Zest for Death

The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese

translated with an Introduction by R.W. Flint
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 390 pp., $6.95

Cesare Pavese
Cesare Pavese; drawing by David Levine

The neo-realism which contemporary Italy has used to disclose itself, in both novels and films, sifts the torment from aimless or blocked lives. The evident dangers of the school are inordinate detail in the external scene, automatic dumps in the inner being. Among the novelists, Cesare Pavese had, as he was not too modest to suspect, the greatest mastery. His selective disheartenments convince by their unhurried, unforced, unbombastic quality. A scene quickly takes shape, in Turin, on a hill, or by the sea, and fills up, like old photographs of the writer, with large numbers of scarcely distinguishable people. Many of them have no direct bearing upon what proves to be central; they are loose ends, and yet they help to create that rhythm of entrances and exits, of pressures and respites, which is Pavese’s special tempo. The thick roiling of the scene makes one expect that some noisome mystery will be explained. Sometimes it is, more often it isn’t—Pavese doesn’t believe much in explanation. But a conclusion of sorts comes when, from among possibilities, a single mood is allowed to be the last. He prided himself on being neither Roman—which meant for him intellectual and “uninvolved”—nor Neapolitan—which meant naive and sloppy. He was instead emotional and neat, Torinese by preference.

Love and loneliness were his two themes, he said, and he should also have named loss. He is best at representing such states in crowds, Italian sociability at its last gasp. The four novels included as Selected Works, in new and admirable translation, are all ambitious in scale. The first, The Beach, was written early, as R. W. Flint indicates, before pavesismo had fully set in. It portrays a young man and his wife, transparently troubled for obscure reasons. The narrator insists at the beginning that a son would solve their problems (would a daughter?), and at the end the wife is responsively pregnant—whereupon she and her husband return from the sick shore to the solid city. At this point Pavese, himself an asthmatic, loses interest and ends the story. Mr. Flint, who is more sensible of Pavese’s humor than I can be, calls this book an “out-and-out comedy.” But even geniality doesn’t warrant the speed with which pregnancy dispels malaise, and, as if to concede as much, Pavese spoke of the two somber novels, The Devil in the Hills and Among Women Only, as deepenings of The Beach, conversions of its “naturalism” into what he called “symbolic reality.” The terms seem unsatisfactory for him. By the first he meant that conceivably, in nature, there were acceptable solutions; by the second that, for his talent, there were none.

Walled within anxiety and inertia, Pavese made an attempt, heroic and successful, to encompass national and social concerns. His novels about Italy in the later stages of the Second World War formed a “historical cycle of my own times.” Although he joined the…

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