Comprising an impressive body of short stories, poems, novels, and critical essays, Pavese’s work at once summarizes literary trends and ideas of the period while forging an innovative technique reflecting its author’s suffering as a writer and human being.
Literature in prewar Italy, particularly in the 1930’s when Pavese began to write, was marked by a diluted Romanticism: poetry and prose that recorded the private, subjective experience of the writer in conflict with the values of society or the external world. Poetry was often lyrical, as in the work of Gabriele D’Annunzio, and the prose often experimental or impressionistic, as in the work of Italo Svevo. The so-called Hermetic school, whose leading exponent was Salvatore Quasimodo, often produced difficult, abstruse poems that sought escape into a kind of private, self-centered world.
Pavese was influenced by this literature, which he found congenial to his own introverted personality, but also crucial in his creative development were his discoveries in American literature. He wrote his master’s thesis on the poetry of Walt Whitman, who was to be a source of inspiration for his own poetical style in Hard Labor. American writers such as Whitman and Herman Melville gave Pavese a new way of viewing experience, of making a connection with the outside world. He saw in American writers a creative “virility”—his own word—a freedom in the treatment of character, event, and language.
His characters are often peasants, laborers, and whores. Many are violent or use violence to cope with the world around them, a world of war, as in The House on the Hill, or the world of personal, solitary agony, as in The Moon and the Bonfire. Sometimes the violence of the world is symbolized in the act of giving birth, as in some of the early stories.
Set against this world of peasants and workers is the narrator or protagonist, often a teacher (as was Pavese) or an intellectual. Throughout his work a major tension is presented between the country types and the urban intellectual who lives among them and who, despite his cynicism, learns from them. Such a tension suggests that the narrator is somehow incomplete as a personality until he can fully relate with the people and life of the countryside. It is this inability of the narrator to take hold of his life, to relate sexually or emotionally, that makes him brooding, lonely, and unfulfilled.
Loneliness is the most central and compelling theme of Pavese’s work. His characters are often struggling against the external world of observation and the inner world of doubt and uncertainty. The protagonist’s own knowledge, his cynical perception of the world, conflicts with the basic, almost intuitive experience of the peasants and workers, who have committed themselves to the act of living.
Not only the subject matter, but the method of exploring such matter in a colloquial idiom was suggested to him by his studies of American literature. The poetry of Hard Labor is marked by a fresh use of the colloquial. Its language is crisply informal, casual yet incisive. The plain, unemotional prose of The House on the Hill recalls the unadorned styles of Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, whose works Pavese knew well.
Characteristic of Pavese’s work, therefore, is the particular meshing of the sensitive, highly allusive style of the previous generation of Italian writers with the seemingly open, objective, almost casual narrative voice of the Americans he read. His fiction seems to build upon the minutiae of everyday experience—playing cards, walking the hills, sitting at a table under the trees—and to resolve this into personal insight and emotions. Finally, the Italian countryside, descriptions of which fill his books, serves as a mystical, stabilizing force in the lives of all the characters. The countryside gives meaning to their lives in a world of violence and uncertainty.
First published: Lavorare stanca, 1936 (English translation, 1976)
Type of work: Poetry
This first published work presents a series of short narrative poems that can be seen as forming a kind of spiritual autobiography.
This collection of poems is important for two reasons. First, in its conversational rhythms, the book is an attempt by Pavese to construct a realistic, twentieth century Italian poetic language rich in narrative detail and colloquial spontaneity. His indebtedness to American literature, and to Whitman in particular, is evident both in the spirit and structure of the collection. In an early appreciative essay on Whitman, Pavese declared that the American poet was the first to “see things with a virgin eye.” Whitman was the poet who comprehended the world in his own being. For Pavese, the vignettes of Leaves of Grass are not separate entities, but part of the all-embracing understanding.
Such an interpretation can be applied to the structure of Lavorare stanca. Like Whitman, Pavese set about in this work to create a new poetry, strong and honest in its presentation of life. All the poems in the collection tell stories or develop as vignettes. Just as Leaves of Grass begins with...
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