Forgotten authors No 20: Dino Buzzati

Sunday 18 January 2009 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It is surprising how many forgotten authors have managed to survive in their short fiction rather than their novels, even though their full-length works received critical adulation upon publication. Dino Buzzati (1906-1972)

is obscure even by bibliophiles' standards, but it's important to include him here because he was an extraordinary writer. A painter, poet, playwright, editor and journalist, he found fame with the 1940 publication of The Tartar Steppe, a disturbing novel reminiscent of Kafka and Camus, about a young soldier in a far outpost awaiting inundation by barbarians. The novel, which damns the military mindset, denies the reader the satisfaction of a final explanation, and in doing so captures the elusive contours of our real lives.

Buzzati completed five novels, comics, a number of plays and a still-popular children's book about bears in Sicily, but discerning editors can cherry-pick from his six volumes of powerful short stories, and the reprints find their way into present-day collections. Buzzati's greatest strength lay here, in a kind of Italian magical realism that heightened the simple and practical with seemingly fantastic elements.

In "Seven Floors", a businessman with a minor ailment is admitted to a hospital in which each floor denotes a different severity of illness, the ground level being reserved for those about to die. By accident, he finds himself being shunted down floor by floor. In "Just the Very Thing They Wanted", a touring couple visit a small town and find themselves denied the most basic human rights: to sit down, to drink, to rest, to gather their strength. Perhaps because translation forces his prose into a kind of universal English, his writing feels timeless. In "The Elevator", from his collection Restless Nights, a lift takes its occupants on a journey far below the bottom of the building. But instead of producing a standard tale of the fantastic, Buzzati uses the situation to frighten his leading character into an honest declaration of love.

Buzzati's standing as a creative polymath probably set a time limit on his fame. How could one promote such a multi-talented writer overseas? Indeed, finding his work without paying a fortune for it is a labour of patience. A collection of stories is currently available on the internet for around $200.

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