the complete review Quarterly
Volume III, Issue 2   --   May, 2002

Digging out the Gems
Lesser-known authors of Italian post-war literature

Nicola Rossi

       I have a bad habit: when I visit people, after the handshakes and before the first drink, I head straight for the CD stack and the bookshelf, to check out what's there. It started off as an easy way of diversifying my musical and literary tastes. Sure enough, after a while, you start recognising trends. Some of these are curious. One, I found worrying: the limited scope of Italian literature on English-language bookshelves

       I have never been the type who believes that the Universe rotates around my own country (although I keep meeting people everywhere who think that it does). But I am justly proud of Italy's long history of contribution to the world's culture. So I appointed myself word-of-mouth, street-level PR agent for Italy's post-war literature, and set about my job.

       I suspect that the problem may be on the English-speaking side: living in France, I find that just about every Italian author is published. This might be due to the long history of cultural cross-pollination between Italy and France. Another explanation could be the "best-seller" approach: only the local best-selling authors, with a proven capacity to draw audiences, get translated into English. This strategy would certainly catch the big fish, but would just as certainly leave out the pearls. France, ever attentive to the very concept of Culture, does not seem to limit its exploration of other literatures, and catches the pearls. And I am told (although I have no way to tell) that Italian authors are also easily available in German .....

       I focus on the post-war period because I esteem it to be the most fertile. Pre-war Nobel prizewinners Luigi Pirandello and Grazia Deledda are well known, as is Italo Svevo -- Joyce's contemporary.
       But curiously Italy's three post-war Nobel prizewinners do not have a high profile abroad, although it might be because they are poets and playwrights rather than novelists. Gadda, Ginzburg, Moravia are renowned, and many are familiar with Leonardo Sciascia, Dino Buzzati, and Tomasi di Lampedusa. Some may have heard of Oriana Fallaci (after all she has been living in New York for years), but she is a journalist not a novelist, so outside my scope.
       And let's face it: mention "Italian literature" to the English-speaking world these days and you come up with Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino.

       There is nothing wrong with these authors, they produced a quantity of fine to excellent works, and justly enjoyed their fame abroad. But Calvino and Moravia are now over-read; Eco, at least at home, was always considered an essayist first, and novelist second; and Lampedusa, Sciascia, and Buzzati certainly were helped along by the movies that were made from their books (The Leopard, 1963; The Day of the Owl, 1968; The Tartar's Steppe, 1976).

       I propose to go a step further, and look at Guido Morselli, Giorgio Manganelli and Tommaso Landolfi.
       I have singled out these three, among dozens, because their depth places them a league apart from others such as Annamaria Ortese, Giuseppe Pontiggia, Antonio Tabucchi -- capable people all, but altogether more mainstream. It is these three who go the farthest on the road of psychological exploration. Since I look to literature for insights in the inner workings of us humans, I find these authors have a particular appeal.

        Guido Morselli
        (Bologna 1912 - Varese 1973)

       I am told (I wasn't around then) there was a stir when Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's only novel, The Leopard, was published posthumously in 1958. It must be because of the cachet attached to the posthumous publication. Funny then that next to nobody has heard of Guido Morselli, whose entire literary output (six novels) was published after his death. Indeed, Morselli took his life after the editorial rejection of his last work. The Italian literary establishment woke up to this author when Adelphi began publishing his novels soon after his death, and has felt a sense of remorse to this day. It should: read Morselli's novels, and you realise that you are before one of the major authors of the 20th century.
       Morselli's novels, written between 1960 and 1973, are serious social studies. What I deem to be his masterpiece, Roma senza Papa, is a sober story placed in a nearish future, in which the Pope, after 2000 years of Christianity, has left the Holy See, and lives almost humbly in a villa at the city's outskirts. The uncanny, matter-of-fact depiction of this state of affairs gives an eery feeling of something utterly impossible becoming all-too-plausible.
       Morselli's most celebrated novel remains, understandably, Dissipatio Humanis Generis. Completed only months before his death, it tells the story of a man who enters a mountain cave, one night, to take his life. Changing his mind, he comes out of the cave to find that in the meantime the human race has disappeared. In this clearly autobiographical work, the author's despair comes across with striking lucidity.

       Why works of such calibre went unpublished remains a mystery. His stance, solidly refusing the main ideologies of his time, may explain his isolation as an author, but the common explanation that his ideas and his approach were ahead of his time simply does not fit: Morselli wrote from the 1950s to the early 70s, a time when the literary avant-garde, in Italy as everywhere, was very much alive. His works simply remain there to be appreciated.

        Giorgio Manganelli
        (Milano 1922 - 1990)

       Breaking into the literary scene in his forties with Hilarotragoedia, this author flooded the public with a style which I can only define as "post-modern baroque". His tortuous texts, dense with neologisms, must indeed be a challenge to translate. Just as it took a Raymond Queneau to translate Amos Tutuola into French, and a Calvino to translate Queneau into Italian, it would probably take a James Joyce to translate Manganelli into English.
       The only exception is Centuria, a modern-day Decameron of sorts, with its one hundred stories, each only a page long, each of which the author calls "novels". True example of conciseness, published only months before Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller (the two gentlemen were good friends), it comes, as does Calvino's work, accompanied by the author's detailed reading instructions: "If I may be allowed to advise you, the best way to read this little book, though expensive, would be: to purchase the rights of use of a skyscraper having as many floors as there are lines in the book; on each floor place a reader holding a copy, to each reader assign a line from it; at a signal, the Supreme Reader will begin to fall from the summit of the building and, as he goes by the windows, the reader at each floor will read out the assigned line, in a clear and loud voice. It is necessary that the number of floors match the number of lines exactly, and let there be no confusion between mezzanine and first floor (.....)"
       Manganelli's fiction leans decidedly on the metaphysical. The "where" and "when" are reduced to a bare minimum, and the plot is nothing but the protagonist's meanderings through the twisted tunnels of Thought.

        Tommaso Landolfi
        (Pico Farnese 1909 - Roma 1979)

       We now come to one of our darkest, brightest authors. Last in line of an aristocratic family at the end of its fortunes, at first reading Landolfi has an archaic, 19th century sound. The prose is flowery, the language rich, the mood ironic. But Landolfi disperses ideas like little diamonds along his prose, like blades strewn across a lawn, and these, as you run along his texts, begin to cut. He has been called, time and again, a "lunar" author. Indeed, his entire oeuvre (a dozen collections of short stories plus half a dozen short novels) seems lit by the same cold, bright, white-blueish moonlight.
       Reading Landolfi, you are not sure whether he is making you participate in his writing process, or whether he is writing instinctively from deep within himself. Regardless: with his mastery of style and language, one senses a deep culture at work behind the scenes. Throughout a career spanning forty years, he has consistently shown a lucid, spontaneous insight into the workings of the mind, and has never shied away from "threshold" themes like folly, incest, decadence.
       Landolfi is there to convince you that madness is never more than a step away.

       Italy has produced a distinguished amount of good literature, and its post-war authors have considerable relevance. It is a shame to see the English-speaking world missing out on some of our strongest authors, among which Landolfi, Manganelli and Morselli are foremost.

       I have deliberately left aside these authors' journalistic production -- all three were at some point columnists in Italy's main newspapers. Manganelli was also a critic and, like Landolfi, a translator (from English the former, from Russian the latter). All three write in an almost psychiatric way: Manganelli's writing comes from deep within the mind's bowels, Morselli's from its solitude, Landolfi's from its cynicism. Manganelli's prose is certainly the densest, Landolfi's the lightest.
       All three make sublime reading.

       The rest is up to you.

e-mail: Nicola Rossi


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© 2002 the complete review Quarterly
© 2002 the complete review