Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) was a miserable poet. Not in the sense that his poetry was bad, far from it. In fact, amongst those who know about such things, I hear he’s renowned as an all-time great. It’s just that ‘bleak’ barely does his work justice. Like a 19th Century Italian Morrissey, he analysed his own despair obsessively in verse after verse, turning it this way and that until out of it emerged his own unique ‘pessimistic’ philosophy. Yes, it’s as much fun as it sounds.
Not that Leopardi had much to be glad about. A hunchbacked invalid, he spent his adolescence and early adulthood virtually imprisoned by his parents. I won’t go into his whole life-story here, except to say that if I were to, I would be using the words ‘disillusionment’, ‘in love with his cousin’, and ‘cholera’.
It’s not his poetry, however, that I want to draw your attention to here. Rather, it’s to a rather strange work of his known as the Operette Morali, or Moral Tales , written between 1824 and 1832. This is a series of short stories, many of them dialogues, that are designed to explore the argument that life is but a bitter struggle towards an unobtainable ideal of happiness that can only be relieved by death – no, wait, come back!
Ok, the underlying idea’s pretty wrist-slitting, but the sheer imagination that Leopardi employs here is impressive, and there are parts of it that can be seen as early examples of fantasy fiction and even sci-fi. There’s also something almost magical-realist about parts of it, as well. There are a few stories that might appeal to Borges fans in particular.
‘The Dialogue of Nature and an Icelander’, for example, references Vasco de Gama and the heads of Easter Island, and reads like a blueprint for the Knight playing chess with Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. In other stories, a mummifier talks with his mummies, the Earth asks the Moon if it’s inhabited, and an imp and a gnome discover that the human race has died out.
My favourite, however, has to be ‘The Dialogue of Christopher Columbus and Pedro Gutierrez’. Here, Columbus is on his way across the Atlantic in search of land, and expresses his uncertainty about what he’ll find in this rather startling piece of sci-fi logic:
How can you know that every part of the world resembles the others in such a way, that as the eastern hemisphere is occupied partly by land and partly by water, it follows that the western hemisphere must also be divided between these two? How can you know that it is not wholly occupied by a single enormous sea? Or that instead of land, or even land and water, it does not contain some other element?… what certainty have you that there are rational creatures there, as there are here? And even if there are, what assurance have you that they are men, and not some other genus of intelligent animal?… These are the things I am pondering in my mind.
Now, don’t get me wrong. A lot of Moral Tales is bloody hard work, and if you were to skip large chunks of it, I wouldn’t blame you. The best bits, however, are really worth checking out. I could see a slimlined, edited version being a bit of a cult hit.
At the moment, however, it’s not in the shops, and there hasn’t been an English version in print since 1983. It turns up second-hand on the Internet for about a fiver and it’s not hard to track down. So why not let a little Leopardi into your life?
Richard Blandford is the author of the novels Hound Dog and Flying Saucer Rock & Roll. He is currently strapped for cash and will write for milk money.