Friday, March 1, 2013

Pavese: Love and the Abyss

Stories by Cesare Pavese  (The Ecco Press)

In the first Pavese story I ever read, a story called “Wedding Trip,”  completed on December 6, 1936, the narrator—a newly married man named George—stands, with his young wife, Cilia, by the Genoa harbor at night, the only night they could afford for their honeymoon, and feels the darkness closing in upon them. “We came to the railings of a terrace and caught our breath.  The night was calm but dark, and the street lamps floundered in the cold abyss that lay before us.” For Pavese this darkness, this abyss, as perceived by the narrator, is not simply hyperbole, a figure of speech designed to intensify the mood, nor is it merely the aggravated projection of a newly married man, pinched with mourning for his bygone bachelor days, but a stark and telling measure of Pavese’s own special dread. 

All of the stories in this collection, the ones for which Pavese is most widely known and admired, were written in the shadow of Italian and German fascism, a period—dating roughly from 1936 to 1945—that marked a kind of Dark Ages for Italian intellectuals, artists, and writers, like Pavese.  Surely this was a part of his dread. Under Mussolini, the parliamentary system was abolished, all teachers in schools and universities had to swear allegiance to the fascist regime, and freedom of the press was strictly curtailed.  Pavese himself was summarily convicted of antifascist activities and sentenced to a year of ‘preventative detention’ in 1935 for a series of articles he had written as editor of a review called La Cultura.  After a few months in prison at Brancaleone Calabro, he was sent into ‘confino’ or internal exile in Southern Italy, the common punishment for those guilty of lesser political crimes, the same punishment suffered by fellow writers and Leftists,  Leone Ginzburg and Carlo Levi.  It was an experience—Pavese’s time in prison and exile—that wrought a significant change in him, scarring him psychologically and darkly coloring his work.

That, by the end of his life, Pavese hated women is a fact well-known to readers of his work. This too must be understood as a part of his dread. Plagued by depression and asthma, a tortured loner long-enamored of suicide, he suffered one failed relationship after another, first with a mysterious woman he met while at university known only by the phrase “la donna dalla voce rauca” (the girl with the husky voice), and finally with the beautiful American actress, model, and former mistress of Elia Kazan, Constance Dowling.  So intense was his love for Dowling, so turbulent their affair, that he never recovered from it, finally taking his own life in a hotel room in Turin. "Non scriverò piú," “I will not write anymore,” he concluded his diary that night, swallowing a mouthful of sleeping pills before climbing into bed.  One of his last poems, “Verra la morte e avra i tuoi occhi,” or “Death Will Come and Look at Me with Your Eyes” was written for Dowling with Dowling in mind:

Death will come and look at me with your 
the death that follows us around
from morning to night, insomniac, deaf,
like some stale, now irreparable guilt
or ridiculous habit. Your eyes
will be empty words,
a suppressed cry, a silence-
the way you see them each morning
when you lean toward yourself alone
in the mirror.                                    
         O dearest hope, on that day we too will know
that you were life, and you were nothingness.
For everyone, death has a certain look.
Death will come and look at me with your
         eyes. Then the habit will be given up,
we will see in the mirror
the dead face reemerging,
the sealed lips will have their voice.
And we, the silenced, go down into the abyss. 

(translated by Alan Williamson)

If Pavese felt tortured and betrayed by women, he felt tortured and betrayed by love itself, which he dreaded for the way it exposed him as a man. In his diary he wrote: "One does not kill oneself for love of a woman, but because love--any love--reveals us in our nakedness, our misery, our vulnerability, our nothingness." Indeed his stories and poems are replete with examples of what he came to see as the fundamental treachery of women, of love.  Still, Pavese’s need of and obsession with women is clear.  As Geoffrey Brock puts it in his thoughtful introduction to Pavese’s poetry, Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950, “Most of the late poems are addressed to a female ‘you,’ who, while inspired by particular real-life women, tends to blur into an archetypal figure who is by turns, and sometimes simultaneously, attractive and repulsive.” 

Such is Pavese’s complexity when it comes to women, when it comes to his vision of life, that to simply dismiss him as misogynist is to miss the anguished, hard-won beauty of his work.  For while, in his story “Wedding Trip” (to take but one example), his narrator is relentless in his derision of his young wife, Cilia, resentful of her for the inadequacy that her love makes him feel, Pavese’s portrayal of her is neither that of succubus nor shrew. In contrast to him—the narrator, George—Cilia is radiantly human: tender, trusting, romantic. A haunting affirmation of life, she is all he longs for and dreads. Even in his story “Suicides,” in which the narrator’s callous behavior actually drives his lover, Carlotta, to take her own life, Pavese makes it clear, if only in the way he yields to gentleness and pity in his description of her, that the story’s life-force, its humanity, is hers

In this same story, the narrator reflects: “Long ago I realized how essential astuteness is to living, and before being astute with others one must be astute with oneself.” Pavese, the man, the writer, was nothing if not astute—with others, and above all with himself.  What is plain, what elevates these haunting, often pain-filled stories to the stature of art, is that Pavese himself was well aware of the fact that his much-professed hatred of women had less to do with women themselves than with his own insecurity and self-loathing. Cruel as his male characters can be, they remain defiantly human, tortured as they are by remorse, by regret, by longing—by all the “dark angles” of love they are blessed and burdened to know. 

As Brock concludes in his aforementioned introduction to Pavese, “Even when his subject is the turning inward, the work itself is a reaching out…” Complex, resounding, often deeply elegiac, Pavese's stories have survived him to do just that.

Cesare Pavese (1908-1950) was a novelist, short-story writer, and poet who, in 1950, one month before his death,  was awarded the Strega Prize, Italy’s preeminent literary award.  He was then at the height of his fame as a novelist and a Communist man of letters.  The youngest of five children in a lower middle class family of rural origin, Cesare Pavese was born on 9th September 1908 in S. Stefano Belbo. His father died when he was six. He went to school in Turin, studying at high school under Augusto Monti, a friend of Piero Gobetti and Antonio Gramsci, and a prominent figure in the anti-fascist Turin. He graduated in letters in 1932 with a thesis on Walt Whitman. During the same period he began working as a translator for the publisher Frassinelli, translating Moby Dick by Melville and Dark Laughter by Sherwood Anderson. It was through Pavese’s translations that most Italians of the period first became acquainted with the works Faulkner, Joyce, Stein, Dickens, Steinbeck, Dos Passos, and Defoe.  Most Italians first encountered Herman Melville, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Gertrude Stein, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, and Daniel Defoe in Pavese's translations Most Italians first encountered Herman Melville, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Gertrude Stein, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, and Daniel Defoe in Pavese's translationsSuffering from one of his recurrent fits of depression, Pavese committed suicide on 27 August 1950.

While Pavese’s short stories are only available from used booksellers like AbeBooks and Alibris, I also recommend The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese and The Moon and the Bonfires published by New York Review Books Classics, as well as Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950 (English and Italian Edition) published by Copper Canyon Press.

Peter Adam Nash