Cesare Pavese
Cesare Pavese; drawing by David Levine


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 not enough to eliminate it.”

Lajolo’s biography, An Absurd Vice, is too sketchy on Pavese’s childhood to give us much sense of how the dilemmas that dogged his life may have come about. His father died when he was six. Bringing up her two children alone, his mother became a model of cold rectitude, the ongoing hostility between herself and Cesare being mediated by an accommodating older sister, Maria, with whom, after her marriage, the writer would live most of his life “like a boy or a stranger.”

As soon as we begin to see letters and poems by the adolescent Pavese, a conflict emerges in his attitude toward women and sex. Girls are infinitely desirable, but sex is frightening and dirty. The combination of attraction and revulsion meant that the sex act could only be imagined as violent. In “The Billy-Goat God” a young boy on holiday observes the “green mysteries” of the country thus:

Come moonrise the goats can no longer keep still,
they have to be gathered together and prodded back home,
or else the billy starts bucking. Jumping around,
he gores the she-goats and runs off. Girls in heat
go alone, at night, to the woods, and lie bleating
on the ground, and the billy comes running to find them.
But when the moon rises, he goes wild and gores them.
And the bitches bay in the moonlight, because
they’ve heard the billy goat jumping way up
in the hills, they’ve caught a whiff of the blood.

Back in Turin Pavese’s first approaches to girls were characterized “by acts of desperation and fainting fits.” All too soon a pattern of behavior developed that was to repeat itself throughout Pavese’s life. Thin, scholarly, hardly handsome, he was invariably attracted to glamorous and brashly erotic women whom he also found frightening. While still in high school he made a date with a cabaret singer and waited for her on a rainy night from six in the evening till midnight. She didn’t show up. Pavese was sick for three months and stayed away from school. Later he would learn to use his charm and intellect to befriend the women he liked, but time and again sex was a failure. He suffered from premature ejaculation. It was as if some crucial initiation into the adult world were denied to him. In the poem “Ancient Discipline” a drunk is mocked by a group of women: “You want a kid, you gotta go through us.”


Rejected by glamorous women, Pavese threw himself into his studies, his work, his writing. Art was “pure, pure. Nothing compromises it.” But needless to say, art wouldn’t satisfy every need, and work in the end, for all its anesthetic qualities, wearies. Such was a sense of the title Lavorare stanca, “Work Wearies” (or “Work’s Tiring,” as Brock translates it), that Pavese gave to his first two collections of poetry. It was a veiled admission that the respite offered by writing couldn’t last; the infatuations, failures, and abandonment would have to be repeated many times.

Still young, still occasionally hopeful, Pavese graduated from the university in Turin with a thesis on Walt Whitman and began a remarkable and precocious career as a translator, completing his rendering of Moby-Dick in 1932 at the age of twenty-four. Other translations he made in his twenties included works by Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Dickens, Defoe, and Gertrude Stein. They were accompanied by an extended series of essays on American writers, holding up novelists such as Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser as models of narrative virtue for would-be Italian writers, in particular for their ability to reconcile common speech and literary style.

The political situation in Italy in the 1930s gave all this hard work of Pavese’s a special halo of virtue. In high school he had fallen under the influence of the celebrated teacher Augusto Monti, who mixed his passion for literature with a determined if not yet explicit antifascism. Once his students left the school, Monti gathered some of them together in a circle of alumni. Many would become leading figures in the anti-Fascist movement. One student, Giulio Einaudi, founded a publishing house for which Pavese worked for most of his life and whose politics were clearly left-wing and anti-Fascist.

In these embattled circles, Pavese’s work on American writers could be seen as a criticism of Fascist rhetoric about the superiority of Italian culture. Thus not only did the effort of translation annihilate a tormented self in the work of other writers, but it also brought him a moral dignity that was in sharp contrast to the low sense of self that resulted from his sexual failures:

What an asshole a man is with his enormous red exposed dick, tense and palpable, ejaculating in the presence of God and you can see it spitting out and falling back and going slack! Then the female sex looks like a mouth mocking him. He does everything outside, in the light of day; but you’ve got to penetrate a woman, rummage in there, and everything happens in her bowels in the roots of her flesh.

One of the many poems entitled “Landscape” recycles the image thus: “To cover the houses and the stones with green—so the sky would make sense—you have to push down black roots into the dark.”

Pavese’s first book of poems, Work Wearies, was published in 1936. It is remarkable for the versatility with which the tensions underlying Pavese’s personal problems are reformulated in scores of short narratives and descriptions. The desire to achieve maturity through contact with women is everywhere evident. These lines are taken from “Grappa in September”:

This early you see only women. Women don’t smoke
and don’t drink, they know only to stop in the sun
to let their bodies grow warm, as if they were fruit.
The air’s raw with this fog, you drink it in sips
like grappa, everything here has a flavor.
Even the river water has swallowed the banks
and steeps them below, in the sky. The streets
are like women, they grow ripe without moving.

Strangely passive, Pavese’s women are just waiting to “annihilate themselves” in having children, the way the farmland Pavese loves is always waiting to be plowed and seeded. In the poem “Atlantic Oil” a mechanic working at a country gas station sleeps off his drunkenness in the fields. But when this adolescent form of evasion ends, maturity awaits him:

On the hillside, there’s a vineyard he prefers to all others,
and in the end he’ll marry that vineyard and the sweet girl
who comes with it, and he’ll go out in the sun to work,
but now with a hoe, and his neck will turn brown,
and he’ll drink wine pressed on fall evenings from his own grapes.

Everywhere men and women fall together and become adult with a simplicity, even brutality, that remains mysterious to the poet. If he were to try to do the same thing, it could only end badly. In the poem “August Moon” a husband is stretched out dead in a field while his wife gives birth beside him:


Long shudders come over the naked hills
from afar, and the woman can hear them behind her,
like when they’d run through that sea of wheat.

The woman runs forward,beneath the moon’s horror,
chased by the rustle of wind on the stones,
by a shadowy form that gnaws at the soles of her feet,
by pain in her belly. She returns, bent double, to the shadows,
collapsing onto the stones and biting her lip.
Beneath her, the dark earth darkens with blood.

The fear, or relief, of being excluded from such violent experience is expressed in the title of the first of Pavese’s novels, Paesi tuoi (1939), “Your Country” (translated as The Harvesters). The city-born Berto, who tells the story, is released from prison together with the country-born Talino and sets off, albeit with misgivings, to help Talino’s family with the maize harvest. The farm is remote and the large family poverty-stricken and brutalized. Berto is immediately aware of some hidden play of forces between Talino and his father, mother, and many sisters. There are secrets that elude him. Finding one of the sisters attractive, Berto very brusquely becomes her lover and discovers the scar of a clumsily executed abortion.

As the harvest begins there is an explosion of violence; Talino savages the sister with a pitchfork. Too late, Berto discovers he has interfered in an incestuous relationship. Life, which draws one so powerfully, is bloody, ugly, and terrifying. Berto retreats to the city, leaving “your country” (with the implication “but not mine”) behind.

Although written much later, three of the four novels published in The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese (a re-print of translations made in the 1960s by R.W. Flint) have similar structures. In The Beach, a Turin-based teacher visits the close friend of his adolescence and the charming wife who took the friend away. They are on summer vacation by the sea. Telling the story in the first person, the teacher seems eager to expose and exploit what he senses is a potential crisis in his friend’s marriage. Another friend of the couple unashamedly attempts to seduce the wife. An ex-student of the teacher, a surly, taciturn boy, turns up and he too is attracted to the same woman. There are incidents and complications. At the moment of maximum confusion about what is actually happening, or indeed what the book is about, the wife discovers she is pregnant and the couple promptly abandons the holiday resort to return to Genoa and prepare for parenthood.

As in Paesi tuoi there is a sense here of a drama hidden from the narrator until it suddenly manifests itself in a momentous transformation, albeit a benevolent one this time. Other people have become mature, or at least deeply involved in life, without somehow deserving it, without having the same level of intelligence as the voice of the person telling the story. Left alone and confused, the narrator returns, like Berto in Paesi tuoi, to Turin.

In Among Women Only (also in The Selected Works) the hard-working Clelia has returned to Turin to set up an expensive clothes shop for her employers in Rome. As she checks into a luxury hotel, a girl is taken out of a room on a stretcher. She has tried to kill herself. While setting up the shop, Clelia mixes with the upper-class women of Turin in an interminable round of joyless, drunken parties. Among the women are Rosetta, the girl who tried to kill herself, and her brash, cynical friend Momina. Clelia quickly guesses that they have had a lesbian relationship and wonders if it was this that prompted the suicide attempt. She is both disapproving and fascinated. Rosetta admits she finds that “love in any form is a dirty thing.”

As the book continues, a suffocating sense of futility is held at bay only by Clelia’s determination to finish setting up the shop, whose purpose will be to supply the rich with clothes for their meaningless parties. Then Rosetta tries again to kill herself, and this time succeeds. Once again the mysterious transformation has taken place. Somebody has subtracted herself from the world of futile immaturity. Clelia remarks:

Rosetta Mola was naïve, but she had taken things seriously…. She wanted to be alone, to isolate herself from the uproar; and in her world you can’t be alone or do anything alone unless you take yourself out of it completely.


In his diary Pavese describes his shift from poems to novels as an attempt to replace mere voluptuousness with a more comprehensive tragic vision. In effect, though, the extended drama of the novels is used to create a strong sense of exclusion and enigma as the reader, together with the narrator, puzzles over the motivations of a half-dozen characters in a web of interconnected but never fully explained relationships. The enigma is complicated by the intense interest on the part of the narrators of the novels in persons of the same sex. The hero of Paese tuoi leaves a woman in a warm bed to meet his friend at the station and sleep beside him in a barn. The teacher in The Beach seems just as interested in his old friend and surly ex-student as in the friend’s wife. Clelia in Among Women Only seems attracted above all to the suicidal, possibly lesbian Rosetta.

The reader’s first reaction is to suspect a repressed homosexuality, but it may be that these characters, and indeed Pavese himself, are simply fascinated by those who, unlike themselves, are capable of passionate action. In any event, the division of the narrators’ attention between characters of both sexes increases the tension caused by the many other divisions in their lives. Clelia in Among Women Only lives a double life between Turin and Rome, between a working-class past and a sophisticated present, and between men and women. Only her work offers refuge from her dislocated life. And work is wearying.

But the four novels I have mentioned are not those for which Pavese is mainly remembered, and indeed if the author has been spared consideration of the possible homosexual impulses informing his work, it is an indication of the extent to which, after the war, he would be taken up by the intellectual and largely puritan left of the Italian literary establishment and his work turned into a model of anti-Fascist thinking. For the war, as we shall see, transformed Pavese from a writer of brilliant novellas into the author of two great books about human destiny in time of conflict.

Though he moved in anti-Fascist circles, the young Pavese had never been an activist. In 1929 he refused to sign a petition showing solidarity with the liberal philosopher Benedetto Croce and in 1933, in order to get a teaching post, he became a member of the Fascist Party. Shortly afterward, however, he began a relationship with the Communist teacher and activist Tina Pizzardo. Eager to please, convinced that this was real romance at last, Pavese agreed that Tina could receive letters from another subversive at his address. In May 1935 the police raided his house and found the letters. Had Pavese explained the situation, he very probably could have been released, but this would have compromised a relationship on which so much was riding. He was jailed, briefly, then exiled to a remote seaside village in Calabria for three years. Tina didn’t write. Pavese became furious that he had been punished instead of those really involved. After a year in exile he appealed for clemency and was granted it. Returning to Turin by train, he was told, on the platform, that Tina had married the day before. Pavese fainted. He had lost his woman—his chance, as all his writing suggests, to achieve maturity—and his anti-Fascist credentials: he had appealed for clemency while others were serving out their sentences.

Pavese emerged from the deep depression that followed his abandonment by Tina partly through the friendship of a young man, Paolo Cinanni, to whom he gave lessons in Latin and Greek. Cinanni was an active anti-Fascist. Once again Pavese was meeting with resistance groups, but without taking an active part. Shortly after Italy declared war in 1940, he wrote in his diary: “War creates the sense of group. That is a welcome feeling.” Yet when Mussolini fell in 1943 and the war became both a civil war and a struggle against German occupation, with many of Pavese’s closest friends taking to the hills to join the partisans, Pavese once again found himself torn. “Remember that today one cannot be a good Italian if one does not kill a German,” he repeatedly told a boy he was tutoring. Yet he himself was incapable of killing. In Rome on business for Einaudi when Mussolini’s regime collapsed, Pavese found, on returning to Turin, that all his friends had left town. Rather than join them in fighting, he went to stay with his sister’s family in the country.

The novel The House on the Hill (in The Selected Works) gives a fictional version of Pavese’s state of mind during the war. Corrado, a schoolteacher, works in Turin during the day and returns to the hills at night to escape the Allied bombardment. Out walking one evening, hearing people singing, he is drawn to a farmhouse where he meets a group of political activists. He is attracted by their strong sense of community, but he is unable to commit himself to the antifascism that gives the group its vitality and purpose, this despite the fact that one of the women is a former girlfriend of Corrado’s and has an adolescent son who may actually be his. Whether or not that is the case, she refuses to let him act as a father.

At first, we are led to think that Corrado fails to become involved because he sees that the partisan war is futile. As always in Pavese, who was very much interested in myth and archetype, a sense of fate hangs heavy over events. Corrado does not make his views explicit, but he seems to think that the war will end when the Allies win, regardless of what the partisans do. But a remarkable scene toward the end of the book suggests that something rather more personal and peculiar to his psychology is going on.

Discovered by the police, the group in the farmhouse is rounded up. Corrado is presumed to be involved but escapes. He hides in a convent, then sets off to join his family in a distant part of the country. Walking over the hills and avoiding German patrols, he is approaching his destination when the partisans ambush a Fascist truck just a few hundred yards ahead. Arriving at the scene he finds that

One soldier—gray-green streaked uniform—had fallen on his face with his feet still on the truck. Blood and brains spilled from beneath his cheek…. Then more contorted bodies, sprawled facedown, of a dirty livid color…. One was off on the grass…kneeling stiffly against the barbed wire as if alive, blood flowing from his mouth and eyes, a boy of wax crowned with thorns.

This terrible vision blocks the teacher from going further. “I hung around among the corpses, not daring to step over them.” Then: “Some instinct drew me back, down the road I’d come on….”

The similarities here to Pavese’s difficulties with women are evident. Fascination with engagement in life, with an action that seems central to other people’s lives, is contrasted with feelings of exclusion and revulsion. Pavese uses blood and dirt to mark both experiences. The teacher cannot step over the corpse; he turns back. And just as, in The Beach, the marriage that remains beyond the capacity of the narrator is devalued by presenting the husband and wife at the center of the novel as rather frivolous characters, so the act of war is seen only as bringing death; there is never any question of its contributing to the liberation of the country. The book’s final and powerful statement on the war again seeks to remove it from a historical context. Here, in Flint’s rather stilted translation, is the passage:

If a stranger, an enemy, becomes a thing like that when he dies, if one stops short and is afraid to walk over him, it means that even beaten our enemy is someone, that after having shed his blood, one must placate it, give this blood a voice, justify the man who shed it. Looking at certain dead is humiliating. They are no longer other people’s affairs: one doesn’t seem to have happened there by chance. One has the impression that the same fate that threw these bodies to the ground holds us nailed to the spot to see them, to fill our eyes with the sight. It’s not fear, not our usual cowardice. One feels humiliated because one understands—touching it with one’s eyes—that we might be in their place ourselves: there would be no difference, and if we live we owe it to this dirtied corpse. That is why every war is a civil war; every fallen man resembles one who remains and calls him to account.

Pavese, of course, will not be called to account because he has not killed. The implication of the passage is that no account (or simply “reason” as the original Italian puts it) can be given. Just as Pavese repeatedly tells us in his poems and novels that all women are the same woman, so the person killed is always the same person (the “crown of thorns” suggests an archetype) and the particular motive and cause fades into the background.

But whereas Pavese’s difficulties with women are interesting to us only insofar as they are part of narratives that are exciting for other reasons, when it comes to the business of war and killing many readers will suddenly find that they share Pavese’s reaction. They see it as admirable, they feel that if this is neurosis then it is positive neurosis: the revulsion at taking life on which pacifism depends. At the same time, looking back on World War II, it is not hard to feel that the cause of the partisans was a just cause. The reader, or at least many readers, will thus share Corrado’s sense of being inadequate to deal with conflicting feelings: the duty of engagement, the horror of killing. Transferred from the individual and sexual to the collective drama of war, Pavese’s personal difficulties suddenly become intensely urgent for us.


Pavese’s last novel, The Moon and the Bonfires (now published with a new and in this case much more effective translation by Flint), looks at the war from a different perspective. An orphan, nicknamed Eel, has abandoned the small village where he grew up and run away to America, to return, after the war, a rich man. He has missed the fighting and the drama. All those he knew have grown up in his absence.

In an attempt to get back into the world of his childhood, Eel sees his old friend the Communist activist Nuto, and asks him to explain what happened to various people he knew. Eel admires Nuto as a moral, committed, responsible family man. But Nuto is cagy about events, about history. When the story he has to tell finally emerges, we discover that the cause of the partisans was compromised by executions, reprisals, bitterness. As one might expect, there is a beautiful and unfaithful woman involved. The community to which Eel is so powerfully attracted conceals a primal scene of betrayal and blood.

The violence from the wartime past, with its grim harvest of corpses occasionally uncovered from shallow graves in the apparently innocent farmland, is seen as parallel to a catastrophe that takes place shortly after the narrator’s return to his village. The peasant now working the farm where Eel grew up has a bitter argument with the greedy landowner about the conditions of their contract, after which he batters to death his sister-in-law who long ago took the place of his dead wife. He tries to kill his lame son, burns down the farmhouse with the boy’s grandmother in it, and hangs himself by the light of the flames. The appalling incident confirms that life’s horrors just go on repeating themselves regardless of political events. The world Eel has missed, the world he is finding so hard to return to, is ugly and terrifying. Only the landscape, eroticized as ever under a scorching sun, offers him consolation and a certain security. All Pavese’s main characters are great and solitary walkers.

Returning to Turin and his publishing job after the war, finding many of his friends dead, Pavese joined the Communist Party and threw himself, rather incongruously, into political activism. In part this was a way of redeeming himself for his nonparticipation in the partisans’ struggle, and, much like his earlier work as a translator, a form of self-annihilation. Yet despite constant participation at Party meetings and long discussions with workers and union organizers, he continued to feel excluded. With growing frequency he moved back and forth from Turin to the country, or to Rome. Keeping the hours of a workaholic, he would go down into the street late in the evening to invite a couple of prostitutes up to his office. According to Lajolo, “they drank, chatted, and he even dared, out of spite for Einaudi, to take them to the publisher’s office, leaving it dirty and disordered.”

Then in 1949 Pavese embarked on a last infatuation. Nobody seemed less likely to become his wife than the glamorous American actress Constance Dowling. He spent a brief time in her sophisticated world, but he was inevitably rejected. “You look for defeat,” he had written in his diary long before about his choice of women. This time he wrote: “Now, in my way, I have entered the whirlpool…. There is only one answer—suicide.”

Reading Pavese’s diary, his poetry, his novels, one has a growing feeling that he can only make up for his sense of exclusion from life through the perfection of his art. Unable, or so he repeatedly claimed, to become an adult, his destiny must be art and, like art (as he saw it), separate from life: “It is not that one expresses anything when writing. One constructs another reality, the word.” This perhaps explains why he kept copies of the letters he sent and wrote a diary that was both extremely unflattering to himself and clearly meant for posthumous publication. Evidently he felt that his art and the torment from which it arose must be comprehensively documented and validated. But if art really was quite separate from life, then the ultimate validation was suicide. To kill himself would be the culmination and confirmation of his literary career.

Pavese’s last gesture before heading for the Hotel Roma on August 26, 1950, was to go to the editorial offices of the Communist Party newspaper, L’Unità, to check whether they had a good photograph of him, presumably for his obituary. I can think of no other writer whose work cannot be separated in the reader’s mind from the simple fact and the calm, purposeful manner of his suicide. It was his way of guaranteeing himself, at last, a place in the community of those who could take action.

This Issue

November 6, 2003