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by Bamber Gascoigne

Carlo Emilio Gadda (1893-1973)


Italian novelist, short-story writer, and essayist, who was originally educated as an engineer. Carlo Emilio Gadda was one of Italy's most daring experimental writers. His style has been compared to that of early modernists Proust, Joyce, 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 utilized 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, p. 6)

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. (Francesco Gadda invested in silkworms just before the invention of rayon.) 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, capture at Caporetto on 25 October, the time he spent in the concentration camp at Celle, 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 embittered Gadda for a very long time.

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 British. 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. No publisher wanted to touch it.

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. As an engineer, he participated in the planning and construction of synthetic ammonia plants for the Società Ammonia Casale. The Florentine review Solaria published two of his novels. This journal, which brought together such diverse writers as Elio Vittorini, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Leo Ferrero, and Eugenio Montale, had been founded in 1926 by Alberto Carocci. In addition, Gadda wrote short pieces for Letteratura. Gadda frequented the Giubbe Rosse café, where the Solaria group used to meet.

Under the tutelage of Piero Marinetti, Gadda 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.

Madonna dei filosofi, Gadda's first collection of essays, 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 (Acquainted with Grief), Gadda's first major novel, came out between 1938 and 194o in installmenta in Letterature. A painfully personal work on the mother-son relationship, Gadda did not allow its publication in book form until 1963.

The story is 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 named Pastrufacio visits the scene of the story, a villa, a loved son has been lost in a war, and the other son, Don Gonzalo de Pirobutirro, returns home. His mother, Senora Elisabetta, was modelled after Gadda's own mother. Description of the object world replaces the traditional narration. Gadda's misogynous, furious dialogue has been explained by the personal psychology of the author and by the hatred of his time. Gonzalo, the author's self-portait, is shown in an extremely harsh light. At the end Senora Elisabetta is assaulted brutally; her murder was added in the last section in 1969. "Yet this prose, daring as it does to risk the extremes of abstraction out of the enraging banalities of life, is also magnificently embodied, corporeally engaged in a merciless account of the universal absurdity." ('Acquaited with Grief (La cognizione del dolore)' by Federica Pedriali in Defining Moments in Books: The Greatest Books, Writers, Characters, Passages and Events that Shook the Literary World, edited by Lucy Daniel, 2007, p. 275) 

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 enlarged 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, 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 contrast to the different Roman and other Italian dialects. The novel is a kind of manoeuvre against rationality and banality of everyday language. Gadda informs the reader of Ingravallo's ideas: "At first sight, or rather, on first hearing, these seemed banalities. They weren't banalities." (Ibid., p. 4)

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. Ingravallo's name is an allusion to "ingravidare" (to impregnate) and "cavallo" (horse). He is first assigned to a burglary case at Via Merulana, and then sent to solve a murder at the same address, same floor. Signora Liliana Balducci, who is for Ingravallo the embodiment of femininity, is found murdered, "on the parquet floor in the dining room, lying there, with her skirt all pulled up, in her underwear, you might say. Her head turned away, sorta . . . With the throat all sawed up, all cut up one side. You should see that cut, sir!" (Ibid., p. 66) Gadda's sister Clara was convinced that the savagely murdered Liliana was her.

It turns out, that  Ingravallo confronts too many clues: if there is a partial solution to a puzzle, does not lead to a complete solution. Whatever Ingravallo, the philosophical detactive, learns during the process, is destined to be temporary. 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 treatment for Lux Film, Il palazzo degli ori, which Gadda wrote at the same time as he was working on the first draft of the novel, the plot is clarified. (Via Merculana is the "palace of gold".) The treatment was never produced, and it has nothing to do with Pietro Germi's 1959 screen adaptation.

Le maraviglie d'Italia (1939) is a travel book, which takes a look behind the facades of fascism. Gadda visits the main cemetery in Milan and writes about the message that the dead deliver to the living: "Above time there are religious truths, the sublime actions of the fallen, their sacrificed pain, the labour of those who prepared them for the world, the suffering and the hope with which they, the fallen, suggested the word 'Live!' to our infant soul." (Journeys Through Fascism: Italian Travel-Writing between the Wars by Charless Burdett, 2010, p. 96) Eros a Priapo, put out by Livio Garzanti, was called by a reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement "a brilliantly impressionistic and often extremely funny account of attitudes, of feelings, of tensions and absurdities, of all kinds of Italianess, fascist or not spesifically so, seldom unearthed let alone discussed". (World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 516)

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." ('Carlo Emilio Gadda, the Pasticciaccio,'  in Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin, 2000)

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, who had little faith in human goodness. 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." (Who's Who in Twentieth-century Literature by Martin Seymour-Smith, 1976, p. 126) Gadda's friends used to refer jokingly to his quirks, his fear of automobiles and electric razors, need for mathematical precision in everything, his troubles with landladies, and reclusiviness. He broke into tears easily.

For further reading: Gadda con Freud, Schrödinger e Joyce by Gabiele Frasca (2023); Gadda, Montale e il fascismo by Pier Giorgio Zunino (2023); Le célibataire absolu: pour Carlo Emilio Gadda by Philippe Bordas (2022); Sfido a riconoscermi: racconti sparsi e tre saggi su Gadda by Angelo Guglielmi (2019); Gadda: guida al Pasticciaccio by Maria Antonietta Terzoli (2016); Gadda and Beckett: Storytelling, Subjectivity and Fracture by Katrin Wehling-Giorgi (2014); The Rhetoric of Violence and Sacrifice in Fascist Italy: Mussolini, Gadda, Vittorini by Chiara Ferrari (2013); Giraffes in the Garden of Italian Literature: Modernist Embodiment in Italo Svevo, Federigo Tozzi and Carlo Emilio Gadda by Deborah Amberson (2012); After Autarchy: Male Subjectivity from Carlo Emilio Gadda to the Gruppo 63 by Rebecca Ruth Falkoff (dissertation, 2012); Naso E L'Anima: Saggio Su Carlo Emilio Gadda by Giancarlo Leucadi (2001); 'Gadda,  Carlo Emilio' in 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); World Authors 1950-1970: A Companion Volume to Twentieth Century Authors, edited by John Wakeman (1975); 'Gadda, Carlo Emilio,' in Who's Who in Twentieth-century Literature by Martin Seymour-Smith (1976); 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:

  • Racconto italiano di ignoto del novecento, 2024
  • La Madonna dei filosofi, 1931 [The Madonna of Philosophers]
  • Il castello di Udine, 1934
  • 'La donna si prepara ai suoi compiti coloniali,' 1938 (La vie d'Italia, October 1938)
  • 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. Laura Lahdensuu, 2010)
    - Film: Un maledetto imbroglio, 1959, directed by Pietro Germi, starring Pietro Germi (Il Dott. Ingravallo), Claudia Cardinale, Franco Fabrizi; TV Mini Series: Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana, 1983, starring Flavio BuccI (Commissario Ingravallo), Bruno Scipioni (Sgranfia), Scilla Gabel (Liliana Balducci); TV Movie: Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana, 1996, directed by Giuseppe Bertolucci, starring Franco Graziosi Commissario Franco Ingravallo), Maria Grazia Bon, Stefano Lescovelli
  • 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)
  • Gadda Goes to War: Translational Provocations around an Emergency, 2013 (edited by Federica G. Pedriali)
  • l guerriero, l'amazzone, lo spirito della poesia nel verso immortale del Foscolo: conversazione a tre voci, 2015 (a cura di Claudio Vela)
  • "Se mi vede Cecchi, sono fritto": corrispondenza e scritti 1962-1973 / Carlo Emilio Gadda, Goffredo Parise, 2015 (a cura di Domenico Scarpa)
  • 'The Mother', 2019 (The Penguin book of Italian short stories; introduced, edited and with selected translations by Jhumpa Lahiri)
  • La casa dei ricchi, 2020  (a cura di Giorgio Pinotti)
  • Giornale di Guerra e di prigionia, 2023 (Paola Italia, a cura di; Eleonora Cardinale, collaboratore)

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