Hinting at the Adjectival
Of course, reading Dino Buzzati, one thinks of Kafka and Borges, and we might wonder why this Italian writer born only seven years after the Argentinian, and twenty three years after Kafka, is not better known. Not only does he trail Kafka and Borges, but above all Buzzati does not quite suggest the adjective form. The Kafkaesque and the Borgesian are states of mind. The Buzzatian, brilliant though some of the stories happen to be, remains a negligible phenomenology, a relatively weak perceptual field next to Kafka's and Borges's.
It could also rest in Buzzati being but one of many Italian writers of significance coming out of, loosely, the post-war years: Moravia, Pavese, Pasolini, Primo Levi, Bassani, Calvino, Morante. This was a crowded market of talented writers, and though Buzzati has stories invoking chemical processes ('Elephantiasis'), Levi's The Periodic Table is better known. The Tartar Steppe and stories like 'Human Greatness' and 'The Quiz at the Prison' indicate the allegorical, but Calvino's Invisible Cities is again more famous.
We don't want to equate fame with quality, with even Kafka and Borges paling in the contemporary shadow of Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling, but we do want to acknowledge influence and importance. Hemingway is much more influential than Gertrude Stein, Dostoevsky than Turgenev. Part of their very fame resides in their ongoing impact on other writers, and the literature that takes shape in their wake. We wouldn't be surprised if Salman Rushdie were to say he was influenced by Calvino, that anyone writing a book on the Holocaust acknowledged Levi's key works on the subject. In this sense Buzzati seems a minor figure even in post-war Italian literature. Yet we don't want to turn this essay into a piece of evaluative ranking, but instead to understand what makes a writer important, and why it often contains a paradox. While we might frequently assume that the best writing is where the writer is least visible in the material, that the book or story holds up on its own without any bolstering from biographical breezeblock, from acquaintances with other works, in what we call major writers this often isn't so. Again, we wouldn't want to reduce this piece to a study in a writer's life all the better to 'understand' the art. This is not about shuttling back and forth between the work done and the life led, finding reason and motivation in the latter to comprehend the former. No, it is that sometimes the writer's perceptual vista is so strong and so distinctive that initially it can seem odd because the context it requires is not the context of the narrative forms and character approaches which have been utilised already, but where the writer creates new ones which could initially seem awkward. Dostoevsky can appear clumsy and melodramatic, and no doubt a lover of a good Agatha Christie thriller would despair at the plotting of Crime and Punishment where the protagonist is guilty so early on in the novel and then devotes much of his time harassing the inspector into seeing through his guilt. Yet while Christie wants to keep the reader turning the page; Dostoevsky is more interested on us musing over the page we are on, with our movements more likely to be lateral than propulsive: perhaps towards wondering what else this writer has written over what especially might be happening next. It isn't that there is no tension in Dostoevsky's novel: like Zola's Therese Raquin, even James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, it can be read as a moral thriller, with the emphasis on the moral turpitude of the character rather than the intuitions of the detective, but it is a morality especially complex and, for many, properly new. As Virginia Woolf once said: "of all the great writers there is, so it seems to us, none is quite so surprising, or bewildering, as Dostoevsky." (Books and Portraits)
Many of Buzzati's stories work well without reference to other tales, even if their meaning isn't always easy to discern. In 'The Walls of Anagoor' a native guide in Tibet offers the central character the opportunity to see the walls of the titular city. It is a city that is so obscure it isn't on any map, and though our hero thinks that the city might be a mirage created by reflections in the desert, he agrees to seek it out nevertheless. They arrive at the city with an enormous walled perimeter and perhaps a hundred gates, and outside the one they arrive at numerous people from Bedouins to beggars, veiled women to monks, wait to get in. Occasionally someone knocks on the gate but no one comes, and the narrator wonders whether the city is deserted. No, the guide insists, saying that trails of smoke indicate there are people inside. Twenty four years later the hero is still standing at the gates unable to get in, though he hears of one man managing to enter the city. The narrator's told that this man "did not know what the city of Anagoor might be, nor did he have any particular expectations about what he would find when he entered. He asked only for refuge that night. He did not know anything at all: he was there by sheer chance. Perhaps for this reason alone they opened the gate for him." Understandably this is enough for the narrator, who decides to return home, but the pilgrims waiting outside insist, "Ah, friend, how hasty you are!...what is a little patience? You expect too much from life." And there the story ends.
There are similarities here to Kafka's 'Before the Law', with the meaning, as in Kafka, remaining obscure. Yet the tale possesses enough mythic intrigue for the reader to feel that the story explores the desire for a person's curiosity to be satisfied, while someone who seeks merely shelter can walk into the city. The narrator wants to see the ancient citadel out of obscure intrigue; the traveller looks for no more than refuge for the evening. This doesn't mean that the traveller is in the right and the narrator in the wrong. It is just that the traveller goes to the city for practical reasons; the central character for mystical ones. He is initially not even sure if the city exists, and then while waiting outside the gates wonders whether or not it is inhabited. His fascination with the place rests on its mystery, not its practical function. Why should he leave now when he has devoted twenty four years of his life to its possible existence? When the pilgrims are surprised at his impatience it is presumably because if he simply wanted a place to stay, there would be many such places that would have let him in immediately. But to enter somewhere that incorporates one's life's longings, one can't simply give up out of frustration. Any city that isn't on a map represents a yearning that is not physical, and so what can he do but wait a lifetime outside the city's walls. Impatience here is leaving before one dies.
Much of Buzzati's work hovers over the problem of absence, of the significant lying in the immaterial or the delayed. The Tartar Steppe has often been compared to The Castle, with a young officer arriving at a remote border post, there to defend his country against an attack from the Tartars. No such campaign has taken place in centuries, but Giovanni Drogo is there just in case it does, no matter how unlikely. When one character talks of a colonel who believed that the remains of the Tartar army are "roaring up and down", others laugh. Yet like the central character in 'The Walls of Anagoor', Drogo is caught there for many years, becoming an old man in this place where his existence has no purpose. At least in the 'Walls of Anagoor' the narrator initially arrives in Tibet out of fascination; in The Tartar Steppe it is closer to duty, even if on the first page of the book we're told: "This was the day he had looked forward to for years - the beginning of his real life. He thought of the drab days at the Military Academy, remembered the bitter evenings spent at his books when he would hear people passing on the streets people who were free and presumably happy..." But the dutifulness of military training will be matched by the obligations involved in defending the fort. Yet for Buzzati what matters is the sense of absence.
These are stories with a Lacanian interest in the unattainable contained by the sadness of time's irrevocability. When Jacques Lacan talks of the petit objet a., "it is the expression of the lack in human beings, whose incompleteness and early helplessness produce a quest for satisfaction beyond biological needs." So says Lewis A. Kirshner in an essay on Lacan, 'Rethinking Desire: The Objet petit a in Lacanian Theory'. The traveller who walks straight into the city in 'The Walls of Anagoor' has no desire in the Lacanian sense, no interest in Anagoor serving anything other than his biological imperatives. For the narrator it is the very impossibility of fulfilment that he seems to be searching out.
If 'The Walls of Anagoor' and 'The Tartar Steppe' illustrate a writer fascinated by a desire unsatisfied, Buzzati also shows an interest in one's wildest dreams being met but at a price. In 'The Bewitched Jacket' and the 'Ubiquitous' there are characters who don't suffer the agonies of impossible hope evident in the others; they are characters instead who benefit from an abundant manifestation. In 'The Bewitched Jacket', the narrator has a suit made by a tailor who never gets round to asking for the bill, and when the narrator goes into the right jacket pocket he finds a ten thousand lire note. Every time he goes into it another ten thousand lire comes out, and when he gets home he keeps removing money from the pocket and before long amasses 58 million lire. Yet in time he notices that his fortune is another's misfortune. In a bank robbery that leads to someone's death, the sum stolen was 58 million. As he removes 135 million lire from his pocket he then hears of a terrible fire in a warehouse, with the flames consuming more than 130 million in cash. He can live with such tragedies befalling others because he believes the cause and effect is too tenuous, but when one morning they discover a sixty-year-old retired woman asphyxiated in the building in which he has lived for many years, his conscience becomes very evident indeed. She had mislaid her 30 thousand lire pension, and the money "had ended up in my hands". After burning the jacket he hopes he will be rid of it for good, but he then hears a voice telling him that it is "too late, too late." When he returns to his car afterwards, it is no longer there, his villa has disappeared, his savings accounts are empty. Yet "I know that it's still not over, I know that one day my doorbell will ring, I'll answer it and find that cursed tailor before me, with his contemptible smile, asking for the final settling of my account."
In the 'Ubiquitious', the narrator who, we find out late in the story, goes by the name of Dino Buzzati, discovers that on reading a book full of meaningless words, he stumbles across a magic formula in amongst them. "The formula need only be read aloud once for the reader to be invested with a superhuman power..." All he has to do is tell himself he would like to be somewhere else and there he is, instantly. Initially he feels empowered. He thinks about all the great scoops he could get as a journalist, the incredible access he would have. "A crisis in the Kremlin? Snap." Trouble at Liz Taylor's house? The thought was enough." But he soon discovers there isn't much he could really do with this gift. He could enter the depositories of Fort Knox but what would be the point? He has enough for his needs, and he makes money from his plays too. Sure, he could immediately find himself in a beautiful woman's bed, but that wouldn't stop her screaming for him to get out of it. After twelve days he is more scared than enthusiastic, wondering how a power like the one he possesses would be viewed by those in political control. "A gunshot in the back of the neck, or a strong dose of cyanide no one would be stopped from doing it."
In 'The Bewitched Jacket' and 'The Ubiquitous' we have metaphysical manifestation: the impossible made real. In 'The Walls of Anagoor' and The Tartar Steppe we have the real made impossible. But they all focus our attention on metaphysical questions: metaphysical in the sense that the stories possess a dimension beyond the immediate. The traveller who goes straight into Anagoor has no metaphysical problem as far as we can see: he wants food and shelter. Perhaps there is a pressing question why he is travelling that is not practical, but from the little we glean this seems not to be so. Unlike the others he isn't on any type of quest, while that is exactly what the narrator happens to be on. In The Tartar Steppe, Drogo might initially think he is fulfilling a simple task, but over time it takes on a grand metaphysical dimension. After many years at the outpost, the narrator tells us: "It was this period that Drogo realised how far apart men are whatever their affection for each other, that if you suffer the pain is yours and yours alone, no one else can take upon himself the least part of it; that you suffer does not mean that others feel pain even though their love is great: hence the loneliness of life." This is a metaphysical observation coming out of the lack of ready event in Drogo's existence. He shares similarities with his namesake: the 12th century Flemish saint who spent more than forty years alone in a cell with no human contact, supposedly surviving on barley, water and the holy Eucharist. Buzzati's Drogo isn't quite so isolated nor so obviously spiritual, but by the end of the book he can gaze at a young child and wish for a certain type of oblivion. "Drogo looked with astonishment at that wonderful sleep, so different from that of grown men, so light and so deep. In this being no disturbed dreams had yet come to life, its little soul went on its way without a care." This is a soul with no bigger questions than its own immediate contentment, but grown men cannot live like this, and whether generating practical problems that must be overcome, or confronting spiritual obstacles that present themselves, man in Buzzati's world is a creature striving. The writer is interested in showing what lies beyond such actions.
Yet earlier we insisted that Buzzati's universe is less distinctive than Kafka's and Borges's. This lies in Buzzati's skill at making myth his own, but nevertheless showing in the use of it the evidence of its source. 'The Ubiquitous' is a version of the Midas Touch, with the narrator given a great power only for it be useless, even dangerous. In 'The Bewitched Jacket', the narrator makes an unwitting pact not with the devil but with perhaps his tailor. These tales rooted in folklore gain much of their meaning not from our understanding of the Buzzatian, but our awareness of myth. This is less conventionally evident in a story like 'Elephantiasis', where the pact isn't individual but societal, and where the story does come close to a fresh phenomenology, and in 'Seven Floors' ,which manages to hint at the story of Hades while also suggesting the contemporary medicalization of death. In 'Elephantiasis' the narrator says, "It is amusing to think how long mankind has trembled with the fear of atomic destruction, while it continued to produce in always more imposing quantities (believing it was dealing with something innocent) what today, in the year 2007 [the story was written in 1971], is monstrously threatening its very existence." This is the problem of plastics, with "polymers and analogous substances which could replace iron, wood, leather, cloth, ceramics, and glass, and which in fact proved to be even more practical and advantageous in use." Here is a chemical substance as durable object, but Buzzati wonders how we can so readily trust in the fixity of a process that is based on chemical experimentation. The story was written at a time when nuclear annihilation was very much on people's minds. The cold war was still at its height and the memory of the Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba still fresh. Nuclear annihilation was a vivid fear, but Buzzati suggests plastics is its far from benign chemical inversion.
Of course writers and theorists were wary of the absorption of plastic into our culture, and Roland Barthes for one wrote an essay on 'Toys' contrasting the hard, compact plastic toy with its wooden equivalent that was soft and quiet, pointing up the different ways in which they die. Wood is an object for all of time, he reckons, where plastic lacks its own essence. "Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature." (Mythologies) Buzzati literally expands such observations into a dystopian tale of plastic's shape-shifting possibilities. As it becomes more and more utilised, so at a certain point it takes on its own chemical life. "Last February 12th, in broad daylight, on the superhighway between Sasso Marconi and Pian del Voglio, a car made by the Byas Company, famous, it should be noted, for the sturdiness of its plastic body under any test, instantly swelled while it was proceeding at more than 110 kilometers per hour." It creates a huge car crash which results in four deaths. Elsewhere he comments: "As is easy to imagine, the situation of everyone whose internal organs or bones have been replaced with plastic facsimiles is extremely painful. In Milan alone, they number over fifty thousand. Without advance warning of any kind, those artificial organs swell enormously in the space of a few brief seconds, tearing apart the wretched people from the inside out."
This is one of Buzzati's finest stories: he discovers a modern phenomenology for his conceit, just as Kafka and Borges would so often do. Where wonderful tales like 'The Ubiquitous' and 'The Bewitched Jacket' feel like they are seeking ancient truths and simply updating them with a twist, 'Elephantiasis' generates a very distinctive and particular dystopia based on a substance that was prominently on people's minds and increasingly evident in people's homes. Think of the moment in The Graduate where Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) is taken to one side and the avuncular figure advises Ben on his future: "Plastics: there is a great future in plastics. Think about it." It is a cult scene in a film that captures well the paradoxical plasticity of a culture where everything becomes hard and shiny. Buzzati however indicates its capacity for shape-shifting. Like Borges's 'The Lottery of Babylon' it shows what happens when the optimistic becomes the pessimistic. This doesn't result in the affirmation of Ancient Wisdom (as the 'Ubiquitous' echoes the Midas Touch for example), but speculates on the false consciousness of the modern. Where Borges anticipates the lack available in gambling only to show that it can be used negatively as well as positively, Buzzati illustrates the plastic culture as a societal gift gone wrong. Borges offers a story where initially the lottery is based on choosing to enter and gaining a sum of money if you are lucky enough to win. Later it becomes compulsory and there are not only rewards but punishments too. Like many modern versions of the lottery that might remain voluntary, they nevertheless have a dimension of the indirectly mandatory. Often referred to as an indirect tax on the poor, national lotteries allow for the funding of the arts, but also cutbacks as a consequence of this new form of funding that is based on the poor's contribution, a contribution that becomes increasingly necessary as hope doesn't reside in a redistributive tax system that creates optimism for a generation, but instead on the luck of the draw as the poor waste money on the slimmest of chances in individual gain. Borges's story anticipates this feeling of the lottery as false chance. Buzzati's also emphasises what seems like a bright future, but explores the negative consequences. Both are properly "imaginations of disaster", to use Susan Sontag's phrase.
"Such molecules were in turn regrouped in complicated systems..." Buzzati writes, "the variety of ingenious combinations had no limits. And it seemed to inaugurate a new, auspicious era." Like much science fiction, Borges and Buzzati offer not the fiction of the auspicious, but the fiction of the suspicious, and while we may note that Buzzati is finally saying don't mess with nature, it seems even more that he is interested in musing over the falsely utopian. This isn't much of an achievement in itself (as we've suggested, doesn't most sci-fi?), but Buzzati manages to make us see an aspect of our everyday lives in a distinctly original way. Where many fear nuclear annihilation, there is consequently very little imaginative work required to prey on our fears, but to turn plastics into such a terror requires the aesthetically imaginative. When he describes a table shrinking he does so thus: "Having come to do the cleaning one morning, the usual workers found, in place of the table, a kind of ball, slightly larger than an ordinary boccia ball, the same color as the table...for unknown reasons the equilibrium of the molecules, artificially joined among themselves in a dizzying play of relations, was broken. The material of the table then rapidly contracted, reducing itself to its smallest dimensions." Such shrinking of objects is merely inexplicable, and uncanny, but the expansion of objects by a similar chemical process is horrific and tragic, and again requires a strong creative imagination. "Imagine that your child's doll grew beyond measure, reaching the size of an elephant. The chair, television set, refrigerator, window frames, elevator car all swell in proportion. Families are compelled to leave their houses, invaded by these terrifying things."
'Seven Floors' isn't quite as brilliant, but it manages to combine ancient thoughts with modern worries. Here the central character Giovanni Corte checks himself into a well-known sanatorium, especially given to care for the illness he has. The building is on seven floors and each floor is clearly demarcated according to the severity of the disease. Floor seven is for the least serious cases; all the way down to the first floor where people are basically awaiting death. Corte initially starts on floor seven and never expects to go any lower: after all his is a minor condition, easily cured. But then he is asked to drop a floor to create some space for a woman and her children. It would be a temporary arrangement the nurses insist, nothing to do with his illness, and he'll soon be back on the seventh. Yet this doesn't happen, and after a while he is moved down again, and again, on various pretexts that appear to have nothing to do with the severity of his condition. The story is good on euphemism, medical demarcation and even the possibility that once in hospital you are unlikely to get out alive. Here is a man fretting whether he'll end up in the underworld, but this isn't simply a place of the dead, but part of a high-rise culture that clearly differentiates one stage of disease from the next. It is, like 'Elephantiasis', a fine story that plays on contemporary fears without being simply modish.
Nevertheless while this is impressive, speculative writing in one sense and reveals a vivid mind at work, it remains impersonal in another. Where Borges and especially Kafka create worlds out of an intensive void that leads to the Kafkaesque and the Borgesian, Buzzati's is much more perceptually tentative: the imagination doesn't quite generate a vision. A writer like George Orwell can help us here in possessing what we could call an 'aphenomenological' perspective. The vision in 1984 and Animal Farm is vivid enough for us to use the term Orwellian, but not quite perceptually distinctive enough to allow us to feel the vibrations of a writer's ontological solitude. In 'Borges and I' Borges writes: "I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary", later adding, "I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar." This 341 word story ends: "I do not know which of us has written this page." Here Borges concludes on self-doubt as doubt of the self, just as Kafka's 'Metamorphosis' or 'The Hunger Artist' incorporates within the story the vulnerability of perspective, the sort of vulnerability Camus proposed in Sartre's first novel Nausea. "So natural a suppleness in staying on the far boundaries of conscious thought, so painful a lucidity, are indications of limitless gifts." Orwell's vision of the world concerns itself not with such perceptual boundaries, but instead social dead centres that demand a socio-political interpretation so evident in his wonderful, often tetchy essays. Orwell is not a writer of self-doubt, evident in his essay on 'The English People' "It is universally agreed that the working classes are far more moral than the upper classes..." "In the matter of drink, the only result of a century of 'temperance' agitation has been a slight increase in hypocrisy." Orwell does arrive at the adjective form but remains aphenomenological: even in his fiction that shows a dystopian vision he,unlike Kafka and Borges, does not quite indicate a fresh perceptual vista. This helps account for the numerous blunt statements in Orwell's work that we would never find in Kafka's. Compare Orwell's remarks to a Kafka statement like this: "I was wise, if you like because I was prepared for death at any moment, but not because I had taken care of everything that was given to me to do, rather because I had done none of it and could not even hope ever to do any of it." (The Diaries)
Buzzati isn't as direct a writer as Orwell, and obviously nowhere near as influential, but if we find him so pleasurable to read and yet not always as memorable as Borges and Kafka, perhaps it lies in a retreat from the perceptually self-exploratory, a frequent acceptance of myths that are already in place, and a predictive dimension that while on occasion evident (as in 'Elephantiasis') doesn't quite impact on the culture to generate the Buzzatian. When we read, say, J. G. Ballard, over numerous novels and many stories Ballard hammers away at certain preoccupations that generates a Ballardian view of the world, and though Ballard's narrative voice is often aloof and the characters curiously emptied out, the perceptual vulnerability is frequently there along with a contempt for the perceptual norm. "The bogus commiseration over the dead man irritated me, merely an exercise in moral gymnastics. The brusqueness of the young nurses was part of the same pantomime of regret. I had thought for hours about the dead man, visualizing the effects of his death on his wife and family." This isn't quite so in Buzzati's tales, and yet they are still frequently metaphysical explorations of desires that can't quite be met, a comprehension of absence that is part of the human condition. He is an impressive writer who shouldn't be forgotten, but cannot expect to be recalled in the same breath as the two masters he sometimes brings to mind, and who neither quite possesses the force of Orwell or the consistent suggestiveness of Ballard to invoke a term affiliated with his name.
© Tony McKibbin