Translated by R. W. Flint
(NYRB Classics) $16.95
Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950
by Cesare Pavese
Translated by Geoffrey Brock
(Copper Canyon Press) $17
Here are the last words that Cesare Pavese wrote before committing himself to eternity on August 26, 1950: "I forgive everyone and ask everyone's forgiveness. OK? Don't gossip too much." It's almost but not quite the best suicide note by a prominent 20th-century literary figure--that distinction goes to Russian futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky, who wrote, "Mother, sisters, friends, forgive me--this is not the way (I do not recommend it to others), but there is no other way out for me. Lily--love me." The only reason I begin with Pavese's end, which was not as dramatic as Mayakovsky's (Pavese used sleeping pills; Mayakovsky used a gun), is simply to get it out of the way (or better yet, over and done with). For those familiar with 20th-century Italian literature, his suicide is as famous (and so for the purposes of a book review, as distracting) as Virginia Woolf's is to those familiar with English literature. (Not to digress too much, but the first sentence of Woolf's final note, "Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again," echoes the greatest opening sentence in the history of the novel, "Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital," in Gunter Grass' Tin Drum.)
But what is important about Pavese is not his death (or method of death) but the life of (or in) his books. Born in 1908 in Santo Stefano Belbo, Cesare Pavese, who spent his most productive years in the then industrializing city of Turin, was, like his contemporary Tommaso Landolfi, a translator. But Tommaso Landolfi translated Russian literature into Italian whereas Pavese translated American literature into Italian. Their tastes in literature were reflected in their writing styles--word choice, sentence rhythms, specific settings, and general themes. Landolfi, who was influenced by Nikolai Gogol (indeed, his most famous story in the English-speaking world is "Gogol's Wife," which is collected in Gogol's Wife and Other Stories), was flowery and comic; whereas Pavese, who was influenced by (and in 1930 wrote his senior thesis on) Walt Whitman, was demotic and serious.
Though Landolfi's fiction is more entertaining, as exemplified by his novella The Two Old Maids, about a monkey that is sentenced to death for imi- tating Sunday Mass, Pavese's work (which is defined by four major short novels, The House on the Hill, The Beach, The Devil in the Hills, and Among Women Only--all of which are collected in The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese) is more obsessive, and therefore more rewarding. By obsessive I mean that to enter his books is to enter, over and over again, the same world order, which vacillates between the city of Turin and the countryside, between the streets and the hills, between the proletariat and peasants, prostitutes and "sun-dark hermits."
The reader is conveyed into same world by the same means: an intoxicated and, as a consequence, intoxicating prose. This drunken or vertiginous effect is not felt within a single sentence, which is the case with Landolfi (as in this marvelous sentence in "Gogol's Wife": "Gogol's so-called wife was an ordinary dummy made of thick rubber, naked at all seasons, buff in a tint, or as is more commonly said, flesh colored"; or "Nikolai blew his wife up through the anal sphincter with a pump of his own invention, rather like those which you hold down with your two feet and which are used today in all sorts of mechanical workshops"). Pavese's sentences are clear and flat, and the vertiginous ambience is generated by their series, their very motion, which feels, after two or more paragraphs, like a night walk shared with a drunken person. And as you progress deeper and deeper into the story's city or countryside, your head becomes like your companion's blood, lightened by a dark red wine.
The world of Pavese's poetry, all of which has recently been translated with considerable success by Geoffrey Brock, is the same as his prose, although the prose, because of its length, is more intoxicating. In "Walking with Pavese," the beautifully written intro to Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950, Brock describes Pavese's poetry as "poesia-racconto," or "poem-story," but this description is a little misleading. The poems, particularly in the first collection, "Work's Tiring" (Pavese's early poems), and the second collection of the book, "Poems of Disaffection" (his late poems), are not complete mini-stories, but more like happy, sad, confused moments--walking the hills with a lover, walking the city streets with a whore, and so on--that may or may not become a "racconto."
German literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his memoir, "A Berlin Chronicle": "To lose oneself in the city--as one loses oneself in a forest--that calls for a different schooling. Then, signboards and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a cracking twig under his feet in the forest, like the startling call of a bittern in the distance, like the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing erect at its center.... This [is the] art of straying." Altogether, what one will find and love in Pavese's poems is a miniature reflection of what one has found and loved in his short novels: the restless wandering, straying through the city and country.
A few straying fragments from Disaffections: "If early tomorrow we go out for a walk/through my hills, we might find, in those vineyards, a couple of girls, made dark by the sun/and could make small talk and sample their grapes" ("Displaced People"); "I walk without saying a word/with a girl I picked up on the street" ("Words for a Girlfriend"); "From morning till evening we wander the avenues/and whether it's raining or sunny, it's fine with us. It's a pleasure to see people talk in the streets and to talk to ourselves, bumping girls as we pass" ("Street Song").