After testing his narrative potential in short fiction, Gabriele D’Annunzio confronted the challenge of long fiction with the novel The Child of Pleasure, which confirmed in his prose writing a success already established in poetry. During the next twenty years, seven other novels followed, including Leda Without Swan, which could be better defined as a long short story.
The passage from short to long fiction presents substantial changes. Abandoning naturalistic themes and atmosphere, the writer directs his attention to the aristocratic world of the capital: Natural landscapes are substituted for elegant interiors or closed gardens; simple characters with primitive passions are replaced with sophisticated figures corroded by subtle torments. The language, highly refined, flows with an even rhythm, avoiding chromatic effects, and the prevailing subdued tones cast an aura of imperceptible melancholy on characters and events. All the subsequent novels are patterned on the same narrative structure: Little action is involved in the plot, which centers on the figure of the hero, a man of exceptional qualities who is confronted by a vulgar and base society dominated by utilitarian interests and aspirations. The narration is punctuated by digressions on artistic issues, meditations, detailed descriptions of objects and landscapes, and above all, by the minute analysis of fugitive sensations.
The Child of Pleasure
In his first novel, The Child of Pleasure, D’Annunzio portrays the idle and decadent aristocratic society of Rome, totally absorbed in the pursuit of the most refined pleasures of the mind and of the senses. The autobiographical motif is evident in the projection of the author’s personality onto the figure of theprotagonist, Andrea Sperelli, a young aristocrat endowed with the spark of artistic genius.
A poet and a painter of great potential, Andrea wastes his intellectual energies in a futile worldly life; he finds his greatest challenges in his jousts of love. Forgetting his artistic aspirations, Andrea feels irresistibly attracted to the beautiful and sensuous Elena Muti, who responds with the same passion. The short season of their love comes to a sudden end when Elena abandons him for a rich husband. While trying to overcome his rejection with new conquests, Andrea is involved in a scandal and, in the duel that ensues, he is gravely wounded. After a long period of moral and physical prostration, love and life are revived by the apparition of Maria in the peaceful retreat where Andrea is slowly recovering. Maria, a beautiful and noble creature, endures with dignity the distress of an unhappy marriage, devoting her life to the education of her young daughter. Enticed by her sensibility and intelligence, Andrea discovers a new aspect of love, based on the communion of intellectual interests and spiritual aspirations. Maria tries to resist the growing attraction she feels for the young artist, which she confesses to her diary, but an amorous complicity has already flawed their friendship.
Upon their return to Rome, the idyll continues, until it becomes for Maria a total engagement that overcomes her last resistance. Andrea, on the contrary, is torn between conflicting sentiments and impulses. In the elegant circles of the capital, he has seen Elena, and once again he has been captivated by her charm. His feelings become troubled and confused; he slips into morbid fancies in which the images of the two women coalesce; old memories creep into new sensations, and in Maria’s transports of love, Andrea savors Elena’s gestures. The ambiguous situation explodes when, in a moment of total abandon, he calls Maria by the name of Elena. Maria, horrified by the brutal discovery that his thoughts are of someone else, runs away, and Andrea is left with nothing but the sad realization of his inability to love.
The novel ends with a melancholic scene that symbolizes Andrea’s failure; his personal experience parallels the irreversible process of dissolution of a society whose only aspiration is the pursuit of pleasure. Maria’s husband, a notorious gambler of ill repute, has lost his entire fortune at the game table. Now the creditors are auctioning his mansion. A horde of greedy merchants fights over the possession of precious furniture and artistic objects, while Andrea wanders in the empty rooms, aware of the spiritual ruin of an entire society and of his own life.
The story is told, according to traditional rules, by the omniscient author, but the protagonist acts as a center of consciousness, reflecting the outside reality through his own sensibility. Rather than seeing the events themselves, the reader knows the sentiments, sensations, and reactions that those events provoke in Andrea. As for the other characters, they seem to exist only in relation to the protagonist; when the author deems it necessary to present their feelings, he chooses an indirect approach, resorting to literary devices such as the introduction of intimate diaries or confessional letters.
In addition to being D’Annunzio’s most popular novel, The Child of Pleasure offers a particular interest for its original interpretation of the decadent hero. Des Esseintes, the protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922), remains the prototype of the genre, and, compared with him, Andrea Sperelli appears a superficial character. A spectator rather than an actor on the stage, Andrea lacks the tension for transgression, the turbid introspective search, the attraction to the abyss of nothingness that characterize Huysmans’s hero; and the weary melancholy of The Child of Pleasure does not attain the disturbing depth of Against the Grain. Nevertheless, the two novels present a remarkable parallelism in their approach and technique. Both, in fact, restrict the parameters of the inquiry to a vision of the world filtered through the exacerbated sensibility of the hero, developing a rather tenuous plot in a rich texture of descriptions and analysis.
Episcopo and Company and The Intruder
The next two novels, Episcopo and Company and The Intruder, represent a new phase of D’Annunzio’s constant exploration of new motifs and techniques. In these works, the author experiments with the psychological and humanitarian themes proposed by the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century. Exploring the ambiguities of the human soul, he portrays tormented characters who are torn between guilty complexes and pretensions of innocence, wicked tendencies and aspirations to purity. In an attempt to render the inner struggle of the protagonists, the already slow rhythm of...
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