This essay, published in September 2007 by Feltrinelli and completed in 2013 with L'arte di raccontare, weaves together and deepens the themes of several lectures Cesare De Marchi has held since 1999. In the words of the author, the essay strives to be «a free, open and sincere reflexion» on the literary genre of novel: it is not «yet another theory of the novel», but a series of considerations on the perspectives of the reader as well as the author.
The essay is concerned with the astonishing fact that novels - these objects of printed paper and «imaginary substance» - have the power to withdraw people of all ages and cultures from their real life by the sole means of words. A novel (and the self-evidence of this statement doesn't reduce its importance) «is entirely made up of words», it is «a movement of words». This is meant literally: the writer, like later the reader, proceeds through the whole text by moving from one word to the next and one sentence to another. The numerous consequences of this statement are displayed in the eight chapters of the essay. In the sense described above, each text is surely a verbal movement, but while, i. e. a philosophical or scientifical text draws the reader forward by the concatenation of its arguments, the specific movement of a novelistic text is a narrating one. However, since a narration is always a narration of something, there will always be a factual (or rather pseudofactual) narrated object. This is the sole unrenounceable link between novel and reality. Thus writing is never a mere copy of reality, but always implies its interpreted representation. Even when a novel makes a realistic claim, it represents reality but only to a very small extent; it rather entails a way of seeing and feeling reality in its linguistic texture.
The eye that the novelist - and through him the reader - turns towards the world is, even where the reading seems to demand the support of a mental image (like in the famous opening description of Manzoni's Promessi sposi), «a linguistic eye». Reading is not daydreaming.
In examining not only the visibility but also the representation of the characters and their voices in dialogues, the time structure as well as the narrator's position within the novel, the essay repeatedly arrives at the conclusion that «in a novel all is words, from the setting of the plot to the plot itself and to the author's vision». The naïve reader will find himself captured by the extrinsic plot, while the conscious reader finds purpose-free emotion, of which literary pleasure consists, in the unfolding of verbal narration.
However, if things narrated are not factual descriptions, if they don't exist outside the words describing them, translation risks becoming a hopeless endeavour, as depicted in the 7th chapter of the essay. The strict distinction between novel and reality leads to one last consequence: the sole possible task of the narrator is narrating.
Returning to this subject in the three chapters of L'arte di raccontare (Edizioni di storia e letteratura, Roma 2013), De Marchi resumes and deepens some aspects from his essay of 2007 and adds a completely new part on «fashion and change» in literature. This little book examines with great clarity how novelistic narration is put together, starting from the smallest lexical, syntactical, metaphorical units and sequences of plot, and how these place (or don't place) the reader in a condition of «literary emotion», differing radically from the psychophysiological emotion of real life. On the last pages, one finds some critical observations on avantgarde, postmodernism and the latest tendencies of fiction. It is desirable that the two essays should be offered to the public in one volume.