Pavese, Cesare (Poetry Criticism)
Cesare Pavese 1908–1950
Italian novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, translator, and critic.
A transitional figure in twentieth-century Italian poetry, Pavese departed from the ornate style and linguistic complexity used by his contemporaries to veil hermetic ideas and subjects, forging instead a more straightforward, unadorned style distinguished by use of vernacular. Considered Pavese's greatest accomplishment as a poet, the collection Lavorare stanca (Hard Labor) best evinces his descriptive, naturalistic approach and his themes of solitude and alienation—which recur throughout his works—while his later verse is more conventional, lyrical, and figurative.
Pavese was born in Santo Stefano Belbo, a rural town in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. The lifestyle and people of this fertile and hilly agricultural area later became strong influences on his poetry and fiction. His father died when Pavese was young; by most accounts his mother, a quiet and severe woman, provided little affection for her son. He attended high school in the cosmopolitan northern city Turin and, in 1927, enrolled at the University of Turin, where he devoted himself to the study of literature. After graduating, he published translations of works by such authors as Sinclair Lewis, Herman Melville, Sherwood Anderson, and John Dos Passos, introducing the Italian public to major contemporary western writers. In 1935, after marginal involvement in political causes, he was convicted of anti-Fascist sympathies and confined to house arrest for eight months in the remote town Brancaleone Calabro, on the southeastern peninsula of Italy. His imprisonment provided the basis for the novel Il carcere (The Political Prisoner) and for themes and images in some of his subsequent writings. Upon his release, Pavese was devastated to learn that he had been rejected by a woman with whom he had fallen in love prior to his incarceration. He continued his work translating and helped found the publishing house Einaudi, where he promoted and oversaw the publication of important European works in the social sciences. Pavese met and fell in love with an American actress in 1949 but the relationship failed. In 1950 he received the Strega Prize, Italy's most prestigious literary award, for La bella estate: Tre romanzi (The Beautiful Summer: Three novels). That same year, at the height of his literary reputation, he committed suicide.
In Hard Labor Pavese offers reflections on post-World War II Italian society by means of narrative poems set in
the Piedmont, specifically the city of Turin and the surrounding countryside bordering on the mountains and the sea. In telling of the country people and urban working class of the Piedmont region, Pavese used the speech patterns and idiom of his subjects. He contrasts the solace of country life with the alienation of existence in the city, and also comments on rural culture, human relationships, the physical demands of rural life, the beauty of the land and nature, and perennial themes such as sex, death, and the human condition. The verse of Hard Labor employs vernacular language and long verse lines, but Pavese's later poems are more lyrical and generally composed of short verse lines. Characterized by a highly personal and subjective tone, these poems are allusive and demonstrate little concern for relating a story. The love poems of Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi treat his feelings for the American actress and his disillusionment at the end of their relationship. Commentators have repeatedly attributed much of the loneliness and misogynistic undertones expressed in Pavese's works to his unhappy relationships with his mother and other women.
Hard Labor was poorly received when initially published in Italy. In contrast, Pavese's subsequent verse collections—published more than a decade later—received immediate praise, especially Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi. However, Hard Labor is now generally accepted as his most important collection, and English-language commentators on his poetry have concentrated almost exclusively on his first volume.
Lavorare stanca [Hard Labor: Poems] 1936
Feria d'agosto (short stories and poems) 1946
La terra e la morte [Earth and Death] 1947
Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi 1951
Poesie edite e inedite [Published and Unpublished Poems] 1962
Ciau Masino (short stories and poems) 1968
A Mania for Solitude: Selected Poems, 1930-1950 1969
*Poesie del disamore e altre poesie disperse [Poems of Estranged Love, and Other Scattered Poetry] 1973
•Includes the previously published collections La terra e la morte and Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi.
Other Major Works
Paesi tuoi [The Harvesters] (novel) 1941
La spiaggia [The Beach] (novel) 1942; published in journal Lettre D'oggi
Il compagno [The Comrade] (novel) 1947
Dialoghi con Leucò [Dialogues with Leucò] (fictional dialogues) 1947
Opere. 16 vols. [partially translated as Selected Works] (novels, poems, short stories, essays, diaries, and criticism) 1947-68
†La bella estate: Tre romanzi [The Beautiful Summer: Three...
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SOURCE: "The Woman with the Hoarse Voice," in An Absurd Vice: A Biography of Cesare Pavese, edited and translated by Mario Pietralunga and Mark Pietralunga, New Directions, 1983, pp. 62-77.
[In the excerpt below, originally published in Italian in 1960, Lajolo discusses Pavese's portrayal of women in his writings.]
During his final university years, Pavese had an encounter that would affect his entire existence. He met the only woman he would ever really love. Until then his relations with women, although followed by acts of desperation and fainting fits, were manifestations of his exaggerated emotion, not of love. It was with this woman that Pavese experienced the fullness of his feelings. He was captivated by her from the day they met.
We shall give no other name to this woman than the one used by Pavese in the poems of Work Wearies: "the woman with the hoarse voice." The harmony of Pavese's life was broken by his involvement with her; it was a crucial turning point. In losing her, he would lose his hope, his tenderness toward women, his sense of masculinity, his hope for fatherhood and family. He would even see his childhood in a different light, and all his works would reflect this love, betrayal, and disenchantment.
The woman with the hoarse voice was not very beautiful, but she had a firm, cool, and strong-willed personality. She was as good as a man in...
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SOURCE: "Conception of Time and Language in the Poetry of Cesare Pavese," in Italian Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 29, Spring, 1964, pp. 14-34.
On October 28, 1935 Pavese made the following entry in his diary: "Poetry begins when a simpleton says of the sea: 'It looks like oil!'" [The Burning Brand, translated by A. E. Murch, 1961]. Immediately, however, he added that this discovery actually is not the most precise description of a flat calm. It is merely the pleasure of having perceived the similarity, the titilation provided by the establishment of a mysterious relation between the thing perceived and the idea of the thing, between the man who sees the object and his unconscious need to express it with a parallel, an image, a symbol. Pavese points out that this is how a typical poem begins, it is based on an idea. But then it is necessary to finish it. How? He says:
Having started the poem, one must finish it, work up the idea with a wealth of associations and skillfully arrive at an assessment of its value…. But usually the writing stems from sentiment—the exact description of a flat calm—that occasionally foams with the discovery of relationships. The typical poem may possibly be remote from reality, consisting up to now (just as we can even live on microbes) of mere odds and ends of similarities (sentiment); constructive thought (logic); and associations caught at random (poetry)....
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SOURCE: "The Poetic Vision of 'Le colline': An Introduction to Pavese's Lavorare stanca," in Italica, Vol. XLII, No. 1, March, 1965, pp. 380-90.
[In the following excerpt, Foster examines Pavese's use of "the hills " as both a poetic setting and as a basis for reality in Lavorare stanca.]
Cesare Pavese in Lavorare stanca (1936; 1931-35) chooses to limit his poetic perspective in an attempt to capture the many facets of a restricted reality. His native countryside, the hills around Turin, serve as the thematic orientation for his poems. In this his first book of poetry as in his work as a whole, Pavese turns a coldly critical eye upon his material, ruthlessly scrutinizing it and unmercifully portraying the bitterest of realities. Although the poet is cynical and sophisticated, his material is not, and it is from the interplay of these two oppositions that the poetry's interest arises. While we may say that the poet is sophisticated, we do not mean to imply that he imposes an array of dazzling worldly trappings or elegant poetic devices upon his material. As the poet who may or may not choose to deny it, he is conscious of the significance of what he is describing, and that he has selected with deliberation his narrative and is in command of its presentation. At the same time the poet is both a participant and a spectator in his poetry as well as being its creative mainspring. In so doing,...
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SOURCE: "Myth and De-Mythification of Pavese's Art," in Italian Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 49, Summer, 1969, pp. 3-39.
[In the following excerpt, Rimanelli compares Pavese to his Italian contemporaries and discusses the use of myth in Lavorare stanca.]
In A proposito di certe poesie non ancora scritte Pavese says that "only critical awareness brings a poetic cycle to an end" [Poesie, 1962]. In this sense that which had been the poetry of modernism, that is to say the poetry of the '20's, already in 1936 represented a period that had come to a close. A closed period which—at best—allowed only variations on its main themes.
The greatest living poets of the time—[Ezra] Pound, [T. S.] Eliot, [Paul] Valery—had already formulated their experiences and now they merely amplified them. For their part the young poets were taking other directions. In England the Oxford group was decisively in favor of a poetry of social significance. In Italy, the advent of [Salvatore] Quasimodo registered the first indications of a poetry that was galvanized and reinforced by the war and not, as was held by many critics, transformed by it. Although W. H. Auden and his friends, Quasimodo included, tried to give new contents to poetry, they nevertheless wrote in the modernistic hermetic idiom. In every case, the critics were conscious of the new orientation, albeit not exactly convinced....
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SOURCE: A review of Hard Labor, in The Antioch Review, Vol. 35, Nos. 2-3, Spring-Summer, 1977, pp. 239-41.
[In the following excerpt, Sadoff lauds William Arrowsmith 's English translation of Hard Labor and explores various aspects of Pavese's poetry.]
The great Italian poet, Cesare Pavese, has finally found an able translator in poet William Arrowsmith. The translations in Hard Labor are direct and emulate Pavese's flatness of style and diction. Arrowsmith's critical introduction is simultaneously scholarly and informal, providing as substantial a critical overview of Pavese the man and poet as we are likely to get for some time to come. Based on the provided selection of poems, however, Arrowsmith has a tendency to overpoliticize Pavese's work; no doubt Pavese's opposition to fascism and his exile played a central part in his life and concerns, and there are a few poems from the collection "Green Wood" which are explicitly political, but for the most part Pavese's work centers rather on the austere Italian landscape and its effect on the people:
and, from "People Who've Been There": "Sun and rain are only kind to weeds, nothing else. And now, of course, / now that the wheat's dead, the frost is over."
Pavese's real strengths lie in his supreme powers of description, his attention to narrative, and his praise of the senses.
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SOURCE: "Lavorare stanca and the Evolution of Pavese's Verse in the Nineteen-Thirties," in Cesare Pavese: A Study of the Major Novels and Poems, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 13-39.
[In the following excerpt, Thompson surveys Pavese's early poetry, finding the works a means by which Pavese examined difficult periods in his life.]
Only in 1962, with the publication by Einaudi of Poesie edite e inedite (Published and Unpublished Poems), did it become possible to trace the development of Pavese's poetry during the nineteen-thirties. Up to then there had been two editions of the verse he had written in the thirties—the Solaria edition of Lavorare stanca (Working Is Tiresome) of 1936 and the Einaudi edition of 1943. Even these had revealed substantial differences in tone, point of view and technique, although about half the poems in the second edition had made up the bulk of those in the first. Of the one hundred and four poems in Poesie edite e inedite written before 1940, twenty-seven of them were published for the first time. In addition, there were six poems which had appeared in the Solaria Lavorare stanca (a limited edition, soon exhausted) but which had been excluded from the Einaudi edition. Thus about a third of the poems belonging to that all-important decade were to all intents and purposes unknown until well after Pavese's death. Had...
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Lajolo, Davide. An Absurd Vice: A Biography of Cesare Pavese. Edited and translated by Mario Pietralunga and Mark Pietralunga. New York: New Directions, 1983, 255 p.
Portrays "not only Pavese the writer but also the man who lived with extraordinary intensity many of the existential problems and vicissitudes his generation of intellectuals encountered." In the chapter entitled "The Lyceum Poems and the 'Absurd Vice'," Lajolo cites writings and correspondences by Pavese indicating his thoughts during his earliest efforts at composing poetry.
Cipolla, Gaetao. Review of Hard Labor. Canadian Journal of Italian Studies 7, Nos. 26-7 (1984): 65-73.
Focuses on William Arrowsmith's translation of Lavorare stanca. Cipolla finds that Arrowsmith gives Pavese "an English voice that rings true."
Galassi, Jonathan. Review of Hard Labor. New York Times Book Review (26 September 1976): 26.
Comments on the themes and interrelationship of the poems in Hard Labor.
O'Healy, Áine. Cesare Pavese. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 178 p.
Critical overview of Pavese's life and writings. O'Healy includes a selected...
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