Everything is ardour

Charles Nicholl

  • The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
    Fourth Estate, 694 pp, £12.99, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 00 721396 2

In 1897, in a letter to his publisher, Gabriele d’Annunzio wrote: ‘The world must be convinced I am capable of everything!’ One might think he was being ironic – the subject of the letter was his decision to stand for the Italian parliament, of which he had a very low opinion – but in a life so devoted to grandiloquent self-promotion there was little room for irony. He was 34 years old, and the world was at this point rather less interested in him than he imagined. Admiration of Il Vate (The Bard), as he would come to be called, was and remains an essentially Italian phenomenon. It’s hardly an unqualified admiration nowadays, given his political views, but he is still widely held to be the greatest poet of modern Italy. Further afield there was a ripple effect of declining enthusiasm. His first novel, Il piacere (Pleasure), published in 1889 – powerful, voluptuous and experimental by the standards of the day – was an international success, and was praised by Proust, Joyce and James; but his poetry was not much read, and he himself (or his reputation) not much liked. In France, where he lived from 1910 to 1915, he was seen as a phoney and a sponger. ‘He is a child,’ the novelist René Boylesve said; ‘he gives himself away with a thousand lies and tricks.’ In England his reputation was summed up by Lord Vansittart of the Foreign Office, who declined to send official condolences on the news of his death because he was a ‘first-class cad’. Hemingway, yet more succinctly, described him as a ‘jerk’.

Despite all this it can often seem that d’Annunzio was indeed ‘capable of everything’. Poet, novelist, dramatist, bibliomaniac, fashion guru, serial seducer, cocaine addict, greyhound breeder, pioneering aviator, nationalist warmonger and proto-Fascist demagogue (‘the John the Baptist of Fascism’, as an early, Mussolini-sponsored biography styled him), he was certainly an all-rounder, and perhaps one shouldn’t complain if mild-mannered wallflower is not also on the list. ‘You must make your own life, as you make a work of art,’ he wrote in Il piacere. ‘In that alone lies true superiority.’

This hyperactive but exquisitely fastidious whirlwind of a man is brilliantly caught in Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s new biography. It is a long book, elegantly written, full of colour and vitality and detail – a tour de force, like the life it recounts – but also cleverly controlled. Unlike her subject she does irony very well, and is capable of being simultaneously appalled and amused, and even celebratory in a gasping, ‘How does he do it?’ sort of way. In her introductory comments she ponders the difficulties he has thrown in her path. ‘I am a woman writing about a self-styled “poet of virility” and a pacifist writing about a warmonger,’ she says, ‘but disapproval is not an interesting response.’ She knows that if d’Annunzio ‘made’ his own life, through tireless self-mythologising, it is up to his biographer to unmake it and to see what really made him tick. She also wants to get beyond that other construct: d’Annunzio the pantomime villain or bogeyman. This is a political point about the rise of Fascism: he should not be ‘dismissed as being singularly hateful or crazy … To suggest that his thinking was aberrant is to deny the magnitude of the problem he presents.’ He was more of an opportunist, sensing cultural and political currents, hungrily adopting and adapting what was new and empowering. A disenchanted friend, Romain Rolland, likened him to a pike, a predatory creature lurking ‘afloat and still, waiting for ideas’, and this slightly sinister image gives Hughes-Hallett her title.

D’Annunzio was born in the provincial town of Pescara on the Adriatic coast in March 1863, the son of the mayor. (He sometimes claimed to have been born at sea aboard a brigantino, and to have a ‘nautical demon’, but it seems the birth was more prosaically on dry land.) He was precociously gifted, and published his first volume of verse, Primo vere (1879), as a 16-year-old schoolboy. The poems were strongly influenced by the anti-clerical Tuscan poet Giosuè Carducci, and already tinged with eroticism. He described them as ‘rosy flashes of youthful life’. He created a buzz for his second volume, Canto novo (1882), by anonymously informing newspapers of his untimely death in a fall from his horse; thus spuriously touched with tragedy the poems sold well. Early photographs show a delicate, intense, ephebic young man with a shock of black curls; the journalist Edoardo Scarfoglio, who knew him in Rome in the early 1880s, said he had the look of a ‘timid, wild girl’.

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