Cesare Pavese 1908–1950
Italian novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, translator, and critic.
A transitional figure in twentieth-century Italian poetry, Pavese departed from the ornate style and linguistic complexity used by his contemporaries to veil hermetic ideas and subjects, forging instead a more straightforward, unadorned style distinguished by use of vernacular. Considered Pavese's greatest accomplishment as a poet, the collection Lavorare stanca (Hard Labor) best evinces his descriptive, naturalistic approach and his themes of solitude and alienation—which recur throughout his works—while his later verse is more conventional, lyrical, and figurative.
Pavese was born in Santo Stefano Belbo, a rural town in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. The lifestyle and people of this fertile and hilly agricultural area later became strong influences on his poetry and fiction. His father died when Pavese was young; by most accounts his mother, a quiet and severe woman, provided little affection for her son. He attended high school in the cosmopolitan northern city Turin and, in 1927, enrolled at the University of Turin, where he devoted himself to the study of literature. After graduating, he published translations of works by such authors as Sinclair Lewis, Herman Melville, Sherwood Anderson, and John Dos Passos, introducing the Italian public to major contemporary western writers. In 1935, after marginal involvement in political causes, he was convicted of anti-Fascist sympathies and confined to house arrest for eight months in the remote town Brancaleone Calabro, on the southeastern peninsula of Italy. His imprisonment provided the basis for the novel Il carcere (The Political Prisoner) and for themes and images in some of his subsequent writings. Upon his release, Pavese was devastated to learn that he had been rejected by a woman with whom he had fallen in love prior to his incarceration. He continued his work translating and helped found the publishing house Einaudi, where he promoted and oversaw the publication of important European works in the social sciences. Pavese met and fell in love with an American actress in 1949 but the relationship failed. In 1950 he received the Strega Prize, Italy's most prestigious literary award, for La bella estate: Tre romanzi (The Beautiful Summer: Three novels). That same year, at the height of his literary reputation, he committed suicide.
In Hard Labor Pavese offers reflections on post-World War II Italian society by means of narrative poems set in
the Piedmont, specifically the city of Turin and the surrounding countryside bordering on the mountains and the sea. In telling of the country people and urban working class of the Piedmont region, Pavese used the speech patterns and idiom of his subjects. He contrasts the solace of country life with the alienation of existence in the city, and also comments on rural culture, human relationships, the physical demands of rural life, the beauty of the land and nature, and perennial themes such as sex, death, and the human condition. The verse of Hard Labor employs vernacular language and long verse lines, but Pavese's later poems are more lyrical and generally composed of short verse lines. Characterized by a highly personal and subjective tone, these poems are allusive and demonstrate little concern for relating a story. The love poems of Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi treat his feelings for the American actress and his disillusionment at the end of their relationship. Commentators have repeatedly attributed much of the loneliness and misogynistic undertones expressed in Pavese's works to his unhappy relationships with his mother and other women.
Hard Labor was poorly received when initially published in Italy. In contrast, Pavese's subsequent verse collections—published more than a decade later—received immediate praise, especially Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi. However, Hard Labor is now generally accepted as his most important collection, and English-language commentators on his poetry have concentrated almost exclusively on his first volume.