Agata Pyzik wrote a detailed and insightful review of En Abîme in the December issue of The Wire (#346).
“Mise en abyme means placed into the abyss. In art theory, it refers to an image containing a smaller copy of itself; in postmodern literary theory it becomes a tool for analysing complicated texts that contain a number of subtexts. To be thrown into the abyss could also be a description of what happens when we listen to music, especially that which contains unfamiliar, non-musical sounds. Here, it’s a writing device, allowing Daniela Cascella, who is Italian, to use English as a Verfremdungseffekt, or distancing effect, which reflects the polyphonic nature of memory and indeed the multiple texts of the mise en abyme. Among the stories she tells is one of a real abyss, recounting how Nero’s villa, Domus Aurea, was rediscovered in the 15th century by a boy who had accidentally fallen into a hole that led to the ruin. Such vivid, bodily experiences recur throughout En Abîme.
African-American poet Audre Lorde coined the term biomythography; here, Cascella complicates the genre of memoir by referring to an “archival fiction”. Her book is a personal meditation on her life, giving the impression of someone trying to pick up the pieces and put them together in a meaningful way. As a music writer and art historian, she has travelled widely to her objects of passion, curiosity or fascination, and the book oscillates between several geographical spaces, which in turn evoke metaphorical spaces. One is a Protestant cemetery near the Spanish Steps in Rome, where Gramsci, Keats and Shelley are buried. Another is New York, where Cascella researched a dissertation on the interdisciplinary avant garde magazine Possibilities, edited by William Baziotes with John Cage and Robert Motherwell. In New York she befriends Baziotes’s widow, Ethel. And in Berlin, she meets Mika Vainio, who, instead of giving her a straightforward interview, plays records to her.
Rome, a place of pilgrimage for many poets, writers and artists, is a city that åprovokes memories for Cascella. One of these is of listening to Bella Ciao, a compilation of workers’ and partisans’ songs, with her brother. The compilation is named after a famous song sung by the anti-fascist resistance movement in Italy and later covered by punk groups. In 1964, at the Spoleto festival, Giovanna Marini, a friend of communist film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, sang this song to a scandalised public who were not keen to be reminded of the past. But Cascella is haunted by the past because she wants to understand it, and she draws upon the experiences of other visitors to Rome – Herman Melville, Rainer Maria Rilke and Italian poet Carlo Emilio Gadda, whose work uses various dialects and languages – to help her to put together her own existence. A novel by Melville, Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities (later filmed by Leos Carax as Pola X, with a soundtrack by Scott Walker), where a prospective author writes two versions of a book – one for the reader and one only for himself – is the basis for a chapter of direct self-commentary on the author’s own reading and writing.
Somehow this cascade of disrupted impressions makes sense. I felt at times as if the voice of the late Chris Marker was speaking to me – Cascella has a similar aphoristic style that recalls Sans Soleil’s meditations on memory. She never neglects the political aspect of her stories, all of which are painfully immersed in history, like the song “Bella Ciao” – the book’s real heart, and its musical leitmotif. En Abîme is, like Marker’s films, a road book, and as in his creations, there is at the end an elusive but firm sense that our world has transformed a little.”