1. trials of symmetry
(a Betti function, with extinction)

Scrissi queste Tragedie e queste Cantiche in un luogo di sì tetra solitudine e di tal dolore, che il mio intelletto doveva essere più che mai debole. Rivedutele nondimeno, dacché sono risorto tra i viventi, qualche fiducia mi tornò che non sieno indegne di comparire al pubblico. Desidero di non ingannarmi. Le offro a te, amico dolcissimo fin dall’infanzia.

Writing to Gobbi, in 1916, the young Gadda asks that their correspondence be kept, for one day it will surely be studied as early evidence of the magnificence of their talent. With characteristic ambivalence he then names those same epistolary efforts a «poemazzo schifo» (Gadda 1983c: 17). Even more typically, over the years he will not always honour his side of the commitment, the preservation of his friends’ share of glory. With few exceptions they did. Thanks to them and to the endeavours of several patient editors we now have a large part of Gadda’s letters assembled on the public shelf.

It may seem rather surprising that an author so concerned with cocooning his work in a maze of decoying techniques should express the wish to have his letters preserved. Letter-writing, in fact, even more than literary creation opens itself up to the kind of investigative criticism he most dreaded, showing our Gaddus fully engaged in actual as opposed to sublimated exercises. Yet it is again entirely typical of the man that the desire to shine at his craft should be stronger than the fear to allow indiscreet delving into even these ruminations. Some of the best vintage Gadda – a Gadda certainly driven by what drives his other, his major creative output – is what comes across through his poemazzi schifi; a partner in dialogue, splendidly interweaving his acrobatic wit into the practicalities of personal communication.

Grouping comes in handy, at this stage. There are (rather obviously) the early letters: from the war years to the late 1920s, a sort of search for one’s epistolary poetics. This unfolds into a middle phase, the 1930s and 1940s, the time of frenetic exchanges and epistolary peaks. The declining stage sets in from the 1950s onwards, the age of the musa triste and her silencing spells (Gadda 1983d: 129). And while there can be no argument that all the letters, regardless of their occasion and addressees, are eminently Gadda-centred, a second criterion suggests itself, again quite obviously: a classification by incarnations, call them the peculiarities of personal communication, through the adoption of an addressee-specific persona – a persona corresponding with (and to) given sets of identitarian expectations.

Two extreme cases illustrate the correlation choice of addressee / epistolary style to perfection. In the Contini papers Gadda engages in the sheer brilliancy (and war of intellects) of a common masculine language of cleverness; whereas in the letters to the gentile signora Lucia Rodocanachi, written in the same years and often relating the same circumstances, lexicon, mood and thematic content are entirely different – it is unequivocally the other Gadda, the vulnerable, self-pitying, despairing lost soul. Elsewhere he will confess that the motive behind his writing is indeed the attention conceded to it by a few generous readers (Gadda 1988b: 97). Certainly, with his Lucia he is only too ready to renounce the analgesic qualities of his wondrous vengeful verve – even that balm forsakes him, subsided and replaced by monstrous proliferations rising from the psyche’s darkest recesses; his legendary indulgence in perennial acts of contrition, not yet paralysing as will be the case in the late years, here spawns pages of extraordinary, unmitigated defencelessness.

If the Contini and Rodocanachi letters stand at the extreme ends in Gadda’s psychological machinery, each epistolary set / addressee can be situated somewhere along the measuring scale in between those confines. The letters to his Milanese friends, for example, are close to Contini, replete as they are with the verbal invention somehow required by that geographical connection. Those to his sisters and other members of the family tend towards the other end of the spectrum, though hugely tempered by restraint (the obvious self-censorship governing any family business). The rather neutral centre is represented by the letters to Bonaventura Tecchi, fellow prisoner of war at Celle Lager – there an unusual calm reigns, with just the occasional ruffle hinting at stormier depths below the civilised surface.

The letters to Ugo Betti, another fellow prisoner in the famous baracca dei poeti at Celle, occupy a position hard to locate within the scale just outlined. A man of great sharpness of judgement (his literary career flourished, not by chance, alongside his duties as a successful magistrate), he should by rights belong with Contini in Gadda’s reference map. And yet he doesn’t – there is no profusion of clever virtuosity and meneghine anti-virtù in these letters. Interestingly, we are also nowhere near the style employed with Tecchi, that minimal variation of scope which Gadda reserves for the good natured professor, the brotherly friend of relatively limited gifts with whom only the occasional memory of the shared «martirio e orgoglio» (Gadda 1984b: 135) can break up the sparseness of the touch (Gadda is under no compulsion to prove anything, in this case, as surely he must view Tecchi as a quasi-relative, hence his reserved effusiveness). Somewhat surprisingly, that is, there is openness, in this other set of letters, the ones he wrote to Betti – an openness that can be wounded, because it has been exposed. Gadda, in other words, corresponds with his clever judge-to-be in a manner that is indeed quite close to the one used with Rodocanachi, and this despite Betti being most certainly no gentile signora. A definite severity, not exempt from the degree of cruelty which often accompanies a commanding intelligence, is the default description we have of Betti’s personality.

A second distinctive aspect of this set of letters is its premature interruption. The 56 extant items cover a period of about eleven years, from the end of the war to 27 July 1930. It is the shortest of the major volumes but contains Gadda’s longest letters ever, suggesting that a closer analysis might prove fruitful. A good starting point is the Celle Lager connection, where the friendship commenced amidst the humiliations of captivity. We have four main sources of information: Gadda’s own Giornale di prigionia; the autobiographical narrative Compagni di prigionia, from Castello di Udine, Gadda’s second published book; Tecchi’s notes of war recollections, Baracca 15c; and his Taccuini del ’18. Gadda enlisted as an officer in the alpine corps in 1915, to see his dreams of military glory crushed when he was captured by the Germans in the mayhem following Caporetto. After an initial period at the Rastatt camp, he was eventually sent to Celle Lager, near Hannover, to be lodged in hut number 15c, later named la baracca dei poeti for the unusual concentration of literary talent amongst its occupants.

A lively cultural activity distinguished this celebrated baracca and, despite the harsh conditions, regular concerts, drama productions and poetry readings were given, a library was set up, a weekly camp newsletter was circulated. (1) Amidst this rather absurd pretence of normality (Giornale, SGF II 814-15), Gadda moved in a state of spiritual catatonia (SGF II 800), reeling from the unabated shock of the capture, unable to partake of this «rito di morti» (SGF II 815). While we may now view Gadda as the giant of Celle Lager, his fellow inmates saw his peevish, reclusive goofiness as an irresistible invitation to practical jokes (SGF II 784), precious little intimation of his real intellectual stature.

Yet enter Betti on the scene, and the seeds of friendship penetrate Gadda’s mental defences. In what survives of Giornale we can count about thirty mentions of him, none very extended, the majority concentrated in the months after the end of the war when the group of officers was slowly being repatriated. There is a direct reference to a lost notebook – very conveniently lost, one is tempted to say – in which Gadda admittedly complains heavily about him (SGF II 838). In its absence, for a more comprehensive but later account one must turn to the extended portrait encased in Castello, where Compagni squeezes the minor characters within the first couple of pages, leaving the rest (some seven pages) to the poet of Il Re pensieroso. Betti, for his part, did not commit any afterthought on the war years to paper, and no journals have survived either, if any ever existed. Before examining the Castello version of events, it is advisable to check Tecchi’s side of the story for a third opinion on those crucial months.

The Gadda we encounter in his Baracca 15c moves in mysterious patterns of rebellion and submission with regard to life in general and Betti in particular. Tecchi’s pen rapidly draws an affectionate description of the credulous, diligent, introvert Gaddone, already a prey to a mixture of timidity and irascibility in his diurnal laboriousness, and stalking through the hut at night cloaked in a spectral sheet, dodging the occasional boot aimed at the incomprehensible apparition. (2)

In striking contrast to the bewildering Gadda, Betti literally beams with moral energy. Effortlessly spontaneous and youthful, athletic, brilliant, he seems to have enjoyed, despite the horrors of dirt and hunger, despite the disheartening atmosphere of the environment, a sort of immunity from the humiliations in both body and mind which the others endured. Saved, possibly, by the clear-sightedness of his judgement, by a sense of pride in his own origins – Betti loved to stress that he was not from the low plains, but from the highlands of Marche and the golden town of Camerino (Tecchi 1961: 61-62) –, his most private self, frail bearer of visions, appeared not to have been violated by the brutality of the outer world. And it is indeed the coexistence of, or better, the balance between sharpness and softness, life and art that explains the authority which Betti, uncrowned king of the camp (Tecchi 1961: 63), exercised over the group of prisoners – his moral health, his assertive thrust must have signalled that surviving Caporetto was not only feasible but also just.

Gadda proves no exception to the general submission to Betti’s dominance, and in two episodes, seemingly of mere anecdotal significance, he bows, of his own will, to the necessity of undergoing the ordeal of Betti’s close scrutiny. In his account the worthy Tecchi does not hide his slight discomfort at Betti’s tendency to judge people mercilessly and to deliver implacably undiplomatic verdicts (Tecchi 1961: 64). It is therefore all the more surprising to see Gadda’s «dolorosa serietà» (Tecchi 1961: 74), so often the recalcitrant victim of lesser minds, voluntarily walking towards Betti’s razor-sharp gaze in search of a decisive word on both his personality and literary vocation.

In the first incident, Gadda asks him to assess a long and ambitious piece of writing. Without half measures, Betti sizes up the attempt, and pronounces it to be a soffeghino, a vernacular expression suggestive of a gastronomical failure, chokingly hard to swallow and equally ungenerous with the digestive juices. (3) The second episode takes place after a trivial quarrel with a fellow prisoner – originally over the disputed price of a cap – degenerates into the preliminary stages of a duel (Giornale, SGF II 831-36). The highly charged mood of the camp around Christmas 1918 (the war had been over since early November, but no date had yet been fixed for their repatriation) favoured frequent rows in the dormitory, leaving Gadda, perhaps just Gadda, wondering why he has been at loggerheads with more officers than anybody else. Typical of his soul-searching exercises, his justification is that only the «frastuono doloroso» of his rages can deafen his «dolore profondo», and hence, that the fundamental goodness of his motives is widely misunderstood (SGF II 834). Betti, one of Gadda’s seconds in the procedures, is then asked for an opinion on this delicate questione psicologica, offering the ruling that Gadda is not good at heart: that he is valued by others above his real worth (SGF II 836).

That the diary entry reporting this judgement should develop into a veritable catalogue of Gadda’s topoi of near-suicide is predictable enough. Equally disparaging remarks on his nature had been uttered by his parents (SGF II 789, 833-34). And now his defences are tried from a new, different quarter, as Betti adds his voice to the general disapproval of that Milanese moron. Twice he has been judged, and quite officially. Yet his fascination with Betti seems not only to have survived these two episodes, but to have been strengthened by them.

Having gone as far, we must check Castello again, for more evidence. The several pages devoted to Betti have all the subtle grace of a Grecian Urn. Introduced by an ennobling reminiscence of Lysias – «subtilis atque elegans atque disertus puer» (4) – Betti is then portrayed in the attitude of a conquering pagan god:

mi si avvicinava con una impercettibile piega nei labbri, segno apollineo di crudeltà, come un dio che cogliesse, in peccato d’irriverenza, il mortale. (Castello, RR I 158)

Acts of worship of Betti-Apollo – «chiedimi tre volte scusa e adora tre volte il mio piede sinistro!» (Castello, RR I 161) – were a recognised joke in the group, yet they appear to have forced Gadda’s thumping rages into vulnerable surrender. Betti is the winner, over games of chess and life, for a benign destiny has graced him with all that was denied to the humble mortal: athletic elegance, firmness of mind, uncomplicated youth, the reassuring smile of parents. Because, yes, for the group it may very well have been a harmless joke, part of the ritualistic role-playing ingrained in the delights of military life. But for Gadda it is sheer, unadulterated re-enactment – «da me le cose si ripetono», we hear Zeno Cosini say – of his family history.

In the replay, Betti is clearly entrusted with a symmetry. He is the brother-substitute. He is yet another puer mirabilis to admire and resent. Just like Enrico: just like the intrepid aviator, that is, whose daring sorties fill Carlo with lacerating pride and envy. For the self’s inability to fit is aggravated, in this one returning case, by the irritating ease with which the other – one’s younger and better other – can glide through life. The intense, the true love Gadda feels for his brother Enrico, the sincere adoration of his luminous qualities, his «fervorosa ed elegante adolescenza» (Giornale, SGF II 853), are indeed inextricably linked with opposite, ill-disguised emotions. Enrico is «bello, florido, geniale» (SGF II 852), beyond the comparative degree. And when compared, he invariably again stands out as «più forte e bravo ed intelligente» (SGF II 855). He has all that Gadda lacks as a social animal – and of Carlo he is, as Gadda puts it, «la parte migliore e più cara».

A freak accident on a trial flight far from enemy lines was to claim Enrico’s life just as Gadda was arriving at Celle (Gadda 1983c: x, n. 9). His family kept it from him until his delayed home-coming. The shattering news, upon his return, is both a blow to his hopes of a joyous welcome and a further condemnation to the suffocating domain of his «orrenda solitudine» (Giornale, SGF II 856). With his defence mechanisms sorely tested already, Gadda’s excitable psyche thus registers that death as a definitive proof of a divine conspiracy against his being. The banal circumstances of that plane crash would never be legitimised; Enrico truly had to have lived and died the way Gadda had dreamt for himself.

Left alone, deprived of his better part, defeated in the rivalry for their mother’s affection beyond earthly redress – for mother has tears only for «il più caro, il più bello» snatched away by the atrocious war (SGF II 857, 850) – Gadda is faced with the grievous necessity of piecing together his existence without the only one (SGF II 855) who could have assisted him:

La tragica sorte [...] ha lasciato me a soffrire per lui e per me in un mondo che mi è scialbo oramai nell’anima, in una società verso cui ho solo del disprezzo. (Giornale, SGF II 853)

Assigned to a clearing camp in Florence, in those early weeks since his return Gadda is obliged to relive the demeaning experience of his capture in the routine debriefing procedures. A penetrating report on his interrogation by the military authorities, while generally complimentary, comments that his «ottimo rendimento» might be seriously impaired as a result of the shock caused by the news of his brother’s death (SGF II 1119). The pseudo-heroic death of Enrico continues to haunt his peregrinations across the final stages of his far from meteoric army career, which terminates in characteristically anti-climatic fashion.

«Mi avevano semplicemente dimenticato» (Gadda 1984a: 29) – are the first words in Gadda’s letters to the already demobilised Betti. A fortnight has elapsed since his mother broke the news; three days after that event Gadda and Betti find themselves in the same camp again, first in Florence then in Leghorn (Giornale, SGF II 849-51). The Betti-Enrico association is consolidated in no small measure during these days, later finding its poetical rendition in the Castello inscription. Much more articulate than any page of Giornale, and patently filtered through the intervened time (Compagni first appeared in 1932), this revealing portrait contains the key to this friendship, as well as allowing insights into the origins of some of Gadda’s most recurrent thematic obsessions.

The cruel god of the opening paragraph, blazingly triumphant over the lowly uncouthness of the narrator, is discovered hiding a secret weakness. He is a poet, jealously guarding his verses from profaning eyes: his worldly confidence shaken by the naivety of his own creative urge: the calm and steady voice of the stern officer breaking down into a child-like falter when reciting the poems later to become part of Il Re pensieroso. Suddenly, the qualifiers draw from a different source – chiari accenti, dolce e tragico idillio are in fact hardly to be expected from the steely lips of the young artillery man. (5) For the pining, grieving Gadda Betti’s verses potently evoke images of Enrico and his mother, of things past and dreams never to be. The conquering god is admitted on the family urn, having tasted the same desolate pain, habitual fare of the unsuspecting adorer.

Gadda’s letters to Betti vary in length, tracing a neat parabola in their chronological order. At the extreme ends they are quite short. They are instead unusually long and complex in the middle period, the years 1921-1923. Re pensieroso was published in 1922. Gadda’s review came out in 1923, amounting to a literary debut of sorts. That this period should mark the peak in their epistolary exchanges is perhaps unsurprising. Yet under those peaks lies a «cuore sepolto», requiring from us the ability to uncover and to be surprised. (6)

Betti’s fame as a playwright has obscured his poetical output. Il Re has few readers today, and certainly none as devoted as our Gadda. His attachment to it is quite telling. The copy «con la dedica dal caffè della Borsa» (Gadda 1984a: 98) travelled to South America when Gadda moved there at the end of 1922. Its progressive wear is registered; the well-thumbed copy is always on his bedside, and by 1927 two thirds of the poems have been committed to memory (Gadda 1984a: 98, 111).

Given that these forty poems were to pass into near oblivion, Gadda’s dedication invites us to stay alert and look sharper (shaper than most critics have done so far, with the partial exception of Terzoli), as we descend into the heavily symbolistic world of Il Re. Already by the third poem Casa morta, and after a relatively bland opening, we find ourselves on uncannily familiar ground – the imagery is dense, relentless, perfectly set in its motions, thus striking well-rehearsed chords in any ear trained on Gadda. If Tecchi was amazed to hear in Betti’s poems the crystalline, exposed voice of a poet when he expected the clever versification of a «uomo d’ingegno» (Tecchi 1991: 67), this revelation acquires far greater significance for Gadda, for it suggests an unsuspected affinity between two outwardly antithetical personalities.

The narrative eye of the poems is that of a child; the narrative structure and the choice of motifs those of a fairy tale. The poetic journey unfolds across the allegoric tableaux of seasons and times of the day. Night settings are overwhelmingly prevalent (of the forty poems, 26 are fully, 6 partly nocturnal, while 4 have no temporal definition – only 4 are diurnal). The king is the poet-child, at first safely reigning within the white domain of his cot. The house too is safe, with the reassuring presence of the mother-figure of the girl. Soon however the wind of autumn lays siege to the peacefulness of domesticity. And the language of Black storms in, affecting the integrity of the Within. The dark chasms of adult consciousness menace the infantile idyll. The child is thrown into the orgiastic repulsiveness of the città di ferro (Betti 1957: 38-39), from which no homecoming is possible – the gates will not be re-opened. While an unearthly hammer punctuates the night, the prince-child turns into a hairy ogre in pursuit of the frightened beauty. The girl, who was an easy companion in the early games, and who, in the role of sister and mother, could give comfort, is now imprisoned in an impossible relationship from which she cannot but flee in horror. In a barren landscape where howling winds, unfathomable wells and gloomy forests encircle the senseless monstrosity of the town, the only refuge, the enchanted castle, has been lost to the tenebrousness of adulthood. The mad king can now only look back with unbearable nostalgia to the untroubled time when the «nave dei sogni» could sail under the softness of the sky (Betti 1957: 55-56). No protestations of innocence will avail: locked behind bolted doors, the incarcerated soul, irrevocably accused of threatening the fortifications finally defending the beauty, is exiled to the sunless territory of its inner self.

Anyone familiar with the loci of the nocturnal in Gadda, in Cognizione in particular, will recognise that soulscape under this sway of darkness. If the dolce e tragico idillio of the fable cannot cure l’ultimo hidalgo, the poet’s voice – «come d’un fanciullo che dica con inadeguata voce il suo straziato rimpiangere» (Castello, RR I 163) – somehow echoes his own «urlo di demente dal fondo di un carcere» (Cognizione, RR I 688). Gadda has found a companion in that area of consciousness, «luogo di sì tetra solitudine e di tal dolore», (7) where the mind, through grief, cannot and will not engage in manly contests of cleverness. The closing paragraph of the Castello elegy – three out of its seven pages are taken up by reference to Il Re – quotes from the longest poem in the collection, La casa morta. The disquieting depiction of the house sketches out a veritable Gaddian typology of homely inferno. The child is rejected by the once protective milieu: ungreeted, unrecognised, unacknowledged – just a «curvo sconosciuto» to his own mother (Betti 1957: 15). That Gadda chose to end his homage to Betti with this quotation, cramming the figure of Enrico, his mother and the mention of a leave from military duties within a few lines, indicates where the line of tangency between their two different orbits passed. It touched on Gadda’s inability to re-enter, to come down from the mountain hut of his passeggiata autunnale (Pedriali 1990); it touched him on the shoulder, as it were, with the only compassionate word he was to hear as a reduce permanente from a conflict others obstinately considered over and done with.

We can now understand the absence of any real flamboyance in the letters he wrote to the future judge. These letters are affectionate, not exempt from the occasional cheerfulness, quite rare in Gadda. Constantly lamenting the meagre length of his friend’s replies, Gadda informs Betti of his weary progress through life as a civilian – hadn’t his military career ended with him forgotten at the bottom of a pile of forms, just like that decoration of his which had previously gone astray (Giornale, SGF II 852)? Inevitably, that is, given the addressee, the first letters are marked by the anxiety of being forgotten by his friend also: ricordami is the routine refrain rounding them off. Yet what is even more characteristic of this epistolary set is the trusting, candidly entertaining turn of the phrase Gadda employs more and more here with a boy-scout-writing-home kind of levity. Clearly Betti surrogates: for the forbidding inaccessibility of his own mother: for the sorely missed support of his dead brother.

If the first five short letters, written in the traumatic first months of 1919 are marked by a profound depression, Gadda soon pilots his mood into safer waters, learning to stay and to talk «[tra] il serio e il faceto» (Gadda 1984a: 60). As we were prepared to expect and as already hinted, it is around Il Re that Gadda writes his longest letters ever. Betti had been working on its completion, and it is fairly evident that, as well as sending any new poem to his eager correspondent, he is carefully sounding out whether Gadda had any connections which might help with the publication of the volume. Soon mention is made of the review Gadda is working on. Quite meaningfully, the two key episodes of the months at Celle now make their importance felt. The word sofeghino, which previously Gadda could only paraphrase, not explicitly consign to the pages of his war journal, resurfaces in their correspondence, and in three different letters at that (Gadda 1984a: 51, 53, 54). Re pensieroso is finally being published, Betti has beaten Gadda in the undeclared contest to official recognition as men of letters; both of them have meanwhile surrendered to Mammon, ingegnere and pretore look at each other across the telling division of their respective occupations. Not by chance, it is right at this moment that the maker of indigestible prose puts together his appeal, indirect as it is, thus implicitly requesting that the verdict passed on him be revised.

Gadda, that is, has just learned that Il Re will be in the bookshops by March, and this prompts a most extraordinary document for our purposes: the letter dated 31 December 1921. Despite the fact that most exchanges until then had borne some trace of the progress of Il Re, it is Tecchi who first gets to know, exactly as it had been to him that Betti had first revealed his vocation. (8) Again, slights of this kind from any other person but Betti would have instigated a truculent display of gaddismi – and yet here we have a carefully planned letter, with the tell-tale sofeghino humbly tucked away under the gratulatory opening on Il Re. The resulting piece presents Betti with the customary end-of-term report on his friend’s weary existence. However, this time the account comes out truly aggrandised by the terrific surplus of historical references.

The jocular lightness of the paragraphs following the reminder (the resurfaced sofeghino) and lamenting the sad elusiveness of money, gives way, in fact, to a moderate display of ingegnerismo, softened by much tongue-in-cheek irony. The glaciers of the Lombardy Alps and their fluctuations – a useful pretext for mentioning one’s own little glory as a publicist, a short piece on the hydroelectric question in the Lombardy catchment basins (SVP 17-22) – offer Gadda the starting point for an unfolding water metaphor on the destinies of Italy and the predicament of their own generation. Framed around the melancholic tale of his Boxing Day outing to the Ligurian Riviera, where the crepuscular quality of the narration has all the quiet sadness of a lone child away from home, this condensed history of his country, brimming with references to the known and not so well known numi tutelari of our writer, is a typical Gaddian device to signify his vision of life as a post-heroic tangle from which there is no salvation. The ship is stranded on treacherous rocks enveloped in mist; unaware of the disaster, humanity goes about its daily tasks in senseless confusion. The rabid enumeration of its disconnected follies, not exempt from Baudelairean redolences, fills the last part of the letter, and is placated, as is to be expected in Gadda’s rages, by a concluding catastrophe which strikes the hapless victim with random mechanical vengeance (Gadda 1984a: 54-61).

What is interesting here, is that this catalogue of human fragmentation, however sizeable and strident, has got none of the ferocity of other flights of vituperation committed to paper. Gadda is most definitely not forgetting whom he is talking to. A residual form of compassion is still at play, and this almost certainly because the other charge levelled at him by Betti is that he lacks goodness of spirit. So with this letter, spurred by his friend’s advancing literary career, Gadda makes an impassioned appeal against both sentences. His writing is indeed not suffocating. It can be brilliant, humorous, virtuosic – and yet always with a deep sense of humanity in it, reflecting the unrecognised generosity of its author. References to the darkness within are carefully cloaked as subtle allusions to the language of Il Re, a common perception of the negative is thus tacitly invoked. The trouble is, Gadda confuses Betti the artist with Betti the man – for the latter, poetic perception must not mar the homo faber and the dignity of his life. Little sympathy is to be expected from him, unless the private dimension of sorrow is related to that of one’s compagni di viaggio, past the condition as compagni di prigionia.

The letters which follow are still informed by the progress of Il Re, now a prey to public criticism. Betti’s concern about the reception it will receive is apparent from the encouraging words Gadda includes in virtually every exchange till his departure for South America in November 1922. If Betti had humiliated Gadda by comparing him to the hated Panzini, Gadda can only find praising words for his friend and the names he mentions are of quite different stature. A first version of his review is now ready, but it is not published until Gadda has finally moved to Argentina. From there he proudly informs Betti that he has compared him with Vergil, Goethe, Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Leopardi. (9) Of particular interest to us is the fact that, in June 1922, he writes a letter giving Betti a foretaste of his review, and outlining the main themes he has identified in Il Re: the tragic vision of the Ineluctable, the awareness of the rapidity of our demise, the swift consumption of joy, the «cognizione del male infinito per analogia col nostro proprio» (Gadda 1984a: 63). Clearly, this is a Gadda compendium providing us with yet further evidence of the interpretation pro domo sua of Betti’s work. Not that Il Re excludes such critical position; quite the contrary. However, what must be stressed at this junction is that Gadda is zooming in on those and only those aspects of Betti’s art which reinforce his own solitary stance, as a man even more than as a writer. It is, incidentally, around Betti’s name that Gadda first experiments with the words cognizione and dolore – the masterpiece-to-be is indeed already germinating in the background. (10)

During the summer months of 1922 Gadda is busy preparing his departure for South America. His indecision about the matter – «dammi tu un buon consiglio», he asks Betti (Gadda 1984a: 64) – finally comes to a head, and he announces it to his friend with the longest letter ever, on 27 August. It is still with Il Re that the letter opens. Interestingly, Gadda declares his understanding of the poems greatly enhanced by Betti’s clarifications back at Celle. With the balanced neatness which truly is the trademark of this epistolary set, he proceeds to describe his feelings about his imminent emigration. The space Gadda allows to his despondency is once again carefully limited. The message must leave indeed the burdened breast, but since Betti has the potion to lessen the ill, unmitigated despair would not be wise. Therefore, the confession to a state of utter aimlessness – «i freni si sono spezzati e la mia macchina fila a corsa pazza su una strada di cui ancora non vedo l’uscita» (Gadda 1984a: 67-68) – is compensated by the positive statement of a desire to see «genti diverse». Gadda never forgets to draw attention to his goodwill in his battle for survival, always aware of the eye of the judge upon him.

Brianza and South America already merge inextricably in the central part of this letter; the quality of the writing and the thematic inventiveness are further indicators of the great novel to come. But it is in retelling a misadventure on the Alps that other requests for help are flashed away. An ill-planned climb to a modest peak turns sour for poor Gadda: he panics on an exposed ledge: his cousin holds on to him to prevent him falling down the ravine: the «vispa signorina» completing their party goes back to get help, and the humiliated ex-alpino is carried to safety (Gadda 1984a: 70-71). A parallel war-time misadventure (exhausted on his second shift on a night march across a glacier, Gadda, the officer in command, had been left behind by his fresher set of alpini: «non si curarono di me, arrivarono soli ai posti» – Castello, RR I 138-40) is not recalled here. But Celle is evoked again, as is the date of Caporetto. Gadda is accumulating evidence for his appeal case; rehabilitation must be granted, given the (justified) helplessness of his state.

In his last letter from Milan before the transatlantic voyage Gadda begs forgiveness for the playful tone which Betti must have resented in those days of uncertainty leading up to the fascist coup. A rigidly disciplined letter follows – the scolded boy shows he can behave. But, again, the greater magnitude of his own personal agony is invoked to excuse any apparent lack of participation in wider affairs.

The letters from South America, apart from the obvious expressions of homesickness, are lively and affectionate. Needless to say, Re pensieroso figures prominently among its topics right from the start. The initial curiosity is eroded by a gradual gaddizzazione of the new environment. The toponymy quickly gains that improbability we know so well from Cognizione – and truly, our Gaddus has taken his cage along. The material opportunities offered by the New Continent are in fact haughtily declined; its greater social mobility is equally unattractive. Gadda accepts the wisdom of Betti’s exhortations to work with ambrosiana diligenza, but it is clear that his stay under Southern skies is doing little to lessen the unrelenting grip of the exile within.

In March 1924 he is back in Milan. All the recurring elements of the Betti papers greet us again in his first letter from there. The ceremonial adoration of Betti’s piede sinistro – propitiatory necessity to secure his «implorato perdono» (Gadda 1984a: 97) – inaugurates the last phase in their friendship. After a few rather laconic letters, a long gap ensues, lasting until February 1926. The pretext to break the long period of «sepolcrale silenzio» (Gadda 1984a: 104) is given by the appearance of his old piece on Il Re, already published in Argentina but not yet in Italy. The forced optimism of the now Rome-based ingegnere here is a trifle more laboured. Labelled as the latest bulletin in his senseless life, this letter documents the further disorientation of the capitano in congedo, terrorised by receptionists and black shirts alike. The chronic idealisation of anything connected with Betti continues, regularly followed by self-denigrating remarks on his own misadventures. Betti’s Roman life is luminous, Goethian; Gadda’s that of some «gorgonzolesco faccendiere» (Gadda 1984a: 105). The advancing disintegration of his social being has him wittily elaborating on his intention to approach Pirandello and nominate himself as the leading character in one of his future plays (Gadda 1984a: 106).

A short postcard written in January 1927 brings us to the final phase of our study. A dry message of congratulations on the successful première of his first play La padrona reaches Betti. At Gadda’s request, a copy of the script is forwarded to him for a possible review. Betti’s anxiety about getting it back is quite evident from Gadda repeated apologies. La padrona will remain unreviewed in a «profondo baule» (Gadda 1984a: 121), until rescued a year later by Gadda’s sister and sent back to its rightful owner. Two letters of July and November 1927 register a nose-dive in Gadda’s mood: graphically explicit suicidal intents are expressed, all caution now thrown to the wind. They are followed by a series of matter-of-fact postcards, mostly concerned with the practicalities of getting his work published – until the last letter, dated 11 January 1930: a last instance of bello scrivere, largely taken up by a description of his own funeral.

The correspondence ends with two postcards. As a rule, Gadda prefers the impartial blankness of the cartolina postale, but this time two illustrations are chosen to accompany his message: «scrivimi qualcosa di più che la firma» (Gadda 1984a: 134). The first one, dated 11 June 1930, offers a view of Rome. Of all the famous sights available Gadda selects a cemeterial monument, a pyramid: the ancient sun-symbol signifying ascension: the geometric tomb of kings. (11) Known in the Middle Ages as the grave of Remus, the slain twin brother of Romulus, Gadda’s choice is the memorial, by St Paul’s gate, to Gaius Cestius, the Augustan praetor and tribunus plebis. Treating such iconic declaration as mere chance would be unsatisfactory philology. In our author’s words:

nel lavoro, tutto si somma e s’imbroglia: e l’intrico inganna e irretisce ogni analista. (Viaggi, SGF I 562)

If we follow up a clue contained in a letter of March 1927 – «se Carocci mi pubblica un mio pasticcio, in esso dico molto male di te» (Gadda 1984a: 111) –, we get to the essay I viaggi, la morte, as was surely meant to happen, given the insistent, provoking jocundity of Gadda’s statement. A veritable motivic journey, this fundamental text is teeming with suggestions of great relevance to our study. Baudelaire’s Voyage and Rimbaud’s Bateau ivre furnish the towering promontories, as it were, round which the ingegner fantasia («Io, ingegner fantasia, con penisole e promontori nelle lettere» – Gadda 1984a: 48) spins his yarn about poetic impulse and death. Somewhat forcedly, Rimbaud’s verses are joined by Betti’s («Nell’acqua fonda calano i morti | Buttati giù dalle tempeste» – Viaggi, SGF I 576; Betti 1957: 76), though with the qualification that they lack audacity of expression compared to the Frenchman’s. Having nonetheless engraved his friend’s name along the recurrent signposts of his spiritual lineage, Gadda concludes his prolonged meditation on human mortality with the Goethe of the Elegien:

Dulde mich, Jupiter, hier, und Hermes führe mich später
Cestius Mahl vorbei, leise zum Orkus hinab. (12)

The Roman Goethe plays a conspicuous role in explaining the position assigned to Betti (what we have called his function) by Gadda’s exegetic zeal; tellingly, it appears also in the Re pensieroso review and in a letter. (13) But it is only in I viaggi, la morte that the clue is given. There, in fact, Gadda uses the cemeterial icon of his later postcard to round off the circular filigree of multiple references initiated by the letter of March 1927; as a friendship reaches its end, the medium through which it started – poetry – is again used as the go-between. With Goethe’s seventh Elegie serving as the aptest messenger (so much so that the later 1930 postcard cannot but point the addressee back to it), Gadda flashes away his terminal coded message:

O wie fühl ich in Rom mich so froh! gedenk ich der Zeiten,
Da mich ein graulicher Tag hinten im Norden umfing,
Trübe der Himmel und schwer auf meine Scheitel sich senkte,
Farb- und gestaltlos die Welt um den Ermatteten lag,
Und ich über mein Ich, des unbefriedigten Geistes
Düstre Wege zu spähn, still in Betrachtung versank.
Nun umleuchtet der Glanz des helleren Äthers die Stirne;
Phöbus rufet, der Gott, Formen und Farben hervor. (14)

No longer just a geographic accident, Celle’s «graulicher Tag hinten im Norden» has become a permanent, chronic state of mind. The radiance of Phoebus-Betti (Castello, RR I 158, 160, 162), calling forms and colours into being, has acquired a halo and a distance which the invocation dulde mich no longer hopes to infringe. Meaningfully, the flehend and the Vergib!, separated in Goethe, (15) are reunited by Gadda in the usual formula:

immagina il grande alemanno che la eterna Ebe latina abbia sorriso a lui peripatetico nella suburra e lo abbia introdotto presso la maestà terribile di Giove capitolino. Egli implora il perdono del nume: il quale, verosimilmente, aveva commesso alla dea di condurgli un eroe (Hast du ihr einen Heroen herauf zu führen geboten?), non un poetastro. (Viaggi, SGF I 585)

If the Goethian subtext of the postcard conjures up, very much in extremis, the ritualistic invocation of the implorato perdono, the grey barrenness of the scene conveys a sense of finality, with little or no hope of remission. In the previous letter Gadda described his own funeral; now a subtler ceremony is staged through the iconic, geometrical sterness of the card. Betti’s pivotal but reluctant thaumaturgy is situated by the St Paul gate, a dolce guida to the Orcus, where the «pace serena» of the Erebus could have welcomed the soul at the end of his «ciclo poetico» and «eroico» (Viaggi, SGF I 585).

But the dolce guida has steered away from the common course; the shared dolorante cognizione has been forsaken, in Gadda’s eyes, by his friend’s personal and creative development. The plea, unexpressed but no less intense, to reforge, to reconstitute the fleeting backdrop of oneness in grief, which was established, at least in his mind, in that private reading by the camp fence at Celle has gone unheeded, for the child-poet has grown into the playwright for whom universal acquaintance with sorrow is more important than any specific wounds of the particular.

And it is around Teatro that the final dividing act in their friendship is consumed. A poem in Il Re bore that title, a wild hallucination set with all the paraphernalia of Gadda’s great nightmares. The mad, pale prince is at its passive centre, a mere spectator, prisoner of the morbid vision which is sapping his strength, coerced witness to the copulatory violence staged in his scarlet theatre. If the heavily disturbed perception of these verses can translate with almost literal precision into Gadda’s great oneiric scenes, its implicit derision of thespian conventions will be amplified and estranged with hilariously tragic brilliancy in the 1927 Gaddian piece de virtuosité simply called Teatro. However, this savage attack on the temple of modern religion, this damning indictment of the holiness of public, communal art mocks the very essence of Betti’s intervened evolution.

In the mature playwright the distraught vision of the self which created Il Re does indeed remain. But the awareness of one’s divided plurality, of the self-absorption in the compulsive multitudinousness of one’s psyche, is re-acted against, rather than perpetually re-enacted. The stage becomes public and brightly lit as Betti the dramaturge administers the viaticum of human solidarity to Betti the poet. The performance is allowed out into the agon where humanity practices the humble task of commerce of ideas and moods, where one breaks the sour bread of living with one’s neighbour. Black’s domain thus wanes, the responsibility of knowledge is taken off the poet’s shoulders as sole chalice of bitterness. Acquaintance with grief is made external, communalised, laid bare on the planks of a stage we are all watching from the promiscuity of the gallery; the integrity of the message, just as the purity of the sender, will not be impaired by the morganatic marriage of poet and crowd, spirito eletto and otherness.

What to Gadda’s intransigence (his protective moat, his raised bridge against the waste of the county around him) would appear to be the highest degree of blasphemy, is the talisman in Betti’s hands as he emerges after the flood waters of Re pensieroso – somehow, through the healing powers of solidarity we can be appeased. The script of La padrona, returned via Gadda’s sister after being kept hostage for a year, will never be rewarded with a review (Gadda 1984a: 122); the once treasured dedication on the fly-leaf of Il Re is torn off. (16) Betti is consigned to the realm of degraded otherness, after having refused to act, as it were, as Gadda’s second in his duel with fate: after denying the reasonableness of Gadda’s appeal against the double sentence passed on him back at Celle. The judge has proven unlistening, and therefore unfair; the poet has lost his innocence, his tombstone is placed by the town gates. As in Kafka’s Vor dem Gesetz, Gadda is again faced with the horror of the only door, as the door through which his personal salvation could have been achieved is irretrievably precluded. «Sono sempre sotto processo. Proprio come nel “processo” di Kafka» — he writes in 1946 to both Tecchi and Lucia Rodocanachi (Gadda 1984b: 150 and 1983d: 164). The judgement, by then, has long been frozen in time, sealed in the Self. If in Kafka the verdict was imprinted in the flesh of the condemned by the monstrous machinery of the Strafkolonie, in Gadda the sentence has been cruelly inscribed in the optical nerve.

The second and final postcard, dated 27 July 1930, from «Sterkrade: (Rheinland) Kaiserhof» (in itself a powerful spatial reminder of the original, betrayed whereabouts of their friendship), parades the most convolute contortions which an array of pipes, ladders and railings can conceivably perform in an industrial setting, the steel plant of Gadda’s latest unglamorous business trip. If the earlier Cestius pyramid view had all the desolate poetry of Piranesi’s Vedute di Roma, this tubular labyrinth encircling a blast furnace conveys the claustrophobic self-symmetrical enchantment of the Carceri d’invenzione. Preconised in a letter of 1926 – «la sera, tardi, esco stanco dall’ufficio, dopo aver messo a posto un numero inverosimile di tubi che fanno dei garbugli inimmaginabili» (Gadda 1984a: 104) –, such Beschreibung eines Kampfes aptly suggests that individual terminal loneliness (its deranged vagrancy in so-called engineering pursuits) coincides with the true substance of life, and is just as enticingly horrible as the senseless patterns of crime investigated by the magistrate. Thus, and without words, this radiograph of the mind angrily affirms the gravity of one’s state against Betti’s achieved integration; the curt message on the reverse opens by thanking the addressee for his card «adorna di gentile firma femminile» (Gadda 1984a: 134). An alternative, unadorned reality is proudly, if desperately, vindicated through iconic supplementation. For it is the second time in his life that Gadda has lost a brother. Between him and the dark engulfing catalogue of eternity no mediating shield is ever again likely to be raised:

E io rimanevo solo. Con gli atti.... scritture di ombra…. le ricevute.... nella casa vuotata delle anime. (Cognizione, RR I 633) (17)

close the loop (restart the loop)
go to traces of Cain


1. Giornale, SGF II 798-802. The newsletter was called L’Organo on Betti’s suggestion. Gadda – himself a contributor to the magazine – duly registers the goliardic touch of Betti’s choice.

2. B. Tecchi, Baracca 15c (Milan: Bompiani, 1961), 70-71.

3. Tecchi 1961: 73, with a first reference to the episode on p. 63, in the section devoted to examples of Betti’s uncompromising judgement. Gadda does not bring himself to mention either the qualifier or the episode in Giornale (he does however use the word in Gadda 1984a: 51, 53, 54). Yet traces of the incident perhaps survive in a self-deprecatory entry on his contribution to L’Organo, a case of «un falso volontario, in realtà imboscato» pretending to be a heroic volunteer (hence the ironic title Dal memoriale di un volontario di guerra), quite obviously a prefiguration of all future invectives against phony war veterans. Gadda describes it as «noiosissimo, un vero pezzo duro […] legnoso […] poco digeribile», with the description amounting to a paraphrase of the term (Giornale, SGF II 800; cf. also Cognizione, where the doctor describes Gonzalo’s writings as: «una prosa dura, incollata, che nessuno legge», RR I 616). Whether or not the lost Memoriale was the piece in question (cf. Gadda 1984a: 51, n. 1) is impossible to say – Tecchi declares it «da me mai letto e rimasto inedito» (Tecchi 1961: 73).

4. Gadda reworks two passages respectively from Cicero (Brutus 9.35: «egregie subtilis scriptor atque elegans») and Quintilian (Institutio oratoria 10.1.78: «his aetate Lysias maior, subtilis atque elegans»), with the meaningful insertion of puer (Pedriali 2007a: 202).

5. Castello, RR I 163. A similar tale, almost verbatim, can be found in Tecchi’s Taccuini del ’18 (Milan: Mursia, 1991), 67.

6. Cuore sepolto is the title of one of U. Betti’s poems – Il Re pensieroso (Bologna: Cappelli, 1957), 57-59.

7. From our epigraph, which is taken from Silvio Pellico’s opening dedication of Francesca da Rimini to his brother Luigi.

8. In Castello Gadda predates the episode, which Tecchi annotated in his diary entry of 25 May 1918. Gadda’s mention of March as the time when Betti reads to him from his book can either be a poetic licence suggested by Il Re itself (which opens with La primavera, and came out in March 1922) or an attempt to appropriate the episode by marking its imaginary nature (as well as the passing of time since: «non ricordo bene tutt’i dettagli, son passati altri quindici annazzi vigliacchi» – Castello, RR I 162).

9. Gadda 1984a: 86. Gadda’s review Un libro di poesia: Il Re Pensieroso di Ugo Betti (now SGF 671-78) was first published in La patria degli italiani, Buenos Aires, on April 20th 1923 – almost five years to the day Enrico was dead.

10. Cf. SGF I 673, for the complementing phrase describing Betti’s art as «dolorante cognizione». The connectivity of all such phrases, leading to the master phrase cognizione del dolore, has been noted, especially by Terzoli 1993b. Yet to date a Betti function has not been adequately analysed.

11. Archivio Internazionale Ugo Betti, Rome – postcard not reproduced in Gadda 1984a.

12. Gadda ends the essay on the closing lines from Goethe’s Römische Elegien, Elegie VII (SGF I 586), having prepared the reader by giving the Italian translation of the quotation on the previous page (SGF I 585), followed by the comment: «Questo potrebbe dire ogni legionario di Claudio». Gadda comments similarly, and perhaps with similar intent, when, in his review of Il Re, he states that Betti’s lines are «le parole che può pronunciare una mamma, un fratello, un operaio, un soldato» (SGF I 672).

13. Analysing the poem Nave dei sogni in his review of Il Re, Gadda defines its atmosphere as that of an intoxicating «dolce notte primaverile» which reminds him of the «divina dolcezza delle notti romane» celebrated by Goethe’s «Sternhell glänzet die Nacht, sie klingt von weichen Gesängen» (SGF I 673). Betti and Elegie VII are thus stapled together, as it were, since the very beginning, even at the semantic level. Cf. Castello, RR I 161 («la tentazione degli scacchi era immediata e dolce» – on Betti’s challenge to engage in a game of chess), 162 («dolcemente intento sul foglio», on catching glimpses of Betti’s secret; «sorrideva […] nella dolcezza più cara», on Betti finally agreeing to read out from his poems), 163 («E un alito dolce veniva, come un pensiero, come dalla mia terra», as Betti is reading from Il Re – and yet, Gadda concludes, «neppure il dolce e tragico idillio di Ugo ebbe virtù di guarirmi»). Again quite tellingly, when translating the final verses of Elegie VII Gadda turns leise into dolcemente, while Goethe’s mention of the Cestius monument is qualified as «con dolce spunto romano» (SGF I 585).

14. «Oh, how glad I feel to be in Rome, as I remember those times back there in the north, when grey days clung about me and the sky was gloomy and pressed down on my head like a dead weight, and I was surrounded by a colourless, shapeless, dulling, exhausting world, and would sink into contemplation of my ego, trying to spy out the dark paths of my discontented mind. Now the radiance of a brighter air shines round my brow; Phoebus, the god calls forms and colours into being» – W. Goethe, Selected Verse, English translation by D. Luke (London: Penguin, 1964), 97-98.

15. «Ach! hier lieg ich und strecke nach deinen Knieen die Hände | Flehend aus. O vernimm, Jupiter Xenius, mich! | Wie ich hereingekommen, ich kanns nicht sagen; es faßte | Hebe den Wandrer und zog mich in die Hallen heran. | Hast du ihr einen Heroen heraufzuführen geboten? | Irrte die Schöne? Vergib! Laß mir des Irrtums Gewinn!».

16. Gadda’s copy of Il Re (minus fly-leaf and dedica dal caffè della Borsa) is part of the Fondo Gadda at the Biblioteca Teatrale del Burcardo, Rome – other books by Betti, with generic dedications, survive intact.

17. After the conciseness of these last postcards, in which the brevity of the message is more than compensated by the iconic subtext, and with the exception of the portrait contained in Castello (all in the past tense, and truly an epitaph), Betti is surgically removed from Gadda’s life. The letters to Tecchi bear sporadic mention of Betti, but only as late as the early 1930s, and with Tecchi acting as the intermediary (Gadda 1984b: 85, 88, 92, 106-08). In 1938, while updating his cousin Piero on their common friends, Gadda attributes a most unlikely Betti-related syndrome to Montale: «Ogni articolo su Betti lo mette in allarme, come un cane che si desti udendo un passo nella notte e aguzzi le orecchie. Tremore, sudor freddo, aumento delle pulsazioni cardiache. Poi è riconsolato da una stroncatura» (Gadda 1974c: 46, and also 47, where he approves of «Macrì stroncatore di Betti») – revealingly, Montale’s alleged state of nocturnal alarm in connection with Betti closely resembles Gadda’s own bad nights reported to Lucia Rodocanachi. Gadda’s only epistolary mention of Betti’s death, in June 1953 (no more than a line, at the end a list of personal ailments and impediments: «Così il poco tempo fugge. È morto Ugo Betti, come avrai visto»), comes again from the Gadda Conti papers (Gadda 1974c: 82); whereas no mention of it is to be found in the letters to Tecchi, the natural interlocutor of anything connected with the Celle period. And while we have the latter’s expression of condolence to the Betti family (the telegram reads: «Piango amico carissimo giovinezza lontana inchinomi ingegno poeta drammaturgo – B.T.», Archivio Internazionale Ugo Betti, Rome), no letter or telegram from Gadda survives (though there are reports of his getting personally if briefly in touch with Andreina, Betti’s wife, during his final illness). Again tellingly, in 1961 Tecchi dedicated his Baracca 15c to Gadda, «con vivo affetto», and to Betti, «con affettuosa memoria», whereas Gadda’s Giornale di guerra e prigionia, first published in 1955, just two years after Ugo’s death, is dedicated to Tecchi, «ricordando la sua fermezza nei giorni difficili». In thanking Tecchi for the dedication, Gadda thus summarises his feelings: «Grazie, veramente, con l’animo: per il mio povero Enrico, per l’amicizia sacra che mi lega a te, per la generosità con cui serbi il ricordo di un commilitone che avrebbe voluto incontrarti in guerra e non in prigionia, e mostrarsi degno di te» (Gadda 1984b: 154-55) – again, no mention of the other sacred friendship from those years.

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

ISSN 1476-9859
ISBN 1-904371-13-2

© 2007-2024 by Federica G. Pedriali & EJGS. First published in EJGS (EJGS 6/2007). Cain and other symmetries reworks, retitles and redistributes material previously published in journals.
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