Feel Good, Feel Bad: Mrs. Gaskell’s “Cranford” & Guido Morselli’s “Dissipatio H.G.”

Illustration for “Cranford” by Elizabeth Gaskell

Winter used to be colder and more challenging: blizzards, hills of snow dumped by snowplows on side-streets, fields flooded for ice-skating, hiking in snowy parks, dodging into cafes and diners for coffee or hot chocolate.

Fast forward to 2021: winters are usually mild now, but last week we had a big snowfall and it is just like an old-fashioned winter. Really, it cheers me up. I’m not going out for hot chocolate at the moment, but at least we can appreciate the sparkle of the outdoors.

And because I’m cheered by the wintry weather, I’ve been mixing up my feel-good reads with feel-bad reads, with no fear of being clobbered by depression. Last week I read Elizabeth Gaskell’s almost too cozy novel, Cranford, and then Guido Morselli’s grim dystopian novel, Dissipatio H.G.

First, the feel-good read: Cranford. I have always admired Mrs. Gaskell’s industrial novels, especially North and South, but was never able to bear Cranford. I’d read a chapter and then give up, finding it mildly funny but sentimental. Even knowing that Judi Dench was in the TV series did not persuade me to watch the series or read the book. All those bonnets, all that knitting… Usually for me, but not this time.

But I discovered Cranford is a delight when I broke down and perused it over the holidays. The narrator, Mary Smith, a former resident of Cranford, wittily explains and analyzes the domestic arrangements and social doings of the “Amazons” in Cranford. Yes, the residents are mostly ladies, some of whom live in genteel poverty. And men take a secondary place to them, except for the doctor.

Mary is so precise that she has almost an anthropological turn of mind. (But her descriptions are tongue-in-cheek.) Money is never discussed in Cranford, and it is considered “vulgar” to serve expensive food at the evening entertainments, which end very early because everyone keeps such early hours. On Mary’s visits to her sweet, impoverished friend Miss Matti, they knit in the dark–Matti claims she can knit without seeing– and light only a single candle when Matti admits night has fallen beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Mary observes,

‘Elegant economy’! How naturally one falls back into the phraseology of Cranford! There, economy was always ‘elegant’, and money-spending always ‘vulgar and ostentatious’; a sort of sour-grapeism, which made us very peaceful and satisfied. I shall never forget the dismay felt when a certain Captain Brown came to live at Cranford, and openly spoke about being poor–not in a whisper to an intimate friend, the doors and windows; but, in the public street in a loud military voice! alleging his poverty as a reason for not taking a particular house.

This charming, well-written, sentimental novel will pleasantly while away a winter day.

And now for the feel-bad read, Dissipatio H.G. by Guido Morselli. This elegant, philosophical, psychological post-apocalyptic Italian novel is not a cozy catastrophe. And here’s a tip: Do NOT read the introduction until after you finished the novel. Morselli’s life was so depressing that you will break down in tears and have doubts about the novel. Read the book, which is very sad but also a fascinating political sociological analysis of our society.

The title, Dissipatio H.G., refers to the “vaporization,” or “nebulization” of humani generis (the human race). The narrator is the last man on Earth: he missed the end of the world while he was in a cave, attempting to commit suicide. At the last minute he decided he liked drinking too much to go through with it, and he finds the human race has vanished. There are no bodies in the crashed cars, no traces of humans in the hotel (except indentations on the mattresses and pillows), no suitcases or clothes missing from hotel rooms, nobody in the airport, nobody in the train stations. Eventually he has a breakdown and moves into the hotel.

One of his theories is that the humans have disappeared en masse by some planetary process because they are responsible for the pollution and devastation of the earth. The animals, by the way, thrive now that man is gone. The narrator rages against the consumerism and materialism that was killing the eartly, focusing on the horrendous new city Chrysopolis (Gold City), which has an almost equal number of banks and churches.

He muses,

For me it is the Biblical antitype, the triumphant consummation of everything I scorn, the epitome of all I detest in this world, my negative caput mundi. My fuga saecli, my flight from the world, was even then an escape from this place, the precise material expression of our century. Even the fact that I’m looking at it now feels implausible, dispiriting.

This is intellectual science fiction, part political treatise, part a tirade against our consumerist culture. The emphasis is on ideas, not on survival. And in fact survival does not seem to the narrator like a very good idea.

I do recommend reading Dissipatio H.G. when you are in a sunny mood! Cranford is good for all moods.

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