Cesare Pavese Short Fiction Analysis
Cesare Pavese wrote most of his short stories during the 1930’s and early 1940’s, but few were published before his death. In them, he explores childhood, rural versus urban life, solitude and loneliness, and the difficulty of forming relationships with other people, especially women. Pavese’s work is remarkably free of overt political concerns. The political undercurrent in his writing, however, is found in its inward focus, the only center of freedom in a suppressive society, and in the atmosphere of bleakness and social blight that pervades his stories.
It was in his short stories that Pavese perfected his writing style. His writing, in expressive vernacular, is always elliptical and oblique. His work is often classified as neorealistic, but his real concern is psychological processes. While his subject matter includes incest, rape, and murder, they usually occur offstage, and his style is unsensational and detached. His cool, distancing language heightens the tension and turmoil bubbling beneath the surface. Behind the ellipses and silences that characterize Pavese’s writing are the dramatic events to which his characters react. These events, hidden from the reader, obviously frighten and distress the characters. The event itself is slowly revealed to the reader. This technique downplays the importance of the event and emphasizes the psychological reaction of the characters. The language is flat but laden with emotional tension, with the events too explosive for the characters to describe directly.
“Land of Exile”
Most of Pavese’s short stories were translated into English in the collections entitled Festival Night, and Other Stories, Summer Storm, and Other Stories, and Told in Confidence, and Other Stories. They have an autobiographical tone, since most were written in first person and deal with settings or episodes that Pavese experienced.
A turning point in Pavese’s life came with his exile for antifascist activities. Several of his stories deal with exile or prison, including “Terra d’esilio” (“Land of Exile”), “L’introso” (“The Intruder”), and “Carogne” (“Gaol Birds”). The narrator in “Land of Exile” is self-exiled to a place in southern Italy much like the one to which Pavese was sent by the Fascists. The land is bleak, and the people lead harsh and empty lives. The narrator meets Ciccio, a half-witted beggar driven mad by his wife, and Otino, imprisoned for beating a soldier who had an affair with his wife. When Otino learns that his wife was murdered by her lover, he is angry because he cannot kill her himself. The narrator feels callous and degraded because he sees suffering and tragedy around him but cannot respond to it. Solitude, a constant theme in Pavese’s work, is the real prison that cuts him off from others.
“The Leather Jacket”
Problems with women preoccupy many of the imprisoned men, and women increasingly become central in Pavese’s writing. Women are often the center of his tragedies. One of Pavese’s favorite retreats was the Po River. The Po provided the backdrop for several stories, as a beautiful setting for contemplation and solitude or as an uncaring witness to horror. In “La giacchetta di cuoio” (“The Leather Jacket”), a boy, Pino, recalls his hero Ceresa, who ran a boat-dock café and lived with the spiteful and unfaithful Nora. Pino records but does not fully comprehend the tragedy that he witnesses. With the typical indirection that one finds in Pavese’s stories, Pino describes Ceresa, framed in a window confronting a person whom the boy cannot see and then later in a boat, with Pino mumbling to a fish, “You’re no good, either.” One feels the tension mounting between Ceresa and Nora. Pino, for reasons that he does not fully understand, is repelled and frightened and stays away from his friend. Finally, he hears that Ceresa has been arrested after killing Nora and throwing her body into the Po.
The detachment in “The Leather Jacket” comes through Pino’s ability to describe what he cannot understand. In “Temporate d’estate” (“Summer Storm”), Pavese’s powerful descriptions of nature distance the reader from human tragedy. Two young women drown in the Po, one of them raped by men who then impassively watch her die.
Many Pavese characters are monstrous experts at psychological brutality. George, the narrator in “Viaggio di nozze” (“Wedding Trip”), recalls his marriage to Cilia. He is a French teacher, trapped by his poverty and loneliness. He marries the poorly educated, adoring Cilia because he thinks that coming home to a woman will relieve the bleakness of his existence. After marriage, George’s psychological brutality reduces the bright, cheerful Cilia into a dull, uncomprehending sacrifice to his own failures. She regains some hope when he takes their meager savings to pay for an...
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