That Awful Mess on Via Merulana

by Carlo Emilio Gadda

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Critical Context

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Gadda’s work is often compared to that of James Joyce, and, in several ways, That Awful Mess on Via Merulana bears a family likeness to Ulysses (1922): its complex, revolutionary use of language; its interwoven elements of lyricism and satire, mythic significance, and pedestrian reality. Gadda’s impact on Italian literature may also be compared to that of Joyce on English-language literature in the early twentieth century. Like the earlier novelist, Gadda has moved from the status of a cult figure venerated by a small band of devotees to widespread critical acknowledgment and admiration.

Gadda’s work earned for him the Prix Internationale de Litterature in 1963 and established him among Italian literary critics as that country’s most important prose master of the period. Within the context of postwar Italian neorealism, Gadda’s nonconventional writing, and especially this novel,made a powerful impact. Rather than following the canons of his time—objectivity, psychological concern, and verisimilitude—he demonstrated new possibilities for Italian fiction in the realms of satire, stylistic experiment, and the nonobjective representation of reality.

In the latter regard, Gadda belongs in the first ranks of the postwar European literary avant-garde. In particular, That Awful Mess on Via Merulana helps to define that species of novel which, appearing first in the mid-1950’s, is known as the New Novel and has assumed such significance in the spectrum of twentieth century literature. Published in 1957, the novel demonstrates the same kind of kaleidoscopic focus, skeptical, disenchanted vision, and rejection of conventional narrative form that marks the work of Gadda’s better-known contemporaries in France, such as Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute, and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

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