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Critical death compensation in detail

By Domenico Pacitti

Invito alla lettura di Conrad [Invitation to the Reading of Conrad] by Mario Curreli. Published in 1997 (Rev. ed.) by Mursia, Milan, Italy, 176 pages, €9.50, ISBN 88 425 1577 9.

Mario Curreli’s book opens with a 17-page tripartite table of notes on the life and times of Joseph Conrad, followed by a 6-page reprint of an article on Conrad’s life written in 1959 by Ugo Mursia, the late owner of the publishing house which has produced Mr Curreli’s book. This is followed by a 4-page note in which Mr Curreli pays tribute to Mr Mursia and his article, corrects a previous error, explains the need for the addition of new bibliographical data and amendments to the first edition and enters into unnecessary biographical detail relating to Conrad.

This inadequate presentation and the omission of a proper introduction to the reader make for a disconcerting opening and reflect poor organisation.

Mr Curreli next proceeds to run through Conrad’s major works in chronological order, losing himself in superfluous and badly arranged biographical, historical and cultural detail. The two remaining chapters on topics and critical works promise more than they offer. Futile detail again contributes to rendering Mr Curreli’s work unreadable and lacking in clarity, not to mention incisiveness.

For some reason Mr Curreli gives undue emphasis to publications by Italian professori gravitating around the same Tuscan circuit that he himself frequents. Those professori already featured in the JUST Book Reviews “Failing faculties” section include Riccardo Ambrosini, Francesco Binni, Mario Domenichelli, Francesco Gozzi and Paola Pugliatti.

It is not clear whether Mr Curreli actually believes that these people have made substantive contributions to Conrad criticism or whether he is engaging in customary lip service for unknown ends along traditional Italian academic lines of spineless obsequiousness. At any rate, the publications to which Mr Curreli refers may safely be considered to be – both jointly and severally – critically worthless except perhaps as further documentation for a correct understanding of the failures of Italian academia.

In fairness to Mr Curreli, it is perhaps partly in order to compensate for this flagrant bias that he omits from the “Principle critical and biographical studies” section of his bibliography not only all of these professori but indeed all Italians – with the sole exception of himself. Mr Curreli finds room for everyone, however, in his “Italian bibliography” section, which contains an impressive array of third-rate contributions with the exception of those by Benedetto Croce, Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese and Andrea Zanzotto.

Interestingly, Mr Curreli also lists 20 postgraduate dissertations on Conrad, all of which were carried out at English-speaking universities outside Italy. It is rather odd that Mr Curreli fails to cite any of the myriad Italian dissertations on Conrad, including those which he has supervised himself.

This book, taken together with Mr Curreli’s other publications on Conrad which bear the same unmistakeable stamp of mediocrity, implicitly raises questions as to what exactly Italian academic “literary critics” are doing, what they should be doing and why they are otherwise engaged.

Critical death provides the essential answer. Mr Curreli will happily strive to tell you in customary miniscule detail at what precise time of day Conrad sat down to write, how many times he interrupted his work to have something to eat or visit the toilet, what clothes he was wearing at the time, the quality of paper he used for his writing, whether or not it was raining that day, where the first editions of Conrad’s works are to be found, and so on.

But if you were to ask Mr Curreli to express his own reasoned response to Conrad’s literary virtuosity by referring to appropriate passages and to indicate some of Conrad’s shortcomings in terms of other passages, Mr Curreli would no doubt be at a total loss for an answer.

It would be even worse if you were to ask Mr Curreli to explain why Under Western Eyes reads like a poor imitation of Dostoevsky in a Constance Garnett translation or to elucidate the success of Heart of Darkness in purely aesthetic terms. Such questions clearly fall beyond the scope of Mr Curreli’s limited capabilities.

Lamentably, this sort of deficiency invariably emerges from even the most cursory reading of what Italian professori “critics” in the field have been turning out fairly generally.

So it looks very much as though Mr Curreli’s enslavement to rambling detail should best be viewed as a sort of psychological compensation insofar as it offers him a convenient, alternative form of writing in the acute absence of any genuine critical faculties or the ability to express them in a non-trivial way.

Mr Curreli’s detail fixation ailment could well be worth studying on its own account given the large numbers of Italian “literary specialist” co-sufferers it could help throw light on, though worthwhile research on the subject might have to be carried out in a medical sciences context rather than within the humanities.

Mario Curreli holds a senior post in English literature at the University of Pisa's faculty of languages and is currently head of the department of English Studies.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on September 17 2004.