Cesare Pavese Pavese, Cesare (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Pavese, Cesare 1908-1950

Italian novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, translator, and critic.

Pavese was one of the first modern Italian writers to break away from the academic tradition of Italian literature to create a less scholarly and more straightforward, unadorned vernacular style. Marked by themes of solitude and alienation, his fiction is considered autobiographical—not in the sense that plots and characters mirror specifics of his own life, but rather in the degree that stories are imbued with his personality. Throughout his work, Pavese wrote about perennial existential concerns: human nature, self-knowledge, the power of love and sex, and the significance of life and mortality.

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

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Gian-Paolo Biasin (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8072 words.)

Linda Hutcheon (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Doug Thompson (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8431 words.)

Fabio Girelli-Carasi (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Sven Birkerts (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

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'...

(The entire section is 2144 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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.


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...

(The entire section is 261 words.)