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 Communist Party, he did not espouse social regeneration in his novels without compunction. The schoolteacher who is the protagonist of the most successful book in the cycle, The House on the Hill, is forced into resistance without the luxury of choice. Aging quietly at an inn near Turin, he becomes aware, and envious, of the laughter, ardor, and rebelliousness of a group living in a house on the hill. One of them proves to be an old girl friend, Cate, whose young son may also be his, although, like Pavese, unconfiding, she will never say. Cate is the most benign of Pavese’s heroines, yet with a few words she makes the teacher feel her scornful pity for his uninvolvement. When she and her friends are arrested and presumably shot, he finds himself proscribed because of his association with them, and is obliged to run away. Making his escape over mountains with the help of partisans, he is seized by the war, he awakens at last from an illusion of separateness. Yet it is Pavesan that, having recognized the common fate as his own, he remains somewhat apart. Politics too are love and loneliness.
Pavese seems most himself in his late novels where communal necessities cease to find equivalents in, but rather are submerged by, private anguish. In his Dialogues With Leucò he makes Orpheus say, “Everyone must descend at least once into his own private hell,” and such a descent takes place in both The Devil in the Hills and Among Women Only. There is not necessarily any emergence. A famous phrase in his diary attests that suicide is “my basic principle…never committed, never to be committed”—an assertion belied by the overdose of sleeping pills he took in 1950—“but the thought of it caresses my sensibility.” This relish for death gives Pavese’s work, like many Italian books and films of the 1940s, an atmosphere of milieu du siècle, the even aridity of the war’s end. For Pavese with his thick lenses, it seems to have had an ophthalmic focus: “The daylight wounds my eyes,” Endymion declares in the Dialogues, and writing a poem to Constance Dowling, his last beloved, Pavese begins by threatening her, “Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi” (“Death will come and have your eyes”), though it is the loss of his own that unconsciously attracts him.
“No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide,” Pavese said. In The Devil in the Hills a cast-off mistress kills herself, though weariness of life is not confined to her. The central character, Poli, is effete and aristocratic, a Lady Chatterley’s husband, searching for existential meanings as he takes cocaine. In the end he finds out only that he has tuberculosis. His house guests (resembling those in Fellini’s movies) are young men, untubercular; they suffer from an opposite complaint, a horrid health. For hours they lie naked in a secret cleft in the wheat fields, turning black, sunned into corruptions which Poli maintains are not less than those induced by cocaine. Light is again baleful. Poli’s wife, one of Pavese’s chilly women, fluctuates between the two groups, but is belatedly faithful to her dying husband. Pavese symbolizes life as sun, lust, fever, futility, and those living it as, bedeviled alike.
Of the novels included in this book, the last written was Among Women Only, which served Antonioni as script for Le Amiche. If The House on the Hill was an attempt to create a bridge from himself to society, this book was an attempt to create a bridge from himself to women. From 1930 to 1934 Pavese, then in his twenties, was an avowed woman-hater, a fact which did not prevent, may even have encouraged, his teaching in 1932 at a girls’ school. Later he confessed that the hatred had been “self-indulgent.” “I wanted to avoid becoming involved and the pose pleased me. How spineless that attitude was soon became apparent.” The hatred persisted in less fervent form. In his diary he keeps analyzing women: they are “men of action” when they should be contemplative, an inversion of the usual complaint. (He finds fault also with Leopardi and Nietzsche for preferring action to contemplation, presumably out of womanishness.) Women are uninterested in poetry, he says, pursuers of bacchanalian exaltation, and so on. Still, in a burst of irritation with himself, he says, “You are a woman.”
Inwardly he seems to have recognized that he could never come to terms with women except by becoming one, and this Tiresias-like maneuver he manages in Among Women Only, with conspicuous success. Clelia Oitana, his hardbitten heroine and narrator, has been sent to her native Turin by her Roman employer to open a dress shop. At first she is, or appears to be, all action and efficiency, as her sex prescribes—uncontemplative and brainless like the fashionable people whose parties she attends. But then it is made clear that like Pavese she hates the parties and the people. She has, moreover, been jarred on her first night in Turin by the sight, in the hotel room next door, of a young and pretty woman not quite dead from sleeping pills. Clelia keeps wondering, and importunately asking, what the motive can possibly have been, but it becomes clear that there was no motive, no single grief, only a totality of impulsion that came from being alone with her “disgusts.” Another redemptive sign in Clelia is that she returns to places in Turin which she had known as a child in a poor family, and finds them emptied of warmth. She endures Pavese’s ritual of loss. When at Easter-time—the inaction takes place from Mardi Gras to Easter—the pretty girl tries suicide again, and this time succeeds, Clelia lives on, Artemis in her coldness, but unhappy enough for Pavese to imagine himself to be her.
Not long after he wrote this book, Pavese, renowned and honored with prizes, took his own life. Like Clelia, he saw the possibilities of life first as pinched and then as closed off. Misery was his appointed sensation, he thought, and savored the small vanity that such an appointment had been reserved for him by malevolent powers. At the same time, he recognized that dying alone is what everyone does: “As the years go by, the skull becomes more noticeable behind the face of every man.” He had said his say and was sick of saying it: “Not words. An act. I won’t write any more.”
November 21, 1968