Pavese, Cesare 1908-1950
Italian novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, translator, and critic.
Pavese was one of the first modern Italian writers to break away from the academic tradition of Italian literature to create a less scholarly and more straightforward, unadorned vernacular style. Marked by themes of solitude and alienation, his fiction is considered autobiographical—not in the sense that plots and characters mirror specifics of his own life, but rather in the degree that stories are imbued with his personality. Throughout his work, Pavese wrote about perennial existential concerns: human nature, self-knowledge, the power of love and sex, and the significance of life and mortality.
Pavese was born in Santo Stefano Belbo, a rural town in northern Italy. 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 nothern 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. That same year, at the height of his literary reputation, he committed suicide.
Major Works of Short Fiction
For Pavese the present was understood by examining one's past; in doing so, he believed, each individual discerns a personal mythology based on experiences early in life that shape his or her destiny. In Dialoghi con Leucò (Dialogues with Leucò), Pavese uses the semblance of classical myth to cloak discussion of the contemporary human condition, thereby giving a timeless and universal quality to his notion of personal mythology. Here, characters drawn primarily from Greek mythology converse on history, good and evil, the origin of humanity, the impermanence of life, desire for perfection, the essence of love, and other similar subjects. The stories in Festival Night, and Other Stories and Summer Storm, and Other Stories have narrators who are typically outsiders, observers who are unwilling to consider themselves participants in the events around them. Plots revolve around the recurring themes of the failure to communicate with others and the inability to make commitments. Also, actual or symbolic confinement is an important image in Pavese's work, most likely as a result of his imprisonment. Escapism is another constant motif, with the countryside often viewed as a haven from the alienation that accompanies life in the city.
"The works of Cesare Pavese remain among the most widely known and read by the Italian public even now, nearly forty years after the writer' suicide," wrote Fabio Girelli-Carasi in 1989. The anguish of Pavese's life as well as his tragic ending have spawned much biographical and psychoanalytic criticism of his works. Studying the stories, scholars commonly note a predominance of problematic human relationships, a tone of melancholy, and a sense of not belonging. Other commentators have observed evidence of misogyny in Pavese's presentation of female characters and attribute this sentiment to the author's painful experiences with women and an absence of maternal love in his life. Employing a more literary approach, critics have argued that Pavese's characters are undeveloped, but Pavese, speaking of himself in the third person, stated: "Pavese does not worry about 'creating characters.' For him characters represent a means, not an end. Characters serve simply to help him construct intellectual fables the theme of which is the rhythm of what happens. . . . Characters .. . are names and types, nothing else." Of Pavese's achievements Gregory L. Lucente, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 128, concluded: "No matter which [critical approach] is adopted . . . there is no room for doubt that Pavese's work, when taken in its entirety, is among the most important artistic achievements in Italy, and indeed all of Europe, in the turbulent years between the 1930s and the 1950s."