2. traces of Cain (mark of Cain)

Dictionaries, good dictionaries, must be kept handy when reading Gadda. This may be somewhat inconvenient, of course. Yet the effort of staying with the page, any page, gets phenomenal rewards, such is the astounding lexical variety we are facing. Surprisingly then, and also rather frustratingly, having been boundlessly delighted, having been taken on what looked like an endless tour through amazing riches, we come to the point, or moment, when we see through the spectacle and the inventiveness. Like things, words do repeat themselves, always. Even in Gadda’s exceptional case.

Repetition, symmetry, motivic return in Gadda dominate the scene to a paralysing extent. Here we have a writer endowed with unparalleled technical skills – yet his creative output is remarkably twisted, repetitive, truncated well beyond what the spirit of time could have demanded. As in Kafka’s case, literature alone does not explain it. If we want to make sense out of the pasticcio, if we are to gain a view, to use Kafka’s words, of that frozen sea from which this writing painfully arose, (1) we must perhaps adopt alternative investigative means, i.e., means other than our initial boundless euphoria, and learn to exploit our frustration as well, by putting it to good use as an equally respectable source of analytical method.

Like things and words, relationships too repeat themselves always. This is nowhere more so, in our case, than in the intensely emotional mother-son relationship which folds out, in literature, having folded in, in life, on a central trauma: that of the death of the younger brother Enrico. Giornale di guerra, the obvious starting point in our renewed exploitation of repetition and symmetry, has reached us as best as it could, negotiating hazards of war and self-imposed censorship, perhaps an only partially reliable document for our purposes. In the several places where mention of Enrico is made Gadda expresses utter devotion to his brother, intense affection, and extreme protective anxiety. In the letters available to us, the direct references are few and far between; invariably, the tone is one of devastating sorrow at the loss of his povero Enrico, as vividly (and as formulaically) in, say, 1970 as it was in 1919. Mention of Enrico in the interviews Gadda gave in the late years follows the same pattern. So much so, that critics, quite rightly, have expressed doubts about such fulsome protestations. (2)

In a televised interview, given in 1963 when Cognizione was being nominated for the Prix International de Littérature, Gadda explained the title of the novel in the following terms:

Cognizione è anche il procedimento conoscitivo, il graduale avvicinamento ad una determinata nozione. Questo procedimento può essere lento, penoso, amaro, può comportare il passaggio attraverso esperienze strazianti della realtà. La morte di un giovine fratello caduto in guerra può distruggere la nostra vita. Si ricordino i versi disperati di Catullo. (Gadda 1993c: 153)

Significantly, the novel, usually regarded as il romanzo della madre, is here linked to Enrico. And Catullus’s desperate verses, which – we learn from a review Gadda wrote in 1945 – come from Carmina 68 and 101 (SGF I 899), direct us towards Gadda’s own poems. Largely unavailable until quite recently, and subjected, as Terzoli has aptly remarked, to a «singolare autocensura» (Terzoli 1993b: v), this lyric output consists of just twenty-three texts, about half of which written in early 1919, when Gadda, on his return from prison camp in Germany, had learnt of his brother’s death. Later set aside in an orange-coloured envelope, they were intended, it seems, to be confidential. Ugo Betti’s influence is present throughout: Gadda borrows enthusiastically from Re pensieroso. Clearly, it is no simple or straightforward act of admired emulation – those are precisely the images and the technical devices that express his own intensely private obsessions. And in fact Gadda delves unremittingly into such material in search of the definitive word that will testify to his true moral quality. Thus, that is, through appropriation he shares. For this is his attempt to alleviate a painful state of mind (he has survived both his brother’s death and the ignominy of captivity: envisioning, imaging one’s own traumatised condition is fundamentally affected here, its secretive vocabulary ciphered) – and yet, in it, he is no longer alone.

One can take statements to their full measure by taking them quite literally. Among the many statements about himself, Gadda does say that in his work there is no thematic progress; at most, perhaps, «qualche approfondimento di scrittura» (Gadda 1993c: 154). Certainly, in the poems written in 1919 we come across the entire motivic repertoire that will later network the major works, Cognizione especially. Let’s leave aside the first work in the set, Sul San Michele, for the moment – in Alla montagna salire, dated 5 April, we are greeted with the image of a tower. Yet the battling storms are crushing any desire for (re)construction; the passage to health is useless, and in vain, the poet’s hand falls dead at the attempt (Gadda 1993a: 13, vv. 25-32). Acqua nascosta, written a day later, still employs a water metaphor to convey the (im)possible reintegration of the suffering subject (14, vv. 4-7; 108) – its message must not be corrupted by «il dolce | Silenzio della vendetta» (14, vv. 16-17).

The water metaphor runs through the next poem, So che v’è un lago (9 April). But while in the previous text the inclination of a plane («Il declinare | Del piano», Gadda 1993a: 14, vv. 13-14) gently led the way for the poet, now jagged and insurmountable mountains imprison him in ice (15, vv. 9-10; 108-09). Beyond the «opaco | Terrore della notte», the poet could indeed still drink of the pure, unknown world he senses in the clear mornings (15-16, vv. 28-29, 34, 43-44). Yet the certainty of living one life, under the one law, is beginning to recede (16, vv. 38-39, 53-57).

The fifth poem in the set, Chiara serenità della terra, is perhaps among the most unruffled penned by Gadda, a rare idyll set in the fresh spring air of an Easter Sunday, his first Easter – Gadda informs us in a note – in Longone after the war, and the first after Enrico’s death (Gadda 1993a: 109). Distant bells, yet to be demonised as in Cognizione, call the living to the sun and clear air (17, vv. 11-4). In 1919 Easter Sunday fell on 20 April, close to the first anniversary of Enrico’s death. Gadda’s Giornale entries stop on 1 April, with the name of Enrico and after the great outburst of 25 March against family and fate. They resume on 22 May, presumably once the poetic urge had waned (SGF II 855-57). But while the diary of those months brims with references to Enrico, Gadda the poet gives no Catullian cry of despair at his brother’s death. In fact not until he dictates the epitaph (having designed the funeral monument), will he bring himself to utter his brother’s name. Like Gonzalo, Gadda is burying Enrico within himself. (3)

If Chiara serenità can be read as desire (for reintegration) and celebration (of restored normality), it can also, especially if coupled with the next poem, Piani di sole, be taken as a spectator’s lyric. Piani appears to prolong the mood established in the Easter poem. The idyll continues under a radiant sun, as a street teeming with life is depicted with admiration – until the spell is broken, in the final verses: «L’anima […] | Conosce oltre la luce | E il lavoro del giorno | Il suo feroce male» (Gadda 1993a: 21, vv. 50-56). The fracture is sealed by Gli amici taciturni. Now the world is sterile, forests and mountains shrouded in shadow, the dark silences of still nights shattered by lightning (20-21, vv. 6-7, 25-27, 40-41). When memories of things past overcome the emptiness of the present («altri giorni allora | Vediamo ed altri sorrisi. | E rivediamo le torri | Ed i vecchî castelli» – 21, vv. 59-62), we have before us an image that will return over and over again as the archetype of Edenic serenity, depicted at the moment of impending loss.

The next poem, Sala di basalte, further defines this transition. Inglorious combat, captivity, bereavement have all conspired against the subject’s «meravigliose facoltà» (Giornale, SGF II 645) – yet such accidents merely repeat a pattern, a pattern known since childhood. In Sala, by far the longest poem in the set, what the consciously semi-public voice attempted to suppress in the diaries now takes over in the disguise of poetry. The opening is serenely nocturnal («Per valli lontane | La luna indugia nel settembre» – Gadda 1993a: 23, vv. 1-2). Under the September moon lovers are kissing passionately until, fourteen verses into the poem, a howling wind suddenly breaks up the scene and we are plunged into a nightmare. Amidst the «popolo nero | Dei faggi», a shadow walks along an unknown path (vv. 19-23); motionless towers appear (vv. 27-28), as the raging storm obscures the sky:

Un’ombra passa sul ponte […]
Come le ombre di quelli
Che sono passati sopra la terra,
Avevano nel viso una luce
E un sorriso.

(Gadda 1993a: 23-24, vv. 31-36)

Sorriso, a key word associated with Enrico, signals his disguised entrance onto the scene. The ghostlike appearance («Come chi non torna, passava | Così dentro le torri un’ombra» – Gadda 1993a: 24, vv. 41-42) summons forth the poem’s main character, an anxious maiden living at the mercy of the giants of wind and darkness (vv. 49-50). Enveloped in her pain, unaware of her surroundings, she prays for the sweet, pale friend she has lost (v. 61); all of her thoughts are absorbed in the impossible conversation with someone who is not there (25, vv. 76-79), whose dying moments are relived with morbid desperation (vv. 81-90). The girl’s descent into the depths of Hades, down the «gola del profondo», past the «viscidi mostri della terra» (vv. 92, 95), is indeed rewarded by the apparition of a smiling paggio. However, once it evaporates, a third phantom joins in:

Uno sconosciuto soldato
[…] guarda
La fanciulla senza saluto.
Ella chiede per dove si passa
Per dove è passato
Uno dalla dolce, nitida faccia.

(Gadda 1993a: 26-27, vv. 145-51)

Sala di basalte brings to an end the probing process Gadda began with Sul San Michele, the first poem in the set. Written ten days after he had learnt of Enrico’s death, the latter is by far the most realistic piece, in a poetic translation of similar passages about dead fellow soldiers to be found in the Giornale and later in Castello. What is striking, given the heartfelt feelings expressed in those instances, is that throughout the poems written in 1919, personal loss (i.e., loss in the singular, and not of a collective plurality) is left out of Gadda’s sorrow. In the private language of poetry, in fact, rather than mourn Gadda sublimates his loss in relation to a mater dolorosa: not unlike Gonzalo in Cognizione. His own experience, that is, is merely qualified by the loss. He is a person who lost his brother in the war. Just like Grifonetto and Gerolamo Lehrer, in Racconto italiano.

In El Aleph, Borges writes that our deeds become the symbols of what we are, and that one’s life reveals its essence in a single act which has taken place at a particular point in time. (4) The poetic act we have just witnessed is exactly such a pivotal point for Gadda. Sala is no doubt an act of grieving. Yet it is also an act of unfulfilled desire. The triangle of which Gadda had been part has been dissolved by fate. However the other survivor, the mourning mother-fanciulla keeps going through the motions, refusing to acknowledge that loss is forever, barely heeding her other son’s plea. Much has indeed been made of the Oedipal conflict at work in Gadda. But if it is true that it does exist, the third element in the triangle would appear to be Enrico, not Gadda’s father, thus somewhat modifying our understanding of the case, especially in its textual implications.

Turning now to Gadda’s fiction. We do find at its core that very symbolic act about which Borges speaks. In Passeggiata autunnale, a short tale written in 1918 while at Celle Lager, the emotional conflict involving the three main characters is resolved abruptly by the elimination of Stefano. And yet Nerina (the madre-fanciulla) is forever absorbed by the lost one, and goes on avoiding the third party, Rineri’s pleading gaze. Although written before Gadda knew of Enrico’s death, Passeggiata is surprisingly envisioned like Sala (or putting things the other way round also: the poetic post mortem that closes with Sala, takes Gadda back to the verdict already reached in the earlier Passeggiata). Whether all this represents presentiment (Giornale, SGF II 849), or death-wish, is not for us to say. What cannot be ignored, however, is that the scene, or narreme as we should rather call it, is played over and over again in Gadda’s fiction. Although Gadda states that his disillusionment and grief are rooted in war and imprisonment (Giornale, SGF II 853), the fact of the matter remains (if we are to believe his fictional double Gonzalo):

Il suo rancore veniva da una lontananza più tetra, come se fra lui e la mamma ci fosse qualcosa di irreparabile, di più atroce d’ogni guerra: e d’ogni spaventosa morte. (Cognizione, RR I 692)

This remoteness is partially defined in three of Gadda’s short narratives, which could conveniently be grouped under the heading park stories (besides being similar in theme, they all have Parco Sempione, in Piazza Castello, as their setting). Densely autobiographical, these narrative exercises explore motivic possibilities (the repertoire of symmetries that was about to shape up as Cognizione). The first, Una tigre nel parco, appeared in May 1936, just over a month after his mother’s death. It is a bold piece of prose that could be regarded as a pre-emptive strike at any critical probing into the murky depths of the novel-to-be and «così degno d’analisi psichica, della più terrificante analisi» (SGF I 77). In a seemingly irrelevant footnote (SGF I 76), we learn that the story is set in 1896. The tiger is Gadda as a child, exploring on all fours the enchanted garden. The spell is broken and the dream comes suddenly to an end, as his fingers happen on a « strana marmellata». His innocence polluted, the child is forced out of the dream and into reality: «l’ideale di riuscire una tigre reale vanì, ahi!, per sempre». One could say that here a marvellously light-footed Gadda lays his entire (future) novel squarely before the psychoanalyst. Or does he? This jardin féerique might contain most of it; the park overrun by nannies and children certainly represents the territory (the Ducato) of a time prior to the full onset of the Superego, a springtime of conscience as idyllic wholeness under the protective gaze of the castle and its towers (SGF I 75-77). But it is the representation of evil which is uncharacteristic, and incomplete, its threat rising to compromise the satisfied self-absorbed signorino and his childhood fantasies: rising, that is, from the grim moats, the broken walls, the smelly ruins, the gorgonzola-eating outcast better known as «l’uomo del sacco» (SGF I 76-79). The maiden is missing, and with that, the presence of evil hovering over her. Moreover the narrator is still an integral part of the action. The towers, in other words, may hide the real threat, but in actual fact this has yet to come on to the scene. We are, as advertised, back in May 1896. In November of the same year Enrico was born. (5)

Ronda al Castello moves into a higher gear. If in Tigre graceful swallows fill the air, here a swarm of assorted cyclists invade the once peaceful park. The occupation of the Ducato has indeed come to pass (SGF I 97). What used to be the sheltered preserve of the tiger has now been made subject to a frantic choreography of otherness; the topography is re-arranged, the soldiers courting the nannies are drilled and identified by the narrator with military precision. In a crowding of shadowy images the military patrol (the ronda of the title, tellingly assigned to do the round against other agencies on the move) emerges as a three-headed re-incarnation of the extinct feline, a lieutenant and two privates trying to impose some order on the confusion (SGF I 98-99) and yet carefully keeping at a distance from the dark boulevards and the scented ruins where the women of the night entertain their off-duty companions. Interestingly, each of the three knows the terrain singularly well («da precedente e privata esperienza, conosceva palmo per palmo il difficile terreno», SGF I 99), and abides by a veto supposedly applying only to them («doveva sussistere a proibire loro […] quel così remoto passo degli oscuri cammini»). Excluded from the dark paths happily trodden by others, the trio then chances on an unexpected (celestial) vision: Elsa and Bruno, the latter equipped with a shiny bicycle. Jaws are instantly dropped, as in front of an unexpected masterpiece in an art gallery. Yet unlike reactions in an art gallery, envy is stronger than admiration in this case. In a revealing simile, Bruno, the young cyclist, is compared to a hovering hawk («se pure immoto, […] padrone delle ali», SGF I 100). In a suppressed passage, later echoed in Cognizione (RR I 734), Gadda adorns Elsa with a white and red rose, while a rain of flowers blesses the idyll within the borders of the «paradiso perduto», under siege from a «lubrificata velocità» (SGF I 1235).

Al Parco, in una sera di maggio, which became part of Adalgisa, contains a further violation of the poised serenity of the setting. The castle is now just a backdrop on a stage populated-polluted by motorcycles («vittoriose motociclette […] male odoranti», RR I 483) and every other sort of loud and foul-smelling motorised vehicle («pedente e sparacchiante meccanica del più triviale novecento», RR I 485). The spoilt scene is marked by three undercurrents: the threatening, vengeful figure of the tramp, again «l’uomo del sacco», encircling the family group; the dapper cyclist and Elsa’s gaze unswervingly fixed on him; the heavenly rain of flowers blessing lovers and children alike (RR I 492-97). The children are, quite clearly, projections from the past, i.e., fictional projections of Carlo and Enrico, whose father used to collect (deal in) «insetti color castagna» (RR I 492). Gadda’s mother is split into Adalgisa and Elsa; the former embodying the practical lombardità of the adult mother figure, while the latter has all the arresting fragrance and radiance of a madre fanciulla. The lightness of the piece is suddenly encumbered as the narrator abandons his relatively unruffled third-person viewpoint for a no-better defined but surely deeply participating noi:

Il risultato complessivo era, in noi, nell’animo nostro, e in quel declino dell’ora, un disperato sgomento: un male sconosciuto e remoto: presagi, rimpianti: come il ricordo d’una irripetibile gioia del vivere, d’una luce, che giorni crudeli ne avessero allontanata per sempre: poiché tutto, di lei, pareva significare senza nostra speranza, dopo bruni alberi: «son io, sì! Quella che avete veduta e sognata». (Adalgisa, RR I 499)

Here Gadda appears to be replacing the adult wide-angle lens with a childlike contour-blurring close-up, so as to focus apprehensively on Elsa’s unreachable remoteness. To the participant onlooker she thus becomes (the qualification is highly revealing) «una povera sonnambula, che si affida ai vertiginosi cammini della notte» (RR I 500; Pedriali 2007a: 142); her eyes «parevano inseguire in idea in un remoto spazio un fuggente: forse uno che ripasserà, sulla sua bicicletta: che rivivrà nella immagine: una seconda, una terza, una ventesima, una cinquantesima volta». This musing eventually unleashes the intradiegetic partner in dialogue and gaze (Adalgisa) into one of her all-mighty bizze (her much commented anti-middleclass furori).

It can be argued that all of Gadda’s earlier life and art tended fatally towards the huge black hole of Cognizione, his first major novel; the many false starts and half starts, such as the stories we have just seen, from the mid ’30s, would in fact be overcome by that phenomenal gravitational pull, despite the unmanageable stubbornness of the material. By contrast, nowhere is the earlier difficulty more evident than in Racconto italiano, his first large-scale narrative, and as such a curious mix of Giornale (from which it takes its quasi diaristic form and occasional pieces of war literature), Meditazione (for its pseudo-philosophical digressions), and fiction proper. The sketchbook (cahier d’études) is split, from the start, into novel in progress and comments on its development. Soon enough, however, the two main writing modalities part company. While, for instance, in the notes the obsession with organising matter extends to the deranged precision of giving pages, lines, fabric of the cahier (SVP 389), the novel in progress defies the stated plans by liberally unfolding according to undeclared (unforeseen) connections.

Right from the first narrative scene, immediately after the preliminary annotations, we are again in a garden. No edenic light glows on its borders – the playful tiger in the park of an earlier age (and of the later short story we have just seen) has turned into quite some character: «Il passo era di una belva, sulla coltre del remoto giardino. Il silenzio, cortine di velluto, si dischiudeva al procedere del leopardo. Si sentiva lieve, fermo, felice, estraneo ai procedimenti macchinosi e banali con cui gli uomini fabbricano la successione dei loro atti» (SVP 402). A crime is imminent, and as the opening notes reveal, the themes are private, autobiographical, although cloaked in universal meaning. A dual topography (Brianza-South America) is established from the start. Moreover, the novel aims to recount a quintessential Gadda tragedy: «la tragedia di una persona forte che si perverte per l’insufficienza dell’ambiente sociale» (SVP 397). What is of interest to our enquiry is the way the crime develops, or does not develop. If the character of the protagonist is still undecided, schizophrenically divided into Type A and Type B, each endowed with Gaddian attributes, the scene leading the unexecuted murder is remarkably assured and typical in all its aspects (SVP 401-02). More than tellingly, that is, the first narrative to form from chaos («Dal caos dello sfondo devono coagulare […]», SVP 395), or rather, from the need to control chaos, is an attempted Assassinio di Maria de la Garde.

Let’s now go back to the starting argument: the Gadda repeats himself always of our initial claim. And let’s bring to it a complementary argument made elsewhere, in the first of the early alternatives. Despite its dazzling and variegated surface – this was the gist of the argument –, the Gaddian universe is remarkably bare, with at its centre the figure of the outcast (Pedriali 1990: 33). Inspired by the Vergilian helmsman, a myth dear to Gadda, the condition then even got named, for we could be dealing with a serious enough case of Palinurus complex. Time and time again, in fact, with Gadda we are taken from serene contemplation and epiphanic memory of the «chiari e gaudiosi mattini» to the powerless resentment at the realisation that his duchy, which promised to be well-ordered and intelligently governed, has been invaded and ruled by marauding peons. Then, before the final implosion, the raging elements envelop normal otherness, secondary agents announcing the greater devastation (retribution) to come. In Racconto, in its Studio no. 1, the curtain rises at nightfall – i.e., at the final moment of the sequence just outlined. The garden is envisioned through Maria’s thoughts (her «lontani dolori», SVP 401, with the qualifier fully deserving our emphasis), under the customary counterpoint of the stars (« gemme del silenzio notturno»). When Grifonetto violates the perimeter wall, feeling «estraneo ai procedimenti macchinosi e banali con cui gli uomini fabbricano la successione dei loro atti», we are not at all prepared for the sudden burst of violence:

la bianchissima preda era presso. Era sua preda, e non d’altri.
Basta, basta, o vita […] Basta con le stritolanti menzogne, basta con il crudele veleno delle speranze deluse. Il pugnale d’un uomo ti bucherà, menzogna, e il siero verdastro puzzerà come la pancia del coccodrillo. (Racconto, SVP 402)

As he approaches the house, no emotion is allowed to unsettle his resolve, «poiché nulla di irregolare si compieva nella sua anima, nella sua vita, o in altre anime, o vite» (SVP 403). The reference to altre vite kindles a second virulent eruption. A panoramic shot from above quickly surveys the activities of both envied normality and unenviable «uomini senza sorriso», the latter category including criminal uomini del sacco, pining scholars and priests, who «nel rigore delle vigilie inaridiscono i virgulti rossi della concupiscenza». As the camera enters the bedroom, where «Dormono quivi presso la mamma i caldi, profumati bambini […] E nei letti profondi dolci donne accolgono il loro maschio e lo saziano con ogni dono», (6) the temperature rises till a second acme is reached:

Nei letti profondi, dove si dissolvono e si ricreano le vane generazioni degli uomini! nei letti profondi v’è la luce dei disciolti capelli che la notte non può spegnere ancora: ma l’oro è inutile forse; no, l’oro è utile per la persuasione, come il diadema d’una meretrice di Bisanzio; […] o mia madre natura […] è utile! per i tuoi giochi perversi! (Racconto, SVP 404)

Around this study Gadda clustered a series of notes appraising his first steps into the novel, expanding on its implications and trying to fathom the course it would take. When he finally resolves that «il meglio è cominciare a scribacchiare il racconto […] ho bisogno di provarmi» (SVP 416), his plans are again jeopardised, or so they appear to be, as a number of (set) phrases and agents – gemme tremanti nel cielo, punti d’oro e di zaffìro, gole nere dei monti, lontani dolori, male violento e selvaggio, ville and giardini misteriosi – fill several pages. Finally, the long shot comes to rest on a familiar compositional arrangement, a female figure in intimate, inaudible conversation with a velocipedastro (SVP 423-24). The scene elicits both wonder and dismay in the spectator, who is literally left to gaze «con bocca semiaperta», while the passage states its case quite unequivocally: there is pain in this kind of onlooking («la sera e le ombre violacee della valle soffondevano invece il suo viso d’una bianchezza meravigliosa, quasi un male», SVP 423). Having reached as far, the novel breaks off again. But driving obsessions now temporarily placated, the plot does steer more steadily. Some forty pages on, the author intervenes again, interestingly, this time, to compensate for the neutral tone of the narration, the only major exception, to the general neutrality, being the episode of the scatological «damigiana proiettile» loaded with so-called vengeance («oppilato di […] indegne polpette e malvasìa») by barrack soldiers, and befouling yet another nocturnal idyll in more ways than one, and certainly, above all, aurally («scoppiando in una cagna mitraglia», SVP 447-52).

Vengeance takes to further vengeance, and from there to remorse. In the later Devero episode (SVP 535-42) the pristine freedom of the river has been desecrated by busy people («esseri indafariti», SVP 538). Humiliated to the state of a working river, the Devero «sognava folli vendette», as only the pleasure of vindication would lessen its grief (SVP 536). The river thus becomes but a «vena di acciaio», exactly like Grifonetto’s dagger, ready to take revenge for the loss of prey (SVP 535, 539): «Non più la valle per lui, che nei millenni di sua giovinezza dominò come un’esile e dolce donna». (7) Its bright green current (SVP 541) (and here, do recall the secretive waters and water metaphors of Gadda’s poems) takes us to the green heart of the green serpent of the Archangel study («serpe che la folgore dell’Arcangelo abbia raggiunto», SVP 457-60), a dragon with which the narrating noi has fully identified. As we shall see, both of these themes return in Cognizione.

In the end the story falls apart: the materials fail to come together on account of the author’s inner tensions. Themes and scenes of vengeance and remorse, however, have fully emerged in the process. Prior to Racconto, the set piece haunting Gadda’s imagination had been a female figure lost in thought and refusing to acknowledge the pleading gaze of the subject (the onlooker) because mentally pursuing someone who has been taken away by obscure forces (the fugitive): the scene closing Passeggiata and already returning in the poems of 1919 not as premonition-wish but as unchangeable circumstance. With Racconto a second victim is added, because now the woman has become the object of hatred and revenge. Furthermore, the comfort of normality is befouled. In the compositional notes (and to the satisfaction of the critics), Gadda goes to great lengths in arguing that the abnormal is part of the overall complexity (the design of life). But the underlying message of the executed fiction seems to be doing a lot more than arguing the oneness of all – it is, actually, denouncing good as nothing more than thinly disguised evil.

Generally speaking, Cain’s actions are motivated not so much by sheer envy of his brother as by the unjust preference of him he has had to endure. What is questioned, in any Cain-like context, is the wisdom of the judge. Two examples come to mind, at this stage, in relation to Gadda: San Giorgio in Casa Brocchi, and a crucial passage from Meccanica, both mid-early works that could be rightly called stories of preference. The St George of the title is Gigi, a pampered giovin signore, born of a noble Milanese family. As Gadda himself suggests, under the veneer of social satire lies the symbolic struggle of two saints: St George, the chivalrous womaniser, and St Louis Gonzaga, the ascetic. (8) Countess Brocchi, Gigi’s mother, establishes with them a kind of sacra conversazione. It is plain that her choice of a patron for Gigi is a choice between two possible sons. Her initial predilection for the safe, righteous St Louis (for two years she has been embroidering an altar cloth in his honour) (9) is progressively eroded by the alluring charms of the brilliant and athletic St George. The figlio bello triumphs; the cloth will embellish his altar. His attributes, the narrator admits, easily explain the victory: the legendary knight and «nimbo d’oro» soars over the «rotolanti tempeste di primavera» (RR II 654), and comes to rest, in all the haughty splendour of his full regalia, at the side of the enthroned Virgin. Whether it is in his victory over evil (the green serpent-dragon) or in his proud stance by the Virgin’s throne (no signs of martyrdom spoil the shiny might of his figure), St George thus proves to be an irresistible temptation for the mother-Madonna.

Appearance (mere parvenza) defeats truth – the discriminating faculties of the judge having been blinded by mere transient resplendence. It is, then, neither chance nor expediency that places St George at the centre of the Triennale Milanese. From there he presides over a veritable orgy of the senses against which poor Luigi Gonzaga admonishes in vain: «Prudenza!» (RR II 657). Addressing the alarmed morality of the countess, he exposes the deceit concealed in St George’s dazzling youth («trionfante luce di giovinezza»), calling it an illusion, a false perception. The countess, of course, will disregard the advice, preferring conviviality to severity. Almost instantly, Gigi succumbs to temptation and loses his virginity, betraying his mother’s trust, much to the narrator’s satisfaction. In all of this, and while echoing Gonzaga’s efforts to enlighten the countess, the authorial voice has steadily undermined her adoration for Gigi. Far from being gifted, he implies quite openly, St George’s protégé is just lazy and dense (RR II 692). The idea that you could trouble not one but two saints to make something out of such dullness is plainly ludicrous. Gigi falls to the charms of Jole the maid, who, social standing apart, is his perfect match. His fall, then, results entirely from undeserved collective cupidity («la convoitise eccessiva del pubblico»), something Gadda satirises in Eros e Priapo under the heading Narcisismo giovanile e pedagogia. Brought back to our context, the inconsequential reasoning produced by that (rather wonderful) venom suggests an inference of capital significance to this study (for hadn’t Enrico been saved precisely from such fate by death?):

Si legga il romanzo Destins di François Mauriac, dove l’atto purificatore […] è un incidente automobilistico. Il giovane e mal concupito protagonista ci lascia la pelle: salvandosi nella morte dalla probabilità di finir male moralmente. (Eros, SGF II 330-31)

There can definitely be convenience in death. If we read San Giorgio just as a brilliant satire (this is the way it is usually read), two victors emerge: the author, who has ridiculed Milanese bourgeois morality, and Gigi, who has overcome his mother’s censoring gaze («li occhi della mamma, fermi e grigi», RR II 695). And yet there is, shall we say, a deeper level on which the story can and should be understood, structurally and motivically, as a sacred conversation of sorts, as a symbolic confrontation of two so-called saints measuring each other’s respective attributes before the altar of motherly love. Its real-real target, that is, is not merely a set of empty social conventions, but rather parental narcissism. The latter, having taken body and function in an enthroned Madonna, may appear aloof and unimpeachable – yet it is unmasked, none the less, as it sits in stern judgement. The demoted and rejected saint-son thus overturns the verdict, lays bare the profanity of the choice, forever desecrating any advertised, assumed divinity, through a highly effective pained-jocular loquacity. The sin to be punished is that of pride, narcissism: of wanting the world in one’s own image, in a perpetuity of self image. The Madonna has succumbed to flattery and superficiality, true fallen idol of the story. A storm builds in the background: St Louis’s revenge is on its way (RR II 662). The setting for part 2 of Cognizione has already been announced.

In Meccanica, the female at the centre of the story is the beautiful Zoraide. The bright, vitalistic Franco, from whose mechanical propensities the novel’s title is inspired, and the dour Luigi, this time a real San Luigi, world-renouncing and austere, do literally gravitate around her. The triangle is threatened by Gildo, a villain reminiscent of Jago (but there is also the Caliban in him, and again, l’uomo del sacco), to whom the author delegates his vengeful acts, most notably against Franco. In order to denounce Zoraide’s vacuity and to reveal the structural composition of this strife (all strife), the intricate interplay of narrator and characters is embossed on canvas through the ekphrasis of Giorgione’s Madonna e bambino e i santi Liberale e Francesco. In a scene that is truly the filter, the moment when the veil is almost lifted, Zoraide, who is being shown around the Cathedral by a group of nuns, stops to look at the masterpiece:

Appariva allora la Purissima con il Bambino, sopra un plinto magnifico […] ma il demonio subsannante dell’educandato, la Gemma Nuttis […] aveva suggerito a Zoraide un pensiero diabolico: che quel volto effigiasse l’amante carnale del Zorzòn. Così […] ella pensava «l’amante»: una misteriosa e torbida felicità, un peccato atroce e meraviglioso, l’amante. (Meccanica, RR II 491-92)

The Virgin is thus deftly exposed for a second time as Zoraide commits the very same sin:

A destra della Vergine, San Francesco le andava pochissimo a genio: ma a sinistra San Giorgio, un giovanetto biondo e chiuso tutta la persona nell’arme, le piaceva immensamente: seppe che era un ragazzo de’ tempi di allora, morto in una guerra di allora: e il padre un nobile non s’era dato più pace; finché il Giorgione glie lo dipinse per i secoli e santificò nella pala. Zoraide lo sognò di notte. (10)

San Liberale is erroneously (conveniently) named San Giorgio (Gadda 1990a: 194-95). If we check the scene on the original painting, the episode will look strangely familiar. A strong triangular shape at its centre unites the Madonna elevated above the two saints. But of the two, San Giorgio (San Liberale) dominates, literally outshining the other in the unfair contest between glittering armour and self-denying frock. The composition’s basic symmetry (the triangle) is further subverted by the extra-long spear of the banner’s pole carried by the warring saint, as well as by the fact that the Child is positioned in his half of the canvas and clearly turned in his direction as if granting him special attention (grace). The background, moreover, serves to further highlight the structural inequality, as a massive tower flanks St George’s banner, in stark contrast to the sparseness reserved for Francis. To Gadda’s eyes, this is patently a family portrait, and in decoding it, he must have shared some of Gemma Nuttis’s diabolical disenchantment. Once again, that is, celestial composure proves to be but deception, and the Virgin just a mistress, not of her maker, Giorgione-Gadda, but rather of her vain postulant, the shiny St George. Francis’s lack of lustre hasn’t got a chance; at all levels, chromatic ones included, he is no match for the plated carapace of his antagonist. The further subtextual addendum comes, then, as no surprise. Gadda, unlike Giorgione, will never offer his patron, the grieving bimba, the commissioned celebration of the dead warrior – for unjust preference (its unchanging mechanisms and structural solutions) only generates resistance, vengeance, remorse, in the un-graced: in the non-chosen. (11)

Cognizione is a novel of anger, marked by a string of outrageous and desecrating acts, some spectacularly direct (the stepped-on portraits of the father, the final matricide), others embedded deeper in the text. Its locus is la casa, and even more so, la sala (da pranzo, it must be noted), the truly principal site of Gonzalo’s malaise. There all the novel’s elements converge, all the structural tensions reach their peak. It is there that the two main characters finally meet under the sign of the Dioscuri:

L’alta figura di lui si disegnò nera nel vano della porta-finestra, di sul terrazzo, come l’ombra d’uno sconosciuto: e, dietro a lui, nel cielo, due stelle parevano averlo assistito fin là. Diòscuri splendidi sopra una fascia d’amaranto, lontana, nel quadrante di bellezza e di conoscenza: fraternità salva! (Cognizione, RR I 685)

In the middle of part 1 Gonzalo undergoes a medical examination by the good doctor Higueróa. The mental cry that follows («Stavo male! non ha veduto? […] Perché non ha voluto credermi?», RR I 632) is a desperate plea for help locked in Gonzalo’s imploring gaze. It is not even directed at the doctor, who is truly put out of his league by this latest instance of male invisibile (his patient’s only physical symptom is a duodenal ulcer, while his melancholy could be but the effect of a «nuova crisi di sfiducia nella vita», RR I 622). As such – i.e., as Gadda’s own intradiegetic cry for help addressed to the reader, his own dead mother, some universal moral law –, it can be best explained by clues contained in the text. Not by chance, immediately prior to the mute outcry we witness Gonzalo’s tantrum sparked by Di Pascuale’s grandson, the object of his mother’s most recent bavosa bontà (RR I 630-31). His sudden appearance in the garden, or rather, his unwanted apparition (for he is also an image resurfacing from the past, like someone returning from the dead) is in turn preceded by Gonzalo’s outburst against his mother’s visit to the cemetery to tend that grave, a single grave marked by duality if not polarity («Due piantine di geranio, via, su quella tomba!», RR I 630). Even the sceptical, no-nonsense doctor finally (sort of) gets it. The locals may be right in their verdict: «qualcosa di orrido stava ribollendo in quell’anima» (RR I 631).

Two openly scandalous acts stand out among Gonzalo’s fabled misdeeds: the ingestion of a sea urchin and the torture inflicted on a cat (RR I 600-604, 598). Of the protagonist’s seven capital sins (RR I 597) gluttony is the one the people of Lukones seize on the most. Gonzalo is rumoured to have nearly died from having swallowed a sea urchin (RR I 601). In the popular imagination, this takes on the shape now of a crab now of a sea scorpion or a sword fish, or a brooch fish: «con quattro baffi, scarlatti pure essi, e lunghissimi, come quattro spilloni da signora, due per parte, oltre alle mandibole». Its colour also changes: first black, then scarlet. Ichthyoid, echinoderm, crustacean, throughout its imaginary metamorphosis the prey never relinquishes the extremely well fortified defences shielding its flesh, endowed as it is with needles, sword, and mandibles in the form of oars. Only the intervention of a nutcracker (with the leverage provided by Gonzalo’s elbows) finally breaks through its formidable armour. Violently divested of its crustaceous hardness, the creature is thus swallowed and digested. As local myth has it, its unnoticed main weapon, the sword, would eventually lacerate Gonzalo’s duodenum. Ingested with savage lust, in the end the infant-like polymorph proves to be, that is, both victim and victor. It should be recalled here that during the visit Gonzalo feels:

un’ansia indicibile sul giro del gàstrico, dov’è il duodeno, come piombo: una figurazione di colpa, di inadempienza […] Nel suo occhio oramai stanco, velato, si adunarono cose dolorose lontane. (Cognizione, RR I 625)

Perforated duodenum, remorse, and male invisibile are, then, closely associated, and it is hard to overestimate the centrality of this scene. The obscene rape (shelling) of the armoured creature, a veritable fiero pasto of Dantean memory, has a plasticity and richness of detail far surpassing any other Gonzalian gastronomic feat. Furthermore, while other victuals are recognisable fare, however paroxysmal the savagery of their treatment may be, the impregnable polymorph defies all classification – «un animale compagno […] non lo avevano ancora veduto». And Gonzalo, with the obscene sucker of his mouth, foul entrails, the tail of his quarry dangling from his lips, can only evoke the image of Lucifer (as, say, in Giotto’s Giudizio universale), swallowing plump innocent limbs («d’un color bianco o madreperla rosato»), in what amounts to a perfect act of anthropophagy: for twice the unclassifiable animal has been compared to a «neonato umano». Here, then, it is the dragon that has slain St George, only to be stabbed, posthumously, by his sword. Significantly, the one openly admitted oltraggio – the destruction of the picture of the father – takes place in the dining room: a connection that is underscored twice by the narrator (RR I 614). In part 2, the episode is relived by the mother, this time performed with a table knife, again in the dining room (RR I 689) – all to suggest a connection between vengeance and orality, whether linguistic or sensorial.

Yet the fabled ingestion of that armoured denizen of the sea (whether sea urchin, crab, sea scorpion, or lobster) is a transgression perceived to be much more heinous than any other, and as such it is much more heavily disguised, through tale and rumours. Eros e Priapo again comes to our aid: narcissism and the «meccanismo degli appetiti esofagici», Gadda argues, are both necessary to the construction of the Ego – equally essential is the need for a hero-model to fall in love with (SGF II 330, 332). The last step in the process is then described in these terms:

Più che di innamoramento, si deve parlare di appropriazione o ingestione […] del modello: così la serpe sente come Io lo stritolato conìgliolo. Così come l’antropofago divora il vinto arrostito […] per incorporarsene la virtù guerriera, l’aggressione vitale della preda. (Eros, SGF II 334)

We could say, then, that the truculent consumption epitomises, metaphorically and with characteristic ambivalence, the agonising nature of the Enrico issue in that it stands for both the ritualistic assimilation of the unattainable model of rewarded selfhood and the remorseful elimination of the rival for parental love. (12) The punishment meted out by some vindictive god for the infringement of the social interdict (Cognizione, RR I 603) is then conveyed psychosomatically through duodenal affliction. Furthermore, the sword of remorse now tormenting Gonzalo’s viscera reflects the author’s long-standing obsession with the Archangel’s weapon of retribution – «certo la spada folgorante dell’Arcangelo lo persegue e lo fruga» (Meditazione, SVP 695). Interestingly, if we go back to the studio dell’Arcangelo, in Racconto, we find this fixation expressed in relation to a war episode clearly linked to Enrico’s death: «E così come la serpe ci contorciamo in uno spasimo folle, e vano, cui la spada folgorante dell’Arcangelo abbia raggiunto» (SVP 457-58, 460).

But in Racconto, there was still hope that some form of redemption, or noble action, might come from the serpent’s green heart (SVP 458). In Cognizione that hope is no longer alive. Time has been consumed, «gli atti sono tutti adempiuti» (RR I 629). Reality is now of stone (as in Sala di basalte): «Ogni finalità, ogni possibilità, si era impietrata nel buio», and «Tutto, nel buio, era impietrata memoria» (RR I 633). Gonzalo’s black serpent-dream, in the final analysis, vindicates Cognizione as the anguished poem of an anti-hero, outcast from the world, whose tragedy and reale realtà is ignored by others and, especially, by his mother, his condition having been sealed in the harrowing oneiric sequence: «una sera spaventosa, eterna, in cui non era più possibile ricostituire il tempo degli atti possibili […] Tutte le anime erano lontane […] perse […] conscie del nostro antico dileggio» (RR I 632-33). In Racconto, Gerolamo Lehrer, yet another authorial alter ego, believes that as a child he was sabotaged by some demonic or criminal force from which his mother could not save him, a betrayal on her part which marks his fall from grace:

Egli sentiva […] che quel suo cervello… Ma di che cosa era fatto? Forse da bimbo, quando s’era addormentato credendo al fiducioso bacio delle speranze, era venuto un delinquente e per malvagità […] gli aveva versato dentro un qualche acido […] Ma la mamma? […] Forse la mamma era stata distratta, assorta. Forse pensava a qualche suo ignorato dolore. (13)

As Gerolamo-Gadda later remarks, children should be brought up with infinite love and tenderness. But what if, in his case, the law had failed – or worse, what if it wasn’t the law («Ma queste leggi non sempre sono attuate. Ed allora, se non fossero leggi? Se un ragazzo crescesse malato? Se la sua anima […] fosse buia […] come la notte dove erano smarriti gli uomini che non han legge?», SVP 578)? Like Manzoni’s Getrude, especially the earlier Gertrude from Fermo e Lucia, Gadda and his fictional projections, from Gerolamo-Grifonetto to Gonzalo, have all been dispossessed of their allocation of light: «dietro grate ingiuste […] pallidi visi, occhî cerchiati di rinunce distruggitrici scrutano la sana vita degli altri e la luce, la perduta luce del mondo […] la luce deve, deve arrivare ad ognuno». (14) In Cognizione, the outcast’s exclusion from light is a major refrain – whereas « tutti, tutti entravano nella luce: li avvolgeva la luce della vita», time itself takes darkness to others: «suggeritore tenebroso d’una legge di tenebra» (RR I 695, 703). The motif is emphatically re-affirmed around Gonzalo’s black dream; the subject has been condemned to a death-in-life by his mother’s splendid perfidy (her judgement), outshone by the blinding smile of his brother, «il beniamino di tutti», for nature itself bestowed her smile on him. The resulting convent is an unjust, undeserved destiny – and brings with it the added cruelty that no one acknowledges the subject’s moral superiority, neither his mother nor the rabble she loves and protects. (15)

Gonzalo’s duodenal ulcer, we believe, firmly establishes the origins of his neurosis, an affliction that forces him to go on mutilating his rival, and therefore primarily himself. The resulting subjective emptiness (for exasperated filial narcissism is no solution to the ravages of exasperated parental narcissism) has no cathartic properties. It is, rather, the deepest possible source of shame, and is compulsively disguised, while at the same time being endlessly reworded, with exacting, excruciating precision («ma era vergogna indicibile alle anime […] Le more della legge avevano avuto chiusura […] tutto, tutto era mio! mio!…. finalmente…. come il rimorso», RR I 633). In this duplicitous sense, the wall surrounding the villa, which, significantly, after the dream sequence becomes the narrative focus, represents a telltale development. That it should be useless in keeping intruders out is just as infuriating as the doctor’s inability to cure the mother of her narcissism (yes, this was Gonzalo’s other aim, in summoning Higueróa: to convince him of her disease). The contrast is indeed established. The wall is weak, precarious, especially compared to the hard stone the mother has turned into; her hands may be frail, skeletal, but her mind is marble. Most importantly, the wall cannot protect Gonzalo from his inner demons (self-destructiveness). It cannot in fact keep out the dead («anche le anime dei morti lo scavalcherebbero», RR I 638), those plural «poveri morti» returning to their bed, that bed, «che è lì, bianco… come lo hanno lasciato al partire…. e par che li aspetti» (RR I 638-39): that other bed with which Gonzalo, the only surviving son, still shares his bedroom (we learn this, and it establishes a further symmetry, at the beginning of the medical visit: «si sdraiò sul letto più interno, il suo: di coltre bianchissima, come l’altro», RR I 620). Nor can the wall keep out the dark silent shadow that, having manifested itself with the dream, is now an image let loose and walking through solid objects («passava i campi e i muri, come un’imagine», RR I 743), through the solidity of the text, as it were, in advance of the horror of the finale. That shadow rising from within, having risen from without (RR I 632-33), forever reminds Gonzalo of what he is not: of what he had to be to receive the love that was rightfully his. From his constantly reiterated difettività (as the one infamously surviving and de-twinned: as the one destined never to get back what the other has taken and continues to take), Gonzalo is then, not by chance, overcome by a delirium of possessiveness. His desperate affirmation of his own self («il sacrosanto privato privatissimo mio, mio!», RR I 639), as opposed to his being regarded as the other son, as his mother’s other son, leads him to attempt to reclaim the undivided singularity he has been denied in a tragically blemished construction of selfhood. But in order to do so, in order to seek to redress the injustice and keep up the resistance, he must play Cain’s unwanted part to the end.

To a great extent, Cognizione is to Gonzalo what The Tempest is to Prospero: the grandiose delusion of avenging the usurpation of privilege. Part 1 witnesses the tension rise in Gonzalo on account of his mother’s absence (the visit to the cemetery). Like a late summer storm, the opening of part 2 then unleashes its rage at the Mater dolorosa. The Madonna di settembre, the novel’s main structuring temporal reference, is the feast of the Addolorata; through such exhibited marker, (16) and with the mother in stonelike mourning for her lost son («ella non poteva più pensare a una madre se non come a un groppo di disumano dolore superstite», RR I 726), Cognizione does take on the features of a Pietà. The fury of the storm-text is thus directed against such sorrow. In the «tetro accumulo di sua rancura», it shares many of Gonzalo’s behavioural traits – scherno, gozzoviglio, mounting hatred (RR I 674-77). Under its wrathful sway, the mother is «un animale di già ferito», like the sea monster: a helpless imploring prey to the gluttony of the (textual) elements. Her descent into the «umidore del fondo» is then met by a further projection of the self, a «scheggia di tenebra, orrenda»: «il nero dello scorpione» whose «arma senza prodezza» threatens «l’offesa estrema» (RR I 675-76). The identity subject-storm-scorpion is proved beyond doubt by the earliest draft of the chapter, where the threat is defined as «un’offesa a lei diretta da sconosciuti. Ciò che più la feriva era il mal animo d’uno sconosciuto» (RR I 860; my emphasis). In the Gadda system of systems (of returning symmetries), the equivalence subject-sconosciuto goes back, in fact, to at least Sala di basalte: «Uno sconosciuto soldato | è immobile e guarda | La fanciulla senza saluto» (Gadda 1993a: 27, vv. 146-48). Thus a new, devastatingly precise meaning can be attached to the otherwise merely lyrical phrase: «il vento, che le aveva rapito il figlio […] pareva cercare anche lei» – with the added reinforcement that both kills will have «occhi aperti» and «due fili rossi…. dal naso». But if the second execution will be relatively explicit, the first, as already shown, is much more heavily disguised. (17)

Turning now to the second of Gonzalo’s outrageous acts, let us again focus on the tactics of dissimulation. As another example of his cruelty, we learn that Gonzalo hurled a cat from the third floor of the villa to test the theory of impulse. The key words of the passage are precipitare and campo gravitazionale (RR I 598), which appear in a discarded footnote (Gadda 1987a: 78-79, ll. 1214-215). Finally overcome by repeated humiliation, the handsome cat dies indeed from humiliation, because «ogni oltraggio è morte» (RR I 598). In itself, the episode seems harmless enough, just one among Gonzalo’s many legendary acts of cruelty. But seen in the light of the re-evocation of his brother’s death in chapter 8 («Peccato che uno si fosse buttato in aria, l’aria bonna, a quel modo: ma la gravitazione aveva funzionato, il 9,81», RR I 728), (18) the experiment takes on new meaning, as well as investing the latter passage with jarring subtextual implications. The dry remark aveva funzionato is at odds with a lot of things: certainly it is at odds with the declared veneration of his dead brother. Not only, that is, has Gadda failed to celebrate Enrico through creative projection in his fifty years as a writer, but the only time he describes how he died, he does so in a way that is wholly insensitive and derogatory. We could view the remark as sarcasm levelled at the airy (democratic) aspirations of Gadda’s father. However, the choice of image and attached semantics cannot help recall not only the cat’s misfortune, but also the rather emblematic toss of the demijohn in Racconto. In this latter case, the «damigiana proiettile» was used, as we have seen, as an instrument of revenge in a petty dispute. The vengeance, totally incommensurate with the offence (a trodden chicory plot) takes place from a window on the top floor of some barracks, about twenty-three metres from the ground. Significantly, it is the lyrical register, i.e., its well established thematics, that activate the planned throw (the activator is, not by chance, the following symmetry: «Luminose stelle erano zaffiri per tutti gli amanti od erano pungenti smeraldi nella cava fonda del cielo. E la vendetta covava nel cuore degli amanti che non erano ricambiati, ed avevano vent’anni! Ma non avevano un lucente pugnale […]»). More important still, the white barracks («[…] una finestra dell’ultimo piano, che con il dislivello della riva faceva ventitré metri», SVP 447-48, 459) in some ways closely match the white villa in Cognizione («si squadrava bianca alla costa […] in corrispondenza dell’ultima ripa: che faceva un dislivello di metri […]», RR I 628). Cat and damigiana, that is, share more or less the same launching pad. But the height is different. And yet Gadda’s obsession with numbers is seldom casual, and is often exhibited. The twenty-three metres of the fall of the demijohn, having been advertised, are followed by reference to twenty-three days of drought (SVP 448, 452). This, at least for us, in the present context, is a way to say and to ask (especially given that Enrico had died on 23 April): can such symmetries really not matter when Gadda’s tag, numerical and otherwise, for that death is as devastating as ma la gravitazione aveva funzionato? (19)

«Aprile entrava nella stanza, come il settembre nostro» (Cognizione, RR I 726). It may be true that astronomy and poetry are not incompatible (Meditazione, SVP 697). Yet for an author as precise as Gadda, and never missing a chance to ridicule, say, Foscolo or, even more so, Carducci for excessive poetic licence, one would not expect the erroneous equinoctial pairing of April and September – except that it is all under the sign of Enrico, the dead Dioscuro. (20) Gonzalo, as we have hinted, must define his identity outside the Dioscuri bipolarity imposed on him by his mother. His failure to do so takes the novel to its horrific end, where the mother is finally punished for refusing to put an end to her sorrow. At the beginning of part 2, thoughts of her dead second-born fill her mind, but are quickly chastised by the raging storm. When the two main characters finally meet, on the threshold between dining room and night, the mother is so preoccupied by the Dioscuri in the sky that she does not at first recognise Gonzalo. As he comes into view, she cannot dissociate him from her other son, uttering the name of the two stars perhaps to prove that her love does come in equal shares. Here however Gadda shows his hand, for the Gemini constellation is not visible at twilight at that time of the year, in either hemisphere. What is then devastating for Gonzalo is that his mother’s greeting (the astronomical licence allowing her to name Castor and Pollux extra-textually) once again reminds him of his lack as the surviving Castor. Contrary, that is, to what is stated intradiegetically at this junction, fraternity is not saved in the least (RR I 685) – as the one on whom his parents did not smile (SGF I 229, 459-60), Gonzalo could have and would have tolerated even having to play the Cain to Abel, had he ever had a chance of finally taking his brother’s place (or rather, and better: of re-taking his original place as the only child, the status enjoyed prior to becoming the first-born). But preference, the arbitrariness of preference, does not show signs of subsiding – it has actually even acquired categorical universal import (as hinted in a passage from Meditazione breve):

Frasi e parole «scolpite nei cuori». Si fissano come costellazioni nell’eros caparbio di certe femmine […] generano […] gli atti spropositati, gli atti inutili, e lo sperpero delle fortune e dei destini: piegano talora verso l’ombra il destino dei figli […] per una parola ch’era bella da dire, da sentir dire! (SGF I 450)

Gonzalo’s mother is indeed one such female. Having failed to protect her children (her child), having betrayed them (him) through her narcissism (the triumphant partiality of her judgement), she now refuses Gonzalo his last request, to be with her alone: «Nella sala dove lui e sua madre dovevano soli entrare e resistere […] Le loro anime dovevano, sole, aspettare come il ritorno di un qualcuno, negli anni…. di qualcheduno che non aveva potuto finire…. finire gli studî….» (Cognizione, RR I 729).

As the story moves towards the conclusive aggression, Gonzalo, in desperation, hopes that his perennial condition of lack can be redeemed if he can share in his mother’s ceaseless vigil: if he cannot be the Child in the Manger, perhaps he can at least play the role of the humble shepherd ( Prima divisione nella notte, RR II 872-73). But the filthy crowd his mother has admitted into the dining room (Cognizione, RR I 732) – for in it, she believes, there is her hope, the hope of seeing again a passing image («vivente sembianza») of her dead son – rekindles his ancient, timeless neurosis. The «sarabanda famelica» around the old woman (RR I 693), i.e., the profanation of this last chance of reconnecting to her is, in fact, but a replay of a childhood nightmare, the San Giuseppe fair befouling his garden, in Piazza Castello. On that occasion, innocence had been lost to promiscuity and corporeality («la femmina aveva la mano attorta da un’aspide a cui porgeva la mammella», RR I 735); now the marauding crowd feasting on the mother as she mourns for the Christ-fish of their revolting offering («pesce morto, fetente», RR I 727), robs her of the last surviving relics of sanctity. In the dining room, amid the peons, we thus witness Gonzalo’s final outrage against his brother’s memory. The scene is that of a grotesque Good Friday service (Enrico, by the way, had died on a Friday, and the day here is, repeatedly, blasphemously, venerdì). An enormous yellow fish (with all too obvious anthropomorphic connotations, RR I 724, 727) has been set before the flea-ridden populace. The gravedigger’s wife is present. Degraded corporeality is triumphant, with the mother and the fish at its centre. The betrayal couldn’t be more complete – no vestiges of fraternity (such as the earrings worn by the mother to reassure Gonzalo of the fairness of her love: for earrings are indistinguishable, RR I 611) could intercede at this last stage. In a fit of rage, Gonzalo disdainfully throws out the fish from its plate (without touching it), goes up to his room, packs his humble valise, and hurriedly leaves the house to go out into «un mondo sordo, perduto, già lambito da lingue di tenebra» (RR I 737). The broken covenant is sanctioned from the bedroom by the plural Lares’ farewell («gli dicevano senza poterlo seguire, gli dicevano dalla camera “Addio! Addio!”»). When, at the novel’s close, Peppa and the other intruders violate even that sanctuary, however they find a single photo of Gonzalo’s brother on the table («Sul tavolo […] una fotografia del fratello di lui, ragazzo dal volto sorridente, dopo tant’anni!: con una mano sul manubrio della mitragliatrice», RR I 750).

In general, the Cain-like qualities and wandering destiny we have attributed to Gonzalo-Gadda are marked by a language that is considerably more incisive than that used to convey, say, unmotivated exile – «s’era veduto cacciare, come fosse una belva, dalla loro carità inferocita, di uomini: di consorzio, di mille. Egli era uno» (Cognizione, RR I 728). His soul, «il buio di quell’anima», is filled with a «sentimento non pio» («perturbazione dolorosa […] da una zona profonda, inespiabile, di celate verità»). The darkness of such soul knows no peace («pace non conosceva, Gonzalo, né conoscerebbe», RR I 690); with the will of a murderer («la volontà […] che è indispensabile agli assassini», RR I 691) it progresses alone towards (its own) darkness (RR I 704). If it is true, as Quinones states in his Changes of Cain that the «primary experience of the human condition is that of difference and division», and that «only Cain’s awareness, if any, can lead to reintegration», in Gonzalo’s case cognition is indeed a passive process, as no sign of reintegration blesses his questioning rebellion. His ultimate confrontation with his mother occurs not at her death, but earlier, at the beginning of chapter 7, when his long, desperate kiss – an attempt to suture his severed reality – is interrupted by the intrusion of a peon (RR I 704). However on the previous page Gonzalo had already denounced that kiss as the «bacio bugiardo della parvenza». The cruel paradox is that, if Gonzalo-Cain has been the victim of violence («la demenza dei tutori», which lay at the root of his scandalous acts, RR I 642), the only key to his salvation is still held by his forebears, so patently oblivious to his sufferings. Yet it is impossible to break the vicious circle to which he is doomed. The mother, a King Lear whose destiny only Gonzalo-Cordelia has divined, is finally abandoned, negated as a mere debased simulacrum. But in the last analysis to deny vain images is the same as denying oneself. Hence, Gonzalo’s greatness consists in his wilfully lifting his glass in a toast to his bitter, self-destructive end:

[…] rivendicando a sé le ragioni del dolore, la conoscenza e la verità del dolore, nulla rimaneva alla possibilità. (Cognizione, RR I 703-04)

For our erstwhile three year old tiger deprived of light, the evil uomo del sacco is the only possible, albeit sterile, therapy, as his own tremulous chance has been snuffed out. The deceptive, yet captivating smile of his dead brother has proved victorious. Having immortally ascended to a heaven that has stopped rotating, he has condemned the other Dioscuro to being submerged in everlasting darkness. (21)

close the loop (restart the loop)
go to holy symmetry


1. Cf. F. Kafka, Briefe 1902-1924 (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1958), 28.

2. Cf. Gioanola 1987: 26. For the letters see, very selectively, Gadda 1984b: 53, 139, 151, 154; for the interviews, Gadda 1993b: 15, 155, 170, 175, 179, 201. In Giornale there are two exceptions: when showing resentment for being unfavourably compared to Enrico (SGF II 586-88); and, on a separate occasion, while appearing to rejoice at his brother’s new motorbike (surely a sign of Enrico’s lack of financial restraint: especially when compared to one’s own sacrifices for the family, SGF II 628).

3. As well as deciding the epitaph (Gadda 1993a: 55), Gadda decided-designed the tomb, a granite parallelepiped with a knight’s sword in relief on the upper side. Equally decided-sealed in stone is Gonzalo’s mind: «I compagni morti, mai, mai, Gonzalo non li avrebbe mai adoperati a così gloriosamente poetare, il fratello, sorriso lontano! Chiusone in sé il nome, la disperata memoria» (Cognizione, RR I 682).

4. Cf. J.L. Borges, El Aleph (Buenos Aires & Madrid: Emecé Editores / Alianza Editorial, 1972), 57-58.

5. Rather surprisingly, Enrico’s date of birth (16 November 1896) does not show in the epitaph dictated by Carlo.

6. SVP 404. Cf. Silente locomotore, Gadda 1993a: 30, vv. 12-3: «come uno spettro» (v. 11), the nocturnal train – twice «ombra misteriosa senza sorriso», vv. 4 and 16 – is taking Gadda past «le tacite case | Dove dormono presso la mamma i profumati bambini | Con la bocca semiaperta».

7. SVP 538 – see also 538-40 (God’s mysteriously changed law), 536, 540 (the freno invincibile motif), 536, 542 (the exclusion from the mysterious gardens, «nelle calde indimenticabili notti»), 540-41 (the river’s resentment at the division brought about by the new rule: «gli uni come frutti superbi […] paiono soli essere semenza del bene: e gli altri paiono sole essere parole di desolazione e di morte»), 540 (the formula sognava folli vendette).

8. Cf. Gadda 1984b: 92 («Vi è una lotta simbolica fra S. Giorgio, il Santo cavalleresco e… femminista, contro S. Luigi Gonzaga, il Santo ascetico e rinunciatario»), and Pinotti 2004b for the compositional shaping up of such saintly contest.

9. San Giorgio, RR II 654 – cf. also 647, 653-54, 661. The theme of the altar-cloth is first activated in Racconto, SVP 431-32. Successfully dedicated to San Luigi in that instance, the motherly embroidery asked, as it were, for the belated protection of her other son (the first version of the future ingegner Baronfo of Madonna dei Filosofi).

10. Cf. Zoraide’s actual preference for Franco-the-lover over Luigi-the-husband (RR II 479, 490-91, 494-95), with the edenic garden as the desired location for her secret encounters («Oh! vi doveva pur essere, sulla terra di tutti i dolori, un giardino profondo, lontano, silente, dove solo fossero sognanti alberi […] e lucidissime stelle! […] nella resurrezione c’era forse il suo amore»). In such unfair contest Luigi becomes even more gramo through the onslaught of illness (RR II 521-29, 582-86) – the same one, it is worth noting, Gadda had been wrongly diagnosed as having, on arrival at Celle Lager at the end of April ’18, around the time of Enrico’s death. In Meccanica, interestingly, Gadda rephrases what he had written in his diary when he thought he would die of tuberculosis (SGF II 768-71).

11. For Gadda’s own definitions of vengeance, see SGF I 888 («la vendetta l’è silenzio operante, reticenza militante») and Eros, SGF II 332 («Rancura mal dissimulata, premeditar d’una vendetta»). On remorse, cf. Gadda 1993b: 174 («Quello che mi fa più soffrire è il rimorso. Nella mia vita ho conosciuto in modo terribile i rimorsi […] Io la verità purtroppo la confesso solo a Dio ma non so se Dio mi può ascoltare»).

12. Similarly (devastatingly) ambiguous, among the many lesser ambiguities available, is the following (episode? memory? local lore? intertext?): «Ricordava una corsa su un prato, in Brianza, insieme al fratello e di aver visto un bruco superbo bianco, picchiettato di rosso. “Ero colpito dalla sua bellezza e di questa intendevo punirlo.” Così lo pestò» (Cattaneo 1973: 105). The episode then certainly gains additional relevance if compared to the caterpillar episode in Betti’s short story Caino – cf. U. Betti, Caino e altre novelle (Milan: Corbaccio, 1928), 89. Tantalisingly close to Gadda’s own Cain repertoire are also, from the same story: the smashed watch (90); the smile motif (87, 89, 91); the black serpent-dream («sogno […] nero come un serpe», 95-96); the paroxysmal tension with the mother (90, 92-93, 94-95); the angels’ reproach from the canvas (97). Caino’s exclamation («Ho proprio il cuore cattivo!», 90) is indeed Gadda’s own («io sono un pazzo […] non esiste alcun vero amore tra compagni e tra fratelli; io vedo le cose in un delirio epilettico») in reaction to Betti’s verdict at Celle («Betti fu più spietato e più coraggioso: io non sono buono […] e lo disse con assoluta serietà» – Giornale, SGF II 836, with general cf. to our Cain 1).

13. Racconto, SVP 487. Cf. Gadda 1993c: 166 («risponderò con le parole dell’Amleto: “I più potenti veleni hanno distrutto la mia vita. Il resto è silenzio”»).

14. Racconto, SVP 594 (the passage continues: «Negli atroci silenzî la legge si fa irreale, perché nessun termine di giusto riferimento le è conceduto») – cf. also 597 («[…] nefandi errori nel conoscere e nell’eleggere, il creder possibile il bene d’uno senza quello di tutti, l’amare il suo figlio e non la sua figlia»). In the version for Solaria, the passage (by then titled Apologia manzoniana, SGF I 679-87), refers to an unnamed Gertrude (indeed a Gaddian innominata of sorts) as «la bimba a cui ogni luce è preclusa» (680). Cf. also the review Giuseppe Berto, «Il male oscuro», SGF I 1207 – with the necessary adjustments and a paradoxical role reversal (from first born to demoted son), Gonzalo’s fate has been that of the ill-fated nun: «Né pace ebbe mai […] il più drammatico, forse il più vero e splendido personaggio del grande romanzo. Proteso l’animo verso la speranza di vivere […] avviata e costretta dal padre a inesplicabile clausura […] il mondo le recò a colpa […] l’esser caduta, vittima fin dai teneri anni del padre disumano, del fratello primogenito avido e ignaro di amor fraterno, solo riguardoso del proprio così creduto “diritto”».

15. No chance that either mother or rabble may think of our subject what he thinks of Hamlet: «Amleto è una creatura di una logicità superiore e di una moralità superiore» (Gadda 1993c: 166; cf. 189 for Clara’s definition of Enrico as «il beniamino di tutti»). The splendid perfidy phrased in the previous lines recalls the episode and fable of Crispino e la comare (Meccanica, RR II 527-28): «uno a uno quei ceri divenivano ombra […] per un suo gioco perverso […] lo spengeva la crudele Comare. E così era la legge della tenebra e della luce, nello stipo tragico e vano».

16. While the core of part 1 takes place on 28 August, from the very start of the novel the temporal perspective harks forward to the Addolorata. See RR I 575 («si andava già per la Madonna di settembre») – and cf. symmetrically, at the other end, 740 («Venuto l’autunno, passata la Madonna di settembre»).

17. Execution is used here in line with a view of Cain as sacred executioner – cf. R.J. Quinones, The Changes of Cain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 62-83.

18. Cf. Tecnica e poesia, SGF I 252: «il potere catastrofico del 9 e 81, la chiamata abissale della gravità».

19. Again, when Grifonetto is killed he is, perhaps quite interestingly, twenty-three years old: «Non avevi vent’anni? Ventitré ventitré, che bestia, ventitré!», SVP 487-88; p. 569 is also worth keeping in mind – there, in fact, Grifonetto is described as: «un po’ alterato da analogie e da morte del fratello. Accennare alla pazzia o alterazione che deve svilupparsi e arrivare al delitto».

20. Only a few paragraphs after his own so-called licence, Gadda castigates the «Copernico di Pian Castagnaio» for his astronomical lack of precision (RR I 728; see also 635 and 722, n. 1). But there are definite advantages in making and advertising mistakes. Having collapsed April and September into one symmetry, Enrico’s death and the feast of the Addolorata (the latter celebrated on the third Sunday in September) are looped in one continuous equinox / incessant equinoctial tension.

21. No alternating destinies in this case – the opposite of what was supposed to happen according to classical myth. Cf. Meditazione, SVP 872 («mutuate le sorti, giocherà l’uno e l’altro il gioco della tenebra e della luce, come li antichi congèmini, figli di Leda»); Il faut d’abord être coupable, SGF I 613 («bene-male sono i due diòscuri altalenanti sulla linea d’orizzonte, che quando l’uno sorge, l’altro sommerge»). The orientation we have thus identified in Gadda’s Dioscuri (surviving mortal Castor / deceased immortal Pollux) corrects Wieser’s erroneous reading («il romanzo incarna e salva la memoria del fratello-Castore offrendogli l’immortalità dell’opera» – Wieser 1995: 139).

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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