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.’

The inevitable disappointments that followed each infatuation were mixed up with a conviction that physical intimacy was violent and dirty. The poems Pavese wrote through his twenties offer a vision of sexuality at once awesome and bestial, aligning it with that full initiation into rural life that was somehow forbidden to him. Not surprisingly, when he did arrive between the sheets he suffered from premature ejaculation and later, impotence. The humiliation reinforced his conviction that maturity was beyond him. The only sphere where he could achieve anything was art. Only art was ‘pure, pure. Nothing compromises it.’ However, the purity came at the expense of its separation from life. ‘In these pages there is the spectacle of life, not life itself,’ he remarks early on in the diary. And: ‘Poetry is an ever-open wound draining away the body’s health.’ Once again, mutually exclusive values were in conflict: life and art. Pavese could never reconcile them or settle which mattered more, oscillating between pride in his literary achievements and self-contempt for his incompetence with women. ‘No woman enjoys fucking me, they never will … if you’re not a man, if your prick has no potency, if you must always be among women without hope of possessing them, how can you keep up your spirits and hold on? Was suicide ever more justified?’

With Tina Pizzardo things had been different, at least at first. A rather masculine, intellectual woman, Tina was five years older than Cesare, a contemporary of his sister. For a while he had believed that, rather than being incompatible with his writing, this relationship would be essential in making literary success possible. Unfortunately, he was able to articulate this conviction only once the affair was over. In March 1936, returning to Turin from exile in Calabria, Pavese was met with the news that Tina had married the boyfriend she had been seeing before she took up with him. He wrote: ‘Left alone, I’ve tried it, I know I won’t make it. Made one flesh and one destiny with her, I would have succeeded, I’m sure.’

Ten years later, the day after another lover married, Pavese wrote: ‘What happens once, happens always … And at this point I see that these diary entries don’t matter for any discovery they make explicit, but for the insight they give into my unconscious way of being. What I say isn’t true, but betrays – simply because I’m saying it – how I am.’

This reflection gives us a key to understanding the diary and the sober pleasures to be had from it. Though there are many acute observations on writing and ambition, on popular and literary culture, on the distinction between rite and myth, image and symbol, belief and superstition, destiny and free will, what keeps us turning the pages is the disquieting sense of being privy to a mind trapped in compulsions and assumptions that are leading towards suicide.

Mussolini’s habit of sending disaffected writers into internal exile in the villages of the remote south did have one or two positive consequences for Italian literature. Carlo Levi wrote Cristo si è fermato ad Eboli, while Moravia, Morante, Malaparte and Natalia Ginzburg all used their experiences of exile in their fiction. Not so Pavese; having arrived on the south coast of Calabria in August, he opens his diary on 6 October:

That some of the recent poems carry conviction doesn’t make it any less true that I compose them more and more reluctantly. Nor does it matter much that I sometimes have a powerful sense of the joy of invention. The two things seen together can be explained by an acquired facility with metrics that takes away the thrill of digging out the work from a formless mass, and on the other hand by interests arising from ordinary life that add passion and excitement to my meditation on certain poems.

Reflecting for some pages on the nature of artistic inspiration, he makes just one reference to his present circumstances:

This evening, beneath the red moonlit rocks, I was thinking how a great poem could bring out the god incarnate in this place … Suddenly I was surprised by the awareness that this god doesn’t exist, that I know that … and hence someone else would need to write this poem, not me … Why can’t I write about these red, moonlit cliffs? Because they reflect nothing of myself. The place gives me a vague uneasiness, nothing more.

At the core of Pavese’s vision is the conviction that personality is formed very early in life and hence the only landscape that will ever have a symbolic value for a writer is the landscape of childhood. It was simply not worth trying to use any of the new sensations the south presented him with. On the other hand, he hopes that the suffering and deprivation of exile will give him a new way of using the experiences that matter: it is form that can develop, not content. Eventually, he decides to abandon the ‘voluptuousness’ and self-regard of poetry for the more humble medium of narrative prose. Pavese was always ready to criticise himself, always imagining some severe judge examining his behaviour. ‘Once again,’ he laments, ‘it seems I’ve done nothing but present states of mind. Once again, weighing things up, I’ve failed to offer a new vision of the world.’

Only in the last entry before his release are we given an inkling that all this intellectual activity has been serving to keep painful emotions at bay:

There is a parallel between this past year of my life and a certain aspect of poetry. Just as the worst suffering wasn’t in the big moments (15 May, 15 July, 4 August, 3 February), but in those furtive interludes between, so the unity of a poem doesn’t consist in the big scenes, but the subtle correspondence of all its creative moments …

  How does she hurt me? The day she waved in the road, the day no one answered the door and then she appeared with her hair tousled, the day she spoke quietly to him on the river bank, the thousands of times she made me rush.

Such references to Pavese’s personal life rise to the surface of the diary infrequently and with varying degrees of intensity. Once they begin, however, it is clear that every discussion, however technical, is galvanised by personal tensions. Thus the extended reflections on the relationship between myth, narrative, superstition and destiny are fuelled by Pavese’s dismay that his relationships always follow the same pattern, as if he were acting out some archetype. Towards the end of 1937 he loses control and we have a couple of months, or a dozen pages, of savage misogyny. Tina, married though she now was, had come back to him, then left him again, because – Pavese was sure – he could not perform in bed. The diary imagines a conversation in which he declares: ‘You’re not a woman to me, you are existence itself; where you are is home for me, everything else is nothing.’ To which she replies: ‘How are the balls today? Let’s see if you can make me come.’

The 1990 Einaudi edition of the diary comes complete with two long introductory essays, a great deal of information on the original manuscript, 70 pages of extremely useful notes, a detailed chronology and an index of names. Above all it reinstates material cut from the earlier editions because it was thought to be obscene or potentially damaging to people still alive, notably Tina Pizzardo, who died in 1989. The new English edition, by contrast, has only a brief introduction by John Taylor, adapted from pages in his Into the Heart of European Poetry and largely given over to Pavese’s verse, with much praise for Geoffrey Brock’s indeed excellent translation of it. At no point does Taylor mention the translation of the diary, nor is the translator credited. Only the acknowledgment that the book was originally published in 1961 by Peter Owen allowed me to discover that the translator was A.E. Murch. The material reinstated by Einaudi in 1990 is not included; Taylor seems unaware of this. The new edition has few notes, no chronology and no index.

This, together with frequent and sometimes serious errors in the translation, puts the English reader at a great disadvantage, not only because references to Tina’s return are omitted but because the sheer ferocity and obscenity of the material now reinstated in the Einaudi edition shift the emotional centre of the book and one’s perception of what is at stake. The imaginary conversation with Tina and the reflection that no woman will enjoy sex with him, for example, are not in the English edition; here are other omissions:

Objectively speaking, why would a woman go back to her old lover if not to check that she’s still capable of seducing him? And to explain, virtuously, why she dropped him?

Women lie, they lie always and at any cost. It’s hardly surprising: they’ve got lying right in their genitals. Who can ever be sure whether a woman has come?

So long as you have balls and women a uterus, there’ll be no end to suffering. And when you don’t have them anymore, you’ll suffer because you had them once and they were taken away.

Typically of Pavese, he seeks to recover self-esteem through the exercise of writerly control, fielding more and more succinct, aphoristic analyses that aim to combine the darkest pessimism with the greatest aplomb:

All ‘the most sacred sentiments’ are nought but slothful habit.

Summary of every love story: starts in exalted contemplation, ends in intrigued analysis.

The art of living is the art of knowing how to believe lies.

These nuggets of pseudo wisdom hold exactly the energy and paradox of Pavese’s work: on the one hand his conviction of his own intellectual superiority, on the other his anxiety that life was too cruel for him, and that he was thus excluded. But perhaps he preferred being alone anyway: ‘Every evening, after the office and the osteria, when everyone is gone, back comes the fierce joy, the cool freshness of being alone. The only real pleasure of the day.’ Caught between opposing impulses, writing presents itself as a possible salvation: ‘Writing’s great because it brings together the two joys: talking on your own and talking to a crowd.’

But literary success had ‘no flesh, no blood’; what is more, Pavese appreciated that the writer was not as purely alone as he imagined. The solitary mind tended to internalise conventional wisdom; any successful piece of writing was to a large extent dictated by the public it was written for. ‘Greatness isn’t impossible, but greatness without the sanction of the dominant class is impossible.’ Given the nature of the dominant class in Italy throughout Pavese’s life, this was not an encouraging prospect. It thus became harder and harder to enjoy aspiring and achieving, desire and attainment: ‘The problem isn’t that fate is cruel, since if you want something enough you can always get it. The problem is rather that when you get it it disgusts you. One should never rage against fate but against your own wishes.’ Even with women, perhaps, it was more a question of his not really wanting them rather than their rejecting him. Of a sexual failure with a ‘very sensual’ girl, he writes: ‘She had you in her arms and didn’t want you. Or maybe it was you who didn’t take her? The old story.’

As part of the general yearning for order and control, at the turn of each year there is a summary. Specific dates are mentioned as a shorthand for moments of success, or more often failure. Pavese also shows a remarkable ability to cross-reference his own reflections back and forth across many years, suggesting that he was constantly reading and rereading his diary, seeking finer and finer definitions of the concepts that had become important to him: myth, destiny, ritual, man’s symbol-making vocation. ‘The great task of life,’ he writes, ‘is self justification. To justify oneself is to celebrate a rite. Always.’

On 1 January 1939, he reports: ‘Concluded a year of much reflection … little creative work, but a great effort to free myself and understand. You begin now.’ In fact, in 1938 he had translated Moll Flanders and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and been hired by Einaudi with a contract that required him to translate 2000 pages a year as well as editing the work of other translators. Despite these commitments he was able to write the excellent novel The Harvesters (Paesi tuoi) during the summer of 1939 and hence conclude on 1 January 1940: ‘This was the first year of living with dignity, because I followed a plan.’ Though he is always aware of the dangers of hubris, he often seems comically unable to resist it. Shortly afterwards he ran into a young woman he had taught at school and his emotions were again running riot. Masculine and tough-minded as Tina, Fernanda Pivano would later become a renowned critic of American literature. Over the next five years Pavese proposed to her twice, in vain. Italy’s plunge into world war is not mentioned.

Those going to Pavese’s novels after reading the diary will be impressed by how ingeniously he wove his personal dilemmas into the structure of his stories. A young man goes to help with the harvest on a friend’s farm, has sex with one of his friend’s sisters, discovers the scar of a poorly performed abortion and realises only in a catastrophic finale that he has come between incestuous lovers; seriously stung, he flees to the city (The Harvesters). A Turin-based teacher visits the close friend of his adolescence and the charming wife who took him away. The couple appear to be breaking up and the teacher and various other men try to take advantage. As the story reaches a point of farcical confusion the wife declares she is pregnant, the marriage reasserts itself and the narrator withdraws bewildered (The Beach). Clelia, a businesswoman, comes to Turin to set up a fashion shop for her employers in Rome. Staying in a luxury hotel she meets the future clients of the shop, in particular the suicidal Rosetta and her cynical older friend and perhaps lesbian lover Momina. Clelia is fascinated by the couple but nauseated by the stupidity of the world that she is working so hard to supply with fashion goods. Her sense of superiority is shaken when Rosetta kills herself, achieving a seriousness that Clelia feels is beyond her. Having opened the shop, she retreats to Rome (Among Women Only).

Readers coming to the diary after the novels will be struck by how attractively and pleasurably his unhappy mindset was presented in the fictional narrative and how exhausting it was to sustain day by day over a lifetime. The novels are so well executed, so fluent, the diary such hard going. Pavese’s decision to include all his poems in a single expanding collection entitled Lavorare stanca (‘Work Wearies’) is immediately understandable.

Literary success began with the publication of The Harvesters in 1941 and, increasing rapidly, brought with it the calm determination of a man on the way to satisfying his ambition. Asthmatic and hence unfit to fight, Pavese was even less distracted by war than he had been by exile. In his diary he collects pessimistic quotations from Kierkegaard, Rousseau, Foscolo. He makes incisive remarks on contemporary culture. He reminds himself not to make the characters in his novels too clever, to let structure obscure meaning. He explains why he prefers writers who always go back to the same subject, why he loathes every form of avant-garde. He castigates himself for having transformed the voluptuousness of his early poeticising into a voluptuousness of intellectual research. ‘Stop it and act,’ he orders himself. But act how?

Certainly not by military action. In 1943, the Fascist collapse and surrender found Pavese in Rome. He returned to Turin, soon to be occupied by the Germans, but instead of joining friends who had taken to the hills with the partisans, hid in an abbey and went through a period of religious conversion. A notebook written around this time was later removed from the diary because peppered with remarks hostile to the anti-Fascist movement: ‘Something that makes me angry. The anti-Fascists know everything, are above everything, but when they talk all they do is argue.’ And again: ‘Dumb as an anti-Fascist.’ Or: ‘All these stories of Nazi atrocities that frighten the bourgeois, how are they different from stories from the French Revolution, which had its reasons?’

It would be as mistaken to assume from this that Pavese was endorsing Fascism as to include him in the pantheon of anti-Fascist heroes. He always felt the need to diminish those whose ability to act he admired. So, in the later novel The House on the Hill, his alter ego is deeply attracted to a group of partisans for their life and energy, but refuses to join them because he feels their enterprise is futile. The war will unfold as it must in the battle between the Germans and the Allies and all other blood spilled is pointless. On 7 February 1944, he writes:

Blood is always shed irrationally. Everything is a miracle, but in the case of blood one feels this more acutely, because beyond it there is mystery.

Crying is irrational. Suffering is irrational … So your problem is to give sense to the irrational.

Pavese’s international success was complete when, in his two books addressing the war, The House on the Hill and his masterpiece The Moon and the Bonfires, he emerged as pacifist, compassionate and reasonable, hence politically acceptable in the new anti-war climate. Yet in the diary he often continues to think of his behaviour as cowardly and cynical, the result of ‘my impotence and refusal to get involved’. The fact that he hadn’t fought now left him even more isolated. Summing up 1946 he writes: ‘You never fought, remember that. You’ll never fight. Do you count for anything with anyone?’

In an attempt to atone for his failings he combined a return to his publishing work with membership of the Communist Party, handing out leaflets at public meetings and writing embarrassingly ‘engaged’ articles for the Communist paper L’Unità. He hated it and knew it couldn’t go on. More and more in the last hundred pages of the diary his mind returns to Santo Stefano Belbo, fusing his love of the landscape with his reflections on myth and sense of his own shortcomings:

This excessive passion for natural magic, for the wild, for the demonic truth of plants, streams, rocks and landscape, is a sign of shyness, of flight from the duties and commitments of human life.

  Even if we accept a mythical need to feel the reality of things, it takes courage to gaze the same way on people and their passions. But it’s hard and it’s no pleasure – people don’t have the same solidity as nature, its openness to interpretation, its silence. People come at us imposing themselves, fussing, expressing themselves. You have tried in all kinds of ways to petrify them – isolating them in their more natural moments, immersing them in nature, reducing them to a destiny. Yet your characters talk and talk – their spirit struggles, emerges. That is your tension. That spirit exhausts you, you would like it to vanish. You aspire to the stillness of nature, to silence, to death. You would like to turn them into myth, eternal and intangible, myth that casts a spell on historical reality and gives it meaning, value.

Two events precipitated Pavese’s suicide: a failure in love and a success in literature. In early 1950 he met the American film actress Constance Dowling, fell in love, took a brief holiday with her, convinced himself, against the advice of all his friends, that something might come of it. Afraid of the worsening political situation, Constance left Italy in early summer and did not return. Meantime in June, Pavese won the Strega prize, Italy’s most important literary award. ‘So, I’m king of my trade,’ he writes. ‘In ten years I’ve done it all.’

The failure in love reinforced his conviction that life would always elude him; the literary success made him intensely aware of the trivialisation of literature. ‘These days we see the masses fed with the merest propaganda. In the past too they were fed with trashy propaganda, but since basic culture was less widespread, the masses didn’t ape the truly cultured, hence there was no question that they might be in competition.’ Now, on the other hand, that competition was evident. What was praised as literature and won literary prizes might perfectly well be trashy propaganda. In the end, Pavese realised, he didn’t aspire to be a living writer but a dead one. ‘At bottom, you write to be as if dead, to speak from outside time, to turn yourself into someone everyone remembers.’ What had he been doing translating Melville, Dickens and Defoe if not seeking the company of the dead?

On 26 August 1950, Pavese had his sister prepare his weekend bag for him and checked into the Hotel Roma in the centre of Turin, a stone’s throw from the railway station. He called four women to see if they would eat with him but everyone was busy. On the flyleaf of his least successful book, Dialogues with Leucò, a series of discussions on myth and destiny, he left the note: ‘I ask forgiveness and forgive you all. OK? Keep the gossip brief.’ At some time during the night he took an overdose of painkillers.

He had always maintained that it was a natural human instinct to seek to arrest life and time in a symbol, an image whose transcendent significance freed us from our sense of being trapped in history. He also believed that suicides should impose meaning, not escape from it. So why this particular exit? The last words in the diary, some two weeks before, read: ‘All this stinks. Not words. An action. I shall write no more.’ Choosing to die in the Hotel Roma, Pavese removed his suicide from the private sphere, placing himself in the centre of his town, and by implication at the heart of the nation. Society, however, was such that the only significant action that could be performed there without compromising oneself was suicide. His death would protect the great oeuvre he believed he had completed from inevitable trivialisation by the living.