It’s a wonder that I even read Love in Vain, a collection of short stories by Sienese writer Federigo Tozzi (1883-1920), as everything about the book - starting with the discouraging title and lugubrious cover - seems almost deliberately primed to bring the reader down. The table of contents too reveals several more dismal titles, like “To Dream of Death” and “Vile Creatures.” Going into the text itself, one finds more than a few leaden, dramatic pronouncements like the one I’ve used in the title of this post. And to top it all off, the tales by this devotee of Gabriele D’Annunzio explore a similar fascination with decadence and with the intersection between love and death, with subjects that promise a wallow through human misery. Indeed, Tozzi’s stories are filled with stunted hopes, failed love affairs, economic insecurities, and repressed, simmering anger that occasionally erupts with grievous consequences. Characters in not a few of the stories come to bad ends, including suicide, murder and cruel accidents, as in “Dead Man in the Oven,” in which a vagabond accustomed to sleeping in an unused oven neglects to realize one night that the baker has put the oven to use that day, with consequences evident from the story’s title.
With all this cheerfulness in the offing, one could hardly be faulted for harboring low expectations, but Tozzi’s stories defy pigeon-holing. The occasional infusion of Christian mysticism in these tales; their palpable, evident excitement in exploring the new field of psychology; and their singular style and careful construction seem nearly incongruent with their dark themes, revealing a writer certainly as devoted to the art of the short story as to reveling in the obscure mechanisms of human behavior. Love in Vain is one of the finest short story collections I've read in a long time.
The 20 tales included in the volume - all from between 1908 and 1919, twelve years of productivity cut short by the influenza epidemic in 1920 - range across numerous subjects, linked by an astute psychological realism and portraits of passionate persons engaged either in succumbing to or surmounting their emotions. The zeal with which Tozzi approaches psychology is obvious in stories like “Mad for Music,” in which the narrator explicitly announces that “Through the observation of the typical characters you might come across, especially on the streets of small cities or towns, you can greatly enrich your understanding of life,” and then proceeds to assert the need to study especially those who, “by the grace of fate’s outrageous excesses – manage to set themselves apart from social norms.” The story concerns a young man, Roberto Falchi, who, following a case of meningitis, loses “all trace of intelligence,” but, as in an Oliver Sacks case study, becomes obsessed with music and convinced he is a great musician. In “Vile Creatures,” an unnamed observer in a brothel eavesdrops on the talk between five of the girls during an idle moment, as they trade stories of their tragic pasts and dreary present, their hopes (or lack thereof) for the future. In “Poverty,” the narrator rests his tale squarely on the emotional instabilities caused by money worries in the relationship between a poor accountant and his wife and stepmother. “House for Sale” depicts an extreme case of submission and self-abasement when a property owner is cowed by unscrupulous buyers into letting his home go for next to nothing. In “The Boardinghouse,” the relationship between two elderly neighbors who over the years share small talk in the hallway between their rooms but otherwise fail to connect is revealed as an intractable and terrible dependence when one of them sickens and dies. A similar social distance appears in “First Love,” perhaps the tale most indicative of Tozzi’s modus operandi. Over a mere six pages, the affection of two schoolchildren for one another is tested over several ensuing years; readers expecting from the title something heartwarming will be disappointed to find instead a tale of young people attracted and ultimately repelled by timidity, jealously, and the boy’s immature fits of pique, leaving the characters at a greater distance than they were at the story’s beginning.
Tozzi’s stories, while driven by an interest in psychology, occasionally wander into imaginative territory that flirts with surrealism. “The Crucifix” begins with a disorienting description of a scarcely-formed primordial world:
I thought: a world of God’s creation is left unfinished. Its matter is not alive, not dead. The vegetation is all identical in this world, and the rough sketches of formless beasts are unable to move out from their muck because they have neither legs nor eyes.
The plans in this world cannot be distinguished by their color – because they have none. This world would also have its own odor – but only when spring is approaching; and so it’s a rather muddy smell. Adam is there, too – a rough version of him – he has no spirit, no soul. He cannot talk or see, but he feels the mire around him moving, and it frightens him.
There is neither a sun nor a moon. This world lies in the loneliest corner of infinity, where there are no stars, where a lone comet goes to die, as if in exile. This half-life is more ancient than our own.
This peculiar flight of imagination offers no hint that the story will actually turn on the fate of a wretched, abused girl of the streets as well as on the narrator’s conflicting desires both to protect and rescue her from such a terrible state and to avoid being seen as just another abuser. “The Idiot” is an even more imaginative effort, in which Tozzi attempts to relay the inner thoughts of a retarded child. This might in itself have been a novel experiment for someone writing at beginning of the 20th century, but Tozzi complicates the idea further by having the child relay his thoughts through transference via an imaginary conversation between the King of Spades and Queen of Hearts, playing cards the child finds in the yard, dampened by rain. The contrast between the violent extremes of thought that run through the child’s head and the placid, drooling face the rest of the world sees is dramatic. And in “The Clocks,” a tale that seems part-Poe, part-Ionesco, the death of a collector of clocks is accompanied by the clocks’ slowing down and stopping, one by one.
Despite their being highly artful, Tozzi’s stories, like the those of Giovanni Verga (and decidedly unlike those of D’Annunzio), eschew references to literature, avoiding “the veils and imposition of literary artifice.” Books appear only a few times in this collection, as in “Mad for Music,” where the mentally-damaged Roberto Falchi’s best friend is “an eccentric” who, having “lost his mind two years earlier,” writes “a book or two a day…filling the pages with delirious ramblings.” In “The Miracle,” a man dwelling on death is awakened by an encounter with a Madonna hanging in his room and suddenly begins to devour every book he can find, reading “until he couldn’t breathe, and his eyes couldn’t take anymore.” The peculiar treatment of literature by Tozzi is also visible in “Vile Creatures,” when one of the girls questions another:
Frenchie asked Sara, “What are you reading?
“Is it good?”
“Is it good?”
“So-so,” answered Sara, careful not to reveal how she felt about the book.
“Who’s the author?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you look?”
Translator Minna Proctor’s informative introduction suggests that Tozzi, though long admired by his followers such as Alberto Moravia, is only beginning to receive more widespread recognition as one of Italy’s great modern short story writers. In addition to 120 short stories, he wrote five novels as well as poetry, plays and essays, though is perhaps best known in Italy for Novale, a collection of Tozzi’s correspondence with his life-long partner Emma Palagi, collected by her after his death and supplied its curious title, a neologism, by Luigi Pirandello. And while a few of his novels have been translated into English, Love in Vain appears to be the only collection of stories available so far. It’s a pity, since Tozzi’s stories possess a freshness and contemporaneity that make them seem as though they could have been written recently, rather than 100 years ago – models of the kind of limited scope, minimalist, restrained slices of slightly distorted life to which so many writers today aspire. And in the end the tales may not be as dark as they at first seem. When in “A Miracle” the bookish main character convinces himself that “with delicious certainty, deep inside, he was a child,” we’re treated to a kind of benign lunacy, a man who revels in watching water, envisioning creatures dancing along the wind-blown grain, and in hugging trees – a solipsistic madness, true, but an affirming one.