The mess in question is primarily the gruesome murder (though not, as some reviewers have understandably supposed, the rape-murder) of a genteel married lady, in Rome in 1927. Extra mess is provided by a case of commonplace robbery in the same apartment house. Carlo Emilio Gadda’s mess, piled up behind these messes, seems to be Mussolini in particular and human life in general. And his novel is a fine mess indeed, though its impact at this moment (it was written in 1946) is somewhat lessened by the fact that the mess-novel has been with us for some time now, an extremely arty art-form which justifies itself by appealing to the natural messiness of life.
So much is perhaps all that this reviewer can say of Carlo Emilio Gadda’s Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana, if indeed so much can safely be said. We must now move on to William Weaver’s That awful Mess on Via Merulana. For Gadda is a great word-boy, and Il pasticciaccio is a richly cunning pastiche or olla podrida of linguistic effects. Puns, allusions, dialects, jargons, parodies, and caricatures—perhaps not precisely God’s plenty, but certainly the Italian thesaurus’s. To distinguish between Weaver and Gadda is not to disparage Weaver’s achievement, which seems to me quite considerable. For one thing, That Awful Mess doesn’t read like a translation—which is just as well since Il pasticciaccio couldn’t be “translated”—but it does read, much of the time, entertainingly, forcefully, bawdily, and evocatively (even when one is not sure what exactly is being evoked), and while footnotes are inevitably required, it makes do with the minimum of extraneous directives. Although That Awful Mess may not (or cannot) have all the strengths, the diversity of effects, of Gadda, it certainly hints strongly at them. And its weaknesses, I suspect, are the weaknesses of Gadda, who (like Joyce in Ulysses) is doing much more than telling a story, but (unlike Joyce in Ulysses) doesn’t tell a story. So don’t shoot the translator. If he has failed to do the impossible, then remember, perhaps Gadda has failed to do the possible.
Proliferating in all directions, the police investigation into the two not necessarily connected crimes grows increasingly confused. Practically everyone appears to be guilty—but guilty of something else. Nothing is known for sure, nothing is certain, not even the names and ranks of the policemen. “Corporal Di Pietrantonio, or Sergeant, as may be…” “Corporal Pestalozzi, or Pestalossi it may have been…” A missing ring is transmogrified from topaz into towpats into top-ass; the countess who owns it is scatologized from Menegazzi into Menecacci. At other points one wonders whose chaos and confusion it is: Gadda’s, Weaver’s, a character’s, one’s own? Is “Luigia” meant to reappear as “Luiggia”? And what about “despits the fact” and “modren art?” Perhaps, to absolve the printer, we should have been given more footnotes? Though it must be admitted that some of those we are given, while elucidating satisfactorily, do at the same time tend to deflate. The Pope has been described as “a Milanese of good background from Saronno, a tough sort, the kind who get buildings built”: and Weaver informs us that Gadda, an engineer, constructed the Vatican Power Station for Pius XI. Then there is a long and incongruously strong diatribe against road signs—a footnote mentions the fury aroused in Gadda by the Italian Touring Club’s campaign to post signs all over the country—which even one’s pleasure in such coinages as “velocipederasts” cannot altogether justify.
So many things make Gadda angry—often entertainingly, if mysteriously, angry—that his anger with Mussolini hardly serves to make the novel that exposé of Fascism which some have seen in it. “The Deuce” he is called, the “bouche of the Douche,” “the Autarch Jawbone,” and at more length, “a mug, who because he was born stupid, seems to want to take his revenge on all.” These petulant outbursts, however amusing, are a far cry from Heinrich Böll’s novels about Germany, an even further cry from Günter Grass’s Dog Years. No doubt Mussolini was a far cry from Hitler. All the same, this seems more like the exacerbated nerves of the aesthete and scholar than the “Swiftian saeva indignatio” which Weaver claims for it.
The autonomous wordiness of the writing, its (on the analogy of Gadda’s, or Weaver’s, “ovaricity”) linguisticity, increases maniacally towards the end. Force declines into fuss, and butterflies are broken on huge caricatural wheels. As the narrative path peters out, every blade of grass is scrutinized microscopically, no pebble is left unturned, except those which conceal the criminals of the Via Merulana. “That is my weak point, as a successful novelist,” Gadda was quoted as having said, in The London Magazine for October 1963. “I lack appetite, I lack the desire to know the things that are external to myself.” Appetite of some sort is certainly not missing from the final stretches of the novel. Thus, for example, an apparently gratuitous death-bed scene affords us this apparently gratuitous lucubration:
A majolica pan, as if from a clinic of the first category, was set on the brick floor, and not even near the wall: and neither did it lack some undeciphered content, on the consistence, coloration, odor, viscosity and specific weight of which both the lynx eyes and the bloodhound scent of Ingravallo felt that it wasn’t necessary to investigate and analyze: the nose, of course, could not exempt itself from its natural functioning, that is, from that activity, or to be more accurate, that papillary passivity which is proper to it, and which does not admit, hélas, any interlude or inhibition or absence of any kind from its duty.
Yes, very nicely put. But we would much rather know who killed Signora Balducci, and how the appealing Detective-Officer Ingravallo (with whom Gadda had seemed to identify himself) found out. Gadda, however, doesn’t finish his story, he just stops writing. Is it—as Weaver suggests—better that we don’t know who committed the murder, since we have already probed deeply enough into “the evil and horror of the world,” and this further revelation of it would be “more than the reader, the author, and the protagonist Ingravallo could bear”? This sounds like the old fortune-teller’s trick—“It’s better that you don’t know…” The modern reader has supp’d full with horrors more horrible and evils more evil than any Gadda could ever cook up. Is it perhaps that Gadda stopped because he felt he was about to commit a sentimentality, to depict a good girl? Or is it simply that he lacked “the desire to know”? One may suspect, says Weaver, that “his novels were born to be fragments, like certain imaginary ruins in Venetian painting, perfect parts of impossible wholes.” But what if the initial gusto of the builder has led us to anticipate a completed habitation? It is fatal when an anti-novel arouses the expectations appropriate to a mere novel.
No, not quite fatal in this particular case. Before boredom sets in. That Awful Mess has offered vigor, erudition and invention, some highly enjoyable set-pieces and good bawdy fun. And the author’s assiduous cultivation of his private bêtes noires yields a fine menagerie of comic monsters. We are never far from Circe’s sty. But who is Circe, or what is Circe? Hardly “Lantern Jaw,” that “hereditary syphilitic (also syphilitic in his own right),” “the Omnivisible pig.” More probably, one is forced to conclude, it is human nature, all too fecund in its criminality, which turns us into swine. However that may be, the reader is likely to be the less disappointed by That Awful Mess on Via Merulana the less he has encountered of the publicity which represents the book as a combination and apotheosis of Joyce, Thomas Mann, Musil, and Proust.
As utterly dissimilar as could be is Trial by Battle, which is set in Malaya during the British collapse in 1941-42. It is the sort of book which one used to read long ago, before one began to study novels, let alone review them. An unsophisticated story, which strikes one as totally sincere—and who, anyway, can be sophisticated about the jungle, even when there aren’t any Japanese dropping out of the trees? There is next to no sex here—no (thank God) beautiful Eurasian nurse in love with the wounded young English officer, no groaning and sweating flashbacks to civilian sorrows and marital horrors. Alan, the main character, was recently a student of modern languages at Cambridge. But “he knew, he thought, about war; it was a job to be done.” Unlike his father in 1914, Alan has started out with no illusions, and therefore cannot suffer disillusionment. “Determined to believe nothing that anyone might say, to commit his soul to no cause, and (intellectually at least) resigned to death if he should prove unlucky, he set about war; he would be as efficient a soldier as it lay in his power to be…”
This sensible clear-eyed approach to war isn’t quite adequate, he finds. For one thing, he is posted to the Indian Army, and so has to give orders to Indians, “God-like, one snapped one’s fingers, and these strange creatures obeyed. It wasn’t right; it was not at all right. One had absolutely no justification to take advantage of them like that.” Liberalism is of little use in the army; and of even less use in the jungle. Though trained for desert warfare, the brigade is sent into the Malayan jungle, along with their bright yellow desert trucks. Alan, also trained for something different, kills a few Japanese, and then is killed himself, trying to be a good soldier. Obviously not a reviewer’s book, this is an old story, told in an old-fashioned way. No other way would serve to tell quite this story. As a piece of art, Trial by Battle isn’t exactly magnificent, you may feel, but it is war, war as quite a few young men knew it, briefly.
January 20, 1966