Carlo Emilio Gadda 1893-1973
Italian novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism on Gadda's works from 1980 through 2000. For criticism prior to 1980, see CLC, Volume 11.
Gadda's difficult style has precluded him from finding a wide audience. An innovator who mixed various levels of language to mock formal writing, he earned praise for his linguistic brilliance and exerted an important influence on the history of Italian modernism.
Gadda was born on November 14, 1893, in Milan, Italy. From his family he absorbed fervid patriotic sentiments which would pervade his work for years to come. The death of his brother during World War I, along with his own observations as a soldier, caused him to become disillusioned. In the 1920s he joined the Italian Fascist party, believing it to be the best vehicle for Italian nationalism. He earned a degree in engineering from the University of Milan in 1920 and spent the next few years as an engineer, for a time in Argentina. In 1924 he entered a philosophy course of study in Milan, acquiring an affinity for the works of Emmanuel Kant and Henri Bergson. Although he remained an engineer into the late 1930s, Gadda began publishing essays and short narratives in the mid-1920s. After the rise of dictator Benito Mussolini, Gadda continued to support fascism, mostly because of its superior public works projects. Later he became totally disillusioned with Mussolini and in 1940 moved to Florence to begin his writing career in earnest. Ten years later, nearly penniless, he moved to Rome, where he worked for the Italian state radio. As he began to achieve fame for his anti-Mussolini works, he also was recognized as an important voice in Italian experimental literature. Gadda disliked being under public scrutiny, becoming reclusive in his later years. He died on May 21, 1973, in Rome.
Gadda's first important work was a World War I journal, published as Giornale di guerra e di prigionia in 1955. His first novel, Racconto italiano di ignoto del Novecento (Cahier d'études), was written in the 1920s but not published until 1983. In this work he blends nineteenth-century realism with romance novel motifs in a complex story built around the chaos of post-World War I Italy. His studies of philosophy led him to write Meditazione milanese (1974), an exploration of the nature of reality and the human psyche. During the period from about 1920 to 1940, Gadda engaged in literary experimentation, producing a number of literary and technical essays, narratives, and satires. In the novel Le meccanica (1970), Gadda criticized socialist and Italian defeatism during World War I. In the essay collection La meraviglie d'Italia (1939), he attempts to link literary usage with technology, reflecting his own background in engineering. The novel La cognizione del dolore (1963; Acquainted with Grief) covertly satirizes Italian fascism using a Freudian slant. This work, marked by linguistic experimentation, won the Formentor Prix International de Littérature and was to become one of his best-known novels. L'Adalgisa: Disegni milanesi (1944) is a book of sketches portraying Milan's upper-class society and using its own dialect. Written in 1944, Gadda's virulent attack on Benito Mussolini, the pamphlet Eros e Priapo: Da furore a cenere (1967), again uses Freudian imagery to portray the dictator and his cohorts as bestial narcissists. Gadda's most popular work, Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (1957; That Awful Mess on Via Merulana), is a multilayered takeoff on the traditional detective novel. It dwells on the ambivalence and disorder of life, using a pastiche of language forms, a complicated plot structure, and outlandish characters. This novel was used as a model by a number of experimental writers in the 1960s. After That Awful Mess on Via Merulana and Acquainted with Grief made Gadda famous, he retreated from public view. A number of his works were published posthumously, including several collections of his letters. Gadda's collected works, Opere, were published in five volumes between 1988 and 1993.
Although Gadda is recognized as Italy's first important modernist writer, English-language criticism of his work has been slow in developing, in part because most of his texts have been considered untranslatable. Scholars have puzzled over his dense, experimental narratives and his use of multiplicitous dialects. The adjective “macaronic,” deriving from a Renaissance form which uses a mixture of Latinate and vernacular forms, is often applied to Gadda's writing. Only two of Gadda's novels, three full-length critical works, and a small number of articles on Gadda have appeared in English since his death, much of that criticism translated from Italian. The elite corps of Gadda critics has generally approached his work from a deconstructive or a Freudian viewpoint, often comparing him with James Joyce in his allusive, convoluted style. Most critics agree that the core of Gadda's message is that the literary text is a point of departure for dealing with a world which defies order—a place where the reader is confronted with a confused, changeable, tangled set of relationships in an alien universe.