Tommaso Landolfi occupies an odd place in modern Italian literature as one of its most admired and least read writers. He has the reputation of being a "writer's writer," most of whose novels and short stories are out of print despite the high praise of authors as distinguished as novelist Italo Calvino and poet Eugenio Montale. "An Autumn Story"--one of Landolfi's last books, written just four years before his death in 1979--makes it easy to understand why he has sparked the enthusiasm of the few but not of the many.
From the very beginning of this short novel one has the impression of entering an extremely strange and yet familiar literary universe. It is a dark and stormy night, the nameless protagonist, a fugitive from war, comes upon a lonely aristocratic mansion guarded by two fierce hounds, with no human inhabitants in sight. After breaking into the house, he meets its solitary owner, an old but ferocious nobleman who reluctantly allows him to stay the night. The narrator prolongs his visit as he finds himself increasingly drawn in by the sense of mystery in this enormous, largely abandoned manor house. The evasiveness of his host, the strange sounds within the house, the seemingly endless labyrinth of musty, cobwebbed rooms and an alluring portrait of a beautiful woman over the fireplace take hold of the protagonist's imagination.
Although the background is clearly the German occupation of Italy at the end of World War II, Landolfi keeps the circumstances as vague as possible in order to create an atmosphere of timelessness. The language is lavishly ornate with an old-fashioned, musty quality not unlike the fading, mildewing wallpaper of the mansion itself. We are not really in this world at all but in the verbal world of the gothic novel, of Edgar Allen Poe or of Nikolai Gogol (whom Landolfi translated into Italian). There are many superficial resemblances to Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"--the lone aristocrat, a horrible family secret, the crumbling mansion and the baroque language.
One night the narrator awakes convinced that someone is standing over him, breathing; but when he reaches for a match, his room is empty. The following day he decides to search the house, something his host has strictly forbidden him to do. Exploring, he finds evidence of a woman living hidden in the house, a woman who appears to wear the same clothes as the one in the old portrait above the fireplace. Risking death, the protagonist follows the owner when he retires at night and watches him perform a bizarre religious-satanic rite through which he raises the spirit of the dead woman from out of the fire. When the narrator screams in terror, the specter vanishes. In the struggle that ensues between the two men, the old man swoons in a fatal stroke.
The protagonist flees but cannot help returning a few days later. He finds the woman from the portrait--except that she is young, beautiful and very much human. She explains that she is the daughter of the old man and the woman in the painting and has lived as her father's captive for her entire life. The narrator and the young woman fall in love but when members of the invading army arrive she is raped and killed before his eyes. And so the narrator ends up like a younger version of the old man, tied irrevocably to the crumbling mansion by a powerful, impossible passion for a dead woman.
Somewhere in the course of this bizarre tale, the novel degenerates from an alluring story of imagination into a kind of gothic melodrama. Landolfi is at his best when he is conjuring the as-yet-unknown mysteries of the house with its noises and dark passageways, but when he brings the plot to its climax the fascination of his spell seems to break just as the specter of the woman vanishes at the narrator's scream.
But "An Autumn Story" is not as silly as its plot would make one believe. In fact there is something peculiarly modern to this apparently old-fashioned tale: Landolfi seems to be self-consciously creating a purely verbal universe, which has no more reality than the feverish incantation that the old man recites to invoke the spirit of his dead wife.
Landolfi, an archaic modernist, uses the conventions of the gothic novel for rather esoteric purposes. His mixing of genres and his belief in the hypnotic power of language are perhaps what attracted a modernist like Calvino. For the same reason, however, Landolfi is an odd, hybrid writer, who defies easy classification, making him a kind of literary fish out of water, unlikely to attract a wide audience.