Monday, October 26, 2009


With a grain of salt

When a writer dies, you look at the work and see valedictory notes everywhere. Last week I picked up Aldo Buzzi's A Weakness for Almost Everything (a great title, especially for a man who could become downright rhapsodic about the correct way to dress a salad) and stopped when I came to this passage about his mother, a painter who kept her talent under wraps:
Some small paintings of hers keep me company at home, although it's painful to recall that while she was alive she was not appreciated as she deserved. Who knows where those paintings will be in a few years, I think, if they still exist--in what houses, entrusted to whose hands. Best not to think about it.

One painting shows the window of the room in Via Santo Garovaglio, in Como, where I was born, open onto the looming face of the mountain of Brunate, in shadow, where some black swallows are flying.
I must have seen some of those paintings during my visit. There were small landscapes on the wall in the living room, and more in the bedroom, but it didn't occur to me to ask who had painted them. Meanwhile, that brings me to another paragraph in the same book, where he bids his native city goodbye as a passenger on a celestial locomotive, ending (as must we all) in silence:
The train leaving Como travels slowly along one of the main streets of the city, as if it were in America; the jolts are muffled by the red velvet of first class, with the embroidered cover for the head. Farewell, royal city of missoltitt, and town of the onions. Farewell, my fellow citizens, freshwater sailors and mountaineers of the plain. The Palazzo Terrragni, rationalist dream of the Como architect Terragni, passes wavering before my eyes; rising steeply behind it is the mountain of Brunate, Como's arcropolis, where the place of the Parthenon is occupied by the former annex of the Hotel Milano, whose facade, faded by the distance, sticks up continuously above the roofs of the city. The duomo goes by, and the famous frog, carved in the fifteenth century by the brothers Tomaso and Jacopo Rodari (by which of the two we will never know) and decapitated by a fanatic with a hammer in 1912; which should be seen not, as some believe, as a mark of the level reached by the lakewater during a big flood, or as a descendant of the large tadpole carved at the bottom of one of the holy-water basins in the duomo, but, as the back legs, which seem to be extended in a spasm, clearly indicate, as the prefiguration of the frog of Galvani, who was to open the way to the artificial electric organ, later called appareil a colonne, then appareil a pile, and finally pile. And here again are the white neon lights of the ancient Cinema Plinio (the Elder), and, almost at the end of the street, the mysterious sign of the Silenzio restaurant: as if the blessed god of silence himself, the boy Arpocrates, were to suddenly appear among the laid tables in his usual pose, with the index finger of his right hand on his lips.
The passage is beautiful. Perhaps it wanders too far afield during the froggy bit, and Ann Goldstein, who has done an otherwise elegant job, introduces an error when she talks about the "artificial electric organ"--an image that made me think of a lounge player hunched over his B-3. Here's the deal: Galvani's experiments led his occasional adversary Alessandro Volta to invent the first electric battery. Volta had based his design on the shock-inducing apparatus of the torpedo fish or ray, which he considered to possess an organe electrique naturel--hence he called his own creation an organe electrique artificiel. He was talking about a battery. An appareil a pile is also a battery. Sigh. It seems blasphemous to be mucking around with trivia here, but trivia was, in some sense, Aldo's meat and drink.

Another thing, which struck me only as I typed the sentences myself, is that the passage slyly recapitulates the author's career. You have the early, architectural phase, with a tip of the hat to Giuseppe Terragni. Then, after the galvanizing transition, we're suddenly at the cinema, where Aldo spent the second phase of his professional life. And where, you ask, is the final phase of literary production? Note the name of the movie theater. Pliny the Elder was, like Aldo, a son of Como who turned to writing after a long life spent on other pursuits. He had a similar attachment to the homely detail, the telling fact, which he collected by the bushel in his Natural History. It was Pliny who wrote: "Indeed, what is there that does not appear marvelous when it comes to our knowledge for the first time?" Aldo could have written that, if Pliny hadn't beaten him to the punch, but he would have seasoned it a bit more. Cum grano salis.

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