A Review of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Pleasure
A Review of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Pleasure
Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2013/2014
translated by Lara Gochin Raffaelli
The Italian writer and statesman Gabriele D’Annunzio largely gave up literature for politics when Italy entered into the First World War, and his books and reputation have never fully recovered. A fervent nationalist whom many—including Mussolini himself—saw as a forerunner of fascism, D’Annunzio was a larger-than-life figure whose importance now seems absurdly dated and whom modernity would simply prefer to forget. In the English-speaking world, his original impact has often seemed entirely baffling, because Victorian translations excised the seminal gist of his true contribution, leaving a refined shell whose brittleness quickly desiccated and disappeared from the larger literary consciousness. His first novel, Pleasure, shocked its original readers with a frank and even devious focus on sexual seduction, but its 1898 translation into English as The Child of Pleasure cut out all the sex, rendering the novel into a neutered virtuoso piece, leaving many readers—including myself—with the impression that D’Annunzio was just a pallid reflection of the English Aesthetic movement. The Child of Pleasure read like a frangible novelization of Walter Pater’s imitators, leaving very little pleasure in its narrative portrayal or in its effect on the reader, but arriving at the 150th anniversary of D’Annunzio’s birth, Lara Gochin Raffaelli’s new translation of Pleasure will perhaps single-handedly resuscitate D’Annunzio as a world writer and place this glimmering first novel in its key spot among Europe’s great works of Decadent literature.
The novel opens with the main character, Andrea Sperelli, a young aristocratic writer and artist, awaiting the return of an estranged lover in a room suffused with her memory. Pleasure then plunges the reader into a world of reminiscence and desire and longing, where objects take on the essences of the humans who touch them and where humans themselves serve as objects on which to play out the obsessive interior dramas lurking beneath the surface of each new interaction. Sperelli is a dissolute aesthete raised by a father who initiated him from a young age into the cult of beauty, indoctrinating him with the most spurious sophism and leaving him with no fundamental grounding at all. While Sperelli serves in part as a mirror of D’Annunzio himself, who took on much of his character’s persona in subsequent years, the play of the novel is in making the reader descend into this depravity at the closest range, perhaps a bit like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert seducing us into the ultra-sophisticated world of his sickness, with the ironic distance only implied through extra-textual references. The exceptional Raffaelli provides generous notes to her translation to delineate some of these subtleties, but the overall thrust of Sperelli’s seductions is clear even without them.
With this new translation, the influence on the subsequent century’s literature is now shockingly apparent. Both Marcel Proust and James Joyce were great admirers of D’Annunzio’s work, and the influence especially on Proust’s In Search of Lost Time makes itself retrospectively evident on nearly every page. Both Sperelli and Proust’s narrator are monsters of obsessive narcissism, but even more strikingly, D’Annunzio’s mingling of art and objects and essences opens a key passageway into the infinitely interconnected world of Proust, where the sound of a spoon knocking against a plate or the feel of uneven stones beneath the narrator’s feet or the taste and smell of a madeleine cookie dipped in tea can call up a universe of internal associations. More than Proust, however, D’Annunzio immerses the reader in the material experience of making art—at least when not consumed with seduction and memory; the passages describing the thrillingly intricate processes of etching and printmaking outshine even the book’s most sensuous and associative passages, prefiguring the relentlessly detailed artistic methods described in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which also seems in this novel’s debt.
Yet while Pleasure may be a great precursor to many of the past century’s key works of literature, it fails in one respect. Rather than making Rome his own, or even absorbing ancient or medieval or renaissance Rome into his own personal iconography, D’Annunzio very much lived in the Rome of Goethe, which for writers of the nineteenth century was modern Rome. Goethe occupied a place in his age that not even Proust or Joyce occupy in our own, so the influence is understandable, but to have the narrative—and Sperelli himself—so constantly quote his German master is to make a terrific refusal to be original. Part of this is for effect—Goethe informs the narrative when Sperelli is with his main lover, Elena, which is most of the time, and when he’s with his secondary lover, Maria, it’s Shelley whose works fix the key—and it’s actually a pretty neat effect, but it leaves a huge void by living in the shadow of these towering high Romantics. D’Annunzio’s Sperelli is meant to strike for his age a figure as symbolic and representative as Goethe’s Werther was for his, and although he succeeded in making Sperelli a metonym for the age of Decadence, much like Jay Gatsby is for our own shoddier decadence in America, perhaps part of D’Annunzio’s desuetude lay in not creating a lasting foundation for himself—or in not transforming a classical myth into a modern one the way that Joyce did with The Odyssey and Fitzgerald did with The Satyricon. Still, Pleasure is truly a pleasure, and its potency is its own. D’Annunzio’s characters may be steeped in their age, but his methods and vision are strikingly original, and this novel confidently announces itself not just as a mere echo or harbinger, but as a fully fledged advent of its own.