The Philosophers’ Madonna
This short novel, originally published in 1931, by the author of two of the classics of 20th-century Italian prose (That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, and Acquainted with Grief), weaves together the lives of Maria Ripamonti, daughter of impoverished aristocrats shivering in a castle, and engineer Baronfo, a dyspeptic salesman stressed out by years of getting on and off trains, who has turned to collecting antiquarian tomes on philosophy. The year is 1922 (when the Fascists seized power in Italy), and Gadda leads the story through a characteristic meander of digressions - a lover lost in the First World War, the Madonna’s rescue of a doctor from witches, all the saints named Francis, the Salsomaggiore baths, screaming mistresses and gramophones, Schubert string trios, a certain Mr. Digbens of Chelmsford and his philosophical correspondents - so as to arrive at a series of beautifully crafted coincidences which bring a twist of humour to the melodramatic denouement. This whole narrative is recounted in a language whose virtuosity, swooping from baroque lyricism to authentic dialect or even bad French, puts Gadda in a league with James Joyce or Raymond Queneau. Gadda (1893-1973) was the master portraitist of Italy’s transition from the land of a hundred dialects to its modern linguistic monoculture.