The stature of Carlo Emilio Gadda (GAHD-dah) in Italian literature is great, yet outside Italy he is known primarily for one book, the detective novel That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, which has been translated into a dozen languages. Gadda, who came from a middle-class family, participated in World War I as a member of the elite Alpini corps, or mountain troops. Captured by the Germans in 1917, he was transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. From his experiences there came his later book Giornale di guerra e de prigionia, a diary of the war and his imprisonment. After the war he returned to his studies at Milan University and in 1920 received a degree in engineering. In 1926, while working as an engineer, Gadda began writing short pieces for the Florentine literary magazine Solaria; soon he was submitting stories and philosophical essays. In 1931 he published his first book, La madonna dei filosofi (Our Lady of the philosophers), a collection of stories. Three years later it was followed by a second book of stories, Il castello di Udine (the castle of Udine). These two collections were met with favorable critical attention. Gadda also wrote for another magazine in Florence, Letteratura, in which in the late 1930’s he began publishing his novels in installments.
In his early works Gadda frequently used the Milanese dialect. Indeed, he often included footnotes in the texts of his stories to explain the local turns of phrase, as in many of the stories in L’Adalgisa (tales from Milan). Translating Gadda is thus a major endeavor, requiring knowledge not only of the Milanese but also of the Roman and Neapolitan dialects. That is one reason the bulk of Gadda’s work is unknown outside Italy.
In his work as an engineer Gadda traveled throughout the world, including in Argentina, France, and Germany. The influence of his travels can be seen in his novel Acquainted with Grief, which takes place in a mythical South American country. This novel, like others by Gadda, was later revised and expanded. The chief features of Gadda’s work, which began to attract worldwide attention with the success of That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, are his interest in language and his concern with injustice. His writing style is almost baroque, very complex, and full of obscure references. Fundamental to his style, however, is Gadda’s focus on language and its use by common people. In That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, for example, he uses both Roman and Neapolitan dialects, an aspect that is impossible to convey in translation.
Gadda’s concern with injustice, which fills the pages of Acquainted with Grief, is perhaps his greatest and most significant virtue. In this novel Gadda focuses not only on the international aspect of injustice but also on its local forms, which oppress the novel’s hero, the engineer Gonzalo Pirobutirro d’Eltino. In 1950 Gadda settled in Rome, where he died in 1973.
Born in 1893 in Milan, Italy, Carlo Emilio Gadda was the oldest of three children. His father, Francesco Ippolito, was a silk weaver by trade who, through his first marriage, became a partner in a prosperous Milanese textile firm. His mother, Adele Lehr, was half Hungarian. She held a doctorate in letters and philosophy, which enabled her to earn a modest living as a schoolteacher and provide for her children after her husband’s death in 1909. What we know of Gadda’s life has been filtered in large part through his fiction. His childhood was marked by the financial decline of his family, attributed to his father’s imprudent investments and business ventures. In Milan, he attended the Liceo Parini and studied engineering at the Istituto Tecnico Superiore. With the outbreak of World War I, he interrupted his studies to enlist as an officer in the Italian alpine regiment, saw action on several fronts, including Caporetto, and was taken prisoner. In 1920, Gadda began working as an industrial engineer, traveling to Sardinia and abroad to Argentina and, later, to France, Belgium, and Germany, where he supervised the construction of plants for the production of ammonia. In 1933, Gadda was hired by the Vatican to design and oversee the installation of its electrical power system.
In spite of his scientific background and training, Gadda was never wholly satisfied with his career as an engineer. Philosophy and literature interested him more. In fact, he no sooner began working in industry when he left his job to pursue, at Milan’s Accademia Scientifico-Letteraria, a second doctorate in philosophy and wrote under the supervision of philosophers Piero Martinetti and Antonio Banfi, a thesis on Gottfried Leibniz’s Nouveaux Essais sur l’entendement humain (1765; Essays Concerning Human Understanding, 1898). For the most part, Gadda succeeded well in combining his literary and scientific talents, but, in 1940, he broke definitively with his profession and moved to Florence, where, in the company of then more distinguished writers such as Elio Vittorini and Tommaso Landolfi, he dedicated himself totally to writing, completing for Letteratura the last two installments of Acquainted with Grief and writing his best-known novel, That Awful Mess on Via Merulana and parts of Eros e Priapo.
Ten years later, Gadda moved to Rome to work as a journalist for the Edizioni Radio Italiana. There he lived a modest and secluded life, revising many of his early writings for publication in book form. When Gadda died on May 21, 1973, he left a rich legacy of texts that have influenced generations of writers and have brought him fame as one of contemporary Italy’s most original, complex, and compelling authors.