DINO BUZZATI was highly regarded in Europe after the publication in 1940 of his novel The Tartar Steppe, written during the rise of existentialism as an important European philosophy. Albert Camus, who saw an affinity between his own work and Buzzati's, introduced the Italian into France. Yet Buzzati died in 1972 without achieving acclaim in English- speaking countries, a fact that should change with the publication of these selected short stories.
Interestingly, Buzzati's depiction of modern European life after World War II resembles Frederick Barthelme's documentation of middle-American life today in Moon Deluxe. Not so much is different. There is still a sense of hollow emptiness at the center of peoples' lives. Both writers see man as essentially alone, baffled by his surroundings, alarmed by technological advances, and more passive than he once was.
Buzzati spent most of his life in Milan, a city he portrays as a modern hell where people suffer and seldom realize their goals. Although a fantasist, Buzzati worked for 40 years as a journalist and uses reportorial detail and two journalistic genres, the obituary and expos,e, to help establish the plausibility of his stories. He felt that fantasy should be as close as possible to journalism. While he seems to write about worlds removed from our daily lives, his aim is to expose the fantastic element that exists beneath the surface. His stories begin with such ordinary situations that the reader is caught up in belief before the tales glide into the impossible. A sense of reality is obtained often, too, by his use of real names. In "Appointment with Einstein" the scientist encounters Ibl,is, the Angel of Death. The latter compliments the oblivious Einstein on how effectively his work can be used for destruction. "They're satisfied downstairs," Ibl,is says. "Oh, if only you knew!"
Buzzati's city people dwell in highrises. Though they long for love and sex they seldom obtain either. For one man intimacy means sharing an elevator with a woman who is a stranger. When the elevator begins to fall the insinuation is, as it is often in these stories, that man is helplessly trapped in a predicament not of his own making. And it is typical of the stories also that the man feels it his due when the woman is contemptuous of his efforts at friendliness. In "The Ubiquitous," using his own name as the main character's, Buzzati portrays himself as a journalist who merely by thinking about it, can be anywhere. He imagines visiting Liz Taylor's bedroom. Then he imagines entering the bedrooms of women he knows, hearing their outraged screams. Why should they satisfy me? he wonders.
Death is an ever-present alternative to situations in which people find themselves, and the abyss is attractive. Buzzati uses for his subject matter many of the ideas and developments that have shaped the 20th century. In "Elephantiasis" the time is the year 2007. The narrator finds it amusing that mankind has trembled so long with fear of atomic destruction when something worse threatens its existence. Plasticoma is spreading panic throughout the world; everything plastic is enlarging on its own. "And the most terrifying thing is perhaps the tomb-like silence, in which the universal tumor proliferates and invades, annihilating men's happy paradise." These stories are all so brief that they have the directness of fairy tales, and Buzzati's subject matter makes them as timeless.
Barthelme's characters in Moon Deluxe live in small towns and lead uneventful lives. Reminiscent of people in Edward Hopper's paintings, they are somewhat lonely and have an inkling that life holds something else, though they have no idea what it is. They cannot verbalize, even to themselves, the exact ideas they are trying to ponder. And here is a continuation of the nightmarish quality of Buzzati's synthetic world. In "Shopgirls" the narrator smells a leather purse to determine its quality, only to spy the small label reading "MAN-MADE MATERIALS." In the fast food places to which Barthelme's characters are addicted, they sit in turquoise Naugahyde booths. They inhabit the tacky world of shopping malls, K-marts, Shoney's, House of Pancakes--a world of quick intimacy and short-lived affairs, where there is a sense of waiting and of so much time to spend. Culture is choosing a Lowenbrau.
Most often the solution to filling time is to eat. In "Lumber," the woman remarks that the part of making love she doesn't like is waiting for the guy to leave. He agrees, saying, "Maybe I'll go and then call you later." And she responds "We could eat or something."
There is implication in the use of the world "maybe". The man seems hesitant: Is he going or not? He is waiting for the woman to tell him what to do. In Barthelme's modern world women wear tool belts, have jobs once delegated to men, and are the aggressors. Most of his characters are single, under 40 and live in condos, another nightmare of our times: a maze of similar buildings and doors, pools, walkways, so that inevitably a character is hazy about finding his way home. Barthelme's men know themselves to be shy and sensitive, but their companions seldom realize the fact. In "Rain Check" a man suffers over offering his Visa card to a waiter and then substituting another card; perhaps his date will think that he's over his credit limit; she previously has looked at him "as if I've already failed to perform." The narrator in "Safeway" imagines making love to a woman "in response to stern commands." Sex is muted and has the quality of soft porn: women in bikinis curl their tongues, wet their lips, open their mouths suggestively, and oil themselves with seductive dollops of suntan oil, their tanned bodies glistening.
If Buzzati's people failed in their aspirations, Barthelme's do not have any. They change condos, but they are never going to leave town. They are old while still young, but do not rail against that condition because they are unaware of it. Years from now the main character in "Lumber" will still be rambling around the Handy Andy annex of a store for the reason he is there now: "I'm just here being lonely."
T.S. Eliot wrote that human kind cannot bear much reality. These stories are an exact rendering of tedious lives, and perhaps some readers will not want to know so much about them. Traditionalists may want epiphanies, but there are none here. The situations can seem meaningless because the lives of the characters have little meaning. This strict accounting of realism is an art form, and Barthelme an artist at rendering it.