Cesare Pavese Long Fiction Analysis
Of the many elements that characterize Cesare Pavese’s novels, those that have received most attention from critics are his preference for local color and the vernacular speaker, his affinity for unusualnarrative perspectives, his use of lyric elements in discursive prose, his method of developing (or not developing) characters and plot conflicts, and his treatment of recurring symbols and themes. Each of these elements contributes in its own way to the artistic complexity of Pavese’s work; taken together, they form his particular version of the neorealist aesthetic.
The Political Prisoner
Although it was not published until shortly before his death, The Political Prisoner was the first novel Pavese wrote. It was written very quickly, between November, 1938, and April, 1939. Chronologically, it falls between his return from Calabria in 1936 and the publication of The Harvesters, which was the first of Pavese’s novels to be published.
The Political Prisoner, as the title suggests, draws on Pavese’s own political confinement, from which he had been only recently released, and thus seems autobiographical to a degree. Whatever his reasons for not publishing it at the time of its composition—whether because of its painful autobiographical disclosure, its technical immaturity, or the threat of Fascist censorship—the subject it treated was obviously an important one to Pavese. This novel, like the story from which the plot is partly derived—“Terra d’esilio” (“Land of Exile”), Pavese’s first attempt at fiction—treats the isolating, alienating effects of totalitarian politics on human relations.
The technical shortcomings of The Political Prisoner are readily apparent: the melodramatic shallowness of every character except theprotagonist, the inadequateexposition of the protagonist’s past and the way this flaw impinges on his present motivation, the inadequate distancing of the protagonist as character from the author’s own experience, and the mistaken choice of a limited omniscient point of view, which serves not to disguise but rather to compound the author’s lack of narrative objectivity in the novel. Despite these technical defects, the novel is not the miserable failure some have claimed. Seen in the light of Pavese’s mature novels, it constitutes the most powerful thematic expression of his fundamental alienation from the world, even if that expression is not always accomplished in an elegant, aesthetically pleasing way.
The Political Prisoner tells the story of a young northerner named Stefano who is sentenced to a period of isolation in a remote southern village because of his political activities. In this respect, the protagonist is like Pavese. There the resemblances end, however, for Stefano is an engineer, not a writer, and his experiences in the novel are based on his developing awareness of the contrast between the urban life led by the working classes in the north—where the economy is based on factory labor, capital investment, and wages—and the agrarian routine and grinding poverty of the rural inhabitants of the undeveloped, economically primitive south. For Stefano, this awareness of the influence of economic factors on social conduct is the beginning of his feeling of alienation from the simple people around him. He receives with indifference small gifts and food from Concia and Elena, the two women with whom he becomes acquainted in the village although he is unable to establish any authentic relationship with either of them—or with Giannino, another political prisoner, who tries to communicate with him from a nearby village. For Stefano, these people remain wholly other, having no relationship to himself. His political isolation has become an ontological exile: Confronted with the primary facts of totalitarian repression and the loss of his own freedom, he comes to see the situation of the individual in the modern world as a sort of absurd, metaphysical imprisonment into which man is thrust by accident and from which the isolated, reflecting self cannot escape. In this respect, Pavese’s novel closely resembles such works as Camus’s The Stranger (1942) and Sartre’s play No Exit (1944).
In The Harvesters, one finds Pavese’s first attempt to use the vernacular narrator that was to become such an important element of his mature work. Naturally, Berto, the unemployed mechanic who narrates the story, employs the Piedmontese dialect with which Pavese himself was so familiar, yet the language of this novel is not entirely vernacular, but rather a careful mixture of Piedmontese with the lingua pura (the standard literary language), which Pavese called “naturalistic impressionism.” No doubt he learned this technique from his studies of American literature, in which this impressionistic use of the vernacular has been popular since the time of Mark Twain, though Pavese was probably familiar with it through his translation of works by Anderson and Steinbeck. The Harvesters marked an important turning point in Pavese’s development as a neorealist, for the narrative strategy he worked out in this novel came to maturity in Among Women Only and The Moon and the Bonfire, which were based on his experiences among the peasants of Serralunga.
The Harvesters was composed even more rapidly than Pavese’s first novel, being completed in about ten weeks between June and August of 1939. When published, in 1941, the novel was criticized on two counts: for the use of an uneducated narrator and for the sensational nature of the subject matter. The first of these objections can be summarily dismissed; the second objection, however, is a much more serious one and does point to a shortcoming of the novel. The plot of The Harvesters focuses on the actions of the narrator, Berto, and his friend Talino. When the story begins, they have just been released from prison and have decided to escape the life of frustration and poverty they have known in the city by returning to Talino’s home, the little Piedmontese hamlet of Monticello. When they arrive, however, they find not a carefree life of pastoral bliss but a round of ceaseless, backbreaking agrarian labor, which Berto gradually learns to accept with satisfaction. Talino, however, seems incorrigible, and the hostile impulses that led him to commit arson in the city are soon revealed to be part of a long history of senseless aggression that is aggravated and intensified both by his return home and by Berto’s growing romantic involvement with Talino’s sister, Gisella. As the tension builds between the two men, additional facts are revealed that make a tragic and violent outcome seem inevitable: Talino’s incestuous desire for his sister, which culminates in her rape and subsequent abortion, and her betrayal of his arson to the authorities to exact revenge. Talino murders Gisella during the harvest in a moment...
(The entire section is 2875 words.)