Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"The Great Lost Moment" - Raffaele La Capria's The Mortal Wound

“In the sunlit lands of the far South there is a kind of secret ministry for the defence of Nature against Reason, a sort of all-powerful genius loci, which watches over the unbroken sleep of the inhabitants.”  - Anna Maria Ortese, “Strange Apparition”

Among my favorite discoveries in Italian literature this year has been Raffaele La Capria’s 1961 novel The Mortal Wound (Ferito a Morte, English translation 1964 by Marguerite Waldman). La Capria is one of the Neapolitan writers whom Anna Maria Ortese, in The Sea Doesn’t Bathe Naples, criticizes for exercising “an art apparently rooted in arid desperation.” In The Mortal Wound La Capria returns the favor: one of his characters explicitly references Ortese’s title, rejecting a point of view that dwells on “the two Naples, one a rigged-up affair, the other the real life. The Naples bathed by the sea and the Naples of the back alleys, Vesuvius and counter-Vesuvius. And so forth and so on.“ Though the two authors diverge in their approaches to literature, they share a bred-in-the-bone affection for their city fused with a scathing condemnation of its failings. In The Mortal Wound, La Capria levels his entire generation; the book, a portrait of dissolution and paralysis, emerged as among the most important novels of postwar Naples.[i]

La Capria’s title, The Mortal Wound, refers to Naples itself, both setting and subject of this fascinating and moving work, which in addition boasts of two noteworthy characteristics that have placed it on the literary map. First, it contains the first reference to pasta puttanesca, in a brief but entertaining passage that does little to shed light on the notoriously-named dish other than to suggest a Syracusan origin. Second, The Mortal Wound served as a key inspiration for director Paolo Sorrentino’s Academy Award-winning 2013 film The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza). One can recognize discrete elements of the novel in the film, but readers expecting a faithful correspondence may be disappointed: the similarities are almost entirely thematic and in the works’ overarching tone of nostalgic regret.

Lyrical and atmospheric, The Mortal Wound uses a polyphonic set of narrators and a mixture of dialogue, interior monologue, and free indirect discourse, peppered by frequent flashbacks, to capture the generation of Neapolitans from World War II into the years preceding Italy’s “Boom,” and covering the period of mayor Achille Lauro’s transformation of the city that saw incomes rise in tandem with organized crime and corruption; civic improvements as well as rampant real estate speculation; and a pursuit of profit that saw cherished aspects of old Naples quickly razed in a rush to riches.

La Capria filters this portrait largely through Massimo DeLuca, eldest son of a once well-off family now reduced nearly to ruin but still clinging to the manners and habits of its former prosperity. Sifting through the complexity of the novel’s narrative style - translator Waldman’s choice to place portions of the text into italics, ostensibly to facilitate distinction between the novel’s shifting narrators, is of marginal help - one pieces together Massimo’s life.

The young Massimo spends much of his time hanging around clubs, cafés and casinos, engaging in repetitive discourse about Neapolitan torpor and entrapment, of the “southern labyrinth” where the exertion of reason is useless, of those who leave and those who stay, of fortunes made in the Americas, of the differences between Pommery and Veuve Cliquot. Massimo’s coterie of ruined Neapolitans of all ages, “a community of idlenesses,” find little to do with themselves other than gamble for days on end and chase sensuality (L’Oro di Napoli, the 1957 film by La Capria’s close friend Vittorio di Sica, features an amusing portrait of a gambler La Capria might have used as a model). The best minds of Massimo’s generation - not starving, hysterical, or naked, but passive and pliant - watch their lives pour through their fingers. Even the recent war evokes a bitter nostalgia: “If nothing ever happens in Naples, you say, when war breaks out, for better or worse something’s got to happen even here. Because look, Massimo said, ‘a war seems better than the way I spend my days, without knowing where to go or what to do.’” Arguments fizz out with a whimper; when one character challenges another to a duel, he’s ridiculed for both the anachronism and the economics of the idea: “…so much for the doctor, so much for the taxi, so much for the reconciliation supper.”

Acutely afflicted by the city’s intractable hold, Massimo nonetheless remains distinct and aloof from the others, and feels most at home while diving for fish in the Bay of Naples with his younger brother, Nini. “Under water,” as Massimo’s journalist friend Gaetano asks him, “you forget even that you were born, don’t you?” La Capria repeatedly plays with the contrast between this silent undersea beauty and the grinding city above, his submarine passages turning into flights of lyrical prose, an escape into a magical world:

The breathing of the sea covered and uncovered the rock extended below the water like the wreck of a ship. Round it pressed the dense blue, probed in vain by conical sun-shafts, by luminous barbs. Tiny green wrasse and rainbow wrasse, butterfly-blennies, blue damsel-fish and saddled bream, drawn forward and pushed back by that breathing, for an instant hovering black in that deep blue light, then immediately hurled back again invisible against the carpet of brown seaweed.

If parts of Naples have not been bathed by the sea, the same cannot be said of what the sea receives from Naples. An environmental consciousness pervades The Mortal Wound, as the enchanting world in which Massimo seeks refuge is imperiled by garbage, industrial waste and sewage, as well as by the collateral damage from German, British and American attacks on the city during the war, such as the devastating and lingering effects of phosphorus bombs.

Despite these assaults, Nature remains the triumphant enemy. The city is “The Virgin Forest,” a once glorious European capital fallen into a pitiable, inert modern state now bypassed by the currents of History, the “blue line running through countries and cities: New York, London, Paris, Zurich, Rome, even Rome! But there the line suddenly veers, indeed recoils in horror and runs off…to the north.” The DeLuca family’s parallel decline is atmospherically woven into their living quarters, the Palazzo Medina (identifiable as the real-life Palazzo Donn’Anna), a crumbling 300-year-old edifice not so much bathed by the bay as being swallowed by it:

The façade, more exposed to the sea, is a trifle out of true; has it given way at the base or is that only an impression? as though the ebb and flow of waves had rotted the foundation? Wind and salt water eating away the blocks of tufa, now concave and gritty, only their edges jut out with the lime and bricks; a constant imperceptible crumbling; if you pass your finger over it you can feel the yellow dust coming away. For the past three hundred years the palace has withstood the moods of the sea, the blows of waves and bombs, but the centuries will conquer it with patience, millimetre by millimetre, until the quiet Neapolitan waters will claim their victory on a beautiful day like this, as they are already doing over the three or four surviving buttresses of Pollione’s villa under Cape Posilippo, and fishes will swim in the rooms rendered unrecognizable by marine incrustations, the erosions of waved and corroding mollusks. Only a matter of time.

This same abandonment to Nature is reflected in daily lives of Massimo and those around him, a fatal Neapolitan passivity that impedes forward motion and keeps its inhabitants rooted in place. Even Capri, glittering on the horizon, exists only as a far-away dream neither of the young brothers has ever visited. Gaetano jokingly suggests that Neapolitans should install “a lovely neon sign, very large, at the top of Vesuvius, for everyone to read: WHOEVER STAYS WILL BE DEFEATED.”

And yet Massimo stays. Ruminating on a letter from Gaetano, who has left Naples and written to ask, “Why are you still there?” Massimo ruminates, “And how could I tell him the absurd thing, how am I to tell him: to find again a single one of those days intact as it used to be, to find it by chance, one morning, going out with the fishing boat and the gun?” The intact moment Massimo seeks most is a certain night with Carla Boursier – she herself passes through the novel like an elusive ghost - the “great lost moment” of Massimo’s life (recognizable in Jep Gambardella’s retreat into similar memories in La Grande Belezza), a past, fleeting fantasy of love and promise that haunts Massimo and holds him like an anchor.

This is one sad book. Regarding those who do manage to get away, La Capria omits details of their sojourns in Rome and elsewhere, as though Neapolitanism is so entrenched as to blot out anything unrelated to it. But the almost unrelenting paralysis is partially set off by the southern Italian wit and creativity of those of Massimo’s coterie who somehow manage to make it into middle age without having succumbed to the “dream of the new car, the sports model, money…narrow lives, in a circle of scruffy friends.” Dissolute playboys and bon vivants, they trade goods on the black market, flit among and live off the rich foreigners who visit Capri and Ischia, survive by solely through their wits and not inconsiderable wit. A dark but sharp humor is woven into La Capria’s novel. For instance, one of Massimo’s friends is named Rossomalpelo, a literary joke referencing Verga’s grim short story featuring one of the most unfortunate characters in any literature. Here, he’s among those who leave, and when Massimo runs into him again in Naples after many years, he’s a successful architect, “well-informed and capable of indignation,” helping to pile Lauro’s shoddy modern edifices onto the historic old buildings of the city. If Massimo’s generation has wallowed in indifference and idleness, they partially compensate by a vivid humor and capriciousness. The final chapters, for all the spiritual emptiness they display, are injected with gags and scams that would be laugh out loud funny (particularly a stunt that Nini pulls in Capri’s famous Blue Grotto) were not they emblematic of something stunted and immature in men who have allowed their time to pass them by.

There’s a certain heroism in this dissolution, as conveyed in one character’s disparaging remark offering up Romans as a contrast, referring to their “…dreams of modest happiness, the acme of prudence at the age of twenty, they never once compromise themselves with a daring remark: tactical and practical.” “The mortal wound” of Naples, however, presents one a limited set of choices: to leave for a more mundane world, to abandon the struggle and succumb entirely, or to reinvent oneself, however meanly and hopelessly. As Sasà, disgraced in middle age but once the paragon of youth among Massimo’s friends, asserts: “You see, in a city where seventy per cent have no regular employment you’ve simply got to invent something, don’t you? They force us to.”

Displaying almost none of the determined activism of Anna Maria Ortese’s work, The Mortal Wound nonetheless conveys its “arid desperation” with sensitivity, lyricism and humor, and above all with a fierce and fatal appreciation of Naples itself. La Capria movingly depicts a generation that, in failing to escape or to act, in a simultaneous submission to and rejection of Naples’ “absurd scale of values,” has little to honor in life other than those maddeningly ambiguous, Neapolitan gifts of resistance, reinvention, and a terminal, blind refusal to capitulate despite certain defeat.   

 Image: Paul Klee, "Fish Magic," 1925, Philadelphia Museum of Art; this same image was used for the cover of the original 1961 Bompiani edition of Ferito a Morte

[i] Though the novel is second in a trilogy, “Tre Romanzi del una Giornata” (Three Novels of a Day), the books, published approximately ten years apart, can be read as stand-alone works (the first, A Day of Impatience [1952], is also available in an English translation by William Weaver).

Friday, October 30, 2015

An Early Ortese: The Sea Doesn't Bathe Naples

Giovana Bianco and Pino Valente, site specific installation
 Museo Madre contemporary art museum, Naples, 2015

For a Neapolitan work to begin with the words “It’s sunny! Oh, it’s sunny!” is pretty much a guarantee that a leveling blow waits just around the corner. Anna Maria Ortese’s powerful 1953 book, Il mare non bagna Napoli - The Sea Doesn’t Bathe Naples, or as translated in substantially modified form in a hard-to-find 1955 English edition by Frances Frenaye, The Bay is Not Naples - delivers numerous knock-out punches, revealing a different side of the author than that displayed in The Iguana. Ill-equipped for the Italian original, I made do with Frenaye’s edition, which contains eight pieces, three added by the translator, who also subtracts a sizable chunk of the longest of Ortese’s themes. As the book is so difficult to obtain in English, I’ll be less restrained than usual in providing details.

Il mare non bagna Napoli – which saw the light of day thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of Elio Vittorini and Italo Calvino - offers devastating critiques of the city. In a style that marks much post-war Neapolitan writing (and echoes the blend of fact and fancy of Curzio Malaparte’s portrait of 1944 Naples in The Skin), Ortese combines journalism with fiction to get at Naples’ inexorable social problems. Along the way, she takes to task her fellow Neapolitan writers for having rejected the “blue sky” writing of an earlier generation only to “replace it with an art apparently rooted in arid desperation.” This last phrase, articulated in the “The Silence of Reason,” the excerpt from the long piece truncated by Frenaye, both characterizes the prevailing Neapolitan style and points up Ortese’s rejection of its lack of determination to fight back. In the book’s pointed views of both Naples and those who wrote about it, Il mare non bagna Napoli struck the city’s readers - and especially its writers - like a tsunami.

Moving progressively from a neorealist literary style to a more journalistic one, Frenaye’s translation of Ortese’s book begins with four pieces focused on daily life in Naples’ poorest quarters, where Ortese had spent a good portion of her youth. The first piece, “A Pair of Glasses,” an increasingly gritty story with a Katherine Mansfield-style attention to the lives of children, concerns Eugenia, a young girl in a grim apartment building whose family splurges to buy her a first pair of eyeglasses that reveal to her both the gloriousness of the world and the undeniable misery of her immediate surroundings. “The Sea and Naples” continues Ortese’s depiction of this squalid neighborhood, reaching a tragic nadir with the death of a baby by “an accidental fall” from a window after her father “by sheer chance struck the baby” while beating the child’s mother (the lancing italics are Ortese’s). A portrait of domestic life in the mold of Matilde Serao follows: “Family Scene” delivers just what its title promises while plunging the hallowed Italian notion of “family” into the same chilled cauldron of dry-ice dry irony to which “sunny” has been consigned. Concluding this section of the book is a snapshot of Neapolitan street life, “The Gold of Forcella,” depicting the rough neighborhood named in the title and the quiet desperation with which its residents wait in a pawn shop in the hope of redeeming some prized object for a few thousand lira.

In “A City in Spite of Itself,” Ortese takes a turn that might seem abrupt were her goal simply to produce a series of short stories. Instead, this piece is riveting journalism as filtered through a fiction-writer’s eye, an exploration of the vast Granili III-IV apartment block, a converted military building on Naples’ outskirts that, at the time of Ortese’s visit, housed some 3,000 people packed 20-25 to a room. Ortese here digs deeply into the wretchedness of life among Naples’ poor after the war, many living in conditions as bad or worse than they suffered during the occupation and bombing. Simultaenously, the story presents an unforgettable portrait of the determined “matriarch” of the building, Signora Antonia Lo Savio. Ortese’s account of her initial meeting of Lo Savio demonstrates the author’s remarkable hybrid style, in which it’s easy to see how a surrealistic element might emerge in later works:

A woman swollen up like a dying bird, with black hair hanging over the hump on her back and a lemon-yellow face dominated by a big pointed nose, which came down all the way to a harelip, stood brandishing a comb in front of a jagged mirror, while she held a bunch of hairpins in her mouth. ‘Just a minute,’ she said when she saw me, and she even smiled…She must have been the offspring of hideously diseased parents, and yet there was something regal in the way she walked and talked. And there was something more, a bright light in her mouse-like eyes, which revealed not only her consciousness of evil in all its ramifactions [sic], but also a very human zest in combatting it.

That someone makes an effort to provide essential services in this inhuman inferno only marginally eases the grimness of Ortese’s essay, as evident in her account of the youngest denizens of the apartment block:

There was nothing childlike about these children except their age. They were little men and women, already acquainted with everything, with the beginning of life and its end, already eroded by poverty, idleness and vice, burdened with sickly bodies and twisted minds, wearing imbecile or corrupt smiles on their faces, artful and at the same time acting with a desolate indifference. Ninety percent of them, Antonia told me, are tubercular or susceptible to tuberculosis, that is when they are not rachitic or tainted with syphilis from their fathers and mothers. They are accustomed to witnessing their parents’ intercourse and the imitation of it is their favourite game, indeed almost the only one they have except for throwing stones.

These are the children “lucky” enough to survive. In a scene scoured of all sentimentality, Ortese describes rushing out with Lo Savio to where a young boy has fallen dead while at play with his friends. Neighbors gather: “Now they were taking him to the Morgue for examination, and parents and friends had turned the occasion into a sort of funeral, the simplest funeral I had ever seen. The dead boy wasn’t in a coffin but in the arms of his mother, a yellowish woman who looked half like a fox and half like a dustbin.”

Ortese’s lengthy interrogation of her fellow writers in “The Silence of Reason” provides an invaluable glimpse into the Neapolitan literati of her time – though not a particularly flattering one. It’s a shame that this piece has been cut, as one seldom encounters a writer so sober and burningly direct in criticizing her own circle of writers from within. Organized around a peripatetic series of home visits with Luigi Compagnone, Domenico Rea, Raffaele La Capria and, presumably, others mentioned at the essay’s beginning (Frenaye omits more than half of the piece), “The Silence of Reason” accelerates the decline in the sunny optimism about the city that began with Eugenia’s anticipation of new glasses as well as in whatever self-restraint Ortese has had up to this point. Her comments on Naples turn acidic, describing its writers as no more than anyone around them representative of:

the true Naples, all bright colours and heedlessness, and of the tradition of her ancient past – they were all a part of the current of troubled youth that ran beneath the great pile of antiquity…The city around them was what we all know: a larva stream of dollars and pus. Americans had stepped into the shoes of the Bourbons, and the syllables ‘O.K.’ were enough to cause every heart between Vicaria and Posilippo to tremble…

But Ortese’s most vitriolic condemnation appears in the final two pieces. The first of these recounts the pain of her return to Naples after a long absence to encounter only the ravages of age, dementia, and the daily wear and tear of the city on old friends. Still, Ortese manages to cull some slight romantic affection for Naples out of the blue sea and warm air, enough to push her into the book’s final piece, “A Strange Apparition.” Here she challenges the virus with which even she is infected, the sentimentality that can see “a truly exceptional city…a marvelous confusion,” only later awakening one to “the real horror, stemming from the destruction of thought itself.” As though echoing Jean-Noël Schifano’s characterization of Naples as a city run by passion, Ortese goes Schifano one further by limning “this extraordinary being, Passion,

as widespread as poverty, as agreeable as indolence, as dangerous as rhetoric or vice, and yet able at times to provide some consolation, and almost as lightfooted and superficial as the moon. It was to this fatuous and pernicious creature, perpetually appearing and disappearing, present everywhere and nowhere, whose name was never pronounced simply because its power was written on every side, that the City, amputated of its last vestige of thoughtfulness and indeed any semblance of mental systemization, owed its morbid and hallucinating beauty…All around lay the mad City, with children and dogs poking about in the garbage that littered its streets, with broken-down houses on either side, shattered lamp-posts, abandoned vehicles without wheels, fragments of champagne bottles, and everywhere masses of dead men’s skulls and bones. And the truly grotesque thing was this: that when the terrible First Citizen of the City passed by, these skeletons, which should normally have been weary unto death, came to life and danced in the streets; ancient jawbones shook with laughter and tears gushed out of cavernous sockets…So it was that the place knew no peace.

It seems unjust that Ortese’s book has yet to be translated in full and that the one existing translation is nearly impossible to obtain. The book clearly still serves as an important reference for contemporary writers and artists from Italy’s south. Sicilian writer Roberto Alajmo, in his amusing 2005 “anti-travelogue,” Palermo, even borrows Ortese’s title for that of a chapter in his own book (substituting Palermo for Naples), and if not already apparent to readers familiar with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Ortese’s book is an undeniably significant influence. Given the fever currently attaching to Ferrante’s volumes, a reissue of Ortese’s book should be a priority. Besides provoking a sobering realization that little seems to have changed in the lives of Naples’ poor over the past 60 years, Il mare non bagna Napoli gives an essential glimpse into the origins of Ferrante’s work. The first two stories of Il mare non bagna Naples are so close in atmosphere and subject to Ferrante’s books that they might even be mistaken for discarded drafts. The characters inhabit a similar courtyard apartment building, endure the same entrenched atmosphere of violence and neglect, bear Neapolitan names identical to some in Ferrante (including “Lina” and “Nunziata”), and even include, in a central, galvanizing scene, a mother devastated by the loss of her child, her “reddened fingers stuck into her hair as if to claw the brain below.” Ferrante’s work pays homage to Ortese’s overarching tone of indignation, particularly when directed at the suffering in what Ortese in one scene refers to as “the eternal story of the mothers, wives and daughters of the human race.” However similar their aims, though, these writers differ significantly: in thematic and temporal scope, certainly, and not least in Ortese’s splendid, strange language compared to Ferrante’s galloping, workhorse sentences. Nonetheless, readers of the latter writer should find Ortese’s book a mesmerizing companion to Ferrante’s Neapolitan project, as well as a daring work of both social criticism and narrative inventiveness that stands, toweringly, on its own.   

For much of the background on Il mare non bagna Napoli, I am indebted to Professor Lucia Re's long and fascinating article on the book's history, themes and reception. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Beware of Pity: Anna Maria Ortese's The Iguana

As evidence that the influence of the weirdness of Giambattista Basile’s Neapolitan fairy-tales may have carried into the 20th century, one might point to Anna Maria Ortese and her peculiar, compelling 1965 novel, The Iguana. With a deceptively light tone, Ortese offers up, in her modern fairy tale, both a playful toying with the purposes of literature and a deeply haunting portrayal of the development of a moral conscience.

The first of the novel's two parts, "The Man Who Buys Islands," opens in a vaguely defined temporal space merging elements of the contemporary world with those of the 19th century and before. The spoiled young Don Carlo Ludovico Aleardo de Grees, of the Dukes of Estremadura-Aleardi and Count of Milan (nickname: “Daddo”) is sent by his wealthy mother on an expedition to buy up new lands for building resorts to accommodate the leisure tastes of Milanese vacationers. At the same time, the Count’s publisher friend Adelchi urges him to scour these territories for manuscripts that might introduce “something really new, something extraordinary” to the Milanese reading public. Off the cuff, perhaps not fully comprehending Adelchi’s profit-mindedness, the Count envisions  something like the confessions of a madman who falls in love with an iguana. In Ortese’s world – one strongly influenced by the realismo magico of Massimo Bontempelli, a mentor responsible for publishing Ortese’s first works – a bit of magic produces exactly such a story, as though Daddo’s merely having imagined the tale brings it into being.

Several days into his voyage, off the coast of Portugal, the Count spots an island, Ocaña, which appears to be moving (a conceit that must be one of the most recurrent and curious in Italian literature).  The captain notes that it's still uncharted, because “good Christians…don't much bother about things that belong to the devil.” Despite this malign reputation, the island is cartoonish: a low hill, a grove of olive trees, a grey house “like a prop,” “a few sheep, some lying in the grass, some grazing, heads low, and, like all sheep, thinking perhaps of nothing.”

Beneath a tree some people are listening to another reading a book, so Daddo orders the ship to stop. These few inhabitants turn out to what’s left of a once illustrious family now reduced to ruin: Don Ilario Jimenes of the Marquis of Segovia, Count of Guzman, and his three brothers, along with a grandmotherly figure who scurries into the house at the Count’s disembarkation.

The brothers appear anxious; the Marquis – “a poet, perhaps a bibliophile, at any rate a spirit immersed in eternal fantasy,” as Daddo will soon learn - appears ill. Daddo’s first words betray his sense that something is awry: “Can I be of any help?” But the brothers receive him graciously, inviting him inside their humble home. Encountering the figure he’d seen moments before, the Count receives a shock:

Daddo’s surprise was tremendous. He had taken her for a shrunken old woman, but he was looking at an animal! In front of him was a bright green beast, about the height of a child – an enormous lizard from the look of her, but dressed in woman’s clothes with a dark skirt, a white corset, old and shabby, and a multicolored apron clearly patchworked from the family’s stock of rags. To hide her ingenuous little snout, which was a sort of whitish green, she wore yet another dark cloth on her head. She was barefoot.

As he gets to know the family, Daddo becomes increasingly obsessed by this curious being, at once so innocent, alert, grubbing and downtrodden. He is dismayed by how the brothers treat this apparent servant, Estrellita, speaking to her sharply and consigning her to a lightless basement where she sleeps amid rags and entertains herself by counting and burying a horde of stones the Count assumes she believes is her pay. The creature is a ruin, desperately afflicted and self-loathing: “She lived with a horrible suspicion. After a period, initially, when it was simply unendurable, it now so deeply grieved her that she could not address it at all: the suspicion, almost the certainty, that she herself was the Devil – ‘the spirit of the shades,’ harried by the wrath of God.” Daddo is further appalled when he learns that the brothers had purchased Estrellia, information that offends his sense of “chivalry” and an ethic that can see a “soul no different from his own and [hear its] appeal of brotherly solidarity.”

This exposition out of the way, the narrative then traces Count Aleardo’s efforts to restore Estrellita to her full human measure, while at the same time negotiating purchase and publication of the Marquis’ writings (a history of Portugal and a memoir), and also disentangling the secretive relationship between Estrellita and the Marquis against the background of a propitious impending marriage between the latter and a daughter of the Hopins family, rich Americans who’ve come to the island under obscure pretexts. Daddo’s sympathies and affection for Estrellita increase in tandem with his perception of the island’s malignance: “No, there was no such thing as order here, something even that made order impossible.”

With a tremendous sense of empathy for the destitute and miserable, Ortese sensitively depicts both the impact of the treatment doled out to Estrellita by the brothers, intent on reducing her to nothing, and Aleardo’s growth in determination to understand the iguana and her oppressors. Affecting at first a bourgeois do-gooder-ism, the Count is forced repeatedly to recalibrate his assumptions and noble intentions as they run up against new knowledge and complexities of the heart. Fog, a recurrent motif, underscores the situation’s moral opacity. With an epiphany only marginally more morally advanced than the behavior of the brothers, the Count realizes that “if the Iguana had been bought, she could be bought again and he could restore her not only to her freedom, but as well to all the dreams of her little bestial soul.” But through a continual dialectical process of re-evaluating himself and his sentiments for the poor Iguana, the Count gradually undergoes an almost Augustinian spiritual transformation, an orientation to the reality of suffering that pushes him towards being “healed of his fantasizing mind.”

Ortese uses Aleardo’s tossed-off story idea to delve into a range of themes, philosophical questions and metafictional devices unusual to find in a single volume, particularly one with such a fabulist bent. She queries the shadow line between animal and human; the nature of evil; the neglectful treatment of the natural world and the environment; the ability to transform moral indignation into numb acquiescence and vice-versa; the perils of assumptions, rescue fantasies and pity; the monstrous damages that poverty, isolation, and oppression can inflict; the hidden injuries of class; the destructive impact of speculation and profiteering; the damaging claims on knowledge made by an imperialist mentality (among other things, The Iguana ingeniously recycles that staple of European literature, the encounter with the exotic). Ortese even addresses the dubious place of God through a scene featuring a trial over the death of God that is at the same time surreal, moving and amusing (“’Where were the accused?’ inquired the judge…‘On their yachts, sir,’ answered Cole”). Ortese appears to reserve particular scorn for Milanese/Lombard values, castigating “the violence Lombards typically employ in doing good works,” and seeing in these northerners “a severe and almost stupid simplicity of heart that asks God no questions, awaiting only His orders and then giving them execution with infantile sense of scruple” (in Italy’s north-south division, it’s abundantly clear where Ortese’s sympathies lie).

Ortese’s manner of injecting these thematic elements initially seems jarring, almost as though, in planning her novel, she might have left unrevised placeholders for ideas later to be developed and emulsified into her narrative. However, one quickly comes to see this as a deliberate stylistic device; as a fairy tale, The Iguana leaves its viscera visible, as though the story's latent and manifest content were exposed in equal proportion. Like Bontempelli, Ortese also makes off with all kinds of authorial privilege, frequently appealing to “you the Reader” as though speaking aloud, slotting in subjects she wants to address, even announcing that she’s going to shift narrative direction. Ortese evinces both a mastery of literary devices and a playful distaste, paradoxical in so challenging a work, for the uses to which they are too often put. Freely, even mercilessly, she constantly reminds the reader that The Iguana is a fiction, in the process probing fiction’s purposes and meaning. From the beginning, the narrative attacks the commodification of literature (“purposely designed to excite precisely those feelings of perplexity and boredom that were a sure guarantee of good sales”). And like Bontempelli's own realismo magico, Ortese’s fantasy elements enhance the world rather than offer escape from it. Often as not, the “magic” is but a simple trick of perception, as when Daddo spies a light over the hill that he takes to be Ocaña’s “second moon,” but which reveals itself to be the lamp of a ship – or more accurately, both the lamp of a ship and a second moon. Everything on Ocaña multiplies and transforms; characters take on other names and other personalities; the olive trees become oaks; the “prop” house on the island becomes a “splendid” mansion; Estrellita is at once lizard, crone and serving girl. Time too is topsy-turvy; towards the end of the novel the Count notes that he’s been on the island only since the previous day, while on the same page another character suggests that years have passed since his arrival.

These metamorphoses plunge the reader into no small amount of confusion. Ortese’s title for the second part of the novel, “The Storm,” underscores this turbulence (and further points allusively to Shakespeare's The Tempest). Yet Ortese frequently tosses out subtle lifelines, even fusing the reader’s struggles at understanding with those of the Count himself:

He managed nonetheless to discern these words, in which reality and symbol were desperately, unfortunately intermingled, as in avant-garde novels…It was difficult to remember so many shiftings, just as it was difficult to see them in the first place, difficult to make distinctions within these continuous superimpositions of the real and the unreal…

Ortese wants the reader to work. Though the novel's tone is at times as light as a cloud, the questions the novel raises are as weighty as those in Camus’ The Plague. And while neither the numerous twists and transformations in the plot nor the demanding issues Ortese raises make for easy reading, The Iguana is a novel that sticks in the mind long after finishing it, not least thanks to the memorable and affecting character of the book’s title, whose wrenching protests of “Nao, nao, nao!” remain with one like an irreparable betrayal.

French-Sicilian writer Jean-Noel Schifano, in his Dictionnaire Amoureux de Naples, a collection of essays formed around each letter of the alphabet, selected Anna Maria Ortese as his entry for “O.” Though Ortese was born in Rome and passed her final decades in Rapallo, she called Naples “my native city,” having spent formative years in a poor neighborhood where, to borrow the title of one of Ortese’s earliest works, “the sea doesn’t bathe Naples.” The city would largely remain the geographical and psychological pole around which this remarkable autodidact's work would revolve (including as setting for a surrealist detective novel featuring as its principal character an Arizona mountain lion). Ortese is slowly coming to be recognized as one of Italy’s most important and distinctly original post-war writers. “She makes us think about things we do not normally think about,” writes Schifano in his appreciative essay. And while The Iguana, with its fantastical elements, gives ample evidence to support Schifano's pronouncement, it's also a book that displays an engagement with the realities of human suffering characteristic of much Neapolitan literature, disturbing our complacency concerning a status quo that works “to the harm of people who are weaker than we are…Something in our education, in our way of seeing the world, some fundamental error that calls down calamity on a great number of people.” One emerges from Ortese’s book in sympathy with Count Aleardo's life-changing encounter on this strange moving island, feeling that despite everything, "the really such a beautiful place...the Universe something gracious," yet also with the conviction that literature is a force that can be used "to strike against" misery and injustice. While perhaps this may not be exactly what Aleardo's friend Adelchi had in mind, The Iguana makes a strong claim for indeed being "something really new, something extraordinary," a feat of real imagination to offer to readers fed on fantasy.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

In Praise of Folly: J. Rodolfo Wilcock's The Temple of Iconoclasts

In the customary and deeply-rooted division of Italian writers into those from the north and those from the south, the iconoclastic writer Juan Rodolfo Wilcock (1919-1978) might best count as one from the west. Wilcock is that rare figure who led two literary careers in two different languages, the first in Buenos Aires as a member of the group that included Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo; then second, after fleeing the Perón dictatorship, in and around Rome where he wrote exclusively in Italian and moved within the eminent circle that included Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, and Pier Paolo Pasolini (the screenshot above shows Wilcock playing Caiaphas in Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St. Matthew). Thus the timely republication of Wilcock’s 1977 book, The Temple of Iconoclasts (Sinagoga degli iconoclasti), makes for an ideal bridge between my current explorations of Italian literature and the annual Caravana de Recuerdos “Argentine Literature of Doom” reading event. Though I’d been curious to read the book after learning of it in an interview with translator Lawrence Venuti years ago, it had proven maddeningly impossible to find. I now know why. Venuti, in a new preface, explains that all but some 500 copies of the original edition of his translation were accidentally pulped.

In this new edition, Venuti expands on Wilcock’s improbable life. I won’t repeat the details (far richer than Wilcock’s current Wikipedia entry), but suffice to say that Venuti’s choice to title his preface simply “J. Rudolfo Wilcock,” thus appearing to slot the writer democratically among the 35 names that follow it in the table of contents, is an apt and clever one. The Temple of Iconoclasts consists of brief fictional and semi-fictional biographies, from 5 lines to 25 pages, of equally improbable inventors, metaphysicians, biologists, artists, sociologists, clerics, anthropologists, engineers, chemists, and others who, despite day jobs ranging from clockmaker to gravedigger, pursued fantastic theories, created unusual inventions, or simply asserted their existence in some idiosyncratic way. In Wilcock’s melding of fact, fiction and whimsicality, he subversively lances intellectual pretense and arrogance. His pieces inhabit that murky zone between human intellectual endeavor and madness, a line further muddied by Wilcock’s tossing in actual persons whose names pop into these sketches from time to time, including Thomas Edison, Antoine van Leeuwenhoek, Wilhelm Reich, and even Wilcock’s own great-grandfather.

Nearly all of Wilcock’s brainiacs also write. If only as a source for additions to The Invisible Library, The Temple of Iconoclasts would still provide abundant amusement. There’s hack vulcanologist’s Klaus Nachtknecht’s The Salubrious Magma; philosopher Absalon Amet and his wife Plaisance’s Select Thoughts and Words from the Universal Mechanical Philosophy; Antonine Amédée Bélouin’s The Bélouin Network: Initial Project for an Underwater Railroad;” Franz Piet Vredjuik’s Universal Sin, or A Discourse on the Identity between Sound and Light; and Aaron Rosenblum’s  beguiling utopian failure, Back to Happiness, or Joyride to Hell, proposing a return to the purportedly rosiest period of human history, identified by Rosenblum as England under the reign of Elizabeth 1. Like César Aira’s Dr. Aira, with his proliferating screens aimed at excluding everything in the universe incompatible with his miracle cures, Rosenblum attempts to subtract from the present everything incompatible with life in the year 1580. The narrator’s extensive list of the glories and afflictions lost and regained through this mercifully unrealized project is both one of the book’s highlights and an almost irremediable skewering of utopian thought.

In another sketch, Jules Flamart, a lexicologist bored with the typical dictionary, creates a dictionary-novel, La Langue en action, which pairs each word with a narrative connection to the next word. Wilcock creates three entire pages of excerpts that had me wishing he’d gone on to complete the entire 850 page work. This is one of several texts Wilcock creates for his “iconoclasts.” The longest of these, in a piece on radical theater director Llorenz Riber, includes four theater reviews and an entire three-act screenplay, all of which reveal that a neurotic obsession with rabbits, born in Riber’s childhood, has burrowed its way into everything the director has created, including adaptations of Sartre’s No Exit and a Georges Feydeau-inspired, everyone-in-the-closet farce in which Riber has replaced the main characters’ family names with those of Nazi concentration camps. The cringe-worthy critical assessments of Riber's productions, worth the price of the book by themselves, are so are gloriously over the top that they could scare off anyone from creative or critical effort, yet simultaneously create an almost desperate desire to see Riber’s pieces produced on stage (or at the very least, some of Wilcock’s own criticism translated into English). Wilcock’s prodigious imagination is perhaps most amply revealed in a lengthy list of inventions created by Jesús Pica Planas, which echoes Kenji Kawakami’s useless Japanese inventions, and each item of which might well have served as a seed for helping populate an additional volume of Wilcock’s eccentrics.

The Temple of Iconoclasts is strikingly reminiscent of the weird, wild stories of Wilcock’s fellow Argentinian, Leopoldo Lugones, an evident influence even to the point of some of Wilcock’s examples seeming to riff on Lugones’ own extravagant conceits (Roger Babson’s nutty experiments with gravity, for instance, or John O. Kinnaman’s unsuccessful attempt to locate Lot’s wife in mounds of salt near ancient Sodom). In some sketches, the patient and detailed elaboration of Wilcock’s creations echoes those of Raymond Roussel. Venuti also notes as a precursor to The Temple of Iconoclasts Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, and as a descendent Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas. Bolaño acknowledged Wilcock’s book as the key influence on his own, and the handful of references to Nazism in The Temple of Iconoclasts seems even to provide the thematic spark for Bolaño’s homage. But Wilcock’s language possesses a density and expressiveness (no knock on Venuti, but one can scarcely imagine how delightful this book must sound in the original Italian); an affection for his subjects; and above all a fat streak of hilarity that rivals and even surpasses those of these other writers. This is one funny book, filled with glacial understatement, pointed one-liners, and a wit that ranges from tender to withering. Given Wilcock’s great funds of whimsy and waggery, his work also calls to mind Los Angeles artist David Wilson’s enchanting and stupefying Museum of Jurassic Technology, where the visitor is seduced by what appears to be a natural science museum until he or she pauses to reflect on the exhibits on display, which, in a moment of epiphany like a quick intake of nitrous oxide, produce a giddy euphoria. To read Wilcock’s book is to enter the paradise of both the mad dreamer and the wry skeptic, to marvel at the varieties of the human pursuit of knowledge, to feel chastened and humbled in one’s most insignificant mental efforts, and to have an exceedingly good time.