Introduction

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 783

Pavese, Cesare 1908-1950

Illustration of PDF document

Download Cesare Pavese Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

"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."

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 198

Short Fiction

Feria d'agosto [August Holidays] (short stories and poetry) 1946

Dialoghi con Leucò [Dialogues with Leucò] (dialogues) 1947

Notte di festa [Festival Night, and Other Stories] 1953

Racconti [Told in Confidence, and Other Stories] 1960

The Leather Jacket: Stories 1980

*Stories 1987

*Comprises the translations Festival Nights, and Other Stories (1964) and Summer Storm, and Other Stories (1966).

Other Major Works

Lavorare stanca [Hard Labor: Poems] (poetry) 1936

Paesi tuoi [The Harvesters] (novel) 1941

La spiaggia [The Beach] (novel) 1942; published in journal Lettre D'oggi

Il compagno [The Comrade] (novel) 1947

Opere. 16 vols. [partially translated as Selected Works] (novels, poems, short stories, essays, diaries, and criticism) 1947-68

La bella estate [The Beautiful Summer] (novel) 1949

Il carcere [The Political Prisoner] (novel) 1949

La casa in collina [The House on the Hill] (novel) 1949

Il diavolo sulle colline [The Devil in the Hills] (novel) 1949

Tra donne solo [Among Women Only] (novel) 1949

La luna e i falò [The Moon and the Bonfires] (novel) 1950

La letteratura americana e altri saggi [American Literature: Essays and Opinions] (essays) 1951

Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi (poems) 1951

Il mestiere di vivere: Diario 1935-1950 [The Burning Brand: Diaries of 1935-1950] (journal) 1952

Poesie edite e inedite [Published and Unpublished Poems] (poems) 1962

A Mania for Solitude: Selected Poems, 1930-1950 (poems) 1969

The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1966)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 576

SOURCE: "Solitary Refinement," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3371, October 6, 1966, p. 913.

[In the following review, the critic depicts Summer Storm as a self-portrait of Pavese, who the reviewer describes as a man who found it difficult to love or to be happy.]

Cesare Pavese's personality comes across with uncanny power in everything he wrote, whether or not it is directly autobiographical, whether or not the narrator's voice seems to be his own. Few writers have impressed themselves so unmistakably on their works as he did; few writers, especially, whose style is as "unstylish" as his—as unindividual, as anonymous and transparent. Each new book of his is like another meeting: their effect is cumulative, each adding to, though not necessarily repeating, the effect of those known already. In this way they are less autobiography than self-portraiture. One comes to feel a close knowledge not so much of the life and facts or even the opinions of Pavese as of the man himself.

Summer Storm, a further selection of short stories—the first appeared in English as Festival Night—is particularly valuable and revealing because the stories have been chosen with an almost "biographical" purpose: to show, as the introduction puts it, "most clearly the effect on his work of Pavese's boyhood and adolescence; and the gradual development of his most trenchant characteristics as a writer of fiction". Pavese himself believed almost passionately in the importance of childhood, in the relentless way in which the future was shaped by the past: "In a child of six are already engraved all the impulses, the capabilities, the importance he will have as a man of thirty", he wrote in what is by far the longest and most impressive of the stories, a novella called "The Family". In this a man who thinks himself childless meets his son and rejects him: "I'm not made for paternal love", he tells a friend. "The idea that my son might end up in other people's hands gives me a sense of having escaped danger more than anything else." And to himself he keeps thinking: "I've never had a child to support, never got involved with anyone." Pavese himself lost his father in early childhood and suffered from his mother's harshness; inexorably (he might have said) his life's pattern was set, to end in the final rejection of others, the total shrugging off of everything—suicide.

Because, throughout his life, he rejected rather than accepted (responsibilities, relationships, love, the future), his experience was in a sense thin, a sort of intensely-observed anti-experience. His writing seems to suggest he knew little of the ordinary human satisfactions found in understanding, companionship or acceptance, let alone the richer joys of love. He was the eternal outsider, rejecting (how deliberately only his past, presumably, could say) what to others might seem chances of happiness, and the best of these stories are those in which he deals with impossible situations and desires—an adored prostitute, say, who refuses a man's "serious" love, in "The Idol"—or indulges his fascinated dislike of women, a lifelong (and peculiarly Italian) torment for a man of his sensuality and sensitivity, as in "Summer Storm" or "The Leather Jacket". Some of the stories are sketches in which landscape has an important part, some show glimpses of the compassion he believed in but so seldom seemed to feel; all show the exactness of his observation and, more importantly, the piercing vision that went beyond it.

Gian-Paolo Biasin (essay date 1968)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8072

SOURCE: "The Smile of the Gods," in The Smile of the Gods: A Thematic Study of Cesare Pavese's Works, translated by Yvonne Freccero, Cornell, 1968, pp. 189-214.

[In the following excerpt, Italian educator and author Biasin examines Dialogues with Leucò as an extension of Pavese himself suggesting that the theories of knowledge of self coinciding with destiny and death and the transforming of myth into destiny are the merging of Pavese' s own sufferings and anxieties with mankind's. The critic also compares Pavese's literary theories and themes in his writings to the work of other scholars.]

The unresolved question of human destiny, with which both Among Women Only and The House on the Hill end, is the point of departure of Dialogues with Leucò, in which Pavese contemplates human destiny and imagines it in its mysterious origins and mythic manifestations. But it must be emphasized from the beginning that the mythological figures of the dialogues are also different aspects of Pavese himself, revealing his own metaphysical and Jungian drives as exemplary of psychoanalytical man.

Before dealing with these mythological figures, it would perhaps be well to return to an analysis of Pavese's search for maturity, a search that, starting from childhood and adolescence, arrives at myth (especially in the prose of August Holiday), and from myth develops into a poetics of destiny—of "ripeness" to be exact. To transform myth into destiny: such is the concern of a whole phase of Pavese's search. The essay "The Wood" [in La letteratura americana, 1951] marks the fundamental passage from myth to man, from symbol to destiny—the indispensable prerequisite for the human universalization of the mythical dialogues: "The wild that interests us is not nature, the sea, the woods, but the unforeseen in the hearts of our fellow men," Pavese writes at the beginning of this essay, and continues:

At the beginning there is only nature: the city is a landscape, rocks, heights, sky, sudden clearings; woman is a beast, flesh, an embrace. Then nature becomes words, the natural was only a symbol, we know the true wild, and we feel a need to scream. .. . If it were possible to destroy symbols, all symbols, we would be destroying only ourselves. We can discover richer, subtler, truer symbols. We can make substitutes for them, but we cannot deny the will underlying them, the adverse will, the wood. It is in our blood, our breath, our hunger. One cannot escape the wood. It, too, is a symbol. . . . We must accept symbols—everybody's mystery—with the calm conviction with which we accept natural things . . . and love all this, with desperate caution.

Thus, Pavese establishes the human, rather than the poetic, value of symbols, reaching a fruitful and compelling conclusion: fellowship and acceptance in the face of a common destiny.

Dialogues with Leucò is the finest result of the "return to man" theorized in "The Wood," but above all it represents the fusion of Pavese's own suffering, anxieties, and longings with the sufferings, anxieties, and longings of all mankind. It is his most complex nocturnal and solar song, at once both intimate and universal. Pavese's childhood really becomes here the childhood of the world, caught in its most famous and most obscure myths as told by Herodotus and Homer, by Virgil and Vico, interpreted in the light of ethnology and psychoanalysis, even expressed in a fashionable terminology, but above all permeated with Pavese's own suffering and love. That is why in the dialogues there is more human fellowship, more political participation, than in The Comrade: in Mediterranean mythology Pavese seems to have found himself and the world without a loss of stability and without tensions. By going to the origins of mystery, which being irrational "raises us to kinship with the Universe, the [Whole]," Pavese has found the link connecting himself and others, yet without completely overcoming his own solipsism, without conquering the difficulties inherent in intersubjectivity, which remained problematic for him. His solipsism remains, though sublimated and universalized. In turning to the origins of mystery, Pavese did not succeed in understanding and dominating the reality of contemporary history, which is so complex and perplexing in its various political, social, and sentimental aspects. He found a refuge in the irrational, a salvation that can be a refuge and salvation for any other self. Thus, with a multiplication of solipsisms, with the universalization of solipsism, at best one step is taken toward an intersubjectivity not yet reached or realized.

This universalization, this metaphysical viewpoint, this experience of Being, however, are perhaps the prerequisites for dominating the sublunary world, for really understanding the total movement of history in which the relationship of self to others finds its true meaning. In fact, Dialogues with Leucò, written at the same time as The Comrade, chronologically precedes Among Women Only and The House on the Hill, the novels that in turn lead to The Moon and the Bonfires. In the foreword to the dialogues, Pavese writes:

A true revelation, I am convinced, can only emerge from stubborn concentration on a single problem. I have nothing in common with experimentalists, adventurers, with those who travel in strange regions. The surest, and the quickest, way for us to arouse the sense of wonder is to stare, unafraid, at a single object. Suddenly—miraculously—it will look like something we have never seen before.

It is the same boy of the short story "The Sea," who said: "Gosto doesn't know what it is to stand in front of a house and stare at it until it doesn't look like a house any longer." But here the object being stared at is a myth, which is unveiled, even if partially, to the astonished spectator. The great questions of mankind, irrational in that they cannot be answered sufficiently to explain the mystery of life, are discussed by mythological characters into whom Pavese has put himself. By naming the mysteries of sex and love, life and death, chaos and light, Pavese has, as it were, liberated himself; in a certain sense he has overcome and possessed them—for himself as well as for other men.

The anxious contemplation of the birth of the human world from shapeless, monstrous chaos is the core of the first two groups of dialogues. It is a slow and confused birth, but necessary and definitive; with awareness of self man also acquires the sense of the other-than-self, of material reality, of destiny and death. In particular, sex is seen as an irreducible aspect of reality, one in which life and death meet, sealed by mystery. For instance, in the dialogue "The Blind," Tiresias says:

Nothing is vile, except to the gods. There are irritations, feelings of disgust, and illusions which, when they reach the rock, vanish. Here the rock was the force of sex, its ubiquity and omnipresence under all forms and changes. . . . Above sex there is no god. It is the rock, I tell you. Many gods are beasts, but the snake is the oldest of all the gods. When a snake sinks down into the ground—there you have the image of sex. Life and death are in it. What god can incarnate and include so much? . . .

We all pray to some god, but what happens has no name. The boy who drowns on a summer morning—what does he know of the gods? What does it help him to pray? There is a great snake in every day of life, and it sinks down and watches us.

Tiresias is echoed by the centaur Chiron in the dialogue "The Mares," when he underscores the destiny of Asclepius with words reminiscent of Melville:

Your father is cruel, blinding light, and you must live in a world of bloodless, anguished shadow, a world of festering flesh, of fever and sighs: all this comes to you from the Bright One. The same light that made you will lay bare the world before you, implacably; everywhere it will expose sadness, wounds, the vileness of things. Snakes will watch over you.

Further on he says, referring to Olympus:

That mountain is death. That's what I mean. The new masters live there. They're not like the masters in the old days, Cronos or the Ancient One. They're not like us as we used to be, when [our happiness had no boundaries and] we bounded among things like the things we were. In those days wild beast and swamp brought gods and men together. We were mountain and horse, plant and cloud and running water; we were everything then, everything on earth. Who could die in those days?

There is in these words an effective description of the beginning of self-awareness, and therefore of death. Secondarily there is an explanation of Pavese's theme of nudism (in the remote swamps in stories such as August Holiday and The Devil in the Hills), which was felt as "an effort to become god through the beast." In the third place there are an eroticism and a pantheism that become explicit only later, in the dialogue "The Mystery," where Demeter, Mother Earth, almost repeating a line from Earth and Death, says: "For them [the men] I am a fierce mountain, bristling with forest; I am cloud and cave. . . . " This brings to mind the passage from A Great Fire . . . the meaning of which is so explicit it would seem to require no comment: "I found again my childhood memories, as of someone who dreams of a destiny and a horizon which is not hill or cloud but blood, woman of whom clouds and hills are only a sign."

At this point it is perhaps necessary to note that even a writer like Pirandello, who is very different from Pavese in so many ways, uses similar images, evoking similar feelings, in his "Conversation with His Dead Mother":

The tall young acacia trees in my garden, with their thick foliage, are blown indolently by the wind that ruffles them and would seem inevitably to break them. But like a woman they enjoy feeling so opened and divided in their leaves, and they follow the wind with a resilient flexibility. It is the movement of a wave or a cloud, and it does not wake them from the dream they close within themselves.

In commenting upon the preceding passage, typical of a certain cultural and spiritual climate in our century, Gaspare Giudice remarks:

It is an abandonment to the unconscious, where Pirandello's love for his dead mother comes to the surface in the primal forms of an immediate eroticism, which is one with the symbols of the wind, the sea, the wave and the cloud, the eternal movement and the pantheistic dispersion of birth. Pirandello's pantheism . . . clings to him physically like a lost nostalgia for a profound and primordial experience, with scarcely any intellectual involvement.

We cannot but note the perfect relevance of Giudice's words to Pavese's poetical images and symbols. Indeed, they express an "abandonment to the unconscious" that is fully revealed in another dialogue, significantly entitled "The Mother": "In every man's flesh and blood, his mother rages"—words that by themselves might remain unexplained, were it not for the preceding considerations, whereby they acquire a meaning and a value that underlie much of Pavese's work: nudism, mythology, the countryside, the despairing love lyrics are thus all interconnected aspects of a vision du monde whose roots go deep into the irrational, into the dark forces of sex and the psyche as explored by Freud and Jung. Dialogues with Leucò is a precious aid in discovering these roots.

In the dialogue we are examining, "The Mares," Hermes introduces a symbolic image that will recur throughout the book: the smile of the gods—which is both perfection and death, the longing and the tragedy of Pavese:

The new gods of Olympus are always smiling, but there's one thing at which they do not smile. Believe me, I've seen destiny. Whenever chaos spills over into the light, into their light, then they must strike down and destroy and remake. That is why Coronis died.

Chiron replies: "But they can't remake Coronis. I was right when I told you that Olympus is death." But at least Coronis, the beautiful woman who "walked through the vineyards and . . . played with the Bright One till he killed her and burnt her body, . . . found herself as she died"—a mythical prefiguration of Santa in The Moon and the Bonfires. Man, born of chaos, always longs for the light and order imposed by Olympus. Perfection destroys, true, but it is worth being destroyed in order to achieve it: "In order to be born, a thing must die: even men know that," says Thanatos in the dialogue "The Flower," speaking of Hyacinth transformed into a flower by Apollo. The same motif of love-perfection-death is taken up again, with poignant intensity, in "The Lady of Beasts," where Pavese's personal experience is transfigured and transfused into a universal myth, probably to a greater extent than in any other dialogue. Endymion speaks to a Stranger, who is already on the move at dawn because he likes "to be awake when things are just coming out of the dark, still untouched," and tells him about his nocturnal adventures on the sacred mountain Latmos—about his immense love for an unspeakable creature:

Friend, you're a man; you know the shiver of terror you have at night when suddenly a kind of clearing opens before you in the forest? No, you don't. Or how at night you remember the clearing you passed through during the day: you saw a flower there, or a kind of berry swaying in the wind—and this flower, this berry, became something wild, something untouchable, mortal, there among all the wild things? Do you know what I mean? A flower like a wild beast? . . . Have you ever known someone who was many things in one, who brought them with her, so that everything she did, every thought of her seems to contain the whole infinity of things of which your countryside, your sky consists, and [words,] memories and days gone by you'll never know, and days to come, and certainties, another countryside, another sky forever alien—have you ever known such a person, stranger?

One notices the Freudian sexuality of the natural images in the first part of the quotation; and in the second part, the decadent spiritualization of sexuality, which follows a literary pattern that can be traced back to D'Annunzio's The Pleasure:

Andrea [Sperelli] felt an exotic air involving her person, felt that from her a strange seduction, an enchantment came to him—the vague ghosts of faraway things she had seen, the views she still preserved in her eyes, the memories that filled her soul. It was an unspeakable, undefinable enchantment. It was as if, within her person, she brought a trace of the light in which she had immersed herself, of the scents she had breathed, of the languages she had heard; it was as if she bore within her all the confused, vanished, vague magical qualities of those lands of the Sun.

The substantial similarity of the attitude of Pavese-Endymion and D'Annunzio-Sperelli toward women in the above two passages is obvious. In Pavese, however, the subtlety and exoticism are tempered by a painful, desperate, psychoanalytical sincerity lacking in D'Annunzio.

This is confirmed by several [poems by Pavese], in which are to be found the tender and erotic image of the cloud (see too the observations on Pirandello above); for instance "Nocturne," which closes Work Is Wearying: "You are like a cloud / glimpsed between branches. There shines in your eyes / the strangeness of a sky that is not yours"; or "You Have a Blood, a Breath," one of the first poems in Death Will Come and Its Eyes Will Be Yours: " . . . as a little girl you played / under a different sky, / you have the silence of it in your eyes, / a cloud. . . . "

Between these two poems there is the collection Earth and Death, in which almost every line shows Pavese's sorrow, the poignant desperation of being rejected by the "wood," by the adverse will of the "other," the impotence in the face of the wild mystery of sex and especially in the face of the other's lack of recognition—an impotence that D'Annunzio did not feel and that Pavese expresses in tormented, psychoanalytical images, comparable perhaps to those in Pascoli's poem "Nocturnal Jasmin": "sure / like the earth, dark / like the earth, mill / of seasons and dreams"; "you are dark"; "you are a closed cellar"; "you are the dark room"; "you are closed, like the earth" and "unknown and wild thing."

One understands how, in the mythological texture of the dialogues, Pavese has sublimated and universalized his personal datum, which is so overwhelming in the lyrics. But at the same time he has preserved it in poetical images that never before seemed to be so significant: the hill, the cloud, the different sky, the glance, the wave, the blood, the wild, and the smile.

Some of these images, in fact, are to be found in Endymion's story, when he tells of his encounter with Artemis, the virgin and proud goddess, "a slight, awkward girl":

The moon was shining when I woke. In my dream I felt a shiver of dread at the thought of being there, in the clearing, in the moonlight.

Then I saw her. I saw her looking at me, looking at me with that sidelong glance of hers. But her eyes were steady, clear, with great deeps in them. I didn't know it then, nor even the next day, but I was already hers, utterly hers, caught with the circle of her eyes, in the space she filled, the clearing and the hill. She smiled at me, timidly. "Lady," I said to her, and she frowned, like a girl, like a shy, wild thing. . . . Then she spoke my name and stood beside me—her tunic barely reached her knees—and stretched out her hand and touched my hair. There was something hesitant in the way she touched me, and she smiled, an incredible, mortal smile. .. . I [was] like a small boy. "You must never wake again," she said. "Don't try to follow me. I'll come to you again." And she went off through the clearing.

Endymion goes on to say that he walked all over Latmos, following the moon, listening, and all he could hear was her voice, "like the sound of sea water, a hoarse voice, cold and maternal"; at dawn, he says, "I knew that my home was no longer among men. I was no longer one of them. I was waiting for night." Then he speaks again of the goddess, above all of her glance:

And those great transparent eyes have seen other things. They see them yet. They are those things. Wild berry and wild beast are in her eyes, and the howling, the death, the cruelty of flesh turned stone. The shed blood, the savaged flesh, the ravenous earth, the wilderness—all this I know. For her, the Wild One, this is wilderness, and loneliness.

After all that has been said there is no need to point out how many of Pavese's motifs are included and relived in Endymion's story—from Concia in The Political Prisoner to the poems of Death Will Come and Its Eyes Will Be Yours. It might be more worth while recalling that the myth of Endymion was a poetical subject for Baudelaire and D'Annunzio, two poets dear to Pavese; this myth is placed by Mario Praz within the framework of the romantic-decadent conception of the belle dame sans merci, of the femme fatale:

In accordance with this conception of the Fatal Woman, the lover is usually a youth, and maintains a passive attitude; he is obscure, and inferior either in condition or in physical exuberance to the woman, who stands in the same relation to him as do the female spider, the praying mantis, &c, to their respective males: sexual cannibalism is her monopoly. Towards the end of the [nineteenth] century the perfect incarnation of this type of woman is Herodias. But she is not the only one: Helen, the Helen of Moreau, of Samain, of Pascoli (Anticlo), closely resembles her. The ancient myths, such as that of the Sphinx, of Venus and Adonis, of Diana and Endymion, were called in to illustrate this type of relationship, which was to be so insistently repeated in the second half of the century. The following point must be emphasized: the function of the flame which attracts and burns is exercised, in the first half of the century, by the Fatal Man (the Byronic hero), in the second half by the Fatal Woman; the moth destined for sacrifice is in the first case the woman, in the second the man. It is not simply a case of convention and literary fashion: literature, even in its most artificial forms, reflects to some extent aspects of contemporary life. It is curious to follow the parabola of the sexes during the nineteenth century: the obsession for the androgyne type towards the end of the century is a clear indication of a turbid confusion of function and ideal. The male, who at first tends towards sadism, inclines, at the end of the century, towards masochism.

There is no doubt that Praz's observations can be equally well applied to Pavese, who belongs historically to the late European decadentism in his style of writing and of living (the passive and masochistic young man; the basic lyricism, beyond the lesson of verismo; the mastery of the "analogical" word; symbolism; extreme sensitivity, "metapsychology," and psychoanalysis).

But to return to the dialogue, after Endymion's story the Stranger, who has lived "always alone" and knows that the "immortals know how to live alone," manifests himself as a god. Endymion prays to him, "O wanderer god, her sweetness is like dawn, or like earth and heaven revealed." The god concedes that he may see her again, and while leaving exhorts him:

Everyone has his own kind of sleep, Endymion. Your sleep is infinite with the cries and the voices of things; it is full of earth and sky and day following day. Sleep your sleep bravely, you have nothing better. The loneliness, the wild places of earth are yours. Love them as she loves them. And now, Endymion, I must leave you. You will see her tonight. . . . Farewell. But you must never wake again, remember that.

Artemis' smile that destroys is really the symbol of a perfection sought in vain, achieved only through death. In fact, Artemis is also "the cruel virgin who walks on the mountain" and who presides over the bloody story of the house of Atreus in the dialogue "In the Family." The Atreidae, just like many Pavesian characters, "wouldn't know what to do with a tame, submissive woman. They need a woman with cold, killer's eyes, eyes without shame, eyes like arrow slits," eyes which hide at least a reflection of Artemis' brief smile.

The same smile reappears in the dialogue "Sea Foam" as an attribute of Aphrodite, "the tormented, restless one who smiles to herself," and seems intended to symbolize, to sublimate, the unattainable love of Helen Tindaridis, who "lied to no one, smiled at no one." Britomart the nymph explains admirably what smiling means: "Smiling means living like a wave, like a leaf, accepting your fate. It means dying in one form and being reborn in another. It means accepting—accepting oneself, accepting fate." But for Sappho it is difficult to accept:

I didn't know it was like this. I thought everything ended with that final jump. I thought the longing and the restlessness and the tumult would all be done with. The sea swallows, the sea annuls, I thought. .. . I knew how to run away too, when I was alive. My way was to look into things, into the tumult, and turn it into speech, into song. But fate is something quite different. .. . I was never happy, Britomart. Desire is not song. It destroys and burns, like a snake, like the wind.

In Sappho's words there is also Pavese's destiny: he knew how to sing but did not know how to smile; he knew his "job of poet" but not the other "job of living." The image of the snake, then, brings us back to "that mysterious short circuit sex-death" of which Solmi speaks, and which is the focus of the dialogue "The Mother." Hermes says to Meleager, referring to his mother's eyes:

The fact that those eyes grow old and die means that in the interval you become a man, and knowing that you offend them, you go somewhere else in search of them—live eyes, true eyes. And if you find them—and one always finds them, Meleager—the person they belong to is again your mother. . . . And no one can escape the fate that has marked him from birth with the sign of the fire. . . . The same death awaits them all. They all die of another's passion. In every man's flesh and blood, his mother rages.

Even the young woman whom Meleager loved had eyes like his mother's, in fact "she was those eyes"—those eyes that have within them life and above all death, as in Pavese's last poems.

The awareness of death grows more and more insidious in the dialogue "The Friends," and becomes Oedipus' destiny in "The Road." To him, it is a destiny embodied in Mt. Cithaeron, the mountain of childhood, and it must be silently, painfully accepted: "This fatigue, this peace, after all the uproar of our destiny—they're perhaps the only things that are truly our own." This peace after destiny is also the theme of "The Werewolf," whereas in "The Inconsolable" destiny appears ineluctable; death destroys love, Orpheus turns deliberately in order to lose Eurydice, who could never be the same again:

The Eurydice I mourned was a season of life. I was looking down there for something very different from my love. I was looking for a past which Eurydice knows nothing of. I understood this among the dead while I was singing my song. . . . When I wept, I was no longer looking for her, but for myself. For a fate, if you like.

Actually, as the Bacchante says, by now Orpheus' thought is "only death." He confirms it when, desperately, he confesses what the knowledge of nothingness (juxtaposed with the joyous and drunken ignorance of the Dionysian rites) means to him: "Every time you invoke a god, you meet death. And you go down to Hades to bring something back, to violate a destiny. You don't defeat the darkness, and you lose the light. You're torn apart, like a man possessed."

In Pavese's interpretation, then, the knowledge of self coincides with everyone's destiny (one's own private hell) and with death. In some dialogues, however, Pavese's attention is focused on the awareness of others, and social life is described at its dawn. In this sense Prometheus in "The Mountain" is really a model:

What is a victory but pity turned gesture, saving others at your own expense? Everyone works for others, under the law of destiny. . . . Our fates are fused. By the world's law, no one goes free unless another's blood is shed for him. The same will happen with you [Heracles], on Mt. Oeta. ... It will be the blood of the monsters which you now live to destroy. And the pyre you mount will burn with the fire I stole.

Prometheus' fire is thus an essential element of the human world (and of Pavese's mythology), in dramatic juxtaposition to the Vichian cycle of nature:

Titan is a name, nothing more. Understand me, Heracles. The world has its seasons, like the fields, like the earth. Winter returns, summer returns. How can we say that the forest dies, or remains the same? Before long, men will be the Titans.

In "The Guest," the seasons are juxtaposed with the rites of the peasants, who pretended to fertilize the earth with human sacrifices; Lityerses says to Heracles:

Before cutting up the body, we have to sweat him in the sun till he comes to a lather. And that's why we're going to put you to work, reaping and bringing in the sheaves until you're running with sweat. And then, at the last minute, when your blood is boiling pure and foaming like a living thing, that's the moment when we'll slit your throat. Yessir. You're a strong young man.

The reference to certain pages of The Harvesters is obvious, with their primordial and vaguely sacrificial violence.

It will be remembered in this connection that [previously] . . . we explained the references to pages of Vico that were more directly linked with the primitive world of the peasant (already mythological and ethnological), and especially those concerning "the fire that the heroes must have kindled with flints and set to the thorny underbrush on the mountain tops, dried out by the hot suns of summer ... " and the "eternal property expressed in the saying that servants are the paid enemies of their masters." We can, in fact, see the social significance attributed to the bonfires—another of Pavese's myths—in the propitiatory rites of "The Bonfires."

Look, the gods are our masters. They're like the landowners. . . . Let's suppose a bonfire can make it rain, and burning some useless loafer can save the harvest. Well, how many owners' houses would you have to burn, how many owners would you have to kill in the streets to bring some justice back to the world and make us our own masters again?

The answer of the son, who feels a strong repugnance for such human sacrifices, is noteworthy: "I don't want to think about it. I won't. If that's the way we treated each other, then the landowners have every right to eat us alive. The gods are right to watch us suffer. We're evil, we're all evil."

The element of violence in the peasants' life concludes the first two groups of mythological dialogues. In them Pavese poetically relives the birth of the human world in all of its contradictory complexity. The complexity cannot be resolved in dichotomies such as Titanism-Olympicism or city-country, but is rendered with a richness of nuance that reflects the human reality born of chaos, which still tends toward order in a fatiguing daily conquest.

In the dialogues of the third group the central focus is the theme of love, and more precisely of love seen as a pretext for or cause of the contrast between immortality and happiness on one hand, life and suffering on the other. In "The Island," for example, when Odysseus complains of not being immortal, Calypso, who is in love with him, answers: "You will be, if you listen to me. What is eternal life if it's not accepting the moment that comes and the moment that goes? Drunkenness, pleasure, and death have no other aim. What else has your restless wandering been until now?" In "The Lake" Virbius-Hippolytus, who walks through Hesperia "as if he were a cloud," asks Diana "for life, not happiness."

In "The Witches," Circe discovers the uselessness of the divine smile and would like to become mortal in order to have Odysseus. (Her attitude is already a prelude to the last group of dialogues.) "And as I sang, I went to the loom, and I put his home and his childhood into that harsh voice of mine, I gentled it, I was his Penelope." Circe sees clearly the contradictions, but also the greatness of men:

You can't imagine the way death fascinates them. They're destined to die, of course, it's a repetition, something they know in advance. And yet they deceive themselves into thinking that it changes something.... That's the one immortal thing about a mortal, Leucò. The memory he carries with him, the memory he leaves behind him. That is what names and words are. When they remember, even men smile. A smile of resignation.

Or men act in order to be similar to the gods: this is the theme of "The Argonauts," perhaps the most Mediterranean of the dialogues, filled with light:

Little Melita, you're one of the temple girls. Surely you all know that when a man climbs up there it's because he wants to become a god, at least for a day, for an hour. Because he wants to sleep with you as though you were the goddess. He always pretends he's sleeping with her; then he realizes it was only mortal flesh he was dealing with, poor human creatures like you and your friends up there, like all women. Then he flies into a rage and tries to be a god somewhere else,

for example by going in search of the golden fleece, to discover a "virginity in things, more frightening than danger."

In "The Vineyard," too, there is a longing for immortality. The nymph Leucothea announces to Ariadne—the same Ariadne "made of earth and sun" abandoned by Theseus in "The Bull"—that a god will be sent to console her:

The youngest of all the gods. He has seen you, and he likes you. His name is Dionysus. .. . He was born at Thebes, and he courses the world. He is a god of joy. . . . He kills with laughter. Bulls and tigers walk beside him. His life is a festival, and he likes you.

Leucothea also explains to Ariadne that her abandonment by Theseus has taught her a great deal: "You've been afraid, you've suffered. You've thought of dying. You've learned what waking is. Now you're alone, and you're expecting a god." Leucothea concludes by announcing not so much the coming of a god, as immortality:

It will be like loving a place, a stream of water, an hour of the day. No man can give you this. The gods last as long as the things that make them gods. So long as the goats frisk through the pines and the vineyards, he will please you and you will please him. . . . The stars shine over the vineyards at night. The god who waits for you is a god of night. Don't be afraid.

The memory of the "young god" and of the "goat-god" of Work Is Wearying is fused here with the motif of the "festival night" in a repetition and a deepening of Endymion's symbolic sleep and awakening: love as death and immortality, reflected in nature.

In the dialogues of the last group there is indeed a "return to man"; they enhance the value of man in all of his poignant, imperfect, and fleeting durée, with all the feeling and the mystery of death, with the immortality given him, even more than by rare instants of love, by the word that becomes memory—story and poetry. In "Mankind" Kratos and Bia say:

But do you realize what men are? Wretched little creatures who are bound to die. More wretched than worms or last year's leaves; they're dead and they don't even know they die. But men do know and they talk about it; they never stop invoking us, trying to snatch a favor or a glance from us. They light fires to us—the fires they stole away in the fennel stalk. . . . Men are poor worms, but with them everything is unforeseen, everything is a discovery. You can understand an animal and even a god, but no one, not even we immortals, knows what is going on in the hearts of men. Some of them even dare to make a stand against destiny. Only if you live with them and for them can you enjoy the savor of the world.

This affirmation of man's value is emphasized by two motifs that mark crucial points in Pavese's search: the impossibility of knowing the human heart ties up with the essay "The Wood" (with the related mythological substratum), and the propitiatory fires echo practically the greater part of Pavese's work, culminating in the final scene of The Moon and the Bonfires. But in the dialogue "The Flood," the contrast between the human condition and the divine is seen above all in relation to death. Men live in time, and "the seasons of their life are festivals," but death is the main factor concluding these human seasons:

But dying is precisely this—no longer knowing that you're dead. And this is what this flood means: dying in such numbers that there won't be anyone left to know it. That's why they'll come to look for us. And they'll ask us to save them, and they'll want to become like us, like plants and stones—insensible things that are nothing but destiny. In them they will save themselves. When the waters retreat, they'll come forth as stones and trees, just as they did before. And this is all that mortals want, just as before.

We are reminded of a passage from Pavese's essays in which he outlines the "poetics of destiny":

Men do not have nature's immutability, its breadth of interpretation, its silence. .. . My poetry has tried in various ways to petrify them—by isolating them in their most natural moments, immersing them in things, by reducing them to destiny.

But death cannot be escaped, and men are left with only "hope or destiny"; thus Pavese reasserts the fleeting value of life more than in any other of his works: a hamadryad, speaking of men, says:

Well, I hope this flood at least serves to teach them the meaning of festival and play. After all, there's a make-believe which destiny imposes upon us mortals and which we are aware of—why can't they learn to live their make-believe as though each moment of their wretched little lives was eternal? Why won't they realize that it's precisely the shortness of their lives that gives them their value? . . . They too will learn something tomorrow. ... In the new world even the shortest lives will be in some way blessed.

Death is also the starting point of the dialogue "The Mystery." Everything men touch "becomes time. Becomes action. Waiting and hope. Even their dying is something," in fact it is something extremely important, as Dionysus, who almost seems an involuntary spokesman of much phenomenology, says: "But they wouldn't be men if they weren't miserable. Death is what they're born for. [Their only richness is death.] It's death that drives them to their efforts, to memory and foresight."

But man's true wealth, even more so than death, is the word. As Dionysus says: "They have a way of giving names to themselves and things and us which enriches life. Like these vineyards that they've taught themselves to grow on these hillsides. Demeter recalls the blood rites with which men found a transcendence and expresses a wish to "give a meaning to their dying .. . by teaching them the life of the blessed," by making the word overcome death:

Teach them that they can become like us, beyond grief and death. But we'll tell them ourselves. Teach them that just as the wheat and the vine go down beneath the earth in order to be born again, so death is a new life for them too. Give them this holy story. Lead them upward by means of this story. Teach them a fate which is woven with our own.

From the Eleusinian-Christian mysteries to the poetical dialogue "The Muses," the theme remains the story, the word: Mnemosyne, whose "voice and glance are immortal," teaches Hesiod, whose existence is a Leopardian "weariness and unhappiness," how to transfix with a word the immortal moments, the divine models of daily life, the mythical archetypes of Pavese's search:

Have you ever asked yourself why an instant can suddenly make you happy, happy as a god? You are looking, say, at the olive tree, the olive tree on the path you have taken every day for years, and suddenly there comes a day when the sense of staleness leaves you and you caress the gnarled trunk with a look, as though you had recognized an old friend, and it spoke to you precisely the one word your heart was hoping for. . . . For an instant time stops, and you experience the trivial event as though before and after had no existence.

So, Mnemosyne concludes, "You know what immortal life is like"; and she suggests to Hesiod that he tell about work and the days, catching the ecstatic moments of life: "In everything you do, you renew a divine model. Day and night, there is not an instant, not even the most futile, that has not sprung from the silence of your origins." With the mention of the swamp of Boibei's, from which "at the beginning of time, in a seething bubbling silence" monsters and gods were born, Mnemosyne closes a circle: the circle of human destiny composed of chaos and light, death and immortality. And Pavese too closes poetically the circle that he began in the first dialogues.

In the pages of Dialogues with Leucò we find again the images and poetic motifs that enrich so much of Pavese's work: the taste for wandering and solitude, the attraction of an unknown and exotic world, the fires or bonfires, the hills or mountain of his childhood and imagination, the seasons and festivals, blood and earth, the fierce sun and the fateful moon, the clouds and the rocks, the vineyard and the stars, divine and pitiless smiles, eyes which bring happiness and death. His style, which is always clear and lively, is both classic and realistic in its symbolism. Pavese himself had wanted the Dialogues with Leucò to be his own Short Moral Works ("with due proportions"), perhaps because, like Leopardi, he is examining and inquiring into the great questions of life and death, sorrow and unhappiness, and though he does not solve them he at least makes them universal and therefore more acceptable.

But Leopardi, even when he portrays himself in his characters (mythological or otherwise), faces reality and the absolute with a stubborn and stoic determination to achieve clarity, with a philosophical rationality not to be found in Pavese's dialogues. In the latter, the determination to achieve clarity often yields to the elegiac and imaginative, and for philosophical rationality is substituted mythological (and personal) irrationality. Both Leopardi and Pavese are pessimists when confronted with human destiny; but Pavese, writing almost a century after Leopardi and familiar with the symbolists and with phenomenology, relies more explicitly on the word to express the longing for eternity, the need to give a meaning to death, whereas for Leopardi it was expressed in his dramatic and "magnanimous" desperation. For both writers, however, the word is above all a consolation.

Another nineteenth-century author, Ugo Foscolo, should be mentioned, for Pavese could have found in his poems, instinctively more than rationally, a suggestion and an example. Apart from the obvious mythical figures of the Sonnets and The Graces, one should notice the conclusion of The Sepulchres. For Foscolo, poetry overcomes time and death; poets are the bards and priests of mankind. Something similar can be found in Pavese: a religious feeling for the word, which defines the poets as "oracles," as we shall soon see, and makes the story a form of immortality, as we have already seen. But Pavese has no Hector to celebrate as a vanquished hero; the dead who are to be remembered are either unknown or familiar—vanquished but not heroes: hence the crepuscular or at least elegiac character of so much of his work, especially the last novels.

This absence of heroes is also important from a cultural and historical point of view: it corresponds exactly to the failure of D'Annunzio's superuomo and to the contemporary experience of Pascoli's meek and humble man. Pavese, who inherited Leopardi's "traditional" and Foscolo's "decadent" classicism, also inherits the last faded aspects of D'Annunzio's violence, and as he echoes them in his own introverted and frustrated way, develops them naturally in patterns and subdued tones similar to Pascoli's. Thus, two conceptions of classicism and two conceptions of decadentism find their focus—and their transformation into a single vision du monde—in the complex figure of Pavese. This vision du monde manages to give unity to the poetry of Pavese, but nevertheless fails to reconcile the exigencies of poetry with those of life and again presents the problem and the tragedy of alienation. Pavese's poetics, which began with myth, become in Dialogues with Leucò a "poetics of destiny," which affirms both the value of man and of the word; the protagonists of the dialogues are, in fact, treated as "beautiful names charged . . . with destiny":

The fountainhead of poetry is always a mystery, an inspiration, a perplexity in confrontation with the irrational—unknown territory. But the act of poetry, if we are permitted to distinguish, to separate the flame from the burning matter, is an absolute will to see clearly, to reduce to reason, to know. Mythos and logos.

Pavese himself outlines the development of his search from myth to destiny, recalling the two dialogues "The Muses" and "The Gods." These dialogues and the essay "The Wood" ("We must accept symbols—everyone's mystery—with the calm conviction with which natural things are accepted. The city produces symbols like the country produces fruit") anticipate the most daring motif of such a poetics: the application to complex human relationships ("destinies," "the city") of this doctrine of a mythical scheme, of the atemporal contemplation of experience, which until now seemed only to be related to the childhood status of memory, to the making of certain universal, naturalistic symbols ("cloud," "wood," "country").

Essentially, Pavese wants to transfix a temporal moment into an eternal meaning:

What is this destiny? The fact that acts, words, human life are seen as symbols, as myths, means that they seem to exist outside of time and yet discovered in each single instance as unique, as revealed for the first time. A life appears as destiny when, unexpectedly, it is shown to be exemplary, and fixed ab aeterno.

This view of poetics was already foreseen in the words Pavese had dedicated to Edgar Lee Masters:

Each of us possesses an abundance of these things made into acts that are the symbols of our destiny: they are not in themselves valid, by their natural qualities, but they invite and call to us; they are symbols. For Lee Masters it might be said that death—the end of time—is the decisive moment that snatched one personal symbol from all the others and has welded and nailed it forever to the soul.

Thus, the poet becomes "the oracle of his heroes' lives":

A whole work can be traced back to that one simple oracular sentence that contains its essence. This observation is important, because it links the completed poem to the mythical nucleus that shapes it. This nucleus, a destiny that is glimpsed in the midst of the indifferent reality, is by definition an oracular moment of supreme vision and bliss; it is not formed but gives form.

We are brought back to "the beautiful names charged with destiny" of the dialogues, and particularly to the three poets of antiquity who appear as characters and stages in the poetic history of their author: Orpheus is seeking himself when he descends into Hades; Sappho looks unsuccessfully for happiness in song; Hesiod, who is incapable of happiness, finds immortality in words for himself and for others. Thus Pavese, in his simple and sublime dialogues with Leucò (i.e., Ino Leucothea, one of the "amorous Oceanine Nereids," the nymph who consoles), examines the most intimate aspects of himself; he recognizes the tragic unhappiness and fleeting, precious greatness of the human condition, and finally celebrates the works and days of mankind: love, work, festivals, and death.

It might be said that Pavese has solved his problem of human participation, in a completely abstract way and with a decadent taste directly proportional to the classical orderliness of his words and clarity of his style. At least for the moment, this is his finest contribution, more sincere than any political action, for which he was not suited. One is reminded of the words he wrote in his diary a few days before his death and their lapidary conciseness makes one shudder: "I have done my part by the world, as best I could. I have worked; I have given poetry to men; I have shared the sorrows of many."

Linda Hutcheon (essay date 1972)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6569

SOURCE: "Pavese's Intellectual Rhythm," in Italian Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 60, Spring-Summer, 1972, pp. 5-26.

[Below, Canadian educator and author Hutcheon studies characterization in Pavese's fiction, contending that it is consistent with his artistic aims.]

When Pavese begins a story, a fable, a book, it never happens that he has in mind a socially determined milieu, a character or characters, a thesis. What he does have in mind is almost always only an indistinct rhythm, a play of events which, more than anything else, are sensations and atmospheres. His task is to grasp and construct these events according to an intellectual rhythm which transforms them into symbols of a given reality. His success in this, of course, will vary according to the degree of sensory, dialogical and human concreteness that he brings to his elaboration. From this comes the fact—a fact never noted enough—that Pavese does not care about "creating characters." For him, characters are a means, not an end. Characters serve simply to construct intellectual fables whose theme is the rhythm of what happens: the stupor as of a fly trapped under a glass in The Political Prisoner, the anguished transformation of the countryside and daily life in The House on the Hill, the paradoxical search for the meaning of countryside, city civilization, elegant life and vice in The Devil in the Hills, the memory of infancy and of the world in The Moon and the Bonfires. The characters in these stories are all brief; they are names and types, nothing more: they are on the same plane as a tree, a house, a storm or an air-raid.

When speaking these words in a radio interview in 1950 [printed in Saggi letterari, 1968], Pavese was referring to his personal process of creation, his artistic priorities. Perhaps it is not strange to find an author stressing technique and rhythm in his works above plot and character. It does seem odd, however, that he should explicitly deny the importance of his individual characters except as a means to an end—the "intellectual rhythm." Obviously the key to literary originality could not lie in innovation in characterization, given this thesis. On December 22, 1937, Pavese wrote in his diary [Il mestiere di vivere, 1952] that each of his stories was a complex of figures moved by the same passion, but assuming individual names: for instance, solitude in The Political Prisoner, The House on the Hill, and many others.

Pavese's lucid analysis of the sameness in his characters' personalities and its root, the similarity in "passion," parallels the findings of the Russian critic Vladimir Ja. Propp in his work [Morfologia della fiaba, 1966] on the morphology of Russian fables. Propp discovered that although fable characters may differ in name, social status or even personality, the types of roles which they play (their functions) in the story are repeated. The means of completing the function may even differ greatly but essentially Propp's discovery was that what matters is what the characters do, not who does it or how he does it. The constants, the stable elements of the fable are the functions of the characters—their conduct determined from the point of view of their significance in the development of the events. It is not necessarily even the external action of the character's function that is important—only his significance within the thematic framework of the developing story.

Obviously, as Pavese noted in the interview, this puts characters on the same plane as a tree, a house, a storm or an air-raid. Surely, characters have certain specifically distinguishing functions. Given the anonymous nature of Russian fables, there was no need for Propp to go beyond the actual text material to seek the functional significance of fable characters. In the case of Pavese, on the other hand, complications arise which make this concept of function at once more complex and more valid.

The intensely close relations which exist between Pavese and his narrator-protagonists necessitated some means of distancing, of preventing blatant autobiography in art. The use of characters as functions of the emotional, moral and creative processes of the author himself is a natural extension of Propp's theory that is limited to operating within the framework of the story. It also explains further the reasons for the great similarities in Pavese's characters.

Why did Pavese choose this particular mode of objectifying the threatening personal? The major technical reason is that in choosing first-person narrative as his main vehicle he was eliminating the most facile distancing technique, that of the omniscient narrator. Indeed, a quick glance at Pavese's few third person narratives which do not use interior monologue (for these must be considered with the first person stories), reveals characters with autonomous identities, such as Aurelio in "Summer Storm." These stories present more dramatic action and plot experimentation than the other narratives. The increased use of dialogue allows for varied linguistic and independently moral dimensions in the characters. The tone is also very different due to the discipline which this use of language exercised on Pavese's natural lyricism.

Pavese likely chose the first person narrative form for reasons other than the fact that it was more congenial to his personal artistic tonality, although he did say in the "Dialogue with a Comrade—II" that it was precisely this tone, rather than plot or characterization, both of which could be copied, which was the basis for originality. As he wrote in his diary in July 22, 1938, this tone was established from the first line; the rest of the story could only follow suit. The typically Pavesian tone of melancholy and pathos touched with lyricism is obviously going to be shared by any functional narrator-protagonist.

There is likely a second and more distinctly philosophical reason for Pavese's choice of narrative technique. The omniscient narrator of the nineteenth century was, as the adjective suggests, a secular God. In the modern world which has been crushed by "the disappearance of God," no man—human or fictional—can presume to know all. He is not eternal; he must operate in space and time. Like the voice of God today, that of the author can only be heard indirectly. No absolute perspective is possible; subjectivity reigns.

Pavese was particularly and painfully aware of the danger inherent in confession and autobiography in art. He was forced to exercise upon his artistic matter the control which his technical form could not provide. It is ironic that he should feel that his "intellectual rhythm" was this controlling force. The rhythm is indeed an ordering power working on the chaos of experience through the act of writing. This is a "creative rhythm," an intensely personal and subjective force, not cold and intellectual. His final recourse to myth bears the weight of the same irony. Can one remove the personal and the temporal from one's individual destiny?

In avoiding the placing of too much of his personal self into his narrators, Pavese failed to create autonomous characters. Rhythm, once again, was the key to the use of characters. This he claimed to have learned from his study of Herman Melville, Sinclair Lewis and Edgar Lee Masters. Characterization he saw as a concept belonging to theatre, outdated in the narrative arts. In literature generally men are known, individualized by their manners, be they a chain smoking Zeno or the pilgrim Dante. Usually characters develop throughout the course of the narrative; and this process forms the central interest of the story.

In Pavese, characters are no longer these figures that determine plot action. This is not to deny their fictional validity, for their perception is drawn from Pavese's own. However, they are never autonomous; they never interact on any vital level. They draw their significance from their roles, not in any external action, but in the rhythmic meaning of the story and in their relation to their creator. They do not appear as complete characters; nor do they develop towards wholeness in the story. The narrators have to speak to others or articulate, in narrating, their inner personalities in order to achieve their minimal degree of individuality or vividness. External acts play virtually no significant role in the presentation or development of character. This is because Pavese's narrators, like himself, are average thinking men; their sphere is of the mind. The only significant "actions" are the internal events of the spirit of the character. These alone give the creation its meaning and its functions in terms of its creator.

What is surpring, given this, is Pavese's reluctance to consider the motivation of his characters. The reason for this is hardly one of conscious artistic neglect; its roots go deeper into the psychology of the writer. Dominique Fernandez suggests [in Il romanzo Italians e la crisi della coscienza moderna, 1960] that for Pavese the events and people of his stories were manifestations of the brutal and hermetic transcendence with which he—as man and as author—could not cope. Pavese's refusal to respect the integrity of his characters represents yet another need to objectify the subjective with which he could not bring himself to contend.

It is significant that "monotonous" seems to be an appropriate adjective with which to describe Pavese's use of characters. He saw the poet as a man expressing his own myth. Since each man possesses but one myth, as we shall see, the art he creates is inevitably "monotonous"—Pavese's own descriptive phrase. The most varied materials of art are transformed into figures that resemble each other greatly: characters as functions on one level. They are not only like one another but they all in some subtle way resemble their creator. Pavese tried to reduce his characters to pure mythic beings to avoid any contact with the problematic external social world. Obviously he could no more succeed here than he could mythicize his own self away. Yet, through his style he was able to exercise enough control to keep his characters operating as functions rather" than autobiographical confessors or revealing mirrors.

In the preface to his translation of Moby Dick, Pavese scoffed at characterization, claiming that in any novel there was but one true personage—the author—from whom all reflections, descriptions and perceptions are derived. Pavese did believe that each author wrote from his own mythic reserve and expressed himself through the voices of those characters who share his experience and nature. In fact, each work of art an author creates differs from the next only in the situations in reality with which the functional character must cope.

Because of this relationship, there are only two classes of characters in Pavese's fiction: the narrator-protagonist who possesses the mythic reality with which the author himself manages to control the reality of his world; and all the others who have no deep functional significance beyond being the means to this reducing of immediate reality to the mythic. From the wish-fulfillment biography of Ciau Masino, he progressed to his first book of poetry, Work is Wearying, in which the narrator-protagonist for the first time acts as a prism for the perception of the external reality.

From this point on Pavese's characters gradually attained a deeper psychological and artistic complexity. Part of the reason for this lay in the devotion to first person narratives told in the past tense, in which the narrator can share his creator's omniscience about his own life but only by virtue of the past tense narration. He must be the passive spectator of his own life. This double time dimension of the narrator means that on one level—that of realistic narrative fact—he participates in the plot events as a character among characters; while, on the level of consciousness, he is separated from his fellow characters by the contemplation and memory he shares with his creator. It is ultimately on this level of interior biography that Pavese and his characters meet.

This is not to say that certain elements of his external biography are not present in his characters as well, but these remain superficial and merely factual. It is interesting to note that the narrator of "Land of Exile" is apolitical, as was Pavese, and that the hero of "Awakening," as well as Rosetta of Among Women Only, share Pavese's tendency towards night wandering and dread of waking to another unbearable dawn. But what insight do we really gain into character or author by this comparison? Stefano in The Political Prisoner is an intellectual in his language, as is his author; his views of women reflect Pavese's; but the account of his experience in political exile is by no means exactly corresponding to that of Pavese written at Brancaleone Calabro. The complaints, the self-pity, the auto-irony of the letters and the diary are gone, or rather the events are reconsidered from a calm, detached, more objective point of view—later in time. Pavese avoids making Stefano his alter ego, sharing all his perceptions and personality; they share the situation, the language and certain opinions—no more. The range of Pavese's characters also prevents any exact external mirroring: Pablo of The Comrade is a young man of the lower middle classes, while Corrado of The House on the Hill is an aging intellectual. If Pavese's work is to be considered personal we must look to a different plane of consciousness—we must look inside.

Pavese himself felt that it was the internal life of his characters that counted, just as it is the asocial solitary side of man in general that is important in a world faced with the crisis of alienation and lack of communication. We can see what this means in terms of functional characterization by looking at the theme of the tendency toward contemplating suicide, for example—a theme which haunted his entire opus from the first stories to the final poems. From his letters and diary entries dating as early as 1926 we know that suicide was always in Pavese's mind. Other themes intertwine with this in short stories like "Suicides" which reveal Pavese's own inability to establish viable human relationships through the narrator's earlier unfortunate love affair which crippled him in his sexual dealings with Carlotta and eventually killed her. Pavese felt he was a raté, inept in all things. Like his various characters—from the narrator of "Wedding Trip" to Rosetta in Among Women Only—Pavese reveals in his letters and diary a lack of that self-respect that comes with a positive and more objective self-image. This is not a one-to-one mirroring. It is the objectivized presentation on a different level of consciousness of the personal crises of the author.

Pavese could not help but bring these crises to his work. He gave of himself fully and, as he said in his diary in 1946, felt like "a shot gun" after writing. But this does not mean autobiographical projection of self into art. Indeed, by 1939 when he wrote The Political Prisoner, he had already begun to use characters as function to project on a different level of consciousness. He now dealt with the metaphysical exile of man, isolated by his intellect and his awareness that suffice only to complicate his existence. The creation of art, for the writer, is not an act of personal unburdening, as he wrote to Bianca Garufi in February of 1946 about their joint novel, The Great Fire. So Pavese was only too aware of how much of one's self was revealed even in every word chosen for literary purposes.

Art should distance the personal, while deriving its power from this very life force. It should objectify the subjective.

It was this concept that led Pavese to the discovery of the idea of the "image-story" in 1935. In his poetry of this time the conscious and unconscious relations between the poet and his Piedmont are objectified and dramatized in images that reflect the intellectual control of the artist over the everyday naturalistic reality of his existence. These images also provide the eternalized form which can be relived by all men—the key to universality in art. Functions, too, provide means of distancing the personal, of objectifying the subjective.

If, according to Propp, the function of a character is largely determined by his "initial situation," the condition of Pavese's narrators—one of observation and contemplation—must be taken into account. By his own admission the narrator of "Suicides" is a passive observer. The boys of "First Love" watch Bruno and learn the mysteries of sex. Pavese wrote in his diary in 1942 that his successful stories were those in which a contemplator observes something more grand than himself occur. The spectacle of life becomes more interesting—and safe—than active participation. Pavese wrote to Fernanda Pivano on November 5, 1940 a self-portrait: among the traits he singled out in himself were his contemplative nature and his constant need to regard life as a great spectacle which he was acting out. Actually, even in the establishment of the "initial situation" we are dealing with a function of the author himself. Like Pavese, the heroes of "Land of Exile," "Wedding Trip," The House on the Hill, and many others, come to realize, not without remorse, what one misses in not living life except in memory, in merely observing without participating.

Pavese also believed that contemplation was a male virtue; action, a female one. His narrators share his belief. It is their vision du monde, not the world itself that is of interest. Many short stories are prefaced by paragraphs or even pages of contemplation by the narrator on the events he is about to relate to us. Others have no real plot; they are rather extended contemplation on a theme or of a past moment of crisis in the narrator's life: "End of August," "Summer Swimmingpool," "Time," "Awakening." But even here we are faced with that characteristic ambivalence in Pavese's reasoning which will present itself in all our considerations of function. Just as the creation of art to Pavese was both life and death, joy and torture, so he could extol the virtue of contemplation and yet rebuke Corrado of The House on the Hill for his refusal to take an active part in the reality of the war—a rebuke Pavese took quite personally.

Yet, Pavese is not confessing to us through his characters. If we were dealing with confessional literature we would expect purgation, and purgation requires a relationship with the world at large which Pavese's narrators do not have. The only rapport they have with external existence is mythic—and safe. Contemplation does not lead to confession in Pavese. It is also true philosophically that, since to modern godless man no external forgiveness is possible, he can seek only self-understanding and some meaning in his world through intense self-examination. Pavese cannot bring himself to go even this far: he once said to Davide Lajolo that he never confessed—either to priests or to friends. Certainly, he did not want to "confess" through fiction.

One of the most important distinctions in a confessional novel is the necessary separation of author from hero. Pavese's close functional relationship with his characters prevents any such distinction. Confessional novelists like Thomas Mann use an ironic divergence in point of view between the hero as character and the later hero as narrator. No such irony, resulting from disparity among viewpoints, exists in Pavese's fiction, in which the character, both as narrator and as protagonist, operates as a function of the author's own search for values.

Pavese's narrator is also non-confessional in that he gains no understanding from the telling of his experience in fiction. He is not in the process of examining his past to find new perceptions: he has already sought, and may or may not have found, understanding before telling his story in past tense. His search parallels, although on a different plane of consciousness, Pavese's own metaphysical probing through art. This seeking is a function; the telling of it is not. He merely relates memory and discovery of any significance in the past. Neither he nor Pavese is confessing anything. He may learn something from his earlier contemplation, as does the narrator of "Evil Eye," or he may not, as does the one of "Wedding Trip."

There is rarely, if ever, any painful probing within the story. At the beginning of The House on the Hill Corrado tells us that he is recounting the story of a long illusion—a statement he repeats at the end, adding that it was this very illusion that prompted the recounting of his life story. The lesson he learned conditions the telling of the story; the narration comes after the awareness of man's social responsibility, although the stages before are recounted in order for us to understand the full implications of Corrado's discovery. He learns that he cannot use war as an excuse to turn in on himself. At the end, although the verbs are in the future tense there is still the feeling that Corrado is now aware of his lack of action and may now accept his social role. The House on the Hill becomes a functional artistic fulfillment of Pavese's own feelings as expressed in the essay, "Return to Man"—not a confession of personal weakness.

Pavese sought no purgation or absolution—only understanding. We can only consider confession as a function if we omit these cathartic and absolutory elements, and this is hardly possible. The characters do operate as functions of the author but in the act of searching for meaning rather than in any desire to confess themselves to others. Pavese felt that writing was in itself an experience, not merely the telling of one. Many confessional novelists seek new values through a sort of reconstructed order. Pavese did not need to confess to do this: the act of writing—one of rationality, clarity and control—was the ordering process in itself.

There are, however, three main areas in which Pavese was forced to use characters functionally—in terms of himself. The first of these—the use of memory—becomes evident if we note that all of Pavese's narrators are able to remember clearly and relate their past. Since most of the first person narratives are told in the past tense, it is a technical necessity that these protagonists have a certain facility in memory and that before reaching the point of articulation (the story telling), they analyze and re-analyze that remembered past. The guilt feelings of the narrator of "Suicides," for one, are closely tied up with the burden of memories. Pavese himself used memory as another means of distancing the painful through time.

Just as his characters rely on their memories to give meaning to their present, so Pavese used memory to give significance and a safe distance to his perception, and ultimately to his art. In 1943-5 in the essay, "A State of Grace," he wrote that we never see things for the first time—always for the second. It is only then that we discover and remember. Memory is a means to perception in the present, to cognitive knowledge discovered through past consciousness for the character. So, for Pavese, it is a means of discovery of the materials of art. As early as 1939 he had written in his diary that one's past must be so familiar that one can relive it mechanically and yet so unexpected that one is amazed every time one returns to it. Only then is it ready for the imagination to turn it into art. Memory transforms the landscapes of Pavese's youth, transforms them into symbols and rhythms which are then presented through the eyes of the adult character-function.

Even here, however, that typically Pavesian ambivalence enters. Memory is an artistic refuge. Or is it a cowardly escaping of present reality? Memory is a soothing force, yet it hurts: the "woman with the hoarse voice" cannot be forgotten. In an attempt to avoid these conflicts Pavese went further back in memory—into childhood, in stories such as "The Name" and "End of August." But always with the boy was the adult—the "now" narcissistically presiding over the "then": The House on the Hill, "Talk by the River," The Moon and the Bonfires. In stories like "The Vineyard," Pavese went even one step farther into memory-time to the mythic infancy of man, to a Jungian collective unconscious. How much safer and more impersonally objective was this for Pavese!

Here he found a cultural justification for his artistic theory of rhythm and his personal life theory of destiny. Both rhythm and destiny are ordering forces in the chaos of experience. In a classical tradition, Pavese the artist was playing God with the rhythms of his characters' lives, but he was powerless with regard to his own destiny. This led him to develop his unfreudian concept of predestination whereby the adult character is totally formed by the irresponsible child, with no hope of change. The terror of such a tragic and fatalistic belief was only removed by an escape into ethnology to remove the personal and the psychoanalytical to a safe cultural distance.

In the essay, "On Myth, Symbol and Other," Pavese defined myth as a norm, the plan of a fact that happened once and for all. It derives its value from this absolute uniqueness that removes it from time and makes it revelation. Myth is individual destiny rendered universal and atemporal; in this it resembles the cosmic nature of specific and unique works of art. Myth is a timeless, repetitive, absolute and viable rite which gives meaning to the reality with which Pavese had so much difficulty establishing an empirical relationship.

In a sense, myth fulfilled a private need for Pavese, justifying romantically his presence as a passive poet in an external world of action; providing him with therapy for his injured self-respect and an escape from the full threatening meaning of Freudianism. Through myth Pavese was able to give some order to the chaos of his psyche and feel whole; to internalize the external present reality with which he could not cope, by placing it in the mythic past. Together with this concept, Pavese fused the Jungian idea of Self, the nucleus of personality and the essence of existence. Each man possesses a "personal unconscious," unique and individual, formed of infantile impulses and repressed desires, of subliminal impressions and forgotten experiences. Paralleling this, but one layer deeper, lies the "collective unconscious," the unknown material from which is developed our "conscious." It is from this level, according to Jung, that man derives his myths, the fundamental expressions of human nature similar in all people and all ages. It is from this mythic base that the artist, Pavese, felt he derived his stories. This is why "to narrate is monotonous."

Obviously it is memory that makes the personal mythologies of both narrator and author possible. Time exists both as chronological sequence and as significant eternal moments of psychological intensity—in art and in life. To use Frank Kermode's terms [from The Sense of an Ending, 1966], Chronos and Kairos coexist. Man lives in linear time but can break it in a moment of ecstatic perception of his destiny. The only true freedom from such time is death; only then can one become, as Anguilla learns [in The Moon and the Bonfires], part of the cyclic time of nature. However, the use of myth enables man to give some order beyond the temporal to his existence. Eternity is to time as the moon is to the bonfires.

Memory in Pavese begins as a means of control over one's past, of giving meaning to existence. It is a way of objectifying, through a temporal perspective, the personal and the subjective. Just as the characters analyze their memories and mythicize them to create new self-awareness, and in doing so, fulfil their rhythmic function in the fiction, so does Pavese himself—on a personal and psychological level as well as on an aesthetic one. In this way the narrators endowed with the adult tragic perspective of memory act as dual functions—to their own tales and to their author.

There is a second area in which the protagonists act as complex functions rather than simple mirrors: their introversion is functional of that of the author. Pavese cultivated his introverted nature. In "South Seas" he claims it as part of his Piedmontese heritage. This characteristic does not escape from the typical Pavesian ambivalence, however. He found introversion natural and indeed necessary to him as artist. Yet he saw too clearly the dangers of it—a perverse and self-willed isolation. As an antidote to this latter fear he tried both love and politics—with equal lack of success.

Pavese, essentially apolitical, found in Marxism the faith surrogate and the companionship he needed. Like Pablo in The Comrade Pavese never had any real commitment, even towards the end of his life when he officially joined the Party. Similarly Pavese knew that he needed the love of a woman: his letters to Milly, E., Fernanda Pivano, Bianca Garufi, and Constance Dowling bear witness to this fact. As a defense mechanism against his lack of amatory success and as a result of the bitter experience with the "woman with the hoarse voice," he saw love as a narcissistic act, not a giving of self ("The Three Girls"), and as a masochistic torture ("The Idol"). Love and sex became inseparable from feelings of betrayal and sexual inadequacy. Once again the ambivalence presents itself: human relations are violent and painfully destructive yet they are necessary for happiness.

The alternative—solitude—is viewed in a similarly contradictory fashion—as a privilege and a privation. As artist Pavese needed to be alone to write; as man his selfwilled isolation was cruel torture. Solitude was heroic and virile, like the character Vespa's, a sign of maturity and independence. Yet Pavese wrote in a letter on November 5, 1940 that although he was a solitary because as an artist he had to be away from the "commerce of the world," he was a living martyr to contrasting desires: he wanted to be alone—and he was alone—but wanted to be so amid people who knew it. Art was communication but the artist had to cut himself off to create it. In the same year he wrote in his diary that the meeting point of his artistic work and his personal life was the need for expression in the former and the need for contact with others in the latter. How could he then insist on solitude? It is not accidental that the motif of prison and exile should appear so often in Pavese's work: it is an objective correlative for the tragedy of solitude. The existential position of the narrator of "Land of Exile," wallowing in his solitude and subjectivity, is Pavese's own. What is perhaps even more tragic is the self-willed isolation of Corrado in The House on the Hill or Clelia of Among Women Only. Pavese saw maturity, however, as a self-sufficing isolation. Could solitude be both life and death, salvation and evasion? In his narrators Pavese tried, without success, to resolve the dilemma. As with his other functional uses of characters, the ambivalence remains intact.

So introspection for Pavese and his protagonists can be perverse and dangerous but it can also be a means of self-knowledge and salvation. Especially in his later novels, Pavese seemed obsessed with the need to play down his perpetual alientation from others, and stress his return to the self as a way of saving himself. In the movement back in time to infancy and myth there is no need for problematic human relationships.

It must be remembered that novels can reveal to the reader the introspective life of a character which is, of necessity, not available in real life. This is possible because the writer draws from his own introspection to provide that of his characters. This does not mean that he presents himself he merely presents the same process in poetic terms. The protagonists of "Suicides" reveals his introspective operations, but in no way is a mirror of Pavese. The reactions of all his characters are rather objectified versions, the functions of Pavese's own existential crises in life.

The final area in which characters must be used functionally to avoid autobiography is in the search for "maturity"—that inner ripeness derived from the understanding of one's mythic past. Adults recall their infancy and go even further into mythic time and perceive a rhythm that is their destiny. There is a certain security in this discovery, a finding of roots. On a different level this is what Corradino of "The Family," what Anguilla of The Moon and the Bonfires, what the narrator of "The Langhe Hills" seek. Maturity is the lesson Anguilla learns from Nuto. Both characters operate as functions of Pavese, however. Anguilla represents his personal misgivings in the face of time and destiny; Nuto reflects his desire for a deeper ripeness. In a letter to Aldo Camerino on May 30, 1950, Pavese wrote that The Moon and the Bonfires was the novel he had carried within him the longest and had enjoyed writing the most. In fact this was so true that he felt incapable for a while, or maybe forever, of writing anything else. One should not tempt the gods too much, he wrote. Artistic maturity for Pavese on one level parallels moral and mythic maturity for Angiulla on another.

While these older characters seek roots and maturity, the younger heroes of Pavese's stories are restless. They want to escape all ties—be they physical (as in "Insomnia," "Mr. Pietro" or The Comrade) or emotional (as in "The City," "Suicides" or The House on the Hill). In his female characters, such as Lidia of "The Three Girls" or Clelia of Among Women Only, this desire to avoid responsibilities signifies mature independence; not so in his males. Corrado of The House on the Hill prefers to play in the woods like Dino and not take part in the war effort like Cate. He must come to learn social responsibility and emotional maturity from the unknown dead. The restlessness and immaturity Pavese saw and hated in himself reappear on another plane in his protagonist. The positive view of these traits—independence and freedom—can only appear in women characters, just as they were in his admired "woman with the hoarse voice." Some of the male characters may indeed be already mature and self-sufficient; but these are never the heroes of the stories—Bruno in "First Love" or Ceresa in "The Leather Jacket" Pavese has no interest in them as functions of himself, since he is always personally and painfully seeking maturity without achieving it in his own moral life. He is interested in characters such as Corrado, the regressive adolescent-adult of The House on the Hill, who has to be shocked into accepting responsibility. Did Pavese also need and desire a shock like this? He knew that the return to infancy via memory as a means of discovery of the true ripeness was an impossible myth. One cannot recapture one's real past: Cinto is not Anguilla. Time goes on: for man the years pass also with the seasons. He is as a shortlived bonfire challenging the moon.

Our study of functional use of characters has shown us that there is more to a Pavesian story than physical personages, psychology or chronicle of events: it must have a thematic structure, a rhythm that is the artistic enactment on an aesthetic level of the personal destiny of the author. Sometimes he found he had to turn to a rational essay-like form that revealed the direct intrusion of the author in order to articulate a vision du monde which his characters alone, even when acting as functions, could not present, although he wanted them to be able to do so. In the winter of 1941-2 he wrote in his diary that even backgrounds in stories cannot be described but must be lived through the senses of the character. Pavese was very aware of the importance of establishing some controlling force over these protagonists to avoid self-revelation. However, in choosing function as his means, he could not create traditional characters who would be whole and complete in themselves. Speaking of the Dialogues with Leucò in the 1950 radio interview, he said that his protagonists were lovely names that carried a destiny but not fully rounded characters. Then he added that all his characters were more or less like that and he hoped they would continue to be so.

All artists have preoccupations, interests which are strongly rooted in autobiography that they present in their art. To make their creations universally valid, rather than personal and particular curiosities or confessions better told to a priest, they must somehow objectify and generalize their concerns unless they deliberately wish to write an autobiography. Critics, when analyzing the works of all artists, must subsequently beware of identifying the character with the author directly. This is the trap fallen into by some excellent Pavesian scholars—Dominique Fernandez, Davide Lajolo, Leslie Fiedler, Mario Materassi and Lorenzo Mondo. It may seem on the surface that Pavese's first person narrators are indeed mirrors of their creator. If that were the case, however, the aesthetic value and the universal human interest which Pavese's works do have would be called into question. How many autobiographies can one man write, or one reader read? Pavese did manage to control instinctively his autobiographical tendencies by the use of character as function, rather than by any other more technical narrative method. What was psychologically necessary and philosophically accurate for Pavese as man, turned out to be aesthetically valid as well.

Doug Thompson (essay date 1982)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8431

SOURCE: "The 'Once and for All' Event: Symbolic Reality in Feria d'agosto," in Cesare Pavese: A Study of the Major Novels and Poems, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 94-114.

[In the excerpt below, Thompson discusses the events of Pavese 's life during the period of World War II and their impact on his writings. Thompson also explores Pavese 's theoryexemplified in Feria d'agosto—that experiences during a person's formative years determine his or her destiny and worldview.]

The closing months of 1943 were critical in Italian history. The royal coup d'état which unseated Mussolini, after almost twenty years as dictator, shocked and divided the nation. The situation was further complicated by two other factors. Firstly, though technically still allied to Nazi Germany, Italy, on the initiative of the king and Marshall Badoglio, was making representations to the Allies about the cessation of hostilities and the possibilities of a separate peace. Secondly, during this period of uncertain direction, Mussolini was rescued from his prison on the Gran Sasso by a German commando unit, and this event was shortly followed by the establishment in the north of the puppet republic of Salò (Repubblica Sociale Italiana), with Mussolini nominally at the helm. It was in these conditions that the Italian people behind the Nazi-Fascist lines decided to take matters into their own hands, to attempt to speed the departure of foreigners and Fascists alike. Many became partisans and took to the hills, and Turin, always a centre of opposition to Fascism, even in its most triumphant years, saw the rapid exodus of many of its young and even older men and women, workers and intellectuals, all bent on direct action in determining the future of their own lives and that of their country.

Early in September of that year Pavese, who had been in charge of the newly established branch of the Einaudi publishing house in Rome, returned to his home in Turin. The city was in a state of turmoil, not least because of the continued aerial bombardment of its factories by the Allies. Pavese's sister, with whom he had made his home since his mother's death in 1931, had fled the city with her children to stay with her sister-in-law at Serralunga, a village near Monferrato, in Piedmont. Pavese, unable to locate any of his friends—the majority of whom had either gone off to join the fight or were in Fascist prisons—found nothing at all to keep him in the city, and very soon joined his sister at Serralunga. It was in this vicinity that he was to spend most of his time until the end of the war.

Since his death in 1950, Pavese has been the centre of much controversy in Italian literary and political circles with regard to his conduct at the time of the civil war. At Serralunga, he was very close to much of the bitterest fighting and yet he apparently made no attempt to join the struggle against oppression. This failure to act at the crucial moment was resented by many and in October 1953 this very point was being debated on the ' third page' of the Communist daily L'Unità by Massimo Mila and Valentino Gerratana. In that exchange of views, which centred around Pavese's recently published diary, Mila defended his friend's 'claim to privacy' but Gerratana, calling on the example of Pavese's friend, Giaime Pintor, rejected the view that an individual has the automatic right to decide for himself at all times, asserting that he must be prepared—as Pintor had been—to subordinate his personal wishes to those of society in certain circumstances, such as the civil war. Gerratana cited the following opinion, and as a blanket statement it perforce included Pavese:

I do not believe the present generation has a thirst for transcendence, for struggle against demons, for heroic myths and sublime horrors. It leaves all those confused ideas, along with religious conversions and retreat from the world, to the old, disillusioned intellectuals. Confronted by real problems, having grown up amidst precise and palpable differences, this new generation has no time to create an interior drama for itself: it has found an exterior drama perfectly constructed. [Primato, August 15, 1953]

What Pavese thought about the war in Piedmont, as it was actually taking place, is little indicated by his diary [Il mestiere di vivere, 1952]. The entries for 1943, 1944 and early 1945 deal, for the most part, with his thoughts on the books and studies he was absorbed in and only very occasionally is there any hint of anxiety. There are no comments on specific events other than a reference to the death of Leone Ginzburg, under torture in the Regina Coeli prison in Rome, and even that is immediately interiorised, for what is recorded is its effect on him personally. From this almost total silence it is easy enough to assume that Pavese sat out the war in relative unconcern as one of Pintor's 'old, disillusioned intellectuals', yet it was not in Pavese's nature to find contentment and peace with himself in that or any other situation. In his own terms, mistaken though we may judge them to have been, Pavese had been at war within himself long before the Second World War or its Piedmontese phase had overtaken him, and was to continue so long after the fighting had ended. His perspective may have been mistaken—perhaps he might even have found the salvation he desired had he taken that vital step 'towards his fellow men' and seen his own problematical self in the larger context of a problematical world. But he did not. The barriers in his own mind, whatever they were, proved unsurmountable. Our job, at this distance in time, must be to attempt an evaluation of what he did in those years, not of what he 'ought' to have done, for recriminations are by now useless—as indeed they were even in 1953.

An examination of Pavese's diary for the years 1943-5 reveals almost continuous concern with the problems of ethnology, psychology, anthropology and myth and their links with his own life and writing. In this period of probably total intellectual isolation in the hills of Piedmont, the various strands of Pavese's own cultural background—Italian, Piedmontese, American, Shakespearian—Elizabethan and classical—were gradually worked into a theory of history based on myth, and in this theory Pavese was convinced he had found the key to his own personality and his 'passage to other men'. His writing, which, ever since the days of his discovery of Anderson and the other Americans, he had maintained must have some practical end, now found a single, all-embracing purpose, that of 'clarifying his own myths'. Even before the disruptive experience of Brancaleone, some seven or eight years previously, Pavese had been aware of the powerful bond between himself and the countryside of the Langhe. In the poems of Lavorare stanca the Langhe had been pre-eminent and this fact had been complemented by a strong sense of disorientation experienced by a succession of langheruoli who, for various reasons, moved away to the city. When Pavese's own experience compelled him to broaden his horizons and include the Italian South in his work, he became acutely aware of a sense of personal alienation. The opposition, in his poems, had been between city and countryside, but appeared, as a result of the Brancaleone episode, in a new guise, that between North and South. He began to realise that not only was he experiencing the clash of two significantly disparate ways of life, but because of that clash a sense of belonging or not belonging to the region in which those cultures had evolved. In his diary he made the following observation:

This evening under the red lunar rocks I was thinking what great poetry could be written to show the god incarnate in this place . . . Then I realised with surprise that the god isn't there . . . and therefore someone else might write that poetry but not I.

Why can't I write about the red lunar rocks? Just because they don't reflect anything of my own, except the bare emotion of the landscape itself, which is never enough to justify a poem. If these rocks were in Piedmont I could very well absorb them into an image and give them a meaning. Which goes to show how the first condition for poetry is the obscure awareness of the value of relationships, even biological ones, that already live as embryonic images in the pre-poetic consciousness.

Certainly it must be possible, even for me, to write poetry based on material that does not have a Piedmontese background. It must be, but up to now it hardly ever has been. This means that I have not yet passed the stage of simple re-elaboration of the image, represented in material terms, of my original bond with the environment. It means, in other words, that in my poetic activity there is a gratuitous dead centre, an implied material basis, which I cannot seem to make sense of. But then, is this actually a residue of the objective world, or is it an indispensable lifeblood?

(10 October 1935)

What he discovered to be true for him as a poet was soon to become fundamental to the personalities of his characters in his prose. The narrator of 'Terra d'esilio' ('Land of exile'), a Piedmontese engineer in the South, and Stefano, the central character of Il carcere, both experience a strong sense of alienation in their new, temporary environment. Both of them see the South as bizarre and meaningless and feel repelled by its way of life and its natural, physical character. This same reaction is found in Berto in Paesi tuoi, the city-dweller who was 'lost' in the Piedmontese countryside; while in La spiaggia it is there in Doro's desperate 'escape to his origins' occasioned by the sense of disorientation which has been growing in him ever since his marriage to Clelia took him away from the mountains to Genoa and the sea.

The emphasis up to 1941-2 had been on that sense of alienation caused by the temporary exile of an individual in an environment which was not his own, an abstraction which implied the interruption of his established rhythm of life. However, with Feria d'agosto (August holidays, 1941-4), Pavese began to explore in depth what had hitherto been taken for granted, the meaning and nature of the individual's relationship with the environment in which he had spent his formative years. Pavese had an eye for the bizarre or the unusual in life and made use of this in his writing in the characteristically Romantic belief that it is a man's confrontation with what was hitherto unknown to him that reveals both his real self and the world as it really is to him and makes for the most satisfactory art. Putting a man in an unfamiliar situation to see what happens to him is Pavese's basic formula in his early novels and short stories. Yet, in his degree thesis, he had strongly criticised writers who sought 'material that was new in terms of names, places and voyages of adventure'; however, after Lavorare stanca he had seemingly forgotten this lesson. He had not fully understood perhaps that one does not have to set a story in the frozen North or the South Seas or in some remote century to warrant condemnation under the terms of this statement. For his protagonists the South, the Riviera beach, even the Piedmontese countryside, though all 'Italian', nevertheless represented the abnormal and the bizarre. All of them told the individual what he was not and where he did not belong. Feria d'agosto takes up the long-suspended thread of "I mari del Sud' in an attempt to define the individual's reality in terms of an environment which is most properly his own.

Thus, in the early years of the war Pavese returned to his 'origins' in the Langhe in an artistic as well as a physical sense. This return involved not only spatial movement—Rome to Turin to the Langhe—but also temporal, for only in early childhood had he spent any appreciable time in the country. However, though that time was comparatively short, it was to Pavese's mind a crucial time, that of his most impressionable years, for 'at more or less ten years old for each one of us', he claimed, 'the die is cast'. Besides, 'origins' implied a good deal more than simply 'childhood environment'. It involved a whole culture, a traditional way of life to which his family had belonged for many generations and which came to him 'in the blood'. Feria d'agosto, therefore, becomes a kind of 'recherche du temps perdu' in order to arrive at the essential self that lies hidden beneath layer upon layer of experience which separates the individual's present from his childhood past. The tone and purpose of that journey, which begins in the present and goes back through memory into the past, are set by the following observation, taken from 'Fine d'agosto' ('End of August'):

In those summers, which by now have a unique colour in my memory, moments lie slumbering which a sensation, a word even can suddenly reawaken, and I am at once bemused by a sense of distance, incredulous at finding so much joy in a vanished, almost annihilated time.

Much of Pavese's early theorising about myth in Feria d'agosto is often confused and even contradictory. What is essential to the theory was eventually set down in an essay entitled 'll mito' ('Myth'), which Pavese wrote early in 1950 and published in the periodical Cultura e realtà (Culture and reality) later in the same year. In the essay he argues that the history of any people always reveals that

The various traditional practices of everyday life and festive observances—language, techniques, institutions and emotions—all are modelled on events that happened once and for all time, on divine patterns that lie—not only in a temporal sense—at the root of every activity: in order to happen a thing must already have happened, it must be rooted in something outside time.

The language which Pavese employs here and elsewhere in his discussion of myth belongs perhaps more properly to theology or metaphysics than to literature, and it is this apparent connection with mystery and metaphysics which has repeatedly brought the theory under heavy fire from critics. And indeed, Pavese is arguing for the existence of absolutes which stand outside time but which recur from time to time within the flow of time. It is to these absolutes, which are either social or particular to an individual, that he gives the name of myth. The passage just cited states uncompromisingly that these 'events . . . happened once and for all time', that these absolutes have their origin 'outside time', so that if reality is created in the way he suggests, then apparently neither man as an individual nor mankind as a whole can have much control over that reality. It is not surprising that Pavese fell foul of the Italian Communist Party (to which he belonged from 1945 on), positing such a theory as this.

However, the theory is not as preternatural as it at first appears, for the myth, before it became such, was firmly grounded in materiality, and the expression 'outside time' has—in the context of the theory—a metaphorical and not a literal connotation:

Before it was a story, a miraculous event, every myth was simply a norm, a meaningful form of behaviour, a rite that sanctified reality. And it was also the impulse, the magnetic charge, which alone could induce men to do things.

If, in the development of a people's history, 'a norm' took on the aspect of 'a miraculous event', it was because men, for reasons probably not known even to themselves, made it so. For a people, a tradition of any kind, handed on from one generation to the next, especially where there were no written records, would indeed seem to celebrate or revive an event, an attitude, whose origin was 'outside time'. But it is not time as an absolute entity which is indicated, rather that which is relative to the whole span of time which represents the history of that people. Again though, we notice the terminology—'sanctified reality'—and the reason for it is that a heightened significance given to such a 'norm' amongst primitive peoples invariably implied those values which Pavese acknowledges as 'none other than a religious attitude'. It is at this point that Pavese indicates his debt to Vico, and in particular to the following passage from the Scienza nuova:

The first men, like children of the human race, being unable to formulate intellectual categories of things, had a natural urge to invent poetic categories, imagined universals, so as to be able to assign each particular species to its proper category, as to an idealised model or picture.

What Vico called 'imagined universals' are substantially the same as Pavese's myths. The analogy made by Vico in passing between 'the first men' and 'children' was of the utmost significance in the development of Pavese's theory, and he extends it to include poets and 'all those who still do not live by reason, "human philosophy", or not wholly by reason'. Starting from Vico's pronouncements on the nature of the development of the history or character of a whole people, Pavese sets out to explore the development of the individual's reality (or personality) by applying more or less the same formula. The myths, whether at the individual or the collective level, are a spur to action, to the creation or extension of reality simply because they are believed in, accepted without question, precisely because they are not consciously recognised for whatever they are. When we, whether poets or not, endeavour to 'know ourselves' we are in effect attempting to do what Pavese claimed was the sole purpose of his writing, that is 'to clarify his own myths'.

First, however, we need to understand what Pavese took to be the significance of the myths to the development of individual personality. He explains it in the following terms:

From our earliest years, from our childhood, from all those moments of our first, essential contact with things and with the world which are liable to catch a man off guard with their immediate, emotional impact, from all the 'first times', irreducible to rationality, from the auroral moments when an image, an idol, a prophetic tremor took shape in the mind as it confronted the amorphous, there comes a giddy sensation, as if rising from a whirlpool or rushing in through a door thrown wide open—a promise of conscious awareness, an ecstatic presentiment.

Again the language, at first glance, seems hieratic, but we must be clear why this is so. Pavese is attempting to describe the beginnings of the individuation process, and at the beginning the rational faculty is as yet totally undeveloped—one is aware of experience but is unable to give it a name, and so it is with almost all of those 'moments of our first, essential contact with things'. Those 'contacts' are retained by the memory not as words but as pictures or sensations and only much later does one come to give them a name, that is 'clarify them'. 'Image . . . idol . . . prophetic tremor' are thus representative of what, for the individual concerned, as yet has no name and, because he is still unaware of the significance of time, is not, from his point of view, located in time. The majority of our 'first, essential contacts' occur in very early childhood but the process continues perhaps even into our early teens. However, as rationality develops, the order of the process can even be reversed in the sense that we can know the names of objects or experiences before we meet them in reality, and having only the form (the name) without the content (the experience) only our imaginative faculty can come to our aid and provide a content. That imagined content will in some way colour the experience for us when we finally consciously possess it and thus make it something unique to us personally. When all or nearly all the 'first, essential contacts', which belong to the social environment in which the individual finds himself, have been made, then the first part of the individuation process, that of the assimilation of experience, is completed and the second part begins, the rediscovery and categorisation of each 'moment' or myth as it recurs in our subsequent life as—according to Pavese—it most surely will. When it does so we meet, in the flow of time, something which for us, individually, is essentially timeless, and that encounter, be it person, event, sensation or any other experience, is symbolic of that absolute reality which occurred when we were unaware of what time was.

To abandon oneself to the contemplation, the excavation of that moment, means to move outside time, to make contact with a metaphysical absolute, to enter a sphere of travail, of quest for a seed which cannot lose its immobility without becoming something else—conscious poetry, unfolded thought, responsible action—in other words, history.

The process is one of drawing the unknown or half-known into consciousness, from shadow into light. Whilst ever they remain undisclosed the myths 'radiate so much life, warmth and promise of light', for what is unknown has infinite possibility. Pavese, in his espousal of this view, is linked with Leopardi for whom life was always the implied promise of the not known, the unexplained. However, both accepted the rationalising process as inevitable, though regrettable, and both warn in no uncertain terms against the man or the poet who attempts in some way to evade it. These myths

disturb the mind in the same way as an important word which is only half remembered; every bit of spiritual energy is needed to clarify and define them, to possess them entirely. But to possess means to destroy, as we know. This destruction—which is, of course, a transformation—robs the violated myth of its uniqueness, the mysterious power of a symbol which is believed in. When a myth becomes poetry it loses its religious aura. When it goes on to become a concept ('human philosophy') the process is complete.

Then comes the warning,

Which is not to suggest that one's myths ought to be kept in cotton-wool. The overwhelming initial faith is sincere in so far as it spares no effort to better penetrate and possess its object. And there is no use pretending, for aesthetic reasons, that a mystery persists when in fact it has already been resolved into a clear image or a lucid concept.

Pavese is most emphatic in his condemnation of any attempted artificial preservation of the myth:

The law of the spirit is this: to bring one's own myths incessantly into conflict with reality and strive to resolve them into poetry or theoretical knowledge. Anyone who goes on tinkering with a myth after it is explained, penetrated, violated, is neither true believer nor poet nor scientist. He is a mere aesthete and nothing more.

Adverse critics of Pavese's theory and the novels and poetry which were influenced by it all too readily overlook the uncompromising position he took up with regard to the personal myth. Undoubtedly, it is possible to reason well but to contradict one's own rational beliefs in practice—Pavese himself was aware of this and admits as much, recognising that it is easy enough to be distracted from one's purpose and to be seduced by one's own myths, even for motives which he expressly condemns. There are instances in his work where one can argue that this has happened—but to see only that, with a sense of triumph, is to fail to recognise the nature of Pavese's problem. His whole makeup tempted him towards non-communication and withdrawal, towards the mysterious, the selvaggio (inhuman), so that that theory of myth took on the semblance of a life-line for him; it represented his struggle towards the rational, the essentially human and the rejection of his innermost self which, as early as 1936 he had seen as voluttuoso (self-indulgent) and condemned as such. But it is one thing to be convinced with the head and quite another to be convinced with the heart, and the inner conflict in which Pavese engaged was heavily weighted against him. In self-analysis it is always difficult to know whether or not one is being scrupulously honest, and if Pavese's work deviates from that 'law of the spirit' it is not necessarily because he is being deliberately self-indulgent or dishonest. Condemnation here—or, for that matter, approval—seems out of place.

The myth ultimately denies itself: it becomes its opposite—history—that which has a name and takes its place in consciousness. It is measured and sounded, its limits are known and it becomes, as a concept, a guide to action, a part of our savoir vivre. This process is continuous whether for the individual or for a whole society, but neither the one nor the other acts solely according to the dictates of reason (resolved myths). The irrational (our unresolved myths) spurs us to action but also to the comprehension of our acts, because it is the cause of a historical effect, a significant change. Pavese is insistent upon this connection between the myth and history, and upon the individual myth's potential contribution to historical change:

a myth worthy of the name can only arise on the ground of all existing culture, taking it for granted, and yet pointing beyond it, manifesting itself as an image which is mysterious and full of promise because it cannot be reduced even by the white-hot flame of our most rational theory.

What Pavese is saying here is that while our minds are in the grip of the irrational all rationality is abolished, time—a rational dimension or category—is abolished, and we are lifted out of time and brought face to face with that nameless entity, the myth, which began for us before that dimension of time had any meaning in our individual life. This process, it must be emphasised, is purely a function of memory, for, argues Pavese, 'It is precisely the repeatability of these myths, their ever-renewed uniqueness, that is celebrated in memory.'

If we allow that this is so, what is the function of the poet in relation to the myth? Pavese gives us his answer in the following terms:

The poet—creator of tales—jealously guards and studies these auroral glimmerings which are the starting-point and nourishment of every good tale. To write poetry means to show forth and give imaginative completion to a mythic seed. But it also means reducing this seed, by giving it concrete form, to an object of contemplation, detaching it from the maternal twilight of memory, and in fact ceasing to believe in it, as a mystery which is no longer mysterious.

The theory of myth, despite its esoteric terminology, has no supernatural element in it. What Pavese has done is to bring a whole range of metaphysical concepts within the bounds of materiality and applied them to those realities whose existence is undeniable, but to which we can temporarily give no name. Individual myths have a social or cultural origin and when they are eventually clarified they re-enter the history from which they began, although changed in themselves as well as being the agents of change and discovery. Whether we accept such an interpretation of the individuation process or not we cannot condemn it on the grounds of mysticism, for Pavese posits no spirituality which transcends the material. In arguing that at a certain age the myths, which constitute an individual's core of essential reality, have all been assimilated and that after that nothing new will be added, Pavese seems to be denying the validity of direct action in bringing about any kind of change. However, we must bear in mind that he is here expressing an opinion about individuality, not about the collective. When this assimilation process is completed the individual is already engaged in that process of the clarification of those myths (though more often than not unaware of what he is about) and, theoretically, he may indeed exhaust them all—that is, come to a complete awareness of what he himself is. That the individual is limited is what Pavese is arguing and attempting to explain. However, the consequences of this process for the collective are significantly different:

a myth is obviously a revelation, an absolute, a timeless instant. But by its very nature it tends to become history, to happen among men: that is, by taking the form of poetry or theory it ceases to be a myth outside time and becomes subject to genetico-causal investigation by historians.

The myth which becomes 'poetry or theory' adds to the knowledge and therefore to the possibilities of change and progress within a society. What Pavese seems to envisage here—and he explicitly states that 'the experience of myth' is not just 'the privilege of the poet and of the thinker' but rather 'a universally human gift'—is a continuous process of clarification going on amongst all the individuals who comprise a given collective in a particular place. The 'pool' of knowledge, of conscious experience, which a society represents, is constantly being enlarged and thus the conditions in which succeeding generations will form their myths are always being changed. For the individual who, unlike the society, is bounded closely by time and limited possibilities of experience, the theory leads towards self-definition—the self being a unique absolute—whilst for a society, which is subject to a continuous process of change, its effect is dynamic.

During the war, Pavese does not seem to have been fully aware of these different implications of his theory; his failure to act at the crucial moment suggests that he made no distinction between its effects on the individual and on the society as a whole. Later, he joined the Communist Party because—it has frequently been suggested—he felt guilt and remorse at having 'missed the boat'. Perhaps this is the explanation, or part of it. It is also possible that the success of the Resistance movement convinced him that action could bring progressive change for a society and that even writing could be an agent of such change, particularly if it concentrated on the task of bringing to light the myths of contemporary society. Pavese's thought did not remain static—a fact which is sometimes overlooked—and in his attitude to the business of living as well as to the business of poetry he was continually searching for new answers, new techniques. A failure to recognise this is to run the risk of falsifying the complex picture of his development. He was perpetually assailed by doubts which led to revisions and new revisions—the many corrections indicated in his diary bear witness to this. The significant breakthrough came with the theory of myth, yet even that took several years of trial and error to develop and perfect, as again his diary reveals.

What Pavese sought was some measure of certainty, that is, of fixity. Failing continually to locate it in relationships with women, in orthodox religion, in work, in politics—the more obvious sources of security in society—he believed, with the gradual evolution of his theory, that he had found it in his myths. One of the most revealing entries in his diary in this context is the following, written in 1939:

The worst misfortune of all is loneliness, and in fact, the supreme comfort—religion—consists in finding a companion who never fails, God. Prayer is an outlet, like talking to a friend. Art is equivalent to prayer, because it puts one, on the plane of ideas, in contact with someone who will benefit from it. Thus the whole problem of life is this: how to break one's own solitude, how to communicate with others. This explains the persistence of marriage, fatherhood, friendships. But why happiness should lie in these things, why one should be better off communicating with another person than on one's own, is a strange thing. Perhaps it's only an illusion: being alone is quite pleasant most of the time. Now and then it's nice to have a goatskin to pour yourself into then drink yourself out again: seeing that what we ask from others is what we already have within ourselves. The mystery is that we are not satisfied to look into ourselves and drink there, that we need to be given back to ourselves by other people. (15 May 1939)

It was this link between God, paternity, marriage, and so on, which led Pavese to the suspicion that what he was looking for was a religion substitute. During the years in which he was writing Feria d'agosto, evolving his theory, he sought refuge and comfort for a time in Catholicism. However, he found he was incapable of a sustained faith for, by definition, it was a contradiction of the rationality which, ever since 1936, he had striven so hard to make the guiding principle in his life. When he had eventually sufficiently clarified his theory of myth to be convinced that it would provide him, through poetry, with a way into his own reality and that of others, we find him wondering whether 'this will suffice as a substitute for the religious urge' (Il mestiere di vivere, 17 September 1943). Even before it had taken shape in his mind, the theory was destined to be thought of in religious terms, even though it is a religion devoid of transcendental mystery.

Pavese's concern with childhood in Feria d'agosto constitutes both an exploration of his theory and an escape, through memory, into a lost paradise in which there was a sense neither of limitation nor of anxiety about future and past. He sees the child as living only for the present moment, unaware of any significance in his actions beyond the immediate one, even though, in reality, he is in the process of constructing his own destiny. It is the freedom of that unconsciousness which Pavese regrets losing as a mature man. For the child the voluttuoso is the norm, whereas for the man, whose destiny is to all intents and purposes fixed, there is so much outside him which he no longer has any hope of attaining, for it did not become a part of his myths when he too was at the beginning. In 'Mal di mestiere' ('Missed vocation') he explains that

in childhood we were something else. Little unconscious brutes, and reality gathered us up as we gathered seeds and stones. We were in no danger then of admiring it and wanting to jump into its whirlpool. We were the whirlpool itself. But the secret story of everyone's childhood consists of those shocks and ruptures that uprooted us from reality, whereby we set ourselves against things and learned to appraise and contemplate them through language—today a shape, tomorrow a colour. What we hold most dear, then, will be this discordant concord of encounters, discoveries, development.

In many of the pieces in Feria d'agosto Pavese tries to view the child's expanding experience of the world through the eyes of a child narrator, in an attempt to get beyond the nostalgia and possible sentimentalism which might very well be the adult's reaction to the memory of his own formative years. Pavese is interested in the accumulation process itself and explores different aspects of it. In 'Primo amore' ('First love') it is the traumatic discovery of sex by two young boys which is portrayed; in 'La giacchetta di cuoio' ('The leather jacket') the destructive effect of a woman on the life of a man who is much admired by the child narrator; whilst in 'Le feste' ('The festivals') violence and greed are closely observed. However, it is 'll mare' ('The sea') which perhaps gives the roundest picture of any of the accumulation and significance of myths in the life of the young child.

'Il mare' tells the story of two boys who set out, one evening, from their home deep in the Langhe, to walk to the sea. The grandfather of one of them, Gosto, once climbed to the top of a hill and, so the boy claims, from there saw the sea. For a long time the idea of a journey in search of the sea gradually takes shape in the minds of the two boys. The narrator tells us that "I have always imagined the sea as a clear sky seen behind water', and it is with this vague image in mind—an image which has been unconsciously culled from the words of those about him—that he sets out. After walking for a whole night and a good part of the following day, after various encounters, including one with a strange tramp-like character called Rocco, Gosto decides to go back home. He senses that they will not reach their objective and for him that is all that matters. The narrator is different in temperament and continues alone; for him the journey is everything, the sea only a pretext, a myth which will remain intact for him for years to come:

Now [he explains] it no longer mattered if I couldn't see the sea beyond Cassinasco. It was enough to know the sea was there, beyond the hills and the villages, and to think of it as I walked along between the hedges.

This solitary journey has about it an atmosphere which is magical. So much that is only hearsay is accepted by the child as fact; so much depends on the workings of his imagination. At one point he falls asleep and dreams and the dream merges into reality when he awakes. The sky was full of stars,' he says, 'and I thought that Gosto was under the trees.' Yet he remembers he is alone, that Gosto had already gone back. There is a huge bonfire, and men and boys milling about it in the flickering shadows, and he shouts Gosto's name out loud. In the confusion and the darkness there are sounds and figures, but to the child all is obscure, and in order to give a meaning and a name to his experience he, true to Pavese's understanding of Vico, populates his dark world out of fantasy. It is this continuous groping for reality which Pavese evokes so well, as in the following passage:

Now and then you'd hear a voice from the road screaming in fright. The men would run over and start laughing, because the girls would be there waiting for them. A man grabbed me as I was about to pull out a branch. 'You fool,' he said, 'what if you fall in the fire?' He tore the branch out of my hands and ran off in the dark with some others, and they threw it down from the road, still burning. There was a lot of shouting and a woman's voice, then laughter and they began punching each other. If only Gosto were here, I thought. The flames were so high they lit up the whole valley. "I wonder if they can see it from the sea,' I said, and whenever someone threw in a bunch of sticks I would look down the valley to see if the Belbo at least was lit up. I had a longing for clearings among the trees; I wanted to dance and to see all around from up there.

The interplay between reality and the child's thoughts, the association of ideas and objects which occur in the flow of the narrative in this passage, show Pavese at his most sensitive. Straining to hear, to catch sight of, to understand—to clarify, in fact; that is the essence of 'Il mare'. But this is the time before understanding—which will come much later—and for the child only the vague, the imprecise, indistinct, the half-known, half-heard—in short, the myth—must fill the void. The story is full of parties, music, wine, food, bonfires, dancing, trees, the normality of the Langhe; and yet, for the child, they are electric, vibrant, suggestive, and all contribute to that atmosphere of magic in which, for Pavese, the child accumulates his own destiny.

'La città' ('The city') constitutes yet another attempt on Pavese's part to illustrate and perhaps further clarify that fundamental conflict which he posits between town and country. Two students, both from the country, share a flat in the city. The elder of them, Gallo, though popular enough among his friends in the city, never attempts to sever his roots, which remain deep within the countryside of his origin, and he returns there quite contentedly after completing his studies. The narrator, however, experiences a growing sense of shame for his country origins, and even for Gallo, on whom he had previously looked with admiration. He tries to adapt himself to the ways of the city. He is strongly attracted to the sister of one of his city friends, Sandrino, and one summer, mainly in the hope of being able to be near her, he decides not to return home for the long vacation. He remarks on the sense of 'new life' which came to him as a result of that decision:

In the clear air the dark, corrugated rooftops struck me as an image of my new life—ephemeral hopes on a rough foundation. In that calm, that expectancy, I felt a sense of rebirth.

Unfortunately, those 'hopes' are shortlived, for after only a few short weeks the girl goes off to the sea with her family and he is left disconsolate and alone in the half-empty city. It is in these circumstances, during this period of depression, that he meets up with Giulia, a former girlfriend of Gallo's, a girl to whom he himself had never felt particularly attracted. However, they drift together out of a mutual sense of loneliness and boredom and frustration. Then suddenly, one morning, Sandrino and his sister, Maria, turn up at the flat. At a glance the girl 'understands' the situation and she and her brother leave at once. Explanations, even if possible, would have been pointless. There is a cruel irony in this turn of events, for Maria has been the cause of his decision to stay in the city and then of his subsequent loneliness. Giulia fills a need for warmth and affection, as he does for her, but the rigid, conventional morality of the girl cannot admit this even as a possibility. Once again, a Pavesian character had foundered in the city, which is essentially alien to him, and again we are reminded of those words in "I mari del Sud' which have such a long echo in Pavese's writing:

La città mi ha insegnato infinite paure:
una folla, una strada mi han fatto tremare,
un pensiero talvolta, spiato su un viso.
Sento ancora negli occhi la luce beffarda
dei lampioni a migliaia sul gran scalpiccio.

(The city has taught me countless fears: a crowd or a street have made me tremble; sometimes even a thought glimpsed on someone's face. In my eyes I still feel the mocking light of thousands of street-lamps way above the great shuffling of people in the streets.)

Later, in Il diavolo sulle colline (The devil on the hills), a similar situation arises when Oreste, a compagnuolo, becomes infatuated with the indolent, dissipated wife of a drug addict. He too suffers because his relative purity is tainted by the relative corruption of the girl. However, neither here nor in 'La città' is Pavese taking a moralistic stand. He is concerned to show that city and country represent not merely two different ways of life but two different stages of civilisation and that the more 'advanced' values of the former will always leave the man from the country in a state of bewilderment. The converse is also true, however. . . . The myths of town and country are perforce different, and since (according to Pavese), they operate at the instinctive and not the rational level, they will always be a hidden source of conflict in a relationship such as those described above.

The search for one's self, for one's destiny, is carried on always on the frontiers of the unknown, or the half-known, and the poet, as interpreter of himself and of the world, is a pioneer who does battle with many chimeras, attempting to lure them out into the open to be recognised. Sometimes, however, the myth presents itself unexpectedly, in the shape of a symbol, in the normal run of events in the individual's life. In 'La vigna' ('The vineyard') for example, the vineyard is just such a symbol which immediately connects the narrator, through memory, with something which occurred at some remote time in his past, probably in his childhood. This and any other such symbol is 'a magic door' out of time to the timeless moment. In 'Il campo di granturco' ('The field of maize') we discover that the symbol

that day was a field . . . [however,] it might have been a rock overhanging a road, a solitary tree by the curve of a hill, a vine at the edge of a cliff

and that for the narrator, the timeless moment is always recreated in time in 'natural forms'. It is these 'natural forms' which are both the objective manifestations of an internal landscape and the symbols in the flow of time of those absolute realities, the formative myths.

The journey back through memory always brings the poet, the clarifier of myths, into the twilight zone between consciousness and unconsciousness, and it is in 'Nudismo' ('Nakedness') that Pavese gives us an allegory of the poet's descent to the level of the unconscious. Here we realise just how much Pavese had absorbed of the theories of Carl Gustav Jung, without actually committing himself to faith in the existence of a transcendental reality. In this piece the narrator reaches the selvaggio (the 'natural' in an essentially non-human sense), that which lies beyond consciousness, by discarding the trappings of civilisation, symbolised by clothing and language, and by locating ' . . . just one patch of ground that has not been dug and cultivated by human hands', in which to immerse himself physically. The nakedness of the body, the natural, non-rational part of man, is brought into contact with the rest of nature. 'In exceedingly rare moments,' he admits, "I lose my self-awareness and forget my body.' He lies there surrounded by stones, roots and grasses, his eyes riveted on the sky above, cut off from all that is human:

The shadow grows and I watch the wood and the still water. I couldn't express what I see and what I am thinking. Words are grass and roots, they are stones, mud, brightness—there aren't any others—but my body does not accept them.

Language, which separates man from reality, is rejected by the body in its descent from consciousness:

Enter into the grass, enter into the stone: that's what my body would say, but it is not enough. This hollow is a piece of matter without a name; I must move, hear it, touch it. I have to force myself not to clutch the roots, climb up into the forest among the thorns and green trunks, and walk there. I contain myself, touching my body.

There is a mental struggle, the assertion of rationality over the irrational, instinctive call of nature; but it is a struggle. Like Leopardi, Pavese realises that nature is still man's greatest enemy, but as the enemy within, always tempting him away from what is essentially human. Pavese's failure to act in the armed struggle against Nazi-Fascism represented his refusal to capitulate to the irrational and inhuman, the degradation of war. The bestiality which the war brought to the surface once again in the history of man makes it impossible to disagree with Pavese's analysis, whatever we may think about his refusal to participate. It is in rationality that man's future lies and in acknowledging this Pavese is endorsing the Enlightenment view:

Everything is marked by the eye and the words of men, which come from the fields like a quiet breathing; yet they do not penetrate down here where the water and slime and sweat stagnate and say nothing.

This is Pavese's true position. Refuge is found ultimately not in myth but in the rational and human, the 'quiet breathing' which is surrounded by the stagnant, meaningless world of the selvaggio. The passage, which concludes 'Nudismo', continues: 'Here every day I find life, but then I stretch out my black body and lie like a dead man'; and the poet's position 'between the human and the non-human' is defined. However, unlike the 'religious' mediator, the poet is concerned to destroy, not to preserve, the mystery, to give it meaning and possess it for himself and his fellow-men. It was this position, defined to Pavese's satisfaction in Feria d'agosto, which led him to re-examine many Greek myths in the highly schematised Dialoghi con Leucò (Conversations with Leuko) in order to demonstrate how the gradual encroachment of rationality upon the selvaggio heralded a humanisation and yet an evergrowing sense of limitation for mankind. Yet for Pavese, just as for the Leopardi of 'La ginestra' (The broomflower'), where Vesuvius symbolises the tremendous physical power of nature, the selvaggio is never really destroyed but is always ready to reassert itself at any moment. The myth may be rationalised at one stage in history, but may well return again at a later point in time, so that man's accumulation of knowledge throughout history is a process of ebbing and flowing rather than an unbroken forward movement. Let us be clear at this point what Pavese means by 'clarifying' in relation to myth. It is the possession through the recognition and naming of experience; but the mythical substance is indestructible, and will return again and again. Every age has its myths, and although the overall evolution of civilisation reveals a slow, steady gain of reason over the irrational, it is impossible to foresee a time when that triumph will be absolute. The individual, in his short span of time, may add something of value from the rationalisation of his personal myths, but there is no guarantee that what has been gained will not again be lost. The light, then, is at best only ever partial and is forever surrounded by darkness.

Fabio Girelli-Carasi (essay date 1989)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1522

SOURCE: A review of Stories, in The Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 196-99.

[In the following review, Girelli-Carasi provides a favorable assessment of Stories, examining the themes and plots of the tales in the collection.]

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's suicide in 1950. This was an event of such a deep emotional resonance that the development of an impartial and dispassionate debate on the literary value of Pavese's work has been hampered.

After the shock of Pavese's death had been absorbed, his work began being dissected with the voyeuristic goal of "finding" some evidence of psychological disease. Poems and short stories became the favorite targets of this autopsy. Perhaps because of the fragmentary nature of their conception, they were thought to have given voice to personal problems, with the implication that the prime material had to be autobiographical in origin. With time, though, this hypothesis has failed to produce a return comparable to the critical investment it attracted.

Stories, a new anthology that presents an intelligent and well-measured selection of Pavese's short stories, may be just what is needed for a new assessment. Although the editor and translator in the introductions falls victim to the conditioned-reflex interpretation lamented above, the criteria of his choice seem to have been based on a much deeper understanding of Pavese's production than is usually the case.

In Stories, Pavese's favorite atmospheres and settings receive their well-deserved prominence. Hilly countryside landscapes, taverns, pink-and-green-light ballrooms of an urban periphery, the Po river, are all clearly displayed, together with the themes of loneliness, the struggle to "take part in life," the painful realization of an emotional disorder. This selection also covers the range of styles and narrative structures, as well as experiments, as demonstrated by the fragment "The Beggars," lone representative of many false starts.

The anthology is most faithful in concentrating on Pavese's most typical element, structurally and narratively: the character of a lone male, in conflict with his own nature, in different phases of life, from boyhood to maturity. As a boy, the protagonist is led by a mysterious energy into incomprehensible adventures: in search of mythical snakes ("The Name"); in the company of wiser and more experienced friends ("First Love"); as an orphan working on a farm ("Festival Night").

In these stories we witness the adolescent's unconscious suppression of instinctive sexual knowledge, as a protection against a psychological trauma. In "The Leather Jacket," for example, the narrator is ignorant of the sexual nature of the power-game between Ceresa and his unfaithful live-in lover, Nora, until her death at the hand of Ceresa. A similar unawareness appears in "Villa on the Hill," in which a young man, once a childhood friend of Ginia, the house's mistress, is invited for an evening with a group of people he does not know. The narrator's attention is caught by another young man, apart from the crowd, who, with his attitude towards Ginia, implies the rightful expectation of her special attention by virtue of an unspecified yet flaunted previous intimacy. The apex of the story is the revelation of Ginia's pregnancy, a condition implied in the subtext of the other guests' conversations.

As Pavese's protagonist is called upon to play the role of adult, the focus of the stories shifts towards either problematic relationships or the lack of them. A series of these stories presents the man as an immature, grown-up adolescent, the pathetic victim of a self-delusion of love. The characterization of the woman is in turn very interesting: whether a professional prostitute ("The Idol"), a lonely and courageous unwed mother ("The Family"), or an innocent girl seduced by a married brute ("Three Girls"), she represents an individual who, from personal experience, has learned strength and has acquired self-respect. In "The Idol" Guido discovers Mina, an old girlfriend, working in a brothel. Obsessed with her, he gives up his job as a travelling salesman to spend hours in a café across the street from the bordello waiting for her. Guido first offers, then asks and finally begs Mina to marry him. As he regresses into infantile behavior and becomes jealous of one of her clients, Mina spells out the distance between them: "Mina shrugged: 'He is a good client.' After a moment she went on: 'He wants to marry me.' She looked straight at me, then dropped her eyes. 'Now, Guido,' she murmured, her voice hard. 'Don't be a silly boy.'"

In "The Family," Corradino runs into Cate, an ex-lover ("I really did think you'd be married," she murmured. "You know I am not the type," he replied.). As is his nature, he tries to establish a relationship based on her sexual dependency, but is thrown off balance by her selfreliance. When she tells him that she has a child and later reveals that Corradino himself is the father, the man is unable to extricate himself from the vicious circle of double-guesses that constitutes his inner reality: "It was clear that, if Cate wanted nothing from him, she was telling the truth and Dino was his son. If, on the other hand, Cate had ended by trying to trap him or get something from him (What? Marriage? or just money?) then some doubt might remain."

In yet another series of stories the outcome of this emotional imbalance takes the form of self-destruction and proudly flaunted misogyny. The characters desperately try to rationalize their inadequacies by preaching the virile virtues of being single ("Friends"), or their rejection of paternity ("Free Will").

The next step on this ideal ladder into the abyss leads from rationalization to full awareness. The process towards selfishness, emotional sado-masochism and inner death reaches its peak in "Wedding Trip" and "Suicides." The main characters tell with pain and horror of their crippled psychological realities manifested in inner lives full of resentment and anger towards the ones who love them most. With lucid desperation they see themselves trapped between the guilt and the pain caused by the consciousness of their nature, and the impossibility of changing it.

In "Wedding Trip" the psychological intricacies of the man's perception of his relationship with Cilia are played against a background of suppressed anger and resentful derision that frustrate her efforts to establish harmony between them. The mechanism at play is a classic one: Cilia's love and care make him aware of an emotional block and trigger angry reactions originally directed at himself but deflected onto another object, i.e. Cilia, by the perverted logic of psychological self-preservation.

The same character-type appears in "Suicides," where a man remorselessly manipulates women into providing him with sexual gratification, with no emotional exchange on his part. Caught in a relationship with a woman who desperately loves him, but whom he despises, he leads her to suicide, thus ridding himself of a burden. Narrating this story in retrospect, he reveals the profound distortions of his personality: "It is to a woman that I owe my present condition, [with] no hope of forging a closer link with the world at large, disliked by the next man, disliked by my mother whom I support. . . . But would things have turned out differently with any other woman? I mean, who would be capable of humbling me as my nature demands?"

Solitude finds its extreme, almost symbolic, expression in the character of the prisoner, as in "Intruder" and "Gaol Birds," where human interactions are reduced to little more than coded messages revealing feelings and thoughts too close to the surface to be suppressed. In "Land of Exile" Pavese portrays a paradigmatic condition of loneliness, with obvious references to his own personal experience of political exile. The character is seen alone and remote, trapped between a wind-swept barren landscape on one side, and the eerie sterility of the winter sea on the other.

Landscapes still have a very important role in "Land of Exile," the first short story Pavese wrote. Later, he abandoned the safeguards of naturalism to venture into an aesthetics defined by the dynamic interaction of the textual components. While the themes do not change significantly from the poems of Lavorare stanca, Pavese's creative effort organized the narrative material into new expressions. The results of this successful operation enabled him to expand further into the composition of more ambitious works, first novellas, then, finally, novels. In this regard, Pavese's literary experiences reproduce an exemplary linear development towards more complex modes and structures, with the various phases accumulating as successive strata.

That the short stories were not simply a mere experiment, or a warm-up exercise before bigger and better exploits, is also clearly demonstrated by their polished form and highly sensitive function of conveying some of Pavese's most painful and unadorned observations on the human spirit.

Although in Stories the translation at times fails to capture Pavese's instinct for rhythm, it nevertheless does justice to his uncanny ability to create ambiguity and indistinctiveness both in the characters and the action, which force upon the reader the task of uncompromising attention to the text and its subtleties.

Sven Birkerts (essay date 1992)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2144

SOURCE: "Myth and Mortal," in Partisan Review, Vol. LIX, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 155-60.

[In the following excerpt, American critic Birkerts asserts that Dialogues with Leucò addresses "primary existential questions " through myths in an attempt to discern universal patterns and paradigms in life.]

In his superb essay on Cesare Pavese, "The Silence of Origins," W. S. Di Piero reports that the author had a special fondness for his book of mythic dialogues—indeed, that on the day before he was to take his life he sent a special delivery letter to his friend and biographer, Davide Lajolo, in which he wrote: "If you want to know who I am now, re-read 'La Belva' in Dialogues With Leucò."

The reader who would attempt to make sense of the man and his suicide will naturally hasten to the piece in question (translated .. . as "The Lady of the Beasts"), as I did. Alas, it is a frustrating point of entry, offering no clear answers, only enigmas. Pavese was simply not the kind of writer to hand his deepest insights to anyone who came knocking.

But maybe such an approach has its uses. For a reading of "The Lady of the Beasts" will almost inevitably send the reader back to the beginning of the book, for context—just as, again almost inevitably, a reading of the whole dictates that one turn back to the first page and start again, for comprehension. Dialogues With Leucò ... is a Gordian knot of a book, except that no stroke of the sword will solve it; one must work, slowly and patiently, drawing continually on what one knows of life. Only then comes a loosening of the cord, some understanding of the mysteries as mysteries, some grasp of the complexity of Pavese's vision.

The work comprises twenty-seven dialogues, each representing an encounter between figures—often obscure figures—from Greek mythology. At first glance the dialogues seem unrelated; they make no extended tale. But a closer inspection—a reading that attends and pauses long enough for the resonance to gather—reveals a thematic development of great suggestiveness. Di Piero goes so far as to insist that the book be read as a poem. Then, if we consider "each of the twenty-seven dialogues a stanza or strophe, Dialogues With Leucò emerges as an epic history of consciousness, the insinuation of death and blood-fear into the Western psyche, stretching from the Age of Cronos to the present."

A large claim, that, but not too large. The extraordinary compression of the material, the subtle braiding of the principal themes, the progression that declares a deepening authority—these are all properties of the epical poetic endeavor. Moreover, the language, while not shaped to the line, nevertheless strives toward the condition of charged and uncluttered utterance that we so prize in the archaic bards.

The dialogues are difficult to read or discuss without psychologizing, at least at first. Read in sequence, they appear to tell of the repression over time of the primal drives and to point to their reemergence, or sublimation, in our societal institutions and arts. But such a description plucks the fangs from a fierce, original, and decidedly non-programmatic work. It also misleads. For Pavese's aim is somehow anterior to such interpretations. That is, the dialogues are there in and for themselves; they take the form they do because interpretive discourse cannot reach the charged materials that Pavese would assay; they ask us to read past reason, for they concern, at one level, the late emergence of reason from the autonomous play of chthonic forces.

Pavese's procedure is to give a short situating preface and then to plunge in medias res, trusting that the reader will pick up the necessary context. We are not required to be versed in the mythological particulars, though every reading further confirms that Pavese's own imagining is deeply referential—a good handbook of mythic lore will open unsuspected vistas.

"The Chimera," the second of the dialogues, can be taken as representative. Pavese's preface notes:

It was with high hearts that the youth of Greece set out for the East in quest of glory and death. Here their courage and daring took them through a sea of fabulous atrocities, in which some of them failed to keep their heads. There is no point in citing names. Besides, there were more than seven such Crusades. It is Homer himself who—in Book VI of the Iliad—tells us of the melancholy which consumed the killer of the Chimera in his old age, and of his young grandson Sarpedon who died under the walls of Troy.

The speakers in the dialogue are Sarpedon and Hippolochus. Hippolochus is the son of Bellerophon; Sarpedon, who was slain by Patroclus at Troy, is sometimes represented as the son of Zeus and Laodamia, the daughter of Bellerophon. The exchange, then, is between a son and a grandson. As for Bellerophon, it may be remembered that after his successes in slaying the Chimera and pacifying the Amazons, he deemed himself a god and tried to mount up to heaven. Zeus, outraged at his presumption, caused him to fall to earth, blinded. Thereupon, Bellerophon avoided all contact with mortals and passed his days wandering aimlessly in the Aleian fields.

Sarpedon begins by reporting to Hippolochus that he has seen Bellerophon, that he is "a terrible sight." Bellerophon has said to him, "If I were your age, boy, I'd go drown myself .. . If you want to stay just and merciful, stop living." Hippolochus is shocked, unable to believe that his heroic father has succumbed to bitterness. Sarpedon tells of the old man's belief—that he has been deserted by the gods, that he must now make atonement for the slaying of the Chimera. He had spoken to Sarpedon as follows:

From the day I stained myself with the monster's blood, I haven't had a real life. I have looked for men to fight, tamed the Amazons, slaughtered the Solymi. I ruled over Lycia and I planted a great garden—but all this was nothing. Where can I find another Chimera? Where is the strength of the arms that killed her . . . How can the man who met the Chimera resign himself to death?

Hippolochus can neither grieve for Bellerophon's plight nor for the bloody past that is no more. It falls to Sarpedon to search out the meanings in the old legends. When Hippolochus says to him, "There's no point in thinking of those things," it is clear that he is refusing the truth of origins. Sarpedon can only reply:

The spring remains, the mountain, the terror. The dreams remain. Bellerophon can't take a step without stumbling on a corpse, an old rancor, a pool of blood, surviving from those days when it all happened, and things weren't dreams. In those days his right arm had a weight in the world, and he killed.

The dialogue is, on one level, a lament for the passing away of ruder, bloodier, more real times. On another level, it proposes the survival of the archaic through the internalizations of memory and dream. Throughout the Dialogues we find this duality—not ambivalence—of presentation. The projection of the mythic figures gives dramatic animation to concerns that we accept, with habituated passivity, as mere ciphers in a psychic code. Pavese commands both perspectives, but his clear ambition is to track our chimeras back to their bloody places of origin. To this end, he does not enclose the mythic in quotation marks—he treats it directly, as another species of history. We can invoke the psychoanalytic paradigm, but we cannot deploy it with easy assurance.

There is simply not the space here to track the woof and warp of the unfolding dialogues. I can affirm only that the reader is drawn slowly forward, made to plumb the root passions and drives. The mythic frame gradually shifts; the ancestral becomes the timeless. It is a commonplace, I realize, to say that the myths live on, but sometimes the commonplace must serve.

In Pavese's dialogue "The Mother," he has Hermes speak as follows to Meleager:

Your lives are forever contained in the burning brand, and your mother draws you from the fire, and you live half blazing. The passion of which you die is your mother's passion, smoldering on in you. What are you but her flesh and blood?

The truth, or message, is here given in the context of the mythic, but what we realize in the encounter is that myth itself is but the original metaphor, the first and possibly still the most charged dramatization of the patterns that were seen to underlie experience. All artistic expression, it stands to reason, must consciously or unconsciously echo the mythic. Pavese recognized this and elected to take the most direct path. He returned to the source, not so much to reinterpret as reinhabit. What he shows is that these original legends are less a set of codified—and completed—narratives than they are an archive of live recognitions and patterns. He is not intent upon modifying or adding but upon reading more deeply into what has been given.

What is destiny—for gods, for men? Is experience arbitrary, or is it governed by some undisclosed purpose, some telos? Do events happen because they happen, or because they must? Pavese was clearly bedeviled by the primary existential questions, and the dialogues take them up over and over, moving from the godly perspective to that of the mortals.

The gods, of course, inhabit a realm beyond all contingency; for them all is known, foreseen. And this is at once the apotheosis of freedom—they are deathless and dread-free—and an almost intolerable burden. For to know all, and to be exempt from mortality, is in a sense to be enslaved. And this, interestingly, is seen as the reason why the gods were so bent upon intruding into the domain of the human. Here, in "Mankind," Bia tells Kratos:

Brother dear, will you try to understand that even though the world is no longer divine, for this reason the gods who come down from the Mountain find it always new and always rewarding. To hear the speech of men—what a marvelous experience that can be! They know they suffer, they struggle, they possess the earth . . . Men are poor worms, but with them everything is unforeseen, everything is a discovery. You can understand an animal and even a god, but no one, not even we immortals, knows what is going on in the hearts of men. Only if you live with them and for them can you enjoy the savor of the world.

But if it is given to the gods to be deathless, it is not likewise given that they should remain omnipotent. The Dialogues are, as I've suggested, very much about the dying of their power, their withdrawal from the human sphere. As Prometheus tells Heracles in "The Mountain":

Death entered this world with the gods. You mortals fear death because you know that the gods, being gods, are immortal. But everyone has the death he deserves. Their day will come too . . . Not everything can be explained. But always remember that monsters do not die. What dies is the fear they inspire. So with the gods: when men no longer fear them, they will vanish.

Their vanishing, one might theorize, happened by way of a transubstantiation. They became their legends, their myths, and as these, too, lose potency—as they are forgotten—their fabled might all but disappears. They again become what they were at first: the paradigmatic forms of our experience, our longings, our imaginings.

The last dialogue, "The Muses," gathers such intimations and gives them form. We read the piece as an account of the passing of the torch from gods to men, but it is also Pavese's summary articulation of the place of the mythic. The exchange is between Mnemoseyne (also called Melete) and Hesiod, first of the line of poets:

Mnemoseyne: . . . Don't you understand that man, every man, is born in that swamp of blood? That the sacred and divine are with you too? In the bed, in the fields before the fire? In everything you do, you renew a divine model. Day and night, there is not an instant, not even the most futile, which has not sprung from the silence of your origins.

Hesiod: You speak, Melete, and I cannot help believing. Only let me adore you.

Mnemoseyne: You have another alternative.

Hesiod: What is that?

Mnemoseyne: Try telling mortals the things you know.

This is the task, the high responsibility, that Pavese took upon himself. His Dialogues With Leucò, grave and mysterious, will never be a popular work. But it is—and I would say this of very few other books of our time—a repository of human wisdom and the anguish that earns it.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 6, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 261

Biography

Lajolo, Davide. "From Poetry to Short Stories." In his An Absurd Vice: A Biography of Cesare Pavese, translated and edited by Mario and Mark Pietralunga, pp. 135-46. New York: New Directions, 1983.

Details the period during which Pavese began writing short stories and how his personal experiences were manifested in his work.

Criticism

Bacchilega, Cristina. "Cesare Pavese and America: The Myth of Translation and the Translation of Myth." Disposino VII, Nos. 19-21 (1982): 77-83.

Focuses on the difficulty that Pavese's works have had in being accepted by an American audience. Bacchilega also discusses the influence of American myths on Pavese's writing.

Casson, Lionel. "Night Thoughts from Olympus." Saturday Review 48, No. 23 (5 June 1965): 25.

Praises Pavese's Dialogues with Leucò but finds fault with the translation by William Arrowsmith and Donald Carne-Ross.

Dalglish, James. "Sociolinguistics in Cesare Pavese's Ciau Masino." Italica 62, No. 3 (Autumn 1985): 230-45.

Explores Pavese's use of authentic dialects and linguistics that offer a realistic interpretation of different societies and individuals in Ciau Masino.

Murch, A. E. Introductions in Stories, by Cesare Pavese, translated by A. E. Murch, pp. 7-11, 215-17. New York: Ecco Press, 1987.

Discusses Pavese's life in connection with the themes and subjects in Festival Night, and Other Stories and Summer Storm, and Other Stories.

Young, B.A. "New Fiction and Old." Punch CCXLVII, No. 6467 (19 August 1964): 282.

Comments on the use of characters in Festival Night and Pavese's conception of the short story genre.

Additional coverage of Pavese's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 104; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 128; and Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 3.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Pavese, Cesare (Poetry Criticism)