“Weird literature: narrating the unthinkable”. Interview with Francesco Corigliano

We interview Francesco Corigliano, the author of the essay recently published by Mimesis that investigates the characteristics and the deep meaning of a genre that is difficult to define, through the use of three contemporary masters: Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Stefan Grabiński and Jean Ray.

di Lorenzo Pennacchi

The literature weird it is a fleeting category with a changing meaning, and the term itself weird it is ambiguous. Like this Francis Corigliano introduces his essay, Weird literature. Narrating the unthinkable (Mimesis, 2020), in which it is proposed to explore this heterogeneous genre from different complementary perspectives. In the first sumptuous chapter Theory and criticism, the author traces the history of weird fiction, problematizing it and arriving at its own definition. It is a long, complex journey, extremely rich in references to writers and literary critics: from Roger Caillois to ST Joshi, from Remo Ceserani to Mark Fisher. The next three chapters are dedicated respectively to three masters of literature weird international: the US HP Lovecraft, the Polish Stefan Grabinski and the Belgian Jean ray. Corigliano deliberately refers to writers of not exclusively Anglo-Saxon origin, in order to broaden the view on the universe weird, which too often is flattened to the dominant tradition alone. And he succeeds fully, involving the reader in literary ways and (ir) real worlds, and then concludes: 

Reading Lovecraft, Ray and Grabiński also means dealing with visions of the world distant from the contemporary perspective (and sensitivity), splits of reality and thought that today are often impossible to accept. Beyond these aspects, however, there is an attempt to narrate a universal restlessness, bewilderment, terror, but also the fascination that humanity feels in front of its limits, at the boundaries that stand out our little figure in front of the immensity. of the unknown. And in a narrative of the unthinkable we can thus find the story of our thought, and of the illusions we present to ourselves.

Wanting to present some significant aspects of this courageous volume, we have decided to ask the author a few questions, whom we thank for his availability. 

Hi Francesco, in the first chapter you write that «define what the weird fiction, starting from what is commonly referred to as such, it is possible by identifying constants and gradually excluding what is certainly not weird". You can briefly summarize these constants and related genres weird that do not fit into it? 

Hi Lorenzo, thank you very much for this interview. I begin by saying that the essay, having to deal with a subject that is difficult to define, is structured in such a way as to seek a balance between inclusion and exclusion. I have tried to delimit the field of research sufficiently, and at the same time to outline a classification tool that would allow to recognize the weird with the most acceptable degree of approximation. Right from the start I approached the weird not as a genre, but as a literary way, thus rejecting a category that is too rigid and trying to outline the traits of a fluid object, of a narrative attitude, of an organizational interface. Leaning on Ceserani's theories, to define the weird way I identified some stylistic and thematic "stakes": the theme ofunknowability of the supernatural; the narrative tending to likely; the use of narrative procedures of allusion and omission. The mixture of these constants allows to recognize the weird, but of course this does not mean that they cannot be found individually in other literary contexts. For example, the weird in part it coincides with what is normally defined fantastic way, in which - in addition to the supernatural - allusive and omission narrative procedures are found. Furthermore, it is inevitable that this literary mode infiltrates, like the water of an underground stream, among the stones of other literary categories, and that therefore it can be traced within works of a defined genre (for example in the science fiction or in yellow) or alternate with the use of other literary modes.

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In the second part of the text you deal with three specific authors. In the chapter dedicated to HP Lovecraft, I was very impressed by his relationship with modernism, especially in reference to the work of TS Eliot. Could you introduce us to this aspect of the Providence dreamer? 

Precisely for the reasons set out above, the Lovecraftian work takes on a particular meaning. Lovecraft has always defined himself as anti-modern, and an ostentatiousness emerges from his letters and his essays contempt for modernism. He did not like Freud, whom he called "the Vienna charlatan", he did not appreciate theUlysses, while recognizing in Joyce a great potential, and of the work of Proust - which he appreciated instead - he denied modernism, attributing it rather to a vague "classical tradition". Of The Waste Land by TS Eliot claimed that it was a work based on efforts "laudable in intentions, but futile to the point of irony". It is also known that he came to parody the operwriting The Waste Paper, a grotesque (and amusing) poem that overturns all the central points of Eliot's poetics. But in literature, we know, it is not enough for an author to claim to repudiate a current, a genre or a concept. You can never really trust what the authors say about themselves. So here, on closer inspection, some of the fixed points of modernism emerge in Lovecraft's work. The inadequacy of the individual, the great interest in exotic and forgotten cultures, the apprehension of the popular masses, the general sense of pessimism and emptiness towards existence: these are all elements that we find both in Lovecraft and in Italo Svevo , Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and, of course, TS Eliot. But also stylistically Lovecraft is closer to modernism than one might think: in a traditionalist frame and in a deliberately archaic language, it is possible to identify the same fragmentation and the same hybridization that characterize modernism. A fragmentation of sense and meaning, which struggles and at the same time tries to tame the industrialization of the publishing sector, which is not so distant from what happened in contemporary modernism. And finally, as stretched as it may seem, the conclusion of The Waste Land and its overlap of English, Florentine, French and finally Hindi ("Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. / Shantih shantih shantih") is conceptually not so distant from the unleashed glossolalic tendency of some Lovecraftian endings.

One of the aspects you analyze in Stefan Grabiński's work is the alienating relationship between the human being and technology. Can you tell us the main themes in this sense? I am thinking, for example, of the disturbing concept of the great bike

In Grabiński's work the role of technology is very important, and goes hand in hand with other fundamental themes, such as that of eroticism. These are elements declined through the supernatural and ambivalenti: in telling of the fatal woman on duty or a ghost train, the author insists on fascination with the disturbing and bizarre. Technology, which in Grabiński's stories is almost always embodied precisely by the image of train, is a force that disrupts space and time, revolutionizing the individual's approach to the world. Endless spaces are covered in the blink of an eye, the power of the machine is enslaved and harnessed, and the speed increases more and more, up to the pseudo-futuristic visions of the story. A strange station (1922), in which the author imagines a very powerful train capable of traveling the circumnavigation of the Mediterranean in a single day. The wagons hurled furiously on the rails are not an emblem of humanity's progress and victory over nature, but rather a power in its own right, unleashed and runaway, which one can try to tame temporarily. The complex concept of great bike, told in The demon of motion (1919), allows us to explain Grabiński's vision of technology well. The universe itself is shaken by incessant movements, continuous and colossal spasms within which are other minor jerks - the movement of the planets, the stars, the force of gravity and so on. Humanity, which is happy to add a new movement (like the running of the train), he must not believe himself capable of truly rivaling the cosmos: after all he is just riding the crest of the wave, keeping himself precariously on an unimaginable force that has no consideration for the individual and his destinies. And therefore in Grabiński we can find ghost wagons, stations that materialize out of nowhere and demons that live in locomotives: the train is like a puppet that gives occult forces the possibility of manifesting themselves in physical form, a metal idol embodying a cosmic power, capable of crushing and annihilating. At the same time, however, Grabiński fails to hold back the fascination with technological ingenuity and the desperate attempts of humanity which, with timetables, tables, telegraphs and cables, tries to tame the beast of supreme dynamism. In this sense, I cannot say whether Grabiński, like Lovecraft, is truly anti-modern. Perhaps, he is modern in spite of himself, an admired and horrified witness to what progress can represent.

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"'What does it matter," I said, "I prefer to hear tales of sorcerers and devils rather than a demoralizing one: I don't know." In the chapter on Jean Ray you propose this quote, taken from The Mayence Psalter, as emblematic of the way weird by the Belgian author. Can you shed some light on your statement and character in general? 

Ray is quite a different writer from Lovecraft and Grabiński. I would say that literally he is more disillusioned, more aware of the public and the recurrence of certain cliche in the literature of the supernatural. And his genius is expressed precisely starting from this awareness. In some stories he manages to give a new life to narrative stereotypes, even those that are more difficult to handle, such as that ofhorror of the unknown. In his stories one often wanders around the focal point, in a vague and rarefied atmosphere made up of uncertainty, hesitations around ideas and suppositions. In the Mayence Psalter the grotesque journey to which the protagonists are forced could be influenced by sorcerers and devils, of course, and in reality the stereotype of the evil wizard with the book of spells dominates the whole narrative. But what happens to the characters is never really attributable to the classic supernatural imagery, to the idea of ​​the fairy tale sorcerer, and the Incomprehensible rather dominates the catastrophes that dot the narrative. It would be better for everyone - for the narrator and for the narrated - if it could be said that the fault lies with magic or the devil, but the problem is just that can not be done: any explanation is ineffective and uncertain, and only the "I don't know", in its devastating helplessness, has a hint of truth. Ray plays with the lie: everyone knows what she is a witch and what she is a ghost, but history (in history) can never truly describe the nature of the supernatural. The paper shapes evoked in Ray's stories create a false air of familiarity, through which the author can strike deeply into the reader's sensitivity - moreover, touching intimate and emotional aspects that are rarely dealt with by the reader. weird. In Ray's fiction the melancholy charge it is also linked to a certain disenchantment with the power of language, in a combination that, even beyond the discourse on the literature of the supernatural, is very representative of the Western culture of the twentieth century.

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In the conclusion you refer to other authors who could be analyzed in the light of the book's reflections. If you were to write a sequel who would you focus more on? 

The method I have tried to outline in the book, so focused on a modal and "dynamic" consideration, could be applied to authors who are not normally considered weird, just why to be weird they are not the authors (and not even books or stories), but the single narrative passages. For this reason I believe that JL could be investigated Borges, not only for his interests as a reader, which reveal a certain familiarity with weird (let's not forget that he dedicated an entire story to Lovecraft: There are more things of 1975), but mainly for its production, which often focuses on an elusive and incomprehensible supernatural. In a point of view weird we could then analyze some things in Friedrich's fiction Durrenmatt, and in Italy a part of Luigi's production Pirandello, Italian Svevo, Dinosaur buzzati and Thomas Landolfi. In these authors the problem of distinguishing the weird from fantastic and from surreal, and further work on these nuances could help understand the relationship between literature and the supernatural in the XNUMXth century. Then, of course, there is still a lot to do about it authors already recognized as weird, but the writing of which has not been thoroughly studied ... in short, there is still plenty of room for speculation and criticism. And I don't know whether to hope that it is a finite and comprehensible space after all, or whether we should rather not hope for a non-Euclidean geometry also for the great expanses of literature.

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