The Burning Brand Critical Essays

Cesare Pavese


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1253 words.)