Zibaldone by Giacomo Leopardi, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino (translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowey, Martin Thom, and Pamela Williams). Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $75.00, 2,592pp.
The Hottentots generally have a fatty growth below the coccyx. The sexual parts of their women are of a singular construction. Are we to believe that these singularities strike them as ugly? On the contrary, would not someone without such attributes seem ugly to them?
The great Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi was born on June 29, 1798 to Count Monaldo Leopardi and his wife, the Marchioness Adelaide Antici. Leopardi was thus the oldest son of two well-established aristocratic families in the town of Recanati in Ancona in southwest Italy. The old count was a spendthrift but something of a rough-around-the-edges humanist, and so Giacomo and his siblings (brother Carlo, sister Paolina) were brought up with little extravagance but given extensive Jesuit schooling in the ten thousand-volume library of Palazzo Leopardi. Giacomo was a terrifyingly hard worker and something of a prodigy; by the time he was 18, he’d already begun teaching himself Greek and Hebrew, mastering the intricacies of philology, and beginning to try his hand at poetry. His essays, translations, and poems were published frequently in the Lo Spettatore in Milan, and his fledgling work was taken seriously by the literary men of his day, including the great man of letters Pietro Giordani.
The learning had come at a price, as such freakish learning often does: by the time he reached age 20, Leopardi’s health was already precarious—his eyesight was deteriorating, he complained of limb-pain, and he was developing a hunched back that his family believed was caused by all those hours crouched over manuscripts in the family library.
And yet he haunted that library in his youth, almost to the exclusion of all other locations. By the time he visited his mother’s brother Carlo Antici in Rome for six months in 1822-23, his passion for poetry had begun to bloom. In these years before he began work on his Operette morali in early 1824, he was experimenting with classically influenced verse forms, the idilli and canzoni patriottiche, that would evolve into his signature immortal works. He spent time in Pisa and Florence, watching his career broaden and returning frequently to the peace and security of Recanati. His claimed infatuation for Fanny Targioni Tozzetti in Florence in the early 1830s was infamous (she was the alleged inspiration for his wrenching “Aspasia” cycle of poems), and he lived in Naples from the fall of 1833 until his death in 1837, working on his poetry and fashioning his masterpiece, the Canti, a work that would secure his place in the poetry pantheon.
When joined with passive participles the verb to go among the Spanish has almost the function of an auxiliary verb and the role of to be, as with us the verb venire (venire, ucciso, etc. for essere ucciso [to be killed], and it can also be found in Ariosto; and see the Crusca), but the former normally signifies a more continuous and lasting state of being acted upon. I do not know if one would say fulano ando muerto or matado [so-and-so was killed] for fue matado.
But for a great deal of that same time—while he was writing book reviews and editorials and some of the greatest Italian verse in two centuries—Leopardi was also working on something else. For a period of roughly sixteen years, from 1817 to 1832, he was intermittently generating a diary, a commonplace book, a reading journal—but a reading journal of such horrifying proportions that it exploded any semblance of normality. This was his Zibaldone, which roughly translates to “miscellany” or “notebook” or “hodgepodge.” It’s a literary account book, which Leopardi took everywhere and in which he noted, described, transcribed, and annotated everything he read, remembered having read, or intended to read. By end of 1823, when he had lived but a quarter-century, Leopardi had already aggregated this thing to some 4,000 pages, 3,197 of which were written in just the years 1821 and 1823. Between 1819 and 1823, he wrote four-fifths of the eventual total of 4,526 pages (the whole process petering out in 1832). For that immensely concentrated, short stretch, he must have literally never stopped writing, at least while he was awake—day after day, night after night, in what becomes appallingly clear was a compulsion far, far beyond the mere manias of sex or ambition. Even to call it by its obvious clinical name, graphorrhea, is to slander the sheer unimaginable scope of it all. It was a personal obsession that—from 1819 to roughly the beginning of 1824—briefly transformed into nothing short of madness.
Barbio [barbel], barbo (Alberti)—barbeau. Tatonner [to grope about], etc., bourdonner [to buzz]. Brontolare [to grumble], etc.
It was madness to write; it was madness to cart around Italy in an enormous wooden chest; it was madness to preserve after its creator died; it was madness to publish; it would be madness to read, and there is no word but madness for the utterly staggering task editors Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino (and a small cadre of seven translators who, if they divided their labors equally, would each have been responsible for a chunk of text equal in length to Anna Karenina) have performed in a new book from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (whose funding of it was also madness): they have given to the world the first complete, fully indexed, and fully annotated English-language translation of the Zibaldone ever done.
It was Nietzsche (an admirer of the Zibaldone, along with Sainte-Beuve, Herman Melville, Walter Benjamin, and Samuel Beckett) who once wrote that if you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss stares into you, and the equivalent here has happened with stark inevitability: the editors have partaken in full measure of their author’s madness. Under ordinary circumstances, it might be mordantly funny to hear Caesar and D’Intino claim, of a 4,526-page jottings-book collected over sixteen years, that it’s “not directed in any teleological sense,” but such amusement dries up quick when confronted with the aggravated tone of unshared obsession:
even after publication, there was no impact on anthropologists, historians, linguists, psychologists, philosophers, political scientists, aestheticians, musicologists, and scientists, who would yet have found treasure there, anticipations and astonishing intuitions. Such obtuseness, inexplicable in itself, damaged the poet too, in the long run, if it is true that the fame of some of the great exemplars of the European canon (suffice it to mention Novalis, Coleridge, Baudelaire) rests also upon solid theoretical and philosophical writings.
Readers who might feel tempted to take this guilting at face value must be strenuously reminded: this is madness. It implies an equivalence that isn’t even close to being real. Yes, the European canon values the prose work of Novalis, Coleridge, and Baudelaire, but there’s nothing like that to value in the case of Leopardi. There’s no “solid theoretical and philosophical writings”; there’s only the compulsive, sometimes 30-pages-a-day jottings of a gifted poet in the grip of madness. When Caesar and D’Intino tell us that Leopardi started to view the Zibaldone as “merely a gigantic storehouse of memories that recall other memories,” going on to claim that, ”in this sense, the diary functions precisely like poetry itself,” they are merely in error about the nature of poetry. But when, after assuring their readers that the Zibaldone was “a private document, not intended for public consumption,” they then assert that “it is now impossible for any serious reader of Leopardi to do without it,” they’re indulging in a mania that requires explicit contradiction: it is very, very much possible for a serious reader of Leopardi to do without the Zibaldone. It is very, very much possible to form a serious appreciation—even love—for the man’s poetry without even glancing at his helplessly manic notebooking, let alone crawling through 4,526 pages of it.
La simplicite grammaticale est un des grands avantages des langues modernes: cette simplicite, foneed sur des principes de logique communs a toutes les nations, rend tres facile de s’entendre; une etude tres-legere suffit pour apprende l’italien et l’anglaise; mais c’est une science que l’allemand.
Caesar and D’Intino have studied their ungainly text to the point of exhaustion and beyond. They’re undoubtedly correct when they maintain that “the library of the house where Leopardi grew up was therefore the birthplace—and also the deathbed—of the Zibaldone: the only place where the fragile organism could grow.” Reading these endless pages, most of which were written in that gorgeous old library, it’s easy to picture the stooped and squinting author transcribing feverishly while the sunlight faded and servants trimmed the lamps. Due to ill health, Giacomo had surrendered his primogeniture to Carlo, so the running of the estate was never a scholar’s distraction—indeed, there were no distractions at all, nor could there be in that storm of words. The pages of the Zibaldone became a sanctuary far more welcoming and reliable even than the library itself, as our editors rightly point out: “Over the years, the manuscript became a secret place where Leopardi could summon authors at will and question them”—although it should be added that such interrogations are rare, and they form no patterns, and they’re so recondite that they reward no examinations. All those anthropologists, musicologists, and political scientists, were they insane enough to inquire, would find only the most paltry scraps of incunabula here to liven up flagging dinner party conversation, and aestheticians will go wholly a-begging, since a thing that has no organization can have no aesthetic. (When Caesar and D’Intino compare this mammoth mess to, for instance, The Education of Henry Adams, they commit a little sacrilege on the idea of literature itself—they’d better hope Henry Adams never finds out about it.)
Linguists will find an undifferentiated hoard of factual nuggets; languages fascinated Leopardi, and a great many of his notes deal with linguistic curiosities encountered—and then maniacally chased to ground—in his voluminous reading. But there are only a few hundred pages of semi-organized linguistic discussion, and they’re scattered sometimes hundreds of pages apart, with nothing that could even generously be characterized as a framework to unify them.
Caesar and D’Intino also invoke psychologists, and those psychologists, alone, might find nearly unlimited treasures in the Zibaldone. But even in that case, the actual yield is minimal; Leopardi could rattle off the descendants of Decaulion to the tenth generation, but to judge from these pages, he had no flesh-and-blood friends—it’s hard to see how he could have had them even if he’d wanted them, since friends are precisely the people you have to turn away if you’re going to write ten, twenty-five, thirty pages every single day.
But the Zibaldone offers no sense of loneliness either, tragic or otherwise. Instead, the unavoidable impression yielded by this unending stream of obscure pedantry is that its author was fundamentally incomplete, a myopic, hidebound boor whose company would be lethally dull. We know that after 1832, after the Zibaldone released him, he was indeed good company and inspired close friendships—but the creature who produced these pages can have done very little else but produce these pages.
Opra syncope of opera can be found in Ennius (in Forcellini, see opera, end), as in our poets opra and oprare and adoprare, etc. Tan like Spanish for tam in the very ancient codex of Cicero, De re publica, bk. 1, ch. 9, p. 26, Rome 1822, where see Mai’s note.
The translation itself is a wonder of clarity—hardly an easy thing to achieve when working with the accumulated tangle of inferences, allusions, and cross-references that comprise the Zibaldone. Speaking on behalf of their no doubt exhausted team, Caesar and D’Intino sound fairly exhausted themselves:
To translate a text of this sort is to make a translation of a translation, since every mind, that of the author like that of every reader, behaves in the manner of a camera obscura, inside which, as Leopardi says of translations, external objects are reproduced in different ways. It is pointless, therefore, to pretend to oneself that one is being faithful to Leopardi. The important thing, as he has taught us, is to battle strenuously against the limit, oblivion, nothingness.
But this is just a bit of false modesty; the English this team produces often varies quite a bit, but the rushing, vastly erudite, constantly cross-checking voice of Leopardi comes through loud and clear. If anything, the stylistic imprint happens in the opposite direction; only prolonged exposure to Leopardi’s prose could induce to 21st century editors to permit a sentence like this one:
In the summer of 1819, the cruel ineluctability of his condition, the feelings of guilt that it aroused, the sense of isolation that the correspondence and friendship with Giordani had both assuaged and exacerbated, the failure of his work to receive the unstinting praise that he had hoped for and at some level expected, the retrospective horror of “seven years of mad and desperate study” of which he had written to Giordani in March 1818, the grim uncertainty about what the future might hold, all combined to plunge Leopardi into one of the blackest of the more or less extended episodes of melancholia from which he suffered throughout his life.
Those “episodes of melancholia” hint at the ultimate origins of the Zibaldone, of course—which, again, might interest any psychologist who picks up this cinder block of a book, but which will leave everybody else gasping for mercy.
On the diminutive ginocchio [knee] which has come down to us, see elsewhere. Genou is the positive form genu. But angenouiller [to kneel] comes from the diminutive genuculum or, etc., no differently to inginocchiare. The Glossary also has precisely ginochium.
The Zibaldone, Caesar and D’Intino remind us, was written almost entirely on location in Recanati. The hundreds and hundreds of entries are almost all dated with extreme precision, as their author worked his way through library volumes, borrowed books, treatises, and periodicals, constantly scratching. In 1832, almost overnight, the gushing stops. Leopardi, we’re told, “keeps it by him, for the rest of his life, and it will remain in the possession of his companion Antonio Ranieri until the latter’s death in 1888. Strangely, the reader of Leopardi suddenly feels bereft.”
Suddenly bereft, after 4,526 pages. Madness.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and Kirkus. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
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