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Sebastiano Vassalli: La notte della cometa (The Night of the Comet)

This novel has been described as a novelised biography. Though it is, more or less, a biography of Italian poet Dino Campana, it is not a standard biography. Firstly, Vassalli tells us about how he researched the individual details of Campana’s life. Secondly, there are many gaps in what we know about his life, because they were not recorded, because sources were not reliable or because sources were destroyed in the war. We do know that Campana had psychological problems and spent part of his life in asylums. We also know that he would go off on his own for long periods and no-one would know where he was or where he had been when he returned. Vassalli uses the novelist’s licence to speculate on these gaps, something that would be riskier if he were writing a standard biography.

Vassalli spends much time on the issue of insanity in the Campana family. Indeed, he says it was a major obsession for the family members, always on the look-out for signs of insanity in other family members. He refers to some of the older generations who showed signs of insanity but we see it in the generation before Dino. Vassalli has found out that Giovanni Campana, Dino’s father and a school-teacher by profession, voluntarily went for treatment to an asylum in Imola. He was given some powders (Vassalli thinks they may have been valerian) which helped him enormously and he continued to hold the doctor in the highest respect, when it came to treatment for his son. Vassalli also finds out about a mysterious brother of Giovanni, of whom there seem to be few records and who is known only as Zio Pazzo (Uncle Mad). Dino’s mother, Francesca but known as Fanny, also had problems. After the birth of her second son, Manlio, she effectively abandons Dino, either ignoring him completely or shouting at him and condemning him the whole time, so much so that he is effectively brought up by other relatives. Indeed, she threatened to leave her husband if he did not get rid of Dino. Fanny also spends time in asylums. Clearly, this must have had a profound effect on the young Dino.

We know that Dino was something of an awkward child. After his death, his brother said of him that he liked to be alone and did not seek out the company of others. He spent his spare time reading the classics, rather than playing traditional children’s games with the other boys. He did not do particularly well at school and was often in trouble, not for misbehaviour but for poor results and for playing truant. However, despite this, things do improve somewhat. He first signs up a military school but before being accepted, considers studying chemistry with a view to becoming a pharmacist. However, he is accepted at military school, where he sticks it out, till he is asked to leave, nominally for failing his sergeant’s exam. Vassalli speculates that the real reason is that he went out drinking with a friend and he got caught by the police for drunkenness, while the friend escaped. He spent a night in prison (he will later exaggerate his prison stay). After being discharged, instead of going home, he sets out on the first of his wanderings. We do not know where he went, though Vassalli thinks it was Milan and then Switzerland. He is apprehended at the French frontier for having no passport and returned home. He resumes his pharmaceutical studies but they do not work out not either.

His parents want to have him declared insane but this cannot be done while he is still a minor. However, once he reaches the age of twenty-one, he is declared officially insane and placed in the care of his parents, though his uncle Torquato (also a teacher) is named officially responsible for him, his father presumably renouncing this task after his own visit to the asylum. He is limited in his movements and rights but is exempt from military service. For much of the rest of his life, he is in and out of institutions. However, he did have an excursion to South America. Some commentators have wondered whether this really happened but Vassalli is in no doubt. He even worked his way back as a stoker. However, instead of going straight back home, he went to Paris and then to Brussels, where he is again interned, as his passport clearly says he cannot travel unaccompanied. His father is inclined to leave him but he is finally rescued and brought home. Back home, he tries his hand at painting and then goes off to university but gets into trouble with the police on more than one occasion.

Vassalli seems to concentrate on his psychological and his family problems but, of course, he is remembered as a poet. Initially, he showed little interest in being a poet but, gradually, writes the poems that will become his only published work, Canto Orfici (Orphic Songs) (an English translation does exist). Inevitably, he has difficulty getting the work published and eventually publishes it himself, with the help of a subscription and friends. (There is a fascinating story about how he gets it typed at the local municipality offices.) It does not sell well. However, he does have a key admirer – the Italian writer Sibilla Aleramo. They start an affair, which is very troubled, alternating being passionate love and squabbling. When World War I starts, he wants to enlist but, of course, cannot. It is at this time that he starts the affair with Aleramo. He will live till 1932 with his mental health clearly deteriorating.

Yes, this is a biography but a biography where the biographer is a novelist and one who takes a novelist’s point of view towards his subject, allowing him to speculate and comment on Campana’s life. That Campana was a troubled person and had a troubled life is in no doubt. But then he is not the only poet who was a troubled person. He only produced one book of poetry (you can read it here in the original Italian) but one that is considered one of the masterpieces of modern Italian poetry. Vassalli’s approach to his life does make for fascinating reading, even if you sometimes want to read more about his poetry and his literary interests than about his mental health problems and his family. But Vassalli’s approach does allow us perhaps a more complex view of the poet and his mental problems than a conventional biography might do. Though there are conventional biographies in Italian, I am not aware of any in English so this is the best way for English speakers who do not have Italian to learn about him, while, at the same time, enjoying a well-written book.

Publishing history

First published 1984 by Einaudi
First published in English 1989 by Carcanet
Translated by John Gatt