Carlo Emilio Gadda Gadda, Carlo Emilio (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

La Madonna dei filosofi (short stories) 1931

Il castello di Udine (prose) 1934

La meraviglie d'Italia (travel essays) 1939

L'Adalgisa: Disegni milanesi (sketches) 1944

Giornale di guerra e di prigionia (journal) 1955

Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana [That Awful Mess on Via Merulana] (novel) 1957

I Viaggi la morte (essays) 1958

I racconti: accoppiamenti giudiziosi, 1924-1958 (short stories) 1963

La cognizione del dolore [Acquainted with Grief] (novel) 1963

Eros e Priapo: Da furore a cenere (satire) 1967

Il guerriero, l'amazzone, lo spirito della poesia nel verso immortale del Foscolo. Conversazione a tre voci (play) 1967

Le meccanica (novel) 1970

Novella seconda (novel) 1971

Meditazione milanese (philosophy) 1974

Racconto italiano di ignoto del Novecento (Cahier d'études) (novel) 1983

Lettere a Gianfranco Contini a cura del destinatario (letters) 1988

Opere. 5 vols. (essays, letters, novels, and short stories) 1988-1993

JoAnn Cannon (essay date fall 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cannon, JoAnn. “The Reader as Detective: Notes on Gadda's Pasticciaccio.Modern Language Studies 10, no. 3 (fall 1980): 41-50.

[In the following essay, Cannon discusses the ways in which Gadda mocks traditional detective novel conventions in Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana.]

Until the publication of Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana (1957) and La cognizione del dolore (1963) in single volumes,1 Carlo Emilio Gadda was conspicuously neglected in Italy by all but a small circle of “initiates.”2 Since the publication of his two masterpieces, Gadda has not only been acknowledged in Italy as one of its most important modern novelists, but he has also been recognized by an entire generation of experimental writers as their forerunner. Gadda has remained a relative unknown in this country, however. This is perhaps due to the peculiar difficulty of translating his works: the mélange of dialects, neologisms, puns, clichés, idiomatic expressions, and “syntactical pyramids” which characterizes the Gaddian text does not lend itself easily to translation.3 In addition, the myth of Gadda as a difficult writer, slyly perpetuated by the author himself, is, like all myths, not completely unfounded. Gadda, who refers to himself as “a baroque and quibbling writer”4 and who commiserates with the unfortunate student doomed to writing a thesis on his works, is not so “accessible” as Svevo, Pavese, Moravia, Silone or other twentieth century novelists whose names are generally recognized outside of Italy. However, the very complexity of the Gaddian text offers unique rewards to the undaunted reader.

The Pasticciaccio [Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana], translated into English by William Weaver under the title That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, is ostensibly a detective novel. The detective novel or giallo, named after the yellow paper on which popular detective fiction was first printed in Italy, is the ideal vehicle for Gadda: the giallo reflects the tension between chaos and order which subtends the Gaddian text and at the same time objectifies the author's penchant for investigation of all sorts. Most of Gadda's works contain some element of detection.

The Cognizione [La cognizione del dolore], Gadda's most autobiographical novel, is technically an unsolved giallo: the entire novel consists of the construction of clues which prepare the reader for the crime of matricide, although the murderer of Gonzalo's mother is not revealed.5Eros e Priapo, Gadda's paroxysmal analysis of fascism, begins with an exhortation to the reader to help determine “la causale del delitto”6 (“the cause or motive of the crime”); in this case the crime refers to the atrocities perpetrated by Mussolini's fascist régime. In a short story entitled “Anastomòsi” (“Anastomosis,” a surgical joining of one hollow organ to another), an operation performed by a skilled surgeon is portrayed as a kind of investigation into the “pasticcio” of the patient's innards, “una sequenza informe di molli enigmi” (“a shapeless sequence of pliable enigmas”).7 The surgeon, through his expertise, is able to restore order to the “groppo purpureo” (“purple knot”).8

In “Un romanzo giallo nella geologia” (“A Detective Novel in Geology”), geological research, which devises hypotheses to explain “la catena delle cause remote” (“the chain of remote causes”), is characterized as a form of detection.9 The motive power behind all of Gadda's works is his desire to “risalire il flusso delle significazioni e delle cause” (“to retrace the flux of significations and causes”).10 The Pasticciaccio externalizes this desire in the adoption of the detective genre.

Gadda's work may to some extent be situated within a general pattern of exploitation of the detective genre by the avant-garde.11 The classical tale of ratiocination inaugurated by Poe and perpetuated by Conan Doyle, Leblanc, and Christie is subverted by writers like Borges, Nabokov and Robbe-Grillet. The impact of the metaphysical detective story is largely dependent upon its deviation from a set of strictly formulated rules. Detective fiction is the most highly codified of all literary genres. The outraged protests evoked by Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which allegedly breaks an unwritten law barring the narrator from the list of suspects, testify to the extent of codification of detective fiction.12 Individuals aspiring to membership in the London Detection Club, a British association of distinguished detective writers, must take an oath that they will observe certain rules of “fair play.”13 Because of this high degree of codification, the writer who adopts the genre awakens certain expectations in the reader. Gadda's Pasticciaccio, like the metaphysical detective fiction of the Post-Modernists, systematically thwarts those expectations. Before discussing the significance of Gadda's deviation from the norms of the giallo, let us first take a closer look at the relationship between Gadda's novel and the classical detective genre.

The Pasticciaccio deals with two crimes in the same apartment building on Via Merulana in Rome: the theft of Contessa Menegazzi's jewels and the subsequent murder of her neighbor Liliana Balducci. Already in the first pages of the novel the underlying philosophy of the classical tale of ratiocination is undercut. If the beginning of a novel is important because it prepares the reader for “the direction in which the events and their significance are to move,”14 this is doubly true of detective fiction. Jacques Barzun, in his outline of the ideal detective story, describes the preamble in this way: “philosophic in tone, and if possible paradoxical or otherwise arresting. It sets the mood by providing a sample of what Poe called ratiocination. … The detective theorizes upon some aspect of life which the story will bear out, though he himself does not as yet know this.”15 Gadda obligingly provides us with just such a philosophic preamble in his giallo. But his detective, Don Ciccio Ingravallo, is a far cry from the mathematical logician epitomized by Poe's Dupin.

He sustained … that unforeseen catastrophes are never the consequence or the effect, if you prefer, of a single motive, of a cause singular; but they are rather like a whirlpool, a cyclonic point of depression in the consciousness of the world, towards which a whole multitude of converging causes have contributed. … [T]he crime was the effect of a whole list of motives which had blown on it in a whirlwind … and had ended by pressing into the vortex of the crime the unfeebled “reason of the world.” Like wringing the neck of a chicken.16

This image of reason brutally strangled overthrows the philosophy of the classical detective story, in which the power of the intellect is triumphant. From Poe to Conan Doyle, the pure tale of ratiocination consists of the application of reason to the reconstruction of events and their causes. But Gadda's unorthodox detective casts this operation into doubt.

Before either of the crimes is committed, Ingravallo is invited to dinner at the Balducci's. It is during this dinner that the detective senses a mystery about Liliana which he investigates in an interior monologue. He deduces from a series of clues that Liliana is not content: “when hearts heave a sigh, then sorrow is nigh, as the saying goes” (p. 12). The entire episode, including this popular proverb, is a parody of deductive reasoning, the mainstay of detective fiction. Liliana is obsessed with her inability to bear children: each year she adopts a niece who becomes a surrogate daughter. Ingravallo handily unravels this “groviglio” (“tangle”)—the first enigma which he encounters in the novel. This picture of the detective who assembles clues to form a hypothetical solution is (perhaps falsely) gratifying. While the preamble seems to undermine the reassurance provided by the typical giallo, this passage acts as a fulfillment of the reader's expectations. Only later does the reader realize that this is an ironic fulfillment of his expectations: the facile solution of the less significant mystery is not followed by a similar solution of the mystery of Liliana's death.

Some weeks after the dinner at Balducci's, Contessa Menegazzi's jewels are stolen; three days later Liliana Balducci is found murdered in the neighboring apartment. Liliana's cousin, who discovered the corpse, is held for questioning. For a brief period there seems to be some evidence connecting him to the crime—some of Liliana's jewels and ten one-thousand lire notes are found in his possession—but when it is proven that these were gifts from his cousin, Valdarena is released. Having no other lead, the investigators question Liliana's priest, Don Lorenzo Corpi, about the victim's spiritual condition. Don Lorenzo only confirms what Ingravallo had deduced at the beginning of the novel. However, the validity of the priest's testimony is immediately cast in doubt. “Don Lorenzo remarked … that he could fully confirm what was written above, that is to say, what had emerged from the amnesic uncertainty of afterwards, encouraged by the police to become certainty” (p. 174). Retrospective reconstruction of events, the device which allows the typical giallo to function, is dismissed as a fallacy. This ironic intervention on the part of the narrator is clearly aberrant: in classical detective fiction, the narrator is complicitous with the investigator. The story is often told from the point of view of a cohort of the detective, such as Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories or Hastings in many of Christie's Poirot novels. The narrator, who though an accomplice of the investigator is not so astute as his partner, recounts the process whereby the detective reconstructs the sequence of events leading to the crime. Thus he implicitly acts as an accomplice to the reader. Even if the story is told from an objective, third-person point of view, the narrative voice is expected to be supportive of the detective's enterprise. In the Pasticciaccio, however, the narrative voice works in opposition to the detective and, implicitly, to the reader, thereby undercutting any attempt to make sense of the puzzle.

While the investigation into the Balducci murder grinds slowly to a halt, the detectives receive a tip from carabinieri headquarters regarding the Menegazzi case. The carabinieri have discovered a green scarf allegedly worn by the jewel thief and have identified its owner as one Iginio Retalli from the neighborhood called Torraccio. Dr. Fumi, the police commissioner, recalls having apprehended a woman from Torraccio in a routine round-up of prostitutes and calls her in for questioning. The sleuths begin the second session of this interrogation by inquiring about “that girl friend of her girl friend.” (It is not altogether clear why they are even interested in the girl.) Ines denies any knowledge of the girl, claiming that she only saw her once, at night, on a country road. What road? “It was a dirt road: where there was a field … and a church, but without any priests in it, it has a long name with tondo in it” (p. 223). The process whereby they force Ines to concur in identifying the church as Santo Stefano Rotondo is immediately invalidated by the narrator: “After having snapped at her, the four of them, like four dogs at a doe … they succeeded in the end...

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Robert S. Dombroski (essay date January 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dombroski, Robert S. “Overcoming Oedipus: Self and Society in La Cognizione del dolore.Modern Language Notes 99, no. 1 (January 1984): 125-143.

[In the following essay, Dombroski deconstructs the Freudian complexities of Gadda's fictional autobiography as evidenced in its dream sequences, concluding that the protagonist's narcissism and rebellion against the mother figure are disguised evidences of anti-fascism.]

In Part One of La cognizione del dolore, during Doctor Higueroa's visit to the Pirobutirro villa, Gonzalo says that he has dreamt a “frightening dream.” This comes at a crucial moment in the exchanges between the doctor and him,...

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Darby Tench (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tench, Darby. “Quel Nòme Storia: Naming and History in Gadda's Pasticciaccio.Stanford Italian Review 5, no. 2 (1985): 205-17.

[In the following essay, Tench warns against any simplistic reading of Quer pasticciaccio brutto de Via Merulana, noting that comparisons to the Aeneid in the work are muddied by the dualities Gadda poses.]

“Se so' sparati a via Merulana”: and don Ciccio, investigator for the Questura di Roma, feels a lump in his throat, a palpitation of the heart, a fear that the magnificent Signora Liliana Balducci is involved. The victim of the present crime—a jewel heist—is however not Signora Balducci, but...

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Gregory L. Lucente (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lucente, Gregory L. “System, Time, Writing, and Reading in Gadda's La cognizione del dolore.” In Beautiful Fables: Self-consciousness in Italian Narrative from Manzoni to Calvino, pp. 222-45. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Lucente develops a complex argument on the nature of self-reflexivity in discussing La cognizione del dolore.]

The relationship between language and other systems of thought and praxis, scientific as well as philosophical ones, occupied Carlo Emilio Gadda's concerns from his early studies on. These studies included the work he did for his laurea in electrical engineering (as...

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Robert de Lucca (essay date January 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: de Lucca, Robert. “Revealed Truth and Acquired Knowledge: Considerations on Manzoni and Gadda.” Modern Language Notes 111, no. 1 (January 1996): 58-73.

[In the following essay, de Lucca discusses the influence of nineteenth-century Italian author Alessandro Manzoni on Gadda and compares and contrasts their views on the function of literature.]

The difficulties of which Carlo Emilio Gadda complains in writing Racconto italiano del novecento, and his recourse to the works of Alessandro Manzoni in an attempt to solve them, spring partly from the tension, that I wish to discuss at present in relation to Manzoni, Gadda feels in trying to translate an...

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Gian Carlo Roscioni (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Roscioni, Gian Carlo. “Gadda as Humorist.” In Carlo Emilio Gadda: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Manuela Bertone and Robert S. Dombroski, pp. 11-24. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Roscioni discusses the relationship of Gadda's humor to that of English author Lawrence Sterne and his disciples.]

In reference to what is, broadly speaking, the ‘macaronic’ matrix of Gadda's literary style, Gianfranco Contini specifies repeatedly that such a label does not allude to a documentable lineage. Folengo and Rabelais, he states, ‘are obviously not Gadda's “sources,” but rather colleagues of high stature...

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Guido Guglielmi (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Guglielmi, Guido. “Gadda and the Form of the Novel.” In Carlo Emilio Gadda: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Manuela Bertone and Robert S. Dombroski, pp. 25-42. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Guglielmi uses Gadda's compositional notes from Racconto italiano di ignoto del novecento to explore the philosophical principles underlying Gadda's approach to narration and the form of the novel.]

In his preface to the Einaudi edition of Gadda's Racconto italiano di ignoto del novecento, or Cahier d'études (1924), Dante Isella reminds us that in Les faux-monnayeurs (1925) Gide laid the...

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Carla Benedetti (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Benedetti, Carla. “The Enigma of Grief: An Expressionism against the Self.” In Carlo Emilio Gadda: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Manuela Bertone and Robert S. Dombroski, pp. 159-176. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Benedetti states that the mourning and grief expressed in La cognizione del dolore has its roots in Freudian “reality-testing,” which explains the macaronic style in which Gadda seeks relief from his negative feelings.]

La cognizione del dolore is the story of Gonzalo Pirobutirro d'Eltino's misdeeds. At first, they come out through the ‘bad epos’ of the inhabitants of...

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Norma Bouchard (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bouchard, Norma. “Meandering with Gadda's ‘Heuristic’ Words.” In Céline, Gadda, Beckett: Experimental Writings of the 1930s, pp. 82-96. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Bouchard notes the ways in which some of Gadda's early writings exhibited his growing sense of an open-ended, ambiguous reality.]

E' bene rimettere alle parole e alle favole un mandato provvisorio e, direi, una limitata procura … incastonar le parole nella necessità del momento, sì con un certo senso del limite loro. …

Carlo Emilio Gadda, I viaggi la morte1


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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Baker, Margaret. “The Women Characters of Carlo Emilio Gadda.” In Visions and Revisions: Women in Italian Culture, edited by Mirna Cicioni and Nicole Prunster, pp. 53-69. Providence, R.I.: Berg, 1993.

A chapter on the construction of women characters in Gadda's works which began as a paper at a conference on women in Italian studies.

Calvino, Italo. “The Pasticciaccio Carlo Emilio Gadda.” In Why Read the Classics?, translated by Martin McLaughlin, pp. 201-08. N.Y.: Pantheon, 1999.

Discussion of an important Gadda novel within a defense of classic literature written by a famous Italian...

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