Past Conditional


What better time than now to contemplate the role of chance in history, and the way in which one moment might change everything. Italian novelist Guido Morselli first came to my attention thanks to Jacqui’s review of Divertimento 1889 over at JacquiWine’s JournalNot only did the novel sound interesting, but so did the novelist, his work only published after his suicide in 1973, and with each novel seemingly quite different to the one before. Only two have been translated into English (both by Hugh Shankland): Divertimento 1889 and Past Conditional (the latter contains a rather sad announcement that both Roma senza papa and Dissipatio H G will also be translated – sad, because it didn’t happen).

Past Conditional is a counterfactual novel – that is, it proposes an alternate history. The most famous counterfactual novel remains Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which depicts a world in which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan have won the Second World War. Morselli’s novel takes us in the opposite direction, proposing an outcome to the First World War which renders the Second obsolete. The story begins in 1910 when an Austrian soldier, Major von Allman, discovers a disused mine known locally as the Tunnel. It transpires that this dates back to a plan in the 1870s to construct a railway line joining Austria and Italy through the mountain, as an old man who worked on the project tells him:

“Months and months had been wasted exploring the Roschenen valley, opening up new paths, surveying the passes, and he had been on the other side as well, the Italian side.”

Von Allman later mentions it to the War Minister, only to have his idea dismissed:

“Take it from me, trains are all very fine for troop-carrying purposes and supplying your rear lines… In the strategic phase and context they cease to serve any useful purpose. A single charge of dynamite will put the best railway in the world out of action.”

As the reader is aware that we are only a few years away from the outbreak of the First World War (in which Austro-Hungary and Italy were on opposite sides) and that the novel will not stick to historical events (its subtitle is ‘A Retrospective Hypothesis’) he or she can be forgiven for being certain that, at some point, von Allman’s plan will be put into action. (Whether the plan was ever proposed in reality I do not know). In the meantime, Morselli is at pains to emphasise the role of luck in its eventual adoption. (It is eventually acted on because it is in the right pocket at the right time).

Morselli writes the novel in the style of a history book with a focus on dates and a large cast whose characters are sketched in the manner of a popular historian. Though von Allman features at both the beginning and end, it is not his story, nor does Morselli have much interest in how he might have changed – history is his subject. In fact, I was just beginning to think there was little of the flair or imagination suggested by his oeuvre when, one hundred pages in, we find inserted a conversation between Morselli and his publisher anticipating any criticisms which might be entering the reader’s mind:

“Do you honestly claim that this blatantly apocryphal version of contemporary history which you have submitted, so full of questionable theses and so short on appeal from every angle, can go by the name of a novel?”

Morselli’s style also comes in for some abuse:

“People on the staff who have seen the book find it has a ponderous style. Some have spoken of a ‘bureaucratic style.’… Your story seems not only to run counter to past history, but what is worse, to present-day narrative fashion.”

Of course, pre-empting criticism does not invalidate it, but it does demonstrate that these aspects of the text are intentional. The conversation takes on a less comic note when you know Morselli killed himself after years of failing to get published, and there is the added sadness that it enhances the sense that an appreciation of his work demands acquaintance with all of it – one novel is not representative. What Morselli does demonstrate is a thorough understanding of the period –and of how wars are fought, and politics played.

Nazis winning the war will always be the sexier side of counterfactual fiction, but there is a place for more peaceable outcomes too. Morselli hints at what his small change has achieved by the end of the war when von Allmen, a keen painter, meets Adolf Hitler:

“I volunteered in the war because it was the only way to make politics at the time. My political credo is Germanism in its full might and universality. Today Germanism has won… Therefore I can now pursue my second vocation. Painting.”

Anyone interested in the politics of 20th century Europe – and what might have been – should read this book.

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11 Responses to “Past Conditional”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great review Grant and the book sounds both timely and interesting. I take on board what you say about the book reading like history as I’ve just finished a review (scheduled for this week) of a book that purports to be history – “The Glory of the Empire” – and clever though it is, the fact that it had a sweeping historical narrative ended up being a failing.

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s interesting – I look forward to reading it. Getting the balance right isn’t easy – the history bit is obviously important. Other counter-factuals I’ve read tend to see it all through the eyes of a character tangential to the action.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Many thanks for the pingback, Grant. As I mentioned last night, hat-tip to Scott (of Seraillon) for writing about Morselli – it was his charming review of Divertimento that alerted me to this author in the first place.

    Well, what a timely post this has turned out to be. It sounds truly excellent, and I’d really like to read it. (Even though I’m technically in the midst of another TBR20, I’ve already had a quick look at the availability of secondhand copies – there are a few around, but they’re quite pricey.) As you say, the tragedy of Morselli’s life adds note of melancholy to his work – it puts a different slant on elements of Divertmentio too…

    By the way, I understand there’s another Morselli translation in the works for next year – The Communist. Scott might be able to shed a little more light on this, but it’s something to look forward to. Maybe we’ll be able to read a little more of his full oeuvre in the future.

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s excellent news – let’s hope it leads to the rest of his novels being translated. And if this is reprinted you won’t have to buy such an expensive copy!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    PS Isn’t that a great cover on Past Conditional? I’m going to have to get hold of a copy!

  4. Scott W Says:

    This is fairly high on my TBR list, and I’m delighted to see you review here. I have a relative who’s a great fan on contrafactual histories, but from what little I understand of Morselli’s effort here there’s quite a bit more going on than just the contrafactual exercise. I love that discussion with the publisher inserted mid-volume.

    Jacqui is right – The Communist should be out in translation from NYRB sometime next year. It’s certainly a shame that the other two translations didn’t materialize, as those sound two of Morselli’s most interesting works.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes – it felt almost ghostly to read it on the jacket when I knew they had never appeared.
      Great to hear another book is being translated though.
      You’re right about more going on (most of it beyond me, I’m sure) as I believe all his novels are, at heart, philosophical.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The discussion with the publisher is interesting. I can’t think of anything comparable save the second volume of Don Quixote where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza comment on the criticisms and popular reaction to the first book.

    I haven’t read Divertimento 1889 yet, which I have. Depending on how I get on with that I might try The Communist next. This one sounds slightly more of a curio.

    • 1streading Says:

      I think that’s probably true – possible only an essential read if you’re a fan of counter-factual novels.
      As for the conversation, there was an element of getting the criticism in before the critics. It reminded me of Alasdair Gray with his Index of Plagiarisms in Lanark and the back cover of Something Leather with ‘Very For’ and ‘Not Very For’ quotes!

  6. The Communist | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] 1889, one of only two of his novels to have made it into English. I soon tracked down the other, Past Conditional, which tantalisingly suggested plans for further translations which never came to fruit. […]

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