Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Far, and Farther

Of course I've read Agents of Contagion, Silvio DiGrippa's monumental novel. Twice, in fact. I don't suppose you can even get away with calling it a "lost novel" anymore, as it has made an appearance, however brief, on bestseller lists in both America and Great Britain. These days I guess the work qualifies as a rediscovery, and like most rediscoveries its growing cult of admirers can do nothing for the ego, future prospects, or financial situation of its dead creator (who, like most such rediscoveries, died penniless).

It's still odd to me how these things happen, and how they seem to keep happening every decade or so on some sort of regular timetable. A man writes a book forty years ago, a book that at the time of its publication met with nothing but popular and critical indifference (the few reviews it garnered were entirely dismissive and often bordering on hostile), after which the writer disappears entirely from the scene. And then somehow somebody, or some cabal of somebodies, rescues the book from oblivion and anoints it as a product of pure genius.

Karel Roda Herbert's long (too long, I thought) appreciation in the London Times circulated widely among my circle of acquaintances, and was discussed with such fervor that you'd feel a little bit foolish if somebody popped by the house and you didn't have a copy of Agents of Contagion conspicuously displayed on the coffee table.

I don't speak Italian, but friends of mine who do have quibbled with the translation and have been nearly unanimous in their insistence that the title is all wrong. One of my oldest colleagues and friends, a Renaissance studies professor at Brown, is stridently in this camp, and has relentlessly carped about the issue in the scholarly journals and on internet sites devoted to such bickering. He finds the translation (purportedly a rush job undertaken to be the first to introduce the unknown genius to an English-speaking audience) "entirely pedestrian" and feels that in future English editions the title should be changed to Far, and Farther, which is, I've been assured, as close to a literal translation as is possible without being prolix.

I'll admit that I did admire the novel a great deal, translation be damned. So have a great many other people, obviously. So much so that DiGrippa has become that rare and delightful thing, a dead failure resurrected as a celebrity. The next year, we've recently learned, will already bring translations of several other previously unpublished novels that were found in a trunk in the attic of DiGrippa's elderly sister's home in San Chirico (still, according to the most recent magazine profile, under seige by all manner of literary scavengers). There is also rumor of an uncompleted novel and a volume of jottings from the 300 journals and workbooks he left behind. I have to confess that I'm particularly looking forward to that last business, given that the mythology surrounding the man's reckless, tragic, and brief life (he was a promiscuous, syphilitic bisexual who was struck down by a motorcar driven by a prominent Italian political figure) has in large part fueled the broader reading public's interest in his resurgence.

At any rate, I have to confess that it always makes me happy as hell to think that there are still Silvio DiGrippas buried in the lonely Potter's fields of attics, libraries, and used bookstores out there in the world, just waiting to be exhumed and reanimated and thrown back into the land of the living.

1 comment:

  1. I have always thought the phrase "to die penniless" to be quite a moot point since once you die, why would you need money? Actually, I believe in reincarnation so perhaps Silvio is now rediscovering his own writing.