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Carlo Emilio Gadda (1893-1973)


Italian novelist, short-story writer, and essayist, who was originally educated as an engineer. Gadda was one of Italy's most daring experimental writers. His style has been compared to that of Joyce, Proust, and Musil. Gadda revolted against conventional literary expression and thought that only through fragmentary, incoherent language could he portray the multiplicity of the disintegrated world. In this Gadda used such devices as parodic and comic modes, learned references, dialects, deliberate misspellings, and obscure constructions. Italo Calvino called Gadda the last of the great Italian narrative modernists, who used his fiction to probe the nature of reality. Gadda's novel That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (1957) is considered his masterpiece.

"Some colleagues, a tiny bit envious of his intuitions, a few priests, more acquainted with the many evils of our time, some subalterns, clerks, and his superiors too, insisted he read strange books: from which he drew all those words that mean nothing, or almost nothing, but which serve better than other to dazzle the naive, the ignorant. His terminology was for doctors in looneybins. But practical action takes something else!" (from That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, translated by William Weaver)

Carlo Emilio Gadda was born in Milan into an upper middle-class family of conservative political and religious views. His father, Francesco Ippolito, died when Gadda was a child; the family also lost its fortune in industrial speculations. Gadda's mother, Adele Lehr, was of Hungarian origin. An ambitious woman forced to bring up her family alone, she lived beyond her means. Like his brother, Gadda fought in World War I; he was an early volunteer. From his arrival on the Trentino front in 1915 and capture at Caporetto and return home he kept a private journal. The death of his younger brother Enrico, an aviator, was a shattering experience. Before war he had been a fervent interventionist, but Italy's weakness was for him a disappointment and a source of embitterment for a long period.

Moreover, Gadda was humiliated by being taken prisoner by the Germans. During his stay in a prisoner-of-war camp he met Ugo Betti, later well-known dramatist, poet, and novelist, who became his lifelong friend. After the war Gadda took the stand that England was Italy's new enemy; it was a struggle between different races. He admired Mussolini but later in life he satirized the dictator's rhetoric in the pamphlet, Eros a Priapo (1967). Gadda began to work on it in 1944 in Rome, where he had been transported from war-torn Florence by the English High Command. Moreover, he was never comfortable with the fascist order that Mussolini imposed upon Italy. It was the opposite of his fiction, marked by constant change and innovation. 

In 1920 Gadda received a degree in engineering, becoming the designer and describer of the Vatican power-station. He worked until 1935 at his profession in various countries, including Argentina, where he was employed three years by Compañia general de phosphoros. In 1926 was employed in the planning and consteruction of synthetic ammonia plants for the Società Ammonia Castle. In the same year he joined a literary group around the Florentine review Solaria. He also wrote short pieces for Letteratura. Under the tutelage of Piero Marinetti he resumed the university program in philosophy he had begun in 1922, but never completed his thesis on Leibniz's theory of knowledge in the Nouveaux essais. Because of a shortage of money, he went back to engineering. Works from this period were later included in La Madonna dei filosofi (1931) and Il castello di Udine (1934). La meccanica, a novel set in Milan during World War I, was written in 1924 and 1928-29, but not published until 1970.

Gadda became a full-time writer in 1940. For a period he lived in Florence, where he associated with such renowned authors as the novelist Elio Vittorini and the poet Eugenio Montale. Between 1950 and 1955 he worked for RAI, the Italian radio and television network, publishing in 1953 a compendium of "Policies for Radio Programming". The rest of his life Gadda spent mostly in Rome, alone, in a cheap apartment house in via Blumenstihl. He had a phone and he used it but he rarely answered it when people called.

Gadda's first collection of essays, Madonna dei filosofi, was followed by Il castello di Udine and other collections of memory pieces and short stories. They showed Gadda's masterful manipulation of literary style and his gift for merciless psychological and sociological analysis. Giornale di guerra e di prigionia (1955) recorded Gadda's experiences in World War I and cast light to some of his neuroses, childhood terrors, insomnia, gastrointestinal disorders, and hypersensitivity, which he apparently shared with his sister, Clara.

Gadda's early writings were collected in I sogni e la folgore (1955), in which he condemned empty oratory and revealed the misuse of language by fascism. Among his targets was Mussolini's highly individual "plain-speaking" rhetoric. La gognizione del dolore (1963, Acquainted with Grief), Gadda's first major novel, came out in 1938 in serial form in Letterature. The story was set in the imaginary South American land of Maradagàl, a modification of the Brianza region north of Milan. There is not much plot; a doctor visits the scene of the story, a villa, a loved son has been lost in a war, and the other son, survivor, returns home. His mother, Elisabetta, was modelled after Gadda's own mother. Description of the object world replaces the traditional narration. Gadda's misogynous, furious dialogue with parental and cultural authority, has been explained by personal attitudes of the author and by the banalities of the time period. Gonzalo, the author's self-portait, is shown in an extremely harsh light.

Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana, which revolved around a murder and jewel robbery, was first serialized in 1946-47 in the journal Letteratura. The reworked and enrlarged version was published as a volume in 1957. Not to give too much clues and lessen the suspense, the fourth chapter of the original was obliterated. The language of the novel, known as Il pasticciaccio, was literary Italian, with the addition of dialects, puns, technical jargon, and made-up and foreign words. His macaronic style Gadda enriched with classical allusions, which stand in marked contrast to the different Roman and other Italian dialects.

In the narration Police Commissioner Francesco Ingravallo's thoughts and emotions form a web of relationships between the external facts, witnesses, secondary characters and their dialects. He is first assigned to a burglary case at Via Merulana, and then sent to solve a murder at the same address. Signora Liliana Balducci, who is for Ingravallo the embodiment of femininity, is murdered, but there are too many leads. (Gadda's sister Clara was convinced that the savagely murdered Liliana was her.) Inspector Ingravallo finds the cache of stolen jewelry in a chamber pot under an old woman's bed. However, at the end nothing has been established or proven; if there is a solution of the mystery, it has no importance at all. The work of Ingravallo, a philosophical detactive, is destined never to be finished. At the beginning of the novel, Gadda informs the reader, that Ingravallo's philosophical ideas are not to be taken lightly: on first hearing, they seemed banalities, but they weren't banalities. Ingravallo's name is an allusion to "ingravidare" (to impregnate) and "cavallo" (horse).

The pasticciaccio (awful mess) of the title refers to many things: to the crime itself, it is also the human body, the instrument and object of the crime, linguistic pastiche of the narration, and there also is a surplus of information. But in a film script, Il palazzo degli ori (1983), which Gadda wrote at the same time as he wrote the first draft of the novel, the plot is clarified. It was never produced, and it has nothing to do with the film Pietro Germi made from the book in 1959.

Le maraviglie d'Italia (1939) was a travel book. In Eros a Priapo, published by Livio Garzanti, Gadda attempted to use psychoanalysis to explain Fascism, which he saw as the degeneration of bourgeois values. During his career, Gadda received several awards, including the Formentor Prize (1957) and the French International Prize for Literature in 1963 for La gognizione del dolore. His last publications include I Luigi di Francia (1964), a historical satire, Il guerriero, l'ammazzone, lo spirito della poesia nel verso immorale del Foscola (1967), a satirical play, and Novella seconda (1971).

"Gadda was a man of contradictions. An electro-technical engineer (he had used his professional skills for about ten years, mostly abroad), he sought to control his hypersensitive and nervous temperament by means of a scientific, rational mentality, but only succeeded in making it worse; and he used his writing to give vent to his irritability, phobias, and outbursts of misanthropy, which he tried to suppress in real life by donning the mask of a gentleman from a bygone age full of courtesy and good manners." (Italo Calvino in Why Read the Classics?, 1999)

Gadda died in Rome on May 21, 1973. He once confessed that his creative effort was largely directed ¨ towards "vengeance": a lyrical or comic vengeance for the awful things that "fate" does to men. It has been said that Gadda was "fundamentally a moralist, and that he does not believe in the possibility of human progress". In Who Is Who in the Twentieth-Century Literature (1976) Martin Seymour-Smith wrote that "a mania for listing facts co-existed in him with a satirical impulse that was so impassioned as to be lyrical." His friends used to refer jokingly to his quirks, his fear of automobiles and electric razors, need for mathematical precision in everything, his troubles with landladied, and reclusiviness. He broke into tears easily.

For further reading: Giraffes in the Garden of Italian Literature: Modernist Embodiment in Italo Svevo, Federigo Tozzi and Carlo Emilio Gadda by Deborah Amberson (2012); Naso E L'Anima: Saggio Su Carlo Emilio Gadda by Giancarlo Leucadi (2001); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Creative Entanglements: Gadda and the Baroque by Robert S. Dombroski (1999); Carlo Emilio Gadda: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Manuela Bertone & Robert S. Dombroski (1998); Carlo Emilio Gadda and the Modern MacAronic by Albert Sbragia (1996); La piega nera by Maurizio De Benedictis (1991); Carlo Emilio Gadda: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by Manuela Bertone and Robert S. Dombroski (1998); Challenging the Norm: The Dialect Question in the Works of Gadda and Pasolini by Laurie Jane Anderson (1977); Introduzione allo studio di Carlo Emilio Gadda by R.S. Dombroski (1973); 'Moral Commitment and Invention in Gadda's Poetics' by R.S. Dombroski, in Revista di Letterature Moderne Comparete 25, no. 3 (1972); 'Gadda, Pasolini, and Experimentalism: Form or Ideology?' by O. Ragusa, in From Verism to Experimentalism, ed. by S. Pacifici (1969); Carlo Emilio Gadda and the Modern Macaronic by Albert Sbragia (1996); Challenging the Norm: The Dialect Question in the Works of Gadda and Pasolini by Laurie Jane Anderson (1977)

Selected works:

  • La Madonna dei filosofi, 1931
  • Il castello di Udine, 1934
  • Le meraviglie d'Italia, 1939
  • Gli anni, 1943
  • L'Adalgisa, 1944
  • Il primi libro delle favole, 1952
  • Novelle dal ducato in fiamme, 1953
  • I sogni e la folgore, 1955
  • Giornale di guerra e di prigionia, 1955
  • Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana, 1957
    - That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (translated by William Weaver, 1965) / A New Annotated Translation of Carlo Emilio Gadda's "Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana" (translated by Roberto De Lucca, 1998)
    - Via Merulanan sotkuinen tapaus (suom. 2010)
  • I viaggi e la morte, 1958
  • Verso la Certosa, 1961
  • Accoppiamenti giudiziosi, 1963
  • La cognizione del dolore, 1963
    - Acquainted with Grief (translated by William Weaver, 1969)
  • I Luigi di Francia, 1964
  • Eros e Priapo, 1967
  • Il guerriero, l'ammazzone, lo spirito della poesia nel verso immorale del Foscola, 1967
  • La meccanica, 1970
  • Novella seconda, 1971
  • Meditazione milanese, 1974
  • L ebizze del capitano in congedo, 1981
  • Il palazzo degli ori, 1983
  • Racconto italiano di ignoto del novecento, 1983
  • Azoto e altri scritti di divulgazione scientifica, 1986
  • Taccuino di Caporetto, 1991
  • Opere di Carlo Emilio Gadda, 1988-93 (5 vols.)
  • Cara Anita, caro Emilio: ventisei lettere inedite, 2002 (edited by Federico Roncoroni)
  • I littoriali del lavoro e altri scritti giornalistici, 1932-1941, 2005 (edited by Manuela Bertone)
  • Carteggio, 1934-1963 / Gianfranco Contini, Carlo Emilio Gadda, 2009 (edited by Dante Isella, Gianfranco Contini, and Giulio Ungarelli)

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