Poem Strip, Dino Buzzati's graphic novel, owes a great deal of its charm and artistic success to factors not intrinsic to the work itself; were it not written in the 1960s – 1969, not least of all – and were it not written in Italian – by an Italian – it might not have pulled its stunts off as comfortably and coolly as it has. Its debts to the unfortunate stereotypes of the period and Buzzati's nationality make many of the delights to be had in Poem Strip somewhat uneasy: few feel entirely pure; instead they are often weighted by a kind of snarky clemency, one that allows Buzzati to use tiresome pseudo-philosophies and woman-as-metaphor tropes precisely because they fit so cleanly and handsomely into clichés of its time and place – specifically: of the 1960s as guilelessly and naively hedonistic, and of Italy as the European stronghold of that particular brand of woman-worship that deals, by its very nature, in sexism, dehumanization, and misogyny. So while Buzzati's work, one of the most aesthetically pleasing books published by the always reliable NYRB Classics this past year, thrives on these pleasures – ones derived by a subversion on the part of the reader: the reader's knowing and gentle allowance of its intellectual shortcomings are more often than not the source of the work's pleasures, as opposed to anything within the work itself – it is ultimately undermined by the lenience one must give it in order to enjoy it.
But it can be enjoyed. The full title of the work is Poem Strip, Including An Explanation of the Afterlife; this explanation, when the necessary caveats are accepted, is wonderful: Buzzati frames the afterlife as enervating in its relentless fulfillment, as a place where unhappiness is yearned for - not an unfamiliar treatment, but one herein explored with a charming sincerity, and occasionally a remarkable ingenuity. The protagonist is a singer quite accurately aligned – by Daniel Handler, on the back cover – with Donovan: his talent is not quite up to par with his ambitions or considerations of himself, but his songs are pleasantly elevated by an occasional perversity of thought; his lyrics, perhaps more thoughtful and considered than most, are nonetheless not quite aroused to greater significance by his voice, as are Bob Dylan or Neil Young's clumsier lyrics by their interpretive vocal capacities. One can practically hear his wild, unoffensive delivery lavishing off a well-worn, once much-listened-to 78, howling confidently alone amid the silent cries of adoring teenage girls. It is unclear whether this particular impression of his protagonist was intended by Buzzati; but it is precisely this snarky clemency that allowed me to take delight in him.
Many of Buzzati's illustrations are terrific; some are simply remarkable. Upon completing the work, I found myself unexpectedly moved, not just by the images but by the story as well. Perhaps this was a result of my conditioned acceptance of its shortcomings snagging upon the unexpectedly acute emotions of its final pages; I felt as if I'd been had, as though Buzzati had been cultivating these low expectations precisely to upend them come the work's conclusion.
Excerpts from Dino Buzzati's Poem Strip.