Carlo Emilio Gadda’s fiction originates in his notion of an objectively chaotic and deformed world. Confronted by a reality that resists organization and rational systemization, the writer, according to Gadda’s aesthetics, becomes involved in a never-ending process of unraveling and probing into the interminable succession of links uniting facts, circumstances, and experiences. In this perspective, the subject of authorial self loses its once privileged place as an observer, positioned outside the labyrinth of phenomena and thus capable of exercising judgment, of arranging things to form an organic whole and, therefore, of narrating.
Also, in contrast to the modernist aesthetic, the writer, in Gadda’s view, cannot reflect the fragmentation of the present by refusing to communicate his personality, by remaining aloof and ironic. Instead, he too is a part of the chaos, a single element or moment in an objective chain that can claim no more than its neutral status as a biological and material presence. In other words, the author for Gadda does not disappear completely in his or her attempt to produce a thing-centered universe (as is the case with, say Alain Robbe-Grillet), but rather, becomes part of the “game” called “literature.”
What is literature for Gadda? Simply, the alter image of reality that produces fictional entities called characters and plots and disposes them for the purpose of creating particular effects. The subject, as part of this game, can only recognize its degraded position and, in response, try to impose its subjectivity on the reader, knowing full well that the judgments it makes have no special importance, that they are not means of conditioning the reader’s comprehension of the fiction but instead merely traces of its own devalued presence. Such expressions of authorial subjectivity at times take the form of violent outbursts or tirades against people or actions that conflict with Gadda’s innate sense of order and propriety; at times, they become tragic monologues on existence or the comic deformation of characters and events.
If literature mimics reality and if reality is, as Gadda sees it, a disharmonious continuum, the literary work defies unraveling; it can never be explained for it can never be concluded. Furthermore, because literary works are made up of oppositional and coincidental elements, no one work can contain parts that are truly unique to itself, but rather the parts of one work may be transposed to other, different relational systems that are equally as provisional. This idea explains why Gadda’s fictional writings are largely unfinished, deprived of denouement and resolution of conflict. It also accounts for why what became Acquainted with Grief was originally intended as chapters in Le meraviglie d’Italia and then redesigned to include other parts that subsequently appeared in different collections, while two fragments of the official version of the novel are contained in L’Adalgisa and a third in Novelle dal ducato in fiamme.
From such a notion of the relation of literature to reality, a fundamental aspect of Gadda’s work emerges: the artificial, essentially linguistic, nature of literary production, which elicits the functional utilization of language in the search for contradictions and unexpected connections among things. Gadda’s emphasis on language is his way of saying that, in the wake of the crisis of ideology, reality is language—that the subject matter of literature is historical realities existing as linguistic codes. The writer, he states in an important literary essay, is faced with a specific number of “languages” that correspond to a variety of codes representing different modes of existence and activity. This collection of “codes” makes up, in his judgment, the “empirical,” “chaotic,” “baroque,” and “grotesque” character of the world. To know this reality means to “coordinate” these various languages and to stamp on the process of “coordination” one’s own particular seal. For Gadda, coordinating reality entails finding in things one particular element that distinguishes one system from another. It, therefore, denotes focusing on a specific link in a causal chain, magnifying it out of proportion in order to penetrate its essence; in this sense, knowledge and deformation become one and the same thing.
The principal effect of combining and coordinating different linguistic codes is the pastiche. The pastiche suspends meaning by directing the reader’s attention to the process of writing and the particular transgression of literary norms it involves. A situation that is inherently tragic or lyric becomes, with the pastiche, comic representation. Even the use of dialect within the context of standard speech, rather than heightening the realistic effect, is only another means of deforming that discourse to achieve comic incongruity. Gadda’s two major novels fully embody the aesthetic principles just summarized.
Acquainted with Grief
The ideas that make a framework for Acquainted with Grief are derived from Gadda’s readings of Immanuel Kant and Sigmund Freud. The novel attempts to direct the reader’s perception to realities beyond or outside the world of appearance, particularly to that part of theprotagonist’s mind behind the phenomenal self that can never be directly known but that influences profoundly the sense of self that is experienced and represented. Also, at its base lies the Freudian conviction that the acceptance of society is one and the same with the repression of guilt. History and historiography—Gadda writes in the work’s preface—give a distorted picture of humanity’s inner life; it shows it in tune with the reality principle and blind to the profound violence that affects the human condition. Acquainted with Grief is for Gadda, in its most fundamental meaning, a vindication of human history, “cleansed,” in his words, “of the stutter of reticence and the frank syntax of deception.”
Acquainted with Grief consists of a series of fragments or “tracts” and, in both its original and book forms, it is incomplete, although on the inside flap of the volume’s jacket, the publisher, speaking for the author, writes that in the missing conclusion, the protagonist’s mother, left alone in her villa after her son’s departure, is murdered by the agents of the night watchmen’s organizations (Nistituó Provinciales de Vigilancia para la Noche), that she dies thinking her son, Gonzalo, had plotted the horrendous crime. In 1941, Gadda had composed rough drafts of what were to become the novel’s final chapters. These fragments, included in the 1970 edition, appear to substantiate the aforementioned outcome. There is, furthermore, evidence, contained in several unpublished notes, that Gadda had intended to write a third and final episode, centered on the police interrogation of Gonzalo.
The novel’s action takes place in Maradagàl, a small, imaginary country in South America, situated near Parapagàl, a country of similar size and resources. Close to the city of Pastrufazio, in a modern villa constructed on the highlands, lived the Pirobutirro family, which, at the time of the novel’s action, was reduced to an old widow whom the people call La Señora and her forty-five-year-old son, Gonzalo, who clearly appears as the caricatural reflection of Gadda himself. The whole story, in fact, beginning with its imaginary South American setting in which the people, institutions, geography, and history of early twentieth century Italy (chiefly Lombardy) are easily recognizable, is a kind of autobiographical parody that produces tragicomic deformation. (The family name Pirobutirro, for example, is derived from a type of pear tree, pere butirro, that Gadda’s father attempted to cultivate at the family’s country villa at Longone al Segrino in Brianza.)
Gonzalo is a modern-day misanthrope, extremely jealous of his own privacy and possessions and that of his mother and contemptuous of the outside world, especially of the simple peasant folk whom the Señora charitably supports. He suffers from uneasiness, apprehension, a sense of guilt and...
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