Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1253

Readers must turn to Pavese’s biography to understand fully his diary. Two wars, economic depression, two periods of postwar turmoil, and Fascist control of Italy operated at the national level to shape the intellectual milieu of Turin and its hinterland. Pavese’s life and works both reflect these forces and help explain them. Throughout his life, Italy, one of the most tumultuous nations of the twentieth century, seethed with internal division. Open and honest expression of opinions was dangerous. Many intellectuals, there and in similar places, turned their gaze inward.

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This inward orientation suited Pavese. He grew up in a rather cold, repressive home and did not fit in easily at school. Even as a young boy, he erected around himself a defensive barrier of solitude and silence, playing already his lifelong role as detached observer. In college, he joined a circle of intellectually creative, anti-Fascist young people. He also fell in love with a woman whom Pavese’s friend and biographer, Davide Lajolo, identified as the “woman with the hoarse voice.” Pavese had never been able to establish a normal relationship with a woman. When he fell in love, he was consumed by it to the exclusion of everything else. Perhaps love seemed to him to be the only way out of his solitude.

No woman affected him as deeply as the woman with the hoarse voice. He went to prison mainly because of his involvement with her, rather than because of any real interest he had in politics. When she wed another man the day before Pavese was released from prison, his life changed. The affair left him devastated, Lajolo wrote, and, afterward, at the center of Pavese’s life would be only Pavese himself, only his work and his torment. His ability to survive required him to engage in an unceasing struggle to maintain a balance between the two. In September, 1935, he wrote to the woman with the hoarse voice that “the fantasy that enabled me to write poetry so well does not help me in making anything in life tolerable.”

He slowly recovered from this disastrous affair and suffered through later ones that followed similar but less intense patterns. He increasingly learned how to relieve his suffering through work. He focused his energy on translations of American novels into Italian from 1928 to 1932, turned to poetry from 1932 to 1937, and then devoted himself mainly to prose.

Throughout most of the period of his greatest creative output, Pavese kept his diary. In it he analyzed his writing, contemplated the work of those he considered important, such as Giambattista Vico, Giacomo Leopardi, and Marcel Proust, and explored the importance of mythology and history to the creative impulse of societies and individuals. He scrutinized his own life for both the sources of and patterns in his creative work.

The power of the diary as an existential document comes from Pavese’s attempts to come to terms with his feelings about women, work, and suicide. Pavese often discussed suffering, wondering if it was the source of creativity or a destructive and useless experience. His concern with suffering always emerged as a major theme in his diary during and after his love affairs. He tried to isolate himself from women, he wrote in the aftermath of his involvement with the woman with the hoarse voice, because subconsciously he knew that love for him would be a “massacre.”

Pavese desired marriage and a family but knew that love endangered him. He was a misogynist, he wrote, and would never change. He used misogyny as a mental defense and evolved absurd theories about women. On September 27, 1937, he wrote that women seldom achieve an orgasm, and when they do they think of nothing else and indulge in any wickedness to achieve it again. Sexual intercourse caused a woman, he believed, to develop “a whole technique of escape within herself, eluding man, nullifying his conquest of her. Quite apart from her other weapons—deceitfulness and the game of social life.” Women can be won, he wrote in 1940, only if one can offer them power, riches, or social position. Women have no historical sense, he believed, and they are totally indifferent to poetry. They are interested only in artists who have achieved worldly success. Fortunately, his novels contain strong, interesting women, revealing a deeper understanding than his diary indicates.

Pavese felt a “vacuum” or void within himself. “Pavese is dead,” he wrote at age nineteen. If women and love could not fill the void, Pavese had the alternatives of politics and work. He was not, however, a political person, and politics did not fulfill him. He felt a deep need to break out of his solitude and engage in social action, a major theme in his novels, but his interest was intellectual only. His inability to assume political responsibility deepened his sense of failure and inadequacy.

This left work alone to fulfill him. While still a teenager, Pavese decided that when his will to work faltered, he would kill himself. On April 10, 1949, he wrote, “If you had no faith in what you are doing, in your work, the material you are creating, the pages you write, what a horror, what a desert, what a void life would be!” By late 1949 he sensed that he was at the height of his creative power and that his work was good, but that at some point he would lose the ability to work. He tried to prepare himself for what he regarded as his inevitable decline. How would he be able to live, he asked, as his work became bad? That would happen; what then, he asked? On September 30, 1949, he wrote: “You no longer have an inner life. Rather, your inner life is objective and is the work . . . that you do. That is dreadful. . . . You are drying up.”

As he took stock of his life at the beginning of 1950, he recognized that he had achieved what he sought to obtain: the admiration of many others who read his work. Yet he wrote that he felt himself “slipping.” By mid-1950, he sensed that he once again had “gone down into the abyss,” but this crisis seemed more acute than past ones. He had recognized long before that he had staked his life on his work. Now, even though he was still young, he realized that he had lost his gamble. The abyss beckoned and he had no defenses left. His theory of human nature left him with no hope of escape from the void. He believed people did not change. As they aged, they simply revealed more starkly what they had always been. No help could come to him from outside, since people could not change, and nothing was left inside.

In his last months, a love affair with an American actress, Constance Dowling, intensified the crisis. As he noted on August 17, 1950, however, his problem was deeper than that caused by any individual; for decades, his life had been pointed toward this culmination. In fact, he believed that deep down he may have seized on the affair with Dowling as an excuse to reopen his old obsession with suicide. On August 18, he wrote his last diary entry: “All this is sickening. Not words. An act. I won’t write any more.”

He tidied his affairs, chose a photograph for use by newspapers, checked into a hotel, and on August 26, 1950, killed himself with sleeping pills. He left a final note: “I forgive everyone and ask forgiveness of everyone. O.K.? Not too much gossip, please.”

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Critical Context