Acquainted with Grief

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Acquainted with Grief

by Carlo Emilio Gadda


A novel set in Maradagàl, an imaginary South American country, between 1925 and 1933; published in Italian in installments in 1938–41 and as the novel La cognizione del dolore in 1963, in expanded form in English in 1969 and Italian in 1970.


An isolated and impoverished nobleman is locked into a bitter, tumultuous, and lyrical relationship with his mother and middle-class society.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Engineer Carlo Emilio Gadda (1893–1973) is one of twentieth-century Italy’s most innovative and eccentric writers. He was born in Milan into a middle-class family with distant ties to the aristocracy. His mother was a schoolteacher; his father, an industrialist. In 1899 the family built an expensive house in Longone in the province of Como, near Milan. The house, together with other financial obligations, subjected young Gadda to deprivations that he never forgot. In 1915, after a difficult childhood and adolescence, Gadda joined the army. That same year Italy entered World War I, and Gadda fought at the front, where he was captured during the disastrous defeat in Caporetto. After being held captive in Germany, Gadda returned to Milan. On learning that his brother Enrico had died in a military plane crash, Gadda suffered psychologically. He managed to graduate in electrical engineering and went to work in Argentina in the early 1920s. When he returned to Milan, Gadda taught math and physics and immersed himself in the study of philosophy. From the 1920s onward, he combined writing with his other activities, publishing his first volume of essays, La Madonna dei filosofi (The Madonna of the Philosophers) in 1931. His mother died in 1936, after which Gadda sold the family house in Longone and began writing Acquainted with Grief. Finally, in 1940, Gadda quit engineering altogether and moved to Florence, where he wrote and became an active member of the city’s literary circles. Completed during World War II, Acquainted with Grief fictionalizes some of the author’s biographical and ideological traumas; its protagonist, Gonzalo, is often regarded as Gadda’s alter ego. By turns tragic and hilarious, Acquainted with Grief is a journey through the chaotic mental world of a man unable to integrate himself into his family or his society.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

World War I and its impact on Gadda

Acquainted with Grief takes place after World War I in an imaginary South American country that, according to several hints in the novel, represents Italy, especially Lombardy, the northern region whose capital is Milan. Gadda himself was experiencing an emotional breakdown at the time the fictional events take place. According to his War and Prison Diary, he entered World War I confident that he would find order, action, and self-fulfillment in military life. He also looked to the war for national regeneration. Instead he experienced disaster. The Italian defeat at Caporetto, where the Austrians took nearly 300,000 prisoners, was the result of gross military mis management. The debacle led to Gadda’s imprisonment in concentration camps and woke him abruptly from some longstanding illusions. He concluded that “unpreparedness, errors, stu pidity and cynicism move the levers of a machine that he envisioned as perfect” and that supreme chaos, rather than rationality, propels human events (Ferrero, p. 30; trans. L. Modena). Acquainted with Grief alludes to war as a playground on which unreliable strategists scrape battalions over hills as if they were striking matches to light them, a reflection, no doubt, of Gadda’s own military experience (Gadda, Acquainted with Grief, p. 13). The loss of his brother in the war weighed heavily on Gadda’s heart too. “Enrico,” he wrote, “you weren’t my brother, but rather the best and dearest part of me. I don’t know how to go about living” (Ferrero, p. 31; trans. L. Modena).


Mussolini’s group, the Battle Fasces, was not the first to take as its emblem the fasces—a bundle of rods surrounding an ax. This same emblem was adopted a few years earlier by the Intervention Fasces, who pushed for Italy to enter the First World War. in ancient Rome, the fasces, carried by bodyguards to government officials, symbolized the power of life and death that a civil magistrate held in times of extreme danger over a group of soldiers; the soldiers were supposed to be united by absolute obedience to the magistrate until the danger subsided Thus, the emblem stood for unity, subordination of the group to the rule of one leader, and a connection between military and civilian powers, It represented both absolute authority and supreme obedience while indicating that strength lies in unity.

The rise of Fascism

Out of the ashes of World War I rose the Fascist regime, under which Italy was governed from 1922 to nearly the end of World War II. In 1919 Benito Mussolini founded a new movement, the “Battle Fasces,” adopting as its emblem the Roman fasces—a bundle of rods around an ax. Three years later Mussolini’s Fascists entered Rome. King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy, acknowledging their power, passed control of the government to Mussolini without resistance. In 1923 the Fascists organized a parandlitary force, the Voluntary Militia for National Security (MVSN). Through the institution of the Voluntary Militia the state legitimated the preexisting parandlitary squads that violently squashed resistance to Fascism. Mussolini thereby imposed on all citizens a disciplinary political “police,” whose members did not hesitate to beat people and destroy private property. Two years later the originally constitutional regime officially became a dictatorship. Between 1925 and 1928, the Fascists transformed Italy into an authoritarian state: they deprived the parliament of all authority; outlawed the Socialist and Catholic parties as well as anti-Fascist associations and labor unions; eliminated democratic elections; established the Court for the Defense of the State and the Fascist secret police; instituted the death penalty for certain political crimes; and greatly curtailed the independence of the existing courts and the media. With the Lateran Pacts (1929), the Catholic Church made official its support for the Fascist regime. The Church recognized the Italian nation and Fascist government as legitimate while the government recognized the Vatican as a state, compensated the Church financially for its loss of the Papal States during the unification of Italy, and awarded the Church special status, allowing it, for example, to operate the only non-Fascist organization (called Catholic Action) within the nation. Church sup-port for the government would continue until the campaign of 1938 introduced race discrimination laws (which mainly affected the Italian Jews, who were prohibited from marrying Aryans, from studying or teaching in public schools, at-tending libraries, and so forth). The Church condemned these laws. In fact, they contradicted Mussolini’s own claim a few years earlier that Italy had no racial problem. The shift illustrates the chameleon-like nature of Italian Fascism, which made it hard to grasp its true intentions. Gadda was initially ambivalent about Fascism; he saw in the new movement the possibility for social order in an Italy that had too long been mired in corruption and chaos, and also saw a pragmatic, realistic approach that he did not find in socialism. However, as he witnessed Fascism’s destruction of the democratic way of life, he came to reject it entirely.

Italian Fascism and the intellectuals

“Everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”—the formula became the catch phrase of the Fascist regime, applying not just to politics but also to art and scholarship. So what was the nature of this state? Fascism set out to reconstruct Italy as a new kind of nation, in which intellectuals would take responsibility for shaping the civil and moral conscience of the land’s “new man.” A number of these intellectuals genuinely supported Fascism in their quest for a modern, distinctive national culture and for the moral regeneration of Italians (to be achieved, they thought, through art). They saw in Fascism an ethical force that could toughen a people who, according to Mussolini, had been “feminized” and “disarmed” by centuries of foreign domination (Mussolini in Ben-Ghiat, p. 6).

The very meaning of Fascism was nebulous; Mussolini did not associate it with any definition or lofty theoretical notion, which worked to his ad-vantage when it came to winning over the intellectuals and artists. They were drawn into the game of defining the term and manipulated through censorship and funding. A complicated system of patronage emerged, “designed to contain dissent” and bring intellectuals “into collaborative relationships with the state” (Ben-Ghiat, p. 9). Shrewdly, Mussolini paid lip service to intellectual freedom, even as he sent spies to monitor the activities of intellectuals and artists. The Academy of Italy and the Fascist National Institute of Culture (both founded in 1925) directed cultural expression. The Ministry of Popular Culture (named in 1937) exercised control over the press, cinema, theater, and music. But the excitement generated by the ef-forts of intellectuals to create a new culture out-weighed all this state control.

Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, there were competing views about the role of intellectuals in society. The leading thinker, Benedetto Croce, adopted a policy of cautious yet insistent intellectual opposition to the regime but believed that intellectuals should stay out of party politics. His friend Giovanni Gentile, on the other hand, thought intellectuals should be directly engaged in the creation of the new Fascist state and acted accordingly. Still others, such as Antonio Gramsci and Piero Gobetti, defended the right (and thought it the responsibility) of the arts and sciences to object to the regime, and paid for their outspokenness with their lives. The anti-Fascist intellectual had, it seems, a few distinct options—silence, imprisonment, exile, or cautious protest (if one were as famous and celebrated in society as Croce).

Before the establishment of the Fascist regime, intellectuals debated their social responsibilities in literary journals such as La Ronda (1919–22). Now, under Fascism, editors asked the intellectuals to focus on style and cut all political and social commentary out of their writings. One of the journals, Solaria (1926–36), encouraged its writers to produce a symbolic, abstract literature in which immediate social concerns were transferred to remote places and times, a strategy that helps explain the transposition of Italian concerns to an imaginary South American country in Gadda’s novel.

The rise of psychoanalysis

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud published his first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which only slowly won recognition from the European medical community. Its psychiatrists remained wary of his newly developed theory of psychoanalysis, which proposes, among other ideas, that much human behavior is governed by unconscious motives, and that in adults many of these motives stem from sexual impulses shaped by long-forgotten childhood experiences. In Italy the Fascists denigrated psychoanalysis by branding it as Austrian, even Jewish, which only com-pounded obstacles to its acceptance and practice. The negative attitude of Italian intellectuals such as Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile numbered among these obstacles. Gentile believed in the study of individual consciousness, maintaining that the unconscious could not be the object of scientific inquiry because it was “totally removed from our knowledge” (Gentile in David, p. 44; trans. L. Modena). In Croce’s view, Freud’s theories were not entirely without merit, but the notion of unmasking the unconscious was objectionable. It was too risky, thought Croce, to try to explain such a hidden area. Croce feared that such an exandnation could justify an individual’s unethical choices or relieve an individual from self-control.

Freudian ideas were introduced in Italy through such studies as Dr. Edoardo Weiss’s Elements of Psychoanalysis (1922). When the Italian medical journals finally began to acknowl-edge psychoanalysis and such concepts as “the unconscious” and “free association” started to gain currency, the country’s psychiatric establishment directly attacked Freud’s theories, dismissing them as one-sided and perverted. By the 1920s, a gulf had opened up between the practices of psychiatry and of psychoanalysis. Because there was no convincing evidence that any illnesses had been cured by Freud’s method, the psychiatrists approached psychoanalysis only as a set of hypotheses, not as a science. The distance between the two disciplines would be stretched further after some Italian psychoanalysts were forced to leave their university posts because they were Jewish. Dr. Weiss, for example, had to quit his post at a psychiatric hospital in Trieste, ostensibly because he refused to support the Fascist Party.

Over time, the psychiatric community’s open hostility toward psychoanalysis abated, and studies such as Dr. Enrico Morselli’s Psychoanalysis (1926) compelled psychiatrists to take Freud’s theories into account. But Gadda’s encounter with psychoanalysis took place between 1926 and 1940, when many Italians still thought of Freud as a pervert and of all the ideas and studies in his field “as the devil’s handiwork and almost shameful” (Gadda in Ferrero, p. 33; trans. L. Modena). Yet Gadda embraced psychoanalysis, which informs most of his writings, including Acquainted with Grief. He was convinced that psychoanalysis promised a new understanding of human life.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Set in Lukones, Maradagàl (an imaginary part of South America) from 1925 to 1933 Acquainted with Grief has two central figures: the reclusive engineer Gonzalo Pirobutirro and his mother. She is sometimes referred to as “the Señora,” mostly as just “the mother,” an antithetical archetype to “the son.” Aristocrats who have fallen on hard times, the pair live together in an isolated country house known as Villa Pirobutirro. An unnecessarily large residence, surrounded by a scarcely productive plot of land, the house is above their means. The novel has little action but considerable description. Vehement outbursts, lyrical depictions, portraits of society, and speculations of every sort flesh out the skeleton of events.

The narrator begins by describing how the country is emerging from a bitter war with a bordering state. The postwar atmosphere in Maradagàl is tense, in part because of the presence of the state security apparatus, the Night Watchmen. The narrator details the nonsensical eligibility requirements to be met by those who wish to join this security apparatus, including the preference given to war veterans regardless of their ability to perform their duties. The chaotic nature of life in Lukones is further illustrated by the tale of Pedro Managones, a Night Watchman who triggers a village scandal by faking his identity and his war injury. Having ridiculed the government and the common folk, the narrator proceeds to attack the penchant for kitsch exhibited by the upper and middle classes. The focus shifts to a Doctor Higueroa. On his way to make a house call at the Pirobutirro residence, Doctor Higueroa’s mind wanders. He integrates town gossip with musings and digressions in a lengthy internal discourse largely about Gonzalo that foreshadows the physician’s inability to understand Gonzalo’s malady. Surrounded by rumors, Gonzalo has acquired a downright “un-savory reputation” (Acquainted, p. 36). He is a misanthrope, a rancorous bachelor, and a slothful intellectual with no sympathy for the humble or “the wretchedness and the yellowishness of povertydom” (Acquainted, p. 36). In general, he is a voracious, greedy, and moody sort, and he treats his mother roughly. It becomes clear that his habits are the stuff of legend, including his manias for order and silence. But his insides are anything but silent; he harbors “torment in wanting to swim against the current of meanings and causes” (Acquainted, p. 49).

Doctor Higueróa is still on his way to visit Gonzalo when he encounters Battistina, a maid in the family’s house. She enlightens the doctor about Gonzalo’s outbursts (often over money and spending), his hatred of intruders, and the misery of his aged mother. Old and weak, his mother passes her days with a heavy heart, weighed down by two great sorrows: the loss of an undis-closed someone and the burden of living with her menacing, disturbed, and unhappy son. The narrator recounts how Gonzalo, in one of his angry fits, stomped on a framed portrait of his father. “As if from her weakness were to be born the final devotion,” the mother bent to pick up the pieces (Acquainted, p. 62).

Once at the house, the doctor exandnes Gonzalo, who laments some unspecified sufferings, apparently affecting his digestion. The visit reveals no “visible sickness,” yet a sudden change takes place in the appearance and behavior of Gonzalo: he gradually sinks into an “inscrutable opacity,” an alarmed, anguished, desirous state in which he rejects all words of comfort (Acquainted, p. 69). A 50-page conversation follows between Doctor Higueróa and Gonzalo, which makes its way through the entire spectrum of Gonzalo’s moods. Alternately grievous and violent, the patient mumbles about his aging mother, death, and the cemetery. Perplexed, the doctor listens to one of Gonzalo’s dreams, in which his mother’s ghost motionlessly appears to her son in the empty house. Gonzalo fears that something might happen to his property and his mother, given the house’s isolation and the ineffectiveness of the surrounding wall. Night thieves do in fact infest the area. The Nistitúos provinciales de viglancia para la noche, or Night Watchmen’s organization, offers optional protection to those who pay for the service. Gonzalo, nonetheless, strongly resents the organization, maintaining that the guards are either weak or trespassers themselves.

As Gonzalo swings from mood to mood in a “succession of opposed humors,” Doctor Higueróa tries to steer conversation from the irrational to the rational (Acquainted, p. 108). Then Pedro, a Night Watchman, approaches the house and re-minds Gonzalo that he has no choice but to accept the paid protection of the Night Watchmen. According to a new law the fee is mandatory. Gonzalo objects: “What about the nonsubscribers then? … I want to remain free” (Acquainted, p. 113). Pedro utters a thinly veiled threat before he leaves, letting Gonzalo know that he will return when his mother is home. Enraged by the insolence and worried about his mother’s safety, Gonzalo fantasizes about hanging the Night Watchman. His mind lingers “over the most consolatory details,” but he is in fact incapable of reacting in any concrete fashion (Acquainted, p. 114). The narration afterwards brings to the foreground Dr. Higueroa’s middle-class desire for personal prestige: the doctor shows off his command of the latest town gossip by interrupting Gonzalo’s imaginative flow to share what he claims is the definitive account of the scandal associated with Pedro.

A tale of the mother’s as well as the son’s loneliness, Acquainted with Grief then moves into the Senora’s mind and heart. The mother has lost two sons: one, “her finest blood,” to the war, and the other, Gonzalo, to an inexplicable malady that she, like the doctor, does not understand (Acquainted, p. 142). The narrator describes the moment when the mother learned that Enrico had died during a military operation, and a terrible storm forced her to take shelter in the cellar; the sky and wind seemed “to be seeking her, too, her, in the house” (Acquainted, p. 135). While her fear grew, “she huddled then, her eyes shut, in her final solitude,” as if the hurricane had turned to ashes all she was, “a grieving spark of time,” as well as all she had been, “woman, wife and mother” (Acquainted, p. 136).

Next, for the first time in the novel, mother and son appear together. Fearing one of his tantrums, she struggles to prepare dinner. An atmosphere of misery and silence envelops the kitchen as she anxiously awaits his insults directed at the house, of which she is extremely proud. The mother offers her perspective on her son’s lack of peace: she is finally aware, after much denial, that his deep rancor is an “obscure sickness” coming from an “inexpiable zone of shrouded verities” that his will cannot control (Acquainted, p. 154). The novel proceeds to portray the inner workings of Gonzalo’s mind. He is saddened by their frugal meal, and angry because all of their money has been squandered on building the house. An avalanche of mental images follows: Gonzalo pictures tides of men and women, an extensive gallery of middle-class people grotesquely deformed, tawdry, hopeful, ostentatious, and confident. With bitter insight, the narration reveals Gonzalo’s need to distinguish between true and false appearances. Gonzalo is aware that “nonvalid depictions were to be negated and to be rejected” (Acquainted, p. 170). Yet he too is attracted to the lure of appearances, torn between them and truth:

To seize the lying kiss of Appearances, to lie with her on the straw, to breathe her breath, to drink in, down into the soul, her belch and strumpet’s stench. Or instead to … to deny.… But … to deny vain images, most of the time, means denying oneself.

(Acquainted, p. 171)

There follows a moment of tenderness between mother and son, broken by an unwelcome interruption. The sudden arrival of a dirty peonstirs Gonzalo’s anger, prompting him to emotionally withdraw from his mother’s affections and to brusquely fire the peon. Gonzalo’s reaction is prompted in part by a need for his mother’s exclusive attention. This same need motivates the anger Gonzalo feels a few days later when, entering the house, he finds several peas-ants are paying a visit to his mother. The presence of “intruders” again brings to mind the easily scalable wall surrounding the house. From the wall, the narration moves to the road and the valley beneath, then finally rests on the strokes of a distant bell tower: the original version of Acquainted with Grief ends here, on the image of the empty, desolate passage of time.

In the English edition and in a later Italian edition, Gadda expands the narrative. Gonzalo hears the report of a burglary meant to intimidate a neighbor who, like himself, refused to sub-scribe to the Night Watchmen’s organization. Then a sequence of memories reinforces Gonzalo’s main obsessions, particularly his lack of joy in childhood and his abhorrence of physical proximity to others. In a fit of anger, Gonzalo threatens to kill his mother and leaves. Suspicious noises lead villagers into the house, where Gonzalo’s mother lies dead in her bed, her head terribly injured by an unknown aggressor. Among the murder suspects are her son, the fired peon, and a Night Watchman. Or perhaps, even, “the shadow, black and mute, which had appeared on the terrace: no telling who it was; it passed the fields and the walls like an image,” like a “wicked cause operating in the absurdity of the night” (Acquainted, pp. 223, 237).

Alienation, society, and psychoanalysis

In the novel, Gonzalo calls for Doctor Higueroa, and a lengthy dialogue between the two ensues. After the visit, the doctor, “with a slightly mortified tone, confessed that he had discovered nothing to worry about” (Acquainted, p. 68). The patient-doctor dialogue manifests two characteristics of post-World War I culture in Italy: traditional medicine’s inadequate response to psychological maladies and the suffocating conventions of middle-class life. On the one hand, there is the doctor’s simplistic discourse and his inability to understand Gonzalo’s profound alienation as something other than social awkwardness. On the other, there is Gonzalo’s rush of distorted, sometimes bizarre, thoughts and perceptions. Wholly unbridgeable, the emotional and intellectual chasm that opens between the two interlocutors produces dramatic, even hilarious effects. For example, the doctor mentions a cheese man, and then the cheese of the material world, “the world’s baggage,” as the novel explains it, enters the bubble of Gonzalo’s imaginary universe, where it is transformed (Acquainted, p. 75): “He arranged them as best as he could, those wheel-like forms of cheese, in that outrageous field of nonforms: in that caravansary of impedimenta of every sort: cicadas onions clogs, hebephrenic bronzes, paleo-Celtic Josés, Battistinas faithful through the ages [taken from the name of Gonzalo’s maid]” (Acquainted, pp. 75–76).


In Italian literature, “Gotualo” has become so famous that his name alone stands for a singular kind of person. Cantankerous, solitary, wrapped in thought, mad at a world that does not meet his desires, the wounded Gonzalo-type grotesquely deforms everything he sees or thinks about, People, objects, feelings, and so forth, become the target of his unrestrained, hyper-imaginative outbursts.

Gadda immerses his reader in the Freudian concept of dreams as the privileged space where reality flows unrestrained. The dream about his mother that is central to the novel—and that entirely confounds Dr. Higueroa—brings to the surface Gonzalo’s remorse and self-loathing. In the dream, his mother’s ghost appears to Gonzalo, turning all of his hopes to stone, and denying him self-redemption. In the years following his own mother’s death, while Gadda was writing Acquainted with Grief, he repeatedly shared with friends the unbearable remorse that paralyzed his life at the thought of how he treated his mother in her old age.

The narrator’s contempt for physicians is clearly visible in the ridiculous criteria the doctor employs when dismissing Gonzalo’s dream: “It seemed incredible to Doctor Higueroa that a man of normal height, rather tall in fact, and of such lofty’ social station, could let himself become anchored to foolishness of this sort” (Acquainted, p. 82). Doctor Higueroa’s lack of awareness of psychological conditions is an indictment of the medical establishment in the early twentieth century, which left people such as Gonzalo adrift in a sea of psychological torment.

The doctor’s character does double-duty, allowing the novel to convey not only the resistance against psychoanalysis in Italy at the time but also the perception of its middle class as narcissistic, prejudiced, and status-conscious. It is because Gonzalo does not conform to middle-class expectations and conventions that he has fallen ill, thinks the doctor: if Gonzalo simply went out more, or accepted the Night Watchmen’s protection, or dated the doctor’s daughter and learned to drive, he would feel better. Always the doctor presents a stubbornly one-sided interpretation and rejects all contrary views. The narrator balances everything, however, offering a diagnosis the doctor ignores: Gonzalo may be suffering from “interpretative delirium,” the tendency to elaborate on existing facts: the facts are real but the interpretation is highly individualized (Acquainted, p. 105). At the same time,


Owning an automobile was the highest of alt middle-class aspirations in 1930s Italy, as suggested in Acquainted with Grief when Doctor Higueroa pushes Conzalo to learn how to drive. Society was becoming generally obsessed with the display of possessions, and the gap between reality and appearances grew. Gone, thought Gadda, was the old upper-class mix of wealth with productivity and ethical values (honor, honesty, efficiency). This new class devoted itself to “appearing,” at the expense of “being” Some writers of the day, such as Alberto Moravia, linked material riches to spiritual poverty; other, like Gadda, resented the growing “disorder” “Imbecility,” self-righteousness, narcissism, and associated decline of treasured values (Gadda in Ferretti, p. 28; trans. L Modena). In Gadda’s novel, observes one scholar, Cortzalo displays four forms of resistance to middle-class materialism: an aristocratic attitude, withdrawal from society, passivity, and free use of his intellect through reading arid writing.

“Gonzalo’s madness is a truth which reveals the deception of the world’s false truth” (Sbragia, p. 106). In other words, his sickness is as much social as it is individual. Indeed, Gadda himself commented later in life that Gonzalo’s raging fury primarily reflected external reality, or “the madness of the world itself (Sbragia, p. 109). I those years Gadda saw an upside-down world dominated by middle-class arrogance and ignorance, a mania for owning country villas and other goods whether or not one could afford them, and a social order that had given rise to a murderous state-security system. Thus, cloaked in a fictional setting, the novel lodges a protest against Italian Fascist society. It furthermore exposes realistic complexities. If the novel ridicules the mania for owning things, it also portrays Gonzalo’s attitude to ownership as no simple matter. However alienated he may be, Gonzalo strives to defend from intruders the objects of his love and hate—his mother, his personal effects, and the country estate. He is himself obsessed with personal property and possessions, his compensation perhaps for the deprivations he has suffered as a child. To his mind, his teachers’ ruthlessness and his parents’ coldness and stinginess (burdened as they were by the country villa) forced him to endure cold, hunger, punishments, and unforgettable humiliations.

Sources and literary context

Acquainted with Grief is one of the first Italian novels to use language and narrative structure to depict someone’s state of mind. Italo Svevo was an important forerunner. In Zeno’s Conscience , (1923; also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times) Svevo combined the elements of neurosis and fiction to create a novel that shunned traditional linear narrative in favor of psychoanalysis, perspectivism, and interior monologue. Gadda moved a step further by transposing the exact dynamic of Gonzalo’s thoughts. His readings in psychoanalysis heavily influenced his creation of the novel. In fact, Gadda created the character of Gonzalo to arrive at his own understanding of grief.

More than anything else, however, Gadda’s personal experiences inspired the novel. The memory of his brother Enrico’s death in World War I haunted him for decades. Later, the death of his mother and the sale of the family’s country house brought him face-to-face with years of bottled-up rancor that blighted his relations with his family’s and their possessions. Critics agree that Gadda thinly disguised his own family’s social-climbing tendencies in Gonzalo’s refusal to integrate himself into middle-class society. Likewise, Gonzalo’s outbursts in the novel recall childhood deprivations experienced by Gadda himself and his lifelong attack on the bourgeois ideal of ownership. The novel also reflects an effort on Gadda’s part to understand his mixed emotions after his mother’s death. In doing so, he combined auto-biographical and larger social elements to a degree not seen in his previous works. For example, the novel reflects his resentment against the high value placed on owning a villa, which stretched his family’s means.

The novel’s Nistitúos provinciales de vigilancia para la noche, or Night Watchmen’s organization, is a veiled allusion to the Fascist National Party. This indirect reference to the dictatorship is at first almost comic. However, as the novel progresses, the violent presence of the supposedly reassuring organization acquires a darker tone, when a Night Watchman makes clear to Gonzalo that the organization’s fee is mandatory. Those who do not accept the “paid protections” are the target of threats and robberies. Thus, Gadda evokes the strong-arm tactics of the Fascist leadership when it came to enrollment in the party, and refers also to its deceptive form of security.

Writers of the 1930s (for example, Alberto Moravia and Eugenio Montale) produced works that combined realism and lyricism with a strong historical and moral sense. In this literary context, Gadda was unique for his ability to depict what he saw as the excruciating tension between the person and the hostile, harmful external world. It was his belief that writers should use all the resources of language at their disposal to portray the agony of life.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Growth of Fascism and reinvention of the Italian self

Beginning in 1935 Italy’s Fascist regime openly showed its imperialist intentions by invading Ethiopia, intervening in the Spanish Civil War on the side of General Francisco Franco, and accepting the German occupation of Austria. To garner public support for military intervention abroad, Mussolini portrayed the Fascist state as the reincarnation of the Roman Empire and pushed Italians to embrace their “imperial destiny” by promoting a racial myth: Italians belonged to a higher civilization and were destined, separately and together, for greatness. Mussolini attempted to instill in the public at large the need to continually strive for new goals and resist weariness. Gadda’s passive, ruminating protagonist constitutes the exact opposite of such an active, untiring personality. When in 1936 Mussolini brought Italian Fascism closer to that of Nazi Germany, similar attempts strove to instill anti-Semitism into a country where many perceived of Jews as differing in religion only. The Jews of early-twentieth-century Italy were well assimilated into the mainstream, some as highly respected academics and businessmen.

According to Fascist ideology, national greatness had to be achieved through Mussolini’s leadership and through the merging of each person’s will into one public, collective, and decisive identity. An enormous propaganda machine worked to create an image of Mussolini as a decisive, austere, and powerful Roman emperor: Gadda’s con-tempt for the cult of Mussolini would manifest itself years later in Eros e Priapo (1967), which satirizes the larger-than-life, authoritarian masculinity of Mussolini’s public image.


Gadda manipulated the Italian language, reaching the heights of originality in vocabulary, syntax, and spelling, as the following newly coined words from the novel show:

Banzavóis Supposedly a type of South American corn. In Latin, the botanic name for corn is zea mays. The term Banzavóis recalls mays in its -is ending, but the first part is from panz vöj which in Gadda’s home region is the dialect form of pance vuote, or “empty belly” The association with a rural dialect suggests that, at feast in the 1930s, corn was the major—and an insufficient—source of nutrition for the poor. In other words, the Banzavóis is the mays, or corn, that fills up empty bellies.

Pitecántropi-granoturco A term meaning “the peasants,” formed by combining the Italian for “corn,” granoturco, with pithecanthrope, the name anthropologists give to the hominid that bridges the gap in evolutionary development between apes and humans Gonzalo’s term conjures an image of the peasants as apelike creatures, little more than anthropomorphic monkeys, because of very poor nutrition.

Manichini ossibuchivori A term that refers to “the wealthy,” Cadda applies this term to the well-off because of their passion for the expensive ossobuco, or marrowbone. Their stomach, al-ways too fall, is caught in the act of manfrugiare the marrowbone: an archaic expression from the Latin manu trusare, “to push with the hand.”

Along with the icon of national leadership, Fascists concocted an image of the ideal man—patriotic, single-minded, virile, and aggressive—able, in other words, to achieve the goals of the regime. Slogans such as “war is to man what motherhood is to woman” appeared over and over again. The future was to be guaranteed by a genuinely Fascist generation of new men, all potential heroes, fortified to endure war and suffering. In 1940, giving its men the opportunity to become new, Italy entered World War II on the side of Germany, attacking France and Greece.

Carlo Ferretti suggests that when Gadda began writing Acquainted with Grief he had already moved away from Fascism, as some oblique references in the novel suggest. For example, the boastful, violent official who visits Gonzalo and insists on imposing on him the paid protection of the Night Watchmen represents the ideal man of the Fascists. In contrast to the swaggering, gun-slinging ideal, Gadda’s novel proposes an al-together different image. Actually in Gadda’s opinion, there was no one image, no stable, unified, and decisive self, no “I”; rather man was a conglomeration of circumstantial relationships.


When the first installments of Acquainted with Grief appeared in the Italian literary journal Letteratura in 1938–41, a small group of critics enthusiastically embraced it. The majority, however, dismissed the ironic and what they saw as grotesque deformation of language and events as mere self-indulgence. Gianfranco Contini, one of the most influential critics, recognized immediately that Gadda’s expressionistic pastiche was the chaotic rendering of a culture and world in crisis. But he was in the minority. The work did not reach a wide public and Gadda’s name remained almost unknown. It was only after the publication of That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (1957; Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana) that the public recognized Gadda’s stature and Acquainted with Grief was published as a book. Critics finally acknowledged the novelty and depth of the work and the novel went on to win the Prix International de Litterature in 1963. According to the critic Emilio Manzotti, one of Italy’s foremost Gadda scholars, the originality and the value of Cognizione del dolore lie partly in the aphoristic conciseness of many of its memorable sentences, and primarily in the “cognitive tension that drives the text, in the strenuous attempt to uncover reality, to get beyond the surface, to show the complex and bewildering constitution of reality, to radically transform the eye’s usual grammar by abolishing its received cliches and stereotypes” (Manzotti, p. 325; trans. L. Modena).

—Letizia Modena

For More Information

Ben-Ghiat, Ruth. Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922- 1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Bertone, Manuela, and Robert Dombroski, eds. Carlo Emilio Gadda: Contemporary Perspectives. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Corner, Paul. “Italy 1915–1945: Politics and Society.” In The Oxford Illustrated History of Italy. Ed. George Holmes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

David, Michel. Letteratura e Psicanalisi. Milan: Mursia, 1967.

Ferrero, Ernesto. Invito alia lettura di Carlo Emilio Gadda. Milan: Mursia, 1972.

Ferretti, Carlo. Ritratto di Gadda. Bari, Italy: Laterza, 1987.

Gadda, Carlo Emilio. Acquainted with Grief. Trans. William Weaver. New York: George Braziller, 1969.

Luti, G., ed. Storia letteraria dTtalia, II Novecento. Padua: Piccin Nuova Libraria, 1993.

Manzotti, Emilio. “La cognizione del dolore di Carlo Emilio Gadda.” In Letteratura italiana: Le opere. Vol. 4, pt. 1. Torino: Einaudi, 1996.

Preti, Luigi. “Fascist Imperialism and Racism.” In The Ax Within: Italian Fascism in Action. Ed. Roland Sarti. New York: New Viewpoints, 1974.

Sbragia, Albert. Carlo Emilio Gadda and the Modern Macaronic. Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 1996.