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The Artist at Home

William Weaver at Annandale-on-Hudson

After a life spent telling stories in two different tongues, the American translator of Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino is struggling with his own.

Last night I finished reading Carlo Emilio Gadda’s first novel, Acquainted With Grief, in the final pages of which he kills off an aging mother and leaves the murder in skulking irresolution.

Gadda does good matricide. In That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, there’s a lovely woman doubly slain—first by barrenness, then by brutality. In that book, Gadda’s most famous, the martyred materna longs for a daughter; but in Acquainted With Grief, the victim wishes for all women “the calm strength of sons, that they would work, health, peace; good marches in the morning where the captain commands them; that they would find a bride, returning from the regiment, in the aromatic thicket of the girls.”

This and the passage about the fish sold in the fictional village of Maradagal—“the poor pikes, dark, with pointed snouts like the desire of the poor, and grim, which had swum and swum through green poverty toward the silvery glint of the Druendal; or tench, great yellow fish from the lakes, of a greasy and stupid viscidity, which even among carrots and celery still tasted of mud,” I dog-eared and reread, reverently.

I went to the bookshelf and pulled out That Mess (“Il Pasticciaccio” in Italian shorthand). A clutch of library request slips fluttered from its pages: Creative Entanglements: Gadda, by Dombrowski; Carlo Emilio Gadda and the Modern, by Sbragia; CEG, Contemporary Perspectives by Bertone; and A Vocabulary Analysis of Gadda’s Pasticciaccio by McConnell. These were the sources I had turned to months before, when I had first discovered Gadda and that tongue of his that was like Italy’s Garibaldi in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

Buried deeper in the text (at the midnight visit to La Zemira, the harlot hag), was a yellow business card for Blue Top Taxi. It was the number I had called one humid mid-morning last June to take me from the Rhinecliff train station to the man I had hoped could sate my sudden passion for Gadda.


* * *

“Professor Weaver’s place,” the taxi driver had said when I gave the address, “we know him quite well.” Then he spoke with great admiration of the elderly man whom he drives regularly to doctor’s appointments along with his nurse, Ralston.

I asked him if I was en route to disappointment. Weaver, I knew, had suffered a stroke, and I had been unable to establish his mental condition by phone.

“Oh he’ll talk to you,” said the driver; but the man I had come to see, I inferred, had little left to say.

I wondered only if I might learn something about William Weaver—the man who correctly left mixed syntax mixed. At the house I was met by Ralston*, a large Nigerian in shorts and flip-flops, and then by Koji*, a small Japanese man, agitated and hospitable. I had spoken to both men on the phone several times before surmising that clarity would come only in person, so I was surprised by neither the former’s impassive salute nor by the latter’s skittish greeting: “Ahh, excuse me. I’m sorry. Please,” he announced and herded me straight to the bedside of William Weaver, the American dean of modern Italian fiction.

Weaver was gaunt and long, his lower half covered by a defiantly ugly afghan in shades of mustard. His eyes were closed under thick glasses until he turned them on me with a hopeful scrutiny. Then he gazed beyond the wood paneling of the bedroom to the lush green outside world that was no more recognizable than his visitor.

“Beeel,” said Koji to the eminent professor who was once his love but was now also his labor. “This is the young lady. The writer,” he said by way of introduction and then backed out of the room with his verbal trifecta: “Ahh, excuse me. I’m sorry. Please.”

I sat down and let my brand-new edition of That Awful Mess with its angry-red cover slide from my lap to the floor, where it lay facedown like a skinned knee gathering lint. I knew I would glean nothing more about Carlo Emilio Gadda that afternoon. I wondered only if I might learn something about William Weaver—the man who had known that girls could be dreamt of in “aromatic thickets.” The man who correctly left mixed syntax mixed. The man who knew to describe an encounter as “vespertine and casual,” endowing the notion with precisely the right shade of exotic comprehensibility.


* * *

Bill Weaver was a Princeton man until the day in 1944 when he shipped off for southern Italy to drive ambulances, those great incubators of modern prose. But Weaver wasn’t yet committed to literature. It wasn’t until he returned to Italy after the armistice for a year abroad, a room with a view and all that, that, as a cineaste, an editor, and an American quick to amass introductions, Weaver found entrance to the foremost salons and literary circles of liberated Rome’s left-wing intellectual elite.

Heady days, prestigious company, and a student’s purse—naturally Weaver became the conduit for Italy’s transatlantic cultural flow, meeting, befriending, and ultimately translating all of Italy’s finest post-war writers: Alberto Moravia, Ignazio Silone, Elsa Morante, and Primo Levi. Bassani’s Garden of the Fitzi-Continis and Pasolini’s Violent Life were his to deliver to English readers, along with nearly all the works of Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco. “Preeminent,” is the term they use for people with his breadth of intimacy, experience, and accolades. Also: “internationally renowned,” and “award-winning.” (I somehow see only a tall man with cowlicked hair, who speaks like Jimmy Stewart, wears a bowtie and slack pants, and has ink-stained fingers.) But even Weaver’s affability was lost on the elusive Gadda, with whom, wrote Weaver some years ago, there were only “moments when I felt close to him, in what seemed his raw vulnerability and narrowed life, confined by manias and codes all his own.”

When Italy stopped being Weaver’s home, he decamped to Bard College, where he continued his work and won the hearts of students and faculty alike. He brought Koji with him to the bucolic campus, and they lived together in the house that had once belonged to Mary McCarthy.

To his closest friends he confided that moral obligation, as much as love, fueled his relationship with the erratic Japanese poet 20 years his junior. But then Weaver, a healthy, beloved professor of 79, had a debilitating stroke. Overnight, his unstable companion stopped being his dependent and became his guardian.


* * *

None of this was conferred to me that day as I sat by Weaver’s bedside. Indeed, I was the only one in the house with information to offer. Koji brought us champagne and spaghetti basilicato on china plates but quickly retreated in the face of questions. Sufficiently confused with the present, he had no wish to scavenge the past.

“Where are we? Where are we going… with this interview?” And so I told my host what little I knew about him and apologized when I couldn’t answer his questions. It seemed he had become accustomed to his memory loss, but not to the inability to verbalize those truths that had survived. He could dismiss the void that was his father’s occupation; but when I asked his father’s name, that I might better research the question for him, he looked stricken and then cursed bitterly.

I was used to the frustration of impairment. I had watched my grandmother struggle to explain her alienation, only to throw her head back and cry at the ceiling. But the dis-articulation of a man whose lifelong joy was in cracking the myriad methods of communicating the specific, struck me as particularly cruel.

Twenty years ago, Weaver wrote a piece describing his method of translation. The essay, he wrote, was an attempt “to make conscious and logical something that is, most of the time, unconconscious, instinctive.” Then he coaxed a passage by Gadda from its baroque syntactical shadows; played with it like a kitten whose markings were a puzzle; and then returned it—understandable but no less shrouded, to its obscure corner.

Here is the passage as it first emerged:

An idea, an idea does not recall/sustain/aid/repair, in the labor of the building sites, as the hissing devices/machinery of actions transform things into things and the labor/toil is full of sweat and dust. Then distant gold(s) and a sapphire, in the sky: like lashes, trembling above compassionate/merciful/charitable gaze. Which, if we cast it, will still keep watch/be wakeful/alert. The pulses/throbbing of life, it seems, can be overwhelmed/swept away by an alarm, as if in a (precipitous race/dash.) The charity of the evening has cleansed us (We are cleansed by the…: and where someone is waiting, we move: so that our fate/lot may proceed, and no one will block/impede/hinder it. Because then/afterwards/later we will rest/be able to rest/have our rest.

You can find the final translation in the Edinburgh Journal of Gadda Studies, but that day last June I produced my own of Weaver himself:

Though in reality, William Weaver lay in his bed saying, “an idea does not ____________ things ___________ like ______, oh damn!” I felt sure that in his mind, he heard words, perhaps Italian, perhaps English, saying: No, no idea is buzzing in the gap between me and my mental efforts and that distant sorry gaze. She is watching as my life flees, swept by a shock. We’re left. I’m left. Naked before charity. I must advance, or just lean towards her. She is waiting for my future, my past unimpeded. And then I will rest.

I stayed only an hour but I promised to return when I could answer his questions. Like the one he had posed over his champagne glass: “Where are we? Where are we going…” he had asked, before clarifying, “with this interview?”


* * *

Acquainted With Grief stays by my bed. Tucked inside are names of people who knew Bill Weaver before he stopped knowing himself. If I talk to them, I wonder, will I one day be able to talk to Weaver about Carlo Emilio Gadda and the real-life unsolved crime of the Via Merulana and the legacy of Mussolini and the craft of translation?

Or, at least, about that one passage in Il Pasticciaccio, where the “surly and half-featherless hen lacking one eye, with her right leg bound by a string… took a shit… a green chocolate drop twisted a la Borromini like the lumps of colloid sulfur in the Abule water: and on the very tip-top a little spit of calcium… the color of pasteurized milk, which was already on the market in those days.”

*Names changed.


TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem