The Poet-King of Fiume
The Pike: Gabriele d'Annunzio - Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War
By Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Fourth Estate 694pp £25)
There is no decent way of containing the excesses of Gabriele d'Annunzio's lives. It would astonish his contemporaries to discover that he is now only faintly remembered outside Italy. Even within Italy, though firmly entrenched in the literary canon, he is most commonly recalled with a sort of collective cringe. For once upon a time, in the fervid fin de siècle - for reasons variously literary, political, military and, not least, sexual - he was one of the towering figures of European culture. Think Wilde crossed with Casanova and Savonarola; Byron meets Barnum meets Mussolini - and you would have some of the flavours, but still not quite the essence, of this extraordinary, unstoppable and in many ways quite ridiculous figure. In The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett has taken on the vast and frequently thankless task of trying to capture this strange genius, ten years after the most authoritative literary biography to appear in English thus far, Gabriele d'Annunzio: Defiant Archangel by John Woodhouse.
The story is told by Hughes-Hallett with verve, a fine storyteller's touch and an acute eye for period paraphernalia and sensibility. Mere chronology will clearly not suffice for d'Annunzio: instead, she tries out a variety of cross-sections and settings, mosaics and micro-narratives. The book starts with a cluster of vignettes drawn from across d'Annunzio's life, starting in 1881, our hero a precocious 17-year-old littérateur, and ending in 1937, a year before his death aged 74, the poet-vates now a figure of decrepit grandeur. It then homes in on a pivotal six-month period in 1915, when d'Annunzio dramatically ended his five-year exile in Paris, returning to Italy as something like a new Garibaldi - the myth was carefully constructed at the time, with the help of Garibaldi's own grandson - to stir up the movement to urge Italy into the Great War. D'Annunzio transformed himself in the process, as Hughes-Hallett charts, from piquant poet, lover and socialite trendsetter to major national political player and myth-maker.
Before 1915, it is not that his fame and achievements had been muted: on the contrary, he was a flagrant self-promoter. But they had remained largely within the sphere of the literature of a recently unified Italy, looking for both bonds to ancient traditions and iconoclastic novelty. He had been a precociously brilliant poet - faking reports of his own death in 1880 to get his first collection, Primo Vere, noticed - and then a pioneer of a new kind of arriviste, social-cum-philosophical novel, in works such as Pleasure (1889) and The Triumph of Death (1894), written with touches of Nietzschean (or proto-Nietzschean) pomp. He would keep innovating in prose through to his last significant work, Nocturne (1921), a strange, hallucinatory prose piece that drew on a period of temporary blindness during the war. As if all this were not enough, he also turned his hand to more than one kind of theatre, revitalising ancient myth and tragedy, and tapping into the rituals and folk beliefs of his native Abruzzo for high melodrama. There would be more, much more: a 44-volume edition of his collected works was being planned in the 1920s.
How to explain this truly prodigious life and works? Hughes-Hallett takes her enigmatic title from Romain Rolland, who called d'Annunzio a pike, a predator lurking 'afloat and still, waiting for ideas'. In other words, for Rolland and many of his contemporaries, d'Annunzio was an eclectic and habitual plagiarist, an elegant thief of words, ideas and fashions (and indeed of money: he was colossally spendthrift and always in debt). He drew inspiration from everyone from Swinburne to Wagner, Huysmans to Dostoyevsky. Hughes-Hallett acknowledges all this, but suggests that he was simultaneously an innovator and an anticipator of genius: Nietzschean before Nietzsche; modernist before the high modernists; postmodern before the term was even dreamed of; and, most importantly of all, a proto-situationist politician of spectacle and perhaps the defining model for Fascism. She perhaps pushes this line a little too hard at times - d'Annunzio's was one loud voice in a very noisy and chaotic moment in the history of political ideas - but it is nevertheless remarkable to follow the intoxicating path that led so many to fall for the seductions of his affected rhetorical displays and his acts of foolhardy publicity. These were compelling enough to drag by force of words a reluctant Italian government to war; enough to galvanise a crushed nation during that war's catastrophic lows, with his speeches, heedless aerial stunts and naval forays; enough, finally, to conjure out of the dismaying postwar settlements of 1919 a venture at Fiume - a city he occupied and ruled for two years in defiance of Versailles, Rome, and all other comers - that would provide Mussolini with a vision of what a Fascistic utopia might look like.
The Pike does not offer great detail in terms of close literary analysis and this is a shame given the genuine, if indigestible, achievement to be found there. But it does paint a vivid picture of the flow of ideas and inspirations in d'Annunzio, the meshing of work and character. The whole is an enthralling curiosity, much like d'Annunzio's final epic monument to himself, the Vittoriale villa above Lake Garda. In the mix also, inevitably, is the spice and the bane of any d'Annunzio biography: the sex. There's no getting away from it, despite our hero's discoloured teeth, his premature balding, his loss of an eye in a wartime plane accident. The book is permeated by his thousands of lovers and prostitutes, his scores of assignations and affairs, his endless libido and his self-regarding, pornographic annotations recording his daily sexual turns and tricks (though probably nothing homosexual, Hughes-Hallett surmises). The names and arcane nicknames of his lovers merge and blur - perhaps only the stunning Eleonora Duse holds her charismatic own, even as she submits totally to him, making them the golden couple of their era, the Miller and Monroe of the 1890s. The telling is livened up variously with a full-frontal photo of our hero, a sprinkling of 'cunts' and 'fuckings', of figs and prosciutto and other sensory analogues - rightly so, since d'Annunzio's life and works were blandly bowdlerised for a long while - but it is all rather wearying. In the end, and not just because of the sex, it's hard at times to shake off the sense that this is more a sparkling, mannerist portrait of a grotesque than a work to re-establish d'Annunzio as a figure of major historical or literary weight. The latter is now perhaps an impossible task.
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
Robert Gordon teaches Italian literature and cultural history at Cambridge University. His latest book is The Holocaust in Italian Culture 1944-2010 (Stanford, 2012).