Fas­cist, sadist, sex fiend … bi­og­ra­pher’s de­light

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Louise Adler

The Pike: Gabriele D’An­nun­zio, Poet, Se­ducer and Preacher of War By Lucy Hughes-Hal­lett HarperCollins, 704pp, $24.99 THE Pike is the bi­og­ra­phy of a man of vault­ing am­bi­tion, nar­cis­sism and ac­tion, but para­dox­i­cally also a mod­icum of re­flec­tion as na­tion­al­ism is in­ten­si­fy­ing be­fore World War I. At the end of the 19th century Gabriele D’An­nun­zio was Europe’s most suc­cess­ful writer, a fab­u­lous self-pro­moter, a sex ma­niac and a pro­gen­i­tor of Ital­ian fas­cism.

A less able bi­og­ra­pher than Lucy Hughe­sHal­lett might have been overwhelmed by the im­mense oeu­vre of 44 vol­umes of nov­els, plays, po­ems and speeches. How­ever, this daz­zlingly good study brings to life a man of prodi­gious ap­petites; a great self-chron­i­cler for whom no sub­ject was too mi­nor. We read of the rus­tle of silk, the beauty of grey­hounds, the pu­bic hair of blonde lovers, the plea­sures of avi­a­tion, the

May 17-18, 2014 glory of ma­chin­ery and the hero­ics of war.

The broad brush­strokes of Euro­pean his­tory, the strug­gle for Italy’s na­tional iden­tity and evoca­tively de­tailed mo­ments in D’An­nun­zio’s life are wo­ven to­gether. Life and lit­er­a­ture fold into each other seam­lessly; each pro­vides a prism through which to un­der­stand the other. The epic span of the nar­ra­tive arc and tightly framed episodes pro­vide the nec­es­sary in­ten­sity to un­der­stand the sub­ject.

D’An­nun­zio’s am­bi­tion was un­fet­tered from an early age. He in­stinc­tively un­der­stood the emerg­ing power of the mass me­dia; his in­flu­ence de­pended on con­nect­ing with the broad­est pos­si­ble au­di­ence. Jour­nal­ism, pop­u­lar nov­els, gos­sip col­umns, theatre re­views — no form of writ­ing was off lim­its.

His first vol­ume of po­etry was pub­lished, with his fa­ther’s sup­port, at age 16 to pos­i­tive re­views. When an ex­panded collection was pub­lished the next year, the news­pa­pers re­ceived an anony­mous note ad­vis­ing the young poet had died in a tragic ac­ci­dent. That note, sent by the young poet him­self, was an early in­di­ca­tion of his am­bi­tion and blithe in­sou­ciance in the face of com­mon val­ues such as truth and ac­cu­racy. D’An­nun­zio was on his way. His fu­ture would be char­ac­terised by an in­nate pref­er­ence for ex­cess: li­bid­i­nal en­er­gies, shop­ping, eat­ing, rhetoric and blood­shed. Bailiffs at the door, un­paid ho­tel bills, crazed lovers, in­flamed crowds. These were dan­ger­ous and pow­er­ful ap­ti­tudes to pos­sess in such a po­lit­i­cally volatile pe­riod.

D’An­nun­zio was not a fas­cist ac­cord­ing to his bi­og­ra­pher but “fas­cism was D’An­nun­zian”. He cer­tainly pro­vided the rhetoric for fas­cism hark­ing back to clas­si­cism as a frame for moder­nity. He cre­ated the the­atri­cal spec­ta­cle of or­a­tor and au­di­ence en­joined in a gal­vanis­ing mo­ment. His re­lent­less and fetishis­tic in­vo­ca­tion of blood and soil as metonyms for na­tion­al­ism would en­gen­der Ital­ian and Ger­man fas­cism. His life­long pas­sion for kitsch — or­na­men­ta­tion of ev­ery imag­in­able kind — pre­saged fas­cist aes­thet­ics.

His fas­ci­na­tion with the ma­chin­ery of war, the god-like view from the newly in­vented fly­ing ma­chines, the speed of au­to­mo­bile cars, the vi­tal­ity of men, would pro­vide the iconog­ra­phy for 20th-century fas­cism.

D’An­nun­zio was the poster boy for pri­apism; no woman was un­in­ter­est­ing: poor girls for rap­ing, aris­to­cratic women for il­licit cou­plings, les­bians for pi­quant en­coun­ters, artists for in­dul­gent pec­ca­dil­loes. While ac­cord­ing to Hughes-Hal­lett, ho­mo­sex­ual de­sire was not ev­i­dent, D’An­nun­zio was a man of “broad in­ter­ests”. His tastes in­cluded both in­valid women and Ama­zo­ni­ans, fore­play in match­ing ki­monos, and he de­vel­oped deft skills in cun­nilin­gus. His wife would go mad soon enough and his three sons were in­structed to call him Mae­stro, not Papa. Read­ing The Pike I lost count of his lovers.

D’An­nun­zio spent the years be­fore 1915 pros­e­lytis­ing for a war to cleanse Europe. He was a dem­a­gogue and war­mon­ger. How­ever, to un­der­stand him, one need look be­yond to an ex­tra­or­di­nary episode in 1919. De­mor­alised af­ter the war’s end, he led an army of 180 weary and bedrag­gled soldiers into Fiume to re­claim it for Italy. His ar­rival in a shiny new red Fiat sports car laden with flow­ers was met with joy. For nearly 18 months D’An­nun­zio ruled the city as a benev­o­lent dic­ta­tor.

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