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Places of the Fantastic – Voices

casa spettrale

The house and its nuances: space and liminality in Landolfi’s Racconto d’autunno

by Paola Roccella (University of Warwick)

In the years following WWII, we witness what Cesaretti calls ‘perdita dell’altrove’. In other words, in the aftermath of the horrors of the war, the physical space is desacralised and the belief in a divine order fades away. Such a loss has obvious consequences for spatial representations in post-war literature. More particularly, the privileged space of the house, so full of philosophical and psychoanalytical implications, loses its archetypical sense of safeness and protection. The house becomes a manifold metaphor and protean motif, rich in symbolic values.[1] Ultimately, it may appear destroyed, silent and empty thus mirroring the cultural transition to modernity. A particular tension between the city and the countryside on the one hand and the spheres of history and myth on the other comes to the fore, enabling the creation of narrations in which the resurfacing of chthonic archetypes and rituals linked to the countryside obliquely enlightens the horrors of the civil war.[2]

In this perspective, in Tommaso Landolfi’s Racconto d’autunno (1947), the motif of the house not only acquires the features of the Gothic castle but also an intrinsic condition of liminality, ultimately culminating into the image of an ‘eviscerated’ human-like entity. The novella is particularly unique in its genre, as its spatial dimension is threefold: real, literary and symbolic. The work was drafted in 1946 in an inspiring decaying manor in Pico Farnese[3] (FR), and the same real space acquires in literary representation the nuances of the Gothic castle. Ultimately, by appearing destroyed, with all the interiors revealed, the manor acquires a strong symbolic value in reverberating a sense of decay and dismantlement which is both historical (the effect of the civil war on people’s lives), physical (the transformation undergone by buildings and environment) and cultural (transition to modernity, end of the fantastic).

The liminal dimension informing all the text is particularly evident in relation to space and enables a reading of the work in the light of Van Gennep’s theory of the rites of passage. Set in a moment of historical watershed (1943-44) and in a borderline area between two military fronts – the so-called Linea Gustav (known in English as the Winter Line) – the text is constructed as a descent into hell through the multiple thresholds and borders that lead from an outer space into a house and its dungeon. Doorways, borders, thresholds and transitions are, in fact, crucial elements in rites of passage, since they determine an inversion of social roles and open up multiple possibilities. On the other hand, having passed through the external/internal threshold, the protagonist’s journey turns into a vertical movement through the manor’s labyrinth of rooms and halls, one corresponding to the process of katabasis, which is also central in ritual initiation. The two fierce (and almost infernal) dogs guarding the entrance similarly recall the descent into Hades. Such an element, recurrent both in Gothic fiction and in mythological narrations (Orpheus, Heracles, Aeneas…), is also a specific feature of liminal rites.[4] Indeed, considering the previous elements and the appearance of the house as a quintessential site of alterity (old-fashioned, mysterious) the protagonist seems to access a different regimen of temporality, one independent of the external world, in which the rules of ordinary life are subverted.

Such an independent regimen is then crossed by narrative conventions and atmospheres recurrent in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Gothic/fantastic literature. Labyrinthic, apparently haunted, lost in the middle of the mountains, the manor acquires the appearance of the Gothic castle in all its nuances. The spatial relations typical of Gothic fiction (inside-outside, light-dark, up-down) are enhanced and the manor branches out in undergrown levels, tunnels, dungeons. The manor is also, literally, a part of the mountain, with its foundations intertwined with the natural rock. This aspect epitomises a harmonic relationship between man and nature that modernity – and the war in particular – has destroyed. The architecture of British Gothic novels had explored the same tensions between humans and the environment, the abandoning of the countryside and the changes undergone by natural landscapes in the age of the Industrial Revolution. Therefore, Landolfi employs Gothic conventions in order to address concerns that relate to the wartime period in which he writes his novella. Ultimately, in employing this Gothic repertoire of themes, situations and images, Landolfi explicitly echoes a genre in which defamiliarisation, destabilisation and unsettling material are central to the literary project.

At the end of the novella, the image of the destroyed house most vividly incarnates the impact of the war on the lives of the civil population. Such an image can also be literally interpreted as an aggression, from the outside, upon the intimate and familiar space of the Heim. In this sense, Racconto d’autunno can also be read as a very personal war report, which is even more urgently felt because of the physical (and emotional) impact caused by the bombing of Landolfi’s family manor. Located close to the area of Monti Aurunci, at the centre of the conflicts that affected the whole area from 1943 onwards, Landolfi’s family house was subject to several incursions by soldiers and suffered great damage to its structure.[5] This is not a unique case in which the real and traumatic breakage of a house originates a literary narration. In the same year, the Allies bombing hit Palazzo Lampedusa, in Palermo, property of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The author (who, like Landolfi, descended from an aristocratic family) was also deeply affected by the episode, as testified by the letters that he sent to his wife, Alessandra Tomasi Wolff. There, the author, reports of ‘ferite molto gravi’ in the palace, also using a human metaphor.[6] This episode may have been one of the cores originating Lampedusa’s masterpiece Il gattopardo (1958), another anachronistic work underpinned by a tension between historical narration and psychological account, where the attachment to the objects and magnificence of the family buildings is retraced with the sorrow of the loss.

In conclusion, Racconto d’autunno multiplies the elements of ambiguity, configuring the house as a liminal setting in which the borders between life and death, past and present, animate and inanimate, and, most of all, the natural and the supernatural are blurred and undetermined. The external-internal dichotomy thus delineated enables us to rethink the house as a different realm of temporality, opposed to an external world dominated by the war.[7] The novella can therefore be interpreted as a way of negotiating the lacerations opened by the war in the heimlich space of the house.[8] In addition, the Gothic logic and space dominating this isolated, magic world, comes to be subverted in the moment when the enclosed space of the manor – with its subterranean labyrinth of halls, dungeons, and secret passages – is finally eviscerated and revealed by Allied bombs, thus losing all of its mystery. If, in Freud’s reading, the house (Heim) is etymologically the site par excellence of the uncanny (das Unheimliche), Racconto d’autunno obliquely shows that even the uncanny cannot survive war’s destructive power. In a sense, Landolfi’s novella is a homage paid to the nineteenth-century literature of the supernatural, whose conventions, clichés and excesses are definitely more familiar and homely (heimlich) than the genuinely uncanny, and therefore unspeakable, experience of the war.


[1] ‘Metafora multivalente e motivo proteiforme’ (my translation). Enrico Cesaretti, Castelli di carta. Retorica della dimora tra Scapigliatura e Surrealismo (Longo Editore: Ravenna, 2001), p. 9.

[2] As in Cesare Pavese’s La casa in collina (1949) and La luna e i falò (1950), among other examples.

[3] In terms of the context in which the novella was produced, see the testimony of Landolfi’s daughter, Idolina Landolfi, ‘Mio padre, tra il casinò e la solitudine della campagna’ La Stampa, 9 May 1987, and Giovanna Ghetti Abruzzi, L’enigma Landolfi (Rome: Bulzoni, 1979), p. 24.

[4] ‘The neophyte may be buried, forced to lie motionless in the posture and direction of customary burial, may be stained black, or may be forced to live for a while in the company of masked and monstrous mummers representing, inter alia, the dead, or worse still, the un-dead’. Victor W. Turner, The Forest of Symbols. Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967), p. 96.

[5] As Landolfi’s daughter, Idolina, stated in a later interview: ‘l palazzotto seicentesco nella parte più alta del paese fu una dimora confortevole […] fino al momento in cui gli eventi bellici non fecero proprio di questi luoghi i principale teatro dell’azione: e ai notevoli danni (un’intera ala crollata) non si fu in grado che di porre un parziale rimedio. E mentre altrove, subito fuori delle mura del giardino, ricominciava la vita, nella nostra casa il tempo parve essersi fermato  Idolina Landolfi, ‘Mio padre, tra il Casinò e la solitudine in campagna’ La Stampa, 9 Maggio 1987.

[6] ‘Muri, ma très chère Muri, ti scrivo in gran fretta e nello stato di tristezza più profondo, la nostra povera vecchia cara casa ha ricevuto, lunedì scorso, il cinque aprile delle ferite molto gravi’. Caterina Cadorna (ed.), Lettere a Licy. Un matrimonio epistolare (Palermo: Sellerio, 1987), p. 80.

[7] The manor mirrors Landolfi’s tenancy in Pico Farnese. Its memory is also present in other tales. In Settimana di sole, a similar setting is described: an isolated huge house (‘una vecchia casa di trentaquattro stanze, con cortile e giardino’), set in a small village where the silence ‘regna sovrano’. A lonely inhabitant who moves through long corridors, stairs, attics, interacting with living furniture (‘appena sceso in sala, le seggiole mi sono corse incontro festosamente a leccarmi le mani’) and ghosts. Tommaso Landolfi, Dialogo dei massimi sistemi, ed. by Idolina Landolfi (Milan: Adelphi, 2007), p. 145. Similarly, in La pietra lunare,  the young protagonist lives alone (‘quasi sempre solo col suo gatto e la sua cagna da caccia’) in a big manor in which he used to stay awake at night spying at the outside from the big windows of the attic. The ancient house where Guru lives, ‘nero dagli anni’ (‘talmente aggrondato e minaccioso appare questo portone col suo vano cupo, che, se anche non suscitasse spaventosi ricordi, nessuno vi passerebbe davanti di notte senza sentire un brivido gelargli il filo della schiena o senza, di giorno, schiarirsi almeno la gola’) had been the theatre of past dreadful events. It was the property of previous nobility, although the former owners, called ‘tirannelli’, were greatly unpopular in the village having been suspected of the murder of a trustful fisherman. Tommaso Landolfi, La pietra lunare. Scene dalla vita di provincia (Milan: Adelphi, 2001), pp. 41, 33, and 34 respectively.

[8]  Idolina Landolfi, ‘Il piccolo vascello solca i mari’. Bibliografia degli scritti di e su Tommaso Landolfi (1929-2006) (Florence: Cadmo, 2015), p. 88.


Paola Roccella has studied Modern Languages and Literatures (B.A. and M.A.) at the University of Catania, Italy. She also obtained a teaching qualification (equivalent of PGCA) in Spanish language and literature at the University of Enna. Ms. Roccella is currently a third-year PhD student at the University of Warwick. Her research interests concern the Twentieth-century Italian literature, in particular the fantastic adopted in post-war years by a minor group of authors including Alberto Savinio, Tommaso Landolfi and Anna Maria Ortese. Among the features of this new fantastic, she considers human-animal hybridization, spaces’ liminality, tension between city and the countryside and magic.


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This entry was posted on January 25, 2016 by in Voices.
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