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Gianni Celati. The Craft of Everyday Storytelling.

Gianni Celati. The Craft of Everyday Storytelling. By REBECCA WEST. Toronto, Buffalo, and London: Toronto University Press. 2000. 340 pp. 40 [pounds sterling].

In 1997 Gianni Celati sent Rebecca West an unpublished and incomplete essay entitled 'Rituali di racconto' which gave a rare autobiographical sketch of the writer's formative early encounters: Luigi Heilman's book on the dialects of the Val di Fassa ('a revelation: to reconstruct the invisible threads that bind people'), Levi-Strauss ('it seemed to me I had a key for unlocking all the doors; reading about far-off populations, primitive rituals, pathological cases, fables and folklore, all this excited me'). After university, another critical moment was when a friend working in a psychiatric hospital sent Celati writings by mental patients, in particular a newspaper edited and with writings by an old patient. He was amazed at the wonderful language and, when he was himself isolated for forty days with viral hepatitis, he sat down one day and, hearing the voice in his head, managed to reproduce its 'syntax, strange adjectives and the symptoms of persecution that overflowed from every sentence [...] it was like getting outside of myself, of falling into a kind of sleep'. This essay provides valuable insights into Celati's work from his brilliant first volume of fiction, Le avventure di Guizzardi (Turin: Einaudi, 1973), to Avventure in Africa (Milan, Feltrinelli, 1998), strengthening West's argument about the need to take Celati's oeuvre as a whole in which the breaks and inconsistencies are less significant than the elaboration and reworking of ideas over a life-time. It also highlights a remarkable feature of this study, namely its close engagement with the author, beginning with a fan letter back in the early seventies and sustained by meetings, correspondence and discussion ever since. As a privileged interlocutor, West is able to draw on materials, such as unpublished essays and first drafts, that show the development of the writings as an open-ended process, a vantage-point especially useful with a writer who has constantly revisited and revised his own work. The result is a book full of freshness and belief as well as scholarly rigour and academic seriousness.

Gianni Celati. The Craft of Everyday Storytelling is composed of six essays and is loosely structured through a zig-zag movement whereby intricate and painstaking textual analysis combines with broader philosophical forays, and whereby connections are made between the fiction, literary studies, such as Finzioni occidentali (Turin: Einaudi, 1975), and the 'family' of writings with which Celati has been in dialogue. The opening chapter, an exemplary reading of the story of Baratto in Quattro novelle sulle apparenze (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1987) in conjunction with Melville's Bartleby (a tale translated by Celati), represents a microcosm of the book as a whole. The (beguilingly lightly-worn) erudition of Celati is matched by West's ability to interpret his work, linking, for example, the contemporary writer's conceptions of 'ontological being' to his love of Buster Keaton and use of comic body imagery. Other chapters look at Celati's relationship to Luigi Ghirri's photography in order to consider spatial concerns, notably in Narratori delle pianure (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1985), at his familial links in literature to 'fathers' (Calvino), 'siblings' (Angela Carter, John Berger), and 'children' (Ermanno Cavazzoni, Daniele Benati), and at his 'body language' ('orality, voice and the theatre of ephemeral morality'). A final chapter puts his Avventure in Africa in the context of Italian travel writing, while another considers the applicability of the term 'minimal' to his work. Each essay reaches out beyond an immediate contemporary Italian literary field to connect Celati to an older tradition on the margins of the canon (Boiardo) and to wider international currents, an approach consonant with Celati's own travels and cultural predelictions as reflected in his work as a translator. However, some of the finest and most intriguing passages deal with Celati's relationship to Italo Calvino, the man who first recognized his talent but whose notion of illusion and rationalist approach to the world he could not share.

It might seem churlish to be critical of a book that is so fine and in so many respects but there are some things worth mentioning. Was it impossible to twist the publisher's arm to reproduce some of Ghirri's photographs? Too little was said about Celati the translator. Personally, unlike West, I found the excursion into filmmaking (Strada provinciale delle anime (Bologna: Pierrot e La Rosa, 1991)) unconvincing. Lastly, it is hard from this study to grasp how Celati manages to captivate the untutored reader who simply wants to know how the story is going to unfold or who laughs without wanting to know why. But, as Rebecca West realizes perfectly well, that is why Celati himself is so loath to 'explain' what he writes.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Lumley, Robert
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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