Cesare Pavese (1908-1950), novelist, poet, and critic, ranks as perhaps the most important Italian novelist of the 20th century. His work fuses considerations of poetic and epic representation, the theme of solitude, and the concept of myth.
Cesare Pavese was born on Sept. 9, 1908, at Santo Stefano Belbo in the Piedmont, the son of a lower-middle-class family of rural background. Although his family lived in Turin, Pavese never severed his childhood ties with the countryside. He lived with his parents and, after their death, with his sister's family until the end of his life.
After graduating from the University of Turin in 1930 with a thesis on Walt Whitman, Pavese began translating American novels and worked for the publishing house of Einaudi. In 1935 Pavese was arrested with members of the anti-Fascist group Giustizia e Libertà and was expelled from the Fascist party, to which he had belonged since 1932. He was exiled for 3 years to southern Italy, where he began to write his first short novels. Pavese returned to Turin in 1936, having been pardoned, and he continued his translations and began to work full time for Einaudi in 1938. He did not participate in the war or in the Resistance, and he became a member of the Communist party in 1945. He spent most of the last 2 war years as "a recluse among the hills" with his sister's family, with whom he returned to Turin in April 1945. On June 24, 1950, Pavese was awarded the coveted Strega Prize, and on August 27, having for years courted the idea of suicide, he died by his own hand in the Hotel Roma in Turin.
Preoccupations and Themes
Pavese was without doubt the most universally cultured Italian writer of his generation. Shy, introspective, and suffering from numerous neuroses, he counted among the great experiences of his life his encounter with American literature and with myth, the latter becoming increasingly dominant in his work. Thus the idea of the return to the past that the artist must accomplish and the treasury of memory both play an important part in his literary approach, for which he believed he had found the answer in myth. A central theme of his work is, furthermore, the question of solitude in all its aspects.
The publication dates of Pavese's works often did not coincide with their times of composition; nor did the manner of publication—many of his short novels were published collectively—necessarily indicate an internal schema. His works may be seen in the Goethean sense as "fragments of a great confession," there being no necessity or possibility of discerning a progressive development because all his writings, in the manner of a free fugue, circle around the same themes; it was Pavese's conviction that "every authentic writer is splendidly monotonous inasmuch as there prevails in his pages a recurrent mark, a formal law of fantasy that transforms the most diverse material into figures and situations which are almost always the same."
Pavese began his career with poetry. It was his aim to write objective expository verse of narrative character: poesia-racconto. He tended later toward immagineracconto, "image-recital," convincing himself in the end of the "exigency of a poetry not reducible to a mere recital." Thus, in his own words, the antilyric verse of Lavorare stanca (1936) was "an objective development of soberly expounded cases." In a style that moves between interior monologue and discours indirect libre and in a language close to dialect or, at least, to the spoken idiom, he recounted the adventure of an adolescent proud of his country origins whose experience of the city in the end conveys only a sense of tragic solitude. Late in life Pavese returned to confessional poetry with the nine poems of La terra e la morte (1947; written 1945) and Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi (1951; written 1950).
Pavese's first published novel, Paesi tuoi (1941), represents, with Elio Vittorini's Conversazione in Sicilia (1941), a point of departure for Italian neorealism. Its programmatic flouting of conventions in all possible aspects—in language, style, and theme—and its almost documentary nature set a pattern for that whole movement. The novel was based on the antinomical character of country life and city life; yet the former was not at all idealized but shown in its bare, raw, and wretched existence with its story of incestuous passion. Nevertheless, there was an underlying nostalgic feeling for the earth, for the primeval, a mythical yearning for a return to the fountains, to the springtide of life, that underlies all of Pavese's writing.
La spiaggia (1942) is a variation of Pavese's theme of the eternal return, coveted forever as it is frustrated. It is a story of flight and evasion with its protagonist couple in vain attempting to return to the lost paradise of their youth. Il carcere (1949; written 1938-1939), according to its author "a tale about country and sex," is the story of Pavese's own exile, the experience of solitude and isolation. A thematic connection links Il compagno (1947; written 1946) and La casa in collina (1949; written 1947-1948). Although the political engagement in these two stories is stressed more than the myth, it becomes evident that the search for myth in the end implies a flight from historical presence and responsibility. Thus the solitary hero of the latter story, autobiographically close to his author, eventually evades responsibility with his final flight into myth, into the hills of his origin.
The three stories published together in 1949—La bella estate (written 1940), Il diavolo sulle colline (written 1948), and Tra donne sole (written 1949)—center on man's encounter with the city. As fascinating as the city might have seemed initially, it leads to complete disillusionment and isolation, entailing the impossibility of a return to the paradise of yore. This disillusionment is the experience of the women protagonists of La bella estate and Tra donne sole, as well as that of the couple in the symbolically charged Il diavolo sulle colline. La luna e i falò (1950; written 1949) represents a sum total of Pavesian symbolism and the thematic myth of the eternal return. It is to the hills of Santo Stefano Belbo, the hills of his childhood, that the protagonist, symbolically called Anguilla, returns, only to leave them again in search of his true self.
Feria d'agosto (1946) is a collection of prose poems and theoretical notes on the subjects of myth and childhood. I dialoghi con Leucò (1947)—in the guise of a conversation between mortals and Olympians—presents the result of Pavese's inquiries into the problems and implications of myth along the lines of Viconian philosophy and Jungian thought. La letteratura americana e altri saggi (1951) contains Pavese's critical writings on American literature, a considerable amount of which he translated. Il mestiere de vivere, his diary for the years 1935-1950 (published posthumously in 1952), ranks as one of the outstanding documents of its time. Of an uncompromising frankness as well as an unusual degree of introspection, it contains lucid observations on Pavese's personality and literary theory and astute reflections on a culture whose most sensitive representative he was. Also posthumously published were the short-story collection Notte di festa (1953; written 1936-1938) and the novel Fuoco grande (1959; written with Bianca Garufi in 1946).
Further Reading on Cesare Pavese
Major studies of Pavese are in Italian. Two good studies in English of Pavese's work are Gian Paolo Biasin, The Smile of the Gods: A Thematic Study of Cesare Pavese's Works (1968), and Donald W. Heiney, Three Italian Novelists: Moravia, Pavese, Vittorini (1968). Recommended for general historical background is Sergio Pacifici, A Guide to Contemporary Italian Literature: From Futurism to Neorealism (1962).
Additional Biography Sources
Lajolo, Davide, An absurd vice: a biography of Cesare Pavese, New York: New Directions, 1983.
Lajolo, Davide, Pavese, Milano: Rizzoli, 1984.