Barbara Burns talks to Professor Federica Pedriali (University of Edinburgh), Editor-in-Chief of the Edinburgh Gadda Encyclopedia, and Dr Marco Ruggieri, the project’s MHRA Research Associate this year.

BB. Carlo Emilio Gadda was an influential Italian philosopher and novelist, an innovative writer who enjoyed using wordplay, dialect, and foreign words, and who has been compared to modernist figures such as Joyce, Kafka, and Musil. Gadda isn’t very well known in the UK, though. Can you give us a flavour of his work, the themes he was interested in, Federica, and tell us why he’s such an important writer?

FP. A few years ago, I started a preface to a book on Gadda I was editing with the classic ‘There is something about […]’. And indeed, there is. With Gadda you have someone with a big appetite for large narrations and the capacity to handle their disruption. Shakespeare, Caesar, Vergil, Balzac, Flaubert, Swift are his heroes as much as are dialects, jargons, chit-chat, and the most trivial wordplay. The net advantage of his immense linguistic talent is that he can be hard on everyone. He can also be quite funny, and many find his sense of humour exhilarating, but his opponents are invariably left bruised. His native Milan is in his target. And so are his times, class, Italy itself, certainly those in command because they don’t know how to lead, but also the people, his fellow Italians, for they fail miserably at every political test. And yet, Gadda also loves his country and the very Milan he resents, and even Mussolini, when it came to that, for Mussolini could have been the missing inspiration, the force that should have mobilised a country with a political handicap into one proud unity.

Gadda eventually achieved bestseller status in the 1960s. He is a complex, agonistic, terribly technical writer, but one whose writing is at the service of a life spent trying to make life work. I like to compare him to a full-bodied red wine, the richest you can take. Fabulously human, rich in mistakes, overpowering unless you have strong food to match, and invariably ideologically incorrect on most counts. A difficult, brilliant man of his times, and the finest and most experimental Italian prose writer you will ever come across.

Federica Pedriali (left) and Marco Ruggieri (right)

BB. Tell us about the scope of your project. Why is the Encyclopedia needed, and what stage have you reached?

FP. I started to work on Gadda some twenty-five years ago. Gadda scholars in the anglophone world were few and far between at that time. So, in 2000, I launched the Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies in what were the pioneering days of academic periodicals online. The EJGS was not just a journal, and it gave me not just a scholarly platform. Gadda was finding audiences where scholars did not suspect they existed. The Encyclopedia was part of the plan right from the start, bringing together experts from around the world in an agile format ideal for dissemination. Entries had to be short, to cast a sharp light on an aspect of Gadda’s work worth exploring anew or further, and Italian had to be our language as Italian is the language that Gadda challenges.

After four successful online editions, I decided it was time for the Encyclopedia to reach out more ambitiously and become an output in print. By this time, the complete new edition of Gadda’s works had created a demand for works of reference. This is where the idea of an enlarged edition of the Encyclopaedia came into play. The dream publisher materialised with Fabrizio Serra, the top publisher in Italy for single author encyclopaedias. Back in 2002, the first edition of the Encyclopaedia comprised some 40 entries. By the time of the fourth, in 2014, it counted 146 lemmas. Work on the 300 lemmas, 200 as new commissions, now making up the Serra Gadda Encyclopedia is in the advanced stages. It is a real delight to see it coming together into the two large volumes, some 1200 pages, the project has grown to – the work of 130 contributors. Serra recently sent us a pagination test. We were quite emotional at seeing how great the paratexts and the first four entries Abruzzo, Adalgisa, Adattamenti, Alberi… will look. So satisfying!

BB. Do you teach any texts by Gadda in the university curriculum? If so, how do students cope with him?

FP. For many years I taught a course on That Awful Mess on Via Merulana. The idea for the Journal actually originated in the classroom. It was my very first Gadda students, the glorious Class of 2000, who said ‘But there isn’t a website on Gadda!’, so this is how it all came to be. Launched in 2000, by 2007 the EJGS was the third most accessed online resource on the College server. And students have always been part of the story. Every class since 2000 had their best work published in the Journal. Students were part of the Edinburgh hosting team whenever we had a Gadda event in town. In 2010, I launched the Edinburgh Gadda Prize, with two out of the four categories celebrating early careers and even junior work at secondary school level. With my Edinburgh group we would go out into schools, and I also worked in schools in Milan, Rome, Udine, Cagliari, and Cassino as part of the Italian editions of the Junior Gadda Prize. In 2012, in one long Gadda week, Edinburgh hosted the British premiere of Fabrizio Gifuni’s award-winning show Gadda Goes to War, the third edition of the Edinburgh Gadda Prize, a junior mobility programme between Italy and Scotland, and an international Gadda conference. What do the students make of Gadda? They find him scary before they try. But once they get going, they discover he’s eminently ‘doable’.

BB. Is there anything you could recommend to readers in English translation as an introduction to Gadda’s work?

FP. Well, you could try the one I mentioned earlier, the one I prefaced with ‘There is something about Gadda’. The book was a collaborative project with students, and contains not just essays, but also the first English translation of Fabrizio’s monologue, which combines entries from Gadda’s WWI diaries and his anti-Mussolini pamphlet Eros e Priapo: Federica G Pedriali (ed), Gadda Goes to War: Translational Provocations around an Emergency, with first English translation of primary material by Gadda, and DVD of Fabrizio Gifuni’s show L’ingegner Gadda va alla guerra, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2013.

Gadda did not have a conventional background for a writer: a student of engineering at the Politecnico di Milano (above, in its location then in the Piazza Cavour), he served in the Alpine Corps in World War I, and then (among other projects) worked on the construction of the Vatican power station.

BB. Marco, you have just recently begun your work as an MHRA Research Associate. Can you tell us a bit about your own educational background and how that led you to get involved in this project?

MR. I did my BA and MA in Modern Literature at the University of Naples Federico II. There I began to study the narrative work of Umberto Eco, a focus I continued during my PhD at the University of Edinburgh. My research centred on Eco’s novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, exploring its representation of fascism and its connections to the author’s semiotic theory. As the MHRA Research Associate on the Edinburgh Gadda Encyclopaedia, I can continue to cultivate my passion for contemporary Italian literature by working on Gadda, whom I have always found wonderfully complex and meaningful.

My first encounter with Gadda was through That Awful Mess on Via Merulana. I was particularly struck by its unique (re)use of the genre of detective fiction. Just as Eco does in his famous The Name of the Rose, Gadda plays with and deconstructs this literary genre, one that is as popular as it is governed by rules. Typically, Gadda transgresses these rules, and offers no clear answers to the canonical ‘whodunnit?’. Thanks to the Associateship, I can continue to delve into an author of extraordinary interest, while contributing first hand to one of the most extensive academic endeavours on Gadda in recent years.

Rather like Baker Street in London, whose most famous occupant never lived there, the Via Merulana in Milan is a real thoroughfare, which now has a plaque to the events which did not take place there.

BB. What is your specific role on the project, Marco, and what are the main challenges?

MR. The Edinburgh Gadda Encyclopaedia will be a unique piece of scholarly research. Federica and I are bringing together contributions from 130 scholars. Some entries focus on specific works by Gadda, while others explore recurring images or expressions in his writings. An in-depth knowledge of Gadda, as well as of the entire landscape of contemporary Italian history, literature, and the arts, is essential to carry out this job. So that is a key challenge of the project, as well as an invaluable opportunity to expand my expertise. An excellent command of Gadda’s oeuvre and the tumultuous editorial history of many of his publications is also required. In this regard, Gadda is an author like few others. After initial publication, he endlessly revised his works for years, adding, removing, editing, and redistributing material. Through observing the various editions, a stratification of meanings comes to the fore, a transformative journey that reflects the author’s intellectual evolution. What we want to achieve is to provide general readers with a clear account of these evolutions, presenting them not just for the benefit of specialists.

BB. What are the benefits for you of being part of the broader academic community at Edinburgh? Do you get a chance to teach, for example?

MR. One of the reasons why I’m so pleased to be part of this project is that the Edinburgh Gadda Encyclopaedia is the culmination of the Edinburgh Gadda Projects, a series of innovative research initiatives and public engagement efforts that have made Edinburgh an international hub for research on Gadda. Holding this position means being part of a twenty-five-year-old story involving very many people. But the training and development opportunities I have in Edinburgh also extend beyond the scope of this project. The activity I’m perhaps looking forward to most is a module entitled Eco and Fascism Culture that I’ll be teaching in the next few weeks, based on my PhD. Sharing my findings with a large class of some fifty students about to go on their Year Abroad is a unique opportunity to realise how every single day spent researching, writing, and endlessly editing my work over the last few years has been worthwhile.

BB. Federica, Marco, how would you each sum up the significance of this project?

FP. The Edinburgh Gadda Encyclopaedia marks the culmination of many years of work that started back in 2000. Gadda sits right at the core of the European literary tradition and is an exceptional object of study not just for linguists and philologists, but increasingly for narratologists, comparativists, translators, and theorists approaching his work from Political Science, Material Studies, Queer Studies, Ecocriticism and the Posthuman, or as part of case studies in World Literature. The Encyclopedia will be a landmark publication, introducing the general reader to one of the most accomplished writers in the Italian canon.

MR. Gadda is a fascinating author, a precursor of postmodernism and someone who continues to attract a broad readership. But he is also a very complex author. I see our Encyclopaedia, containing entries on the very many aspects and issues arising from Gadda’s work, as a resource that will help open up a universe that might otherwise seem the domain of the happy few.

Fabrizio Gifuni and Federica Pedriali read from Gadda's works as part of the Awards Ceremony of the Edinburgh Gadda Prize, Franco Parenti Theatre, Milan (2011)

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