Acquainted with Grief
by Carlo Emilio Gadda, translated by William Weaver
Braziller, 244 pp., $6.95
Italian novelists—who are they? We don’t find on the peninsula an impressive list to recite, like Flaubert-Balzac-Stendhal-Zola-Proust in the neighbor culture. With some scraping and hauling, we are likely to think of Manzoni, Verga, Svevo, D’Annunzio doubtfully, Fogazzaro perhaps, Pavese, Moravia maybe—it is not a long tradition, and though rich in various ways, it isn’t compact and sequential as various other national traditions obviously are. Carlo Emilio Gadda will certainly be found on future lists—affirming, as each of these novelists does, an extraordinary measure of global independence, a fresh imaginative start, stylistic riches—as well as a thin thread of typically Italian feeling which, though hard to define, is easy to sense.
Gadda is the author of two novels: the second written was the first translated. Quer Pasticciaccio Brutto de Via Merulana (published in Italy in 1957, translated by William Weaver as That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, Braziller, 1965) is, or pretends to be, a Roman detective story. It is written in a pasticciaccio or pastiche of different idioms, primarily the Roman urban dialect, seasoned here and there with some Spanish, Venetian, Greek, French, Milanese, Latin, and gibberish expressions. The central incident, though it starts as a normally nasty homicide on an average grubby street in central Rome, gradually spreads and deepens as Officer Francesco Ingravallo (otherwise Don Ciccio) investigates it. Like a livid stain it spreads—not just the crime itself, or specific responsibility for it, but the squalor and selfishness and pretension of Roman society in early Fascist days, of which the crime is just one random outcome.
We learn to suspect the pretty-boy cousin, the bullock husband, the terrorized, senile tenant, the scabby gangs—and always in the background is heard, or overheard, a thudding drumfire of imperial rhetoric. Language itself seems to break down and decay under the impulse of Gadda’s disgust; the regime is, every so often, reduced to a series of obscene puns on imperial terminologies, foul pomposities. There is no running down of the criminal, no triumphant elucidation, no arrest, no punishment; when the guilt has been sufficiently spread, sufficiently realized, in the midst of one more interminable interrogation, the novel simply stops. It comes to a breakdown, not a proper conclusion; repeating the pattern set by La Cognizione del dolore, Gadda’s first novel, which is only now being translated (again by Mr. Weaver) and published (again by Braziller) as Acquainted with Grief.
This novel was written and partly published (in serial form) more than thirty years ago, just before World War II. It broke off, once again, in the midst of an action, at a moment when the author had touched, so it seemed, an instant of unendurable agony. The present version contains a new chapter, taken from the author’s journals but not reworked by him, carrying the story a little further, but not to any proper conclusion. Gadda is now nearly eighty, and it does not seem likely that he will …