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Places of the Fantastic – Critic’s corner

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Marvellous Mountains and Calamitous Cities: Personal Landscapes in Dino Buzzati’s Fantastic Fiction

by Matthew Reza (University of Oxford)

Much has been made of the lifelong love that Dino Buzzati held for mountains, and in particular for the Dolomites which rise above Belluno, the town in the Veneto where he was born in 1906.[1] Buzzati lived and worked for the most part in Milan, but frequently returned to his beloved Dolomites, and a distinct use of the mountain in contrast to the cityscape – and the echoes of technology and modernity that an urban environment might suggest – is evident throughout his both literary and artistic corpuses. Indeed, Buzzati’s fascination for mountains reaches back to childhood: a keen climber early on, he proudly proclaimed ‘[i]o sono diventato alpinista’[2] in a letter to his friend Arturo Brambilla when he was fourteen years old.

Many critics have noted the importance of the mountain in Buzzati’s work, among them Nella Giannetto, who argues that ‘[i]l binomio Buzzati-montagna è uno dei più ovvi, sia nel mondo alpinistico, sia nel mondo della critica letteraria che si occupa dello scrittore bellunese’,[3] the best example of where the mountain underpins (and towers over) his work being an early novel Bàrnabo delle montagne (1933). Giannetto moreover labels the mountain ‘l’elemento indiscutibilmente più positivo che si incontri nell’opera di Buzzati’,[4] where the city by contrast functions as a ‘bolgia infernale di perdizione e alienazione, regno dell’ipocrisia, della menzogna, dell’egoismo, dove i sentimenti e le angosce peggiori trovano il miglior terreno per attecchire’,[5] an opposition which also appears in Buzzati’s fantastic fiction.[6]

In keeping with the codified and predictable rules of the fairy tale, La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia (1945) clearly exemplifies this division between ‘la positività del mondo alto della montagna e la negatività del mondo basso della pianura’.[7] The bears are driven down from the mountains by hunger, and are corrupted by the human society they find; Leonzio sees his fellow bears drink and gamble, and on his dying breath, commands them to return to their simpler life in the mountains, far from human society. Other stories represent a nightmarish urban environment: on the edges of an unnamed city, a young bed-ridden Carlo is tormented by a mysterious stranger who returns each night to keep him awake in ‘Il dolore notturno’ (1942). In ever more infernal terms, and deriving from one of Buzzati’s actual assignments for Corriere della sera,[8] in ‘Viaggio agli inferni del secolo’ (1966) a doorway to the subterranean city Inferno is discovered beneath the Milan underground, which the intrepid reporter Buzzati-character is sent to investigate. Importantly, ‘Viaggio agli inferni del secolo’ is a rare instance of a more overt presence of Buzzati as the protagonist within a fantastic story, and also where he is surrounded by the geography of his identifiable real world. Echoes specifically of Buzzati’s own familiar landscapes feature wholesale in his fantastic stories less frequently.

The mountain, unlike the city, is a place resistant to contamination. When Aldo Cristofari invents a means to slow down time in ‘La macchina che fermava il tempo’ (1954) by means of ‘uno special campo elettrostatico detto «Campo C»’, it is tested in a ‘zona collinosa […] pressoché disabitata’.[9] The rural hilly area is cordoned off, upon which a new city of skyscrapers is built. The fall of the city is duly prophesied and indeed, after a malfunction, time speeds up, the inhabitants rapidly age and die in a matter of seconds. Of what remains, ‘immobilità’ and ‘silenzio’[10] are noted characteristics of Buzzati’s mountains.[11] A new rendering of a pact with the devil[12] in ‘La giacca stregata’ (1966) details how a tailor in Milan makes a jacket the pocket of which magically provides an endless supply of banknotes. After extracting huge amounts of money, a series of seemingly unconnected deaths leads the narrator to suspect that his jacket (and his greed) are responsible. He flees to ‘una recondita valle delle Alpi’[13] where, after climbing above the woods onto a rocky moraine, he burns the jacket with petrol. In a similar manner in which the effect of Campo C are counterbalanced, everything the narrator had bought with the help of the jacket suddenly disappears. As a space of purification in ‘La giacca stregata’, the mountain is also, because of a machine failure, purged of the traces of the human presence in the urban environment and skyscraper skyline in ‘La macchina che fermava il tempo’. Buzzati’s own personal distaste for skyscrapers[14] is moreover subtly conveyed in ‘La torre Eiffel’ (1966), where work on the tower continues past its original planning. Eiffel and the engineers who volunteer to remain continue adding floors, and having passed through the clouds, they catch a glimpse of the far-off snow-covered Alps. The authorities finally order that the tower is returned to the originally planned height, and is dismantled accordingly. The extension of the city into the clouds, the ‘sublime esilio’ from the ‘squallido mondo’[15] below – again articulating a clear opposition – conflicts with Buzzati’s separation of mountain and city space. While the reason for the tower being cut is ostensibly bureaucratic, within a more nuanced understanding of Buzzati’s writing, the tower represents an intrusion of the spazio basso into the spazio alto by mechanical not natural means. The extended tower oversteps the limits that Buzzati imposes upon the city ‘down below’, in the same way that Aldo Cristofari oversteps by trying to alter time, not to mention how skyscrapers rise up over the hillside, and similarly how the jacket allows its owner to claim what is beyond his lot.

With this Promethean undercurrent in mind, the mountainous setting of Il grande ritratto (1960) becomes not merely a remote location for Endriade’s attempts to incorporate his dead wife Laura into a computer (‘named Laura in the best Petrarchist tradition’,[16] as Judy Rawson notes), but also the site whereby this projects fails, not only for its theme of creating artificial life, but also for setting up a government facility high up in the mountains. As Marie-Hélène Caspar argues in Buzzati’s work, ‘[l]a montagne […] est un espace sacré, intouchable, inviolable’.[17]

That Buzzati happily retreated to Belluno when he could, while spending the rest of the year in Milan, and that much of his literary imaginary stems from his love of mountains, in more ways than one implies a real sense of escapism to some of Buzzati’s fantastic fiction. Whether a refuge from a corrupting human society, or an escape from an everyday and indeed hellish reality, or as a space far from the city where to advance scientific discovery, the mountain not only locates the impossible but also provides a ‘natural’ counterbalance that rejects the contaminating trace of the human and the cityscape.

 

[1] For a bibliography of works on Buzzati and the mountain including Buzzati’s own pieces on mountains complied by Nella Giannetto, Cinzia Mares and Patrizia Dalla Rosa, see Maurizio Trevisan, Dino Buzzati, l’alpinista, Quaderni del Centro studi Buzzati ; 4 (Pisa: Istituti editoriali e poligrafici internazionali, 2006), pp. 93-105. See also Luigi De Anna, Dino Buzzati e il segreto della montagna (Verbania: Tararà, 1997).

[2] Dated 17 August 1920. Dino Buzzati, Lettere a Brambilla (Novara: Istituto geografico De Agostini, 1985), p. 45.

[3] Nella Giannetto, Il sudario delle caligini : significati e fortune dell’opera buzzatiana (Firenze: Leo S. Olschki, 1996), p. 139.

[4] Ibid., p. 12.

[5] Ibid., p. 15. In his interviews with Yves Panafieu, Buzzati articulates his relationship with Milan and other cities in greater detail: Yves Panafieu, Dino Buzzati : un autoritratto : dialoghi con Yves Panafieu, luglio-settembre 1971 (Milano: Mondadori, 1973), pp. 38-57.

[6] Here I use fantastic in very broad terms as an articulation of the improbable and impossible, and indeed some of the stories in this essay may fall outside of more nuanced definitions of ‘fantastic’, but are included to explore the role of the mountain and the city.

[7] Giannetto, Il sudario delle caligini, p. 157 (original emphasis).

[8] Judy Rawson, ‘Dino Buzzati’, in Writers & Society in Contemporary Italy: A Collection of Essays, ed. by Michael Caesar and Peter Hainsworth (Leamington Spa: Berg, 1984), pp. 191–210 (200).

[9] Dino Buzzati, 180 racconti : da I sette messaggeri, Paura alla Scala, Il crollo della Baliverna, In quel preciso momento, Esperimento di magia, Sessanta racconti, Il colombre, Le notti difficili (Milano: Mondadori, 1982), pp. 333-334.

[10] Ibid., p. 337.

[11] As well as symbolizing death (which resonates with a number of examples here), Giannetto argues that ‘[l]e montagne sono simbolo, in molti luoghi della scrittura buzzatiana, di ciò che è certo, di ciò che non muta’ (Giannetto, sudario, p. 155).

[12] Neuro Bonifazi, Teoria del fantastico e il racconto fantastico in Italia: Tarchetti – Pirandello – Buzzati (Ravenna: Longo, 1982), p. 168.

[13] Buzzati, 180 racconti, p. 665.

[14] Panafieu, un autoritratto, p. 46.

[15] Buzzati, 180 racconti, p. 709.

[16] Judy Rawson, ‘Dino Buzzati’, p. 197.

[17] Marie-Hélène Caspar, Fantastique et mythe personnel dans l’oeuvre de Dino Buzzati (La Garenne-Colombes: Éditions européennes Érasme, 1990), p. 222.

 

Matthew Reza is a language teacher and casual lecturer at Oxford University, and Events Coordinator for the research network Italian Studies at Oxford. He researches Italian fantastic literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and together with Florian Mussgnug has edited The Good Place: Comparative Perspectives on Utopia (2014). He is currently a postdoctoral research assistant for the project Cultures on the Move: Italy and the USA, based in Oxford.

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One comment on “Places of the Fantastic – Critic’s corner

  1. davidjabowe
    January 27, 2016

    Reblogged this on David J A Bowe and commented:
    My marvellous colleague Dr Matthew Reza on Dino Buzzati’s Fantastic Fiction for Reading Italy!

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This entry was posted on January 25, 2016 by in Critic's corner.
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