Gabriele D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Knopf, 608 pp., $35)
In the opening decades of the 20th century, Gabriele D’Annunzio was one of the most famous Italians alive. Writing came easily to him and was the basis of his reputation. Among his serious admirers were Marcel Proust and Osbert Sitwell. Henry James, no less, praised his “excited sensibility.” Romain Rolland, a Nobel Prize winner and a Communist fellow-traveler, was a friend who wrote a book about him and compared him to a pike, a large fish that devours smaller fish.
It is safe to assert that D’Annunzio’s writings are now only of academic interest. He might have caught the mood of the moment, but contemporaries such as Carducci and Pirandello were writing for posterity. Turning with passion to politics in midlife, he once more operated as a pike, out to devour territories to which Italy laid claim as spoils after World War I. At the time, he appeared to be a public figure in the grand style, a modern condottiere. It became clear to posterity that he had been nothing of the kind, but merely a commonplace nationalist and racist. A colleague and a rival of Mussolini, he was one of the founding fathers 2of Fascism. In the clash of ideologies during the late 1920s and 1930s, he was another extremist who might at any moment have sprung a political surprise. Hemingway was to call him a “jerk,” and Benedetto Croce accused him of “sadism and cold-blooded dilettantism.” The consensus is that he has slid close to the bottom of the rubbish bin of history, and ought to be left there.
It was a good idea of Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s to retrieve someone so ambivalent and hold him up for inspection. A previous book of hers has the subtitle “Saviours, Traitors, and Supermen.” Evidently she has a taste for troubled and troubling types. Here is a determined effort to provide all the evidence for and against D’Annunzio, no matter how trivial the details or the huge number of pages required to write them up. In the modern style that aims for readability at all costs, this book takes liberties with chronology and often resorts for effect to the historical present, has chapters with such portmanteau headings as “Worship,” “Nobility,” and “Beauty,” and is free with words and descriptions of physical acts more usually found in what is known as adult literature.
The son of a small landowner, D’Annunzio was born in the Abruzzi in 1863, two years after the unification of Italy. His generation grew up in the afterglow of a heroic age. Now that they had founded Italy, Massimo d’Azeglio — one of the principal statesmen involved — could quip that it was time to find some Italians. D’Annunzio was one such. His move as a young man to Rome was a first indispensable step toward fulfilling his ambition of greatness. Reading the influential books of the day, he adopted the fin-de-siècle aestheticism that held life itself to be the truest work of art. His literary style is nicely covered by Hughes-Hallett’s phrase “word music.” A journalist adopting various pen names, he churned out hundreds of pieces about Roman social and cultural life. Self-promotion was a specialty. Publishing his first book of poems, he spread a rumor that he had fallen off his horse and been killed.
Still in his early twenties, he married Maria, daughter of an aristocrat. Leaving him, she attempted suicide. After Maria came Olga. Deadpan, Hughes-Hallett writes that D’Annunzio “was attracted to independent-minded women. He liked to try out his ideas on them.” After Olga came Barbara. After Barbara came another Maria, this one a princess, who also tried to kill herself and then went mad. After Princess Maria came Eleonora Duse, previously the mistress of Arrigo Boito, Verdi’s librettist. Extremely beautiful, Duse was one of the all-time great actresses, and she and D’Annunzio are described here as the most celebrated couple in Italy, if not in all Europe. In an affair that lasted eight years, Duse added a real-life role to her usual stage repertoire of suffering heroines. In one of his plays, D’Annunzio depicted her recognizably as a worn-out degenerate, and she refrained from suicide only for fear of damaging his image. After Duse came Luisa and Nathalie and a legion of women from all walks of life.
Photographs reveal D’Annunzio as plain, bald, and usually half-naked or in some stance that brings out the poseur in him. Quite a number of people thought there was something feminine about him. “A frightful gnome” was the realistic judgment passed on him by Liane de Pougy, the Parisian grande horizontale who took her clothes off for King Edward VII. Here was a sadistic satyr with all sorts of fetishes to do with clothes and surroundings, hands and other body parts. He tried to explain that he was unfaithful for love’s sake, and Hughes-Hallett wonders whether he was a cynic or just didn’t understand the pain his promiscuity caused. Identifying with Saint Sebastian martyred by arrows, he convinced himself that he was the victim of those he himself was victimizing. Pain, in short, was the spur to passion.
World War I allowed D’Annunzio to disguise sadism as patriotism. “I am drunk with the joy of war,” he boasted: As Hughes-Hallett puts it, war was his new poetry. Victory over Austria, the old occupying power and hereditary enemy, would complete Italy’s national liberation. If not, death “is as beautiful as life, intoxicating, full of promise, transfigurative.” Aircraft were a recent invention and he had always been interested in their military potential. Now he flew over enemy lines, sometimes dropping leaflets and sometimes bombs. One day the pilot on whom he relied was killed, and another day his plane crash-landed, an accident that left him permanently blind in one eye. He showed exemplary courage in the front line at the Isonzo, where the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers were sacrificed in atrocious circumstances for no strategic purpose. To him, combatants were heroes, descendants of the legionaries of the Roman Empire. Emotionally pitched ever higher, his speeches to the troops repeated words like leitmotifs: “blood, dead, glory, love, pain, sacred, victory, Italy, fire.” Blood was there to be shed. Glory lay in summoning soldiers to their death.
When his own blood-and-glory moment came, he rose to it. Treaty-making at Versailles after the war had failed to decide whether the former Austrian city of Fiume on the Dalmatian coast should be given to Italy or to the new state of Yugoslavia. In a population of 50,000, Slavs outnumbered Italians by about four to one. In the autumn of 1919, D’Annunzio accepted the invitation of the Italian minority to march on Fiume and incorporate it into Greater Italy. He informed Mussolini, who at the time was consolidating his Fascist party (and would, in 1922, borrow the tactic for the march on Rome that was the prelude to his dictatorship). The men with D’Annunzio were a ragtag bunch of mutineers and adventurers. Their slogan was “Fiume or death!” Violence was a permanent feature. Some French soldiers were dragged out of the brothel where they had found shelter, and killed. D’Annunzio held that Yugoslavia was “a Balkan pigsty.” Local Croats and Serbs were liable to be arbitrarily imprisoned or expelled.
“D’Annunzio seems to be having the time of his life at Fiume,” the British Foreign Office reported. More precisely, Hughes-Hallett points out that he had appointed himself “the insouciant ruler of an outlaw state.” He drafted the Charter of Carnaro, a constitution for Fiume that defined the subordination of its citizens to the demands of the state in accord with Fascist doctrine. As usual, he was playing with other people’s lives. His men, it seems, pioneered the standard Fascist punishment for dissidents of forcing castor oil, a powerful laxative, down their throats. After a year of upheaval, the Italian and Yugoslav governments signed a treaty that satisfied their mutual demands. D’Annunzio immediately condemned the compromise as betrayal. In his eyes, Mussolini’s failure to come to his aid was contemptible cowardice. Supporters tried to persuade him to take over the national Fascist movement. When regular Italian soldiers arrived to enforce the treaty, the Fiume episode was over. D’Annunzio spent his remaining years near Lake Garda, creating a museum to the greater glory of himself. After World War II, Fiume was renamed Rijeka and incorporated first into Yugoslavia and now Croatia. Almost all the Italians have fled, and a circle is closed.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett has done her level best to be dispassionate, but there can be no mistaking that she is recounting a parable about the decline of European civilization. Forcing men and women to submit unconditionally to his will, D’Annunzio contributed his bit to the general moral rot of the age of dictators. Abuse of his undoubted intelligence and gifts secured his place in the lineup of contemporary monsters.