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  • Magic Realism and Real Politics:Massimo Bontempelli's Literary Compromise
  • Keala Jewell (bio)

That the foremost literary practitioner of magic realism in Italy, Massimo Bontempelli, was also the head of the National Fascist Writers Union for crucial years in the mid- to late-1920s is no accident of history. Mythic discourse about the nation, the people, and Mussolini propelled fascism's rise to power and consolidated its consensus. Discourse on magic falls within that phenomenon and had distinct political connotations and weight in fascist arts. The "magic" component in magic realism could suggest a transcendent fascism, evoking a wondrous, eternal form of being to associate with Italian landscapes and the Italian populace.1 The strong presence of working people in Italian magic realism in painters such as Gisberto Ceracchini, Felice Casorati, and Ferruccio Ferrazzi illustrates this politics of magic. Virgilio Guidi's painting "In Tram" ["On a tram"; 1923][Figure 1] shows humble folk on a vehicle whose windows provide an enchanted view onto a still, clear ring of mountains rather than an urban landscape. They go about their jobs in an imaginary, doubled space that is both modern in its subject matter, the tram, and ageless in its depiction of a geological landscape. The exalting in this way of Italian workers provides one significant link to Bontempelli's activism in the fascist corporativist union ("sindacato") for writers. "Syndicalism" as a political movement—splintered even into various groupings with differing political views—institutionalized the importance of class, and the fascist labor movement was a significant component of the regime as it was gaining power and claiming the status of a revolution. Unionism and a practice of magic realism clearly have points of contact and continuity. What can Bontempelli's activism in the [End Page 725] writers union teach us about a complex period of history during which the negotiation of differing ideological positions in conjunction with differing artistic practices had such high political stakes? A discourse of magic, I shall argue, mediates these troubled negotiations and qualifies realism in a way that allows magic realism to become an important component of fascist activism. The practice of magic realism within this historical framework is not simply a return to order through figurative techniques in painting in the years after World War I and a traditional prose style and narrative structure in literature; it is equally an attempt to ground an artistic practice that is properly fascist in its actions.2 I propose to study here two exemplary novels penned by Bontempelli paying close attention to historical contextualization in order to bring to light the political allegories the works offer.

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Fig. 1.

Virgilio Guidi, "The Tram," Rome, National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. By permission of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali.

A first, necessary step to understanding the practice of magic realism in the mid-twenties in Italy is to review its critique of realist representation. Bontempelli evolved multiple strategies for the purpose of signaling his belief that the old realism had run its historical course. Like other talented modernists who moved in various post-realist directions—abstraction, Futurism, the New Objectivity, and surrealism—Bontempelli drew up a compensatory strategy. In the work that Bontempelli produced directly after World War I, his most experimental, he used literary forms such as the mini-novel or [End Page 726] the brief comic dialogue to counter realist narrative conventions. Experiments in nar rative framing produced multiple perspectives that also defied realist presumptions about time and space. The author definitively eschewed the teleological finality of the epic and the nineteenth-century novel, a choice that moves the works deeper into the realm of mystery. The editor-in-chief of the journal '900, Cahiers d'Italie Et d'Europe from 1926 to 1929, Bontempelli also moved aggressively in critical writings to attack nineteenth-century European realism, calling it literature for crickets.3 Linked to positivism and an outdated culture, realism no longer held up, he thought, either as an aesthetic or an epistemological grounding. He blasted realism for sterility, petit-bourgeois sentimentalism, anemia, and a defeatist obsession with the downtrodden, cowards, the banal, and every...


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