An Autumn Story
by Tommaso Landolfi
"I looked forward to nightfall, which might possibly enlighten me. Meanwhile, I made a firm and nasty decision to pay no attention whatsoever to the old man's threats, and to pursue my investigation." (72)
The narrator of this war-time tale is a fugitive. As the novella opens the narrator is being chased and after going further and further into forest clad ravines that are foreign and strange to him he encounters an eerie mansion in the woods. He explores around the grounds and almost immediately encounters two ferocious wolfhounds. Ultimately an old man appears and lets him enter. The strangeness of the place grows slowly with the fugitive narrator soon feeling that the house itself was alive:
"Climbing over a mountain, the sun had finally reached the window. But the window seemed, if I may put it this way, surprised and annoyed by that torrent of light. Every single object appeared virtually stupefied--I might almost say: bewildered." (36)
The fugitive is allowed to stay by the old man and later he has a chance to explore "every nook and cranny of the place." His exploration leads him to a room with a large portrait of a woman that almost instantly mesmerizes him. He describes the portrait in detail but finds "the most vivid and disturbing element was her huge, dark eyes. Their deep gaze seemed to have the same character as the old man's gaze and, hence, that of the dogs: It was animated by the same gloom, indeed a more imperious one, and, simultaneously, by the same remote and pitiable bewilderment,if not desperation. The common character, therefore had to be due to a more subtle kinship than that of blood, if man and beast were on a par here. And yet her gaze spoke on infinity of other languages to the senses and the heart! Her eyes seemed intensely magnetic, and I was unable to look away."(45-46)
This is only one third of the way into the story, and the mysteries continue to build as the fugitive has further encounters with the presence of this eldritch place at the edge of the world. The motifs of eyes, gazes, gloom, and disturbance abound as the enigmatic experiences of the fugitive heighten the tension. We gradually learn more about the background of the old man, and more about his strange mansion, and the discovery of a woman in the mansion:
"Curling, twisting, thickening, the smoke gave way to a large female figure emerging from the brazier. Hovering in mid-air, the figure still vaguely undulated all over, but then coagulated, rapidly fixing into a precise image, with alternate streams of light, or rather smoke, pouring through it. As if the smoke were the figure's visible blood." (103)
Whether this is a dream or reality the women of this strange place become just another piece of the mystery. For just as the fugitive searches following paths are compared to the "thread of Ariadne", the reality of the place and its inhabitant(s) come into question. The catastatis of the narrative provides complexities sufficient to make this one of the most competent novellas of its kind. That is a story of adventure, Eros, and mystery combined with a deeper sense of the spirit of the unknown.
The author, Tommaso Landolfi has justly been compared to Poe, but I found the eeriness of the story more subtle than most tales by Poe. This story was tinged with the aura of Kafka and Borges making it a rich reading experience that rewards those who love the unusual in literature.
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