Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599

Gonzalo is closely based upon his creator. (Gadda was an engineer in Argentina from 1922 to 1924.) While the self-pitying protagonist is a target of satire to some degree, Gadda clearly shares some of his character’s views. Acquainted with Grief reflects Gadda’s disillusionment with greed, vulgarity, hypocrisy, violence, and Fascism. He attempts nothing less than a subtle examination of the philosophical, psychological, and historical factors which transformed twentieth century Italy.

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The novel’s title is an ironic allusion to a biblical passage (Isaiah 53:3)often interpreted as a prophetic description of Christ: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief....” Through the experience of Gonzalo, a far from heroic “man of sorrows,” Gadda depicts the process of learning about emotional pain. Gadda sees this process as the essence of life, as simultaneously pitiful and hilarious. He is concerned with the difficulty of knowing the truth about human behavior or of truly understanding any partial truth when confronted by it. Gonzalo considers himself all-knowing, but he is capable of very limited perception. One of his numerous deficiencies is the inability to communicate with others, his mother in particular. Gadda presents this barrier as an archetypal modern problem. Gonzalo tries to ignore the flaws in his character but cannot; as a result, he experiences unresolved guilt.

Much of Gonzalo’s guilt and resentment are caused by sexual repression, and Acquainted with Grief is filled with Freudian overtones. Gonzalo resents his father and brother for having had the affection his mother has denied him, yet he also feels remorse for subconsciously wishing for their deaths. Gonzalo’s psychological turmoil is an illness he thinks only he can understand. His malaise becomes a metaphor for modern man’s isolation.

The emphasis on Freudian ideas is Gadda’s response to Fascist Italy’s rejection of Sigmund Freud as well as to the Fascist notion of Latin purity. Gadda’s depiction of the chaos afflicting family and community life is his attack on the Fascist notion of an ordered society. Senora Pirobutirro’s coercing others into feeling dependent on her is meant to resemble Benito Mussolini’s paternalistic approach to political oppression. Gonzalo’s ennui reflects the intellectual’s feeling of impotence in the face of Fascism.

The main subject of Acquainted with Grief, however, is language or style, as is the case with all Gadda’s writings. Gadda offers an unconventional,difficult narrative which challenges the reader to sift out the important ideas amid a multitude of extraneous details. Food is a prominent subject, as with this description of a local cheese: “This is a kind of Maradagal Roquefort, but a bit fresher: fat, sharp, smelly enough to make an Aztec vomit, with rich mold of a dark green in the ignominy of its crevasses, very tasty to spread with the knife on the water-lily tongue and to chew over for quarter-hours in a foul mush.” Drunk on words, Gadda revels in describing at length the seemingly irrelevant, his aesthetic and philosophical point being that the essential qualities of life are buried beneath tons of trivia.

Gadda’s style, often called baroque, is his reaction to a chaotic, dehumanized world. He wants to liberate fiction from traditional rational structures. He celebrates the vitality and diversity of language, mixing regional dialects with standard Italian while tossing in slang, jargon, Latin, and Spanish. Gadda comments ironically on his critics when he has Gonzalo “furiously distilling from his memory one of those difficult words of his that nobody understood, with which he enjoyed decorating his prose (stiff, gluey, which nobody read).”

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