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At the Bottom of the Pond

An Autumn Story

by Tommaso Landolfi, translated by Joachim Neugroschel
Eridanos Press, 145 pp., $11.00 (paper)

Landolfi’s work is black, gothic, perverse, mysterious, desperate, disturbing, sometimes horrific, sometimes revolting. An occasional English translation floats up like a viscous bubble on a dark pond. The first eruption was in 1963, when a collection of stories came to the surface under the title Gogol’s Wife; in 1971 The Dial Press published another collection called Cancerqueen; a third collection, Words in Commotion and Other Stories, was brought out by Viking in 1986. Eridanos claims that An Autumn Story is Landolfi’s first novel to be translated. It’s actually more of a novella, both in form and length: a mere 145 pages, lavishly laid out with wide margins and blank pages between the chapters, so that it looks longer than it is.

Little is known about the creature hidden at the bottom of the pond. Landolfi was born in Pico, a town midway between Rome and Naples, in 1908 and died there in 1979. He married late and had two children. He studied Russian at the University of Florence and translated Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky into Italian, and also Edgar Allan Poe. His intimacy with these shows in his writing. Calvino, Montale, and Natalia Ginzburg admired him, but he kept apart from literary circles. Still, he knew what went on in them: there is a desolate, funny piece classified as “between autobiography and invention” in Words in Commotion. It is called “Literary Prize.” Landolfi himself won a number of these, and the story describes a prize-winning writer arriving at the seaside hotel where the ceremony is to take place on the following day: “He realized he didn’t even have a book with him; not that he wanted to read, heavens no, but to bring on sleep.” That puts literature in its place. And yet “the more he became aware of his own abjection, his reprehensible despair, his inexplicable lack of faith, the more he envied them,” “them” being the other writers who believe in literature. Next day he watches them leave.

in their shiny cars, each to his own precise destination, a centre of industrious life, some freely accepted activity—not a life willed to be void of reward or new stimuli…. And as for him?

He takes his prize check to a casino and gambles it away. Landolfi too was a gambler, and he suffered from acedia like the prizewinner in the story. Every sentence he wrote, even when it is funny (which it often is), seems drenched in nihilistic despair. One wonders how he managed to get anything down at all: and yet his stories are full of fiendish energy.

Private, cryptic, and rule-breaking, they don’t seem intended to be read. True, Landolfi sometimes addresses an explanation or apology directly to the reader in an old-fashioned way: but this is a formality—a quotation from the kind of writing other writers write. Writing like other writers—in other words, pastiche—is one of Landolfi’s favorite modes. On the other hand, even when it is not pastiche, his writing doesn’t read like self-expression either—a cry that must be uttered even if there is no one to hear it. It is more like a kind of metaphysical doodling with thoughts and words, obsessive and a bit mad, as doodling can be. It doesn’t seem to need a reader, and if there is one, he can have a hard time of it in Landolfi’s solipsist maze. The best possible—or least impossible—introduction to his stories is the cop-out composed by Italo Calvino for Words in Commotion:

Any exploration of what Landolfi really says has yet to be made. Because while he claims to have “nothing to say,” he always follows the thread of the discussion at hand. Eventually his philosophy will be unraveled from the knot of questions without answers, contradictions, proclamations and provocations surrounding him. If our intention here is simply to pass on the pleasure of reading Landolfi superficially, that is because it is the first necessary step.

In most of the stories translated so far the first step leads, gradually or abruptly, into a state of shock. There are subtle shocks in the less bizarre stories—sometimes mere scraps a few pages long—when unbearable boredom and irritation rear up from what appear to be quite viable relationships. There are supernatural, science fiction, and horror shocks: killers recall in lingering detail exactly what they did and how it made them feel; unthinkable deformities are unveiled in slow motion; people sense themselves going mad and hallucinate about spiders or geckos. Repulsive creatures crawl and slither through the pages: in “Cancerqueen” swarms of bugs emerge from the apertures in the narrator’s own body.

This story, written in 1950, is an astonishing piece of science fiction: the mad inventor of a spacecraft invites the narrator to accompany him to the moon. He accepts: he is contemplating suicide and the journey seems an alternative exit from life. In the spacecraft the lunatic grows dangerous, and the narrator kills him in self-defense—an absurdity in itself, since he was looking for death. He forces the corpse out through the door valve, but it remains in the slipstream, indestructible and forever visible, because the spacecraft has gone off course and become fixed in the earth’s orbit. Instead of quick death by suicide the narrator’s gamble has brought him eternal life in perpetual isolation. Eventually he does manage to die—but only to find himself compelled to write the same story again, from the arrival of the lunatic to his own death, and then again from the beginning, perpetually. The existential meaning of this particular tale is easier to construe than most of the others’: but it’s not easy at all to convey the cosmic shock and anguish that emanate from its hallucinatory detail.

Gogol in “Gogol’s Wife” is the real Gogol, but his wife is a balloon. He inflates her through her anus and lives contentedly with her for many years. Then he gets bored and kills her by blowing her up until she bursts. Afterwards he surreptitiously burns their rubber baby. “Pastoral” is in the same volume. Susan Sontag liked it least of the collection when she reviewed it in the New York Review in 1964—“a frigid and rather contrived horror story told in letter form.” It is certainly contrived, being a pastiche of Madame de Sévigné updated from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century. The letters are written by a sprightly lady who has recently moved from Paris to the remote countryside. At first, like Madame de Sévigné, she is delighted with her new surroundings. But as autumn comes on, she notices people growing drowsy, falling asleep, being sewn up in smelly fur bags and hung from the ceiling to hibernate. At first only peasants and servants seem to be affected, but then her attentive aristocratic caller disappears (“no doubt his bag will be made of sables”). In the end, she is the only human left awake in the snow-bound landscape. She writes one last, frantic letter calling for help, but one realizes she will die. Of all Landolfi’s horror stories this is the least violent and stomachturning, but surely one of the most frightening: not so much because of the fate in store for the letter writer, but because of the idea of hibernation, a sort of existential dropping out.

Or perhaps a practice run for death: the fact that we get no practice for dying is addressed by the killer in “The Mute.” He has seduced and murdered a school-girl, and as he waits in panic for the police to find him, he reflects:

Is it really necessary to find a way to die, to know how to die, in order to die? She, for instance, surely did not know how to die, and yet she died. It is ridiculous, absurd if you wish, but it is so: one does something one does not know how to do. Shouldn’t it be enough, I say, that one does not know how to do it, for that something not to take place? But not at all.

An Autumn Story” is pastiche again, a thick impasto of references to romantic and neoromantic, gothic and neogothic works in many languages. You could play a literary quiz game with the text and never find all the clues. The story is about love beyond the grave through two generations, and the setting a lonely country mansion: Emily Brontë recycled, perhaps. But the first half belongs to the hidden-room category of fiction, more Jane Eyre than Wuthering Heights, or even, because the journey through the house is so circumstantial, The Secret Garden. It is set in Italy in the Second World War with the Allies moving up from the south. The narrator is hiding out from the Germans or perhaps the Italians. He is driven to seek shelter in a vast decrepit manor house standing all by itself in wild country. Many pages are devoted to his attempts to find an entrance, with much attention paid to the exact layout of terraces, steps, doors, windows, projections, and outbuildings. This kind of intense topography, part boys’ adventure story, part roman autre, but with an obsessional feel to it, crops up in many of Landolfi’s stories, and repeatedly in this one.

Eventually the narrator forces an entrance, and confronts the owner, a taciturn, unwelcoming, secretive old nobleman, as decrepit as the house he lives in. Grudgingly he allows the intruder to stay and share what food he has. But he resents his exploring the house, especially after he has caught him mesmerized before the portrait of a beautiful woman. Her clothes belong to the turn of the century, and “the most vivid and disturbing element was her huge, dark eyes. Their deep gaze seemed to have the same character as the old man’s gaze…. Her eyes seemed intensely magnetic, and I was unable to look away.” The portrait is a fake; not even a pastiche, just an ordinary cliché flung at the reader, its provenance too promiscuous to bother with.

A few nights later the narrator feels a presence in his bedroom. The point of entry seems to be inside a cabinet which turns out to have no back panel, only the bedroom wall behind it. The narrator decides to find the room behind the wall, and owing to the complicated layout of the house this leads to another long drawn-out topographical log, as though Theseus had recorded every twist and turn of his progress through the labyrinth. You can tell that this passage was a strain on the translator:

Returning nevertheless to my starting point, and only mentally noting the direction of the famous wall, I confirmed my idea, I had no choice but to broadly widen my position.

The narrator gropes his way to a subterranean cavern inhabited by slimy vegetation and a giant gecko, “if that’s what it was.” The cave turns out to be a dungeon: a ring is chained to the wall and incongruously adorned with fresh flowers. As he feels his way out again, the narrator hears footsteps running away. He follows without being able to catch up, and emerges in an inhabited-looking bedroom. He notices flowers like the flowers in the dungeon, and a topaz necklace like the one worn by the lady in the portrait. By now he is obsessed by desire to find her, whether she be a ghost or still alive somewhere in the house.

The next night he surreptitiously follows his host out of the dining room and through another sequence of halls and passages. When the old man reaches the room of his destination, the narrator rather unconvincingly moves in after him and conceals himself between the door and a curtain that hangs across it. He finds himself in a sumptuous bedroom, “obviously her sanctuary,” dominated by a veiled portrait. Various objects from the other portrait are scattered around the room. The old man sprinkles incense on the fire and begins a long (very long) incantation for calling up the dead. And then the woman appears: “But let me come right out and say that this was a dark, dreadful, perverse image, which had nothing of her enchanting bewilderment…. By all indications, this was a spirit from hell, a foul specter.” The narrator cries out, the old man tries to kill him, but falls to the ground instead. The narrator escapes.

He joins the partisans, but a fortnight later is drawn back to the house. Leaning in a doorway is a woman. He recognizes the Countess Lucia, the lady in the portrait. It turns out, however, to be her daughter by the old man, the count, who has died in the meantime—though not, the narrator learns, as a direct consequence of their scuffle. The young Lucia is dressed in her dead mother’s antiquated clothes. She is just as beautiful and weirdly alluring, and reminds one of Pirandello’s Henry IV—which hinges on a confusion of mother and daughter portraits and is itself a neogothic work about illusion, reality, and madness.

She tells him the family history: both her mother and father belonged to noble families, but when they fell in love the girl’s parents opposed the marriage because she was still a child.

Much later, when they finally succeeded in getting married, their passion, rather than calming down or becoming more tolerable, blazed so intensely that it took on bizarre, excessive, even fearfully violent forms and manifestations. Ultimately, people feared for the husband’s very sanity, which, in the long run, seemed unable to endure that extraordinary emotional heat without virtually melting…. He actually set up an altar, on which the young woman had to remain, nude, for several hours of the day and especially at night, in front of burning candles and amid clouds of incense. Yet she seemed happy about this. During fits of unjustified jealousy or simply love, he inflicted various agonies and tortures, which did not appear to make her unhappy…. The wife also cultivated the art of magic, which she transmitted to her husband and, in some degree, to her daughter,…little Lucia, who bore a stupefying resemblance to her mother.

So it’s not entirely surprising that when the first Lucia dies, the old count transfers his passion to his daughter and continues his accustomed practices with her. He keeps her a prisoner in the house. Her only contact with the outside world is through the old books in the library. So her speech is unidiomatic, archaic, and fetchingly formal; she is highly educated up to a point, intelligent, sensitive, even psychic, but a true Sleeping Beauty or Ariadne who has to ask: “What is the ocean like? What are cities and trains like? And those flying men, I have seen them fly past ever since the war began.” She is slightly deranged, with a sadistic streak which she vents on furniture and small animals. Her behavior toward the narrator switches from insulting arrogance to lascivious tenderness: she has loved him since she first saw him through the secret door behind his bedroom cupboard. She also suffers from epilepsy.

In spite of all this, they have a spell of “brief happiness” together before marauding soldiers come and attack the house. Lucia sacrifices her life for the narrator’s by distracting their attention. They shoot her down: “I managed to hear her say: ‘It is Mommy! [That’s how the translation has it.]… But do not worry, we will meet again. Come back, come back.’ ” And he does, every autumn, to watch the empty house disappear under grass, ivy, and other climbing plants, like Aurora’s palace. Each year the rose he planted on Lucia’s grave bears one particularly beautiful blossom, and he concludes: “My heart is buried here. But will it not rise again, with hers? Will she not keep her promise, the promise she made as she lay dying?”

Natalia Ginzburg said that people who don’t like Landolfi say that it’s

because his style is precious, ceremonious, smooth, and unctuous. But I, on the other hand, think that his preciosity of style is of a high, ironic, and tragic sort, and that he pays an incalculable price for it. It is not the capricious choice of an aristocrat, but a desperate choice intended to carry the words into the highest and most noble spheres that thought can touch.

One may think that there is a bit of both—aristocratic whimsy and high endeavor too. The translation of An Autumn Story gives no idea of either. It is plebeian: vulgar and clumsy. The quest part is hard to follow and therefore tedious; the denouement from the necromantic invocation onward simply grotesque. Well, not simply: like the people in his story, Landolfi is a sorcerer under his own spell, and his weird magic hangs about in spite of everything.

Of course An Autumn Story is some sort of literary tease. That is what Kathrine Jason felt when she translated the Words in Commotion collection. “Landolfi’s story is often a game, and the act of duping or manipulating the reader’s intellectual and emotional reaction is the writer’s characteristic stance,” she writes in her afterword:

Rather than “poking fun,” he is flinging mud at the literary establishment that he saw himself at odds with—an entity which included his readers…. But as [my] work proceeded and I came to know the writer better, it occurred to me that as translator, I embodied both the archetypal reader and the critic; and that as such, I too would somehow be perceived as the nemesis, were Landolfi alive.

One can’t imagine such thoughts crossing Joachim Neugroschel’s mind as he stumbled along after Landolfi’s fastidious prose: but he has certainly turned out a nemesis.

Still, An Autumn Story is a fairly early work (1947), and not Landolfi’s best. Short for a novel, it is long for a work of pastiche. Pastiche is a short distance runner: once one has taken in the cleverness, it gets wearisome. Besides, it mocks what is being said. What is being said? Well, Wuthering Heights is about love “begotten by despair upon impossibility,” and that is the only kind of love Landolfi has any use for. “The relationship remains impossible,” the Cancerqueen hero reflects. “But perhaps it is precisely this that pleases us, perhaps our very love for her [the unattainable woman] is inspired by this condition.” And it is not just women: only the impossible is desirable in Landolfi’s black universe, only the truly extraordinary can distract him from his cafard. His writing is truly extraordinary too: but its extraordinariness stands out better when his stories are collected together. Then one sees how astonishing is his range of freakish philosophical invention.

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