Cabot Wright Begins
Corridors of Power
There is a prize in this grab bag of fiction: Niccolo Tucci’s Unfinished Funeral. This will be no surprise to readers who admired Tucci’s large novel about his forebears, Before My Time (1962), nor to those who have followed his stories in The New Yorker. But this beautifully wry new book is the best proof yet of a unique and masterful talent.
Tucci is an Italian (his mother was Russian) who has lived in America since the early Thirties. His two novels are written in English—not in the pyrotechnic English of Conrad and Nabokov, but in a style of perfectly relaxed irony. He is very much the aristocratic raconteur, poised at an agreeable distance from his listeners and yet willing to speak the truth with shameless and indifferent simplicity. The truth he tells is easy to misunderstand, however; Time declared his first book inferior to Peter Rabbit in emotional content. Only those who appreciate, say, Sterne and Svevo are likely to appreciate Tucci. Like them, he draws most of his power from whimsical self-examination, from private knowledge of the stubbornness and deviousness of human feeling. If very little happens in his books, that is because he is concerned to show how reluctant men are to break away from their earliest loves and vices. Like Tristram Shandy, like La Coscienza di Zeno, Tucci’s novels are patient and witty studies of incapacity.
A word about Before My Time, which is far more ambitious in scope than the present book, may be in order. What seems at first to be a work of snobbish nostalgia for the turn-of-the-century haut monde turns out instead to be an unsparing picture of a mother’s ruinous dominance over all her children. Their efforts to achieve a measure of freedom—through disobedience, through perfect obedience, through direct flight and dissipation—amount to nothing: without her their lives have no meaning. When she finally dies after 600 pages of steady tyranny, they are more bound to her influence than ever, and the novel ends on a note of grief, of memorial, and above all of revealed identity: the children now are the mother. And these children, well trained in the snuffing out of independence, correspond to Tucci’s own parents and elder relations. As he says with disarming simplicity in the opening pages, “I was born a good child. Had I lost both of my parents at the age of three or four, six at the most, I still might have become a good man.” Stated so bluntly, the point is not maudlin but comic, precisely in the way Tristram Shandy is comic; and the entire novel sustains this air of droll detachment from a story that is inherently confessional and accusatory.
In a note prefaced to Before My Time Tucci intimated that further novels in the same mode would be forthcoming. Unfinished Funeral, however, is a radically different book, even though its theme is the same. The exaggeration that creeps into family legends …