The Subject Slipping Away
If Tomasso Landolfi is rather less well known than any number of other Italian post-war writers (Cesare Pavese, Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino and Primo Levi for example), he has only himself to blame, or others to thank. He successfully remained for most of his life out of the limelight, as if shade was a necessary aspect of the work - that creativity, like vampirism, benefits from darkness. Even moonlight is a bit much for the main characters in the short story 'The Werewolf'. "My friend and I cannot bear the moon: in her light, the deformed dead rise from their graves, especially women swathed in white shrouds; the air thickens with greenish shadows and sometimes with a sinister yellow smoke." Born into a wealthy family in Pico in 1908, Landolfi never had to work, but as with many a lucky soul who has no need to earn money from the sweat of their brow, he managed instead to concentrate on the high brow: to focus on literature and translation, translating Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoesvky. This would give us some idea of his influences, and there is indeed a 19th-century aspect to Landolfi, and how better to remain obscure than by writing outside one's time? Yet there is also an interest in and attention to language that would appear very much 20th century, taking into account the importance of linguistics on literature in the century in which he was born, with the immense influence of Benveniste and Saussure, as well as Wittgenstein in philosophy, Joyce in literature. As the Centre of Modern Studies at the University of York puts it: "the first half of the twentieth century witnessed an explosion of interest in questions of language. Linguistics came of age as a discipline, and linguistic ideas and approaches came to permeate many other disciplines." ('Linguistic Turns in the Twentieth Century')
Calvino makes much of this in his introduction to Landolfi's stories, Words in Commotion. "Take an emblematic text like 'la passeggiata" he says. "The sentences are constructed from incomprehensible nouns and verbs, much like [albeit 19th century] Lewis Carroll's experimental 'Jabberwocky', in which words from an invented lexicon have make-believe meanings." However, the words can indeed be found if someone searches through a good old Italian-language dictionary, making the work not at all meaningless but full of meaning, yet of a quite contrary kind. Rather than writing using new and fashionable words that would allow the work to seem modern and contemporary, Landolfi was inclined to do the opposite, finding a linguistic equivalent to the obscurity he sought in his personal life. By using a lot of fashionable words a writer can make his work appeal more easily to the reader, with words like cool, selfies, boundaries, booty calls taking care of the fashionable, while Facebook, Tinder, Skype and Twitter focus the mind on the technologically social aspects of the day. Writers might want to resist such neologisms in concrete and abstract form, aware that while finding a reader today they could lose the reader of tomorrow, who sees in such language an all too intentional periodization that turns the book nevertheless into an accidental period piece.
But what of a writer doing the opposite: keeping his readership to a minimum and utilising obscure words to remain in a state of literary anonymity? Calvino sees in Landolfi a fascinating narcissism. "Landolfi's relationship to himself, if one traces it through his writing, reveals an egotism of the most complex and contradictory nature." Perhaps using language that to a contemporary audience would seem not even outdated but so little known that it passes for nonsense, was a way of protecting himself from the simplification of that complex personality. Fame is in some ways a means by which to allow others to iron out one's contradictions. It isn't only a means by which one might be loved by many, but also an opportunity for a myriad self to take on a concrete form. From Picasso to Hemingway, from Kerouac to Pollock, fame can give to the artist an impression of himself from an impression of the world. This is why so often the famous play up a version of themselves. In an essay in The Atlantic Monthly, Edmund Wilson talked about Hemingway focusing too much of his attention on his public character, emphasising his physical similarities to Clark Gable and his outdoor pursuits. "Occupied with building his public personality..." Hemingway had "becomes his own worst invented character." By contrast, we might think of Landolfi's claim, in his pseudo-diary from 1951: "could I ever really write at random and without design, thus glimpsing the chaos, the disorder in my own depths?" It is a passage quoted by Calvino in his introduction and the antithesis to Wilson's remark on Hemingway. One of the advantages of remaining little known is that you embark on the death of the author as existential fact: one insists that there is nothing outside of the text because there is no biography to which it can easily be attached.
We are of course invoking Roland Barthes' well-known essay from the late sixties, 'The Death of the Author', but we can also think of a passage from Milan Kundera's essay collection, The Curtain, and Borges' short story 'Borges and I'. Barthes discusses a passage from Balzac and wonders whose opinion is being expressed. "Is it Balzac the author professing 'literary' ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost..." This loss, however, is often recovered in suspect terms, antithetical to literary creation and the reader's imagination. In a micro-essay 'They Killed my Albertine', Kundera discusses various Czech poets who knew Proust's work but didn't know anything about his biography, and Kundera was taken by an Ivan Blatny poem with its line 'Albertine, you'. For years Kundera was happy projecting onto this poem out of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, until he was informed that Albertine was, in fact, Albert - that Proust had been inspired by a man he happened to be in love with. Something was quietly ruined for Kundera, and he ends the piece by quoting Flaubert: "the artist must make posterity believe he never lived." A great claim that few writers would wish for let alone attempt, but Landolfi would seem to have been one of them, as if wary of the horrible schizophrenia of the author and the self. 'Borges and I', opens with the narrator saying, "the other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happened to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate..." the story ends "I do not know which of us has written this page."
We are perhaps catching ourselves in a paradox here. We want to discuss the importance of the writer's work over their life and have succeeded in mainly talking about the latter over the former, or at the very least have all but ignored the former while trying to deal with the problematic of the latter. Yet our interest is not at all an explication of the text, nor is it an examination of the life (of which very little is known), but closer to what Maurice Blanchot would call the literary space - the space in which literature exists. This is neither the text as such nor the biography either, but instead, a liminal territory in which we think less of The Trial and The Castle than the Kafkaesque, less In Search of Lost Time than the Proustian. In this sense the writer resists succumbing to their biography (as Wilson proposed Hemingway was increasingly doing), nor tries to hide oneself in the work (as Flaubert suggests), but exist in a milieu that is the 'literary'. If we are too concerned with the visibility of the writer ('what a fascinating life') or the invisibility of the text ('I lost myself in the book') we are not quite accessing the space of literature.
In 'Reading Kafka', Blanchot says "Kafka wanted only to be a writer. The Diaries show us, but the Diaries succeed in making us see in Kafka something more than a writer...what is strange about books like The Trial and The Castle is that they send us back endlessly to a truth outside of literature, while we begin to betray that truth as soon as it draws us away from literature, with which, however, it cannot be confused." It cannot be confused in the sense that anybody looking for the ideas in Kafka's work, or the meaning of it, cannot easily extract it from the books, which are embedded within neither the story nor within Kafka. We understand them through the Kafkaesque, through reading the work, exploring the Diaries, through reading the letters to Felice and Milena. We absorb ourselves in the work rather than finding ourselves digging out of it the meaning. The literary space wouldn't ignore anything outside the text (that we can only read The Trial on the basis of what is on the page), but it wouldn't expect an explanation of the text through the life either. It must remain liminal.
How does this work in the context of Landolfi's stories collected in Words in Commotion? Even if we happen to read no more than this collection, even if we have very little information on Landolfi's life, we are nevertheless inclined to read them in a 'modern' way, and by this we mean as neither pure fiction nor as tales that can find their meaning in an author's existence. If Michel Foucault noted in 'What is an Author?' that traditionally the author function was secondary to the fable or tale itself, then Barthes in 'The Death of the Author' suggests that in more contemporary fiction the author's biography is pronounced as if in justification of a principle of meaning that somehow contains the meanings of the text, one that wasn't important in fables, fairy tales and parables. Whether it is the Grimm brothers or Perrault what matters most is the fairy tale, not the teller. But in Proust, Kafka, and Woolf, the story is no longer so central and much of the meaning gets read through the life - hence Kundera's remark about Albertine. The biographical becomes all the more pronounced as the meaning of the work becomes harder to ascertain, so far away has it moved from conventional fable and fairy tale.
What we want to do though is look not at the story nor at Landolfi but instead at 'Landolfi' - the sensibility of the writer that allows us to more or less ignore the life and nevertheless create a cluster of meaning around his name. What we have is an obsessive writer, someone for whom jealousy, paranoia, self-absorption and anxiety define the self. We have the sort of figure for whom despair can turn to misery, disaster to dismay. In 'The Labrenas', for example, the narrator starts by telling us about his horror of the titular creature he describes as "no more than a common gecko...: I have always felt profound disgust and nausea, revulsion in every living cell in my body, tremors in my innermost fibers for this most innocuous of creatures." But if being touched by such a creature is unimaginable, then when the narrator finally comes into terrifying contact with the creature he is so immobilized that everyone assumes he is dead, and then a new horror presents itself as he is to be buried alive. In his state of immobility he seems a corpse and watches as a man announces his long-term affection towards the narrator's wife, feelings that he can finally now declare that the husband is dead. The wife resists the advances, but now the narrator has jealousy to put alongside his impending burial. Managing eventually to let out a response that makes it clear he is still alive, the initial happiness gives way to anxiety as he frets over his wife's possible affections for another man. It also doesn't help when he goes to the doctor asking what might have been the cause of his paralysis and leaves feeling that the doctor thinks he is a madman asking too many questions. By the end of the story, he thinks everything is some kind of plot as the story concludes with the words "My God. Save me."
In 'Two Wakes' the narrator's wife is about to buried and he muses over various things, including the "revolting pain we suffer as human beings". If there is a fate worse than death, it is life. If there are eternal optimists who believe in the immortality of the soul, then there are writers like Landolfi whose work indicates that he believes in the misery of the mortal self. As the narrator says in 'The Provincial Night': "Now do you have any idea what an evening in such a place is like? I mean when the townsfolk, perhaps even the town secretary and the provincial doctor, gather in one of those hovels to kill time as best they can?" There is a long and illustrious history of pessimistic literature, but often the writer is fantastically despairing or existentially misanthropic. A writer like Poe fears the worst; someone like Thomas Bernhard expects the worst. Poe will worry about being buried alive literally; Bernhard metaphorically. Landolfi's work combines the two. It is both fearful and anxious if we see that the former addresses tangible horrors and the latter personal preoccupations. 'The Labrenas' reads a lot like a fearful Poe story but ends on an anxious note that suggests being buried alive is only the second worst thing that could happen to a human being.
"The truth is that the spirit must lie in chains, regardless of who forges them", Landolfi says in his diary - a pessimistic version of Rousseau's insistence that man is born free but is everywhere in chains. In the diary, Landolfi also talks about chance, saying "something that happens is not necessarily casual - we should be able to confirm this beyond a shadow of a doubt, although it is not so easy and it may be impossible to demonstrate such a fact. But somebody invented chance and everyone believes and accepts it: even those who attempt to refute it as an ordering or disordering principle of the universe are thus implicitly admitting to its existence every minute of the day." If the former remark helps explain Landolfi's pessimism, the latter might say something about art as a working method. It is perhaps more than most an endeavour that blends chance with intention, and finds the intention in chance. An engineer building a bridge does not deal in chance, they deal in probabilities to the point of certainty. They must know exactly how much weight the bridge can handle; they cannot rely on chance and hope a heavy-duty vehicle can cross it. At the other extreme, we have sport: who would watch a game of tennis or a game of football if the result was inevitable? No matter how likely it will be for Federer to win or Germany to be victorious, one watches on the basis that the outcome isn't predictable, just as we cross the bridge with the need to believe it is.
Is art a combination of engineering and sport: a mixture of deliberation and the contingent? Let us not overly simplify and, instead, think of a remark by the philosopher T. E. Hulme. "From time to time," he says, "by a happy accident, men are born who either in one of their senses, or in their conscious life as a whole are less dominated by the necessities of action. Nature has forgotten to attach their faculty for perception to their faculty for action. They do not perceive simply for the purposes of action." Hulme here is talking about the artist's capacity for disinterest, possessing the ability and the capacity for reflection without intention, thought without action. Both the engineer and the sportsmen are figures of action, one insisting on the predictable, the other accepting the contingent, but neither, in the sense in which Hulme describes, it disinterested.
Yet if the artist's purpose is disinterest, artists are not equally given to premeditating their work or leaving it to chance. Some writers make great play of their deliberation. Flaubert in one of his letters tells his correspondent "the small hours of Sunday morning find me in the middle of a page that has taken me all day and is still far from finished." (Selected Letters) Nabokov says, "I have rewritten - often several times - every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers." (Speak Memory) Then there are writers who do little more than one draft and have the book finished in around a month: Dostoevsky, Kerouac, Muriel Spark, Emmanuel Carrere are all examples. TheIndependent notes that Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler in less than four weeks; Spark'sThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie "written in one month in 1960." ('In Just 30 Days You too Can write a Masterpiece') According to the Observer obituary: Spark's writing method consisted of composing her work "in copperplate handwriting, straight out in a single draft, into special spiral-bound notebooks imported from the Edinburgh stationers, James Thin." The degree of deliberation or contingency depends on the writer's sensibility, but it also reflects on the nature of writing as an engineered work or a chance encounter with words. We wouldn't want to make too much of this. Spark would usually write quickly but would plan carefully in her head beforehand. But what does interest us is the question of art as a disinterested gamble; that it exists in the realm of the unnecessary that must find its own sense of necessity. Some would say this is the writer playing God, but we would be no less inclined to say it is the writer allowing for a higher being's possible absence. In other words, the engineer will have numerous forces at play upon him or her to build that bridge which demands the God of reason. The artist has the opportunity instead to rely on one of unreason and chance: to create through art a parallel universe neither reliant on God nor reason: the usual foundational stones of being.
In Landolfi's story 'An Abstract Concept', the narrator is a science teacher talking to the students about existence and there is the following exchange. "All our speculation is based on positive concepts. But there are negative concepts too...concepts that refer to things unrelated to things as they are...let's say they refer to things that exist in a different mode to the things in question...for example, nothingness would be that which is not being." If numerous philosophers have asked the question why is there not nothing, then art is one of the most pertinent of answers to the question partly because of the eschewal of action and necessity involved. Now, of course, many will insist that the artist finds necessity in other forms out of the work (sex, fame and money perhaps), yet anyone making this claim would seem keener to avoid the question than to answer it. A writer Landolfi makes the question ever more present: like Kafka and Walser art was not an opportunity to seek glory, but instead to share an encounter with nothingness.
We have discussed the importance of chance in art and yet perhaps the arena where chance is most pronounced, where it would seem every other aspect is subordinate to it, is gambling. Whether it is horse-racing or card playing, the game matters less than the chance encounter the individual insists upon within it. When commentators mention Landolfi's avid gambling, we might wonder if the game is seen as irrelevant next to the gesture. If someone moves from a card game, to the roulette table, to betting on horses, we wouldn't be much surprised, but if someone were to move from painting, to writing fiction, to making films, to writing poetry, to making music we would see a Renaissance man; someone interested in mastering different forms rather than gravitating towards the next arena of chance. Art's relationship with contingency is usually necessary but rarely pronounced, though this is not only because one is expected to master a form, but also to evolve a self: that the artist draws upon a pre-occupative past that cannot simply be deemed autobiography. This suggests the aesthetic comes out of formal competence, fortuity and what we loosely call the personal. It is both a loss of personality and an augmentation of it if we keep in mind Barthes' comments in 'Death of the Author', with our own reservations about Barthes' brilliantly provocative claims that "writing is that negative composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body of writing." This reminds us of Gerard Genette's remark on the exaggerated but important aspects of formalism. "Literature had long enough been regarded as message without a code for it to become necessary to regard it for a time as a code without a message." ('Structuralism and Literary Criticism') We perhaps needed to get rid of the author in a narrow sense to bring him back in a broader one: to see him less as the product of a social situation and personal biography; more as someone who creates a new space for being. We thus don't think of Dostoevsky but the Dostoevskian; the Kafkan over Kafka. As a Philip Roth character says in Deception: "By the time a novelist worth his salt is thirty-six, he's no longer translating experience into a fable - he's imposing his fable onto exprience."
In this sense, one seeks not fame, nor anonymity especially, but the literary space where work gets done, a subjunctive literary self is created and the gamble can take place. This is quite different from the game, which demands no risk from the writer and instead provides a safe space of creation and perception. It is a question Landolfi explores well in 'The Literary Prize', a story about a writer who usually eschews the literary world but needs the money a prize offers: a million lire. To receive it he has to turn up in person. During the awards ceremony, "all he had to do was extend his hand and the envelope with the million lire was his, his to hold against his heart." He had earlier looked around the room: "Let's take a closer look here: among these cordial, sensitive and basically kind people, there is the ambitious one, the strategist, the nave one, the suave one..." By the end of the summer, he is ready to escape, to put all of the money on the number seventeen, waiting "for that to be some sort of solution (since there was no hope elsewhere)." Here he wants to push for the gamble over the game, but while literary prizes and competing with other writers is part of the game, the work itself can be part of the gamble: a metaphysical risk which can generate the escape from nothingness that gambling constantly invokes. Between the meaningfulness of winning and the meaninglessness of losing lies a chasm that is wider than in most other human endeavours: the risk is at its most pronounced.
Yet great art borrows an aspect of this gamble, finding out of the skill involved the chance it can invoke and in some ways this gamble has become more pronounced the greater the freedom of the artist, and the greater the sense of obligation the artist has towards that art. As Al Alvarez says "...for the more serious artist experiment has not been a matter of merely tinkering with the machinery, instead it has provided a context in which he explores the perennial question, 'What am I?', without benefit of moral, cultural or even technical securities." This is a gamble that isn't as arbitrary as the one at the Roulette table, but it is the ultimate in risk - an ontological gamble with one's being.
From this perspective fame and money, prizes and adulation seem trivial concerns. The artist who refuses them might seem like they are positioning themselves from the height of arrogance, but better surely to assume they are working from the depths of their existence. When in 'The Literary Prize', the narrator discusses the central character remembering once saying to a painter that he was the greatest Italian painter, only for the artist to show disappointment that he wasn't being referred to as the greatest in Europe or the world, we can see how irrelevant this comparative aspect is to the singular one. That is the singularity of the vision out of the void, the Dostoevskian or Kafkan that comes out of the risk Alvarez proposes. But how to maintain a properly literary perspective, how to produce art that takes into account the variables at work on the need for its creation? In 'Dialogue of the Greater Systems', we have a writer who reckons he has found a "minute and patent distillation of the elements that come together in a work of art." "For example", the writer says, "it is greatly preferable for one to write in a language he only partially knows than in one in which he is wholly familiar." He also believes that "having rich and varied means of expression at one's disposal is hardly a favorable situation for an artist...and when technical words and cliches are eliminated, what else could prevent a work of art from coming into being?" Landolfi's is a facetious story with a serious point. The critic with whom he is talking might understandably say at one stage near the end, "hence, to reach some conclusion on the problem that brought you here, I would say in the course of this interview we have ascertained that the only competent judge of these three poems is their author..."
Nevertheless, who can deny that some of the arguments the writer proposes wouldn't be offered by a number of Landolfi's Modernist contemporaries? Beckett removed cliches and wrote in another tongue, eschewing fancy expressions all the better to arrive at a radical minimalism that made him for many one of the most important of post-war writers. But others responded to Beckett a little like the critic within Landolfi's story. Colin Wilson in The Strength to Dream, referring to Beckett's later work, says it makes "one think of a man trying to write a symphony using only one note." It was as though Landolfi mused over the problem of Beckettian minimalism on the one hand; Joycean excessiveness on the other: the use of numerous obsolete words doesn't seem very far from Joyce's exploration in Finnigans Wake. How does one make language one's own, so co-opted does it happen to be by general culture, a culture that would turn one's fame into a clich too if the writer doesn't end up doing it to themselves, a la Hemingway from Edmund Wilson's perspective?
One might see in such work not literary singularity but literary onanism, a satisfying of oneself to the detriment of others; and once again we might wonder whether one of Landolfi's best-known stories is, another work of auto-criticism. In 'Gogol's Wife', the great 19th-century Russian writer take as his companion none other than a doll. "Gogol's so-called wife, then, looked like a common doll made of thick rubber the hue of flesh, or as it is often called, skin color, and was nude regardless of the season." Yet over time, Gogol loses interest in her when he believes she starts showing signs of having a personality of her own. He suspects her of pleasuring herself, even of infidelity; one day taking this blow up doll and literally blows her up so that she explodes. Yet the narrator believes he sees out of the debris a child, "not a child of flesh and blood, of course, but something like a puppet or a boy doll made of rubber." The story concludes with the narrator saying: "I have implicitly refuted the nonsensical accusation that he ever maltreated or beat his companion, and all the other absurdities. And fundamentally, what other intention should a humble biographer like myself have if not to serve the memory of the lofty man who is the object of his study?"
How better indeed than to write a story that makes a mockery of the biographical fact, and instead emphasises the freedom of fiction? Here we have the death of the author as the birth of the fictional biographer, as if what matter isn't to search out the facts of an author's life, but contribute to the fictional universe that generates new literary space. The conventional biography is instead the opposite: it grounds the work in the life, denying it the grace of its creation for the gravity of its relationship with the world of fact. Landolfi would seem to be a writer who didn't so much respect his privacy as demand freedom for fictional possibility, to live rather like Barthes's ideal: that "oblique space where our subject slips away."
© Tony McKibbin