A review of The Stronghold, Dino Buzzati’s novel of deferred hope and ecstatic boredom

Dino Buzzati’s 1940 novel Il deserto dei Tartari (retitled The Stronghold in Lawrence Venuti’s new English translation) takes place in an unidentified time in an unidentified country. Our protagonist is Giovanni Drogo, freshly graduated from an unspecified military academy and ready for a thrilling life of combat and adventure at his new post, Fortezza Bastiani, a fortress at the border of the Tartar steppe. He and his fellow soldiers wait in the hope of attaining glory.

And they continue to wait.

The nebulous Tartars repeatedly fail to appear, offering only the vaguest hints of their alien existence. The soldiers of Fortezza Bastiani live a life of anxious monotony, their desires and hopes for the heroics of war flattened by the boredom of day to day life. It’s all very existentialist.

From the opening pages of The Stronghold, Buzzati conjures a strange but familiar world, usually telegraphed in brisk, unadorned prose (a style he honed in his career as a journalist). Everything is slightly off, slightly anxious. Initially, a reader might chalk the disquieting style up to our viewpoint-character Drogo’s own hesitancy as he enters into a new life as a military officer, but we soon find ourselves in an uncanny realm.

The world of the fortezza is somehow simultaneously dull and enthralling. Consider Drogo’s first glimpse of the fortress:

Fortezza Bastiani was neither imposing, with its low walls, or beautiful in any  way. Its towers and ramparts weren’t picturesque. Absolutely nothing alleviated its starkness or recalled the sweet things of life. Yet Drogo gazed at it, hypnotized, as on the previous night at the base of the gorge. And an inexplicable ardor penetrated his heart.

This “inexplicable ardor” is nevertheless ambiguous in its penetration; after learning he is nominally free to choose a different, perhaps more invigorating post, Drogo elects to transfer from the fort. However, his commanding officer suggests that he stay for four months to avoid bureaucratic problems with the higher ups. That four-month season of waiting turns into a lifetime of waiting. And then waiting some more.

Drogo and his fellow soldiers hunger for the glory of contesting the Tartars, an enemy they know utterly nothing about. Like almost every sociopolitical, cultural, and even technological detail in The Stronghold, the specific nature of the Tartar enemy is collapsed into something closer to a fairy tale or a rumor. Vague and dreamlike, the Tartars are not a geopolitical entity; they are not even an other, but rather the figment of an other, the kernel of a dream that promises action. And this dim promise keeps the soldiers waiting at the Fortezza:

From the northern desert would arrive their fortune, the occasion of their exploits, the miraculous hour that befalls everyone at least once. Because of this vague eventuality, which grew increasingly uncertain with time, grown men wasted the best part of their lives there.

The narrator, hovering in Drogo’s consciousness, imagines an interlocutor explaining to one of these soldiers that his “entire life will be the same, utterly the same, till the very last moment” — and then imagines the hypothetical soldier’s response: “Something else must come to pass, something truly worthy.” Drogo here believes he has grasped the “transparent secret” of the soldiers of the Fortezza, but also imagines himself an “uncontaminated onlooker.” But it’s too late. Drogo too has committed to waiting for something else to come to pass.

Nothing comes to pass—or nearly nothing. (One might read The Stronghold as an extended riff on Kafka’s wonderful parable “Before the Law.“) However, this is not to say though that Buzzati’s portraiture of tedium is itself tedious. The boredom he conjures is an ecstatic boredom, anxious and writhing, exploding in strange, magical moments of hallucinations and night terrors.

In one of the novel’s most extraordinary sequences, “fragile apparitions, quite like fairies” enter Drogo’s dreams, bearing away to some spectacular land Drogo’s fallen comrade who is now converted to a child dressed in a rich velvet suit. In another episode, a mysterious horse appears from the desert, sending the men into fits of hope and despair culminating in a horrific incident that underscores the absurdities of military rigor. Late in the novel, a much-older Drogo’s desire for action, for something to come to pass, tips into near-comic paranoia, as he and a younger officer fool around with a telescope to no avail.

After all this waiting in hope, The Stronghold concludes with a devastating Kafkaesque punchline which I shall not spoil here.

It will be clear to most seasoned readers that Kafka was an influence on Buzzati even without Venuti’s afterword, which details Buzzati’s admiration for the Bohemian writer. Buzzati does not ape the older master so much as evoke the same state of anxious alterity we find in texts like “The Great Wall of China” and The Castle. Stepping into The Stronghold, one is reminded of other branches of the Kafka tree, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, and Albert Camus’ The Stranger, among many others.

Like many Kafkaesque works, one might be inclined to fob his own allegorical readings onto The Stronghold. In his afterword, Venuti points out that early English-language readings of Buzzati’s novel tended to interpret Il deserto dei Tartari as an anti-totalitarian tract. Il deserto dei Tartari was first translated as The Tartar Steppe by Stuart Hood in 1952, and many of its contemporary critics read the novel against the backdrop of the Cold War.

While praising the “remarkable accomplishment” of Hood’s translation, Venuti differentiates his own “historically oriented interpretation” of the novel; namely, his attempt to more emphatically underline Il deserto dei Tartari’s “latent critique” of fascism. Venuti points out that “Hood had twice rendered the generic ‘stivali’ (boots) with the politically marked term ‘jackboots,'” adding, “I tripled its use.”

Venuti also discusses at some lengths his choice to change Hood’s title. He writes that Buzzati initially wanted to title the book La fortezza, but this name was rejected by the novel’s publisher who worried it might be misunderstood by the reading public. In his attempt to further historicize his translation (and differentiate it from Hood’s), Venuti elected to remove Steppe from the title fearing it “might be taken as an anachronistic reference to the Soviet Union.” He also avoided The Fort or The Fortress as a possible titles, worried they might underscore Buzzati’s “debt to Kafka’s The Castle.” Venuti eventually settled on The Stronghold, suggesting that this title helps to emphasize the “cult of virility championed during the Fascist period” while also “conveying the sheer tenaciousness of the soldier’s heroic fantasies, as well as their inability to escape their debilitating obsession.”

I haven’t read Hood’s translation of Il deserto dei Tartari, but I appreciated Venuti’s, which, as I pointed out above, takes place in an unidentified time in an unidentified country. The novel’s eerie, fable-like quality—a quality that resists historicity—is what most engages me. Buzzati’s book captures the paradox of a modern life that valorizes the pursuit of glory (or at least happiness) while simultaneously creating a working conditions that crush the human spirit. We can find this paradox in Herman Melville’s Bartleby or Mike Judge’s Office Space; we can find it in Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama or Mike Judge’s Enlightened; we can find if in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King or Dan Erickson’s recent show Severance. I could go on of course.

Some of these boredom narratives seek to assuage us, or make us laugh or cry—in recognition, spite, pity, despair, or hope. Some of these boredom narratives find resistance in art, or in just plain resistance. Buzzati’s novel offers something more like a warning. It is not possible to be an “uncontaminated onlooker” in one’s own life. It’s not enough to wait forever, even if we wait in hope.

The Stronghold is available now from New York Review Books.

Two from Dino Buzzati (Books acquired, last week of March 2023)

NYRB is issuing a new translation of Italian author Dino Buzzati’s 1940 novel Il deserto dei Tartari next month. In his afterword to this new edition, translator Lawrence Venuti points out that Buzzati’s original intended title, La fortezza, was rejected by the novel’s publisher Rizzoli, who expressed concerns that, with the outbreak of WW2, the title might be misunderstood by the reading public. The novel received an English translation by Stuart Hood twelve years later as The Tartar Steppe. Venuti restores Buzzati’s intended title in his new translation.

I started in on The Stronghold last night, just casually dipping into a few pages, as I try to do with all of these silly “book acquired” posts, and wound up reading the first fifty pages in one go, then picking it up again this morning. It quickly reminded me of Kafka’s The Castle and Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled—the kind of novel of endless deferrals, its alterity heightened by the concrete precision of the prose. Great stuff so far.

NYRB is also releasing an edition of Joseph Green’s translation of Buzzati’s later novel, A Love Affair. Their blurb:

Antonio Dorigi is a successful architect in Milan, nearing fifty, who has always been afraid of women. He has been a regular at an upscale brothel for years, even as he mourns the lack of close female companionship in his life.

One afternoon, the madam at the brothel introduces Tonio to “a new girl,” Laide (short for Adelaide). Tonio sees nothing especially remarkable about Laide, though it intrigues him that she dances at La Scala and also at a strip club, and yet in a very short time he becomes completely obssessed with her.

Laide draws Antonio on, confounds him, uses and humiliates him, treats him tenderly from time to time, lies to him, makes no apologies to him, and he loves her ever more. This helpless and hopeless love is what he is, he feels, even as it prevents him—we see—from ever seeing Laide for who she is. Because Who is she? is the question at the heart of Buzzati’s clear-eyed and often comic tale of infatuation.

Laide is a young woman who has never known the bourgeois prosperity Tonio takes for granted, someone in a pickle looking for a main chance. She is a storyteller and someone, too, who knows how stories tell on people and shape their desires and lives.

Is A Love Affair a love story or is it a story of anything but love? Buzzati’s novel, with its psychological subtleties, its vivid cityscapes, and its compassion, keeps the reader guessing till the end.

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