That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana

A new edition from New York Review Books of what Italo Calvino, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alberto Moravia all considered one of the greatest of modern Italian novels. It’s ostensibly a detective story, in which the melancholy Officer Francesco Ingravallo is called out to investigate a burglary and a murder in the same apartment block, and discovers that the relations between its inhabitants are more interconnected than expected. Yet, as the mystery deepens, the novel also becomes an opportunity for Gadda to explore his idea of ‘a system of systems’ through his philosopher-protagonist, and a fierce satire of the early years of Mussolini’s Italy.

Tim Parks writes:

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.

(LRB 20 September 2007)