On Translating the Little Known Italian Novel That Anticipated the Anthropocene
Frederika Randall Considers the Life and Solitude of Guido Morselli
The planet is tentatively coming back to life, now that mankind has suddenly vanished. Mountain goats romp on abandoned railroad tracks; birds don’t just sing, they’re making an unholy racket. Two owls hoot out a tender duet all night long. “Their instincts tell them something they certainly never expected: the great enemy has withdrawn.” And the whole of nature has come out to celebrate the end of the world. “The end of the world?” says the last man on earth, who has been hooting along with the owls. “One of the pranks played by anthropocentrism is to suggest that the end of our species will bring about the death of animal and vegetable nature, the end of the earth itself. The fall of the heavens. . . . Ainsi fera la morte de toutes choses notre morte,” as Old Montaigne said, “Our death will bring about the death of all things.” “Come on,” snaps the narrator, “The world has never been so alive as it is since a certain breed of bipeds disappeared. It’s never been so clean, so sparkling, so good-humored.”
The last man on earth in Guido Morselli’s brilliant, disturbing novel Dissipatio H.G. lives near a mountain village in an unnamed country not far from Chrysopolis, a fictional city reminiscent of Zürich. It’s sometime around 1973, when the novel was written, and the man is well ahead of his time in perceiving how deeply Western thought is tied up with the Anthropocene. The knowledge that Man the Measure of all Things is bound to exploit and despoil nature had not yet penetrated an Italy drunk with acquiring new cars, refrigerators, and TVs. Dissipatio H.G. was born premature in other ways too; the very shape of the story was peculiar. The post-apocalyptic novel, scarcely news today, was pretty much unknown in Italian literature at the time. But Morselli, like the last man on earth, was always profoundly out of synch with his times. He, too, lived in near isolation close to a small town (Gavirate, not far from the Italian border with Switzerland); he, too, despised the materialism and the cult of money he believed had overwhelmed Italy during its postwar “economic miracle,” represented in the novel by Chrysopolis, the Golden City of fifty-six banks and almost as many churches.
Morselli sent off his manuscript to Mondadori in the spring of 1973, and it came back some weeks later with a rejection letter. He had taken a brief holiday and returned to find it in the mail. In a lifetime of furious writing, it was the seventh novel by this literary outsider that publishers had declined, and this time it felt like a fatal defeat. That night Guido Morselli loaded his Browning 7.65 and shot himself, putting an end to one of postwar Italy’s most original literary careers.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the novel itself begins with a suicide, a suicide deeply desired but finally thwarted. Just before the great disappearance happens, the protagonist has decided to end it all. Not wanting his body to be found, he has devised a plan to climb to a cave he’s heard opens into an underground lake, where he will drown himself. But when the time comes, sitting on a ledge above the lake he begins to think about the Spanish brandy he has brought along to give him courage. It’s really very good. Of course, he thinks; brandy that’s made in Europe’s south, where the sun brings out the sugar in the grape, will always be better than what the French can achieve with their cloudy skies—which is why they make such a fetish of those oak barrels they age it in. The superiority of French cognac is a great scam, he thinks. His train of thought begins to fizzle out, as does his will to die, and he gets up and leaves the cave, only to find that while he was away, all of humanity has disappeared.
Dissipatio H.G: the title might seem to suggest a leisurely dissipation, but in fact the disappearance of the humani generis, the human race, is abrupt. The Latin words, according to Morselli, are those of a fourth-century pagan Neoplatonist, prophesying the demise of the species. “[I]n the Latin of late empire, dissipatio meant evaporation, or nebulization, or some physical process like that.” As the last man tells it, human beings simply vanish from the earth leaving all their detritus behind them—without so much as moving their chairs back from their desks or even minimally disturbing the bedcovers.It’s sometime around 1973, when the novel was written, and the man is well ahead of his time in perceiving how deeply Western thought is tied up with the Anthropocene.
Unconvinced at first that he is the only survivor of the species, the last man visits the grand hotels of his mountains where he “shops” for provisions in pantries and freezers. He goes to the airport and spends the night on a chair, waiting in vain for the arriving flights from Caracas, Tehran, and Montreal. He breaks into his old girlfriend Tuti’s house, eats from her refrigerator, sleeps in her bed, feels mildly guilty about the fact he didn’t love her. From the town department store he takes TV sets, film cameras, bottles of Coke, and tourist posters, and piles them up in the square in a monumental “cenotaph” to honor the missing. He visits the newspaper where he used to work:
[T]he linotype machines were still going through their crazy motions, the skeletal arms somehow continuing to rise and fall. When they disappeared (at two in the morning) this was where production stood: linotypists composing in the print room, editors finishing off the last stories upstairs, press not yet rolling. The wire service flashes, frozen on the teletype machines. I didn’t bother to read them but I could see they were interrupted. Transmission had broken off at the other end, while here everything was normal. In its special stall, the IBM with its red lights lit. In fact, all the lights are still burning in the office, and in the secretary’s room—that would be Miss Man as as always—a little fan continues to hum on her desk. She’d been writing and the pen lies across the page, as if fallen from her hand.
The clever, manic, sometimes annoyingly over-cultivated mind of the novel’s memorable protagonist, too, has something in common with the author himself. The unnamed narrator is a writer, a journalist, who has left his job in Chrysopolis and moved to a solitary outpost in the mountains to escape human society and the ambition, greed, and noise it produces:
Switchback by switchback I ascend to the kingdom of the oaks and the beech, past the chestnuts with their huge domes, until I meet the tall, slim species, treetops lost in the fog. My real family—and my only one. I’ve rejoiced in them before. For a moment I’m invaded with the usual pleasure, a physical sensation, felt in the breath and the blood. This is my country: houses of dark wood, red shutters framed in white, the sweet-smelling, reviving evening air.
In his peaceful paradise, the last man is always feverishly pondering some philosophical problem, as if his mind must constantly race in order to keep himself alive. To translate the novel is to wrestle with a solipsist. The prose is clipped, abbreviated, as if intended only for him. He’s hard to follow, self-absorbed. In fact, the last man often doesn’t seem to care whether you can follow him. But his emotions, though tamped down, are lush, extravagant. And he’s witty, ironic. Of course he’s a solipsist, he says; in philosophical jargon solipsism just means a perspective confined entirely to the self—and who else is there now but him?
Morselli himself, in his relative isolation in rural Lombardy, did not want to be a solipsist. Born into bourgeois comfort, Guido, as an adult, lived out a frugal existence in the country, reading and writing, riding his horse Zeffirino in the hills. On his identity papers he gave his occupation as farmer. He grew grapes and made wine, a red called Sasso di Gavirate, which was said to be prized by high prelates of the Church in Rome. A few bottles recently surfaced, now fifty years old. He was “difficult, extravagant, unstable,” with “moments of festive joy and others of gloomy depression,” wrote his friend Maria Bruna Bassi, the person who most supported him through years of discouragement.
Valentina Fortichiari, the excellent editor of the modern Adelphi editions, tells us that although he had no home in any political party, he was always alert to human injustice, and while he had no love for organized religion, he was a convinced believer. His religious faith served to investigate the problem of evil, he said. With publishers he could be arrogant, defensive, proud in a self-destructive way. Once, at the offices of Mondadori, he suddenly ducked behind a column. He had spotted Giorgio Mondadori, the publisher and a friend from school days, and felt he would die of shame if the man thought he’d come to ask a favor.
The few photographs of Morselli in the public domain—lean and shy, standing by his car on a muddy country track; dashing in sailing whites, beside a boat—kept me company while I translated the text. It is tempting to read Dissipatio as autobiography, and certainly it presents parallels with Morselli’s existence. But we’d be wise to remember the heroic gesture of empathy the novelist made when he created the figure of Walter Ferranini in The Communist, a true believer who couldn’t have been more different from Morselli himself. Steeped in the sense of failure and melancholy of his last years, informed by the books he read and the events he witnessed, Dissipatio provides a partial portrait—many-faceted and abstract—of its author, but it is also a novel of invention.The clever, manic, sometimes annoyingly over-cultivated mind of the novel’s memorable protagonist, too, has something in common with the author himself.
In Italian tardo impero, late empire, and the more loaded synonym basso impero, with its implications of decadence and End Times, refer to the period that begins with the Roman emperor Constantine and his conversion to Christianity in AD 312. At the Greek colony of Chrysopolis (Golden City) across the Bosphorus from Byzantium, Constantine would fight a battle in 324 to establish his new capital, Constantinople, and take control of the Eastern Empire, even as the West was sinking into strife, corruption, and decadence. The novel’s Latin title (seemingly a reference to an ancient author but in fact most likely Morselli’s invention), the litany of Latin phrases scattered through the text, and of course the name Chrysopolis itself, all contribute to the novel’s “late imperial” flavor.
The West, Morselli thought, was decadent, first of all intellectually. European thought and philosophy, beginning with Hegel and his notion of history, had become arrogantly and misguidedly anthropocentric. And culpably “geocentric”: seeing one of the first photographs from space in 1966, the Earth appearing as a tiny crescent moon, “the first time we’ve seen our human condition from outside ourselves,” Morselli lamented man’s “retrograde geocentrism, hundreds of years behind the science,” and how loath we are to see our correct place in the cosmos. And we’ve also lost “the reverential fear that vast, uncontaminated nature once inspired,” he writes: the metus silvanus (dread of the forest) and the ancient pavor montium (fear of the mountains) our ancestors told of in fables.
Dissipatio hints, too, at the irrelevance of the material powers that be in the last man’s Alpine province, the international banks, and US military. At one point he drives to the Eleventh Army base to make certain that the empire has not collapsed:
America go home: the usual graffiti accompanies me. Thanks to a No Entry sign I recognize the road that leads to the base, which as it winds down becomes a Sunset Boulevard, with mini-skyscrapers, villas and semi-detached dwellings, playgrounds and parks, swimming pools and a bowling alley. Even a few out-of-place palm tufts. The sentry boxes in front of the immense gate contain no sentries (their weapons, yes), probably because of the hour. It’s midday. I walk around the fence, which extends for many kilometers, and find an opening, as expected. Every encampment of every army in the world has its clandestine entry points and the Eleventh’s base has quite a few, including one big enough to admit an automobile. I drive through and explore the village street by street, sundering the deep silence, passing rows of enormous bourgeois Chevrolets neatly lined up by the sidewalks. I coast by office buildings, warehouses, workshops, make a turn—and find other office buildings, other flowerbeds, other warehouses, other Chevrolets, a mirror image that fades into the mist.
But there are no people, no soldiers, no local employees: the base has been abandoned; its elaborate ruins perfectly preserved. He is quite alone.
As his solitude turns bleaker and icier, the last man summons up nostalgic memories of the only friend he thinks he has ever had. Karpinsky was a psychiatrist who treated him years ago, a man for whom he feels something that can only be described as love. The doctor is a figure who turns up in several other Morselli novels: as Dr. Abraham in Past Conditional and Dr. Newcomer in The Communist. They are wise, generous, and emotionally balanced medical men, but also more: faintly branded as saviors, even Christ figures. Karpinsky, whom the last man is “waiting for,” as Beckett would have it, when Dissipatio comes to a close, was murdered, still very young, in a knife fight between two nurses in the violent mental asylum where he had volunteered. The love the last man feels for him is not sexual, but his unconscious seems to confess to, if not homoerotic feelings, at least a distinct desire for androgyny. In a clearing on the mountain he imagines the trees he loves “penetrating” him to lend him their life force. He begins to wear women’s clothes: a garter belt with pale blue rosettes, lace underpants, stockings. The last man on earth is bored with masculine pretenses and male attire.
In the 1960s and early ’70s Morselli turned out volume after volume of his sui generis speculative fiction, novels like Roma senza Papa, Divertimento 1889, The Communist, and Past Conditional. He was inventing the form, or if you will, the genre: a mixture of essay and historical invention with the psychological texture of fictional realism. In Dissipatio, the social criticism we’d expect in a post-apocalyptic novel takes second place to a frank account of the last man’s abject loneliness. In Anglophone speculative/science fiction (John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, to name only a few) social diagnosis is usually the purpose of the exercise.
But Morselli disliked sociology; he called it sociologismo, as if it were an ideology. He didn’t read contemporary science fiction, but Jules Vern was a favorite, and he may have read M. P. Shiel’s 1901 novel The Purple Cloud, which is more like his own novel than later examples of the genre. The only literary clue relevant to apocalypses in Dissipatio is a fleeting reference to Robinson Crusoe. Among his contemporaries he felt closest to Italo Calvino and craved his approval. Ironic, contemplative, psychologically astute, Dissipatio is sometimes wry and even funny, but also quite a tragic portrait of a man so solitary that even when the others were alive he behaved like the last man on earth. At the end of the book he’s no longer living in time (history), but Nature is, which consoles him:
So here I sit here on a bench on the boulevard, looking at the life that’s unfolding before my eyes in this strange eternity. The air shines with a dense humidity. Rainwater runs off in rivulets (the sewers in the old city must be blocked) that flow together onto the street and deposit, day by day, a thin layer of soil on the asphalt. It’s not much more than a veil of earth, and yet something green is growing on it, not the usual city grass, but wild plants. The market of markets will one day be countryside. With buttercups and chicory in flower.
The stony palaces and dry asphalt of Chrysopolis will disappear as plants and trees grow. In this strange eternity, life is abundant.To translate the novel is to wrestle with a solipsist. The prose is clipped, abbreviated, as if intended only for him. He’s hard to follow, self-absorbed.
In 1974, just a year after Morselli died, the Milanese publishing house Adelphi began to issue his novels, one by one, to considerable acclaim. His friend Maria Bruna Bassi was instrumental in getting them considered, and Giuseppe Pontiggia, the reader for Adelphi, recommended they be published. What could have changed, that novels of no interest in 1973 were suddenly hailed by critics as fresh and exciting in 1974?
Perhaps it’s worth considering that, with hindsight, 1973 is often seen as the end of an era: the end of the broad prosperity and expansion across the West that followed World War II. It was the year OPEC oil prices skyrocketed. The gold / dollar standard had recently come to an end. The American war in Vietnam ceased with the Paris Peace Accords but the accumulated costs, moral and monetary, were just beginning to be felt. The US intervention had sowed anger, discredit, and disillusion, and not just at home, but around the world.
Morselli, who followed current affairs and “futurist” thinkers among many other things, and who belonged to the environmental and cultural heritage association Italia Nostra, had been brooding about the damage done to the human soul and the natural environment by runaway economic growth and lack of care for the planet. He also seemed to perceive that history was moving on, and may have sensed that the expansive, hopeful mood that had followed the war in Europe and across the Atlantic had run its course.
A new era was beginning, as yet only dimly perceived. It was one of those times when new voices can be heard, and Morselli’s magnificent speculative histories at last found their moment to emerge. The years have if anything rendered Dissipatio H.G.’s melancholy assessment of human achievement on this earth more haunting.
From Dissipatio H.G.: The Vanishing by Guido Morselli, translated by Frederika Randall. Used with the permission of New York Review of Books.