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