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Dear friends, colleagues, students: we have listened long to the men and women of this stage as they dissect the trouble with postwar Italian literature, how there has been no great Italian writer since Italy's unification, and though it's not what I planned, I feel I must say a few words of my dear friend Otto Bertolini.

Something happened to Bertolini after he died. For one thing, his output seriously dropped off and, for another, his writings became more and more enigmatic, his prose, not so much denser, but thicker. He no longer carefully constructed people to life through situations and actions but more tangled them in a webs of contradictions and emotions. 

For example, his first novel after Death, Fearful Symmetries, appears, at first read, to be the story of a woman who climbs a tree, with the bulk of the 714 page novel consisting of quite a lot of chatter, most of it bizarrely spiteful or sexualized. Contrast that with, perhaps, his most famous pre-Death work, Baleful the Clown, about an autistic boy who draws the apocalypse to life, where the prose is shining in its muted quality. This is an apocalypse without the spectacle that draws crowds, but more a negative image of a world falling apart through the scribblings of a child who does not perceive reality as we do. The prose is almost like haiku stretched over 153 pages of elegantly crafted characters trying to hold back the end of humanity.

It should be no surprise that most of his fans and critics were shocked by this change in direction. Most owed it to the traumatic experience of Death, but for those of us who have spent their lives following Bertolini's career from infancy and through the grave, we can see the common elements, the way his style developed into this baroque tapestry of realities. For Fearful Symmetries, once read closely, perhaps on the second or third attempt, opens up a great deal, and these conflicting perspectives build a life so full and vibrant the reader's heart breaks and remains broken for the final 600 pages, not because of the tragedy necessarily, but because of how beautiful this is. What we find in Fearful Symmetries is the life of a tree stretched over centuries, not the simple action of a woman climbing it for ten minutes. If his previous work, from the era of his career I'll now refer to as The Living Years, uses negative space to depict life, then this era, The Postlife Years, is its opposite. While the 47 Living novels were short and terse and elegant, the Postlife novels sprawled on with monstrous tentacles, using all the space of vision allowed and creating a whole image with the million different hues and contours available to the human eye and mind. 

Yes, it's easy to dismiss my reading of Fearful Symmetry as simpering hero worship, for, I admit, the first reading was so disappointing and frustrating that I felt betrayed by his Death, so betrayed I wanted to place blame elsewhere. Yes, me, betrayed by the Death of my dear friend, for how could he change so much over so little a time? Did I ever know him as a man? as an artist? Who is this man, now? What has changed him so?

These questions forced me to pick up his next novel, Allaround Pause, vagabond, and plough through those 1,111 pages of a pregnant woman who eventually gives birth to a dragon. A dragon! Of all things!

Ripping my hair out, gnashing my teeth—what has happened to my dear Bertolini?! Told from the perspective of 101 narrators speaking for eleven pages each about a pregnant woman they saw at various times of her pregnancy over the course of 101 years, Allaround Pause, vagabond was 101 knives stabbing into my heart and the memory of my dear friend, now beyond conversation and, therefore, reconciliation. What was I, or anyone else, meant to make of such a literary development? 

To be honest, dear friends, it hurt me so deep I can barely express how I spent the following two years wallowing in drink and women and darkness until the release of his third Postlife novel, riverrun, which intrigued me out of my gloom and despair and regret for having devoted my life to a man who turned charlatan after he died because, if ever I knew Bertolini, I knew he despised Joyce and especially Finnegans Wake, yet, here, a clear allusion to the work.

I rushed out and got an early printing from the magazine, a completely white cover, thicker than Fearful Symmetry but not as thick as Allaround Pause, vagabond. What was found inside was nothing like what had come before, whether by him or any other writer. It may not even be especially useful to call it a novel, though it's certainly not not a novel. There are no page numbers but I happen to know it's 871 pages long and consists of 97,531 words. It is a massive riddle that defies summary for there are no characters, or at least none explicitly named, and there is no action, at least none that happens on the page, but a sequence of puzzles, some of them wordless, even—long stretches of blank pages riddled with punctuation marks or figures or dots dancing as motes of dust. If a novel can be described as pointillism, it may begin to help the reader understand what this novel—this thing—is. 

I cannot describe that initial reading. I felt no emotions as I understood them, but there was this existential tugging at my bowels, forcing me to push on and on. Sometimes the reading would blur as I leapt through page after page only to hit a wall of text, this linguistic barrier that reflected itself over and over, as mirrors facing mirrors. This grand puzzle, this riverrun worked as a cycle but not as a circle. It behaved more like weather than it did like narrative, and that's the only summary I believe works. Yes, it is the weather. It is about condensation and precipitation and evaporation and wind and the sky and the sun. 

So profound and confounding was the effect it had on me that I kept it with me, always in my bag, for several months. Whenever I had a break in the day, whether on tram or bus or at a restaurant or coffee shop, I would turn to any random page and begin the cycle once more, mesmerized.

It was then that I returned to Fearful Symmetry and Allaround Pause, vagabond only to find these novels transformed. I wrote letters to the editors of the magazines I had published my review in begging for a redaction, for a reconsideration, but, alas, there was no desire to open the graves, so to speak, for these Postlife novels, even still, are hated by the public, by scholars, by academics, and each new novel released is met more vehemently than the last, and the publisher even takes on abuse and attack. I alone stand with my old friend Bertolini and believe he has now reached the apex of his career with Glass/Water, his latest novel stretching to 3,209 pages. It is, perhaps, his most autobiographical novel, beginning at his own gestation, passing through his life, and covering his own decomposition, though, of course, this isn't a memoir, but another puzzle, much greater than his previous eight Postlife novels, about a horse who longs to be the boy who longs to be a Marilyn Monroe. 

In Glass/Water Bertolini has reached a level beyond all other writers, living or dead, in that he has not only recaptured the entirety of world literature, but he has transformed and distilled it into a drinking glass for all the public to easily swallow, if only they're willing to take the first sip.

Calling it his magnum opus seems absurd at this point in his career, but it is certainly his farewell, and so is this mine from the world of criticism and academia. I have lived my life inventing the story of his stories but now, eighteen years dead, he has given me my reprieve, and I think I'm now ready to die, having championed him into this new millennium. Though I stand alone, I hope those readers who come next—you newest generation of artists and critics—will look once more at the work of my dearest friend and know I've not wasted my life.

Thank you.

BIO: e rathke lives in Minneapolis and writes about books and games at His fiction will appear in Queer Tales of Monumental Invention.


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