Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2765
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 the narration is interrupted by exclamations, self-accusations, and justifications until it dissolves in tedious repetition. The great dilemma of good and evil was not a burning issue of D’Annunzio’s moral sensibility, and these sordid stories of moral degradation appear today quite monotonous and artificial.
The Triumph of Death
In The Triumph of Death, D’Annunzio reiterates the theme of The Child of Pleasure in a more dramatic contest. In this novel, inspired by the author’s personal experiences with Barbara Leoni, the dualism of sensuality and spiritual love becomes the conflict between lust and intellectual achievements. The protagonist, Giorgio Aurispa, is a writer who fails to realize his dream of artistic creativity because of his love for the beautiful Ippolita. The woman, a nymphomaniac afflicted with sterility, appears here as the enemy whose dangerous power hinders humankind’s greatest aspirations. Giorgio, slave of his passion, is confronted by the prospect of a future of physical and intellectual impotence: Ippolita’s sterility frustrates his natural desire for biological procreation; her lust destroys his creative potential. Unable to overcome his plight, Giorgio chooses suicide, plunging into a violent death with Ippolita.
The Maidens of the Rocks
According to Carlo Salinari, the publication of The Maidens of the Rocks in 1896 marks the official birth of the superman in Italian literature. The protagonist, Claudio Cantelmo, disgusted with the corruption and degradation of political institutions, pursues a dream of national renewal. Realizing that only the next generation will be ready to follow his program, Claudio leaves the capital with the firm resolution of devoting his life to the education of a son who, under his guidance, will become the superman for whom history is waiting. Following his project, he decides to choose among three sisters, descendants of a noble family, the spouse who will bear his child, the future leader of national renovation. From the beginning, Claudio realized that his program is condemned to fail. The three sisters live in a secluded world of physical and spiritual beauty outside reality and time, and the rocks surrounding their estate symbolize the barrier that separates them from the historical context. Idealistic aspirations and concrete action belong to two distinct levels of reality that Claudio cannot bridge. Renouncing every hope of active engagement, he leaves the sisters in the cloistered serenity of their retreat.
Formally, the novel repeats the narrative structure of the preceding works; ideologically, through the protagonist, D’Annunzio conveys his own political dream of aristocratic supremacy, spurning barbarian masses and greedy bourgeoisie, both responsible for the destruction of art and beauty in the world.
The Flame of Life
If all of D’Annunzio’s heroes are projections of his personality and aspirations, the autobiographical inspiration is especially vivid in The Flame of Life. In the love story of Foscarina, an aging actor, and Stelio Effrena, a young intellectual, D’Annunzio revives his own relationship with Eleonora Duse. Stelio is in Venice to present a program for a national theater, based on the fusion of poetry, music, and dance; the new theater, instead of being restricted to an elite audience, will be addressed to the people. The ambitious project is an attempt to rescue theater from the monopoly of the bourgeoisie, which, while despising art, pretends to control it.
In Venice, Stelio meets the famous Foscarina, who falls in love with him. At first, he thinks he loves her with equal passion; in reality, he is seduced by the art of the actor rather than by the charms of the woman. The realization of the true nature of his sentiments strikes him when, in the young and pure Donatella Arvale, he recognizes the ideal woman he has desired all of his life. The brief period of elation associated with Donatella’s appearance acts as a catalyst for Stelio’s awareness of himself. When she disappears, Stelio abandons himself to his involvement with Foscarina and accepts being loved rather than loving. With acute analysis, the author dissects the sentiments of the two lovers, tracing step-by-step the dissolution of their union. For Stelio, the initial passion rapidly becomes a habit and then degenerates into fatigue and boredom. For Foscarina, it turns into an obsession. Constantly afraid of being abandoned, she oppresses the young man with her neurotic and pathetic attachment; Stelio, aware of his power, plays the game with a hint of cruelty, feeling at the same time a sincere compassion for the vulnerability of the woman. The painful romance is ended by Foscarina, who accepts an acting tour overseas, leaving Stelio to his artistic dreams.
The degenerative process of the love affair is paralleled by the progressive decay of Venice and its surroundings. Wandering in the countryside, Foscarina and Stelio come across the once-splendid Venetian villas on the river Brenta, now abandoned to deterioration and oblivion. In the silent parks, mutilated statues, covered with moss, look with blind eyes at piles of manure and the cultivation of cabbages. Images of death and ruin punctuate the narration, and the city itself seems to decompose among the stagnant waters of the lagoon. The same irreversible process of dissolution seems to supersede love, art, and beauty.
Forse che si forse che no
A noble style, compatible with aristocratic ideals and a mood of slight melancholy, prevails in all of D’Annunzio’s novels published between the years 1894 and 1900. His next novel, published in 1910, presents a sharp change of perspective, theme, and style. In Forse che si forse che no, D’Annunzio introduces a new type of hero, a young man who embodies the hopes, risks, and excitements proposed by the rising technology. While the protagonists of the other novels were intellectuals absorbed in artistic dreams, Paolo Tarsis is a man of action; he is an airplane pilot and an exalted worshiper of speed and cars. The author’s own experiences give substance to this celebration of the machine. In 1909, D’Annunzio, with the American pilot Glenn Curtis and the journalist Luigi Barzini, accomplished the first aeronautic experiment in Italy. This fact, while verifying once more the intrinsic unity of D’Annunzio’s life and art, also confirms his avant-garde role in Italian literature: D’Annunzio’s revolutionary concept of the hero anticipated the Futurists’ celebration of the power of technology in modern society.
In the novel, the engine constitutes for Paolo the way to salvation, the means to overcome the plights of a vulgar existence oppressed by utilitarian interests and temptations of lust. With the two sisters, Isabella and Vana, D’Annunzio reenacts the drama of dual love he had already explored in The Child of Pleasure and The Flame of Life. Like Elena and Foscarina, Isabella is a sensual and possessive woman who enslaves the man in the vortex of passion; the pure and spiritual Vana belongs instead to the same category of ideal woman as Maria Ferees and Donatella Arvale. Both sisters are in love with Paolo, who is attracted to the sensitive Vana yet cannot resist Isabella’s erotic seductions. This favorite theme here assumes a tragic depth. The characters are vividly drawn, and the conflict reaches unprecedented intensity, increasing the tension until tragedy explodes in the final catastrophe. Vana kills herself after revealing to Paolo Isabella’s incestuous love with their brother Aldo; Isabella, after a devastating confrontation with Paolo, becomes totally insane. In the anguished scene of Isabella roaming semiconscious in the desert city, the author recalls with documentary simplicity the tragic end of his relationship with Giuseppina Mancini.
The degrading aspects of life lead Paolo to seek purification in an extreme challenge with death. Without a precise destination, he flies with his plane away from reality. After an elated flight in the purity of the sky, the plane crashes on the desert coast of Sardinia. Paolo, injured, crawls painfully to the sea to find solace in the calm waters. In front of him, the sea suggests purification and renewal; behind him, the burning wreck of the plane implies the failure of the engine ideology. The novel ends on this uncertain note, restating the ambiguous meaning of the title: “perhaps yes, perhaps no.”
In this novel, D’Annunzio gives a virtuoso performance, mastering all the inspirations and techniques of his previous writings. Powerful descriptions of natural landscapes, erudite evocations, naturalistic motifs, erotic scenes, memories, subtle analysis of sensations—all merge in this prose, unified by the fluidity of the language, constantly sustained by lyric intensity.
Leda Without Swan
Leda Without Swan, a short novel written in 1912 and published in 1916, explores a theme already implicit in the perspective of Forse che si forse che no. The ivory tower of art and beauty does not offer a safe refuge from the assaults of life. The vulgar and the sublime, farce and tragedy are tightly intertwined, and it is impossible to isolate the one from the other. Thus, D’Annunzio’s meditations on life and art had come to a turning point. The writer who had affirmed that “Il verso e’ tutto” (the verse is everything) realized that life cannot be controlled by literature; consequently, he turned to action. D’Annunzio’s decision is prefigured in his new perception of the hero-protagonist, as if in Paolo Tarsis he had unconsciously projected his own tension toward his future engagement.
Leda Without Swan was D’Annunzio’s last purely fictional prose work. The war absorbed all of his energies, and when he resumed writing, he chose the more direct expression of autobiographical prose. Ettore Paratore suggests an interesting hypothesis to explain the drastic elimination of the third-person narration in D’Annunzio’s prose. According to Paratore, the writer, who shared with his generation the cult of the hero, felt compelled, at first, to represent in his fictional writings a hero-protagonist with whom he could identify. After the war, D’Annunzio, who had lived his heroic hour, discarded fiction, now useless, and assumed for himself the role of the protagonist.
Thus, total disillusionment sealed the prestigious adventure of D’Annunzio’s life. His art remains as a literary monument to fifty years of European culture. In its variety, D’Annunzio’s work mirrors the multiform aspects of the process of renovation that characterizes the passage from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, constituting a timeless testimonial of the Italian contribution to Western literature.
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