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Far from the Maddening Crowd

The fiction of Guido Morselli

In the spring of 1973, the Italian writer Guido Morselli returned from vacation to his home in rural Lombardy, where he lived alone, to a fateful letter from the publisher Mondadori. Before departing for a foray into the mountains, he sent off the manuscript of his most recent novel, Dissipatio H.G. The substance of Mondadori’s response mattered greatly. Though Morselli had found some success as a critic decades earlier, publishing two books—Proust, or On Sentiment (1943) and Realism and Invention (1947)—at the age of sixty-one, he’d had no such luck when it came to his own fiction. There’d been one close call: in 1965, after Italo Calvino scathingly rejected his novel The Communist on behalf of the publisher Einaudi—decrying not only the audacity of a non-communist attempting to depict the inner workings of the Italian Communist Party but also the very project of political fiction—Einaudi’s competitor Rizzoli accepted the book. Proofs were even prepared. But a change in leadership delayed the publication, and Morselli, with wounded pride, withdrew it.

This lone instance of self-sabotage aside, the writer’s efforts to reach an audience for his fiction had been consistently, repeatedly rebuffed by others. Fresh from his holiday, Morselli was hoping to find, after decades of effort, his fortunes finally altered, his fiction rescued from obscurity. Instead, he opened the letter to discover his work had once more been declined. It would be the last time: he left a brief note on his desk (“I bear no grudges”), loaded his Browning 7.65 pistol, and ended his own life.

Read posthumously, as all of Morselli’s fiction has been, his last work seems to augur his sad end. (The year after his death, the publishing house Adelphi began issuing his novels, one after the other, to significant critical acclaim, securing the author in death the readership and reputation that had eluded him in life.) Dissipatio H.G.—now available in English for the first time, in a translation by Frederika Randall, who passed away herself last year—opens with its unnamed narrator having just reversed course on his own suicide attempt. He presents his reason for suddenly abandoning a plan to drown himself as essentially arbitrary: he had brought along half a bottle of brandy as a last meal, and one sip of it summoned a series of thoughts about the comparative merits of Spanish and French liquors; after this, he felt “strangely, unshakably well.” Reflecting on this curious sequence of events, the narrator reframes the will to live as a modest, almost indifferent denial of death, as if his body were silently echoing Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to.” “I didn’t act,” the narrator reports, “I was acted upon by organic logic, that is: some eighty-five kilograms of living substance just didn’t obey. Aware, in its way, of the rule that to die is to be materially transformed, the matter simply refused to budge.”

His reason for wanting to end things in the first place proves similarly elusive. He expresses it in an assemblage of digressive musings—such ruminations give the novel its basic structure—first claiming his decision is the result of a simple calculation (“the negative outweighed the positive . . . by seventy percent”); then citing a strange ailment that has entrapped him in a nefarious medical-industrial complex, a position he perceives as a form of “forced subservience” far worse than the worker’s plight under capitalism. Finally, he traces the desire back to his discovery of “numbered stakes in the ground” near his mountain home—that is, the threat of human encroachment on his solitary life. By now the reader has learned that the narrator lives near a remote mountain village, where he retreated in hopes of escaping the intolerable hubbub of the nearby city of Chrysopolis, a fictional European financial capital. Taken together, the factors that primed his near-suicide amount to an extension of the desire that animated his withdrawal into the wilderness: he wants to rid himself of human company. Death is the completion of the hermit’s project.

Without dying, he nonetheless gets his wish. This is the premise of the novel, whose title, we eventually learn, abbreviates the Latin phrase dissipatio humani generis: “the dissipation of the human race.” The narrator attributes it to a treatise by the third-century Syrian Neoplatonist Iamblichus, in which the philosopher prophesies the desolation of humanity by “evaporation, or nebulization . . . human beings changed by sudden miracle into a spray, or an imperceptible (harmless and probably odorless) gas.” In reality, no such text exists. But in the novel, its prediction equips the narrator with a theory to explain why, after he leaves the body of water where he’d planned to sink himself and briefly entertains suicide once more—this time, like Morselli, by means of a pistol—he ultimately finds himself alone on earth.

Read posthumously, as all of Morselli’s fiction has been, his last work seems to augur his sad end.

Dissipatio is at once an elegiac philosophical monologue—the narrator, a lapsed writer, claims he hasn’t read a book in years but draws insights from Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, and Marcuse, among others—and a post-apocalyptic novel. In this fusion of forms, it most closely resembles David Markson’s 1988 novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which it anticipates quite uncannily. The two novels, beyond overlapping in their philosophical reference points, share the central conceit of a protagonist coming to grips with being the only person left living on the planet. But while Kate, the narrator of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, displaces the trauma of her unthinkable solitude into looping, seemingly irrelevant meditations, creating a world of propositions to superimpose over the vacant globe, the man at the center of Dissipatio truly inhabits the voided landscape, investigating his situation intellectually and spatially in a way that brings the empty earth to life.

Confronted with his desire hideously fulfilled, the narrator spends Dissipatio trying first to disprove, and then to accommodate himself to, his new, lonely reality. The novel opens with him half a month into life as the last man—“half a century, I could equally say”—and traces his attempts to scour his surroundings for other survivors. He finds none, encountering instead scene after scene unfolding without human beings. But mechanical life, he learns, goes on. At the newspaper office in Chrysopolis where he once worked, “the linotype machines were still going through their crazy motions, the skeletal arms somehow continuing to rise and fall. . . . all the lights are still burning in the office, and in the secretary’s room . . . a little fan continues to hum on her desk.” Outside, he catalogues debris: “Scraps of litter on the streets, stubs of movie tickets, empty cigarette packets; neon signs, still lit, jets of water rising from fountains, cars, rows of them below the apartment buildings and along the avenues in the park.” Elsewhere, he discovers “other remains, . . . organic and alive”:

The geometry of tulips in front of the Hôtel Esplanade, acacia trees bending under the weight of their blossoms. The celebrated jasmine, or gymnosperm, that surges out of Baron Aaron’s villa right in the center. Crows on the façade of the National Theater; cats, hordes of them, on the steps of the Crédit Financier or the Diskonto.

Already, within the city and beyond it, the natural world has resurged, with flora untamed and fauna overtaking areas previously closed to them, for “the great enemy has withdrawn.”

The novel is anchored in explorations of unpeopled spaces, which presage the less literally apocalyptic ruin-wanderings of W.G. Sebald. These tours of deserted districts allow the narrator, otherwise tangled in his own racing thoughts—they are, after all, the only human stimulus available—to relax and rhapsodize, bear witness to beauty. In one tender scene, he finds relief in the noise of wildlife. “Silence is not one of my punishments,” he says before briefly, lovingly listing the sounds, which, in the absence of humanity, mark the passage of time:

The marmots, when they dig their burrows, lining them with leaves and stocking them with small dead animals for winter, make a cry like the whimper of their little ones. When the courting season is over, the long-eared owl grows reticent and is heard only at great intervals, while the little owl keeps sounding his musical calls, and the closer he is to his nest, the more he sings. The afternoons are loud with cuckoos; the evenings ring with the woodpecker and his strange call, like the hinges creaking on an old iron-bound castle door.

Elsewhere, overhearing “a duet between two little owls,” the narrator joins in, offering his own “low note, . . . an organ drone” and then “some dissonant notes”; he’s pleased to find his participation doesn’t upset the birds. His desperate search for companionship—initially optimistic but increasingly hopeless—and relish of the limited, animal form still available to him are punctuated by reflections on the misanthropic philosophy that guided his earlier life, which he alternately clings to and admits is being undermined by his present experience. But he would object to this characterization of his worldview: he’s not, he claims, “some comic Alceste le Misanthrope,” an allusion to Molière’s classic archetype. Rather, he is, he says, “on and off, an Anthropophobe.” “I’m afraid of people,” he explains, “as I am of rats and mosquitoes, afraid of the nuisance and the harm of which they are untiring agents.” (A friend of Morselli’s once described the writer as “alone and afraid of nothing,” though harboring “an atrocious fear of human beings.”) The narrator later elaborates on the reason for his anthropophobia, decrying “the uglification of the world,” which he links to sins of “pollution, provocation (a euphemism, better known as violence), inflation (no euphemism, the monetary plague),” and admitting that he appreciates “see[ing] Chrysopolis reduced to Necropolis.” “It’s a fitting punishment,” he says.

But his aversion toward other human beings is more than moral and aesthetic. It structures his philosophy of language and of cognition. In an early parenthetical remark, he reveals his distaste for the common notion that speech presumes a listener:

(I must explain this, I thought. But to whom? No one, clearly. I don’t subscribe to this idea that everything one expresses, no matter how private, is a form of communication. That “I must explain” presumes no one and nothing. Addressed to myself, it’s a useful tautology. It keeps me company.)

Likewise, he pillories the sociologist Émile Durkheim for his belief “that an idea represents the individual submitting to the social.” “I believe,” he counters, “that if I ponder, observe, etc., I do it, and am very happy to do it, for myself alone. I am the intended recipient, not the go-between, the emissary.” Later, he makes clear that his solipsism underpins even his interpretation of reality itself. “I’ve always been a nominalist; society doesn’t exist, what exists are groups, or rather the individual, to put it simply,” he explains. “The only reality that a man must take into account is the one he creates as an individual.”

Of course, such an ontology implies a radically individualist politics. But the narrator has little to say about his own ideological precepts, beyond claiming to be deeply uninvested in politics as such. Pondering his distaste for Chrysopolis, he dismisses the idea that it’s a reaction to its status as an epicenter of global capitalism. His revulsion, he says, “is not a furious rejection, based on deeply pondered socio-political impulses. I have no political impulses.” He goes on to list “three coordinates” to which he’d admit: “intellectual tendency to isolationism, vague anarchism, petty bourgeois conservatism”—later, he refers to himself as “the reactionary.” These revealing concessions notwithstanding, it seems that the very notion of politics is too marked by the stench of humanity for the narrator to stomach. He wasn’t always this way, as a vague illusion to his past as a political journalist attests. But his retreat from the world entailed abandoning his conception of himself as a political animal altogether. He sought an utterly asocial world, beyond politics—and now, to his dismay, he’s finally found it.

The Communist Unmanifested

If Dissipatio H.G. investigates the limitations of individualism by imagining a solipsist confronting the darkest realization of his philosophy, The Communist—the novel Morselli came closest to publishing during his lifetime—explores the relationship between the individual and the social by testing the principles of a committed collectivist. The only other work of Morselli’s currently in print in English, also translated by Frederika Randall, The Communist was written nearly a decade before Dissipatio and takes a markedly different shape. Where Dissipatio evacuates the social novel, proposing its negative—the antisocial novel?—as a counterintuitive way to explore human life through the image of its haunting absence, The Communist is a bustling work of realism, alive with the morass of interpersonal relations: debate, misunderstanding, lust, betrayal.

Morselli was a dabbler, an inveterate experimentalist who never settled on a single form for his fiction. Divertimento 1889 is a parodic fable that follows King Umberto I on an escapade through the Swiss Alps; Past Conditional, written in a faux-historical style intermixed with philosophical dialogues, imagines an alternate history in which the outcome of World War I is reversed. (Both books have been brought into English by Hugh Shankland but are currently out of print; the rest of Morselli’s novels have yet to be translated.) But despite their heterogeneity, all of his works are ultimately novels of ideas. In her introduction to Dissipatio, Randall suggests that Morselli “was inventing” a new genre: “a mixture of essay and historical invention with the psychological texture of fictional realism.”

Indeed, The Communist, like Dissipatio, explicitly engages with philosophical questions, transmitted through the interests of its protagonist. The central figure of The Communist is Walter Ferranini, an erstwhile labor organizer who has been elected to the Italian parliament, where he represents the disempowered Italian Communist Party. Ferranini is well-versed in the socialist classics—he often calls Marx his “holy bible,” and means it in the sense of scripture revisited and wrestled with, rather than rarely read and superficially referenced—and interested in the principles and intricacies of communism. But true to his background, his commitment to the socialist project is essentially pragmatic, even humanitarian. In one scene he declares that “only one thing matters: Act so that the workers suffer a bit less than they have always suffered ever since collective humanity existed.”

The question of the ability of the party—and communism as an international project—to fulfill this goal plagues Ferranini, and the novel traces his path from reserved uncertainty to total despair. Read alongside Dissipatio, The Communist’s depiction of Ferranini’s gradual accrual of doubts and his crumbling confidence in his comrades comes to seem like a study of the sort of disillusionment that might transform a communitarian idealist into a cynical solipsist. As the novel opens, Ferranini has already begun to wrestle with his frustration over his fellow parliamentarians’ seeming disinterest in attending to the suffering of the workers. He’s unable to rally them to support a bill that would address the high rate of industrial accidents in factories; a colleague insists that Communists’ role as the opposition party in parliament is not to pass laws. He begins to observe the deleterious effects of party leaders’ ambition. “To have leaders, you had to accept ambition,” he reasons, “but ambition negated the spirit of collectivism.” He’s aghast to find that Communist parliamentarians are consumed with interpersonal strife rather than the socialist project. “You go up to Reggio and find a struggle raging. What struggle?” he thinks to himself at one point. “To advance the masses to power? No, the struggle between Viscardi and Caprari. Between Panciroli and Zomboni.”

The narrator reframes the will to live as a modest, almost indifferent denial of death, as if his body were silently echoing Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to.”

Under the specter of de-Stalinization—it’s 1958, five years after the Soviet leader’s death—the party has only grown more censorious. Ferranini finds himself disagreeing with the punishment of a comrade dubbed a “deviationist,” but he’s cowed into acquiescence. Later, he himself is reprimanded for carrying on an affair with a lover who is separated but not divorced from a fellow party member. Ferranini consults The Communist Manifesto and finds a line claiming that under communism, “relations between the sexes” will be “a purely private matter”—so isn’t it a concession to bourgeois values that the party cares at all about his sex life? His dedication to the cause never wavers, but he grows increasingly suspicious that the party is not equally committed.

The conflict comes to a head when Ferranini, indulging his usually concealed intellectual impulse, agrees to write an article for a journal edited by Alberto Moravia—a famed Italian novelist in real life, perhaps best-known for The Conformist, his 1951 novel about life under Italian fascism. Ferranini, thinking little of it, dashes off a four-page treatise entitled “Labor, the Physical World, and Alienation,” which articulates his view, unorthodox for a Marxist, that labor is an ineradicable feature of human life, one which transcends the oppressive structures of capitalist society and is rooted in “the hostile will of nature” itself. It turns out to be a controversial thesis—expressing, as it does, brutal pessimism about communism’s potential to fully liberate humanity—but equally controversial is the fact that it was published in a non-Communist publication. Ferranini regrets the latter but can’t understand anger over the former. “Honestly,” Morselli writes, “as much as he had racked his brain with self-criticism, he had found no transgressive intent, no deviationist tendencies. Not even ‘substantial error.’ It was the opening to a discussion.”

Ultimately, Ferranini’s disagreements with Marx are not what ruin his faith in the Communist Party. When an angry comrade demands to know if he thinks the class struggle is “pointless,” Ferranini resolutely responds, “Socialism is essential. If all human beings, all living beings, must struggle, there must be no small minority that sits by and earns a profit from the labor of the others.” His experience with the party is what drives him away, although by the novel’s end, his relationship to communism itself is unclear. He tells an American doctor, “I may not deserve to call myself a Communist,” but when the doctor begins to hypothesize the existence of “a third way” between his country’s rapacious system and communism, embodying “a new stage,” Ferranini responds that this is impossible. “What you say makes Marxism one point in a historical dialectic,” he says. “While instead it is the end point.” Yet not long after, he situates his belief in the past tense, thinking to himself: “Back when he was a believer, he’d known how to spread the faith.”

Ferranini finds himself finally unmoored, drifting in a void, alone in the world, grieving all he once knew. He boards a plane and hopes never to land. “The trip must never finish: if only the plane would come to a halt in the middle of the Atlantic,” he thinks, “drop into the ocean. Leaving him stuck there, betwixt and between.” This desire to withdraw from the world, to exist alone in a place apart from society, would sound familiar to the narrator of Dissipatio. Ferranini, who at the opening of The Communist was comfortably enmeshed in his community and, through the internationalism of communism, an inhabitant of humanity, has by now sunk into himself. In the novel’s last lines, he sits on the plane, noting the stories in the two newspapers he’s brought with him—“an editorial on Algeria, reports from Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and twenty other countries”—and sets it aside to buckle his seat belt, securing himself, and thinks, “I’ll eat, then I’ll sleep.” Socialism dissolves into solitude.

Camaraderie at Arm’s Length

Psychologically, Dissipatio H.G.’s narrator begins where The Communist’s Ferranini ends, but his individualism ultimately proves unsustainable. In some ways, Dissipatio is a chronicle of its narrator’s evolving desire for the human fellowship he once avoided. Utterly alone, even his once-rapturous isolation among the elements begins to lose its charms. “To experience nature poetically,” he muses, “perhaps I had need of someone to contend it with, someone I must keep at a distance?” The absence of human beings is, it turns out, no substitute for their presence at a distance. To stand alone encountering nature’s sublimity requires the opportunity to choose solitude, repudiating the alternative. “A disheartening thought: nature was beautiful and fearsome,” the narrator says, “but asocial. It presupposed (in a negative sense) man. I wanted a nature inviolate, but violable.”

To stand alone encountering nature’s sublimity requires the opportunity to choose solitude, repudiating the alternative.

By mourning the human species, he comes to value it. The potential for this appreciation lies latent in his solipsistic preconceptions, which are seeded with their own contradiction. For instance, immediately after articulating this belief that the only meaningful reality is the individual’s, he unwittingly undermines it. “The statement isn’t mine,” he admits, “it is Charles Reich’s, but there’s truth to it.” The narrator fails to appreciate the irony of sourcing this theory from another’s consciousness, and the experience of cosmic solitude never prompts him to explicitly revise his first principles. But he does come to appreciate how his contact with the overwhelming absence of others reveals his need for them. Even early on, he muses that “now that they”—the capacious, italicized pronoun is his preferred way to reference human beings in their totality—“are playing hard to get . . . I’m beginning to reevaluate their importance.”

This reevaluation leads him to a series of strange mourning rituals. On one occasion, he arranges mannequins from a Chrysopolis department store in the piazza and city swimming pool; he refers to them as his “friends.” On another, in the market square of Widmad, the village near which he lives, he constructs a cenotaph—a memorial monument for a person whose remains are elsewhere or lost—for humanity as a whole. Its composition might seem comical, even absurd: he builds it out of “a tradesman’s van and a Mercedes coupe,” “some twenty television sets,” “some cameras and film cameras, crates of Coca-Cola bottles,” and “a huge poster taken from a travel agent’s window.” But he claims not to intend it as a winking critique of the consumerist materialism he abhors, and he does seem to mean it. In a rare moment of vulnerability, the narrator explains his reason for building the cenotaph: his predicament has inspired “a new mode of thinking about them, together, as a collectivity. An unexpected disposition to understand and feel for them. Sympathy, empathy. A shipwrecked human solidarity bobs up.”

If humanity’s collective disappearance inspires him to sympathize for the first time with humans as a collective, it also alters his relationship to the individual people who were once part of his life. For a supposed hermit, the narrator spends a suspicious portion of the novel fondly recalling lost friends: Giovanni, the shepherd who tended a flock near his home, and his wife Frederica, who cleaned the narrator’s house; a paranoid intellectual named Mylius; Henrietta, an ex-girlfriend; and Karpinsky, a Jewish doctor who treated the narrator in a psychiatric hospital some years ago and left an indelible impression.

Karpinsky, “the doctor who cured [him],” is the figure who most occupies the narrator’s thoughts throughout the novel—curiously, given that he was not a victim of the vanishing. He died years earlier, in the midst of breaking up a fight between nurses. (Kate, from Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, also connects her cosmic solitude to an individual grief: the death of her son.) The narrator is haunted by auditory and then visual hallucinations of this “heterodox physician.” Ultimately, his longing for another human being, for humanity itself, resolves into a longing for Karpinsky:

O Dr. Karpinsky, I beg you. I need to see you. I don’t care where or how. But we must meet.

At times I find myself talking to him aloud, as if he were here before me.

Karpinsky, my friend, I have no one but you. Transference has nothing to do with it, and you know that. I am alone. The world is me, and I am tired of this world, this me. Show yourself, please.

In the novel’s final scene, the narrator returns to Chrysopolis, where he holds out hope, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he will meet Karpinsky. “He’ll simply come to look for me, and he’s already on his way,” the narrator says. “This is a certainty, not an expectation on my part, and it frees me from all impatience.” The doctor who once understood him ascends to a messianic status, and the insane conviction that company is coming seems to free the narrator. He pockets a pack of cigarettes to share with Karpinsky and settles onto a bench from which he calmly surveys the city’s increasingly rewilded terrain. It might be a final and total reconciliation with what he calls “this strange eternity” alone on earth, or else a brief respite before spiraling back into mania or despair. What’s clear regardless is this: his ordeal has taught him what it means for human beings to find solace in sharing a dying world.