30 marzo 2023
by Alessandro Galliani

Vassalli: literature defeats loneliness

Sebastiano Vassalli 
Sebastiano Vassalli 

In memory of 'Seba' Vassalli, the most Manzonian of anti-Manzonianists. A writer who, if you try to reread him, resembles a quality Piedmontese red, a wine that you uncork, leave to breathe, pour, taste, and discover that, almost ten years after his death, retains the same strong, rough taste and in some ways, on the palate, improves. Sebastiano Vassalli was a 'troublesome' writer; in appearance, he resembled Paolo Conte, they both had/have the same roguish air, the same sad and humorous look, the same Piedmont-esque air, they were/are both fantastic lyricists, though of course they were/are a very rare breed. 'Seba' seemed to be the heir to Alessandro Manzoni, although in reality there was more that divided them than united them.

'Seba' seemed to be the heir to Alessandro Manzoni, although in reality there was more that divided them than united them.

Novelist and columnist, nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, awarded posthumously the Campiello Prize for Lifetime Achievement in September 2015, Vassalli was fundamentally a skeptic. Against Manzoni's stainless and providential faith, he pitted an absolute nihilism, without illusions. His only faith rested in words, in the power of the word, which then is what he derived from his craft: the power to create.

This was his only lifeline, capable of opposing the nothingness of the real in which human stories dissolve without a trace. For him, words, writing were an antidote to the disorder, to the chaos of the Water Lands, the rice fields of Novara, his adopted homeland, from which in the midst of the fog, nothingness flows: a landscape drawn by water, a “vaporous plain,” at the foot of Monte Rosa, in which the sky and the earth blur to become an indistinct whole.

Born in Genoa in 1941, Vassalli had a troubled, difficult childhood: first at a boarding school, then in Novara at the home of two spinster aunts; constantly fleeing from his parents, with whom he never felt attuned, in conflict with his father, whom he considered a “no-good” fascist, “always taking the wrong side.”

He graduated in Milan, which attracted him back in the early 1960s because of its character as a modern city, open to the most unconventional avant-garde. There, before devoting himself to writing, the “craft of Homer,” as he called it, he worked several jobs: painter, librarian, delivery man, substitute teacher. Whilst teaching at a high school in Novara, he met Edoardo Sanguineti in Turin, with whom he forged a long literary association that propelled him into the neo-avant-garde of the 1960s. He established solid ties with the Gruppo 63, later moving away towards historical novels, and his literary efforts culminated in the 1990 publication with Einaudi of his masterpiece La Chimera, the novel with which he won the Strega Prize, officially recognized as a great writer by that same literary ‘academy’ against which in 1983, in an impassioned indictment, he launched an attack on what he called the consortia of power, calling them the “confraternities of Italian non-poets.”

As he wrote in his autobiography in the form of an interview, whose title Un Nulla pieno di storie (A Nothing Full of Stories) expresses better than many definitions the tone of his lifestyle and life as a writer, Vassalli had an obsession with history, with memory, which fueled his interest in the past, his nostalgia, his civic passion for the morality of the weak, the losers, the cowardly, the resentful against life.

Vassalli did not try to understand, he knew that the world moves as it likes and not as we would like it to. It is like the Church that remains what it is, unreformable, something that not even those of great strength of spirit, such as Carlo Bascapè – the main character in Chimera, the bishop of Novara, a great moralist, of rare fortitude, a reformist-integralist, a pupil of Cardinal Borromeo, belonging to the faction of the enemies of the clergy – are able to budge. And this is for the simple reason that the true God does not exist, or has withdrawn from human affairs. On the other hand, for centuries, faith has served to kill in the name of God.

And to do this, the Church must use cynical murderers, not noble reformers. Antonia, the second strong figure in Chimera, a woman in the 1600s who is accused of being a witch and sentenced to be burned at the stake, is defeated by hatred, intolerance, special interests, the greed of priests, the fights between church officials, and the gratuitous violence of cowardly people, those weak people who need a higher justification for their actions. However, something remains: an example of the tenacity and inflexibility of someone who defended their chimera even at the cost of death. Thanks to the word, the story remains.

In this which is his best-known novel, Vassalli lays bare the meaninglessness of life governed by the inertia of matter, the chaotic world, and history driven by hatred. And he details in the novel this eternal return, which nullifies, which renders all human action useless. And most recently, in his collection of short stories, La morte di Marx e altri racconti (The Death of Marx and Other Tales), shortly before his death, Vassalli changed his style completely, disavowed grand narratives and became the anti-climax in person: with the sad smile of a playful poet, no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't take himself seriously. He remained a half-hearted writer, composing and recomposing his stories, unable to get to the end. A writer and an artist – almost a priest – who put himself in the place of God, until the heroic surrender of illusions, such as the typically sixty-eight-year-old fallacy of wanting to change the world, or the delusion of someone who, though posing in the guise of a great novelist, in the end could not even manage to finish a short story and left his stories hanging, to bleed to death.

The last Vassalli, probably undermined by depression, changed completely, but did not renege on himself; he continued to pursue new chimeras, because, as he said, “it is these illusions, which help humanity to live.”

Vassalli doesn't try to understand, he knows the world goes where he wants it to go not where we want it to go

He had done so in 2003, in the novel La stella avvelenata (The Poisoned Star), in which he immersed himself in the tale of a trip to Paris, in 1400s Europe, a destination which the protagonist, the cleric Leonardo Sacco, a student from Monferrato, will never reach, ending up embarking on another journey, in the company of a hotchpotch group of heretics and criminals, to mythical Atlantis. Did it really happen? Was it imagined? Certainly, it was an absurd, anachronistic journey against time, to a Utopia that does not exist, a land at the edge of the world: a Chimera, a literary fiction, like the Universal Flood, the Tower of Babel, Eden, the Earthly Paradise. Leonardo crossed the Atlantic to a mythical land, another world, as far from Italy as Italy is from the moon, America before it became America, but he did not find Earthly Paradise; it takes more than just crossing the Ocean to leave the world behind. La Stella avvelenata is a magical place but it is also a place where illusions are shattered and dreams are in danger of becoming nightmares.

On the other hand, what do you expect from a writer who is one of the best of his generation but is without a sense of direction: born in Genoa and adapted to life in the Novara area, so flat that even the fog deems it unworthy? It was here on this plain in the midst of the rice fields that Vassalli retired in the latter part of his life, to the Villa della Maragnana in Biandrate, a former sacristy on whose facade he displayed ceramic discs – made by him – each representing the 23 books that marked his literary output. Each disc is a sun, and as was written on the front door of his farmhouse, “suns are suns and they make light.” This was his motto. And not surprisingly, every sun, for him, is a book.

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