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Gogol’s Grandson

Several years ago, Encounter published an extraordinary story by an Italian writer, quite unknown in English, named Tommaso Landolfi. The story was called “Gogol’s Wife.” It purports to be the account, told by a hanger-on of the great Russian writer, of Gogol’s marriage to an inflatable rubber dummy, with whom he has a mysterious, exalted, and shameful relation. It was Landolfi’s clean, deliberate style that was so striking: that, combined with a lovely freedom of invention, allowed him to bring off this incredibly pure potion of the grotesque and the ludicrous. It is difficult to praise “Gogol’s Wife” too highly. On the basis of this story, one instantly and gratefully acknowledged Landolfi as a writer of the first rank.

Now New Directions has put together a book of nine of Landolfi’s stories, giving us a chance to read more. None of the other stories in this volume are of the same stature as “Gogol’s Wife,” while “Gogol’s Wife,” upon re-reading, is as stunning as before. Landolfi is, if one can judge by this volume, a narrower writer than one had hoped. Nevertheless, all of the other stories are at the least extraordinarily good, and several do approach the greatness of the title story.

The publication of Gogol’s Wife and Other Stories is an occasion for joy, comparable to the belated recent translation and discovery by the English-reading public of Machado de Assis and Jorgue Luis Borges. This book is only a sampling of Landolfi’s writings; Landolfi, who has been publishing since 1937, when a collection of short stories appeared, is now the author of nearly a dozen books, including novels as well as stories. But we shall have to take what we can get.

Landolfi is obviously not a writer in love with his own time, and abandons his work to the mercy of his public as if it were already posthumous. He is reputed to be a completely solitary man, who lives apart from all literary circles. Other than the date and place of his birth (1908, Pico) and the fact that he took a degree at the University of Florence in Russian literature, practically nothing is known about him. In the only photograph of himself he has authorized for publication—it appears on the jacket of Gogol’s Wife and Other Stories—Landolfi has thrown up his right hand, with the fingers outstretched, before his face, entirely obscuring it. This photograph is a stark and witty clue to his writings, writings in which the typically assertive personal presence of a modern author is effaced by irony, ceremoniousness, parody, morbidity.

Judging from this collection, the story form which Landolfi prefers is somewhere between the tale and the récit—between the dignified and rather detached account of an event, and a more personal and troubled kind of narration in which the reader must stay alert to the disparity between the consciousness of the “I” telling the story and the real event. Even when meditative, Landolfi’s mode of narration is rapid and compressed. (Exceptions are the dilated, surrealistic style of “The Death of the King of France,” and the lushness of “Sun-stroke,” a story somewhat in the manner of—of all mentors!—Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose.”) Consider, for example, the following beginnings of four of Landolfi’s stories:

At this point, confronted with the whole complicated affair of Nikolai Vassilevitch’s wife, I am overcome by hesitation. Have I any right to disclose something which is unknown to the whole world, which my unforgettable friend himself kept hidden…? (“Gogol’s Wife”)

In a disheartening quarter of a city which itself was in many ways disheartening, on the second floor of a middle-class apartment house, lived two old maids together with their old mother. (“The Two Old Maids”)

In the morning when we rise from bed, although surprised to find ourseilves still alive, we are no less amazed that everything is exactly as we had left it the evening before. Thus I happened to be staring in stupid abstraction through my window curtains when my friend Y announced himself with a series of hasty knocks rapped out on the door of my room. (“Dialogue of the Greater Harmonies”)

At the end of the wedding banquet the chimney sweep was announced. The father, out of joviality, and because it seemed proper to him that a ceremony such as the cleaning of the chimney should be celebrated on just that day, gave the order to let him come in. (“Wedding Night”)

One immediately notices the smooth, well-mannered surface of this writing. The tone is low-keyed and grave; details of the setting are vaguely sketched in; the flavor of the scene is uncontemporary, positively old-fashioned. But it would be a mistake to think of Landolfi as a twentieth-century recluse devoted to writing imaginary nineteenth-century short stories. His sensibility is of an entirely modern order, intellectually playful, sardonic, and riddled with disgust. With whom might one compare him? The already semi-official tag, “the Italian Kafka,” is not very apt, I think. Something of a cross between Borges and Isak Dinesen would be more accurate: Landolfi has something of the perverse ingenuity of the one, and the solemn romanticism of the other. It is likely, however, that he is a greater writer than either. For he is less claustrophobic, less febrile than Borges; and his use of irony never becomes sentimental, or merely arch, as so often happens in the work of Dinesen. Although, like Borges, Landolfi is a prolific translator—he has done mostly Russian writers (Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Bunin, Lermontov), as well as some non-Russian writers such as Hofmannsthal—he does not use his culture in an obtrusive way. While Borges proposes the idea of bibliomania and a mostly imaginary erudition as the equivalent in his stories of a sensuous surface, Landolfi’s stories have a nude, fable-like character, virtually placeless and timeless. Nevertheless, it does not seem surprising that both men are professional translators. Both the monstrously recondite fantasies of Borges and the more abstract tales of Landolfi are written in a markedly homeless, cosmopolitan literary style.

At least five of the nine stories in this collection are very short, and minor in scale. The weakest of this group, I think, is a frigid and rather contrived horror story told in letter form called “Pastoral.” The best of the very short tales, a mere four pages long, is “Wedding Night,” a delicate, finely imagined story about the end of sexual innocence. But Landolfi is at his best at a greater length. He is brilliant at impersonation, at the first-person narrative about a strange or marvellous event to which the narrator was a privileged though inept witness. And he is also a master of the fully dramatized narrative. The longest story in the book, “The Two Old Maids,” really combines both talents. While related by one of those diffident, clerkish narrators so common in nineteenth-century fiction, it has a vigorous, straight-forward plot. Two dreary spinster sisters discover that at night their beloved pet monkey steals out of their apartment to defile the altar of the adjacent convent, and they formally try the blasphemer and execute him. The theatrical climax of the story is a rancorous debate between two priests whom the sisters have invited to assist them in judging the poor monkey. The other long story—to my mind the best in the collection after “Gogol’s Wife”—is entirely different. It is called “The Death of the King of France,” and is written in a complex, oblique prose, broken into five sections like the movements of a piece of music. Much of the “narration” consists of chains of images, presented as equivalents to the emotional states of the characters. The climactic scene is a long aria rendering the orgiastic fantasies which accompany the onset of menstruation in a twelve-year-old girl.

In Landolfi’s stories there are none of the elaborate figures of motives and scruples which provide the spine of a Kafka story. Landolfi is a more objective, a more gothic writer. In fact, the situations which he relates in his stories really make an apti-psychological point. In a typical Landolfi story, the mind is confronted with a brute fact; the mind circles around this fact, unable to penetrate it. One of the brute facts which recur in Landolfi’s stories is the bulk and mystery and repulsiveness of the physical body. In “Gogol’s Wife,” the writer inflates his rubber wife through the anus with an air pump. In “Pastoral,” all the inhabitants of a village hibernate for the winter in hideous fetid bags which hang from the ceiling. The offending monkey in “The Two Old Maids” must be killed because he urinates on the convent altar. In “The Wedding Night” the dogged labors of the chimney sweep cleaning out the kitchen fireplace offer the young bride a lurid analogue to her own imminent defloration. And “The Death of the King of France,” which was (Landolfi mentions in a note) originally titled “W. C.,” begins and ends with its hero, whose name is So-and-so, straining on the toilet.

Like physical indecency, the intellectual dilemmas which are the subject of some of Landolfi’s other stories also have the character of irrefutable, arbitrary facts. The fairly long story, “Dialogue on the Greater Harmonies” (whose idea is one Borges would surely have loved), is about a man who has learned a nonexistent language thinking that he was studying Persian, and now unhappily finds himself the only person who can speak this language which is very beautiful and which he loves deeply. His despair is that the poems which he writes in this language happen to be untranslatable. A brief tale on a parallel theme, “Giovanni and his Wife,” relates the pathetic fate of two passionate music lovers, so wildly out of tune that they cannot produce a single note recognizably, yet who, when they sing together, always and unfailingly agree on how to sing each note. One day the wife bursts a vein in her breast while singing, and dies, leaving her husband bereft of anyone to understand him musically. Both stories are meditations on the arbitrariness of concord and discord, sameness and difference.

What, of course, makes Landolfi’s stories unlike the short stories mainly being written today in England and America is not his morbid wit or his eccentric notions of disaster. It is rather the whole project of a basically neutral, reserved kind of writing. In such writing, the act of relating a story is seen primarily as an act of intelligence. To narrate is palpably to employ one’s intelligence the unity of the narration, characteristic of European and Latin American fiction, is the unity of the narrator’s intelligence. But the writing of fiction common in America today has little use for this patient, dogged, unshowy use of intelligence. American writers mostly want the facts to declare, to interpret, themselves. If there is a narrative voice, it is likely to be immaculately mindless—or else strainingly clever and bouncy. Thus, most American writing is grossly rhetorical (that is, there is an overproduction of means in relation to ends); in contrast to the classical mode of European writing, which achieves its effects with an anti-rhetorical style—a style that holds back, that aims ultimately at neutral transparency. Landolfi belongs squarely in this anti-rhetorical tradition. It will be a pity if these stories are shelved as the latest high-class Italian culture import. Landolfi’s methods seem to me an entirely viable alternative to the fatty but not very nourishing practice of fiction in America today.

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