Walking with Pavese
He had been profoundly drawn to suicide for most of his life, writing about it frequently in his diary, his letters, and his fiction. “I live with the idea of suicide always in my mind,” he wrote when still not quite thirty. And when just eighteen, shortly after a friend had killed himself, Pavese foresaw and dramatized in a poem his own suicide, which would happen, he wrote, on “the night when the last illusion / and the terrors will have left me.” In that early melodramatic fantasy, he put a gun to his temple and fired, but when the real night came, on August 26, 1950, just two months after his “greatest triumph,” he chose sleeping pills, leaving a simple note: “I forgive everyone and ask everyone’s forgiveness. OK? Don’t gossip too much.”
Though the note was brief, the timing speaks volumes about how little professional success sometimes matters in the face of personal unhappiness. Yet it is the fruit of his professional success—his work—that remains and that continues to matter. And though much of his life can be seen as a turning inward, away from the world and eventually toward death, his writing must be seen as arising from exactly the opposite impulse. Even when his subject is the turning inward, the work itself is a reaching out, an affirming gesture.
Pavese was born in 1908 on his parents’ farm just outside Santo Stefano Belbo, a small rural town in the Langhe hills near the cosmopolitan city of Turin. Though he grew up mostly in Turin, he spent many summers, as well as his first year of elementary school, in Santo Stefano, and those hills and the people who lived in them and worked them marked him deeply. But Turin marked him too, and in his groundbreaking first collection of poems, Lavorare stanca (Work’s Tiring), the division within himself between city and country developed into a major theme, as described in his diary:
The theme has broad cultural as well as personal significance, since Turin, like cities elsewhere, was a center of gravity whose pull grew stronger as the economy became increasingly industrialized. Many of Pavese’s early poems are inhabited by characters who seem to have been drawn to the city by its economic promise, only to encounter varying degrees of disappointment and isolation: Masino, who spends his days in the city looking for work (“Idleness”); Gella, who works in the city but returns each evening to the family farm (“People Who Don’t Understand”); a priest who lives and works in the city, having left his mother behind in their hometown, where she dies alone (“Landowners”), and others.
The tension between city and country life is just one aspect of the social dimension of Pavese’s poetry, a dimension that is striking enough in itself but positively extraordinary when viewed in the context of the Hermeticism that dominated the Italian poetic landscape of the 1930s. Work’s Tiring, published in 1936, consisted of poems written in accessible, rhythmic language that told the stories of farmers and factory workers, thieves and drunks, lonely prostitutes and lonelier men. This in a time when the work of many of the leading Italian poets, including Ungaretti, Montale, and Quasimodo, often dispensed with both the logical sequence of narrative and immediately apprehensible language. As Gian-Paolo Biasin wrote in The Smile of the Gods, his study of Pavese, Italian poetry had “rejected any contact with the political and social reality of its time (Fascism and the rise of the bourgeoisie), or else adopted only its most extreme and superficial aspects, such as the nationalism of F.T. Marinetti or of D’Annunzio.” Pavese had no patience for such nationalisms, and he countered Hermeticism’s deliberate obscurity (which to be fair may have been, in some cases, a response to Fascist censorship) with his own deliberate demotic, derived in part from his intensive study of American writers.
In the late 1920s, Pavese began to feel (as he described in an interview shortly before his death) that “the bold winds of the world,” to which “the castle of the closed Italian literary culture remained impervious,” were blowing strongest from America. By this time, he had for six years been steadily writing his own poetry, often with the results one would expect from a precocious teenager: formal experiments, satires of established styles, self-indulgent expressions of teenage lust and angst. (The vast majority of this juvenilia remained unpublished until 1998, when his Italian publisher released an expanded collection of his poems that contained more than a hundred pieces, not included in this volume, from the 1920s.) But in November of 1929, when Pavese was twenty-one, two things happened: he declared his resolve “to devote [him]self fully to the study of American literature,” and, at the same time, he stopped writing his own poetry.
Over the next year, Pavese did indeed immerse himself in reading, translating, and writing about authors from across the Atlantic; within a few years he would be established as one of Italy’s leading interpreters of American literature. Walt Whitman had earlier been the subject of Pavese’s highly regarded thesis, and now he turned to American contemporaries including Sinclair Lewis (Nobel Prize, 1930), Sherwood Anderson, and Edgar Lee Masters, whose work had in common a social dimension he found lacking in the work of most of his Italian contemporaries. His 1931 essay on The Spoon River Anthology seems at times to describe the book of poems he himself was beginning to write:
Pavese is less likely than Masters to try to extract “definitive answers” from his characters, and that is an important difference between the two writers. But in general this passage, especially the final phrases, applies as well to many of the poems in Work’s Tiring.
Nine months passed, after his immersion in American literature, before he wrote his next poem, “Words for a Girlfriend,” in August of 1930, followed a month later by “South Seas.” By this time a sea change had taken place in his style. “Words for a Girlfriend,” the earliest of the poems included in this collection, may usefully be considered the first authentic Pavese poem; though still a youthful work, it is clearly more closely tied to what came next than to what had gone before. In it, he made two crucial discoveries that paved the way for all his poems of the 1930s. The first was the idea of the poesia-racconto, or “poem-story”—Pavese conceived of his poems as short stories in verse. The second was the idiosyncratic meter that he would later call “the rhythm of my imagination.” As Pavese recognized, “South Seas” represents the first major success in achieving his new aims, and for that reason it became the opening poem in Work’s Tiring.
Both these poems begin with two people walking together in silence, which is as good an emblem as any for the fraught relationship in Pavese’s work (and life) between solitude and company. In both opening lines, we have the seeds of narratives and themes that will come to seem typically Pavesian, and in both we have also the distilled essence of his new prosody:
The two lines are, in the original, metrically identical, and though accentual-syllabic verse is rare in Italian poetry—the standard meters such as the endecasillabo and the settenario are primarily syllabic, without prescribed accentual patterns—Pavese in the 1930s is an accentual-syllabic poet, and a fairly strict one at that. His primary meter is (as in the lines above) anapestic, which is nearly as unusual in Italian as in English, and his usual line length is four feet, though he frequently extends lines to five or even six feet and occasionally shortens them to three.
In the essay “Il mestiere di poeta” (“The Poet’s Craft”), which originally appeared as an appendix to the expanded 1943 edition of Work’s Tiring, Pavese explains the origins of his new meter:
The prosodic change that followed his nine-month silence was dramatic. This “rhythm of his imagination,” rarely present in his work of the 1920s, is rarely absent from his work of the 1930s.
Over the next few years, while writing the poems of Work’s Tiring, Pavese translated American writers (Lewis, Melville, Anderson, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, and Gertrude Stein), helped build a publishing house, and, along with many of his friends and colleagues, ran afoul of the Fascist government. In 1933, Giulio Einaudi established his eponymous publishing house, now one of Italy’s most prestigious, and surrounded himself with anti-Fascist intellectuals, including Leone Ginzburg, a brilliant activist later tortured to death in prison, and Augusto Monti, Pavese’s college professor and mentor. This group drew the attention and ire of the government, and in 1935 Einaudi, Pavese, Monti, and many others were arrested in Turin for suspected anti-Fascist activities. Pavese spent several months in prison before being sentenced to three years of “confinement” in Brancaleone Calabro, a southern Italian coastal town that was about as remote as possible, both geographically and culturally, from Turin.
The irony of Pavese’s arrest and confinement is that, despite the company he kept, he himself was not a political activist at all, at least not in any conventional sense. Indeed, he sometimes professed not to understand or even care about politics and often refrained from taking part in his friends’ political discussions. It is not an exaggeration, however, to say that in the context of the time, when Fascism was making a religion of nationalism, Pavese’s literary work, and particularly his translations of American writers, constituted an affront to, if not an assault on, the official culture. Davide Lajolo, in his biography of Pavese, Il vizio assurdo (The Absurd Vice), argues persuasively that Pavese’s translations made not only a substantial literary contribution (“they opened the way to a new period in Italian fiction”) but a political one as well, by countering the prevailing nationalistic rhetoric and presenting Italian readers with alternative cultural and social possibilities.
In his 1947 essay “Oggi e ieri” (“Today and Yesterday”), Pavese recalls that period as a kind of rediscovery of America, one which inspired outrage among Fascist officials and subversive joy among some readers:
At the time, of course, his motives for undertaking such translations were primarily literary; it was only later that he came to understand the degree to which they harmonized with political ends.
We know from his letters and diary that Pavese’s experience in Brancaleone proved more than even he, a connoisseur of solitude, could easily bear. In one of his many moving and often humorous letters from confinement (“my Tristia,” he joked), Pavese reproached himself for having in the past actively sought to be alone:
Days after writing these words, he learned that after eight months of confinement his sentence had been commuted and he was to be released. He had made good use of his time, completing Work’s Tiring and beginning his diary, published posthumously to great acclaim as Il mestiere di vivere (The Job of Living). But his return to Turin was marked by twin disappointments that only deepened his sense of isolation: the woman he loved had just married someone else, and Work’s Tiring appeared to general indifference.
He continued to believe strongly in the poems of Work’s Tiring, and in 1943 he released a revised, restructured, and substantially expanded edition. (The second section of this volume contains the poems he added.) But by the late 1930s he had turned most of his creative energy toward fiction, and by the end of the 1940s had published, in addition to a collection of short stories, nine short novels that Italo Calvino, writing in L’Europa letteraria in 1960, called “the most dense, dramatic, and homogeneous narrative cycle of modern Italy” and “the richest in representing social ambiences, the human comedy, the chronicle of society.”
Pavese returned to poetry only occasionally in the last years of his life, and his late poems (gathered here under the heading “Last Blues”) mark an astonishing break from the Work’s Tiring period. Gone are the long lines, the narrative structure, the ternary meter—in short, he has left behind both the poem-story and the rigorous rhythm that he first embraced in 1930 with “Words for a Girlfriend” and “South Seas.” His new line is shorter and looser (primarily heptasyllabic), his style more lyrical, his subjects more darkly personal. And the mythic, Mediterranean atmosphere of much of this late poetry owes more to his fiction of this period, especially Dialoghi con Leucò (Dialogues with Leucò), than to Work’s Tiring. The sequence of poems “Earth and Death,” which originally appeared in a journal in 1945, were the last poems Pavese published during his lifetime. After his suicide, a new sequence, “Death Will Come and Will Have Your Eyes,” was found in his desk, and it was published together with “Earth and Death” in a slim volume that remains extraordinarily popular in Italy.
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. She dominates the poems’ mysterious and harrowing landscape of desire to such a degree that even the fresh specter of the war, present in several of these poems, seems overshadowed by her. These poems are the haunting coda of his career.
As a coda to this introduction, it seems appropriate to note the curiously circular relationship that Pavese has had with American literature. After pioneering (along with Elio Vittorini) the study of modern American writers in Italy through his translations and essays, he in turn has inspired new generations of American writers; Denise Levertov, Charles Wright, Philip Levine, and others have paid homage to him. Yet it has become difficult in this country to gain access to his work.
(Most Americans who know Pavese’s poetry at all know it primarily through Hard Labor, William Arrowsmith’s 1976 translation of the 1943 edition of Lavorare stanca, and this translation is (like translations of his diary and novels) now unfortunately out of print. One of the strengths of the Arrowsmith versions is that they emerge into English with an undeniable energy and sensibility of their own. For my taste, such translations are nearly always preferable to blandly literal versions, which in their loyalty to the letter often betray the spirit. Still, Arrowsmith’s versions sometimes betray the spirit of the Pavese poems in other ways. They are, for example, chattier and less measured (in all senses of that word) than Pavese’s original poems, whose tight-lipped rhythm becomes an integral part of the experience of reading them, as it apparently was of the experience of writing them. I have felt obligated, in my translations, to try to create a similar rhythmic experience.)
Of the American poets who have been influenced by him, Pavese himself might have felt the greatest affinity for the work of Philip Levine, who, in an interview about his 1999 collection The Mercy, called Pavese “the inspiration or maybe the trickster to whom I owe...whatever is worthy in the book.” And in the poem “Cesare” from that volume, Levine conjures the Italian poet as an emblem for men confined to solitude:
Certainly, much of Pavese’s life and death was a turning away, but his work, it bears repeating, is a turning toward. It’s my hope that this translation will help turn him and his poem-stories toward a new generation of American writers and readers.
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