Apocalypse, how? –
Gadda, Svevo, Pirandello

Robert S. Dombroski

If only a cataclysmic event of such horrendous proportions as described by Italo Svevo at the conclusion of La coscienza di Zeno is the answer to the sick, bourgeois world of consumption and private life, then, it is clear, there is no answer at all. Such a prophesy, however, ends up being only a footnote to what in effect are for the Triestine author the comforts of analysis. His crippled subject in the form of Zeno succeeds brilliantly in safeguarding his beleaguered self by keeping that self in full view, while immunising it through the power of irony.

For Carlo Emilio Gadda the self is dead and its deadness is the foundation on which literature now rests. For both Pirandello and Svevo, the crisis of the self created the need for a compensatory form that epistemology or analysis could generate as a means of transcending the reality of dissolution. Gadda, instead, seeks no compensation in representing the self through its re-creation. His primary concern as a writer is to extract the self from representation by making its existence as a narrative structure problematic. In his narratives, the self becomes thing-like, reduced to a grotesque surface reality. Thus, Gadda opens up a wholly new perspective on narration in which the modernist irony that compensated for the breakdown of human identity in a mechanised world is in turn fractured by the otherness it sought to control. Gadda’s means of breaking down that control is violent comedy, the «grin upon the Deathshead», as in the words of Wyndham Lewis. (1) Gadda himself would put it somewhat more philosophically, but his meaning is the same: «Lo scherno solo dei disegni e delle parvenze era salvo, quasi maschera tragica sulla metope del teatro» (RR I 704). The passage from Pirandello and Svevo to Gadda is the passage from a modernist irony founded on the metaphysics of life in its opposition to form, as in Pirandello, and, in Svevo, on the inner experience of the self, to satire and parody. Gaddian satire, and the baroque style that marks its expression, derives from a need to attack all that in literature and life that is counterfeit, artificial and spurious, while stylistic parody, chiefly of the tropes of realism and naturalism, is a means of interrogating the institution of literature in an age when the loss of the self makes the individual style impossible. In Gadda, satire and parody combine with pastiche as weapons used to undermine art’s pretensions to absolute truth, private language, and illusion of autonomy.

Gadda’s first novel, La cognizione del dolore (1963) has all the qualities of a modern, autobiographical epic. It comprises a series of segments which were serialised in the Florentine review Letteratura from 1938 to 1941. The book in its original form was left unfinished, its concluding chapters included in subsequent editions. The story is set in the imaginary South American nation of Maradagal situated not far from its age-old enemy Parapagal, satirical representations of Italy and Austria respectively. In 1924, the war between them had ended, each proclaiming to be the victor. Near the city of Pastrufazio (Milan), in a modern villa, live the Pirobutirros, a family of ancient European stock, reduced now to an aged widow and her forty year old son, Gonzalo, a sanguine, neurotic figure, who lives in constant friction with the world around him. Both Gonzalo and his mother are autobiographical caricatures of Gadda and his mother, Adele Lehr, a retired school teacher of German origin.

The reader is informed early on in the narrative that Gonzalo’s principal characteristic is his lack of sociability, which borders on the misanthropic. When we meet him for the first time, his entry on the scene has been prepared by a chorus of minor characters that gravitate around his mother and the villa, whose voices are deflections of the narrator’s point of view. José, the peon, believes that Gonzalo has all of the seven capital sins enclosed in his belly like seven snakes. Battistina, a domestic, says that he is always angry and that in certain moments he mistreats his mother, often threatening to kill her. His cruelty in the popular imagination knows no limits; as a child, it is claimed, he delighted in killing lizards and once threw repeatedly a cat out of a third story window, until finally it died, for no other reason than to prove that cats, falling from whatever height, will land on all fours. And an extraordinary account of his gluttony has Gonzalo hunched over a lobster, his eyes gleaming with desire and his nostrils flaring, as he devours his prey.

The novel’s action begins on a clear summer morning, when the villa is quiet. Gonzalo, who suffers from some imaginary illness, takes advantage of his mother’s absence to call in the family doctor. But he has nothing new to report, and rehearses the symptoms of his neurosis with which the good doctor is familiar and again attempts in vain to understand. To Gonzalo everything seems absurd; his only desire is to be engulfed by the immense, limitless light and by the harmony he perceives in the endless chirping of the cicadas and the rustling of plants. The specific objects of his discomfort are all those people and things that threaten his solitude and the absolute possession of his mother, such as the continuous movement of the servants who, he believes, exploit his mother’s generosity, the bells, which symbolise spiritual oppression, in that their sound waves drown out the melodious chant of the cicadas, or the wall surrounding the villa, which for him has no other purpose than that of requiring the annual payment of taxes. Gonzalo, we are told, treats his mother with hostility for her attachment to the outside world, and refuses to enlist the protection of an association of night watchmen. One night, when Gonzalo is away on one of his many trips, his mother is found on the verge of death, the victim of some horrendous aggression. It is not clear who is responsible for the crime, but the reader is left to believe that it is the watchmen or Gonzalo himself.

The conceptual foundation of La cognizione derives largely from Freudian meta-psychology. It is based on the primordial event of patricide and the sublimation of guilt in social institutions: «Il male oscuro di cui le storie e le leggi e le universe dicipline delle gran cattedre persistono a dover ignorare la causa, i modi: e lo si porta dentro di sé per tutto il folgorato soscendere della vita» (RR I 690). Gonzalo is fully aware of man’s innate aggressiveness and feels remorse for the painful fate shared by all men. But he has decided not to surrender to the illusions of life and to the repression of his sense of guilt. The origin of Gonzalo’s particular friction with the world lies in his relationship with his father whom he respected and loved, but against whom he rebelled on account of his natural love for his mother. With his father’s death, the authority of the external world is substituted for the paternal image. All that which constitutes authority or oppression or is a hindrance to his life as a recluse is the target of Gonzalo’s contempt and endless tirades.

Hence, the novel’s subject (both its controlling consciousness and its subject matter) is Gonzalo who lives a life of melancholic solitude. The narrative voice reveals Gonzalo to the reader on two registers: first, by capturing his interior (lyrical) soul and the ethical dilemma manifest in his need to chose between an existence of absolute negation, which would lead to self-negation (the suicide of an existential hero), or to succumb to the illusions of life; second, by having the voice of the Other (the community detested by Gonzalo) form Gonzalo’s character through legendary accounts of his eccentricity and misanthropic behavior. This latter mode of representing the protagonist is both satirical and parodic, while the former pastiches the immortal figure of Hamlet who too was engaged in a fierce struggle against the world in behalf of a truth that causes pain.

However we choose to interpret Gonzalo’s pain and his melancholic existence and whatever meaning we assign to his bizarre actions, we are overcome by the intellectual and moral substance of a figure that pervades the text in all its perverse and masochistic movement. We see the uselessness of the world through his gaze, ponder the obscurity of his depressive states, and rejoice in the manic drive that unleashes a linguistic omnipotence from the depths of his sadness. At the same time, we can never get a hold on Gonzalo’s life because it is over-determined by a narrator who not only comments and judges his actions, but mocks and impersonates him as well, while often identifying completely with him.

Yet, although the pastiche of self in the final analysis rescues Gadda’s protagonist from his own melancholy, it also draws attention to his difference from the brilliant surface of reality that the author’s linguistic spectacle seems to emphasise. In fact, the macheronic and the lyrical go hand in hand to form a tangle of perspectives that can never be truly unravelled. As Gianfranco Contini, the critic most responsible for Gadda’s acclaim during the 1950s and 1960s, has shown, in La cognizione del dolore images are cast in extenuating rhythms within a syntax so abstract that it defies every attempt at clarification through paraphrase or translation. Compulsive and fragmented, Gadda’s lyric mode is the means through which his and his character’s anxiety is conveyed, together with the sorrow, pain and grief, the causes of which are kept silent.

Gadda’s second and best known novel Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana was also serialised in Letteratura (1946) before it was published in revised form as a book in 1957. The years that separate it from La cognizione witnessed the triumph and fall of fascism and Italy’s entry into the war. The catastrophic events of those years contribute to changing Gadda’s satirical perspective from that focused on a life lived in extremis to humanity in general and to Mussolini and fascism in particular.

Quer pasticciaccio follows the path of a simple detective story. Two crimes are committed in the space of a few days in the same apartment building in via Merulana. The first is the robbery of several pieces of jewelry belonging to a certain Contessa Menegazzi; the second is the murder of Liliana Balducci, a beautiful and generous Roman lady. Don Ciccio Ingravallo is the detective assigned to the case. The investigation begins in Rome and spreads to the countryside, where eventually the jewels are recovered. However, little is found out about Liliana’s killer, the only suspicion being that it might be the boyfriend of one of the victim’s former maid servants, who had broken into the Balducci apartment with the intention of robbery.

It does not take the reader long to realise that Gadda’s aim is much less the creation of a well structured detective story than to use the conventions of detective fiction to indict an entire society. The process of detection and interrogation will thus lead the reader into a world without boundaries where everything and everyone is to some degree suspect. The principle of suspicion generates a total sense of causal ramification. As the scheme of things is disentangled, the reader learns not to dismiss any detail and that everyone is somehow guilty of something; the guiltiest of all being the fascist state, embodied in the sordidly grotesque figure of its criminal idol Mussolini for whom Gadda reserves his greatest disdain and most powerful dose of satire.

But however similar Quer Pasticciaccio may appear to detective fiction, there is at least one important feature that sets it apart from it: it refuses to simplify its working complexity to provide a solution to the main crime. When it seems we are about to unravel the mystery, and thus, following the traditional detective story, move into the realm of order, Gadda blocks the story’s movement. Once the investigation has exposed the social and institutional orders in which the crimes take place and once it has probed and foregrounded the human and material orders as well, like a machine that has run out of fuel, it comes to a halt, the movement of its parts arrested in conjecture. The reader is likely to ask what drives the narrative away from its stated focus, on to innumerable tangents. What motivates Gadda’s baroque spectacle, propelling the complex machine of detection? A simple answer, and perhaps the only one that can be offered with some degree of certainty, is a pervasive desire to murder his object and thus to escape from any closed or transcendent meaning that the identity of the criminal would provide. But also, by refusing to assign guilt, Gadda compels his reader to remain within the sphere of the desire behind the narrative action, a desire gratified in the investigation and that centres on the transgressive sexual activity that takes place at the heart of the mystery within the Balducci household between the lovely Liliana and her so-called adopted nieces. Gadda then has performed a double transgression: while exposing the sexual transgression through forceful innuendo, he, in subverting the formal codes of the detective story, prevents transgression from becoming the norm, sidestepping altogether the need for closure and resolution, i.e., the restoration of order.

So the reader, frustrated by the obscurity of the investigation and the lack of resolution, is forced to abandon the object of narration as it is conventionally presented and focus on the descriptive layers of reference which engulf the object in a form of destructive purification. What characterises Gadda’s prose in Quer pasticciaccio even more than in La cognizione is its fierce onslaught on reality, which results in the enlargement of the object world of description, evermore intensified and energised by the expressionistic use of dialect. Such a procedure has a deep effect on the use of narrative time, a time that is constantly folding out as it follows the object in its infinite articulations and entanglements. In contrast to La cognizione, in which the subject/protagonist defends its own position threatened by the popular masses that encroach on its physical and emotional properties, Quer pasticciaccio has no narrative subject who speaks directly for the narrator, setting its claims against the Other. Instead the Other is conceived as some pervasive social totality, a degenerated collectivity that begs to be cleansed, its fascism punished, its follies exhibited. This policing of an entire society frustrates the reader intent on knowing the identity of the killer and the motivation for the crime. Gadda has led him into what, from the standpoint of traditional detective fiction, is a labyrinth with no exit, thus a story with no ending. The story conventions of the traditional novel that survived the onslaught of Pirandello and Svevo are incompatible with Gadda’s vision of the world as chaos. But for Gadda there is a deep order to the chaos, a system whose elements comprise other systems characterised by different elements with systems of their own, and so on ad infinitum.

The result is infinite descriptions and digressions. Every point on the map of possibility can be a starting point, every object a web that radiates outward. The most notorious example of Gadda’s inventory of the world – one cited by Italo Calvino in his essay on multiplicity – is the episode in which Brigadiere Pestalozzi discovers the stolen jewels. Every precious stone is unveiled in all its chemical qualities and geological history, its associations extending outward to the whole of creation. The reader in fact, after having roamed through the horrors of the world, is given the impression of having arrived at the heart of creation, where the mute splendor of the stones, Gadda tells us, reflects some hidden order of providence.

But even in this instance, when Gadda’s lyrical and scientific drives become one, we cannot help notice that again the world is being distorted before our very eyes, made the object of an uncontrollable satiric gaze. In stark contrast to Pirandello and Svevo, whose novels illustrate in different ways how art can revive a world deadened by modernisation and how the reified subject can regain its lost humanity through the artful reconstruction or management of reality’s negative aspects, Gadda’s texts display what one critic, speaking in reference to high modernism has called the «“deathly” side of art», namely, an art that kills in the sense that it makes visible an aspiration to an absolute life of the image at the very same time, through parody and satire, it exhibits «the error of the imaginary». (2) What this means in practical terms is that the commodity status of culture is a natural barrier between the artist and reality, so much so that the author’s genuinely mimetic impulses find no object on which to focus that has not been contaminated by cultural representation. The object then is an illusionary entity and the author, not to fall victim to the illusion, uses the degraded image against itself, thus revealing the deathly aspect of its material reality.


1. W. Lewis, The Complete Wild Body (Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1982), 101.

2. P. Nicholls, Modernisms: A Literary Guide (Berkeley and Los Angles: University of California Press, 1995), 277.


General studies

Dombroski, Robert S. Properties of Writing: Ideological Discourse in Modern Italian Fiction, Baltimore & London, 1994.

Lucente, Gregory. Beautiful Fables: Self-consciousness in Italian Narrative from Manzoni to Calvino, Baltimore & London, 1986.


Cambon, Glauco (ed). Pirandello: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1967.

Harrison, Thomas. Essayism: Conrad, Musil and Pirandello, Baltimore & London, 1992.

Stocchi-Perucchio, Donatella. Pirandello and the Vagaries of Knowledge: A Reading of «Il fu Mattia Pascal», Stanford, 1991.


Furbank, Philip Nicholas. Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer, Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1966.

Gatt-Rutter, John. Italo Svevo: A Double Life, Oxford, 1988.

Maloney, Brian. Italo Svevo: A Critical Introduction, Edinburgh, 1964.


Bertone, Manuela and Dombroski, Robert S. (eds). Carlo Emilio Gadda: Contemporary Perspectives, Toronto & London, 1997.

Dombroski, Robert S., Creative Entanglements: Gadda and the Baroque, Toronto & London, 1999.

Sbragia, Albert. Carlo Emilio Gadda and the Modern Macaronic, Gainesville, Florida, 1996.

Published by The Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies (EJGS)

ISSN 1476-9859

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framed image: view of the Longone church from Villa Gadda

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