Man of Smoke


Aldo Palazzeschi, Man of Smoke [Milan; 1911]

Subtitled a "romanzo futurista" (futurist novel) when it was published in 1911, Il codice de Perelà is rather a satirical fable of a kind not unfamiliar to readers of Twain or Thurber, only told with a minimum of description and a maximum of dialogue -- the first non-spoken sentence only occurs halfway through the book. The effect is that of mainly anonymous people shouting at you for pages at a stretch, and takes a little getting used to, but it's effective as a means of "dehumanizing" (in the Ortegan sense) the story so as to get its satirical point across.

That satirical point is nothing new under the sun: institutions are corrupt, art is a sham, women are demented either by sex or by lack of it, the mad are the truly sane, crowds are fickle, people destroy what they don't understand. A twenty first-century writer would take the novel's premise -- a man literally made of smoke -- and turn it into either body-horror science fiction or an excuse for superheroics. By contrast, Palazzeschi's extended contrast between lightness (thought, wit, uncertainty, nature) and heaviness (flesh, rancor, certainty, humanity) is only intellectually, not viscerally, stimulating.

But as one of the signature works of modernism, of an experimental literature that turns away from the squat and stolid certainties of the nineteenth century to wrestle with the slender, vaporous multiplicities of the twentieth, it's great.

October 11, 2017