Saturday, November 26, 2016

That Awful Mess on Via Merulana [1957]

A quick study on the bibliography of Carlo Emilio Gadda – an Electrical engineer who, among other assignments, was in-charge of the Vatican Power Station,  but went on to become a darling of Italian literature – provides a common thread in terms of the great sense incompleteness that pervades most of his works; and that teasing almost-there-but-deliberately-not-so feel is evident in possibly his most well-known book, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana. A dense, illusive, rambling, muddled and digressive novel of considerable formal bravado; filled to its brim with rich allusions, socio-cultural symbols, political critique, philosophical asides and oftentimes vague, ambiguous and obscure metaphors; alternately cheeky and serious; and laced with bleak worldview, deadpan humour and a touch of the grotesque; this baroque and modernist tour-de-force turned out, simultaneously, a rewarding and an exasperating read. Set in the teeming Fascist Rome of 1927, with Mussolini’s powers on the rise, the tale, in its most stripped-down form, is about the investigation by Detective Ingravallo, also known as Don Cicco, into two disparate crimes connected by their occurrence in the same apartment building – the robbery of a neurotic widow’s jewels, and the grisly murder of Liliana Balducci, a ravishing married lady who Ingravallo secretly admired. The morbid, borderline necrophiliac and incredibly elaborate depiction of Liliana’s dead corpse, from the cop’s perspective, had Gaddo at his most sublime and outrageous best; the aggressive interrogation, seeped in obsessive jealousy, of Liliana’s nephew Giuliano, who the detective suspects of having been her secret lover and killer, also ranks right up there. Italo Calvino, in his lovely introduction, called this a philosophic novel, in the guise of a murder-mystery story; interestingly, the way the text underwent changes – from its serialization in ’46 and ’47, to its publication in ’57, to its multiple film treatments, scripts for which Gadda himself wrote – remains a fascinating commentary on the shifting nature of truth, as much in this book as in life itself.

Author: Carlo Emilio Gadda
Genre: Crime Drama/Mystery/Romantic Noir/Police Procedural/Modernist Literature
Language: Italian
Country: Italy

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Ravelstein [2000]

Saul Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein, was also his most self-referential work. Seeped in personal history, memories, and thoughts ranging from politics to polemics, and from marital woes to mortality, got coagulated into this funny, rambling, self-deprecatory and quietly affecting book. Tonally, stylistically, and in his depiction of the principal protagonists, it remains in many ways a companion piece to Humboldt’s Gift – particularly in that both provided bawdy, yet poignant, fictionalization of real-life friendships. The book’s vividly etched titular character Abe Ravelstein – based on philosopher Allan Bloom who was Bellow’s colleague and friend – is a gregarious, learned, opinionated, hedonistic and libidinous philosophy teacher whose love for larger-than-life existence has received a grandiose thrust thanks to tremendous financial windfall from a recently published book of his; he’s also dying of AIDS, and as a last wish asks his closest friend Chick, the narrator and the author’s stand-in, to write a memoir on him. Bellow structured the book into three distinctive parts – in the first the reader is literally thrown right into Ravelstein’s drawing room and into his conversations that meander from Great Politics to Greek mythology to Jewish history, while he’s splurging on high-life; in the second, and best, section, the narrative becomes tad impersonal, and melancholic too, as Chick starts delineating Ravelstein from a distance, while also recounting his collapsing marriage to his beautiful, icy wife based in no small parts on Bellow’s 4th wife Alexandra Bellow; the final part, and the most personal of the trio, gives us a peek into Chick’s, and in turn Bellow’s then current marriage to a soothing, much-younger wife, and his close-shave with death that brings him face-to-face with his imminent mortality and propels him into finally deciding to get on with his promise to his now long-dead friend. That an 85-year old man, at the fag-end of his life, could compose such a formally and textually ambitious work as this – a freewheeling intermingling of fact and fiction – speaks volumes about Bellow’s intellectual vitality and artistic bravery.

Author: Saul Bellow
Genre: Drama/Social Satire/Existentialist Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Semi-Autobiographical Novel
Language: English
Country: US