Reading Matters: Life on the naked page

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The Independent Culture
SUCCESS often falls to the meretricious, or for the wrong reasons, as can happen with Nobel Prizes. But even obscure writers survive to be discovered some day. About a year ago, a friend slipped me an Italian book, Casa d'altri (The House of Others) by Silvio d'Arzo (1920-52). I took it on a plane trip. Here is the epigraph, which is a brief dialogue about the village in which the story takes place:

'So you can't get up there by train.'

'Not even by bus.'

'I suppose it has a name.'

'Yes, I think so. It must be the only thing it's got.'

Immediately one knows one is at world's end, that the landscape, physical and spiritual, will be bleak. From the first pages one also knows one is with a writer who possesses two principal gifts, narrative and style, and the rarest gift of all, a sense of the sacred.

Though this brief novella is one of the few 'perfect' works of fiction in our century, it is unlikely anyone reading this will have heard of d'Arzo. Perhaps a few, who stumbled across the story, unheralded, in Encounter in 1968. While he has passionate devotees, among them Cesare Pavese, Alberto Moravia and Saul Bellow, d'Arzo remains, even to most Italians, just a name: in some way ephemeral.

The reason lies not in any difficulty in the texts, in experimentalism or modishness. All his works (not inconsiderable for a writer who died at 32) are immediately accessible and memorable. The truth is that his life was too brief and private for him to have made his mark. He was just 20 when Italy joined in the last war, barely 25 when it ended, and 32 when he died. Though he had published his first work, a collection of poems, when he was 15, and a novel before he was 18 (he sent the publisher the photograph of a 35-year-old man), the war robbed him of a fifth of his life. For a writer as fastidious as d'Arzo, seven years of unremitting effort were not enough to build and consolidate a reputation. He died leaving unfinished what we would have considered his major work, Nostro lunedi (Our Monday), an historical fresco along the line of Lermontov's A Hero of our Time.

Not did he ever seek a reputation. 'I am a substitute teacher,' he wrote to the critic Emilio Cecchi. 'I give private lessons four hours a day; I can only devote a few hours a day to what I have most at heart, writing.' The poet Montale, another great admirer, was right to say 'dying at 32 may have been a final manifestation of his infallible, and religious, sense of time'.

The illegitimate son of a woman from Ceretto Alpe who kept him alive by telling fortunes in the market-place of Reggio Emilia and whom he later supported, Ezio Comparoni (his real name) never knew his father (the cause of his shame), hardly ever moved from Reggio, and never once admitted anyone to his home. He compounded this deliberate obscurity with a variety of pseudonyms. His few letters show him trembling with modesty and a sense of his own imperfection.

The House of Others (which will appear next spring in a new translation) is the story of one old woman, Zelinda, and a parish priest. It turns on just one question. Pretending to be asking about dissolving a marriage, Zelinda asks her priest if there are 'special cases', that is, cases in which what is obviously wrong can also be right. What she really wants to know is if she might not 'be allowed to finish up a little sooner', to take her own life.

The question is a metaphysical one; it involves not just Zelinda's life, but also the priest's, for he has no answer: 'Of my own,' he says, 'not a syllable.' Advice, recommendations, yes; the truth, no.

D'Arzo's stories all turn on such pivots: slight matters, but deeply affecting d'Arzo's characters, who are delineated in a spare, oddly rhythmical prose. These live in what Primo Levi might have called 'geological time'; the action is so detailed, so visible, and yet so unexplained, that we can feel time move, like seasons. His writing touches us because it is so reduced, because his language is stripped down, purified into absolute simplicity.

D'Arzo was passionate about writing in English: his adult child's novel, Penny Whirton and her Mother (which will appear in a first translation next year) comes from a deep reading of Robert Louis Stevenson. This shows in his understatement, his rigorous honesty, his deeply internalised feeling. Writing about Conrad, he seems to be talking about himself: 'The most intimate revelations have certain limits; evasions and the unstated have a worth and weight greater than words.'

Those who chase the latest 'revelation', who say 'I haven't got time to read someone I've never heard of' or who think the 'canon' is forever fixed, have forgotten how to read the naked page and make up their own minds. I thank the friend who gave me the book. There is no pleasure like discovery.

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