- Gambling with Failure
Gambling with Failure is marked by the three elements I have always found to be distinctive in the content and form of Antonio D'Alfonso's essay writing: his unswerving concern with the material and ideological conditions that shape the cultural industries and literary production in Canada; his commitment to literature 'in Italics'; and the affect that marks his brazen approach to his intellectual preoccupations.
Antonio D'Alfonso has long been an institution all by himself, albeit the kind of institution that challenges the calcified policies and ideologies of established cultural structures. A poet, novelist, critic, and scriptwriter, he has published many books and produced four films. Trilingual, he is one [End Page 646] of a handful of writers in Canada who publish regularly in both English and French. His 2000 novel, Fabrizio's Passion, won the Bressani Award, while his most recent novel, Un vendredi du mois d'août, won the 2004 Trillium Prize for fiction in French. And, as the editor and publisher of Guernica Editions, he has brought to light a large number of interesting and handsomely produced books, most of them about or coming from the intricate space of cultural differences. This is an excellent record by any standard. Why, then, are his essays invariably written in the mode of complaint? What does the embittered point of view of his essays speak of – and to?
Failure, for D'Alfonso, is not synonymous with falling short. Instead, it is a literary trope and an ironic, indeed polemic, stance against the homogeneity of taste and the capitalist logic that informs literary production in Canada. As he writes, for 'a growing number of artists ... art is showbiz. If you read the reviews published in papers and magazines, you could conclude that everyone has become a genius. We have forgotten that what counts is not popular or monetary success, but the process of creativity.' It is this state of affairs, what he calls 'literary pornography,' that fuels his bitterness, that compels him to embrace failure: 'If every book is a masterpiece, then please make sure mine is a failure.' Failure, then, is a double sign: it speaks for a difference of imagination, for a culture that does not 'risk disfiguration'; and it stands for the lack of public recognition and commercial success – 'Publishing books is more a cultural duty than a money venture'; 'I have lost three wives since 1978, the year I founded Guernica.'
Turning failure into an instrument of self-reflection and cultural critique may be an apt, indeed enabling, gesture, but it is not without its pitfalls. D'Alfonso's cultural politics of failure unfolds through a series of paradoxes. While they reflect the uneasy coexistence of contradictions in the cultural domain, these paradoxes are also the product of inconsistencies in his arguments. His lament for the current state of literature is rooted in the rampant signs of 'cultural necrophilia,' mimicking the past 'with the hope of concealing what is being done at the present time,' but he is himself fixated on a certain aesthetic past, the avant-garde aesthetics of modernism and such figures as Baudelaire, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Bresson. Though he argues eloquently for the importance of the 'ethnic writer,' beyond his abiding concern with Italian culture, there is a reluctance to acknowledge the large number of diasporic authors who have challenged, and continue to challenge, mainstream literature, or the many critical debates about the nation-state and race issues. Reading his essays outside the Canadian context, one could easily surmise that his is the only voice that struggles to speak on behalf of 'minority' writers. Moreover, though he 'bicker[s]' about 'the era of anti-difference,' it is not clear what he means by 'pluriculturalism,' especially as he does not pay heed to ethnic writing other than Italian. [End Page 647] Similarly, while he bemoans the fact that there is no 'literature engagé' in Canada, he rushes to assure his readers that 'I am not professing the stance of the writer engagé.' It is not surprising, then, that D'Alfonso's self...