The Pike: Gabriele D'Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

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The Pike: Gabriele D'Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

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Category: Biography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the many-sided Italian poet and playwright who became a national hero and inspiration to Mussolini, yet paradoxically is little remembered today.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 694 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Fourth Estate
ISBN: 9780007213962

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Gabriele d’Annunzio was a strange and perhaps fortunately unique character, a kind of 20th century Renaissance man who almost defies posterity to pigeonhole him. At various times he was a poet, novelist, dramatist, journalist, adventurer, self-styled demagogue and philanderer. Although he lost several friends during the First World War, as well as the sight of one eye when his plane was shot down, he had a passion for war, seeing bloodshed as manly and death in battle as glorious self-sacrifice. He had the dodgiest of moral compasses, and yet was hardly the Adonis he believed himself to be. One French courtesan who firmly rebuffed his physical advances later called him ‘a frightful gnome with red-rimmed eyes and no eyelashes, no hair, greenish teeth, bad breath and the manners of a mountebank’. Had he been alive today, he would have probably been an instant celebrity and media personality with a very short shelf-life.

Born Gabriele Rapagnetta in Abruzzo in 1863, he took his surname from a distant relative who had left an estate to his father. At first he seemed destined to be remembered mainly as a poet, publishing three volumes of verse by his eighteenth birthday. Shortly before the first appeared in an expanded second edition, a major newspaper editor received an anonymous postcard saying that the promising young poet had just had a fatal fall from his horse. It was reported in the press across Italy. Alive to the value of self-promotion, d’Annunzio had sent the postcard himself. Needless to say, it did the sales of his book nothing but good.

Ever restless, he soon realised he was put on earth to do more than publish poetry. He married and had a family, but domesticity did not become him. There would be a long line of affairs, and he would recount his sexual conquests in detail in several of his notorious novels and plays. A life of literature and debauchery was not enough, as he sought a role on the political stage. Apparently it was the fault of the philosopher Nietzsche, whose work he read at the age of thirty, and who convinced him that men such as himself were Supermen, Beyond Good and Evil. (Nearly forty years later, if I might digress, P.G. Wodehouse published a Bertie Wooster story in which Jeeves warned him that Nietzsche was fundamentally unsound. D’Annunzio did not have the benefit of Jeeves or even Wodehouse).

He then turned to politics, calling on his fellow Italians to enter the war and complete the unification of their country by annexing parts of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire, and calling for those who advocated neutrality to be punished if not physically attacked. ‘If it is considered a crime to incite citizens to violence,’ he told crowds at a public meeting in 1915, ‘then I boast of committing that crime.’ Not long afterwards, Italy declared war on Austria, although the decision had been made already. He was one of the few public figures who rejoiced in the war, even though he lost many friends that way, in addition to his eye, as mentioned above. For him, the Armistice in 1918 was bad news; ‘I smell the stench of peace.’

One year later, his career reached its pinnacle when he led an army of sorts into the city of Fiume, now Rijeka in Croatia, which had a largely Italian population. For fifteen months he ruled it as a dictator, an uncrowned king. The episode was an embarrassment to the Italian government, who drove him out and into retirement. He had had his brief moment of glory, and was a kind of inspiration for Benito Mussolini, who seized power in Italy in 1922, but his career was over.

This is a vivid biography of a strange life, although – perhaps appropriately in view of its subject matter – it does break with some of the standard biographical conventions. The first 75 pages or so are a three-chapter essay on his life and career in which chronology is thrown to the four winds. Only after that do we begin reading a more or less cradle to grave account of his life and times. Even then, the author’s narrative occasionally slips from the past to the present tense. For much of the last chapter, after a straightforward narrative in the past tense, the story is told in the present – in the form of diary entries, prefaced by dates – sometimes the full day, sometimes just the month and year. It’s very inventive, but in a novel, I would find that distracting, as for me it breaks the flow, and in a serious work of history or biography, even more so.

Also, paradoxically, it is a long biography of a man who throve on his own publicity, but frankly achieved very little in his seventy-five years. Even today, he is barely considered a notable figure in Italian literature, so much as a curiosity. I came to this book never having heard of the man before. It makes for an interesting read, although bearing in mind what an insignificant figure he ultimately was, I feel he hardly deserved such a lengthy memorial.

For more from Italy in this period, have a look atMission Accomplished: SOE and Italy 1943 - 1945 by David Stafford.

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