds of plots we find in the «vecchi romanzi» that the «nuovi romanzi» disdain (Racconto, SVP 460).

Gadda, therefore, is already aware of the existence of new novels, and, while he considers the ways of linking together and activating his narrative materials, he realises that these materials escape him because they constitute life itself, and life, for him, has no orderly construction, but instead is entangled intrigue («ingarbugliato intreccio»). Gadda side-steps, momentarily, the problem of expanding his story through the addition of characters, and prefers to invent several parallel stories to be reserved for future use. His tack is to steer clear of a one-track plot. But it soon is evident that the more his novel grows in length, and the more thematically complex it becomes, the more its end is out of reach. While the stories multiply, only traces remain of their possible conclusions. Gadda is far from realising a complex design that incorporates all of the stories; all he has given us is a need for inquiry and analysis.

It is symptomatic that Gadda switches his emphasis from plot to point of view. The question he poses is whether the novel should be written ab interiore or ab exteriore. Indicative of his position is his refusal to consider the use of ab interiore dramatic language, like that deployed by Verga in I Malavoglia, and he never mentions Flaubert. Nor does it occur to Gadda that there might be an internal logic to reality which only needs to be given voice. But, Gadda no doubt understands, the tranche de vie in fact eludes the problem of where to effect the narrative cut. Verga distances an intensely emotional subject matter by adopting the authority of writer, scientist, and quasi-ethnologist who, at the same time, is a participant in the story. Gadda, by contrast, is not interested in such a technique, simply because he does not see reality as an inexorable process of cause and effect. For him, no single series of causes determines whether behaviour is normal or abnormal. The normal and the abnormal coexist; good and evil are reciprocally interactive polarities: «L’immoralità sussiste in quanto sussiste la moralità e viceversa, il crimine in quanto sussiste il giusto, e reagiscono a vicenda» (Racconto, SVP 407).

Here, it seems, Gadda is making use of Leibniz, but it is a Leibniz deprived of the concept of theodicy. Gadda does not believe in the vindication of divine justice in the face of the existence of evil. The crucial term of his equation is not God, but rather life itself in all its contradictions and obscurity. Life expresses things and their opposites: «Se la necessità sociale ha creato un determinato tipo sociale, nella vita rientra anche il dissociale». Nor is it simply a case of objective necessity; instead, necessity is internal to life. Gadda has read Leibniz no doubt through the filter of Bergson, for whom life is élan, expansion, but also contraction, arrestment, matter. Life is «dissoluzione» (Racconto, SVP 470),Gadda states, the loss of organic connections, atavism, ego involution.

Putting aside the question of impersonal narration (the narrator’s abstention from judgement, his critical reserve, as it were), we find that Gadda’s ideas on narration are still far from being fully developed. Moreover, a narrator who refers to himself as a «minimissimo Zoluzzo di Lombardia» (Tecnica e poesia, SGF I 243) could never delight completely in his own lyrical inclinations, nor be content with his own perception of reality or «momento conoscitivo», as he puts it. Rather, he has to invade his characters’ perception and reasoning, as well as their practical activity (Racconto, SVP 461). Gadda cites D’Annunzio’s Il piacere as an example of a novel written ab interiore. D’Annunzio, however, does not suffice, and it is no wonder, for his novels are the product of a single idea and only one point of view. His is a simple solution unsuitable for the kind of complex, dialectical novel Gadda wants to write: a «romanzo psicopatico e caravaggesco» (SVP 411).

Gadda’s reflections on interior and exterior narration fill tormented pages of his notebook. At stake is nothing less than the fundamental question of how to write a polysemic novel:

Passando dal semplice al complesso, dall’uno al molteplice (e io ci dovrò passare essendo il mio romanzo della pluralità), come viene il gioco «ab interiore» trattandosi di più personaggi? Quali sono le possibilità di sviluppo rappresentativo e drammatico? (Racconto, SVP 462)

Such a novel demands movement outward to where «il dotto parla da dotto, il delinquente da delinquente» (SVP 475). The author must put himself into the minds of others, into other alien languages. Here Gadda recalls a primary mechanism, at once magical and mimetic. Otherness reveals the unrealised possibilities within us; the Other is what we are. Thus the masculine includes the feminine, and vice versa: «noi siamo degli “onnipotenziali”» (SVP 463).

The novelist must therefore become the characters he creates, while maintaining his own specific difference, in the same way that becoming the other sex does not eliminate gender barriers: male remains male, female, female. The novelist must intuit what others intuit; he must know his characters’ knowledge, while, at the same time, knowing the self-reflective nature of all life from his own narrative standpoint. This is the point when the internal and external novels merge. There is no clear alternative between the two forms of narration. Furthermore, the author may in fact function as character (SVP 474), with the possibility, however, that later on in the novel the need may arise to create a distinct authorial personality. Thus Gadda reverses completely the naturalist theory of impersonality, opting therefore for a multiperspective interior novel (ab interiore), but one having the active presence of the author and, perhaps, even of the author-character (ab exteriore).

The novelist Gadda looks to for his narrative model is no doubt Manzoni. As writers, Manzoni and Gadda, to be sure, are worlds apart, yet similar in certain respects. The fact that the Apologia manzoniana resonates in the Cahier can only mean that Manzoni for Gadda is an essential point of reference. I promessi sposi is always implicitly present in Gadda’s narratives. I am not referring to a surface likeness, but rather to Gadda’s absorption of stylistic and parodic forms common to Manzoni: chiefly, his critique of language and his tendency towards the macaronic. For example, think of chapter XIV of I promessi sposi. It is a day of rebellion and defiance of authority. Renzo refuses to sign the tavern register and gets angry at the custom of signing one’s name, feeling it is just another way for the masters to keep the common people in tow. And in reply to his drinking companion’s quip («those gentlemen are the ones who eat all the geese, and they have so many quills to get rid of»), Renzo remarks «the fellow must be a poet». (4) The poet is thus seen from below, and Manzoni takes advantage of Renzo’s mockery to poke fun at him from his sophisticated dialogic and ironic point of view. Here Manzoni’s poet is no other than the Gaddian «figurino del “vate”»: (5)

To understand poor Renzo’s nonsense, the reader must realise that the common people of Milan, and still more those who live in the surrounding country, do not use the word «poet» as the gentry do, to mean a consecrated genius, dwelling on Parnassus, a pupil of the Muses. For them, it means a hare-brained, eccentric fellow, whose actions and words are governed, not by reason, but by an odd, penetrating low cunning. For those meddling common people have the nerve to ill treat our language, and give words a meaning poles apart from the real one! What, I ask you, is the connection between being hare-brained and being a poet? (Manzoni 1972: 274-75)

This is an example we all remember. And it is hardly necessary to rehearse, in addition to the remarkable pastiche found in the novel’s Introduction, Manzoni’s erudite exposition of the edicts, his ironic commentary, Azzeccagarbugli’s speech and Renzo’s misunderstanding, and the dispatch issued by the Captain of Justice for Renzo’s arrest, written in Latin, but interspersed with the vernacular. Thus Renzo’s genuinely macaronic speech comes as no surprise at all. Language is deceit, «trufferia di parole», as Manzoni puts it in reference to the plague which no one was willing to accept as real:

In the beginning, then, there had been no plague, no pestilence, none at all, not on any account. The very words had been forbidden. Next came the talk of «pestilent fever» – the idea being admitted indirectly, in adjectival form. Then it was «not real pestilence» – that is to say, it was a pestilence, but only in a certain sense; not a true pestilence, but something for which it was difficult to find another name. Last of all, it became a pestilence without any doubt or argument – but now a new idea was attached to it, the idea of poisoning and witchcraft, and this corrupted and confused the sense conveyed by the dreaded word which could now no longer be suppressed. (Manzoni 1972: 582-83)

Like Manzoni, Gadda too believed that false speech falsifies the spirit, «la parlata falsa ne falsifica l’animo» (Meditazione breve circa il dire e il fare, SGF I 445). And with respect to language, he is equally suspicious, condescendingly subscribing to the general opinion that there is nothing easier than manipulating words or, in more genuinely Gaddian terms, getting stuck «in un caramello di modi di dire» (451).

The similarities between Gadda and Manzoni are not limited to representational modes. They extend to both characterisation and plot. For example, in La Madonna dei Filosofi, Engineer Baronfo, the bibliophile, comes across a 19th century rarity while perusing the book stalls along the Seine: a bouquin in which, in reference to a certain Ismaele Digbens, Gadda remarks: «Egli fu […] benemerito della filosofia, (dogmatica) e più specialmente di quel ramo di essa chiamato settecentescamente pneumatologia o pneumatica, ovverosia scienza dell’anima» (RR I89). And he goes on to parody the philosopher’s magisterial arguments:

Era benemerito altresì della filologia e della fisica. Contro il «lockiano» Burner, accumulò dodici prove dell’esistenza di Dio: quattro chiamò metafisiche, quattro fisiche, e quattro miste […] Inoltre aveva dimostrato che le bestie non posseggono ragione, salvo in alcuni casi specialissimi […] ammetteva che esistessero regioni dello spazio vuote di materia, ossia insostanziali […] Invece il cervello dei minorati, degli idioti nati e dei morti senza battesimo era un pieno o sostanza, ma scarsamente dotato di attitudini modali. L’anima concepiva come un essere o sostanza semplice. (Madonna, RR I 89-90)

Ismaele Digbens believes in the same kind of vacuous syllogisms and scholastic terminology as Manzoni’s Don Ferrante, who, we know, is the husband of Donna Prassede, herself indirectly the subject of parody by Gadda in the short story San Giorgio in casa Brocchi. Like Donna Prassede, Countess Giuseppina is an enterprising and zealous woman, watchful of her family’s morality (especially her son Gigi’s acquaintances), and sensitive to the disorder and crassness of contemporary life. Her brother, zio Agamennone, is a literatus engaged in writing a book that he has promised to Gigi on his nineteenth birthday: a treatise «da servire di guida, all’entrar della vita, per i giovani delle più cospicue famiglie» (RR II 651). But besides zio Agamennone, the target of an amusing pastiche is none other than Cicero himself, author of the De officiis, a text, it turns out, of questionable utility for his nephew who, the day he receives his uncle’s gift, is introduced to the life of the senses by Jole, the servant who brings him the book. Zio Agamennone is of course a caricature of Cicero, who also had dedicated his book on the subject of duty to his son Marco: «Cicerone era il classico, lo zio era il neoclassico» (690). Cicero is for Gadda the Azzeccagarbugli of antiquity who composes «un minestrone di fagioli stoici, di verze accademiche e di carote peripatetiche» (673) and, moreover, in times of personal and public hardship:

Erano ormai scaduti i bei giorni, quando i mille Renzi d’Italia recavano all’Azzeccagarbugli urbano [più autorevole forse e più coraggioso dell’autentico] il vistoso imbonimento de’ lor grassi capponi. (San Giorgio, RR II 675)

Manzoni has no doubt an acute sense of reality’s dialectical complexity and is gifted by a subtle sense of humour. Gadda is aware of the way he takes note of the contradictions and obscurity of life, making even the most penetrating of analyses subject to them. But in Manzoni the knot of contradiction is destined to unravel, and obscurity in the last instance is clarified. His novel includes a sphere that transcends history, in which all evil is annulled. This is its romantic vein. At the same time, it is the very inaccessibility of such a sphere that allows Manzoni to foreground history’s negative aspects, its profound entanglements, and its factual nudity. Manzoni’s great paradox is that his religious spirit is the prime condition of his realism. His humility in front of history prohibits him from elaborating reassuring equations to counter ignorance and evil. Lucidity of mind and a Gaddian sense of the world’s complexities make him the great realist and incomparable historian he is. Hence Gadda is right to stress the disharmony of Manzoni’s vision and its wholly Pirandellian sense of incongruity:

La mescolanza degli apporti storici e teoretici più disparati, di cui si plasmò e si plasma tuttavia il nostro bizzarro e imprevedibile vivere, egli ne avvertì le derivazioni contaminantisi in un’espressione grottesca. (Racconto, SVP 591)

In spite of such affinities, Manzoni and Gadda offer diametrically opposed forms of writing. Gadda, in fact, is well aware of what separates him from his mentor: «Manzoni concetto morale-civile. Io concetto più agnostico-umano» (SVP 397). Here agnostico-umano should be taken to mean as within human limits and within the boundaries of the world and time. For Manzoni, as for all the great classical realists, the reconciliation of the disparate aspects of human life, although never realised, is none the less posited as possible. It is something both ideally necessary, yet impossible to achieve. Manzoni moves in the direction of synthesis; whereas Gadda’s totally different itinerary points him in the direction of experimentation, and his novel project provided a solution, although it was not the one he was looking for: «Uno studio è già una cosa completa, finita, se pur riveste i caratteri del tentativo» (SVP 576). Gadda’s theoretical reflections are experimental. Manzoni was the kind of writer who wanted to «arrivare al pubblico fino attraverso il grosso» (Novella seconda, RR II 1318). He was motivated, if not by common sense, by a common good sense, and thus he needed to create a koinè, a unitary language for a new reading public.

In so doing, he adopted a polytonal, monolingual idiom; whereas Gadda employs an explosive plurilingualism. To illustrate, there is an image in Manzoni that can be taken as a supreme example of restraint. In chapter XXX, we learn that, after don Abbondio’s town had been sacked by the imperial soldiers, the priest returns home to find in his fireplace the charred remains of pieces of furniture all jumbled together. At which point, Manzoni compares these signs of destruction to «the many implied ideas in an allusive period penned by an elegant writer» (Manzoni 1972: 561). This is a good example of Manzoni’s art of ironic dissimulation. Gadda would no doubt have made these implied ideas surface. While Manzoni suspends the contradictory aspects of reality in a desire for meaning, Gadda sharpens their definition, rendering them strident o spastic. The former is looking for the superior comprehension of refined readership; his is a synchronic ideal of possible communication. The latter refuses to accept any communicative economy whatsoever moving as he does along a diachronic axis. Simply put, Manzoni is a classical writer, who exacts a perfect harmony between literature and communication. Gadda, by contrast, is a mannerist: he deforms language and dismantles words.

At this point it is useful to take up the question of expressionism, since Gadda refers to his writing as an instrument of vengeance:

Nella mia vita di «umiliato e offeso» la narrazione mi è apparsa, talvolta, lo strumento che mi avrebbe consentito di ristabilire la «mia» verità, il «mio» modo di vedere […] lo strumento in assoluto del riscatto e della vendetta. (Intervista al microfono, SGF I 503)

This is certainly indicative of Gadda’s sense of the intimacy of style (an intimacy that Pirandello attributed to humorist writers). Expressionism however, as Gadda understands it, rejects the word as mediator, namely, the delay it forces on the urgency of expression and the intensity of experience. Gadda, we repeat, is a mannerist rather than an expressionist. What separates him from early twentieth century expressionism is his passion for writing. He is a hyperliterary author (something Manzoni refused to be). Like Joyce, he is an artist of the word and an artist of the novel.

As a writer who jealously, almost pathologically, holds on to his intimacy, Gadda is a most sagacious artifex, an extraordinary manipulator of words who plays with language to reveal unpopular truths. Freud concept of the joke comes to mind in this regard: a joke derives from the pleasure taken in the use of words – from the play of incongruity and equivocation – and is the bearer of deep and secret meanings. A remark from the Cahier states «mantenere omonimia per accrescere confusione» (SVP 1269), which is a precise definition of the spastic word. Moreover, it is worth remembering that among the five manners Gadda attributes to himself, the fifth has perhaps not received the attention it deserves:

Finalmente posso elencare la quinta maniera, che chiamerò la maniera cretina, che è fresca, puerile, mitica, omerica, con tracce di simbolismo, con stupefazione-innocenza-ingenuità. È lo stile di un bambino che vede il mondo (e che sapesse già scrivere). (Racconto, SVP 396)

Gadda ridicules writers who think of themselves as creators; he does not believe that words are of their very nature expressive. He is a pasticheur,someone who works with already existing languages and styles and adopts conventional, accepted linguistic codes in order to undermine them. Take, for example, one of the disegni included in L’Adalgisa, Claudio disimpara a vivere, where the main character is thrown out of the house of a famous structural engineer and professor on account of his having used the word «crollato» in reference to a bridge built under the professor’s supervision and which caved in while his students were examining its structure, causing several injuries to the students themselves. In addressing the idiocy of the world, Gadda derives his «timbro perverso» (Come lavoro, SGF I 437) – his fundamental, childish and exaggerated tone – from the different dialects and inflections of common speech. It is only through the world’s many idioms that he can modulate his own unique voice; his singularly original expression that comes from narrating the expression of others.

Gadda always re-produces the word of the other in ways that range from parody to high-mimetic stylisation (his fourth manner of writing). The word is never pure; it never aspires to an original or absolute resonance, but rather echoes spastically; it can thus be regarded as pragmatic and ethical. Unmasking the senselessness of all idioms, Gadda forces the reader to look at reality with a critical eye. Reality tends towards involution, stasis, and paralysis. The idiocy of the world consists in its inoperativeness. In turn, languages tend to crystallise in stereotypes. To be brought back to life, they have to be used dialectically – an artistic and ethically motivated procedure that produces works as reflective and critical as they are creative. It is important, therefore, that we see Gadda’s theoretical reflections as an integral part of his work as a writer and not as something found exclusively in Meditazione milanese, the work that provides the foundation and justification for Gadda’s grotesque licence. Like all great novelists, Gadda gives us both the novel and its theory; action registered and reflected on. And just as behind a writer like Sterne we find Hume’s radical empiricism, behind Gadda we find the early twentieth century problematics of knowledge and science. Only in this sense can we understand why his novels are all unfinished at the same time as they are aesthetically complete. The state of being unfinished is itself a formal feature; it adheres to a narrative model that belongs to a tradition whose history is no less rich than its well-made, organically structured counterpart.

As documented in Meditazione milanese, Gadda’s programme of reconstruction entails a complete overhauling of philosophical positions dear to classical rationalism. He corrects his favourite authors, Leibniz and Spinoza, in the theoretical foundation of their thought, where they display their greatest certainty in reason and in the world order:

Qualcuno fra i molti razionalisti del secolo 17º-18º sarà stato certo della «finitezza in sé» del sistema della conoscenza. Bastano a smentirlo le trovate del secolo 19º e 20º. Non ripetiamo noi lo stesso errore. (Meditazione, SVP 743)

Factual data definitely exist, but they are the effect of millennial fragmentation. The datum is the material trace, the present recognition of past ruins. Although aware of the weight that data carry, Gadda believes, following Bergson, that the world exists in a state of becoming. Only the idle mind represents the world as something at rest and fully defined. Knowledge has no definite and stable limits. Hypotheses can be formulated to determine boundaries, but they are only hypotheses, conceived according to historical contingency. Even the most rigorous of scientific languages is riddled with contradictions:

Ciascuna scienza pone da sé i suoi termini, belli, lindi, certi, finiti, ben pettinati, indiscutibili, senza perplessità, senza angosce, senza nuvolaglie filosofiche e circondata da così indiscutibili e ben pettinati perché, siede Regina del mondo. (Meditazione, SVP 740)

Scientific principles themselves are subject to continual transformation: «Non esiste una ragione fissa ed eterna con le sue categorie immutabili» (SVP 733). The systematic arrangement of factual data, rather than leading to certainty, reproduces what is already known; it is not a heuristic device aimed at discovery. Gadda juxtaposes the systematic arrangement of data to investigation and, from this Bergsonian perspective, he takes his leave of 19th century science and positivism.

From Spinoza, summarily stated, Gadda appears to derive the idea of the identity of extension and thought, of the ordo rerum and the ordo idearum,but in a pragmatic manner for which being is doing (res becomes pragmata). In fact, when he speaks of a system, he refers at once to a system of theory and a system of things in the world. If «conoscere significa deformare», then the object of knowledge – he writes – is in perennial deformation: «noi siamo convinti di una cosa sola: che qualcosa accade e per accade intendiamo si “deforma”» (SVP 742).

From Leibniz, Gadda derives his concept of multiplicity: the infinity of monads. Leibniz, however, comes to Gadda, as we have said, via Bergson. His life-world is animated by forces of ascent and involution; it is both a world of forever more complex structures and one that contracts itself, becomes paralysed and breaks up into fragments. The difference between Gadda, on the one hand, and Leibniz and Spinoza, on the other, consists in what they regard respectively as science. Gadda gives priority to change, not systematisation. Using the terminology of Thomas Kuhn, we could say that he opts for an exceptional, as opposed to an ordinary, science. In these terms, rational decisions must take into account the changing nature of the data relative to the problem. From the uncertain data, we must pass on to a datum of the second degree. There are no pre-established ends:

In realtà l’idea di un fine (come modello tematico per uno sviluppo o lavoro) implica in sé una conoscenza teoretica del punto da raggiungere, che è assolutamente smentita dai fatti nel caso del bene di 2º grado. (Meditazione, SVP 761)

In addition to finalistic conceptions of the world, Gadda rejects also traditional concepts of causality. The universe is a «flusso deformatore» (SVP 760). And in the «corrente sacra del gran fiume causale» (865) causes are infinite. Thus, with an expression from Musil that parodies Leibniz, we can speak of a principle of insufficient cause. Gadda problematises his positivist heritage: criticises its rationalist programme by depriving it of its internal logic, thus completely reformulating it.

Every closed system has only the appearance of completeness, for it contains a defect, a gap, that makes it incoherent. As far back as 1928, Gadda had established the principle of the «impossibile chiusura di un sistema» (SVP 741) in opposition to those weak-hearted thinkers who, in need of the reassurance of reason, maintained that the world existed within fixed parameters. But what is the relationship between pre-existing matter and the theorising mind that gives it order? Order, for Gadda, is but a provisional moment, a pause in the vital flux. Only chaos is absolute. Gadda takes the example of the bookcase: at its centre, the books are in a vertical position; as we move away from the centre, their position becomes more angled until, at the ends of the shelf, it is horizontal. As long as the books support each other they are in a dialectical relation; where that relation does not hold we are at the limit: nothingness (error, darkness, death), determined not by the finiteness of understanding nor by the short-sightedness of theory, but rather by the finiteness of our capacity to act. Reality fades into darkness at the point at which we can no longer act.

In philosophical terms, one could say that for Gadda ethics holds priority over the intellect, praxis over thought. Pure theoretical inquiry is, in fact, possible if the world is conceived already as system; it is impossible if it is subject to being systematised. And systematising the world carries the burden of experience; it must come to grips with the fundamental instability of experience:

Io non vedo […] né il fondo dell’abisso né l’assoluto cielo: ma partendo dal traballante ponte della realtà data cerco di estendere la conoscenza nelle (due) direzioni (ascensionale e involutiva.) Aliter: non parto da un culmine assoluto né da un fondo assoluto, ma dal dato che è un punto del coesistente. E l’indagine si allarga come una chiazza d’olio sulla superficie sferica. (Meditazione, SVP 667)

Here, no doubt, instead of Manzoni, we have the «più agnostico-umano» Gadda.

Meditazione milanese, however, is not just a philosophical text. Its rational arguments are cast as narratives that are intellectual in the Pirandellian sense, thus not subject to the kinds of spontaneous emotional outbursts and automatism characteristic of the mature Gadda. It is a writing mediated by theory and developed from lived experience. Meditazione milanese gives sufficient proof that Gadda, with his belief in deformation, could not follow in the classical tradition and thus was left with no other recourse than to abandon his novel of Grifonetto and Maria.

Compact narrative structures could not satisfy Gadda. The task of activating and linking together his chosen materials would turn out to be unproductive. Already the proliferation of characters and the confusion of names heralded another project: a kind of story that included discontinuous cognitive moments, as Gadda would phrase it, therefore at once massing together and dissolving narrative realities, as opposed to creating well-calibrated combinations. In Racconto italiano Gadda already announces his poetics of entanglement. Let us return for a moment to Manzoni. We know that although Gadda admired the final corrected version of I promessi sposi,he did not share the rationale behind Manzoni’s process of revision. It was the mixing not the sorting out of things that interested Gadda the most; he did not share Manzoni’s idea of final perfection. He would want the corrected version of the novel revised, and the revised text still corrected once again, and so forth (SVP 712).Of course, Manzoni was the first to be convinced of his novel’s imperfections; he believed in literature a lot less than Gadda did. But what separates him significantly from Gadda is his belief in the existence of an appropriate and suitable literary form that can be achieved.

Manzoni, like all great classical writers, believed in formal perfection, just as he believed in one substantial truth in which all partial verities are justified and become law. Whether we refer to this law as God, or World Spirit, or destiny and natural necessity, does not matter. Formal perfection is an ideal to be pursued. The writer’s task is to capture as much as possible of this truth. Gadda speaks of systems and takes his position against them; in the same way he speaks of totalities, meaning a more comprehensive reality, but he excludes the possibility of attaining such a totality. Heuresis, he writes:

è dunque l’autodeformazione del reale […] e sembra non possedere modelli o temi teoretici finali, non aver fini in senso teoretico stretto (chiamate finali) pur «andando verso il diverso». Potremo chiamare questo diverso il «vieppiù differenziato» […] sebbene esista anche, come ho lumeggiato, il venir meno, il rilassarsi dei sistemi di relazioni: (cioè il deformarsi in regresso). (Meditazione, SVP 783)

There is therefore no closure, no finality. All movement progresses towards difference and differentiation; regression towards that which is undifferentiated or unreal. Gadda thus can only work with fragments. His two novels, Quer pasticciaccio and La cognizione del dolore, can be regarded as a unification of fragments, composed and selected according to the principle, stated beforehand in Racconto italiano, of polarisation and differentiation. He expands his writing not by means of linear syntagmas but by the massing together of paradigms. It is important to pay attention to the meaning of the fragment in Gadda, where the boundary between cosmos and chaos is constantly shifting to the point where all closure is precluded. The fragment is not, as with the Romantics, a part of the whole, but rather a fragment of a non-existing totality that cannot be ideally posited. The fragment is the structure itself. Narrative form is therefore nothing other than a pause. The object in itself, Gadda writes later on, is but the «corpo morto della realtà, il residuo fecale della storia» (Un’opinione sul neorealismo, SGF I 630).

Corpse and residue are also the self. Gadda does not spare his contempt for the illusions of selfhood: the masks we wear, the consistency in which we take pride. The self is a constantly changing, plural entity. The role of the narrator is also posed in these terms. In Racconto italiano it is a question that concerns not only the relationship between narrator and character, but also that between narrator and reader. According to what criterion are characters to be judged? How do they gain the respect of the reading public? With what authority does the narrator address the reader? In this regard, Gadda distinguishes among three modes of narration.

First of all there is the Homeric mode. Homer speaks to a public that is hearing things it already knows. By recounting them, he makes his public remember. As representative of the mind of a single humanity, he realises what is universally human. But since we do not live in Homeric times, we do not partake of one unified humanity. Another example he gives is Dante. Dante can speak with supreme authority by virtue of the strength of his personality. But «una pesante casa non può poggiare sopra una pietra mal ferma» (Racconto, SVP 477). And «il signor grigiastro qualunque dei qualunqui», as Gadda refers to himself hypothetically, is not a Dante.

While the Homeric mode is impossible to achieve, the second manner can be found in writers who become advocates of common belief, that is to say, fashionable writers of the moment. Then «il termine universale può essere sostituito da un termine non universale, ma a larga base» (SVP 479). But this is entertainment literature, and Gadda rejects it the same way he rejects the Straussism of D’Annunzio (sparkling images meant to dazzle and seduce), a writer whom he otherwise respects. But there is a third mode in which the «qualunque dei qualunqui», the man in the mass, confirms his own existence. The most powerful of modern authors has become the historical and moral consciousness of such a man without qualities. He, as writer (and character), is the wobbly foundation on which the unstable house is built. Not being able to exit from the infinite web of relations, he cannot assume the position of judge; his opinions are one with his reactions and hold no judicial authority. His irony, therefore, is self-irony, his parody, self-parody. His words echo the word of the Other (all the ancient and modern languages of the world) according to an intention both his own and provisional; he speaks in two spasmodic voices.

Gadda speaks of his own identity as being that of someone lost and wounded, «dissociato noètico» (Come lavoro, SGF I 431), conflating affective and intellectual experience, pathos and logos. Reason is affected by emotion; the logos does not exist outside of life’s flux:

D’intorno a me, d’intorno a noi, il mareggiare degli eventi mortiferi, il dolore, il lento strazio degli anni. Il concetto di volere si abolisce, nel lento impossibile. L’oceano della stupidità.

Here we have the melancholic side of Gadda that exhibits his sense of mortality and that unites the sublime and the grotesque under the sign of excess. His awareness of grief is the awareness of absolute error, of the ocean of stupidity, of darkness. In Gadda’s world, it is absurd to try to give order to life’s negative (regressive) pulsations. At a certain point, reason is found to be infinitely at fault. Comedy is transformed into its opposite; laughter, in all its festivity and vitality, blends with mannerist sorrow.

Università di Bologna


1. A. Gide, Romans, récits, soties et oeuvres lyriques (Paris: Gallimard, 1958), 1082.

2. On Gide and Gadda, see Bertone 1993: 11-14.

3. L. Pirandello, Saggi, poesie, scritti vari, ed. by M. Lo Vecchio Musti (Milan: Mondadori, 1960), 107.

4. A. Manzoni, The Betrothed (London: Penguin Books, 1972), 274.

5. Come lavoro, SGF I 431. On Manzoni’s parody, see E. Raimondi, La dissimulazione romanzesca. Antropologia manzoniana (Bologna: il Mulino, 1990), 81-110.

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

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

© 2000-2023 Guido Guglielmi & EJGS. Issue no. 0, EJGS 0/2000. Previously published in M. Bertone & R.S. Dombroski (eds), Carlo Emilio Gadda: Contemporary Perspectives (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 25-42. Translation by Robert S. Dombroski.

Artwork © 2000-2023 G. & F. Pedriali. Framed image: after a detail from Carlo Crivelli, La Pietà, 1476, Metropolitan Museum, New York.

All EJGS hyperlinks are the responsibility of the Chair of the Board of Editors.

EJGS is a member of CELJ, The Council of Editors of Learned Journals. EJGS may not be printed, forwarded, or otherwise distributed for any reasons other than personal use.

Dynamically-generated word count for this file is 6908 words, the equivalent of 20 pages in print.