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Notes Without A Text (excerpt)

By Roberto Bazlen & Alex Andriesse.

Roberto Bazlen was born in Trieste in 1902, at a time when that city was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was German, his mother Italian — a double inheritance reflected in his name. Although Bazlen published nothing (apart from translations and a few short articles) in his lifetime, he was a force to reckon with in Italian literary life. He translated Freud and Jung. He advocated for the publication of Italo Svevo. And he helped found Adelphi Edizioni — the prestigious Italian publishing house helmed by Roberto Calasso, who once said of Bazlen: “He taught me more than anyone else, without teaching anything”.

The notebooks Roberto Bazlen kept between 1945 and his death in 1965 were not, like the notebooks of many writers, intended to be read by an admiring posterity. Their entries were written out of personal necessity, and for that reason, among others, they reward rereading.

Even when he was writing for publication, Bazlen’s style was telegraphic. “I think it’s no longer possible to write books,” he posits in one entry:

That’s why I don’t write books—
Almost all books are footnotes, inflated into volumes (volumina).
I write only footnotes.

The irony, of which Bazlen was well aware, is that his footnotes often require his readers to supply footnotes of their own. Some of his entries are traditionally aphoristic: “Megalomania is the first step toward greatness,” or “Intelligence is a tool — and this tool has ended up in the hands of morons”. Others suggest, in the course of a sentence fragment, enough material for an essay: “Western mythology gives us the characters of the drama, not the drama,” or “To die fulfilled and curious”.

What follows are two separate sections from Bazlen’s notebooks which he himself wrote under the rubric of “Death”. They form only a small part of the wealth of fragments, false starts, and private letters that compose Notes Without a Text and Other Writings, introduced and edited by Calasso, published for the first time in English by Dalkey Archive Press.

— Alex Andriesse


Love and death: in the days of cellular division there was only death by catastrophe (annihilation) — Death from internal exhaustion (conflict) begins only with sexuality —

At the age of 33 — Christ — Lorenzo de’ Medici — (Buddha at 66). On the other hand, Titian from cholera: otherwise he would have continued to paint, always better and better —

Not knowing how to die.

Death in Europe. (The abolition of death.) Pasteur anecdote. Forty-three years without death.

The new death: on land Messina — on water Titanic (“The fenced-off ways of death”) — world war.
Aestheticism — Rilke — criminality (diverted to the colonies) — politics of the postwar era.

The deathless man: the petit bourgeois — the communist. Death for the petit bourgeois — resignation or dismissal. The smuggling of death into communism: the persecution of the bourgeoisie, the war — (Man is born after the theft of a bicycle).

To invent a new death.

Dead or collapsed at my critical age (42 years old), in my situation:
Spinoza / ? / Napoleon
Pascal / sister
Nietzsche / sister
Van Gogh

The next redeemer will be over 84.

Lao-Tse, the only one who doesn’t die — he leaves.


Every love story is, without exception, a story of four. (Love is for two, but love is story-less.) Problem of the triangle (Wagner, Ibsen, those virility complexes!). Isolde, the bourgeois drama: The fourth is always death.

Socrates is the first Western plebeian, he abolishes death (the plebeian is the deathless man). This is why, without any anxiety, like a satisfied storekeeper, he drinks the hemlock, secure in the conviction that “up there” everything will be more cheerful. (From the bowl of hemlock to the mug of beer.) And the sacrifice of the rooster! As if to say: paid in advance and insured.

To die fulfilled and curious.

The more anonymous the enemy becomes (because he is), the more devastating the weapons — it’s always an individual man who is hit (though it may be all the inhabitants of Bikini).

Novalis: l’acte philosophique est le suicide, etc. Nothingness reached too quickly — faced with slow-paced nothingness, distilled nothingness, experienced in every capillary through the karmic surmounting of the problems of our ancestors (and not that in the beginning there was fear and hunger).

The art of dying every second—
(to understand that every second stands in opposition to the transformation of the others).

Everything that doesn’t want to die has to croak.

It’s a world of death — once people were born alive and slowly they died. Now we are born dead — and some of us slowly manage to come to life.

Alex Andriesse‘s writing has appeared in Granta, The Quarterly Review, and The Millions. His translation of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave is published by NYRB Classics and a translation of Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 27th, 2019.