The Italian poet and novelist Cesare Pavese, we are told in Mark Rudman’s introduction to the writer’s masterpiece, The Moon and the Bonfires, “is more interested in action than introspection.” The last entry Pavese made in his diary, Il mestiere di vivere (“The Craft of Living”), would seem to support Rudman’s view: “All this [introspection] is sick. Not words. An act. I won’t write any more.” But the act that was to replace the words of his diary was suicide. On August 26, 1950, at the age of forty-two, Pavese killed himself with an overdose of sleeping pills in a hotel room not far from his apartment in Turin. Much of his work can be read as an attempt to justify that decision or, rather, to establish a vision where justification is unnecessary, where suicide is destiny. The experience of reading Pavese is thus characterized by a tension between our admiration for his evocations of landscape, character, and milieu (above all in time of war), and our resistance to the self-destruction to which so much of his writing seems to point. Together with that tension comes an exciting sense of transgression: in Pavese’s company anything, however negative, can be said.
Pavese was born in 1908 in the small village of Santo Stefano between Turin and the Alps. His father’s job, however, was in Turin and the young Pavese would spend most of the year at school in the city. But family holidays were always in Santo Stefano and the experience of the scorching summer months in the dry hills would remain among his most fertile memories as far as his writing was concerned. From the earliest poems through to the last novel, there is a habit of contrasting the worlds of city and country, the sophistication and intellectuality of Turin and the peasant’s direct physical engagement with the land. A great deal has been written about the political and cultural significance of these contrasts, yet it is hard to justify such an approach on close reading. Rather, one has a sense of two different modes of being and the inevitability of oscillating between them. In the poem “People Who Don’t Understand,” Gella, a young woman who lives in the hills but works in the city, is
…fed up with going and coming, traveling at night,
living neither among buildings nor out in the vineyards.
She wishes the city were up on those hills,
luminous, secret: never again would she leave it.
Now, it’s all split.
In short, the back and forth between city and country introduces us to the theme of division, frustration, dilemma, the impossibility of reconciling different aspects of one’s life. “I am made up of many parts that do not blend,” Pavese told his biographer, the left-wing journalist Davide Lajolo, “in literature the suitable word is eclectic. It is precisely the word I hate the most in life and in books, but my aversion to it is …