Tag Archives: Cesare Pavese

The Common Good

Momina was younger than I, but not by much: she dressed very well, a gray suit under her beaver coat, her skin massaged, her face fresh; she took advantage of her nearsightedness by passing it off as detachment. I recalled her violet dress on the first night and looked at her naked ring finger.
—Cesare Pavese, Among Women Only (207)

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The final two stories in The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese are similarly structured: the first “Among Women Only” is told from the point of view of the solitary Clelia: a dressmaker returning to her hometown of Turin to set up a shop for her boss back in Rome. All of Pavese’s stories touch on issues of class and money in post-war Italy. Clelia, an independent working woman, tries to balance the necessity of tending to her clientele, with a mild disgust for the upper-class in which she navigates through the story.

Mariella was by no means a fool; she was the presiding hostess and had been born to such talk. I wondered if she would have known how to make out if she had begun at the bottom like her grandmother (200).

The story is unusual for several reasons, not least of which is that it is compellingly told from a female perspective. I don’t simply mean that the protagonist is female—that is easily enough done for many good writers male or female—but it is a distinctly female perspective. It matters that she is a woman. The nuances of a woman traveling alone, of being single (particularly for this era—although an era with a distinct loosening of conventions), of simply being in a female body. Without being ham-fisted in any way, Pavese tends to the details of that reality.

Like all of Pavasese’s stories, not much in the way of action happens, although this story does center its emotional tone around an attempted suicide by one of the young women traveling in the “fast” crowd. Pavese manages, through sober character studies— from the inside out—to touch upon issues of class, depression, sexuality: both heterosexual and homosexual, as well as his abiding theme of psychological isolation.

If you thought about it, it was terrible to have her with us this way and talk this way, terrible but also ridiculous, comic. I tried to recall what I was like at twenty, at eighteen—how I was during the first days with Guido. How I was before, when mother used to tell me not to believe in anyone or anything. Poor thing, what had she got for it all? I would have liked to know what advice her father and mother gave to that only daughter of theirs, so crazy and so alone (270).

We never do find out exactly who Guido was, but Clelia’s references to herself in terms of before and after Guido are telling, and, to this particular reader at least, very moving.

I could not help thinking, while reading this story, that it may have been the most personal and revealing of Pavese himself. His power of observation, his ability to express isolation both externally imposed and internally, and his ability to create richly nuanced glimpses into the lives of complex but ordinary people is quite astounding.

The last story in the book is “The Devil in the Hills.” This one focuses on a group of young men, or boys really, wandering the hills. It is told from the perspective of one (unnamed—I think) boy who is still young enough to simply crave the hills, swim naked, and enjoy long aimless exploratory walks.

“That’s one thing,” I said, that can’t be done—stripping naked in the woods and filling up with wine.”
“Why not?” Oreste said.
“No more can you make love in the woods. In real woods. Love and drinking are civilized things. when I went boating…”
Pieretto interrupted: “You’ve never understood anything.”
“When you went boating…” Oreste said (334).

Pavese never attempts to make his protagonists the smartest or most insightful or most reliable narrator—but in this way he engenders enormous sympathy for the figure that is telling the story—after all, who among us is all that?

As in his other stories, the “devil” seems to refer to the festering money-ed class: the nouveau riche as hanger ons to the old riche. The lack of guile with which the young protagonist finds himself in a very different world from his former cloistered student-days is endearing. Pavese is gentle with his characters, never hurried to tell the story, always tender and subtly told. He has a way of dropping seemingly insignificant details to signal changes in his characters:

I’d forgotten the blond honey of the head, her bare, sandaled feet, and her air of always being on the verge of leaving for the beach” (348).

The woman being observed is Gabriella, wife of the degenerate Poli. The boys are transfixed by her and also fascinated by her relationship with their husband which they struggle to understand. Pavese seems to deeply understand and communicate the ways in which people are often misunderstood, as well as the ways in which people often misunderstand themselves.

Except for the work in the library of The American Academy in Rome I have been doing here, I have been alone for my time in Rome and that may be why these stories have so strongly affected me. As I walk the labyrinth streets, observing all the people and their interactions with each other,  it is very much like the experience of reading: a solitary, and even isolating, activity, and yet, one that makes me feel more connected and empathetic to others.

In one of the early stories of the book Pavese writes something like, I like Italians; I don’t like Italy. It is a line that stays with me. I read it in its larger sense and see it as a mark of a true humanitarian. Someone who clearly wants to understand others and who can’t help loving people. Not countries, or religions, or politics or any other tribal designation: just people and a common goodness, a common struggle, that unites us all.

 

 

Grasping Truth

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When I came to the sea, I was afraid I might have to spend whole days with hordes of strangers, shaking hands and passing compliments and making conversation—a regular labor of Sisyphus.
—Cesare Pavese, “The Beach” from The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese (22)

Once I got settled into my room and daily life here in Rome, I knew I had a problem. The book I had brought with me to fill in the hours I was not at my internship was all wrong. I don’t often give up on books, and it was not as if it was a bad book—it simply was not the right book.

I spend my hours on the weekends and after work walking the city. It is not unusual for me to get back to my room having walked ten miles or more (lately, a little more often on the less side of ten as I become more familiar with the labyrinth streets and therefore spend less time doubling back upon my lost way). But even I can not walk all day, and so, once I knew my reading situation was in a bad state—the book, being set in an even more foreign setting increased my feeling of disorientation, I could barely find the will to get ahold of the specific nomenclature of the trades and dialects discussed and I had no feeling for the characters and so nothing at all to hold on to in my own state of loneliness in a foreign city. What I wanted was someone here to speak to me. I headed to the first bookstore that came up on google—a far walk but well worth the effort. As soon as I began reading I knew I had found a friend.

I was finding my boyhood just to have a companion, a colleague, a son. I saw this country where I grew up with new eyes. We were alone together, the boy and myself; I relived the wild discoveries of earlier days. I was suffering, of course, but in the peevish spirit of someone who neither recognizes nor loves his neighbor. And I talked to myself incessantly, kept myself company. We were two people alone (66 “The House on the Hill”).

I had not heard of Cesare Pavese’s work before I picked the book up off the shelf: an acclaimed Italian writer and influential translator who lived from 1908–1950, but he is the one keeping me company now. His stories, mostly set in his hometown of Turin, in and around World War II are beautifully told. There is a melancholy I respond to here in my own isolation—which is to some degree self-imposed by my rather reserved personality which sees in Pavese a kindred spirit. As well as a familiarity and sheer interest of reading stories set in the country where I am, once again, temporarily situated. Having lived in Italy for a short while over ten years ago, but now here alone, I found myself getting lost in the labyrinth of my own mind. Feeling lonely, yes, and deeply reflective, but also the wonder of it all—the beauty of the sights, sounds, and energy of this ancient city.

The second story in my book of selected works is The House on the Hill. It is one of the most accomplished anti-war stories I have every read. Most anti-war stories can hardly avoid glorifying the very thing they are critiquing, but not Pavese’s. There are no heroes, just people—people who get tangled up in the war in the middle of their own already tangled lives.

They promised punishments, pardons, tortures. Disbanded soldiers, they said, your fatherland understands you and calls you back. Hitherto we were mistaken, they said; we promise you to do better. Come and save yourselves, come and save us, for the love of God. You are the people, you are our sons, you are scoundrels, traitors, cowards. I saw that the old empty phrases weren’t funny any more. Chains and death and the common hope took on a terrible daily immediacy. What had once floated around in the void, mere words, now gripped one’s insides. There is something indecent in words. Sometimes I wished I were more ashamed of using them (126).

Corrado is the emotionally distant protagonist of the story. His elegiac telling of the chaos and danger in the period of Nazi withdrawal and fascist defeat of Italy is terrifying. Not just because it is terrifying, but also because it is so hard to imagine and at the same time, given the recent lean towards neo-fascsim in the world—all too easy. And that is preciously the same feeling that Pavese relates in the midst of it all—does one worry about having a coffee in the morning, or whether or not the son of a woman whose heart he broke is his? Or does one worry about being arrested, murdered—or worse evading arrest when all your friends are taken? Life is big enough for all those worries at once. And then:

I came up below the spring, in a hollow of thick, muddy grasses. Patches of sky and airy hillsides showed among the trees. The coolness there smelled of the sea, almost briny. What did the war, what did bloodshed matter, I thought, when this kind of sky shone amid the trees? (92)

But, of course, it does matter, and it all begins to lose sense in the senselessness of war.

It wasn’t discomfort or the ruins, perhaps not even a threat of death from the sky; rather it was a final grasp of truth that sweet hills could exist, a city softened by fog, a comfortable tomorrow, while at any moment bestial things might be taking place only a few yards away, things people only discussed in whispers (125).

As I wander, mostly in a wonderful, timeless, aimlessness around the city of Rome, I can not help but be struck by the beauty, yes—but also by the ravages—the evidence of the rise and fall of empires, religions, individual fortunes, even the Tiber itself.  “At any moment bestial things” have and are still taking place. We are all human beings on this planet, and so, for Pavese, “every war is a civil war” and every victim of war a body that calls us to account.

Pavese’s voice comforts me in a cautionary sort of way, and gives context to the country that I am immersed in. Of course I am watching my own nation’s news from afar. So while I  worry about where to get coffee without getting lost and missing my loves while relishing being here, I also read the news and worry about whether or not the unimaginable will happen….because we must grasp the truth that it can.

*The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese is translated by R.W. Flint