In 1932 Enrico Emanuelli published his experimental novel entitled Radiografia di una notte with Ceschina, a small publishing house based in Milan. The young journalist and writer had made his literary debut three years earlier with Memolo: vita, morte e miracoli di un uomo (1928). Radiografia di una notte details the life of a middle-class family in Milan over the course of six hours. It can be ascribed to the Italian wave of realist novels, a movement which borrowed heavily from the German New Objectivity, the American realism of Dos Passos, and Joyce's modernist techniques, especially interior monologue and free indirect speech. This return to realism, marked by its a social message started to flourish after the publication of Moravia's scandalous Gli indifferenti (1929) and continued till the end of the 1930s.
The ‘arte di Stato’: Modernity and Modernization
The Boundaries of Realism: Constructing Collective Subjectivities
Because of its explicitly experimental nature, spanning Modernist interior monologue, New Objectivity and American realism, Radiografia di una notte can be seen as a response to the regime's call for a new Italian novel which could depict modern reality without resorting to artificiality, or to the prosa d'arte. The novel moves through its 26 short chapters at a fast pace which mirrors that of modern life: it provides an X-ray of the daily life of a group of citizens in a precise social setting. In doing so, it adopts an experimental way of assembling the parts of reality it progressively dissects. Emanuelli's Modernist novel seems to be very much aware of its experimental nature. Each chapter, in rapid sequence, gives a snapshot of either the mental or external reality of the protagonists, thereby emphasising the novel's constructive mechanisms. Yet it is a narrative experiment that Emanuelli conducts on recognisable realities, since the story is firmly rooted in the contexts of the everyday, down to the hour. To this end, Radiografia di una notte alternates between reportage and fiction, inserting – à la Dos Passos – elements such as slogans and extracts from advertisements, radio programmes, and women's magazines. In depicting its characters, their interior monologue, and their interpersonal, often abrupt exchanges, the novel puts forward a critique of consumerist culture, which is seen as a by-product of technological progress and of mass society, and not as a way to modernity or modernization.. In combining experimental narrative techniques which reveal the artificiality of the fictional product and reportage, this novel also questions the boundaries of realist narration since it is never clear if what it has been x-rayed is really a true representation of the characters lives and of the events they face. The narrative rhythm is determined by quick snapshots, which move without explicit continuity from one to the next and often leave the reader in a state of doubt about what precisely has been recounted.
As Ruth Ben-Ghiat points out, death is to be expected. The father of this dysfunctional family dies at the end of the novel (p. 60). Unlike in the novels of Umberto Barbaro and of Alberto Moravia, the death at the end of this story seems to happen by accident and not by volition (or lack of it in Moravia). But these three novels published around the same time share a message: the degeneration of society (and of the family unit) is related to a widespread lack of any ethical mission and the pursuit of rather frivolous desires. In an implicit overlap with Pirandello and Moravia, Emanuelli's work indicates no way out of the situations the characters more or less willingly find themselves in, other than a totally fortuitous event. Like Pirandello's characters, Emanuelli's do not seem to be in charge of the story they find themselves in, and like Moravia's characters, they cannot take control of their lives and move on. Emanuelli's critique is at the same time a social and an existential one, as in the case of Gli indifferenti. It adopts a more experimental, even more acerbic writing style, which favours a completely unmediated narrative tone in order to support a closer, yet unfamiliar for the reader, contact with the real. Fragmented thoughts, conveyed by 'broken' (heavily punctuated) sentences litter the narrative, often making it difficult for readers to follow.
The novel was both criticised and praised by contemporary critics Elio Vittorini, Moravia because of its heavy borrowing from foreign literatures (Ben-Ghiat, p. 61). Yet, its heavy reliance from European Modernism and American realism constituted one of the clearest and most distinctive aspects of the 1930s return to realism in Italy; a return to construction, morality and to the socially aware literature called for by the regime when laying out its plans for an arte di Stato.
Ben-Ghiat, Ruth. 1995. 'The Realist Aesthetic in Italy, 1930-1950.' The Journal of Modern History 67 (3): 627-665.
Ben-Ghiat, Ruth. 2001. Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1922-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Billiani, Francesca. 2016. 'Documenting the Real across Modernity in the 1930s: Political and Aesthetic Debates Around and About the Novel in Fascist Italy.' Italian Studies 71 (4): 477-495.