(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

It is appropriate to begin with a psychological portrait of the man before proceeding to an analysis of the writer’s principal themes and works. For one who made such a cult of privacy, Tommaso Landolfi proved remarkably confessional, revealing much of a complicated inner life, the details of which are far richer than the external events of his career. In this respect, the critic’s task was made much easier with the publication in the 1950’s and the 1960’s of such autobiographical works as La Bière du pecheur (1953; the sinner’s bier/coffin), Rien va (1963; no more), and Des mois (1968; months). These works are not strictly diaries; they are more like private jottings in which the writer reminisces but also attempts to define personal responses to crises in his own life and to clarify his position vis-à-vis all human experience. These volumes have their nineteenth century antecedents in Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone (1898-1900; notebooks) and Charles Baudelaire’s Mon cur mis à nu (1887; My Heart Laid Bare, 1950).

The following psychological patterns are quite visible in Landolfi’s personality and in the fiction that they have nourished. The loss of his mother before his second birthday left scars on the psyche of the child and adolescent that were to stay with him the rest of his life, bestowing on him a profound sense of privation and an equally strong sense of guilt. To the child’s trauma one can trace the origins of an ambivalence toward women, who, on the one hand, stirred in the writer erotic and even violent impulses, and, on the other, as repositories of a sacred motherhood suggested an ineffable purity accessible only through dream and memory. In the absence of the mother stood the father—in reality an affectionate if gruff man with a taste for solitude and a forthright antifascist. The fictional father figure loomed menacingly over vulnerable offspring, often in a gloomy manor in an abandoned corner of the provinces. The son may never have fully pardoned the father for sending his hypersensitive child to a private boarding school at the age of twelve: For the second time in his young life, Landolfi felt rejected, cast off and set afloat in a hostile universe. Thereafter the fiction bristled with the theme of Oedipal conflict and incestuous temptation. In the novella La morte del re di Francia (the death of the King of France, published in Gogol’s Wife, and Other Stories,) the father, So-and-So, broods over his daughter Rosalba’s ripening adolescence and supervises her daily bath, while he is also the object of her erotic dream. In the fable Racconto d’autunno (1947; An Autumn Story, 1989), an old man keeps his daughter imprisoned in an isolated villa, where she serves as a high priestess to an almost necrophiliac cult of his dead wife. The Landolfian antihero is solitary and impotent in a much larger than sexual sense: His essential form of communication is the monologue, which he commits to the page of his diary. He is convinced of his own uselessness in an existence that he finds insufficient.

The Two Old Maids

The Two Old Maids, published just after the war, offers few concessions to the fashion of contemporary realism. Both the setting and the style of this novella place it within the tradition of nineteenth century fiction, which Landolfi acknowledges, and from which he detaches himself in the second sentence. The reader can be thankful, he writes, that he (the author) would not dream of describing this house and district in every detail. His satire of a literature to which he remains devoted and of a way of life that he knows rather too intimately remains unerring. The district is “disheartening”; dust lies on the buildings and trees. In the apartment which the reader is invited to enter, the old maids Lilla and Nena sacrifice their lives to their seemingly indestructible mother, who dominates them to her dying day.

The hero of this tale is the monkey, the family pet, more or less domesticated and living, as all objects of love do (says Landolfi), in a large cage. The sisters have inherited him from their brother, a sea captain, who brought him back from one of his voyages; and they lavish on him an affection that is their memorial to the departed mariner. The monkey is the only male in the house, summing up in his diminutive frame the roles of father, brother, even husband, and certainly that of the children the barren sisters never bore. Like a child or lover, he likes to sleep in Lilla’s lap and sometimes clutch her breasts when she lies down for a nap. The animal introduces a contrapuntal principle of virility and spontaneity into a shared existence predicated on a pious suppression of instinct.

The crisis comes when the monkey, Tombo, is accused by the Mother Superior of the convent next door of stealing the consecrated host and drinking the communion wine from the chapel. Nena vehemently denies these charges, but on closer inspection she learns that the ingenious Tombo can indeed unlock his cage, make his way over the wall into the convent garden, and pay a visit to the chapel. Following him, Nena hides herself in that sacred place together with a young nun and observes with her own eyes the sacrilegious trespass of the monkey. What she sees horrifies her far more than the accusations of stealing heard from the Mother Superior. Every gesture that the little creature makes—the way he wraps himself in the holy corporal as if it were a stole, the pouring of the wine into the chalice, the salutation to a nonexistent congregation—can spell only one thing: “Tombo was saying Mass!” For such desecration he is immediately condemned. Nena declares, “He must die.”

If the tale is read simply as social satire, then the monkey’s comic imitations of the gestures of the priest do not go beyond a parody of the mass and the devalued rituals of the Church. Tombo, however, is not the damnable heretic for which he is mistaken. In effect, his visits to the chapel are his way of following in his mistresses’ footsteps, of identifying with their faith, of adoring their God as best he might. Tombo’s gibbering and untidy imitation, had Nena the charity or piety to stop and reflect, is rather a reminder, or memory, of masses conducted under primitive conditions in the distant colonies under missionary supervision. Improvised and scruffy, garbled but sincere, it is the sort of thing Lilla and Nena’s sea captain brother—and his pet monkey—might have witnessed many times in his travels. It is within this simple probability that much of the tale’s irony, and tragedy, lie.

The demise of the monkey is finally consummated. Landolfi communicates the terror of an animal that knows no guilt but knows it is about to die, betrayed for having dared to love. Nena victoriously snuffs out a flickering life, and in her victory achieves a terrible irony. By his crucifixion she elevates the blasphemer Tombo to actual martyrdom. The last event in the sisters’ life is over, and until their death all can return to normal, or, as Landolfi puts it, a gray dust can settle over everything once more.


Cancerqueen is linked thematically to Landolfi’s previous fiction in that it explores the human search for freedom along with the foundering of that quest. It marks at the same time an anticipated development in his career and a point of crisis. It is in part an exercise in science fiction which suggests that the writer’s imagination...

(The entire section is 3101 words.)