Truncheons in the Christmas cave, critical commentary by Rolando Damiani

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Giorgio Manganelli (Doppiozero)


November 15, 2022 marked the centenary of the birth of Giorgio Manganelli, who became a prestigious writer of high international standing after a career with uncertain beginnings, perhaps exemplary evidenced by a degree in Political Sciences, obtained in Pavia at the chair of Beonio Brocchieri, spent however, in teaching English language and culture in high schools and then, with the transfer to Rome, in a similar assistantship at Sapienza. In 1971 he became convinced that the role or status of "assistant", to which Robert Walser had titled a perfect and typical novel of his, was too tight for him and he needed to change it with a upgrades it required an activity that was boring for him, and so he left university. He already had another role and had conquered the literary stage in relationships with the major publishers, from Einaudi and Mondadori to Adelphi, with national newspapers, with weeklies and monthlies. In newspapers and periodicals he sometimes scattered "pieces" of sublime prose and acuteness, as in the luxurious magazine "FMR Art Magazine", where one day some pages appeared on flowers that were even disturbing due to the abysmal depth of thought concealed under a very smooth surface of the lexicon and of the syntax, in the style almost of a Daniello Bartoli (of whom he himself jokingly liked to call himself "a little nephew"), however a follower not of the seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation but of the sophist Gorgias who praised in the Encomium of Helena of the word as "powerful lady, who despite having a very small and invisible body performs the most divine works".
He became famous in the media for his participation in Gruppo 63 and the Neo-avant-garde, with Giuliani and Balestrini and Sanguineti and Pagliarani, but still considering him for a commemorative photo in this soon worn out uniform would be recognizing him in disguise. Which, moreover, in the hyperliterary sense if not of absolute literature theorized by him, could also satisfy one of his artistic aims. Of Manganelli's many books, some ingenious titles easily come to mind: Hilarotragoedia, 1964; Literature as a lie, 1967; To the further gods, 1972; Lunarium of the Samnite orphan, 1973; Centuria. One hundred little river novels, 1979; Style anxieties, 1981; From hell, 1985; Laborious trifles, 1986; Salons (in which the dizzying prose on flowers is collected), 1987; Improvise for typewriter, 1989; The ultimate swamp, 1991; The nativity scene, 1992.




For Giorgio Manganelli, literature had «the rigor and arbitrariness of ceremony»; indeed he defined it in a famous essay as "a pseudo theology, in which an entire universe is celebrated, its end and its beginning, its rites and its hierarchies, its mortal and immortal beings".
When Manganelli disappeared on 28 May 1990, it seemed that he had not died from any illness, but from a definitive loss in his black reveries, in that descent into hell which had characterized him since his debut in 1964 with Hilarotragoedia, his journey into literary infinity.

His mysterious and complicated existence, behind a veil of apparent routine marked by writing and reading, aroused the suspicion that in his drawers there were secret papers, a private map composed of hidden sheets, cryptographies, or even compromising photos (as suggested with amiable impertinence by Salvatore Silvano Nigro, a critic linked to him by a long friendship). Behind the mask of a sedentary and fat man man of letters and omnivorous reader, sometimes tumultuous biographical episodes were hidden, such as the rescue in extremis from a reprisal shooting during the Resistance thanks to the father of the killed black brigade leader, who recognized him among the pro-partisans condemned to the wall as an esteemed teacher of his younger daughter. No less adventurous were his private affairs at times, from which anecdotes of vaudeville scenes by Feydeau or Labiche flourished in the literary world. Memorable for the mix of genius and recklessness became the relationship with Alda Merini, like him from Milan and nine years younger, who in the small debut collection The presence of Orpheus she camouflaged him in the features of the sacred mythological singer and attributed those of Eurydice to herself.
There could have been a game of Edwardian "ghosts" in Manganelli's house, and already the sudden appearance, in the aftermath of the funeral celebrated at the end of May 1990, of a procession of friends, custodians of unknown pages received, aroused a little ' of dismay to those who considered the writer's manuscript material exhaustive. His partner Ebe Flamini, who passed away in October 1992, made a gift of these so-called official papers, together with a library of eighteen thousand volumes, to the Philological Research Center established by Maria Corti at the University of Pavia. However, no one at the time could conjecture a literary legacy of unpublished works, which in terms of size constituted almost another work, subsidiary to the one published during his lifetime and hidden from view perhaps to appear mockingly posthumously one day.
The lie and ceremoniality, indispensable for the functioning of literary invention according to the theoretical essay of 1967 mentioned above, were thus witnessed, even post-mortem, by their most categorical enunciator, who had stolen the first tricks of his own lexical tightrope walking from baroque prose of the Jesuit Daniello Bartoli. A gift from the deceased Manganelli, which arrived almost from Hades shortly after his disappearance, made it possible to perceive the importance of this hidden narrative.

The nativity scene, edited for Adelphi in 1992 by Ebe Flamini, had presumably been written about fifteen years earlier and then submerged by other folders, other things. Taken by the "feeling of decay that seizes the living" in the imminence of the Christmas holidays, forcing them to accumulate food and objects as viaticum for the new year, Manganelli unleashed himself in a whirlwind visionary digression, in a "theological joke", so defined to oxymoron, on the primary scene, represented by the nativity scene, in which Christian tradition and faith identify "the beginning of Meaning".
The ultimate swamp, left by the author on the way to the press and published a year before Nativity scene, captured the reader in the concentric turns of an anguish held on the edge of delirium: Manganelli had also long experienced the torments of the psyche, ending up under the care of the famous Jungian Ernst Bernhard in Rome, who was also frequented by Bazlen, Zolla and Cristina Campo, Elena Croce, Fellini and others. The "jester", whom he claimed to resemble due to his nature as a magician of words, had become thoughtful and gloomy, a prisoner of an obsessive place of the mind, "which was difficult to enter and impossible to exit.
The nativity scene brings us the hilarious and imaginative anguish of Manganelli, the theatrical repertoire of his inventions, of acuteness and concepts, at the height of the verbal ability exercised by writers of the second half of the twentieth century. In a reversal of perspective, the cave of the divine "pupo", open to the shepherds and angels, is imagined empty inside, almost as if the sacred family in the company of the two humble animals had emerged from an underground tunnel.
The images of the Nativity, which are combined with feelings of meekness and candour, seem to Manganelli to arise from a shadowy kingdom, from the mysterious depths of the earth rather than from the heights of the heavens. Like an expert hypnotist, with his words he leads those who read and listen to him where he wants, to the bottom of everything, to the limits of a fearful abyss, then returning the reader to common sense, with a slight grin.

Giorgio Manganelli

The nativity scene it does not only represent an exemplary tale of the soul and mythographic genius of Manganelli under the modern and yet universal species of "literature as lie", but a key to access the most unfathomable recesses of his debunked prose, which through an excess of conscience or perhaps for his own sake privacy narrative abandoned or hidden in a drawer.





Cover image
Bartolome Esteban Murillo, The adoration of the shepherds, circa 1668, oil on canvas, Wallace Collection, London (Wikimedia Commons)



Rolando Damiani he has taught since 1975 at the universities of Padua and then Venice, where he is now Senior Researcher. He edited Leopardi's work in the Meridiani series and also published the biography for Mondadori When the truth appears (translated abroad) and a Leopard album. The works of Comisso and Arpino were also published in the Meridiani by him. He translated for Bompiani and Adelphi, especially editing the former The spirit of perfection by Georges Roditi and for the Adelphi Library series Rodez's writings by Antonin Artaud, printed in 2017. He has carried out an intense journalistic activity for many years, with articles and extensive interviews with even leading personalities of international culture, such as Jacques Derrida, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Mario Luzi or Harold Bloom or Adonis. Various of his literary criticism studies are collected in six volumes, published from 1987 to the present.
His book has been released recently by Mimesis Barbarism and civilization in Leopardi's conception.
He is an ordinary member of the Olympic Academy founded in 1555 by Palladio and others.

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