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That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana 
by Carlo Emilio Gadda, translated by William Weaver.
NYRB, 388 pp., £8.99, February 2007, 978 1 59017 222 3
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Despite his eighty years (1893-1973) and many publications, an air of incompletion lingers about the work of Carlo Emilio Gadda. His most popular novel, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, is an unfinished murder story. His best work, Acquainted with Grief, is again unfinished and again leaves us with an unsolved crime (in this case we are not even sure whether the victim will die or not). Many of Gadda’s shorter pieces turn out to be fragments of unfinished novels, or of almost finished novels that he broke up into fragments, a habit which has prompted critics and editors to spend a lot of time reconstructing possible novels, always unfinished, from the various parts.

This perhaps wilful incompletion (his two best-known novels, according to Italo Calvino, ‘seem to need only a few more pages to reach their conclusions’) goes with a confusion as to the chronology of composition and a concern that the version we hold in our hands is not definitive. First published in book form in 1963, Acquainted with Grief, or early parts of it, had appeared in the magazine Letteratura more than twenty years earlier, while another edition with two entirely new chapters appeared in 1970. That Awful Mess was published in instalments in 1946 and 1947 and then in a much longer book version (but with one crucial chapter now omitted) in 1957. Gadda also wrote a film treatment in which the murder was solved, but it was not used for the film that was actually made, in which the murder was solved differently. From time to time Gadda would promise a second volume of further investigations with a definitive solution. It never appeared.

In short, at a time when traditional realist fiction in Italy was producing some of its most finely crafted and ‘professional’ achievements (in the novels of Moravia, Pavese, Pasolini and many others), Gadda’s writing remained an open workshop where nothing was ever quite put down or properly wrapped up. It’s not surprising that he was taken as a model by the avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s, when notions of the ‘open text’ were in vogue. Still, his work is as far from that avant-garde as it is from the writing of Joyce, to whom enthusiasts are often eager to compare him. Better to say that failure and incompletion are central themes in Gadda’s writing because the problem of how to engage fruitfully with the world was a constant source of anxiety for him.

Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana is the Italian title of the novel that would finally make Gadda famous (he was over sixty when the book version was published). A pasticcio is a ‘mess’, in the sense of a heterogeneous combination of things – un pasticcio di lasagna for example, pasta and meat – but usually with the negative connotation of something badly organised or muddled, so pasticcio is often collocated with brutto: an ‘ugly mess’, or a ‘nasty mess’. The suffix accio adds a further negative and colloquial tone, and makes the word quite a mouthful. Quer (instead of the standard quel, meaning ‘that’) announces that the novel will be mostly written in Roman dialect, which is confirmed by de instead of di. The title thus sets us up for an onslaught of the demotic and confused.

Francesco Ingravallo, a homicide detective, is overweight, like Gadda, of restricted means, like Gadda, single, like Gadda, and, like Gadda, a lover of philosophy, obscure vocabulary, good food and after-lunch naps. What’s more, he has a theory: ‘Unforeseen catastrophes are never the consequence … of a single motive, of a cause singular; but they are rather like a whirlpool, a cyclonic point of depression in the consciousness of the world, towards which a whole multitude of converging causes have contributed.’ Ingravallo thinks of crimes in terms of ‘words like knot or tangle, or muddle, or gnommero, which in Roman dialect means skein’. ‘“If they call me, you can be sure that there’s trouble: some mess, some gliuommero to untangle,” he would say, garbling his Italian with the dialects of Naples and the Molise.’

In the space of a few lines, Gadda has managed to spell the same word two different ways (gnommero, gliuommero). Throughout the book, many words, especially names, will get the same treatment: language is vital and messy and has only an uneasy hold over the muddled world it purports to represent. At the same time, the ideas of mess and tangle will be foregrounded in every possible way: the crime that drives the story is a tangle of two crimes; the condominium in which it takes place is a hotchpotch of people of different social classes from different parts of Italy and speaking different dialects; the murdered woman’s family connections are bewildering, while the lives of the suspects are spectacularly tangled in ways guaranteed to confuse. The separate investigative forces of polizia and carabinieri muddle along in streets crammed with people, animals, food, refuse, excrement. Every space is packed, every shelf and drawer is overflowing with bric-a-brac, every lexical field is brought into play in a mill of high and low, modern and archaic, domestic and technical registers. Hair is tangled, clothes are mismatched: bodies, especially women’s bodies, present strange combinations of contrasting features, of attractive forms and repulsive smells. Crucial conversations are drowned out by background noise; telephone wires are crossed; promising lines of questioning are disrupted by unpleasant odours. Truth messes with falsehood, fantasy with reality, neologisms with misspellings, history with myth, country with city. If Ingravallo has been invited to sort out the worst of tangles, everything about Gadda’s book declares the task impossible. Successful completion of the murder investigation is as unlikely as the discovery of a literary style or structure that might contain and possess the unruly world. Ingravallo never manages even to finish a cigarette.

But above all, the life and emotions of the detective are tangled with those of the victim. No sooner has Ingravallo been introduced than we find him at Sunday lunch with Liliana Balducci and her husband, Remo. Childless, the beautiful, now mature Liliana is obsessed by the desire to have not, as one would expect in a still patriarchal Italy (the story is set in 1927), a son, but a daughter. She has taken to ‘adopting’ a string of ‘nieces’, poor girls from the country who invariably disappoint and have to be sent away and replaced. ‘Yes,’ thinks Ingravallo, ‘behind that noun “niece” there must be hidden a whole tangle … of threads, a cobweb of feelings, of the rarest and most … delicate nature.’

Ingravallo is erotically drawn to Liliana’s ‘nieces’ and the family’s voluptuous maid, yet he has a special affinity with Liliana herself, whose thwarted craving for a daughter has the same quality and intensity as his frustrated yearning for a woman. The reader understands immediately that Ingravallo will be making no approaches to any of these women. ‘He had to repress, repress, assisted in this harsh necessity by the noble melancholy of Signora Liliana.’ Why Ingravallo is bound to repress, why Gadda himself was so painfully shy with women, we do not know, but it is here that the book establishes its emotional urgency.

In the earlier version of the novel, Liliana had had a lesbian relationship with one ‘niece’, who had then had an affair with her husband to blackmail him. The introductions to many editions of the book mention this episode, so that these relationships hover over the text as intriguing possibilities, reminders of the remark that closes Ingravallo’s theory of multiple causes: ‘You’re sure to find skirts where you don’t want to find them.’ Behind every tangle lurks the prime mover of eroticism. An Awful Mess is drenched in sexual innuendo, much of it of an infantile, often morbid nature, as though produced by someone excluded from active sexual life but forever contemplating it with a mixture – or pasticcio – of excitement and disgust.

The widow who lives opposite Liliana on the third floor of the condominium opens her door to a young man who claims to have come to fix the radiators; he robs her of her jewels. The condominium is notorious for being home to a number of rich families. Before knocking on the widow’s door the criminal appears to have knocked on Liliana’s, but she didn’t open it. Ingravallo finds a discarded tram ticket that will lead to an underworld of pimps, gigolos and brothels. Only three days later, however, Liliana is found stabbed to death in her flat. Her jewels have gone. Ingravallo’s horrified impression of the body is one of the book’s major set pieces:

The body of the poor signora was lying in an infamous position, supine, the grey wool skirt and a white petticoat thrown back, almost to her breast: as if someone had wanted to uncover the fascinating whiteness of that dessous, or inquire into its state of cleanliness. She was wearing white underpants, of elegant jersey, very fine, which ended halfway down the thighs with a delicate edging. Between the edging and the stockings, which were a light-shaded silk, the extreme whiteness of the flesh lay naked, of a chlorotic pallor: those two thighs, slightly parted, on which the garters – a lilac hue – seemed to confer a distinction of rank, had lost their tepid sense, were already becoming used to the chill.

This macabre description goes on for two more pages, repeatedly returning to the victim’s garters and stockings, to ‘those legs slightly spread, as if in horrible invitation’, to ‘the furrow of the sex’. ‘It was like being at Ostia,’ Ingravallo reflects, ‘in the summer … when the girls are lying on the sand baking themselves, when they let you glimpse whatever they want.’

For the rest of the book, the vision of the dead Liliana constitutes a limit experience for the detective, as if sexual longing were now irretrievably equated with violent death and hence blocked for ever. As so often in Gadda’s work, attraction and repulsion are superimposed. And we are reminded of a curious detail: when Ingravallo arrived at the victim’s house for lunch, he was greeted by ‘Lulu, the little Pekinese bitch, a ball of fluff’, who first barked quite angrily then sniffed and licked at his shoes. ‘The vitality of those little monsters is incredible,’ Gadda says (something that is true of the whole world as he describes it). And he adds: ‘You feel like petting them, then stamping them.’ The two verbs used in Italian, accarezzare and acciaccare, are so similar in rhythm and sound as to suggest equivalent responses, as if there were little difference between petting and stamping. Ingravallo does neither: repressing both caresses and violence, he investigates.

Common sense would suggest a single hand behind both crimes. Yet although Ingravallo gets his underlings to continue the inquiries prompted by the dropped tram ticket, all his emotional energy is directed towards a ferocious questioning of Liliana’s second cousin, Giuliano, a young womaniser who was first on the scene and whom the detective at once suspects of being Liliana’s lover and killer. Liliana’s husband, away on business at the time of the murder, will also be aggressively interrogated, particularly about his sexual habits. After all, Ingravallo reflects, the husband’s passion is hunting; he thinks of life in terms of prey and victim.

The theme of muddle and multiple causes, so determinedly announced in the opening pages and usually taken to be the intellectual core of the book, is really something of a red herring. A more important question is: how can Ingravallo get involved in life’s tangle when everyone who does so seems to him a potential murderer? When he first meets the second cousin (before the crime is committed), we are told that he is frequently possessed by ‘a kind of prickly jealousy towards the young, especially towards handsome young men, and even more so, the sons of the rich’. When he imagines that the cousin is courting Liliana in return for money, ‘the thought infuriated him: with a secret, dissimulated fury.’

There is a curious irony to these passages. Set in 1927 and begun shortly after the Second World War, That Awful Mess contains a lot of anti-Fascist satire which has always been much appreciated and has given the book, despite its creeping misogyny and occasional racism, a political passe-partout. Calvino went so far as to credit Gadda with ‘a minute, extensive analysis of the effects on the daily administration of justice’ caused by Fascism’s ‘failure to respect the separation of powers’. Readers will struggle to find such a careful analysis; besides which, in Italy, a failure to observe Montesquieu’s ideal separation of powers can hardly be considered a prerogative of the Fascist regime. What is clear is that the violently disparaging terms in which Ingravallo thinks of Mussolini – ‘Death’s Head’, ‘Fierce-Face’, ‘the Autarch Jawbone’ – are entirely in line with his reaction to Liliana’s cousin, her husband, and indeed to any man who imposes himself on the world in response to ‘the dirty tension that compels him to action’. Meanwhile, although we are assured that Ingravallo’s knee-jerk reaction to handsome young men ‘would never have influenced his behaviour as a police officer’, this is exactly what happens. The detective imprisons three men on the slenderest of suspicions, in all cases in response to their sexuality. If there is any danger of a miscarriage of justice, it comes from Ingravallo, not Mussolini.

Unable to solve the crime, Ingravallo alternates between somnolence and frustration, which he vents in questioning as aggressive as it is fruitless. Liliana, it turns out, had vented her frustrations by writing and rewriting her will. In line with the book’s general pasticcio, this document is produced by an ambiguous priest, guaranteed authentic in a telephone conversation with a deaf lawyer and read out to oddly assorted witnesses by a Neapolitan police chief whose mellifluous accent and baritone voice profoundly condition the reactions of all present. As Ingravallo listens to Liliana’s eccentric instructions for the disposal of her belongings (and since the will was revised only two months before the murder, it is as if she had foreseen her death), he speculates that, denied motherhood, she became possessed by a death wish, like a flower ‘giving her petals to the wind’, and looked forward to ‘the unknown liberty of not being’. Ingravallo himself is clearly no stranger to such feelings. Even more evidently, he is not interested in a solution to the murder that does not put it in relation to Liliana’s (and his own) profound emotional turmoil.

But it is the lead provided by the tram ticket that yields results, apparently confirming that the crimes are the work of a common jewel thief. As That Awful Mess proceeds with extravagant caricatures, elaborate set pieces and Shandyesque digressions, a certain circularity establishes itself. From moments of high tension that see Ingravallo raging with grief and frustration, we move into more relaxed and comic territory, where the policeman’s – and Gadda’s – encyclopedic grasp of history and myth, together with an extraordinary linguistic prowess, create an aura of control and power. But then some reference will bring us back to the sources of tension in the detective’s life, and that control is threatened. At one point, for example, in a hilarious description of the priest to whom Liliana consigned her will, we discover that his shoes ‘priapated’ from beneath his cassock. Immediately and absurdly, Ingravallo is suspecting a relationship between Liliana and her confessor.

So long as this oscillation between anxiety and sublimation is kept tight, the book is impressive. But in the second half Gadda allows his alter ego to drop out of the story for long periods as he plays with the comedy of lower-level officers chasing the jewel thief through out-of-town brothels. Packed though it is with word-play and innuendo, galleries of grotesques and vivid descriptions of everything seamy and malodorous, this part of the book lacks urgency and soon begins to irritate.

The widow’s jewels are eventually found in a whore’s chamberpot. Curiously, the policeman who makes the discovery does not check whether any of Liliana’s jewels are among them, leaving Ingravallo free to go on believing that her murderer is someone intimately involved in her life; the detective returns in the final pages for one last furious questioning of the pretty maid who served at Liliana’s Sunday lunch in the book’s opening scenes. Again beauty and death are superimposed, as the girl is questioned in the presence of her dying, perhaps already decomposing, father. Despite the girl’s distress, Ingravallo’s approach is ruthless, but it gets him nowhere. It is as if he, and Gadda, were demanding that the exuberant world of living, loving and dying confess its guilty secrets, instead of constantly playing dumb and eluding him. At this point any actual solution to the crime could only be an anticlimax, and Gadda wisely and abruptly breaks off his narrative.

The decision to abandon Ingravallo for so many pages in the second half of That Awful Mess is a reminder that Gadda started writing the novel after abandoning another work and another alter ego. Acquainted with Grief is blatantly autobiographical and free of any of the distractions of genre fiction or elaborate plotting. In a fictitious South American state, more or less identical to the Milanese hinterland where Gadda grew up, Don Gonzalo lives in a country villa with his mother (as Gadda did for many years). The comic social satire of the opening pages once again establishes a world so corrupt and grotesque that involvement in it could only be demeaning. Almost always designated as ‘the son’, as though to remind us that even in early middle age he exists primarily in relation to his mother, we hear nothing of Don Gonzalo’s job (only that, like Gadda, he is an engineer) and very little of his solitary studies in philosophy, which seem entirely detached from reality. The drama of the book lies in the son’s extremely aggressive behaviour towards his mother, prompted by her relaxed openness to the world. She chatters to filthy peasants, gives French lessons to a local colonel’s moronic son, and buys poor quality produce from pushy itinerant salesmen: he demands that she conserve her dwindling energy and the family money, a veiled protest that none of her attention seems to go his way.

The book takes place in summer. Seething with light and buzzing with cicadas, the vitality of the countryside contrasts with the dark of the shuttered villa and the son’s growing and dangerous depression. An immensely long scene in which a well-meaning doctor seeks to cheer him up with the prospect of meeting one of his five marriageable daughters looks forward to some of the best work of the early Thomas Bernhard and must be among the most powerful passages in 20th-century Italian fiction. As the narrative moves through one painful revelation after another towards a truly ugly dénouement, it is not difficult to understand why Gadda put this book aside for many years and why, when he did take it up again, he decided to leave it unclear exactly how it is that the mother ends up beaten almost to death in her bed. The failure to close the narrative matches the son’s failure, which he acknowledges, to ‘establish a relationship between himself and his fellow citizens’.

On rereading these two books it seems clear that any attempt to establish a readership for Gadda in the English-speaking world must begin with Acquainted with Grief. Not only does much of the comedy of That Awful Mess seem outdated today, but it depends heavily on Gadda’s dense pastiche of dialects and rhetorical styles. To the Italian reader these provide constant if arduous amusement and create an intriguing tension between the pleasures of language and the grossness of the world it is obliged to describe. William Weaver has written convincingly of the problems of translating Gadda, but his 1965 version, reprinted in this new edition, never begins to solve them. It’s full of false or inappropriate cognates (e.g. the unhappy use of ‘infamous’ and ‘sex’ in the passage describing Liliana’s corpse) and has a tendency to follow Italian syntax with scant respect for the rhythms and habits of English prosody, present or past. True, Gadda’s style is very strange and a challenge that most translators would be glad to pass up, but in so far as it is a play of different voices there is no chance of arriving at a satisfactory equivalent if even the most ordinary sentence in Gadda’s Italian becomes extraordinary in English. Of a woman suffering from the cold, Weaver writes: ‘There wasn’t, in her lap, but she would have liked it, the earthenware brazier.’ Of a carabiniere admiring a superior’s intuition: ‘If only he, Pestalozzi, in time, could succeed in having a scent like that!’ A commonplace bureaucratic Italian expression for a phonecall, una communicazione telefonica, becomes ‘a telephonic communication’.

Occasional instances of this kind of translationese would hardly be noticed, but they are wearisomely frequent. Sometimes they make the English incomprehensible. But most of all, this clumsiness prevents the reader from experiencing the paradox at the heart of Gadda’s work: that his achievement in evoking a chaotic world is simultaneously a declaration of his disinclination and perhaps inability to enter into a direct relationship with it. As with the two crimes of That Awful Mess, there appear to be two contiguous worlds, one inside Gadda’s mind and one outside, two worlds that must somehow connect, but never quite do, unless in the extraordinary pasticcio of the author’s style.

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