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Book Review : An Author Whose Mind Is Elsewhere

October 08, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Words in Commotion and Other Stories by Tommaso Landolfi, with an introduction by Italo Calvino, translated and edited by Kathrine Jason (Viking: $17.95.)

Tommaso Landolfi, a hermetic and mannered personage, a recluse and a compulsive gambler, carried the principle of the author as sole and willful master of his universe to an extreme. He carried it, you might say, to the vanishing point.

Certainly, this short story writer, who died in 1979, has kept sinking out of sight even from the eyes of his Italian countrymen. A portion of the Italian literary world adopted him as a literary hard-case. They launched him, he sank, they launched him again.

In a forward to the most recent selection of Landolfi's writings, which has now, with several modifications, been translated into English, the late Italo Calvino wrote that his idea was to offer the reading public "a new encounter" with the writer. In the United States, New Directions offered such an encounter in 1963 and, eight years later, more out of conviction than any raging demand, Dial Press published a second selection. "Words in Commotion," published by Viking, represents still one more reintroduction.

An Awkward Silence

It doesn't seem likely to take. Landolfi is like one of those people whom a friend brings over and leaves you alone with, promising that you two will have a great deal in common; and what ensues, is awkward silence. Even Calvino, whose paradoxical eye sees a great deal in Landolfi, tells us at the end that their acquaintance foundered after a mutual friend, of whom both were fond, died.

With Landolfi, he writes, "The first rule of the game established between reader and writer is that sooner or later a surprise will come: and that surprise will never be pleasant or soothing, but will have the effect of a fingernail scratching glass, or of a hair-raising, irritating caress, or an association of ideas that one would wish to expel from his mind as quickly as possible."

The difficulty is real. It is not that some of the stories selected here have a Poe-like sense of the grotesque and often the unpleasant. It is that they are told with a kind of off-handedness, and at times with what seems like a deliberate sabotaging of their effect.

Loses His Thread

In "The Labrenas," the narrator is obsessed by an insect he sees in his room; if it touches him, he is sure he will die of horror. It falls on him and he does die, or seems to. In fact, it is a kind of catalepsy. While he is laid out in his coffin, unable to move, he thinks he hears his cousin kissing his wife. Restored to consciousness, he taxes her with it, grows violent, and is put into a strait-jacket and left in a room where, on the ceiling, he sees another loathsome insect prepared to drop upon him.

But the narrator's voice does not hold us; he gives no conviction to his obsession. It is as if he were playing at obsession; he loses his thread, drifts off, returns.

In "Chicken Fate," two men who raise poultry find themselves suddenly captured by a race of giant chickens who confine them and peck them to death. It ought to be a nightmare, but it is not; it's high-pitched, declamatory style burlesques the narrative. It is not a horror tale; it is someone telling us a horror tale with a mix of boredom and absent-mindedness, like a baby sitter reading a bedtime story with her mind very much elsewhere.

Some of the stories have hints of Luigi Pirandello and Jorge Luis Borges. The title piece is a witty conceit in which the writer, brushing his teeth, spits out words instead of toothpaste. These immediately begin to complain about being saddled with meanings that don't represent their notion of themselves.

"Hammer" wants the object he denotes assigned to the word squid. Squid is perfectly willing; he proposes a swap. Not at all, "Hammer" retorts; he is no fish. What he really wants to mean, is something lovely, like a birch. "Birch" has serious doubts; what would she get in exchange? Soon they are plunged into the commotion of the title. The narrator finally makes them all choose new meanings in a kind of lottery. But they detest the results, and run off in a fury taking their new meanings with them and failing to disclose what they are. So the narrator/author no longer knows what his words mean.

The elegance of this story is exceptional. So are several others, including one in which a girl with a stunning head of golden hair suffers sudden anguish during a partial solar eclipse. It is a lovely, affecting image of mortality.

Landolfi is an artist, in a way. But he is one who chooses deliberately to mar what he writes. Perhaps it is out of conviction that life is essentially random and that art which reflects any kind of ascetic order is false. More than this, though--and more damagingly--it seems to reflect the artist's will not to serve his art, but to assert himself over it.

Calvino who, I suspect, may be at least as intrigued by the attitude as by the results--Landolfi could just about be a Calvino character--looks to his subject's mania for gambling. Landolfi's writing, he tells us, is "the gesture of someone who commits himself totally to what he does, and at the same time throws it all away."

The reader of Kathrine Jason's English translation seems to have lost the gamble. This is not a reflection on Jason's work. Landolfi's style is so contorted and obscure, so rooted in a private verbal pleasure, that a translation seems condemned to awkwardness and, occasionally, something not far from hysteria.

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