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.