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Boom Fiction

A Love Affair

by Dino Buzzati, translated by Joseph Green
Farrar, Straus, 299 pp., $4.95

The Mortal Wound

by Raffaele La Capria, translated by Marguerite Waldman
Farrar, Straus, 191 pp., $4.75

More Roman Tales

by Alberto Moravia, translated by Angus Davidson
Farrar, Straus, 255 pp., $4.75

When the Italian “economic miracle” moved into full swing three or four years ago, it touched off a cultural submiracle known as il boom editoriale. Suddenly the relaxed, almost patriarchal world of Italian publishing was shattered, sales of books (especially fiction and serious non-fiction) soared, and Italian writers who had once idly dreamed of someday reaching the dizzy Olympian heights of Alberto Moravia (whose books regularly sold more than 10,000 copies) now saw the incredible spectacle of books that sold copies in the hundreds of thousands. Clearly the flush new bourgeoisie created by the economic miracle was buying up books as fast as it was buying “AAA panoramic” apartments in the fashionable new quarters of the great cities. In the sophisticated new Italy culture came high on the heap, and books were not less bella figura than a de luxe Fiat or Lancia. Writers and publishers, obviously convinced that so good a thing couldn’t possibly last, responded with swift enthusiasm (and who could blame them?). The result was something that can only be called “boom fiction”—a fiction in most respects custom-tailored to the tastes and aspirations of the new bourgeoisie. Prosperously packaged, it was printed on good paper bound in heavy boards, and its pricetag was as high as the prestige its ownership conferred. In style the vogue was for a mild experimentalism, while in subject the emphasis was on a bright, knowing modernity and sophistication. Loss of innocence, fashionable despair, psychological “studies,” sophisticated people with sophisticated problems—these were the preferred topics. As for the dominant social realism of the post-war years, it was (apart from diehards) moribund, and for obvious reasons. The new Italian bourgeois wanted to know that he had at last arrived, and that the modern luxury of having psychological and cultural (rather than merely economic) problems now belonged to him as much as to the older European bourgeois. By and large the publishers and writers saw to it that he got what he wanted.

Il boom editoriale is still on, but it is apparent that the literary inflation is no less dangerous than that which now threatens the lira. The trouble, of course, is not that too many books are being sold, but that these books seldom receive even minimal critical scrutiny. The buyer is buying status and hence has a vested interest in buying masterpieces; the publishers tout their wares with Hollywoodstyle exaggeration. As for criticism, it was never a hardy growth in Italy, and it grows now in the baleful shade of the major publishing houses. For years the Italian writer (e.g. Pavese, Ginzburg, Vittorini, Calvino, Bassani, etc.) has made a living at publishing, and he has now been joined by the “company critic”—i.e., a critic paid by a publisher to puff (with appropriate delicacy, of course) the publisher’s books in the publisher’s magazine. The result is that Italians are now producing “authenticated” masterpieces at the rate of two or three a month; for obvious reasons this exuberant illusion of a literary Renaissance is hard for Italian pride and common sense to resist. Standards, as well as critics, are simply lacking. Italians have never been avid readers of the contemporary classics, and the great Italian moderns—Verga, Svevo, Tozzi and Pirandello—are still in Italy generally intellectual’s fare, deferred to and even bought by the average reader, but rarely read. This means that there are no operative standards by which new books may be measured. Instead everything is systematically upgraded, since this suits everybody concerned—the reader, the publisher, and the writer. The only loser is Italian literature, in which the bad threatens to drive out the good. Worse, the really experimental work of recent years (like Paolo Volpone’s remarkable Memoriate) is getting lost in the shuffle.

Dino Buzzati’s A Love Affair bears, I am afraid, a dismal resemblance to boom fiction. It is tediously long (300 pages, which in the concentrated Italian tradition is very long), and its style is a modish lyrical realism that wobbles back and forth between poetic apostrophes (to sleeping Milan, to Love, etc.) and a tacky bedroom verismo. Though intended as a moving tale of Aphrodite’s epiphany in Milan, it is really the obsessive story of a vulgar and depressing affair between two thoroughly unreal people. In short, a waffle, which is all the more disappointing because Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe is one of the more solid achievements of Italian postwar fiction. The plot of A Love Affair is minimal, almost nonexistent. Dorigo, a successful bourgeois architect in his fifties, falls desperately in love with Laide, a young prostitute of lower-class origins. He pursues her with a consuming, obsessive passion exacerbated by all the classic erotic differences of age, experience, and class. (Again and again Buzzati insists on the part played in this affair by bourgeois envy of popular vitality and popular envy of bourgeois luxury.) Laide responds to his passion with self-protective evasion, combining deliberate falsehood with class-conscious cruelty, systematically humiliating him and “cuckolding” him. Love like this, Buzzati seems to be suggesting, may be degrading and is certainly wretched, but for a bourgeois egotist like Dorigo the degradation is the sign of life, and his sufferings prove to him that he still exists. On this understanding—an understanding in perfectly but partially shared by Laide whose sufferings have made her, no less than him, newly aware—the novel closes.

If Dorigo and Laide are in some sense ciphers, this, I suppose, is part of Buzzati’s theme—the modern anonymity of the unloved and the unloving, their terrible facelessness as human beings. Sex is the only identity they possess, and Buzzati’s purpose is to show them suffering their way to a larger, more human identify. My quarrel is not with this theme, which is impressive and even powerful, but with Buzzati’s execution of it, with his inadequate realism and his tangible boredom or inability to cope with the moral issues his narrative raises. That Buzzati should want to stop being ticketed as “the Italian Kafka” is hardly surprising; but it is odd that he should do so by using a narrative form so unsuited to his talents. Realism is simply not Buzzati’s forte. He dutifully dabs in the requisite decor, weather, and furniture, but the obvious relief with which he turns aside to sketch in symbolic aperçus or landscape shows clearly where his interest and talent lie: not in his plotted narrative, or the moral structure of events, but precisely in the chances offered him of escaping from his plot. What is real in this book is Buzzati’s old Kafkaesque vision of loneliness, anguish, and defeat; when the plot requires commitment, community, and the traditional tonalities, boredom and disbelief—Buzzati’s as well as the reader’s—set in. The effect is that of a writer compulsively willing a work in which he doesn’t really believe, as though he could thereby escape from his emotional culde-sac into a public and objective world. At least this would be the charitable explanation.

Raffaele La Capria’s The Mortal Wound is an amiable but pretentious novel which in 1961 was awarded the Premio Strega by a jury that was either wildly uncritical or badly hung. Plotless and tamely “experimental” (the bulk of the book is italicized flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness), it is not really a novel at all, but a symbolic system in search of a fictive hook. The real subject is La Capria’s Naples, a city which “either wounds you or put you to sleep.” The sleepers’ Naples is called, rather oddly, the “Virgin Forest,” i.e., the immemorial world of natural instinct which is slowly, by relentless bradyseism, sinking down into the sea, and its citizens are the skin-divers of the instinctive life, will-less and unconscious men, slowly absorbed into the submarine flux of Nature’s dolce vita. Those whom Naples mortally wounds are the adult, conscious ones, those who leave Naples for activist Milan or semi-activist Rome, where they struggle to leave their mark. But wherever they go, they carry with them the wound of their Neapolitan origins, the memory of that sweet but subhuman Eden from which their moral consciousness forever cuts them off. Intellectual vs. hedonist; individual vs. conformist; the grown man vs. the child; heroic, committed will vs. the apolitical dolce vita of the instincts; History vs. Nature—between these polarities the novel is wholly suspended, each position schematically represented by a native Neapolitan. The entire novel consists in working out these symbolic positions in depth, and the only real action is the reflective homecoming of the narrator, still troubled by his unhealed wound, the memory of lost youth and an old flame from his days in paradise.

The trouble here is not the symbolism (ponderous though it is), but the fact that La Capria tries to make it do most of the work. His dialogue and incidents are unruly servants rather than partners of his symbols. And because there is no real action to generate revealing encounters the narrative consists merely of the protagonist’s boyish memories of skindiving, laying German girls on the rocks, etc. This is amiable but self-indulgent autobiography, badly dwarfed by the ambitious symbolism. In large part, this is because the symbolism is not La Capria’s own, but borrowed lock, stock, and barrel from Cesare Pavese. The indebtedness itself hardly matters, but it enforces a comparison entirely to La Capria’s disadvantage. Pavese used symbols with extraordinary tact; they rise from his work naturally because they are a product of a lifetime’s reflections. La Capria transfers Pavese’s symbolism, with all its elaborate polarities, to his own Naples and clumsily uses it to interpret an experience so banal as to seem a travesty of Pavese’s. Pavese’s symbols were complex because his fictional world and his life were tensions of at least equal complexity. La Capria’s symbols merely stand for the sentimental elegiacs (lost youth, lost innocence, lost love) of l’homme moyen sensuel. His novel would have been a far better book by being a much less pretentious one (though it might not have won the Premio Strega, where pretentiousness apparently pays off).

With Alberto Moravia inflation is not the problem. Moravia’s reputation is doubtless inflated, and the importance of his novels (as opposed to his novellas and short stories) is surely exaggerated. But this is his critics’ doing, not his. As a man Moravia may very well be vain, but he is the least pretentious writer in Italy; his whole career has been a long protest against inflation of any kind, whether Fascist rhetoric or fake postures. (Admittedly, there is always Moravia the sentimental populist and fellow traveler, but this is presumably an honest delusion). Limited by a glum and gloomy vision of life (“the bleak Columbus of boredom,” a critic once described him), he has loyally stuck to his perceptions without ever thinking of pleasing his public and critics by violating his vision or brightening his themes. “A novelist,” he once said, “has only one good tune.” From The Age of Indifference (1928) on, Moravia’s themes have changed only very slightly, if at all. Certainly there is no new theme visible in this collection of More Roman Tales. It is the same old Moravia: saturnine, disillusioned, and suspicious, preoccupied with the hard reality of sex and money. But reading them I am struck over and over again by how very good they are, how purposively functional, and how consistently Moravia succeeds with this extremely restrictive form of eight to ten pages. Certainly they should not be written off as mere grist from the Moravia mill, or mildly praised and negligently read. Their form may not be much to American taste, but these are novelle in the tradition of Boccaccio and Sacchetti, and Americans should acquire the taste They are to be taken two and three at a time, however, and not gulped down by the dozen.

What gives these stories their distinctive edge is their concentration. They are quintessential Moravia, the tedious moods and longueurs of the novels stripped away, leaving the ironic contours of the thought starkly revealed. Moravia is, of course, no great verbal stylist (and Angus Davidson’s wooden English translation has not improved him). His style derives more from the order of his perceptions than from his words. The perception is hard and detached and acute; this is why the characters are invariably alive and why Moravia can, without so much as clearing his throat, make his Roman situation so generally true. In one story, for instance, a pathetic bum with an impoverished “line” is swindled by a professional vulture whose tale is utterly persuasive and destructive because it speaks to the victim’s secret desires, his hunger for life. In another story a chimpanzee at the Borghese Zoo throws dung at a girl—her name is Gloria—whose peevish, finicky pretense of refinement makes her malign the zoo animals and, implicitly, her boyfriend’s animal high spirits. Not every story evokes such apparitions as these (Medusa-faces of this life, Henry James called them), but of the thirty-odd stories in this book, there are barely eight or nine which are trivial or unsuccessful, and that is performance of a very high order.

Of greatness there should be no question. Moravia is not a great writer (as Svevo and Verga—and, I would argue, Tozzi and Pavese—are great), but he is an exceptionally able and prolific one. He is also a professional craftsman with a natural gift for telling stories, and an exceptional literary and humanistic intelligence (as his volume of essays, Uomo come fine, will make clear). It is this intelligence, visible in the consistent selfcontrol and functional modesty of his work, that makes him so powerful an influence in contemporary Italian literature. That influence may have its unfortunate side, but surely it is all to the good that this committed and intelligent writer stands as a model of the Italian man-of-letters. That example is particularly valuable now, when so many Italian writers and publishers seem to be forgetting the nature of their job.

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