Giovanni Papini’s 1931 satire, Gog, rates its own Wikipedia and is easily available in Italian, Spanish, French and German, but in English, it’s been out of print since its first publication. Barely noticed, what few reviews the English translation did get were negative. The American Mercury dismissed it for its “somewhat sophomoric and trashy cleverness.” Yet readers in other languages still praise the book, along with its sequel, Il libro nero (The Black Book, never translated into English, for its anarchic humor.
With a short introduction, Papini places Gog as a packet of papers presented to him by Goggins, an eccentric American millionaire he encountered at a private insane asylum while visiting an acquaintance. Papini hesitates to call them “a book of memoirs nor, still less, a work of art,” but merely ” a peculiar and symptomatic document, perhaps startling but possessing a certain value for the study of mankind.”
Son of a member of the Hawaiian nobility and a white father, Gog signed on as a cook’s assistant on an American ship at the age of sixteen, and through a series of business deals, managed to become one of the richest men in America by the end of World War One. At that point, he decided to retire completely from business and devote himself to “enjoyment and journeys of discovery.” The rest of Gog collects about 90 entries, most under three pages long, from his subsequent years of travel and encounters with a wide variety of geniuses and idealists.
These include some of the great names of the time–Freud, Edison, Einstein, Henry Ford, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Lenin–with whom Gog gains audiences and records their thoughts. Papini later caught some flack for this device, as when ,i>Life magazine–among others–mistakenly quoted an interview with Pablo Picasso from Il libro nero as if it were the real thing. In the case of the interview with Lenin, it very well could have been the real thing–in hindsight: “It is my ambition to convert Russia into a vast penitentiary…. [W]e should then be able to murder all the peasants as being of no further use. They will either have to turn into laborers or perish.”
The lesser-known men Gog encounters each harbors a unique mania. One proclaims that he has devised the perfect form of sculpture–carving smoke into shapes that dissolve as soon as they are created. Another asks him to endow a chair in phthiriology–the study of lice. He discovers the shop of Ben-Chusai in Amsterdam, devoted exclusively to products made from humans–shrunken heads, “cigar holders made from finger bones, incisors set in gold or platinum, penholders and necklaces of carved vertebrae.” His meeting with the architect Sulkas Perkunas foreshadows Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: the City of Perfect Equality; the Polychromatic City; the Hanging City; the Titanic City; and, yes, the Invisible City. Cocardasse the poet declares he will revolutionize poetry by incorporating all the world’s vocabulary:
Beloved carinha, mein Weltschmerz
Egorge mon âme en estas soledades.
My tired heart, Raju presvétlyj
Muore di gioia, tel un démon au ciel.
Lieber Himmel, castillo de los Dioses
Quaris quot durerà this fun désespéré?
Λαμαδα Φηιξ, drevo zizni….
Liubanoff, on the other hand, gives Gog a book of poems consisting of nothing but titles: “‘The Siesta of the Forsaken Nightingale.’ It contains all the elements of poetic efflorescence.”
There is an understandable amount of humor to be found in taking a notion to its extreme, but the series of encounters with monomaniacs soon grows, well, monotonous. Every person in the book is a figure of ridicule and the end of the book leaves one no wiser than the start. At one point Gog notes, in fact, that there is “nothing more delightful than to be able to isolate oneself from one’s own odious kind.”
If one accepts experimental fiction as a legitimate form, Gog is more successful as experiment than fiction.
Gog, by Giovanni Papini, translated by Mary Prichard Agnetti
New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1931