The Candidate of Beauty

Alexander Stille

  • Gabriele D’Annunzio: Defiant Archangel by John Woodhouse
    Oxford, 420 pp, £25.00, February 1998, ISBN 0 19 815945 5

Some writers are as interesting to read about as to read: writers such as Byron, Wilde, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and D.H. Lawrence, who saw their lives as extensions of their art and in many cases set out to shape their own time as well as to describe it in their work. Others, of similar ambition but more modest talent, defined their age as much through the defects of their work as its merits, and what they wrote increases in historical density as it loses literary freshness, becoming a kind of stratigraphic layer in an archaeological dig. The novels of Disraeli, Vita Sackville-West, Georges Sand and Jack London and the plays of Clifford Odets come to mind.

Gabriele D’Annunzio is now best known as a historical figure, as a dandy-poet in Fin-de-Siècle Rome, celebrated for his flamboyant, scandalous love-life and his nationalist posturing, the First World War poet-soldier who helped create the rhetoric and culture of Italian Fascism. Much of his work is virtually unreadable today, while an impressive body of lyric verse has been obscured by the behaviour that won him so much notoriety during his lifetime. A confusing tangle of literature, sex, politics and propaganda make him the absorbing subject of a fine new biography, Gabriele D’Annunzio: Defiant Archangel.

Perhaps immodestly, its author, John Woodhouse, who teaches Italian at Oxford, says in his Preface: ‘This is the first fully documented biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio in any language, and, within the limits of reason, given the bizarre nature of D’Annunzio’s career, the first objective appraisal of the man’ – which is a bit unfair. Philippe Jullian, a French expert on decadent literature, published a biography in 1971, which appeared in English in 1972. While Woodhouse may feel, with justice, that the earlier book lacks the scholarly rigour of his own, Jullian covers much of the same terrain, relies on many of the same sources and brings to the subject an attractive enthusiasm for and knowledge of the Decadent movement. Woodhouse is more dispassionate, but Jullian’s immersion in French and English Fin-de-Siècle literature does more to place D’Annunzio in an international context, while his own extravagant literary flair gives a D’Annunzian spirit to the book.

Woodhouse moves judiciously and discriminatingly through the life and career of a writer who has generally elicited feelings of wild adulation or passionate hatred. He gives considerable importance to D’Annunzio the writer, but does not flinch from the many repellent aspects of his character. ‘For most of his life,’ Woodhouse writes,

D’Annunzio’s sole concern was self-gratification and glory: to make hit existence as interesting and preferably as joyful as possible for himself, whatever the consequences for others; to create a work of art from his life and to immortalise it in words. There were, it is true, moments when nationalism or patriotism seemed important ... but more often than not the greater glory of his native land served only to throw into greater relief the lustre of his personal brand of glory.

D’Annunzio was born in 1863, in the Abruzzi, in the south-east of Italy. His father’s last name was originally Rapagnetta, but was changed to Rapagnetta-D’Annunzio when he was adopted by a maternal uncle. Gabriele dropped the more plebeian Rapagnetta at the start of his writing career.

Francesco Paolo, his father, was an intelligent but brutally egotistical man who drove his family into debt in order to maintain a series of mistresses and prostitutes. D’Annunzio believed that he had inherited the ‘corrupt seed’ of sensuality from his father, something he celebrated and vilified. In his early novel The Triumph of Death, he offered a horrifying portrait of the old sensualist:

Flesh, flesh, this brutish thing, full of veins, tendons, ligaments, glands, bones, full of instincts and needs; flesh, sweating and stinking; flesh becoming deformed, sick, covered in sores, callouses, wrinkles, pimples, warts, hairs. This brute thing, flesh thrived in him with a sort of impudence, producing in his delicate neighbour at table an impression almost of revulsion ... I, I am the son of this man!

The crude, isolated atmosphere of the Abruzzi was crucial to certain aspects of D’Annunzio’s formation. In the 19th century, it was an exceptionally poor, underdeveloped region, populated by an illiterate peasantry whose culture was dominated by pagan custom and rural superstition. His verse play La Figlia di Iorio, for example, was inspired by his recollection of a crowd of drunken peasants chasing a beautiful young woman through the village trying to rape her. This backward environment, with its tiny educated élite and a mass of half-starving farmers and fishermen, influenced his aristocratic, pseudo-Nietzschean vision of a world divided into masters and slaves. ‘Men will be divided into two races,’ he later wrote:

To the superior race, which shall have risen by die pure energy of its will, all shall be permitted; to die lower, nothing or very little. The greatest sum of well-being shall go to the privileged, whose personal nobility will make them worthy of all privileges. The plebeians remain slaves, condemned to suffer, as much in the shadow of ancient feudal towers. They will never feel at their shoulders the sense of liberty.

For all his aristocratic pretensions, the drive and aggression with which D’Annunzio set out to conquer the literary and social world of Rome in the 1880s reveals the insecurity of the parvenu and the provincial outsider anxious for recognition.

Part of what makes him a fascinating biographical subject is that, like Wilde, he was among the first artists to manipulate the new mass media in order to impose himself on a large international audience. (Byron was a prototype for the scandalous poet as literary star but lived before the telegraph and mass-circulation newspaper.) Already in 1879, at the age of 16, he had sent the newspapers a false report of his own death in order to publicise his first book of poems:

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