Tuesday, September 9, 2008

I won’t write any more

Cesare Pavese was born a hundred years ago today, on 9 September 1908. He is considered one of Italy’s most important writers, but he was also one of the saddest. The protagonists in his novels were often loners, managing only superficial relationships, and, in his own life, love always disappointed him. He died while still young, in his 40s, by committing suicide, something he had discussed in his diary for years.

Although Pavese was an important and successful writer, it seems he never found happiness in his private life. There is not a great deal about him on the internet in English, even the Wikipedia article is awkwardly written and brief (relative to his importance - the Italian Wikipedia article is much longer). The Diary Junction provides a short biographical summary.

Pavese was born in the village of Santo Stefano between Turin and the Alps. He studied literature at university, and graduated in 1930 with a thesis on Walt Whitman. Subsequently, he wrote essays on American literature and translated literary texts into Italian. His mother died in 1931, and he went to live with his sister Maria and her family, also in Turin. While the fascists were becoming stronger by the day, Pavese fell in love with Tina Pizzardo, a Communist teacher and activist. In 1935, the police found some incriminating letters (which Tina had received, at Pavese's house, from a collaborator). He was arrested, jailed briefly, and then exiled to Calabria for three years. Tina, meanwhile, left him and married someone else.

On returning to Turin after the war, and finding some of his friends dead, Pavese joined the Communist Party and became more politically active. But it was literature that remained his first love. His novels won several prestigious prizes, and he is well regarded for his poetry. In 1950, Pavese fell in love again, with a young American actress, Constance Dawling, to whom he dedicated his last novel ‘The Moon and the Bonfires’, but she left him too. In August the same year, he killed himself in a hotel room.

A biography in English on an Italian website - www.saporidilanga.com - concludes as follows: ‘Worn, tired, but perfectly lucid, he suicides in a room of the hotel Roma in Turin by swallowing a strong dose of [barbiturates]. It is on 27th August 1950. Only an annotation is left on the first page of his book ‘Dialoghi con Leucò’ [Dialogues with Leucò], which was on the bedside of the room: ‘I forgive all and to you all I ask for me is forgiveness . . .’. He was only 42 years old.’

Pavese’s diaries have been published in English - The Burning Brand: Diaries 1935-1950, for example, and This Business of Living. Time has a good review of the former: ‘It is a haunting book, at once a cry of anguish, a case history, and a series of thoughtful notes on the art of fiction.’ And RL on Babelguides says this about the latter: ‘A diary of such a great writer, a writer with such a fierce connection with life, is an unfathomably rich work that one can enter again and again always finding more. It also shows that a diary can be a very complex work of art, one that uses a very basic narrative logic, the march of time itself. Within that straightforward structure anything can happen as the connections between entries are made only by the mental structure of the diary’s author, and with the passage of time.’

Here are a few extracts from Pavese’s diaries (some showing his preoccupation with the idea of suicide).

5 May 1936
‘Living is like working out a long addition sum, and if you make a mistake in the first two totals you will never find the right answer. It means involving oneself in a complicated chain of circumstances.’

19 January 1938
‘Life is pain and the enjoyment of love is an anesthetic.’

29 September 1938
‘I shall have to stop priding myself on being unable to find pleasure in the things ordinary men enjoy - high days and holidays; the fun of being one in a crowd; family affection and so on. What I am really incapable of is enjoying out-of-the-ordinary pleasures - solitude and a sense of mastery, and if I am not very good at sharing the sentiments of the average man it is because my artless assumption that I was capable of something better has rusted my natural reactions, which used to be perfectly normal. In general we feel rather pleased with ourselves when we do not enjoy common pleasures, believing this means that we are ‘capable of better things’. But incapacity in the one case does not presuppose capacity in the other. A man who is incapable of writing nonsense may be equally incapable of writing something pleasing.

We hate the thing we fear, the thing we know may be true and may have a certain affinity with ourselves, for each man hates himself. The most interesting, the most fertile qualities in every man are those he most hates in himself and in others, for hatred includes every other feeling - love, envy, ignorance, mystery, the urge to know and to possess. It is hate that causes suffering. To overcome hatred is to take a step towards self-knowledge, self-mastery, self-justification, and consequently towards an end of suffering. When we suffer, it is always our own fault.’

30 Oct 1940
‘Suffering is by no means a privilege, a sign of nobility, a reminder of God. Suffering is a fierce, bestial thing, commonplace, uncalled for, natural as air. It is intangible; no one can grasp it or fight against it; it dwells in time - is the same thing as time; if it comes in fits and starts, that is only so as to leave the sufferer more defenseless during the moments that follow, those long moments when one relives the last bout of torture and waits for the next.’

1 Jan 1950
‘At great periods you have always felt, deep within you, the temptation to commit suicide. You gave yourself to it; breached your own defenses. You were a child. The idea of suicide was a protest against life; by dying, you would escape this longing for death.’

25 March 1950
‘One does not kill oneself for love of a woman, but because love - any love- reveals us in our nakedness, our misery, our vulnerability, our nothingness.’

Pavese’s very last diary entry reads: ‘All this is sick. Not words. An act. I won’t write any more.’

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