Friday, September 2

Solitude and Love: anything's possible

Review by Ian Seed

Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950 by Cesare Pavese (Carcanet, £14.95)

The stars are alive,
but not worth these cherries which I’m eating alone.
- from “Passion for Solitude”

Cesare Pavese grew up and lived mostly in Turin, a city where I once worked and lived myself. I should say at the outset that I feel a special attachment to his writings Each day on my way to teach English to classes of boisterous teenagers, my tram passed the Hotel Roma on Via Nizza where Pavese hung himself in 1950. He was the first author I read extensively in Italian once I learnt the language well enough to do so. Pavese was much easier to read than, say, Alberto Moravia. This is because, like his friend and fellow writer, Natalia Ginzburg, Pavese wrote in a way that captured the speech rhythms of the people from Turin and the Piedmont region. When I read Pavese or Ginzburg I can hear the words and phrases as I am reading them, and I can see the streets of Turin in exactly the way he describes them.

This is true of both Pavese’s poetry and his fiction. Indeed, the line between the two is a blurred one. Many of Pavese’s poems read like stories or novels in miniature. Pavese referred to them as his “poem-stories”. In the era of Mussolini, he wrote poetry about the outcasts of society he saw around him on the streets of Turin and the surrounding countryside, the voiceless who would never fit into the clean, homogenised world of Fascism: drunkards, the unemployed and homeless, drifters, prostitutes, ex-cons, toothless men dreaming of their youth. He was influenced by the realism of the American authors he translated extensively, writing in a very different tradition from his Italian contemporaries such as Montale and Quasimodo. Although Pavese claimed to be apolitical, saying that politics was for fools, the subject matter of his poetry couldn’t help but be a protest against Fascism. Take this from “Idleness”:

All the big posters pasted up on the walls
with the muscular worker rising up toward the sky
above a factory background – they’re shredding
in the sun and the rain. Masino curses
to see that face, prouder than his, on the walls
of the very streets he has to walk to look for a job.

Indeed, Pavese spent time in prison because of his associations with people who were actively engaged in combating Fascism.

Pavese is a master at getting deep into the hearts of people at the bottom or the edges of society. He does so easily and naturally, without any kind of patronising tone, capturing the sadness and helplessness of their lives in a thought-provoking, disturbing way. From “The Country Whore”:

The languor of bed saps the sprawled limbs,
still youthful and plump, like a child’s.
The clumsy child used to smell the mixed scent
of tobacco and hay, used to tremble when touched
by the man’s quick hands: she liked playing games.
Sometimes she played lying down with the man
in the hay, but he wasn’t smelling her hair:
he’d find her closed legs in the hay and pry
them open, then crush her like he was her father.

A major subject matter for Pavese is the conflict between his desire for solitude and his need to be loved. Some of the poems read like a mourning for his own incapacity to return love when it was offered. Instead, he would fall in love with women who rejected him or who abandoned him after a short time. He sought solace in the sweetness of casual encounters. From “Words For A Girlfriend”:

I walk without saying a word with a girl
I picked up on the street. It’s evening,
the boulevard’s lined with trees and with lights […]
The crowd passes by,
pressing and crushing, and you too are the crowd,
like everyone else you’re walking beside me.
Not that I hate you – could you ever believe that? –
but I’m alone, and I’ll be alone always.

Towards the end of his life, after years of writing short stories and novels, Pavese returned to poetry, but it was poetry of a different kind, its meaning more elusive, driven by a dark, haunting lyricism. From “Earth and Death”:

And then we cowards
who love the whispering
evening, the houses,
the paths by the river,
the dirty red lights
of those places, the sweet
soundless sorrow –
we reached our hands out
toward the living chain
in silence, but our heart
startled us with blood,
and no more sweetness then,
no more losing ourselves
on the path by the river –
no longer slaves, we knew
we were alone and alive.

However, my own favourite poems of Pavese remain those which bring back to me today the atmosphere of the streets of Turin. I can still picture the fog invading the city from the River Po on damp Autumn mornings as I waited for my tram:

This is the day the fog rises up from the river
into the beautiful city, surrounded by fields and hills,
and blurs it like memory. In this haze, all green
melts together, but still the bright-colored women
go walking. They walk through the white penumbra
smiling: anything’s possible here on the street.

(from “Landscape”)

With this new rendering of Pavese’s poems into English, Geoffrey Brock has finally done justice to Pavese’s work, which has previously suffered from being poorly translated. Of course, there are times when it is impossible to communicate the richness of words which have different associations and meanings in the original language. For example, ‘Toleranza’, the title of one poem about a prostitute, is translated as ‘Tolerance’. In Italian there is the expression ‘casa di toleranza’, which means ‘brothel’ or literally ‘house of tolerance’. Any Italian reader will of course already have these points of reference, lost on the English reader. However, we are fortunate enough to have both the Italian and the English texts to refer to in this bi-lingual edition.

I would very occasionally contest the odd word chosen in English. For example, when Pavese writes of his cousin’s memories of hunting whales in the South Pacific, Brock translates ‘lottare alla lancia’ as ‘fighting the launches’. I believe that what Pavese meant by ‘lancia’ in this context is ‘harpoon’. But this is a minor quibble. Overall, Brock’s translation captures the tone of Pavese’s work in a way that hasn’t been achieved until now.

For both new readers and for those already familiar with Pavese, it is difficult to recommend “Disaffections” too highly. Cesare Pavese is one of those writers whose world, once we have entered it, we want to return to again and again.

© Ian Seed, 2005

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