Stop It and Act

Tim Parks

  • This Business of Living: Diaries 1935-50 by Cesare Pavese, translated by A.E. Murch
    Transaction, 350 pp, £24.50, March 2009, ISBN 978 1 4128 1019 7

Cesare Pavese kept a diary from 1935, when, aged 27, he was ‘exiled’ to Calabria for anti-Fascist activities, until 1950, when he committed suicide. During those years he became a successful poet and novelist, translated many celebrated American and British novels and, as chief editor at Einaudi, was responsible for publishing some of the most important writers of his time. However, readers of the diary expecting an account of life under Fascism and German occupation, or character studies of the many writers Pavese worked with, or merely details of his notoriously unhappy love life, will be disappointed. These 350 pages are almost entirely made up of attempts to pin down the relation between art and reality and to establish the nature of the author’s own psychology and career, the whole punctuated with outbursts of ferocious misogyny. ‘You speak of nothing but yourself and your work,’ he remarks in one entry.

Pavese called the book Il mestiere di vivere: literally, ‘the job’ – in the sense of a specific skill or profession – ‘of living’. Living, in other words, is a trade you have to learn, and once learned, it must be sustained, with effort. Failure and humiliation are never far away. From the earliest pages, suicide is presented as a way of taking control of an existence that is slipping from one’s grasp, not ‘a way of disappearing’, but a positive statement. ‘Who knows,’ he asks, ‘whether an optimistic suicide will come back to the world again?’

Pavese had been the baby of his family. Of the four children born before him, only his sister, six years his elder, survived. His father, a civil servant in Turin, died when Cesare was five. Left to cope alone, his mother imposed a rigid, almost hostile discipline. All Pavese’s writing would betray a longing for an unattainable maturity, an anxiety that he would never catch up with those around him. His novels invariably present an alter ego seeking involvement with a partner, or group of friends or political activists, only to discover when some dramatic incident occurs that he is in fact excluded, has understood nothing and counts for nothing. ‘My stories,’ he remarks in 1942, ‘are about a contemplative figure watching events that are beyond him.’

The Pavese family owned properties in both Turin and Santo Stefano Belbo, a village 80 kilometres south-east of the city in the hills of the Langhe. Spending the school year in town and summers in the country, Cesare began to attribute mutually exclusive values to the two territories: Turin was the domain of modern, sophisticated intellectualism, an environment in which he could compete; Santo Stefano the place of an uncompromising, irrational physical reality. His writing is packed with the intensity of the Langhe summers, its hills and vineyards, washed-out greens and browns, sultry sun and violent storms, but always as seen by an intellectualising outsider, someone never fully admitted to mysteries that expose the superficiality and incompleteness of his urban life. The desire that the two worlds be reconciled or somehow superimposed tends to break down under the conviction that he is condemned to making an impossible choice between the ways of life they represent.

At high school in the 1920s, Pavese came into contact with teachers and contemporaries who would eventually be prominent in the resistance to Fascism. At university, he presented an undergraduate thesis on Whitman, a writer whose expansiveness, optimism and intense engagement with life were poles apart from Pavese’s own taciturn, often withdrawn state. Rejected by his English professor as politically unsound, the thesis was overseen instead by a French professor, after intervention from Pavese’s left-wing friend Leone Ginzburg. Thus began the image of Pavese as a left-wing activist and the comforting illusion that the translation and propagation of American literature might be a threat to the regime.

That same year, 1930, Pavese’s mother died, and apart from the period of exile and one or two brief absences, he was henceforth to spend his whole life in the Turin family home, with his older sister and her husband and children. ‘At home he was his usual brusque self,’ his friend and fellow novelist Natalia Ginzburg, Leone’s wife, remembered. ‘He acted like a kid or an outsider.’ Most of his time he spent in his room.

To pay the bills Pavese began to translate, producing stylish versions of such complex works as Moby-Dick and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: for someone still in his early twenties an extraordinary achievement. However, he also wanted to be a schoolteacher, which meant joining the Fascist Party, and he duly did so in 1932. Later, he criticised his sister for having pushed him to this decision. Of the moral issues raised by the regime’s demand for conformity there is not a word in the diary.

Pavese’s arrest and exile in 1935 were not the result of serious anti-Fascist activity. In 1934 he had worked for his friend Giulio Einaudi’s new left-wing magazine, La cultura; despite his having left the paper early in 1935, to prepare for an exam that would further his teaching career, in May the Pavese home was raided by police, who found an incriminating letter from an imprisoned anti-Fascist. Pavese did not explain that the letter was in fact meant for his girlfriend, a more determined revolutionary, Tina Pizzardo. He was condemned to three years of internal exile. However, having received over the coming months nothing more than a few bare postcards from Tina, an angry Pavese formally petitioned for a pardon and was able to leave Calabria having served less than a year of his sentence. There were others who deserved exile far more than he did, he complained, rather as if the regime were a severe parent punishing the wrong child.

The mixture of women and dangerous politics was not accidental. Timid himself, Pavese would always be attracted to those who threw themselves into things and were liked and highly visible. At 17, he had made himself ill waiting for hours in the rain for a dancer he had fallen for, and there would be many other infatuations with glamorous girls of brash eroticism. ‘You are asking to be a loser,’ he later wrote in his diary of his choice of partners. And again: ‘Might it be true you only fall in love with women who are very popular … and what you like about them is that everybody desires them and you suffer because you want to be the only one to possess them.’

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