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The Secret Euphoria of Reading: On Cento lettere a uno sconosciuto by Roberto Calasso

By Daniela Cascella.

Cento lettere a uno sconosciuto

Roberto Calasso, Cento lettere a uno sconosciuto (Adelphi, 2003)

A collection of blurbs, a hundred of them, written around other books. Written outside them and in-between them, binding them into a “perverse and polymorphous book” — a book made of words pulled, quite literally, from the margins of other books:

“America is Lolita, Lolita is America.”

“…a new genre of narrative which does not seek direct contact with reality, but moves through the crooked ways of philology and mystification … like in a reservoir of dreams.”

“A nervous, phosphorescent mobility of style, an endless germination of images… You have no idea what modern prose is … if you don’t let this prose resonate in you, with its killer sudden jolts, hallucinatory juxtapositions, supreme and predatory use of pre-existing texts. [This book] speaks of everything. And it leaves nothing intact. … The ‘sacrilegious azure’ of [this] prose, a colour, a timbre … give us a shock of secret euphoria.”

Holding these words together is the secret euphoria of reading.

*

I’m reading a book that collects a hundred book blurbs. It is titled Cento lettere a uno sconosciuto. It has a pale blue gatefold cover and, to date, no English translation from Italian. A Hundred Letters to a Stranger were selected and published in 2003 from over a thousand book blurbs written for the legendary Italian publishing house Adelphi by Roberto Calasso, who became Adelphi’s editor in 1971 and who is today its president, having worked for it since its inception in 1962. As he traces the antecedent of the blurb as a literary form to the 16th-century ‘epistola dedicatoria’—namely the ‘dedicatory letter’ in which a writer would address the prince who protected and financed his work—Calasso remarks: “Today there are no princes, there is a readership … made by individuals. Each reader whose eyes fall on a book blurb reads a letter addressed to a stranger.”

Between a multiplicity of readers unknown to authors, and books unknown to readers, Calasso’s blurbs don’t connect the Adelphi publications through the logic of a plan. Instead, connections are formed through the untidier, rapturous motions of reading and of the desire to read, holding together a multitude of contingent singulars. The anti-rational quality of each encounter with a book is favoured against any rationale. Presence overrides programme, in the same manner as Adelphi’s editorial output never followed a linear path but, rather, was prompted by ardor as the path to knowledge, maintaining that books do not hold stable original meanings but prompt intermittent and changing conversations. Knowledge is mutable, knowledge is the rhythm of rapture, “America is Lolita, Lolita is America.” Many Italians of my generation will still remember this sentence, partly a distant echo of “I am Heathcliff”, partly a lightning bolt of awareness as Calasso never aims to explain the books he writes around: he thrusts the readers in amongst the very texture of language. His blurbs have no claim to introduce or contextualise: they suggest possible ways of being with books, inside them, elliptical, undone, remade in reading, incomplete, blurred — and then, again, blurbed.

*

I always thought of the gatefold covers that enwrap Adelphi’s books and on which Calasso’s blurbs are printed as the other side of official words, as sites of otherness. Like the words in the blurbs that they support, the gatefolds point in their very form at what is concealed and unspoken; they outline a space of further thinking and further reading, where the resonance of a book rings and calls for connections beyond the book itself. In my eyes, Adelphi’s gatefold covers always instigated explorations behind the fold of a blurb, searching for the concealed matter of thought into words, for what is unwritten, hidden. Likewise, as I read through the blurbs I realise what the Adelphi books were for me as a teenager growing up in a provincial Italian town in the 1980s: an education in literary secrets, in unwritten histories, in eccentric styles that certainly were not taught at school and yet were to become, for me, central.

I read the blurb of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu:

The sexual charge that had accumulated in the end of the century, tentatively hidden in the greenhouse of Liberty where sexuality ends up censoring itself in the birth of abstraction, explodes with no precautions in Wedekind. Naturalism’s pedantic constrictions are annihilated here by a surplus of bluntness in material; and brute life will turn out not to be a tranche de vie, but something unlikely, which takes on a tone of abstract exasperation alike to the Marionette theatre and to the circus. The reference to both forms, which will be so pervasive in 20th-century art, appears here in its origin. Preceded by Strindberg, Sacher-Masoch and by The Kreutzer Sonata, grown up with the early great discoveries of Freud, with Kraus’ attacks against the scandalous safeguard of sexual morality, with Weininger’s appearance and suicide, Lulu.

No teachers at school were ever able to sum up the fin de siècle spirit so succinctly and eloquently: none of them was ever able to let it erupt and take over in only a handful of words, and to outline myriad possibilities of what writing could be.

As I read the blurb of Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of a Nervous Illness, I see Calasso unravelling a secret network of literature and thought, where writing is a restless texture of dark determination and unsettling contradictions.

I read of the maddening oscillation between the formless tensions of the occult and the forms of literature in the blurb of William Butler Yeats’ A Vision.

As I read the blurb of James Hillman’s The Myth of Analysis, I recall how that book undid for the first time in my thinking “the curse of the analytic spirit”, that “degrades imagination, soul, the feminine as three dark powers that first of all need to be encaged”, and highlighted instead the importance and the impetus of “imagination, soul, the feminine” as part of Hillman’s idea of “making soul”, a necessary obscure activity of self-elaboration and transformation of what is lived through.

*

Calasso’s collection of blurbs is also a collection of frames around meaningful absent words. He writes about frames in La folie Baudelaire:

The essential thing is recognition of chaos, of the pullulating forces and forms, of the benevolent hospitality accorded to all variations of the monstrous. But equally essential is the presence of the frame, of this artifice that delimits and separates. … All that happens within the frame intensifies the elements circumscribed by it, obliging them to crossbreed in combinations never before experimented with. And so the new is born.

In this book centred on words from the margins, the frames become framed and “the new” is born through juxtapositions and close engagement with what is old: the framing devices of culture, the residues of memory, the very stuff of language. They are all reshaped by Calasso, reader, and passed on to each unknown reader, enabling a type of understanding that unfolds through time in multiplicity and change. Shifted from margin to centre the blurbs speak from within, yet without the books they’re written for, and around. They may take shape in absentia but the negative space of such absence is a dense, fertile ground for thought, as in the archaic Indian traditions of Rg Veda, Brahamana, Upanisad so dear to Calasso. The blurbs state their presence as echo chambers in which the absent books resound with murmurs, with questions such as: what builds a library? What connects disparate works and words? What do books transmit onto our selves? And further on, detours into what is commonly deemed irrelevant, marginal, minor — until I’m no longer sure who generates what, what is written before and what after, what is read into writing and written out of reading, and notions of origin are buried beneath layers of rewritings.

*

Adelphi’s main series ‘Biblioteca’ began with Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side. Calasso’s collection of blurbs begins with Samuel Butler’s Erewhon: a scrambled nowhere, a scrambled other side, a book first published anonymously, the perfect start for this collection of texts written around the eventful and sensuous nowhere of reading, whose maps are re-written in every reading, palimpsests of marks traced on the sensory realm as Calasso makes prose felt and heard.

I feel prose, psychically and violently, in the blurb of August Strindberg’s Inferno, a book written in “a visionary stenography” by “the first modern writer who lets physiology, psychology and parapsychology merge … the haruspex for whom each coincidence is a ‘correspondence’”, “in a feverish pulse, it shakes you between cosmic drama and the atrociously amusing farce”.

I hear prose in the blurb of the short stories by Katherine Mansfield, who was able to give voice to “precariousness as spasm, fit, fierce angst, and at once as marvel, unjustified ecstasy, pure perception. Psychology here does not need to be declared, but is absorbed in the darting image, in the pulse of the moment. And sudden happiness, as well as deaf unhappiness, sparse in any moment and any life, very rarely have met us with such intensity, yet sottovoce, as in these pages”.

Prose to be heard: it was Calasso who, in Literature and the Gods, advised, “Never state the thing, but the resonance of the thing.”

*

One of the threads that I, unknown reader, stranger, weave across the blurbs binds Doppelgänger and dropouts, maudits and melancholics, visionaries and vixens, inner dialogues and dialogues with the dead, all leading me across the Adelphi catalogue in pilgrimages never undertaken toward a place, but toward another dimension of the world through language. Across this odd juxtaposition of titles lies an invite to develop an ability to think beyond acquired knowledge, beyond syllabi, expected references and canons: therefore L’écornifleur by Jules Renard is placed near Bouvard and Pécuchet, Karen Blixen near Milan Kundera, Gottfried Benn near Tommaso Landolfi then Kenneth Anger then Nabokov. They make up a substratum of complex reading-into-wordmaking, proving that books do not exist as self-contained bubbles but are, can be and should be infected by illegitimate correspondences, arbitrary yet resounding phonic outbursts, and vicious errors. To learn and to detect them and include them into writing means to forge a subtle literary identity.

Woven across the fabric of Calasso’s blurbs is a thread of marginal figures, writers in spite of themselves. These people wrote yet would not call themselves writers. They were recluse, enclosed, outsiders locked in, disrupting any notions of a unified and coherent writing subject. One such non-writer was 17th-century Danish aristocrat Leonora Christina Ulfeldt, who wrote Memories from the Blue Tower as the chronicle of her 22-year imprisonment following accusations of conspiracy against the King. “The more precise Leonora is in describing, the more she hides herself. … All her memories are held by the occultation of the I, which becomes, out of itself, a lot stronger and more elusive.” In the blurb of the Life of the Archpriest Avvakum, Calasso writes of another imprisoned author “whose spiritual fervour is intensely physical”—where in fact the bodily and the primordial drives become necessary springboards for the spiritual. Another type of imprisonment, psychological rather than physical, is found in Thomas Bernhard’s Breath, its long corridor and infinite rooms projecting a sense of being very close to death — or at least to an edge. But the extreme point of imprisonment, not physical but within a frame of mind, is found in The Book of Job, with its unrelenting statements and visceral imagery. Marked by Calasso as the “principal book on Evil”, the volume’s opaque writing must simply be read through, as any attempts at exegesis and clarification are dismissed. Reading and writing are concerned with shadows, silences and obscurities: it is no surprise that Calasso praises Guido Ceronetti, who translated the book for Adelphi and who “tried, through obscurity and enigma, to offer, in all their strength, obscurities and enigmas, so that this text, and that no reason will ever be able to accept, appears again unacceptable”.

More writing as a play of obscurity and shadows, trickery and lies. In the blurb of Arthur Schnitzler’s The Return of Casanova, we’re confronted with “the certainty that the prince of tricksters is also the first one to be tricked, ultimately that trickery is the only shape in which life manifests itself”. Literature is a lie, to quote the title of a seminal book by Giorgio Manganelli, also published by Adelphi. Anything that claimed to search for truth turns out to be the material for a lie — that is, fiction: a lie that underlies all literature and makes literature and is written through the words of others. On closer inspection, the books Calasso writes around are not so absent from his blurbs. He actually writes with them, he brings them back in by writing through them: the amount of quotes in the Hundred Letters is conspicuous and I’m tempted to erase the quotation marks and read these blurbs as seamless textures of non-origin. The blurb of E.M. Cioran’s The Temptation to Exist is a masterful stitch-work of fragments, such as “initiation to vertigo”, “prey to the fever of the visible”, “to become futile, we must cut our roots, become metaphysically strangers”, “condemned to lucidity”, “you can breathe what Europe is and what Europe was in any of these pages”. Writing is intermittent, in and out of quotes: its fabric is impure, contaminated, polyphonic and polysemic—just like the list of books published by Adelphi, just like the 100th publication in the Biblioteca series, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Book of Friends:

By mixing his thoughts and reflections with those of famous and ancient authors and also much less renowned, and contemporary ones, Hofmannsthal managed to induce a singular shift: even before themselves, those names point at the voices that take part in an inexhaustible conversation. And even behind the voice of the author, voices of many other people seem to hide, and they speak anonymously because of him.

A cluster of words rings in my ears as I wonder what keeps these voices — and “the vertigo that ensues” — together. A possible answer appears in the blurb of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, evoking “the Strange Ring that occurs when a system talks about itself”. Out of frames and their collapse, out of enigma and enchantment, this collection of blurbs configures reading as a dizzying layering of surfaces and textures, ambiguous, sensuous, resonant and resistant. This book is an arrangement of frames within frames. It celebrates reading, and the vertigo that ensues.

All translations from Cento lettere a uno sconosciuto by the author.

Daniela Cascella

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniela Cascella is a London-based Italian writer. Her work is focused on sound and literature across a range of publications and projects, driven by a longstanding interest in the relationship between listening, reading, writing, translating, recording and in the contingent conversations, questions, frictions, kinships that these fields generate, host or complicate. She is the author of F.M.R.L. Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound (Zero Books, 2015) and En Abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing. An Archival Fiction (Zero Books, 2012). Twitter: @enabime

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 24th, 2015.