THERE are certain authors – Ezra Pound, Knut Hamsun, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Yukio Mishima come to mind first – whom any biographer will have to spend long nights of hard thinking to deal with their sometimes merely stupid and sometimes actually abhorrent political beliefs.
The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer And Preacher Of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Fourth Estate, 694 pp.
Before all of them was Gabriele D’Annunzio. Lucy Hughes-Hallett, in this exceptional book, deals with the problem immediately. Some have thought that D’Annunzio was a good writer and so a lukewarm fascist. Some have thought him an ardent fascist and so a mediocre writer. She attempts to see him as a firm believer in fascism and also a writer of significance. She occasionally elides “significant” and “good”, but leaves the reader in no doubt about his (occasional) self-belief: he was, he thought, and many agreed, as important in writing as Dante, Petrarch and Tasso, and a bizarre, ugly (one lover claimed he had teeth of three different colours), financially irresponsible precursor to Mussolini.
D’Annunzio was born in 1863 in the Abruzzo region, son of the local mayor. That he was a hard-working schoolboy matters little in comparison to his precocity and sly, almost instinctual grasp of the machinations of celebrity. After his first collection of poems had been published at 16 and he had made the acquaintance of several minor luminaries in Italian culture who reviewed him positively, he wrote (anonymously) to the Gazzetta della Domenica to say that the promising young poet D’Annunzio had died in an accident. Later on, he was the paramour of Eleanora Duse, an actress only marginally less famous than Sarah Bernhardt (his love-life was as baroque as any novel by Wyndham Lewis). His later works surreptitiously assimilated the masterpieces of the Decadent movement, various jingoisms, various satirical forms and Wagnerian theatrics. Few nowadays would be considered a masterpiece, although The Innocent is still readable, and there would be an interesting article in the connections between his grandiose, politically charged dramas such as The Ship and later iterations of agitprop theatre such as Brecht or even our own 7:84.
D’Annunzio was infatuated with modern technology – both personally and creatively. He flew, and shot from, and dropped both propaganda and bombs from airplanes in the First World War – and was instrumental in Italy’s joining of that war, through his incendiary and hubristic journalism. He wrote poems in praise of torpedoes, lambasted the etiolated aristocracy and included scenes in his fiction where lovers took to the skies in aircraft. All of this makes him a pivotal figure between the aestheticism of the late 19th century and the enthusiasm for belligerence that typified many early 20th century cultural provocateurs: Hughes-Hallett is excellent on the ambivalent relationship between D’Annunzio and Marinetti’s Futurists as well as Mussolini’s Fascists. They deplored the old lecher as much as they marvelled at his gift for grandstanding.
Had D’Annunzio just been a writer, he would be of no more interest than any of the other figures – Maeterlinck, Spitteler, Rachilde or Merezhkovsky – who had similar trajectories. What made the absolute difference was the moment in 1919 when he stood at the head of a group of mutineers to claim Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia) for the irredentist movement, keen to claim back all of Italy’s (or rather Venice’s) former Adriatic holdings. That a poet – an elderly, creatively exhausted, impecunious and psychologically fractured poet at that – managed to upset world negotiations with a coup d’etat is remarkable. Hughes-Hallett conveys the deep love that Italians had for this war hero poet – imagine a dwarfish Oscar Wilde with a machine gun and a string of conquests amongst the most beautiful women in the country, and it’s close. Fiume descended into anarchic chaos soon enough, but not before D’Annunzio (alongside “Il Vate” – “The Poet” – and “Il Profeta” – “The Prophet) took on another name: “Il Duce”
How can anyone write D’Annunzio’s life while avoiding both the wrinkled nose of distaste and the dilated pupil of queasy admiration? Hughes-Hallett has done an admirable job, mostly through foregoing the normal narrative drive of a biography. Hers is a non-linear method, with flashbacks and glimpses-forward. She allows herself the right to be wry – a particularly grotesque piece of D’Annunzio’s rhetoric will be counterpointed by a few withering examples from his own life, or his contradictions placed side by side to let the reader judge – my favourite involves his wartime flits and movements, where his 22 canaries seemed the most important thing. At the end of his life, in his home at Lake Garda, he created perhaps his greatest artwork: a mausoleum to himself, with a half-built military naval vessel next to his collections of Turkish rugs, Venetian glass and bibelots and trinkets he had acquired over his odd and long life.
D’Annunzio’s fascism was a species of a life-long grandiosity, and it is in this bumptious self-aggrandising that Hughes-Hallett makes her real diagnosis of his character and his beliefs. His obsession with blood – blood spilled, blood sacrificed – is abundantly clear; his almost erotic obsession with the dead or dying far less comprehensible. Hughes-Hallett finds in his idea of the martyr – or rather, his clammy neediness to not be a martyr himself but create endless eulogies to the young men for whose deaths he was responsible – exactly what makes him both tragic and disgusting.
Should we read D’Annunzio now? Compared to Pound or Hamsun or Céline or Mishima he is by far the lesser author; although The Innocent has hints of Gide, Cela and even Camus (its most notorious scene involves the protagonist holding his wife’s child from an affair out a window to make it unlikely to survive). Should we look to him as a political thinker or cultural icon? Absolutely not. Thomas Hood, in the 19th century, wondered if poets should be forgiven for being bad at political theory. He was right then, and he is right now. Should we try to understand him? Absolutely. It may seem as if his kind of thinking is regressive, and yet when I see on Twitter contemporary Scottish authors declaiming that we should be more angry, I can’t help but think they should read this book and realise where a combination of political naivety, glib rhetoric and a preference for imitative ease over genuine engagement might lead us.