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 …

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