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’.

The curls soon disappeared. This loss he attributed to the use of iron perchlorate to treat a scalp wound after a duel, a story routinely repeated by previous biographers, but briskly dismissed by Hughes-Hallett. By the age of thirty he was completely bald. This is the classic d’Annunzio look: a small man with a preternaturally smooth pate and a pointy little beard; a poetic popinjay ‘elegantissimo in white gloves’, with a style of walking ‘somewhere between a mince and a swagger’. He is observed by André Gide in 1895, ‘greedily eating little vanilla ice creams’ at the Caffè Gambrinus in Florence. Gide reports: ‘He speaks with a clear voice, rather icy but soft and wheedling. His glance is quite cold: perhaps he is cruel, or perhaps it is his refined sensuality that makes him seem so to me. On his head he wears a plain black bowler hat.’

Given a demeanour broadly suggestive of Hercule Poirot on steroids it is all the more remarkable – and more important to remember – that d’Annunzio at his finest was a very fine poet indeed. Some of his output has a decadent richness which now seems cloying, and there are some gratingly Nietzschean hymns to patria and gloria, but he remains popular in Italy for his more classically lyrical evocations of the country’s life and landscapes. A perennial favourite is the wistful ‘La pioggia nel pineto’ (‘Rain in the Pine Grove’), which blends the scents and sounds of the Versilian littoral – tamarisk and juniper, frogs and cicadas – with a pinch of pagan metamorphosis:

Piove su i nostri vólti
silvani,
piove su le nostre mani
ignude,
su i nostri vestimenti
leggieri …
Su la favola bella
che ieri
t’illuse, che oggi m’illude …

(‘It is raining on our sylvan faces, it is raining on our naked hands, and on our light clothes … and on the beautiful fable which yesterday deceived you, which today deceives me.’) This comes from the collection Alcyone (1903), which also includes ‘L’onda (‘The Wave’), where the surface of the sea in sunlight is likened to glittering chainmail on the cuirass of an ancient warrior; and ‘La sera fiesolana’ (‘Evening at Fiesole’) which begins,

Fresche le mie parole ne la sera
ti sien come il fruscìo che fan le foglie
del gelso ne la man di chi le coglie
silenzioso …

(‘May my words in the evening be refreshing to you, like the rustling of mulberry leaves in the hand of one who silently gathers them.’) Parts of his 1903 sequence Le città del silenzio, a kind of poetic gazetteer of historic Italian towns, have worked their way into the weave of local life; they are quoted as a species of aphorism. In the countryside around Lucca you cannot walk far without thinking of his sonorous and stately lines about – or indeed addressed to – the Serchio river: ‘Tu vedi lunge gli uliveti grigi/che vaporano il viso ai poggi, o Serchio’ (‘You see from afar, O Serchio, the grey olive groves which mist the face of the hillsides.’) Scholarly, eclectic and immensely prolific – the standard old-school edition of his works runs to 48 volumes – he mined classical and medieval literature for verse forms and models. ‘For him,’ Hughes-Hallett says, ‘reviving Italy’s medieval texts is a political project. He is quarrying them for words because a developed literary language is the tool and badge of a great nation.’ He approved Herder’s dictum that ‘a poet is the creator of the nation around him.’

Almost as central to d’Annunzio’s reputation is his sexual prowess. He had a string of spectacular and often scandalous affairs, and there remains a mythos of Chinese whispers concerning his alleged perversions and fetishes. His paramours included theatrical superstars like the tragedienne Eleonora Duse and the modernist Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, and numerous adventurous aristocrats including the Marchesa Luisa Casati, who satisfied two of his chief criteria by being very tall and very rich. She had huge green eyes heightened with heavy applications of kohl, favoured exotic accessories such as ocelots and peacocks, and her party guests were attended by black servants dressed in costumes copied from Tiepolo. D’Annunzio was fascinated by bisexuality, and in Paris had a high profile affair with Romaine Brooks, a crop-haired lesbian painter. He called her ‘Cinerina’, which means ‘ashen’ (Alfred Hoare’s 1918 dictionary adds luce cinerina, translated with a d’Annunzian flourish as ‘earthlight on the moon’). The name was given because of her fondness for monochrome, both in the decor of her apartment and in the portraits she painted, though perhaps also because her complexion placed her in the interesting category of sickly, pallid, death-touched women. The aphrodisiac qualities of illness were a commonplace of decadent literature, and d’Annunzio was an insistently amorous presence at his lovers’ sickbeds. ‘Your beauty is spiritualised by illness,’ he told Elvira Fraternali. ‘I think that when you are dead you will reach the supreme light of beauty.’ Conversely, he also had a penchant for Amazonian blondes.

‘In heaven, dear poet,’ Brooks wrote to him when their affair ended, ‘there will be reserved for you an enormous octopus with a thousand women’s legs (and no head).’ It was an acute hit at d’Annunzio’s compulsive, narcissistic womanising. His love life was as meticulously styled as everything else about him: the poetic billets-doux, the trysts in wisteria-choked pergolas, the love nests hung with damask and strewn with rose petals, the silk kimonos and cups of fragrant Chinese tea, the handkerchiefs drenched in a perfume whose recipe he had copied from a medieval manuscript.

His cosmopolitan menagerie of mistresses all but obscures the rather melancholy figure of his wife, the Duchessina Maria Hardouin di Gallese. They married in 1883 and separated eight years later; in the meantime she bore him four children, and attempted suicide in the face of so many infidelities. In later years a visitor to d’Annunzio’s house noted that his three grown-up sons were instructed not to call him ‘Papà’ but ‘Maestro’.

*

D’Annunzio’s life of restless sexual predation seems to be an aspect of what Benedetto Croce called his ‘cold-blooded dilettantism’. It is said – by himself among others – that he loved animals, and especially dogs, more than people. At Capponcina, his country villa near Settignano, he kept some twenty dogs, mostly greyhounds and borzoi, housed in a pretty red brick kennel with stained glass windows and a banner above it bearing the legend: ‘Fidelitas’. With rare modesty he once said that none of his literary works could ‘match the body of a greyhound for beauty’. In one of his notebooks is a list of ‘the world’s most beautiful phenomena’ which includes greyhounds, as well as Ida Rubinstein’s legs and ‘the form and structure of my highly polished cranium’.

At the Brescia Air Show in September 1909 – six years after the Wright Brothers’ first lift-off – d’Annunzio recited a poem about Icarus to a crowd estimated at fifty thousand. Among those present was Kafka, holidaying with his friend Max Brod on Lake Garda. Brod thought d’Annunzio a superman – they treated him ‘like a second king of Italy’, he writes – but Kafka had a more laconic view. He looked small and ‘weak’, he thought, ‘skipping’ among the ladies and ‘shyly’ trotting around after Count Oldofredi, one of the show’s organisers. It was here that d’Annunzio first took to the skies, perched neatly between the wings of a biplane piloted by the American aviator Glenn Curtiss. He was enraptured. The ‘conquest of the air’, he proclaimed, presaged ‘a new civilisation, a new life, new skies!’ and he called for a poet ‘capable of singing this epic’ – this of course would be him.

He would take many flights during the war years (though never as pilot). His notebook filled up with bird’s-eye jottings: a stretch of shoreline ‘cut like a high-curved saddle’, a lagoon ‘as iridescent as a pigeon’s throat’. He would drop bombs and propaganda leaflets on Austrian battalions, and see shells fly past his cockpit ‘like ugly big rats tunnelling through the air’. In early 1916 his plane lost control when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire, and his face was badly smashed. He lost the sight of one eye permanently (a monocle was added to the d’Annunzio look) and for some weeks he was totally blind. Lying in a darkened room in Venice with his eyes tightly bandaged, under orders not to move his head, his urge to write was still irrepressible. He wrote on narrow slips of paper, feeling the edge with his fingers: one line of text to each page. The pages – collected and collated by his daughter, Renata, who acted as his nurse – formed the nucleus of his remarkable memoir, Notturno, published in 1921. In staccato paragraphs which preserve the rigours of its composition, it mingles a post-traumatic journal of recuperation with a soundscape of the Venetian life outside his window, and with random memories of war scenes and of childhood. ‘The past is present, in all its aspects, all its vicissitudes … A gesture, a word, a smell, a light, the roar of a propeller, the glint of a bayonet, the folding of a flag, the trickling of a wine-press, the livid colouring of a hand around the almost white fingernails.’ It was a work even Hemingway was forced to admire.

The Great War, Hughes-Hallett says, turned d’Annunzio ‘from dandy poet into national redeemer’. Returning from France in 1915, he made rabble-rousing speeches against the perceived corruption and inaction of the government led by Giovanni Giolitti. The Italian parliament was a ‘mephitic sewer’, filled with the ‘stable hands of the Great Beast’, whose ‘chatter is as vulgar and repulsive as the burping of a peasant who has eaten too many beans’. He urged Italy’s intervention in the war with a grim rhetoric of blood sacrifice, conflagration and cauterisation. He was an early user of the term ‘holocaust’ (from a Greek root meaning something ‘burned whole’), though the word did not yet carry its specific freight of anti-semitic genocide. These sentiments were also expressed by other writers – the Futurist poet Marinetti called the First World War ‘the hygiene of Europe’; Rupert Brooke wrote of soldiering as purification, ‘like swimmers into cleanness leaping’ – but none matched the rabid enthusiasm of d’Annunzio’s oratory. He was assisting in the birth of ‘a new, greater Italy’. Exhilarated after a busy day of speechifying, he wrote in his notebook: ‘The crowd howls like a woman in labour. The crowd writhes in giving life to its own destiny … Everything is ardour and clamour, creation and intoxication, peril and victory, beneath the murky sky of battle where the swallows flash and cry.’

The apotheosis of d’Annunzio’s political life was the extraordinary Fiume adventure. A small port on the Croatian coast, now known as Rijeka, Fiume had a majority population of Italian speakers, and was thus (like Trieste) considered irredente, an ‘unredeemed’ region which should be annexed into an expanded postwar Italy. In September 1919, d’Annunzio assumed the leadership of a ragtag army of Italian mutineers and irregulars, and marched into the town, or rather drove into it ‘in a bright red Fiat so full of flowers that one observer took it for a hearse’. When the Italian authorities refused to recognise this improvised putsch, he declared Fiume an independent state with himself as its duce. It lasted 15 months, a strange little maverick fiefdom which he called the Regency of Carnaro, and which he claimed would be a ‘searchlight radiant in the midst of a sea of abjection’.

D’Annunzio was not himself a Fascist – he considered Mussolini a vulgar upstart – but as Hughes-Hallett compellingly shows, ‘Fascism was d’Annunzian.’ The imagery and ideology of Fiume was a blueprint: ‘The black shirts, the straight-armed salute, the songs and war-cries, the glorification of virility and youth and patria and blood sacrifice, were all present in Fiume three years before Mussolini’s march on Rome.’ His later relations with the Duce were tense underneath diplomatic cordiality: unable to win d’Annunzio’s support, the best Mussolini could get was a promise of peaceable silence, bought with large gifts of cash that bankrolled the ageing poet’s grandiose developments at his last home, a rambling 18th-century farmhouse overlooking Lake Garda, which he christened Il Vittoriale and is today his mausoleum. Mussolini reportedly said: ‘When you have a rotten tooth you have two possibilities open to you: either you pull it or you fill it with gold. With d’Annunzio I have chosen the latter treatment.’ During a soirée at Il Vittoriale in the summer of 1922 d’Annunzio fell out of a window and fractured his skull. Among those present was Aldo Finzi, a diligent Mussolini henchman later implicated in political murders, and it has been suspected (but never proved) that this was an attempted assassination.

In his last years d’Annunzio grew shrunken and bandy-legged, living a frugal and contemplative life interspersed with cocaine-fuelled sex with a tubercular Milanese prostitute chauffeured up from her lodgings above a trattoria on the lakeside. He called her Lachne. Among his last poems is a faux medieval canzonet in celebration of her pubic hair. Also at the house was Emy Huefler, a tall and rather mysterious blonde from the Alto Adige, who is seen standing governess-like beside him in photographs. On 1 March 1938, at the age of 74, he collapsed while working at his desk and died of a brain haemorrhage. The telephonist who transmitted the news of his death to Mussolini’s headquarters heard someone at the other end exclaim, ‘At last!’ Shortly after his death the imposing Huefler decamped from the Vittoriale, and was later reported to be in Berlin, working in the office of Hitler’s foreign minister, von Ribbentrop. It seems she was a Nazi agent, planted in the troublesome old bard’s household to spy on him. He would surely have relished this final twist, having always found betrayal more sexy than loyalty.