At the Bottom of the Pond

An Autumn Story

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

Tommaso Landolfi
Tommaso Landolfi; drawing by David Levine

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…

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