rome

DEATH IN ROME BY WOLFGANG KOEPPEN

I have a reputation in my family for being cold and difficult to be around. I don’t, the consensus is, ‘make any effort’ with them. And that is true. I really don’t. Don’t get me wrong, family can be a wonderful thing, if it is a safe and strong and nurturing unit; but I realised at a very young age that the idea of being tied to a bunch of people who you have nothing in common with, who are, moreover, unpleasant human beings, is absurd. Recently my mother has become involved with her sister again. This sister is, quite frankly, vile. I find the fact that she is back in my life very hard to take, but I find it even harder that she is back in my mother’s, although of course my opinion is irrelevant. The only real blessing is that my Uncle is not around, having died of cancer some years ago. You are not meant to speak ill of the dead, but it’s difficult when someone had almost no redeeming features. I was present at his funeral, when the eulogy was spoken. He liked cats we were told. And, yes, I guess he did, but he was also a violent criminal, with perverse sexual tendencies, who kept a gun behind his sofa.

So I can identify with Seigfried Pfaffrath, one of the major players in Wolfgang Koeppen’s Death in Rome. It is the 1950’s, and he has essentially fled to Rome in order to escape his family, his past, and reinvent himself as a composer. But he finds that, in reality, you can’t escape, because wherever you go you bring your experiences with you. Much of the novel is devoted to internal monologues, and even before he comes to understand that prominent members of his family are also in Rome Seigfried can think of little outside of his childhood, his hated Uncle Judejahn, his father, and the recently ended war. It is significant, I think, that he chose to become a musician, because we generally think of music as being an expression of the creator’s inner life, their soul. Seigfried’s music is described as being frightening, as ‘naked and unworthy despair.’ It especially unnerves Kurenberg’s wife [the husband being a friend of Seigfried’s] who grew up in the same area and whose father was eventually murdered by the Nazis.

“Once upon a time, this city was a home to gods, now there’s only Raphael in the Pantheon, a demigod, a darling of Apollo’s, but the corpses that joined him later are a sorry bunch, a cardinal of dubious merit, a couple of monarchs and their purblind generals, high-flying civil servants, scholars that made it into the reference books, artists of academic distinction. Who gives a damn about them?”

The Nazis, racism, and complicity all play important roles in Death in Rome. At one stage Seigfried dredges up the memory of Kurenberg asking for assistance from his father, in an attempt to save his own father-in-law. The advice that he received from Friedrich Pfaffrath, who at that time was a senior administrator, was to divorce his Jewish wife. A large part of Seigfried’s anguish is related to his not wanting to be associated with his family’s actions during the war and their ongoing Nazi sympathies. Like me, he feels tied to people who do not represent his feelings or opinions, whose behaviour he does not condone, people who, unfortunately, he will always be tied to by blood at least. He has, he states, thought about changing his name, so as to distance himself, but decided that to disappoint his family, who would not be in favour of his vocation, is a nice form of revenge; indeed, he focuses specifically on twelve tone music, which was frowned upon in his youth and was actually considered by the Nazis to be ‘degenerate.’ I found this aspect of the novel to be one of the most engaging; Koeppen did a fine job of capturing the young composer’s understandable shame, disgust, and helplessness, in being related to murders and war criminals [although I would say that he borrowed liberally from William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom in order to achieve it].

“Could I even cope with my own life? And then I thought: If Adolf and I can’t cope with life, then we should at least unite against those unscrupulous people who want to rule because they are unimaginative, against the real Pfaffraths, the real Judejahns, the real Klingspors, and perhaps we could change Germany. But even as I was thinking that, it already seemed to me that Germany was past changing, that one could only change oneself, and everyone had to do that for him or herself.”

The most imposing member of the family and, as noted, the most hated by Seigfried, is Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS officer. He fled Germany due to a death sentence having been placed upon him for his involvement in the war, during which he had ordered the execution, and had himself killed, numerous people. As with Seigfried, a large part of the novel is also given over to Judejahn’s thoughts and feelings, and none of them are pleasant. He is an unrepentant Nazi and racist. He yearns for war, for bloodshed, for a reinvigorated, all-powerful and all-conquering Germany. In Guy de Muapassant’s Bel Ami, Georges Duroy is described as having the attitude of ‘an NCO let loose in a conquered land,’ and I think this suits Judejahn perfectly. Men are to be beaten down or brought to heel, and women [whom he frequently refers to as ‘cunt’] are to be raped or fucked [if willing]. After spending some time with Judejahn not only did I empathise with Siegfried in his hatred, but I started to understand the title of the novel. Death in Rome. It doesn’t mean dying in Rome, it means that Death has come to Rome, and his name is Judejahn, a man who stalks the pages of the book, and the city itself, like a particularly grim Grim Reaper.

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[Rome in the 1950’s]

However, as I progressed through the novel, I struggled to understand what exactly Koeppen was trying to say, specifically in relation to Judejahn. That SS men were psychopaths? Well, yeah. I mean, that’s hardly news is it? Moreover, I felt as though Judejahn is simply too cartoonishly loathsome; I was, in fact, unable to take him seriously as a human being. Yes, he is a Nazi, but I’m not convinced that he had to be so unrelentingly despicable, so much so that at times I expected him to tie a woman to some train tracks and stand to the side twirling his moustache. I am, of course, not defending the Nazis, but would simply have liked this one to be a little more nuanced as a character. Indeed, I don’t actually think it is helpful to portray them as titanically evil [not to mention miserable], without a humane thought in their head or even the merest hint of sensitivity. That, for me, almost excuses them, as though we are saying that they are or were sub-human, or not human at all. They absolutely are and were human, they had families, friends, they laughed and enjoyed themselves. That is what is so horrifying about them. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only example of Koeppen losing control of his material. I was also decidedly unimpressed with the melodramatic scene in which Adolf, Judejahn’s son, kind of befriends a starving Jewish boy, and the two swap uniforms and break bread.

In any case, I would laud Koeppen for his bravery in writing, and having published, a novel such as this so soon after the war, for reminding the world that Nazis didn’t just stop being Nazis because Hitler lost; they didn’t simply see the error of their ways, or ‘wake up’ as though coming out of a deep sleep. I think if the book says anything of note, anything really important, then that is it. People like Judejahn, who becomes a kind of Arab arms dealer, or Friedrich Pfaffrath, who becomes a legitimate mayor, may try and reinvent themselves, they may hide or escape, but their old prejudices remain. In this way, the stream of consciousness technique was entirely appropriate, because one might be able to wash the blood off one’s hands, but one’s thoughts, if we have access to them, would always reveal the true nature of the man.

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THE AENEID BY VIRGIL

Canto I

One day, although not yet half way through life’s journey,
I found myself in a forest dark, having wandered
From the path intended. Poor me! This wood, so foreboding,
Promised me evil beyond telling. So, must I tell then
Of what I saw, though in telling my fear would return anew?
With three savage beasts, at my heels attending,
I trod with heavy heart deeper into the leafy labyrinth.
I spent the night without even fitful sleep, hour upon hour,
My eyes open and turned towards the pitch-dark abyss
Above my weary head. Is this what death holds, I wondered,
To wander, hopeless and hunted, without our natural rest?
With daybreak I took up my peregrinations, until upon
A mountain I there came. No way over or around; and so
The beasts closer came, encircling, with stern attention.
All lost, thought I, but, at that moment, I beheld a figure
Of human form. ‘Save me!’ I cried, ‘Be you man or shade.’
Man I am not, yet once I was. Augustus I served, in Rome
I dwelt, as a poet. I, it was, who once famously sang of
Mighty Aeneas, the Trojan prince.’ What good fortune!
‘I too am a poet!’ I said, at which the great man chuckled.
‘Your poetry, I am aware of, but please let us not speak of it.
You know my name and my work?’ ‘You are Virgilius, author
Of The Aeneid, which I recently read, although you look
Like Italian midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo!’ The poet smiled,
And said, ‘I took the form of famous footballer, peerless Pirlo,
Because you know not what Virgil looks like. Now let’s
Take a stroll; no harm will befall you while you walk with me.’
And so we moved off, with Virgil leading; the way now clear,
And fear from my heart cast. ‘Where are we going,’ I asked
My guide. ‘Down we go, to a place terrible and frightening.
Many things you’ll see, and lessons learn, if that world
You can bear.’ ‘I’ll bear up, master, but please, do not
In darkness leave me. What’s the name of this awesome place?’
‘It is Book-Review Hell, son. Look!’ And before me I saw
A dark opening, a door, with these words above:
Abandon perspective, humility,
And conventions of grammar,
All who enter here.

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Andrea Pirlo as Virgil, painting by Gustave Dore 1874

Canto II

Inside, in fear, I clung to the hard wall as we descended deeper,
Despite the poet’s promise that no harm would me befall.
‘Tell me, master, as a distraction, about your hero Aeneas;
Isn’t he but one-dimensional? No personality has he to speak of.’
The poet puffed with indignation, ‘What know you, boy,
Of personality?’ A low-blow, I thought. ‘Aeneas is a hero;
Don’t they almost always blandly embody traits like courage,
Honour and so forth? If one-dimensional bothers you,
I suggest from epic poetry, impertinent youth, you keep away!’
For the offence I begged his pardon. The poet softened slightly,
And went on to say, ‘He may not, on the surface, be compelling,
But of interest there is much. He is a man burdened by destiny,
With no control over his life. By divine will he’s pushed forward,
Away from his new wife Dido and into a great and bloody war;
And his brutal frustration is murderously poured out in the end.’
At that, reticent to enrage him further, I fell silent, despite
Being eager to speak about the structure of the poem;
How episodic The Aeneid is! How I often felt like I was
Playing Zelda: at every plot point, crucial, there is an obstacle to
Overcome, or a task to complete, to pass to the next stage!
O sage, do not think this is a criticism, if you are reading this.
‘Look!’ he said, to regain my attention, and before me now I saw
Many men, all alike, with dress identical, moving one to another.
As one spoke, the other listened, then stepped away towards
The next man, to repeat what he had just heard. ‘What is
This place?’ I asked great Virgil. ‘This is Plagiarism,’
He replied. ‘To avoid a stay here, one must never take
What isn’t yours and pass it off as original thought.’
I nodded, seriously. ‘Master, I agree, but some claim
Your poem is but Homer’s work, re-written.’ ‘Listen,
[P], I’d never deny the influence of the Greek genius,
But his work I used as a launch-pad for my own. I did not
From him steal; the aims, the style, etc, are different,
The similarities between our poems are superficial only. Tell me,
Have you heard Be My Baby?’ I told him I had, that I love
That song. ‘The drumbeat, how many times have you heard it,
In how many songs throughout the years? Homer is like that
Beat; he’s the foundation upon which many build their own work.
Now, come, let us proceed.’

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Zelda, illustration by Gustave Dore 1880

Canto III

As we penetrated deeper, I pressed the poet further, ‘Master,
Would it displease you, if we speak more about The Aeneid?
At least allow me to say how much I enjoyed your poetry,
Your graceful lines, your use of extended metaphor and simile;
But by far my favourite aspect of your work was how dark
And gothic your presentation of events, your Cyclops,
For example, and how Dido meets her end. And what about
the work of Allecto? Pure horror’.’Now is not the time,
But, speaking of gothic, of dark and unsettling, turn your eyes
Towards what stands before them now.’ I raised my eyes as
I was bidden, and there I saw a room. From floor to ceiling,
From wall to wall, were crushed, or packed tightly together,
Men and women, with no space to move in, each groaning,
Some dead, some dying. ‘O master, what is this awful place?’
‘This is Personal Anecdotes, [P]; somewhere I thought you’d well
Know. Here one is forced to struggle for breath in a room
With all the people one has used in one’s reviews.’ I now saw
I thought, the error of my ways, and so asked my guide
To please take me away, for I could not bear any longer
To gaze upon the terrors of that room.

Canto IV

My guide obliged and swiftly showed me to the next,
A place where silence reigned. A relief for my ears,
After all the ungodly groaning. ‘Where are we now?’
I asked my companion. The room in which we stood
Was dust-filled, sported spider webs a-plenty, and on
Hard wooden benches sat large groups of men, all seemingly
Asleep. Without answering Virgil held a finger to his lips,
The universal request for quiet. But I could not hold my
Tongue, I was consumed by curiosity, and so I whispered,
‘Tell me, master, what goes on here?’ And at that the men
Awoke, and as they moved great clouds of dust ascended
Into the air. The men, in panic, screamed and shouted,
‘I can’t breathe, please save me!’ The dust, it seemed,
Was choking them; their eyes streamed, their skin
Itched, and loud sneezes erupted from all noses, bringing
Further dust down from the rafters.’These men cannot die,’
My guide proclaimed, ‘But suffer greatly, they must. The dust!
The dust! O until it again settles it will stop-up their throats,
Obstruct their breathing.’ I could not prevent a tear, for
So much woe had I this day witnessed. The poet continued,
‘This is the room of Over-long, Dry, and Academic Reviews.
There is no humour here, no lightness of touch; here you’ll find
the plot-summarizers; and tedious explorers of character,
Motivations, their words taken from University lecture notes.
Review, you must, The Aeneid, but beware do not devote most
Of your review to explaining how Aeneas is a Trojan, who
Fought for Troy in The Iliad, although he was only a small-time
Player; or how The Aeneid begins with survivors of that war
Looking for a new land on which to settle; don’t tell readers
All there is to know about their travels, their travails,
Or Aeneas’ ultimate victory over the Latins, or the short but
Exciting Arrans and Camilla episode.’ I felt as though I must
Interrupt, briefly, ‘Should I not mention how Camilla fights with
Her breast exposed?’ My guide laughed and smiled benignly.
‘I think that is fine; a quite titillating detail, excuse the pun.’
‘She is my favourite character, tits aside,’ I told the eminent poet;
For a female warrior one doesn’t expect to find,
In an ancient epic.

Canto V

‘How much more, master, must I endure, how many
Rooms are left on this tour?’ Virgil patted my shoulder,
Paternally, and said, ‘No more, [P]. The tour has come to
An end.’ I expressed surprise, although not disappointment,
For Dante had been accompanied through nine circles in all.
‘You are correct,’ said Virgil ‘but in order to visit the rest of
The rooms you must buy my tour-guide.’ I grimaced and mumbled
Something about forgetting my wallet; at this, the poet rolled
His eyes. ‘So, what now?’ I asked, for the subject I sought
To change. ‘Now, back you must go, to the world above,
To write a review for The Aeneid.’ I said I would most
Gladly return, but could I first run by him some more ideas.
The poet nodded, and I then commenced, ‘The translation,
Master, whose would you recommend? Latin, most no longer
Comprehend. I read Fitzgerald, and was satisfied. No
Lombardo-like modern phrases, no Fagles-mangling of
Famous lines.’ The poet chimed, ‘Fitzgerald is fine; I approve
Of his work. He did not impose his own style on my poem
Like Fagles did. No translation is perfect, of course, none
Can capture all aspects of my genius. But Fitzgerald, at least,
Makes no glaring errors or missteps. His poetry is fluid and
Most readable.’ I demonstrated my agreement and begged
To raise one last point, which I voiced thus, ‘The Aeneid
You wrote as propaganda, this almost everyone knows;
Your aim to tie the Roman people to the legendary Trojans.
Caesar Augustus is even by name mentioned, as the one
Who will bring an age of gold. And yet, I found it to be
Not as tub-thumping as I had expected. Of course, Aeneas,
It was clear, would be victorious in the end, but still he
Suffers painful losses.’ The poet replied, ‘Good points, [P],
You please me greatly, for I am a poet first and foremost,
political puppet I was unwillingly. But now I have my own
Burning question: how will you review The Aeneid?
My mind you must put at ease, and promise
No poem of your own.’

Yeah, right.

THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY BY HENRY JAMES

This is the sexiest novel of all time. You’re screwing up your face right now, I can tell. It is though, it’s sexy as fuck. People often want to tell you that Henry James’ greatest flaw was his lack of passion. Nabokov, If I recall correctly, labelled his work blonde. I don’t think he meant that in the way that modern readers would understand it i.e. as a synonym for dumb, but rather as one for bland. Katherine Mansfield once said of E.M. Forster that he was like a lukewarm teapot [ha!], and that description also seems to nicely sum up the prevailing attitude towards James. It’s wrong though, that attitude; I’ve read numerous Henry James novels and I am of the opinion that he was a firecracker, a sexual viper.

Read the first 100 pages of Portrait of a Lady and then try and convince me that the male characters don’t all want to bash Isabel’s doors in; and that she, likewise, wants them to, or enjoys giving the impression that she wants them to. You won’t succeed. I’m serious. If you can’t see it then I conclude that you can’t recognise extreme sexual tension when it’s under your nose. The flirting is outrageous! You might think all this is cute, like oh [P]’s being theatrical. I say again, I’m serious. It’s not as though I consider all so-called button-down and stuffy lit to be, in reality, hot shit; I mean, I’ve never claimed that Pride & Prejudice is really all about rimjobs and teabagging. There’s something about Henry James’ work, and this novel in particular, that seethes, writhes with unspoken frustration and desire. James’ art, the one thing that makes him stand out for me, is in how he somehow suggests, hints, implies but never outright tells you the juiciest bits of his story. It’s pretty magical really; I don’t know how to explain it; there’s a whole world beneath the surface of his work. In Portrait of a Lady I believe that world to be a sexual one. Why do all the male characters fall for Isabel? Because she is charming and pretty? Is she really all that, looks-wise? No, it’s because she gives the impression of being up for it; she’s, to put it more politely, sensual. She has great sex appeal, which is why she was not right for Lord Warburton, who is a bit of a sop and would make a conventional woman of her; by conventional i do not mean that he will not allow her to be herself, that he wishes to clip her emotional and intellectual wings, but that the match he is offering is conventional i.e. he is rich and handsome and terribly nice, and only a fool would turn him down.

Some people say that Portrait of a Lady is about freedom, and I agree, it is. But I think that involves sexual freedom also, although, of course, as stated, that is not made explicit. There’s a lot written in the beginning of the novel about Isabel’s independent spirit, about how she does not want to be tied down. Before she takes up with Gilbert Osmond the novel is strongly feminist in tone. This is because Isabel regards marriage as an impediment to her freedom, she rejects marriage [literally, she receives two proposals early on] as a barrier to her gaining experience [what kind of experience, huh? Huh?] and knowledge of the world. However, I would argue [as I am sure many would argue to the contrary] that the second half of the book, and by extension the whole book obviously, is feminist, because Isabel makes her choice, the one to marry Osmond, freely. It does not matter that it may be a bad choice, the important thing is that she rejected more beneficial matches in favour of the one that most pleased her. In fact Isabel says at one stage ‘to judge wrong is more honourable than to not judge at all.’

Isabel is one of the most fascinating characters I have ever encountered, because she is so extraordinarily complex, complex in a way that fictional people seldom are. She is strong-willed, arrogant, and yet thoroughly nice; she is perceptive and yet makes poor choices; she is warm and charming and yet sometimes stunningly cold; indeed, her rejections of Lord Warburton are flawless examples of smiling iciness, of jovial dismissiveness. Isabel falls for Gilbert Osmond, to my mind, partly because he does not mindlessly adore her, does not fawn over her. He is mysterious, indolent; there is the hint of a darker side. He appears to be tired of everything, bored of everything, and so that he is interested in Isabel seems like a huge coup; it speaks to her ego. It’s pretty straightforward psychology to want most the thing that appears to be able to live without you with the least trouble. Isabel also credits herself with an original intelligence, therefore one could perhaps say that she likes Osmond, sees something great in him, precisely because others do not. However, the irony, the tragedy of their union is that Osmond is himself utterly conventional and tries to force Isabel to be so; Osmond, out of an anti-conventionality sentiment, demands that she be the most conventional wife.

Madame Merle, who first earmarks Isabel for Osmond, is often regarded as one of literature’s great villains, which is not really the case, because James’ novels don’t contain true villains. Having said that, however, there is something vile about her, despite her never really doing anything to deserve the charge. It’s James’ great art again; he makes Madame Merle a masterpiece of quiet menace. You are dangerous, the Countess Gemini declares, as they chat together about the prospect of Osmond and Isabel uniting, and you quite well believe it, even without the accompanying evidence. Her entrance into the novel, her unannounced [to Isabel] presence in the Touchett’s home is strangely chilling. She is first encountered, sat with her back to Isabel, playing the piano; she strikes you as almost girlish, initially, despite her age. It made me shudder, and I don’t think I can express why that is. Ralph describes his aversion to her as being due to her having no black specks, no faults, and one understands that what he means by this is that only bad people appear to be perfectly good.

If Portrait of a Lady does not have a true villain, in the Dickensian sense of that word, it does at least have someone who it is very easy to hate [which is, of course, not quite the same thing]. As Isabel herself admits, Gilbert Osmond does not do a hell of a lot wrong – he does not beat her, for example – but there is certainly something disquieting about him, something not right. One only has to look to how he treats his daughter Pansy; he sees her as a kind of doll, one that is absolutely submissive to his will. She is entirely artless, which is interesting because Osmond approaches her like a work of art, as something that he has created, has formed out of his imagination; it is not a coincidence that Osmond is both an artist and a collector [he creates Pansy; he collects Isabel]. Pansy is, for me anyway, a little creepy; she is so in the way that dolls themselves are, in that they give the impression of being human, of being alive, and yet are lifeless. It is fair to say that while he may not be a wife-beater, Osmond’s attitudes towards women are suspect; he is a kind of passive-aggressive bully, a subtle misogynist.

Amongst other things Portrait of a Lady is a classic bad marriage[s] novel. The earliest indication of this is the relationship between Isabel’s Aunt and Uncle; the Uncle lives in England, and the Aunt in Florence. What kind of a marriage is that? Then there is, of course, Isabel and Gilbert. Isabel, as stated, marries Osmond, I believe, because she thrills to think that such a man might pay court to her, might be interested in her, when he takes so little interest in the world at large; she finds his attitude heroic, and his interest in her, therefore, as a boon to her sense of self-worth. Osmond, on the other hand, sees in her something that will do him credit, both financially and socially. He appreciates her, for all that she will benefit him, rather than truly loves her. This appreciation does involve admiring certain qualities she possesses, but he wants those qualities to work on other people, not on himself; for himself he would like her to be another Pansy [i.e. entirely submissive] and appears to think he can train her to be so. He enters the marriage, in a way that a lot of people do even now, believing that he can smooth her rough edges, make her perfect for him, instead of accepting and cherishing what she is. Finally, there is the courting of Pansy by Rosier and Warburton; Warburton as a Lord is, obviously, favoured by the girl’s father, but Pansy does not love him, she loves Rosier. While I won’t give away the outcome of this little love triangle, what is most interesting about it is that it again raises the question of whether one should marry to make the best match, or for love; should one use one’s head or heart when making the decision? Isabel used her heart, and came a cropper, but perhaps that was still for the best; it is better to choose with your heart and fail, than to choose with your head and benefit from it.

THAT AWFUL MESS ON THE VIA MERULANA BY CARLO EMILIO GADDA

Of all [fictional] detectives my favourite is Columbo. He’s not wise-cracking, hard drinking, not dark and brooding, not a moral crusader, not over-burdened with red-tape and administrative duties, he doesn’t even get his balls busted by a maniacal superior. He’s from the school of detectives that are simply better, more intelligent, than the criminals they bring to justice. His cases are not mysteries, we know who commits the crime almost immediately, and Columbo himself knows not long after we do. Indeed, if you happened to miss the first half of an episode you’d still know who committed the crime because it would be the person that Columbo is toying with, like a cat with a spider. His modus operandi is essentially one of harassment; every time the criminal thinks that he or she has shaken him they turn around and there he is, asking an apparently innocuous question [it’s never innocuous!] or being friendly [he’s never just being friendly!], all squinty-eyed and rain-macced. He is what we like to call where I come from a snidey cunt.

That Awful Mess is mad-almost-genius Carlo Emilio Gadda’s only crime novel [one could argue, in fact, that it is his only novel]. It features a mop-haired detective called Ingravallo or Don Ciccio [Gadda has a Russian author’s love for giving his characters multiple names]. However, aside from the hair, Ingravalllo is nothing like Columbo [boo to that!], or, for the most part, like any other fictional detective that I am aware of. On the surface he shares some characteristics, some qualities, with other well-known sleuths and gumshoes; he’s surly, for one thing, and he is [apparently; there is little evidence of it in the book] unusually good at his job. What sets him apart from most other fictional detectives is his philosophy, which is that while crimes may be solvable to a certain extent, i.e. that you may catch the man who, say, fired the gun, they have no primary cause, that all crime, indeed all action, is the consequence of an infinite number of causes. In this way, crimes are actually largely unsolvable, because solving a crime means that you understand how [and why] it happened.

I have an obsession with interconnectedness, which, as I understand it, is the idea that everything, every action, every incident, every second of your life, and everyone else’s, is connected [literally, not spiritually], is part of a complex, and almost infinite, series of actions and incidents dating back to the beginning of time. Take a banal example, such as the tattoo I had done a few weeks ago: there was involved in me getting this tattoo a desire and this desire will have arisen in my consciousness as a consequence of a mind-boggling number of factors, or, if you prefer, had been caused by every preceding second of my life, because until something occurs to you an infinite number of other things could occur to you. They don’t though, that specific thing does, and this is as a result of every other thing that you have thought and done up to that point. There is also a historical and a cultural connectedness, involving the invention of tattooing and the circumstances behind its popularity; the invention and the popularity, these, in themselves, will have been caused, bought into being, by a potentially endless series of other causes or factors. Furthermore [no, I haven’t finished yet] I am also connected to every other person who has ever thought of getting a tattoo, more closely to those who want that specific tattoo or a similar one, as well as being connected to the image itself [a man shaving]; and there are [yeah, I’m still going!] certain other connections, such as my connection to the tattooist and everything that has happened in his or her life, and to the ink and so on and so on and so on. In essence, then, you could spend your whole life trying to explain, to work out, my relationship to my most recent tattoo.

This ought to go some way to explaining why I was so intrigued by Gadda’s novel. He sees a crime as a kind of cyclone, into which a vast number of things are drawn. A crime isn’t characterized, for Gadda, merely by its relationship to a perpetrator; for him it is near impossible to get a full picture of the crime, to identify all the people involved, all the causes. In this way, his idea, his interest, is pretty much the same as mine, in that I would say that to get a full picture of a crime you would need to consider the entire history of the world. Gadda doesn’t quite go this far, but that is because he does not see his theory through to its logical conclusion. That Gadda doesn’t seem to follow through is perhaps a consequence of the novel being unfinished. It feels complete, but I have certainly read somewhere that it was not concluded satisfactorily as far as the author was concerned and that he was still working on it.

What we have, in terms of plot, are two crimes that take place a couple of days apart within the same building: a robbery and a murder. The mess of the title refers to the crimes themselves, especially the gruesome murder, but more specifically to the investigation, which, as outlined above, was doomed to failure, to being incomplete and frustrating. By the end of the novel the detective is really no closer to closure than he was at the beginning; all he has succeeded in doing is getting entangled in the mess of events and causes. If you like Christie, Chandler, or any of those formulaic beginning-middle-[possible twist]-end narratives then That Awful Mess isn’t for you. But then this isn’t really a police procedural novel, rather a philosophical novel of ideas masquerading as one.

Further joys are to be found in Gadda’s sense of humour, prose, and psychological complexity. Don Ciccio is a magnificently foul-tempered man and, until he disappears somewhat in the second half the book, he furnishes you with a number of quotable lines, or thoughts [there are aspects of stream-of-consciousness] such as the response to his friend’s dog which he deems the kind you want to stamp on. I also thoroughly enjoyed the little hints and suggestions of a lurid, salacious, aspect to the murdered woman’s life prior to death. Liliana, the victim, is perhaps the most interesting and complex character in the book, which is surprising as she dies fairly early on. Her psychology is revealed, however, via the investigation and Don Ciccio’s odd obsession with her.

While I consider the prose a highlight I must point out that it is an acquired taste. Tim Parks, the so-called Italian literature connoisseur, called it incomprehensible or bordering on nonsense [if I recall correctly; he certainly said something of that sort]. If I was being pissy [which I almost always am] I would retort that Parks ought to improve his levels of concentration because That Awful Mess is not incomprehensible. In fact, in comparison, it is far easier to understand, to read and follow, than Gadda’s other novel [which Parks prefers] Acquainted With Grief. That book, I’m pretty sure, only makes complete sense to people speaking in tongues and dolphins. His prose style is baroque, is dense and difficult, though, and so That Awful Mess is perhaps not for those who don’t want to work a bit [no criticism intended – each to their own, and all that].