Fascist, sadist, sex fiend … biographer’s delight
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.