Deadpan Truth and Weirdness
This year I have read hundreds of applications to the University of Minnesota graduate MFA program. I read applications every year around the time that the Christmas tree gets hauled out to the sidewalk and New Year’s Eve threatens to happen again. Our applicants, aspiring novelists and short-story writers who are required to stir a pot of enthusiasms and spread them before us in an application statement, often name the writers whose work they would like to emulate. The same names come up over and over again: Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Junot Diaz, and David Foster Wallace. (I can’t imagine DFW ever having wanted anyone to emulate him, or even thinking that such emulation was remotely advisable, but that’s another matter.) The point is, these named worthy-of-emulation writers are all Americans; they are all of our time; and all of them—except for DFW and sometimes even DFW himself—have, or had, an interest in nonrealistic and sometimes fable-like stories that have a pleasing layer of weirdness to them like attractive sweat on a face. Oh, Roberto Bolaño. I forgot Bolaño. They love him, too. They want to write like him. Good luck with that!

Who says that the magical moralized tale is dead? It’s still alive. And doing very well. Fables and fantasy and a thin layer of weirdness naturally contribute to a feeling of allegorical equivalence, an equals sign: this = that. No one minds the equals sign as long as there’s magic in the air. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois shrieks, “I want magic!” and so do ordinary readers. Fiction began its life in magic and fables and in efforts to instruct, and let’s remember that Borges pointed out that realism is merely a brief episode in the history of literature. Realism is bracketed on both sides by myths and fantasies and monsters of every variety. The younger generation of American writers—and you can see this in contemporary movies, too, with their utter contempt for realist plausibility—are moving away from the house and the yard, the bad dad and the dead dog, the crummy marriage and the yawn-inducing adultery, all the usual stifling stuffing of realist fiction devoted to the disappearing middle class, which doesn’t bother to read fiction anymore anyway. Full-frontal earnestness is gradually disappearing from the scene. You can see younger writers reaching toward bigger materials: wishes, gods, titanic longings, metaphysics, magic (that word again), moral compasses, and teachings, for God’s sake, in pieces that look like nightmarish fairy tales mapping out worlds defined by malevolent corporate anarchy. The result is Unrealism, our new mainstream mode.

Angela Carter can be imagined as the fairy godmother of this literary movement. And Dino Buzzati would be the godfather, if anyone here had read him. But Americans have the tendency to read only other Americans and the occasional Brit.

I first read Dino Buzzati’s stories about eighteen years ago when I happened to be sharing a literary residency somewhere with Stuart Dybek. Stu was carrying around a xeroxed copy of a short story called “The Falling Girl,” by Dino Buzzati. I asked him what it was.

“It’s this amazing thing,” he said quietly, in the subterranean manner that friends of mine employed to talk about new hallucinogenic drugs. “I’m teaching it.”

“What happens in it?” I asked.

“This girl falls off a balcony.” A Dybek catlike smile. “Many floors up. A high-rise. She jumps.”

“And?”

“Read it yourself.”

“Come on.”

“She never hits the ground.”

“Well, is she falling or not?” I asked, ever the realist.

“Just read it.”

He gave me a copy, and I went back to my dorm room. In the story, a girl, Marta, nineteen years old, “overcome with dizziness,” looks at the city spread out below her, and she thinks of it as a “sweet abyss burning with pulsating lights.” Eventually she lets herself go. She feels that she’s hovering, but she’s actually falling. She passes by the balconies of the rich. They’re having martinis. They ask her politely if she’d like a drink. “No, thanks, friends,” she says. “I can’t. I’m in a hurry.”

Actually she isn’t. For a few pages she drifts downward. Others talk to her. Handsome young men court her; she refuses their offers of love politely. Eventually Marta looks up and notices that another girl is floating down a few floors above her. Young women do the falling thing quite often, it seems. “Flights of that kind (mostly by girls, in fact) were not rare in the skyscraper and they constituted an interesting diversion for the tenants.”

Where could I find more stories by Dino Buzzati?

I won’t tell you what happens to Marta, but I will tell you that I went out and bought Restless Nights, a collection of Buzzati’s stories published by North Point Press in 1983, translated by Lawrence Venuti. If you ever see this book anywhere in a used bookstore, grab it. Most of the stories are no more than about seven pages long. Here are some titles: “Appointment with Einstein,” “The Saucer has Landed,” “Quiz at the Prison,” “The Bogeyman,” “The End of the World” (here’s the beginning of that story: “One morning about ten o’clock an immense fist appeared in the sky above the city”). Reader, I was hooked, and on that hook I have remained.

Who was Buzzati? Here is what I was able to find out from Venuti’s introduction and a note on the author by Martin Seymour-Smith. Buzzati was born in 1906, died in 1972, and worked as a prose writer, dramatist, and art critic. Living under a fascist regime, he learned how to disguise what he meant. He tended to write hybrid texts intended for children and their parents, including The Famous Invasion of Sicily by the Bears (1945) and The Tartar Steppe (1952), a book with Kafkaesque leanings. Seymour-Smith observes that even when Buzzati fails, he is intelligent and entertaining. And Venuti tells us his work was very popular in Europe. (There is a French Dino Buzzati Society, but then they have societies for everything.) Venuti then goes on to put his finger on something that every alert reader notices in these stories: “Even though Buzzati seems to lead us into strange worlds far removed from our daily lives, his technique is really to expose the fantastic element that lurks beneath the surface.” There is no stylistic hype in these tales: Buzzati’s fantastical stories are written deadpan, using techniques that the writer acquired as a journalist.

What these commentators do not insist upon is nevertheless an obvious fact: Dino Buzzati’s fiction is magical and wise and subtle. It tends to catch you by surprise. Reading it, you feel like a child, probably because you have been transported in a matter-of-fact manner by a dour-looking pixie narrator. Angela Carter, for all her great gifts, labors very obviously to add gobs of glitter, sometimes gluing it on, to her sentences. Not so Buzzati, whose sentences are slightly flattened by the truths they are telling.

You will notice that I have not written a commentary here on “The Colomber.” The story is brief, and it concerns Stefano Roi, who wishes to go to sea. One day, while still young, he sees the creature that sailors fear most, the colomber, a mysterious shark, “more clever than man.” The colomber begins to stalk him, following him in the water wherever he goes in whatever ship he sails in.

That’s all I’ll say.

No: one thing more. The story is about fear—what we do with it, and how we live with it. And its conclusion is more Italian than American. The current American view is that if you fear something, you do your best to kill or to torture the source of the fear. You send drones into the sky. You employ enhanced interrogation. You set aside your regular life and think about terror (or “terror”) all the time. You fear others and The Other. You get crazy. This is not a good time in our cultural history, thanks to fear. Fear has got its claws in us. Stefano Roi gets a little crazy in exactly the way Americans have been getting crazy ever since 9/11.

This introduction is already almost as long as the story. I have read this story to children, and I have taught it to adults. Everyone seems to love it. I love it. And more than that, I believe in it.