Original article first appeared in Spike Magazine – Publsihed April 2011 (Read)
I have to thank the writer Stephen Volk for introducing me to the wonderful short stories of Dino Buzzati. Such was the eagerness with which I took to them I found myself questioning why I had never encountered them before and why a writer as exceptional as Buzzati had never come on my radar. The fact that his short stories are so hard to track down outside paying a small fortune on Amazon may be part of the reason, but talking to other readers it seems Buzzati isn’t anywhere as well known as his writing deserves. As I was in the process of writing my own debut collection of short stories Silent Bombs Falling On Green Grass at the time, and the précis of several of Buzzati’s stories seemed to hint at a similar genre and style, I endeavoured to search out his short story collections Catastrophe and Restless Nights – with hindsight a ridiculous thing to do as, personally speaking, reading such outstanding writing from a similar vein as your own does little for the confidence!
For the most part the stories here are disquieting fantasies, thrilling, horrific and imbued with a Kafkaesque paranoia. It almost seems a disservice to namecheck another writer, but the comparisons, and quite possibly influence, is so evident as to be foolish to ignore; that unmistakeable all-pervading existential doom drenches many of the short stories here. But what really shines through for me in his writing is the ruthless economy of words, coming perhaps from his background as a journalist with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, with whom he worked throughout his life – this was the tip of the iceberg though as Buzzati was also an accomplished painter, poet, comic book artist, stage and radio writer and even children’s author – Buzzati really adhered to the writer’s rule that everything has to warrant its place, there is no flab here and nothing that doesn’t matter, some stories stretching to no more than a few pages and yet still incredibly evocative and powerful despite their sparseness. It is a skill a lot of writers, myself included, could do well to learn.
It is also, perhaps, his journalistic background that lends the stories a cold detachment, which somehow in retrospect seems so logical, for as the events unfold even in the most bizarre way, the storytelling, the simple, true account feel to it, makes it all the more unsettling, and all the more real. It is such storytelling that may infuriate and frustrate readers who demand a satisfying beginning-middle-end to their stories, to have something neatly tied up and concluded by the turn of the last page, and the feel that they have been, to quote that ghastly writing term, ‘on a journey’, for here in these short stories you are picked up and placed in the middle of something and yanked back out again just as abruptly, you are a witness to events, to characters, and to stories that you yourself may have to conclude and come to terms with in your own mind. Even if some of the stories can be boiled down to the well worn staple of the monster in the attic, the fabled bogeyman and other creatures of nightmares, it is his incredible knack of wringing fear from the mundane where his stories really soar, and here the detachment in his writing really scares, as you feel you are in a world you could understand, around people to whom you could relate, yet somehow that comfort remains just out of reach, and with that the fear of the unknown could mean anything, or anyone.
Despite publishing numerous short stories and poetry, Buzzati only wrote five novels, but amongst these was his most successful work, and what many cite as his masterpiece The Tartar Steppe. Written in 1938, it is a beautiful, haunting novel about a young soldier arriving at a remote garrison, and awaiting an enemy attack that may never come. It is a novel whose messages of ambition against the passing of time, still resonate today. It is also, thankfully, widely available, unlike some of Buzzati’s work and should, for those unfamiliar with his writing, be the perfect starting point to discovering what an exceptional writer he was. As for his short stories, those wonderful, unsettling mini masterpieces, I can only be thankful that, at time of writing at least, we still have libraries in this country, and those that balk at the ridiculous online prices of his work, at least have a chance of searching out those stories and immersing themselves in the imagination of an extraordinarily talented writer.
© Russell Mardell