JANUARY 28, 2021
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN 1977, Guido Morselli’s Dissipatio H.G. feels like a book for the moment. While we’ve spent the last several months separating ourselves from other people in varying degrees of solitary confinement, Dissipatio H.G. considers the boundless isolation of being the only person on earth. And Morselli’s own lonely life was marked tragically by the epidemic of his day, with the loss of his mother to the Spanish flu when he was 12.
His central premise associates the novel with its thematic predecessors of “last man” speculative fiction, which emerged in 19th-century English literature alongside new understandings of species evolution and extinction, and continued throughout the 20th century in various offshoots of apocalypse narratives and alternative histories. But it would be misleading to align the book with genre fiction, for its mode of speculation is more in the tradition of continental philosophy, its mood that of the modernist antihero anxiously roaming the cold European city (think Hamsun, or Kafka): repulsed by what he sees, he retreats into nature like Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene (1979). And something like its more experimental American cousin, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988), Dissipatio H.G. is a collection of intellectual flotsam. In Italian literature, there is virtually nothing like it.
Morselli’s novel begins in medias res: about two weeks after an “Event” he calls “the Inexplicable,” an unnamed narrator heads into the city in search of the mysteriously disappeared “them,” finding nothing but a collection of ghostly machines, unmanned desks, abandoned possessions, and idling automobiles. Now, as the memorable first line states, only “[t]he audio-visual debris keeps [him] company.” The narrative shifts back in time to explain what seems to have triggered this event: on the night between June 1 and 2, the eve of the character’s 40th birthday and Italian Republic Day, our protagonist heads up to a dark mountain cave to commit suicide. But his body seems to resist his will, and he finally gives up and returns home, hitting his head on a protruding rock on the way out.
The next day, he wakes to find that while he’s still alive, everyone else has ceased to exist. But there are no dead bodies — no evidence but the objects the rest of humanity has left behind. Everyone has seemingly vanished into thin air: dissipatio humani generis, the “dissipation” — dissolution, disintegration, or simply disappearance — of humankind. Scholars of eschatology are unlikely to find any such term among the apocalypse theories of Christian mystics, one of whom Morselli cites as the source for the concept that lends the book its title. That the obscure fourth-century philosopher Iamblichus appears to be an intentional dead-end might be a last-laugh prank on the critics who ignored Morselli in his lifetime. The text is littered with such half references, alongside the many thinkers and writers who accompany the narrator on his search for answers.
Between suicide and its opposite, continuing to live, there is no third option (tertium non datur). Dissipatio H.G. is the exploration of that impossible “third.” Our protagonist moves through an allegorical terrain broadly recognizable as a fictional analogue of Switzerland or thereabouts, with the corresponding interplay of languages: toponyms are mostly Germanic or Mitteleuropean, character names a European mishmash. Though Italian is the language of the original text, it is rendered foreign by conspicuous indications like “the Italian, Pasolini,” “Italian wine,” or the fact that the protagonist’s psychiatrist, central among the book’s few characters, is said not to speak it. Alongside Latin, French is the primary language of literary reference, which is patchily preserved in the English translation.
Geography, though invented, is meticulously depicted, even metaphorically overdetermined. The protagonist lives in a secluded estate high up in a mountain valley with the villages of Widmad and Lewrosen (much like the author’s real-life farmstead in Gavirate, at the foot of the Alps in Northern Lombardy). He works — or used to — for a newspaper in what he calls Chrysopolis (city of χρυσός or khrysos, i.e., gold), a medium-sized city of churches and banks whose superlative store of gold opprobriously suggests the decadence of its now-disappeared residents.
Be careful what you wish for, the text seems to admonish. Our protagonist, left utterly alone, pursues a miserable survival in an achingly silent wasteland. It is no coincidence that most of his outings involve hotels and airports, stand-ins for existential limbo, and telephone calls to dead numbers or ghostly recordings. Wandering through the decaying museum of humanity, he searches — if not for survivors, at least for explanatory signs — and the novel leads us through these torturous perambulations. The narrator wavers between survivor’s guilt and the possibility that his suicide was successful and this is the result. “I am the elect — or the damned,” he tells us. “With the curious distinction that it’s up to me to elect or damn myself.”
In all this, what survives and thrives is nature. One could call Morselli an ecological writer ante litteram. Raising the idea espoused by Montaigne and others, the narrator asserts:
There is no eschatology that doesn’t assume man’s permanence is necessary to the permanence of everything else. […] The world has never been so alive as it is since a certain breed of bipeds disappeared. It’s never been so clean, so sparkling, so good-humored.
In the absence of noise and environmental pollution, animals begin to populate what were once human spaces, birdsong grows louder, and a certain peace takes over. Society, apparently, is “simply a bad habit.” This stillness isn’t without attendant dread, though, and the narrator sleeps with his “black-eyed girl,” as he calls his shotgun, contemplating whether self-annihilation in such circumstances is preferable, or even possible. “[E]verything is fear,” he says. “At best, I proceed by exclusion.”
It is tempting to interpret the book as a suicide note, and such a reading wouldn’t be incorrect. Morselli is an infamous literary suicide in Italy, having decided to end it all in 1973 after years of rejections, most notably by Italo Calvino during his tenure as editor at Einaudi (the publishing house where Morselli tried to have his Il comunista [The Communist] published) and by Mondadori (his last, for Dissipatio H.G.). After securing financial support from his begrudging father, Morselli retreated to a country home where he devoted himself to intellectual life, yet he would go on to publish only two nonfiction essays in his lifetime. Only after his death — a mere year later — was he discovered by Adelphi Edizioni, which began publishing his considerable oeuvre to great acclaim, exposing its tragic neglect by the establishment literati. For some writer suicides, death casts an unfortunate shadow over the work or becomes a precondition for its interpretation. This applies less to Morselli’s writing in general, which addresses an array of political and social themes — unlike Dissipatio H.G., which, via the question of suicide, represents the apotheosis of his thoughts on the human condition.
The translation of Morselli is a great gift, and we must applaud Frederika Randall for her work in bringing Morselli back to the attention of English-language readers with her important 2017 translation of Il comunista and now this translation of Dissipatio H.G., completed shortly before her 2020 passing. Only a few of Morselli’s novels had previously been translated into English: Hugh Shankland translated Divertimento 1889 in 1986 and Past Conditional: A Retrospective Hypothesis in 1989. Given the explosion of Italian literature in English and the rise in translation more generally, the present is likely a better time for the reception of Morselli’s novel; hopefully, the publication of his masterpiece will help to affirm him as one of the most interesting writers of the 20th century.
Randall was an ambitious translator of Italian classics; for the most part she has done a fine, even impressive job with Morselli’s often opaque prose. Yet reading NYRB Classics’s Dissipatio H.G.: The Vanishing, one gets the unmistakable sense of an earlier draft accidentally making it to publication, even if that isn’t the case. Time and time again, confusing passages sent me back to the Italian for basic comprehension. Here is a representative example:
That fanciful [favolosa] night between June 1 and June 2. The night when it was decided that I would commit suicide.
Because the negative outweighed the positive. On my scales [bilancio]. By seventy percent. Was that a banal motive? I’m not sure.
So far as precise estimates [precisione contabile] go, I confess my psychic life is poor. Also simple, elementary. Someone’s said to be “a born accountant” [Si presta alla ragioneria]: I must confess I don’t recognize the unconscious frustrations and visceral pains, the festering evils [mali oscuri] that afflict modern man.
Calling a night spent contemplating self-annihilation “fanciful” seems rather whimsical for a character concerned with his grip on reality, but more troublingly, Randall’s inattentive renderings muddle the conceit, confusing the Italian bilancio (balance sheet) with bilancia (scale), producing a mixed metaphor and a grammatical mess that fails to evoke the psychological reckoning being described in financial terms. Throughout, there are numerous other instances where complex thoughts appear similarly convoluted, or worse, trivial, the senseless musings of a man who sounds almost silly, as when he repeats apologetically, toward the end of the novel, “I’m rambling.”
Randall prepares us for a frustrated reading in her introduction, where one gets the sense that she isn’t overly well disposed toward her subject. Calling the protagonist’s mind “sometimes annoyingly over-cultivated,” she warns us that “[t]o translate the novel is to wrestle with a solipsist. The prose is clipped, abbreviated, as if intended only for him. He’s hard to follow, self-absorbed. In fact, the last man often doesn’t seem to care whether you can follow him.”
This is an unfortunate perspective on a novel that — like any novel — asks for nothing less than to be followed. Guido Morselli was a great writer who suffered enormously from being misunderstood in his lifetime; it seems that in death, he remains subject to the same fate. Dissipatio H.G. is a classic that would benefit from multiple translations and editions, and one can only hope that this first publication in English is the beginning of a long and rich afterlife.
Jamie Richards is a literary translator and editor based in Milan. She has translated numerous contemporary Italian authors, including Ermanno Cavazzoni, Igiaba Scego, Gabriella Kuruvilla, Zerocalcare, Gipi, and Manuele Fior. She holds an MFA in translation from the University of Iowa and a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Oregon.