The Communist

If ever there were to be a book of neglected writers, then surely Guido Morselli would deserve his place: his seven novels were only published after he died at his own hands, a suicide which was at least partly caused by the endless rejections from publishers. I first encountered Morselli via Jacqui’s review of Divertimento 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. Coincidentally, however, Frederika Randall was translating Morselli’s fourth novel, The Communist, for New York Review of Books Classics around the same time.

The Communist is Morselli’s most realist novel (he was a writer who never settled to a single genre), set in 1950s Italy where communism is a popular political movement, associated with resistance to Mussolini’s fascists. Walter Ferranini, the communist of the title, is a life-long believer – his father was a railwayman and an anarchist – who left Italy in the thirties to fight against Franco in Spain. The Second World War prevented his return and he spent the war years in America instead. As the novel opens, he has recently been elected to parliament, a position to which is attached little in the way of power or responsibility. Not only has he not spoken once in the five months he has been there:

“He had been assigned to a committee that met rarely, the most pacific and least industrious committee in parliament, in which his silence was no more remarked upon than it was in the chamber. The party, too, asked little of him, perhaps because in Rome, where he had never set foot at party headquarters before his recent election, nobody knew him.”

He wishes to propose a bill which will protect workers from accidents at work but he is told, “Communists do not take part in the life of the parliament, they observe and remain outside.” This is perhaps the beginning of his political crisis of faith, though its roots are complex and many. He, first of all, sees corruption, or at least a love of comfort, among his peers, which perhaps reminds him of his own deviation from the party in America:

“I sank into a reified, dispossessed world that completely transformed me. It was the great crisis of my life… A betrayal.”

In America he also married, and the woman in question, Nancy, is still his wife. His lover, Nuccia, is also married though separated; her child looked after by her parents. Ferranini knows the party disapprove of their relationship, and, when an official goes to Nuccia with a request from her husband that they get back together, he points to their own guilt:

“We let ourselves be seen, Nuccia. We were visible. Something had to happen.”

Another factor is the party’s approach to dissent. He is sent by the party with colleagues to speak to a young man, Mazzola, who has broken from party discipline. Ferranini, being a worker rather than an intellectual, is there as an observer, the only one who feels any sympathy for Mazzola’s position, shaking his hand as he leaves “without saying anything. He would have liked to, but couldn’t find the words.” Later he publishes an article that puts him at odds with the party hierarchy concerning a doubt he has had since the beginning of the novel regarding labour:

“…the classics say labour will be reduced to a minimum once communism is established. But the way I see it, labour cannot be reduced, and certainly not abolished.”

The article, in turn, is commented on in the mainstream press:

“The article affirms that the enervation that comes with labour is not merely the consequence of alienation and exploitation but an intrinsic quality of work.”

Ferranini’s theorising relates directly to his concern for the workers, but the party censures him causing him to doubt his unquestioning devotion and take dramatic action. As with Morselli’s other novels, there is a philosophical intention – this is neither satire nor polemic, and Ferranini’s sincerity and seriousness are among his defining qualities. (If Morselli and his character might be criticised for one thing, it is a lack of humour).

The novel is also interesting for its feminism, voiced through the character of Nuccia (“the degree of liberty and progress in a society corresponds to the degree of evolution in the sexual domain”) and the appearance of Alberto Moravia discussing realism. Above all, though, the novel provides a historical snapshot, while at the same time exploring the possibility of political purity.

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9 Responses to “The Communist”

  1. Scott W. Says:

    Oh hooray! I am so glad to see Morselli getting more attention. I’m halfway through the seven novels; since only three have been translated into English (with another on the way soon), I’m having to rely on French translations for the rest. And then there are his diaries, untranslated into English or French, which are rumored to be great.

    I loved The Communist, and actually found it quite humorous. The Moravia bit is, I think, intended to be funny. As in his other novels, Morselli appears to seduce with a veneer of utter seriousness – what could be more boring than a novel about a minor party official’s disenchantment with the party line or more common than an allohistorical novel about Germany winning WWII? – but it’s as though he forces the reader to get so involved in the details that the reader loses sight of the essentially absurd, fantasist nature of the situation – even in this “most realist” work. At times in The Communist I had to laugh out loud at some of the weighty party pronouncements Morselli includes; they’re almost like Ionesco discovering the absurdity of the simple sentences in his foreign grammar book.

    But there is something pretty dark too in these books – perhaps Morselli channeling his own despair and fragility. Dissipatio H. G., forthcoming in English, is almost literally a suicide note – though hardly one without humor.

    I want to pay more attention to the female characters next time.

    • 1streading Says:

      Great to hear a further translation is forthcoming. I think you’re right, I have become so involved in the detail I’ve missed some of the absurdity, though much if it, I’m sure, is documentary! He is a writer who manages to be both serious and mischievous. Looking forward to the next one.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds fascinating Grant! I’d never heard of author or book before.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Many thanks for the shout-out, Grant. I’m delighted to have introduced you to this most neglected of authors. Like Scott, I’m delighted to see Morselli getting some much-needed attention, albeit several years after his tragic death.

    Needless to say, The Communist sounds fascinating – not only from a political perspective but a feminist angle too. And I do love that NYRB cover – it’s certainly going to be hard to resist!

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks to you I have become a bit of a fan – and he is definitely a writer I would have been unlikely to have heard of otherwise.

      • JacquiWine Says:

        Well, I have to thank Scott for the introduction as it was his review of Divertimento that put Morselli on my radar in the first place! It’s interesting to read the comments about his use of humour in these books – there’s definitely plenty of fun to be had with Divertimento, which I’m confident you would enjoy. 🙂

  4. Lisa Hill Says:

    Gosh, Grant *wink* I think I’d better stop reading your reviews. It seems that every time I do, I buy the book!
    It’s on its way to me now, ordered from Fishpond!

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