Sunday, December 1, 2013

Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Pleasure

A Review of Gabriele D’Annunzios Pleasure

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2013/2014

Gabriele D’Annunzio
translated by Lara Gochin Raffaelli
Penguin ($17)

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.

—David Wiley

Italo Calvino’s Letters 1941–1985

A Review of Italo Calvinos Letters 1941–1985

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2013/2014

Letters 1941–1985
Italo Calvino
Translated by Martin McLaughlin
Selected and introduced by Michael Wood
Princeton ($39.50)

Although Italo Calvino was a deeply convicted artist and intellectual, he was not a man of great personal passions. His fiction, like that of his Argentine master Jorge Luis Borges, weaves dazzling conceptual fantasies that explore the mind and the universe and the written word in books that sometimes fall in on themselves to become their own central subject, but he leaves out all the lonely sadness of Borges—and foregoes altogether the fervor of his other, earlier master, Ernest Hemingway. He instead employs the cold codes of Hemingway as he plumbs the interior labyrinths of his imagined worlds and leaves blank the self-portrait that Borges suggested that his own creations outlined in intimate detail. Mirroring this aspect of his fiction, and in fact magnifying it, his personal and professional correspondence explores a world of art and ideas and politics almost entirely divorced from the human feelings that underlie them.

Selected by Calvino scholar Michael Wood from an Italian edition twice its size (which itself collects just a fraction of Calvino’s lifetime of correspondence), the English-language edition of Italo Calvino’s Letters 1941–1985 serves as a kind of intellectual and artistic biography of postwar Italy—of which Calvino was a prime representative—if not as a biography of Calvino himself. Translator Martin McLaughlin provides relentlessly informative notes to the letters, some of them translated from the original Italian edition and some of them his own work, tracking down in painstaking detail every political or artistic reference and noting the exact publication information of every book or article that Calvino discusses or refers to or is reacting to. It’s a seriously impressive piece of sleuthery, and it illuminates the texture of Calvino’s world almost as much as Calvino does with his own words.

Beginning when Calvino was eighteen and at college fearing conscription into Mussolini’s army, the letters follow him into hiding with the Resistance and then into a postwar environment in which he’s a devout Communist trying to keep his party relevant and still connected to the actual proletariat, a struggle that bitterly disappoints him as it increasingly fails. In tandem with his political involvement, Calvino’s literary career attempts to bridge two competing urges: the commitment to writing illustrative political works filled with types and goals and progress, and the overwhelming desire to follow his imagination into the ether. Ultimately, politics frustrate him and he quits the Communist Party in a drastic and unexpected letter that reads like the self-divestment of a priest stepping down from the church but still vowing utter faith to all of its fundamental tenets. His pen then largely unfettered by any programmatic fealty, his fiction takes off, and his letters document his evolving ideas and intentions and aesthetic interests.

Calvino was ever the public intellectual, however, and his correspondence records a mind still very much in thrall with the modish ideas of his time, and a great many of his letters read like incredibly tedious recitations of the latest theory or article of intellectual faith. Often new concepts will enter and inspire him, as when he applies semiotics to the universe for his Cosmicomics series of tales, but just as often he’s simply spinning his wheels. He also had to devote much of his energy to his job in publishing, and it’s both fascinating and depressing to see him expend so much attention on other people’s works and ideas and artistry.

Calvino’s interdisciplinary interests brought him in touch with some of the most cutting-edge creative minds of his time, including the filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paulo Pasolini and the composers Luigi Nono and Luciano Berio, even working on a collaboration with the latter composer. In fact, some of Calvino’s most captivating letters describe his reactions to some of these artist’s work, such as his intense dislike of Pasolini’s films, and one letter finds him riffing brilliantly on the theme of sounds and silence in battle after hearing the debut of Nono’s great A floresta é jovem e cheja de vita.

What’s disappointing is that these passages are the exceptions and not the rule. Calvino is not a writer who likes to regale his friends with his reactions to the wonders of his reading or listening or seeing, and when he occasionally reveals some of his vast erudition, it’s often surprising to see the names of authors and books come up, as if from hiding, when he’s never divulged any sort of initial revelation about having encountered them in the first place. These are simply not the letters of Keats or Kafka or Flannery O’Connor, where the reader takes a trip through the realms of gold with the author and marvels along with each new discovery. The personal element of these great letter-writers is entirely missing from Calvino’s correspondence too, with virtually no dramatis personae crowding in from either his or his correspondents’ lives. He only mentions his wife a handful of times, never telling the story of meeting her when he was in Cuba, and it’s nearly impossible to tell his correspondents apart from the way he writes to them. There’s no Kafka’s Felice or O’Connor’s “A” to be found anywhere in these letters. In the end, this volume will serve as a sourcebook for understanding Calvino’s works and days, and some of it is actually quite interesting and informative, but it will never count as having much intrinsic value as a collection itself.

—David Wiley