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Buzzati in Every Bookstore: A review of Catastrophe and Other Stories

By Ben Roth.

Review of Catastrophe & Other Stories by Dino Buzzati

Dino Buzzati, Catastrophe and Other Stories (Ecco, 2018)

In his preface to the newly reissued edition of Dino Buzzati’s Catastrophe and Other Stories, US writer Kevin Brockmeier describes his years-long quest to find the book, “supposedly” published by Calder and Boyars in London in 1965 and released in paperback in 1981, but so elusive that he was for a while convinced it didn’t actually exist. Brockmeier would occasionally locate and order a copy online, but it would never arrive. Then, in 2010, in a Nebraska bookstore, he finds a copy for a mere $5 (“the single most exhilarating bookstore find of my life”) and, feeling “oddly like a thief”, purchases it. This is not itself unlike the beginning of a Buzzati story. Except if Brockmeier were one of Buzzati’s characters, finding the book so cheaply would end in a bleak reversal, the debt standing in need of repayment: no matter their quality, the long-sought-after stories would disappoint, perhaps, or, before getting to read them, he would be arrested for the mere feeling that he had “managed to abscond” with the volume—maybe even thinking such a punishment was justified. Buzzati himself would have concocted a more sublime ending and made it at once plausible, unexpected and haunting, given his vast imagination and talent.

Born in Italy in 1906, Buzzati worked for a Milanese newspaper for his entire career, writing his literary works, which span numerous genres, on the side (he died in 1972). He is best known for his novel The Tartar Steppe (1940), the story of a soldier who reports to his first posting at an isolated frontier fortress only to spend his entire life there, waiting in futility for the invasion. While Buzzati is best known for the novel, neither he nor it are known as widely as they should be. Comparable to Kafka’s The Castle, looking back to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and in turn the inspiration for Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, it is in the same league as those august volumes: The Tartar Steppe is, as Brockmeier rightly puts it, an “out-and-out masterpiece”—one of the most underrated works of fiction of the twentieth century, in this reader’s opinion. Published exactly between Sartre’s Nausea (1938) and Camus’s The Stranger (1942), it is as philosophically substantial as both of them, if elegantly understated instead of overt in its existentialism, never risking didacticism. Indeed, The Tartar Steppe is a work of impeccable craft, worth studying just to figure out how Buzzati so subtly conveys his protagonist’s pathetic condition as all too plausible, and as all too much our own.

The Tartar Steppe has been available in English for some time (Stuart Hood’s translation is published by David R. Godine in the US, and by Canongate Books in the UK), but one rarely sees it in bookstores, new or used. Buzzati’s excellent stories have long been even harder to find in English. In the 1980s, North Point Press brought out two volumes, Restless Nights and The Siren, but both have long been out of print, and used copies are selling for $50, $100 or more online. One generally sees them only in good research libraries. The Calder and Boyars edition is truly rare: until recently, I didn’t even know it existed, such that I could lament its unavailability. Four other of Buzzati’s literary works have been translated into English: the children’s novel The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, the graphic novel Poem Strip, A Love Affair, a story of obsession in the vein of his contemporary Alberto Moravia, and Larger than Life, an oblique bit of science fiction. While all intriguing, none of these works reaches the same heights as The Tartar Steppe and Buzzati’s short fiction. So it is truly exciting to see Ecco reissue Catastrophe and Other Stories, adding five more stories to the 15 in the older British edition.

The title story, ‘Catastrophe’, gives one a good sense of Buzzati’s approach. Its narrator embarks on a long journey by train and, over the course of just a few short pages, speeds past progressively stronger signs that something is awry: bystanders seemingly being told disturbing news, crowds of refugees fleeing in the opposite direction. Here is an image for our time, akin to Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, which looks backward at the messes accumulating behind it, even as they push it forward into the future. We are propelled toward a catastrophe that has already happened but we can’t see it, much less understand it, our knowledge of the event available only secondhand via its symptoms and consequences. In ‘The Collapse of the Baliverna’, it is not, at least literally, civilisation that crumbles, but rather “a huge, grim brick building put up outside of the town during the seventeenth century by monks of the San Celso”, now decaying and home to countless unfortunates. The narrator unwittingly sets off a chain reaction that leaves him meditating on how much guilt he truly bears. In ‘And Yet They Are Knocking at Your Door’, the characters similarly find themselves in a disaster, but instead blithely ignore the rising floodwaters around them.

‘Seven Floors’ mirrors The Tartar Steppe, except whereas in the novel the perplexing question is how the protagonist has wiled away his entire life in expectant stasis, in the story the question is how it is that one Giovanni Corti moves, through misunderstandings and bureaucratic foibles, from a nursing home’s seventh floor, reserved for the barely sick, ever lower, joining the ever sicker, to his inevitable end. In both ‘Just the Very Thing They Wanted’ and ‘The Egg’, it is not just bureaucracy, but society as a whole that is indicted, the protagonists of both stories set upon cruelly by the community after running afoul of the slightest of social mores, before coming to diametrically opposed fates.

Buzzati’s stories sometimes traffic in the unreal. ‘The Alarming Revenge of a Domestic Pet’ features a creature (“for some reason I was immediately convinced that it was a bat, though I can’t think why, since it really had very little in common with one”) that serves the main character and her aunt’s other guests liqueur, then much more. More frequently, the unreal arises from Buzzati’s characters themselves, in all their countless anxieties. ‘The Monster’ may or may not feature one in the shadowy corner of an attic, and in ‘The Scala Scare’, the collection’s longest story by far at over 40 pages, an operagoer convinces himself that a terrorist plot is unfolding around him.

Buzzati disliked being constantly compared to Kafka and, though that remains the most apt touchstone, the difference between their work is also revealing: whereas Kafka’s overriding mode is one of deep pathos, a magnificently refined sense of irony characterizes Buzzati’s stories. To describe him as “the bard of nervousness” (Katy Waldman for The New Yorker) or his stories as “steeped in terror” (Jhumpa Lahari on the back cover) isn’t wrong, but understates Buzzati’s humour, which while indeed often dark and sometimes pathos-ridden, is at other times light in touch, even whimsical. One smiles much more often in response to the turn of a Buzzati story than one does when reading Kafka, and some even have happy endings—of sorts.

Buzzati is a master of the short story in so many of its rich possibilities beyond character and epiphany, those elements that American and British literature have stressed for well over a half-century now. The stories of Catastrophe are all written in transparent prose (most of those here translated by Judith Landry); Buzzati’s aims and strengths are those not of an innovator of language and voice, but rather an artful unfolder of concept in plot. Admirers of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics and Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, of Donald Barthelme and Steven Millhauser, of The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, and of—most especially—Kafka and Borges will all find delights galore in Catastrophe and Other Stories.

Remarkably few of those stories of Buzzati’s that have been translated into English misfire, in this volume or elsewhere. This is, no doubt, to some degree a matter of selection. But that’s certainly not to suggest that we shouldn’t want more of them. Not every Kafka story measures up to ‘In the Penal Colony’, not every Borges to ‘The Library of Babel’, but we treasure every one that we have. One hopes that this reissue of Catastrophe and Other Stories is the beginning of a Buzzati revival. The Tartar Steppe should be in every bookstore, and one would love to see NYRB Classics (who already publish The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily and Poem Strip) scoop up the rights to those out-of-print North Point editions and reissue them. Most recently, in 2013, Fellini’s unrealised screenplay for The Journey of G. Mastorna, on which Buzzati was a collaborator, appeared in English. Many other of his works, astonishingly various in genre, remain untranslated. Perhaps we’ll eventually even get a complete edition of Buzzati’s hundreds of stories in English, a thick volume to set between Kafka and Borges, where it justly belongs.


Ben Roth

Ben Roth teaches writing and philosophy at Harvard. Recent publications include ‘Reading from the Middle: Heidegger and the Narrative Self’ in the European Journal of Philosophy and an essay on the problem of nihilism in architectural phenomenology for Log. His polemic ‘Against Readability’ was one of the most read posts on The Millions last year.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 10th, 2018.