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Like Dali's melting watches, or the maddeningly pulsing heartbeat of Ravel's Botero, or Joyce's "signature of all things I am here to read," Giorgio de Chirico's early surrealistic paintings - piazzas, arcades, porticos, columns, statues, squares, mannequin figures in empty space in an atmosphere of loneliness, agoraphobia, mystery - are easily recognized and more than difficult to forget. The artist called these early works metaphysical painting. Now we have an excellent translation of de Chirico's only novel, Hebdomeros (1929). To this edition is added "Monsieur Dudron's Adventure and Other Metaphysical Writings" and an introduction by John Ashbery, who considers Hebdomeros the finest of surrealist novels.

This is a novel without plot. The single character is Hebdomeros, a Manfred, a wandering Melmoth, an Outsider who acts out the Nietzschean worship of the Ubermensch. Our hero wanders through landscapes he might have seen in a de Chirico retrospective, so clearly reflective are they of the artist's metaphysical intent in picturing the irrational in street scenes that might have come from nightmares. Both in the novel and in the miscellaneous writings, de Chirico makes it clear that his ideals, principles, and practice apply not just to art but also to literature, theater, and film. The lonely Hebdomeros, in his picaresque meanderings, holds discourse that expresses de Chirico's philosophy of life, literature, and art: the mythological world of centaurs, Furies, mammoths, Hercules, the landscape of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In a phrase, the world of Homer. But we also discover, here and there, throughout the novel and in several of the short pieces, the possible answer to why he painted those exasperatingly puzzling portraits of other-worldliness. In the "Manuscript from the Collection of Paul Eluard," he writes, "I believe that one must never forget that a picture must always be a reflection of a profound sensation, and that profound means strange, and strange means uncommon or altogether unknown." In "Statues, Furniture, and Generals," he tells us that "for some time, I have been obsessed by this aspect that furniture has when placed outside of buildings; in some of my recent pictures, I have sought to express the emotion it inspires in me." And in "Some Perspectives on My Art," he attempts to explain the motifs of his early paintings: "Corresponding to the atmosphere of displaced furniture is the atmosphere of temples and outdoor areas installed in rooms. . . . This intrusion of Nature upon dwellings, as I've tried to suggest it, is reminiscent of the alliance between gods and men that imbues all of Greek art." Reading the novel and the short pieces that accompany it, it is possible to conjecture that Giorgio de Chirico wanted to pattern his work after his mentor, Homer, and bring down the gods of Olympus into the streets of his beloved Turin and then onto his canvas and into his metaphysical novel.
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Author:Byrne, Jack
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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