The House on the Hill

by Cesare Pavese

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Critical Evaluation

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Recognized by his contemporaries as one of the most talented and passionate Italian writers of his generation, Cesare Pavese wrote novels that were shaped by three major influences: existential philosophy, classical culture and mythology, and American literature. In The House on the Hill he combines all three to create a powerfully told, emotionally moving story that skirts around the edges of action, hinting at, rather than engaging in, the violence of war and the emotional struggle that are its central themes. Just as its narrator and central character, Corrado, avoids full participation in the violent events of his day, so the novel unfolds a story set against the backdrop of world war and civil war without any actual scenes of battle or combat.

From existentialism, Pavese took the theme of the importance of engagement in the world and the need for intellectuals to play a fearless, active role in the social and moral issues of the day. Pavese clearly believed that an intellectual who does not become positively engaged in the world, in particular through political or other practical action, is committing an act of betrayal; thus, Corrado’s stance of speaking against the Fascist regime and its Nazi supporters but not acting on his words is a betrayal. The extent of that intellectual and moral dishonesty is highlighted in the novel by Corrado’s other betrayals. He has earlier renounced his lover, Cate, and he later abandons Dino, her son (and quite probably his as well), when threatened by arrest by the Germans. Ironically, the threat of arrest is only a rumor, so that Corrado’s desertion of Dino is caused by only the illusion of danger, not its reality. Although physical cowardice is part of Corrado’s makeup, his true fault, at least in existentialist terms, is his moral and intellectual refusal to take a stand and become truly involved with life around him. It is not merely the struggle against Fascism and Nazism that he avoids but also real relationships with other human beings, most notably his lover and the boy who is likely his own child.

Pavese often sought to combine elements of Greek and Roman mythology and culture into his works, especially in his evocations of the Mediterranean landscape, with its resonances and allusions to the classical past of the region. Critics have noted his drive to fuse the myths and geography of classical literature with modern obsessions and problems, and The House on the Hill clearly follows this pattern, although its references and allusions are often subtle and unobtrusively woven into the text. The novel contains carefully detailed descriptions of the northern Italian hills; presents scenes of a world at war, with cities and villages burning and pillaged; and features a central character, Corrado, who suffers through an odyssey of pain and suffering. In Pavese’s modern, ironic, and perhaps even at times cynical story, the wanderer returns home to find he has lost everything he held dear and has gained only a bitterly won and painful knowledge of the true extent of his loss.

The style of The House on the Hill owes a great deal to Pavese’s close study of American literature. Known as one of the leading Americanists of his generation, Pavese was an enthusiastic and perceptive reader, translator, and critic of American authors. His university thesis, written in 1930, was on Walt Whitman, and that same year he began contributing a series of enthusiastic and perceptive essays on American culture to the Italian intellectual journal La cultura . He translated the works of American authors such as Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Herman Melville, including...

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a version of Melville’s uniquely American novelMoby Dick (1851). Pavese was especially influenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and touches reminiscent of Hemingway, especially that American writer’s own antiwar novel A Farewell to Arms (1929), are particularly notable in Pavese’s prose style in The House on the Hill.

Another feature of American literature that Pavese noted in his studies was its unique tendency to make an intensely local landscape into a universal setting for stories that address the general human condition. William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, while remaining the particular “postage stamp of soil” of the American South as described by its author, can still resonate with archetypes and universal patterns. Hemingway’s use of the Michigan landscape in stories such as “Big Two-Hearted River” is, in a fashion, much the same. Pavese’s evocations of the northern Italian landscape, with his deliberate if subtle allusions to classical and mythical motifs, perform a similar function and achieve a similar effect: The reader follows a story that is set in a specific time and place but that transcends the immediate and limited to become universal to all of human experience.

It is difficult and perhaps ultimately unimportant to place The House on the Hill into any single genre of fiction. It could be cataloged equally as well as a war novel, an existential work, a psychological study, or a thinly disguised personal confession. It has a very definite location and time for its action—northern Italy on the brink of invasion and civil war during World War II—but its themes of suffering, loss, and betrayal are universal and timeless. There is a sense that all of human history, and the tragedy attendant upon it, is present in the events of The House on the Hill. Pavese’s novel manages to rise above the restrictions of its particular place and time while remaining vivid and immediate in a recognizable reality.


Critical Context