"The typical effort of a Pavese hero is lucidity; the typical problem of a Pavese hero", Susan Sontag believes, "is that of lapsed communication." Writing on Cesare Pavese in Against Interpretation, Sontag reckons the "novels [including The Moon and the Bonfires and Among Women Only] are about crisis of conscience, and the refusal to allow crises of conscience." Much the same could be said of a number of Pavese's stories, including 'Suicides', 'The Wedding Trip', 'The Idol' and 'First Love'. But Sontag is most especially astute when noticing that in Pavese's work "a certain atrophy of the emotions, an enervation of sentiment and bodily vitality, is presupposed." It is a point Pavese returns to again and again in his Diaries, This Business of Living, published after his suicide in 1950 at forty two. When Pavese says "in any course of action it is not a good sign if a man starts with a determination to succeed in it, for that implies rivalry, pride, ambition. He should begin by loving an activity for its own sake, as one lives for the sake of living." Such a claim sounds from a certain perspective like a variation of Kant's categorical imperative: that one does good not because of a feeling but because of an obligation, that a proper moral system relies on disinterested actions. But while one might even have problems with such a claim in relation to morality, imagine how it plays out in relation to an area where one would assume feelings are absolutely vital, like love?
In 'Suicides', Pavese's narrator says "I am convinced now, that no passion is powerful enough to change a man's true nature. Even the fear of death cannot alter his fundamental characteristics. Once the climax of passion is over one becomes once again what one was before..." In each claim, in the diary entry and the narrator's comment, there is justification for the inevitability of the enervation Sontag mentions. Pavese also claims in his diaries that "the art of living, granted that living means to make others suffer...lies in developing an aptitude for playing all sorts of dirty tricks without letting them disturb our own peace of mind." Perhaps Pavese's significance as a writer rests on exploring this problem of selfishness and turning it into good faith not through action, but through the lucidity Sontag addresses.
This problem of good faith is one philosopher Jean Paul Sartre of course constantly addressed, but saw its resolution chiefly in action: how could one act in good faith, Sartre mused, and concluded in Existentialism and Literature that though producing literature isn't an action, the author nevertheless "makes an appeal to their [the reader's] freedom, and in order for his works to have any effect, it is necessary for the public to adopt them on their own account by an unconditional decision." It is in Sartre's words, "the moment of reflective consciousness". The good faith of the writer can lead the reader to revolutionary thinking and possible action. Yet Pavese's notion of good faith would seem to be quite different. When Sartre says "the true problem of bad faith stems obviously from the fact that bad faith is faith", leading hopefully to a faith that is no longer bad but good, Pavese might reply that there is also good faithlessness: an awareness of one's own emotional limitations in the presence of the other. Indeed, from a certain angle, bad faith can at least offer passion, since it is in Sartre's reckoning a faith. Pavese's best writing, his most acute insights, come out of a kind of good faithlessness, echoing his comments about the art of living in his diary, and Sontag's comment about atrophy of the emotions.
In 'Suicides', the narrator observes that he envies "those people who, before doing something wicked or grossly unfair, or even merely satisfying a selfish whim, manage to pre-arrange a chain of circumstances to make their action seem justifiable, even to their own consciences." It appears the narrator lacks the bad faith to do so; he is incapable of creating the peace of mind that could give his body energy even if he is in the process of treating others badly. 'Suicides' exemplifies this idea as the narrator drives a woman to her death, but 'Wedding Trip' also seems fascinated by a similar problem. Here the narrator notices that his wife Cilia is transformed by the love she feels for her new husband. "Her smile, especially, was transfigured. It was no longer the half timid, half-teasing smile of a shop girl on the spree, but the gentle flowering of an inner joy..." The narrator "felt a twinge of jealousy at this sign of a happiness I did not always share." When they take a trip he notices "Cilia was almost beside herself with delight, held my hand and tried to make me talk", but the narrator is "moody and unresponsive", as he cannot quite connect with life. He is clearly causing Cilia pain, but can neither share her pleasures, nor can he not notice the trouble he causes. He is caught between the good faith of acting well, and the bad faith of not noticing another's misery, and instead settles for the horrible state of good faithlessness.
In The Savage God, Al Alvarez says of Pavese, and the type of suicide he believed Pavese to be, that "a suicide of this kind is born, not made." "...He receives his reasons...when he is too young to cope with them or understand. All he can do is accept them innocently and try to defend himself." For "by the time he recognizes them more objectively they have become part of his sensibility, his way of seeing and his way of life." What interests us is how such a sensibility permeates the fiction, creates a way of looking at the world. In both 'Suicides' and 'Wedding Trip' the stories appear almost like diary entries themselves, long, first person meditations on the problem of acting at all. In other stories the problem is addressed more obliquely, and where the male narrator is at the mercy of another's bad faith, bad faith in the manner in which we have couched it through Pavese: in relation to someone's ability to be obliviously happy with another's misery that they are responsible for creating. In 'The Idol', the narrator visits a prostitute he becomes fascinated by, and after some time tries to persuade her to marry him. "I love you and I'm as much yours now as I was then. But marry me, Mina. Give up this life" as he says he feels like murdering her clients. Mina just assumes he is ashamed of her, and the narrator says "that was the first moment when I realized I was up against immense senseless power, like a man banging his head against a brick wall." It is not only the jealousy that is destroying him, but also a certain gap between the two of them: the gap between his misery and her refusal to acknowledge it on the terms upon which it is offered.
In Pavese's work jealousy is no more it would seem than a subsidiary of misunderstanding, of a failure to be recognised for the singular person one happens to be. Though in 'The Idol' the narrator, Guido, acknowledges concrete examples of jealousy, the story's meaning and significance lies elsewhere. "You see, Mina, I can't get that fellow out of my mind - the one you went off with that Tuesday evening..." and Mina replies "I remember...you were a bad lad that evening. Why did you come? I was very hurt about it." Guido replies, "and what about me?", stating it was clear he was hurting a lot more. This scenario of jealousy is intriguing for several reasons. Often one person is jealous of others in relation to the person they love within the context of a relationship, and so the jealous person feels they have rights over the loved one, and the loved one acknowledges these rights by lying if they have been cheating on their partner. They won't be telling the truth, but they're at least recognising their partner as someone who has a right to jealousy, and allays their fears by being dishonest. Guido might be in love with Mina, but he has no rights over her, and so she has no reason to lie to him, but instead misunderstands him as she trivialises his response. Moments later she asks him why his hands are shaking, and Guido replies "they need a ring on to hold them still." Mina laughs out loud, "diverted by my little joke" the narrator says, and Mina adds that "you're a dear when you say things like that" as she condescends lightly to the intensity of his feelings.
What we notice in 'The Idol', as in 'Wedding Trip' and 'Suicides', is basically an affective imbalance, where one character feels so much more strongly than the other person in the situation. However, where the women in 'Wedding Trip' and 'Suicides' are affectively adjusted, if you like, Guido in 'The Idol' is affectively maladjusted. The tragedy of 'Suicides' and 'Wedding Trip' is that the two women end up dead after contact with someone affectively atrophied - they are 'normal' women, capable of gaining much pleasure from life. Guido though is again the character without much faith in the world who masochistically projects onto a woman who can bring out that despair. Near the end of the story, after Mina decides to marry another man, she says "Just a boy. A silly boy", as she still refuses to take the narrator's feelings seriously. "For a long time I felt shattered...I thought of Mina and her husband as two grown-ups with a secret. A boy can only watch them from a distance, unaware of the joys and sorrows that make up their life." But is the narrator the sort of man who could have been capable of the joys and sorrows that make up a 'normal life' in the first place? One thinks not, as the existential despair finds an outlet in the women who are impossibly out of reach. If Alvarez describes Pavese as "a suicide born, not made", we can notice in much of his work the manner in which the narrative event seems secondary to an underpinning sense of loss. A made suicide would be someone unable to cope with an immediate situation; a born suicide one who knows that the situation is only a realisation of the emptiness that is a given. As Pavese says in This Business of Living: "One does not kill oneself for love of a woman but because love - any love - reveals to us in our nakedness, our misery, our vulnerability, our nothingness..."
If in 'Suicides' and 'Wedding Trip' the feeling of despair is the male narrator's in relation to their relative indifference to their lover's misery, and in 'The Idol', about the narrator projecting feelings onto a woman who does not love him, in 'The Leather Jacket', the trouble with loving is more obliquely presented. Here the narrator is a boy fascinated by a charming, muscled man, Ceresa, who rents out boats on the Po, but who falls for the young woman Nora whom the narrator describes as a "pretty girl", and the narrator realises "there must be something quite extraordinary about her, and this worried me because I didn't quite understand what it could be." Over the course of the story the narrator watches as Ceresa's casual approach to life becomes tested by his increasing feelings for Nora. "You shouldn't bother about what grown-ups say. But if Nora tells you anything, let me know" Ceresa says. The boy notices that Nora is often rude with Ceresa in front of other people, and over time "Ceresa talked less than he used to do, but I gladly stayed with him because I knew he was dazed." Not long afterwards someone tells him that Ceresa had "throttled Nora and thrown her into the Po." It would seem Ceresa would be an example of a murderer made rather than born, but the point of view is that of the boy, and we might think again of Alvarez's comment that a certain point of view can become part of our sensibility, our way of seeing the world. 'The Leather Jacket' is a story about mistrust in a relationship contained by the narrator's partial view that indicates his first experience of love is at one remove and horrific. The story still seems consistent with the Pavese question of the impossibility of love, and perhaps even more pronounced as it is seen from the perspective of a young boy whose feelings aren't directly involved, but whose sensibility seems to be. Superficially the story is about the tragedy of a man caught by a woman who plays with his feelings, but it is also about a boy for whom the events impact upon him as a human truth about relationships. When the narrator says there was something extraordinary about her and what troubled him was that he wasn't sure what that happened to be, he senses the pang of pain before the feeling of love: a sort of Pavlovian cue that might leave him assuming pain is an inevitable part of loving, instead of merely one amongst many signs that may be invoked by it.
In such a world where love inevitably brings pain, where pain is even more present than love, what else is there to pursue but loneliness? "The only heroic rule is to be alone, alone, alone", Pavese insisted, but he also says elsewhere in the diaries, "the greatest misfortune is loneliness." "So true is this", Pavese adds, "that the highest form of consolation - religion - lies in finding a friend who will never let you down - God." Here the notion of good faith takes the form of willingly accepting one's loneliness and communing with God as a way of avoiding the messy interaction of humans destroying other human beings.
Yet of course most of Pavese's stories are about human interaction, and just as a number of them focus on the inability to connect with others, occasionally the stories show moments of emotional revelation. These come not from the deep feelings of love, but the possibilities in contingent acts of decency and casual friendship. Even in 'The Leather Jacket' what holds is the narrator's fondness for Ceresa, a figure we sense he still has a bond with, despite the man committing murder.
In 'Misogyny' what we could call the gesture of feeling, as opposed to the abyss of love, comes when a young fleeing couple arrive at a small tavern and receive help from the barman and his sister. The couple are initially very suspicious when the barman tells them that they can't get any petrol because the people in the village are all fast asleep. The girl thinks it is just a ploy to keep them there for the night and to spend money, but by the end of the story a good deed has indeed been done. The barman may say at one moment, "and all this for a woman", but by the conclusion he and his sister have done enough for strangers for the boy to insist "we shall always remember you." One may see an apparent contradiction between a man who thinks all this for a woman, and then helps out a stranger, but taking into account Pavese's suspicion of the problem of depth of feeling, and also the inherent selfishness of each individual, then paradoxically the relatively disinterested gesture of helping a stranger can be more human than the emotional entanglements with a lover.
Numerous Pavese stories hint or focus upon the problem of love as if they were echoing the barman's comments "and all this for a woman" or for a man. 'In Land of Exile', the narrator, an engineer working in the south of Italy, gets talking to a convict at an open prison there. Over a period of time the convict tells him about his wife, saying "here I stay, living like a monk, and she just knocks around." He explains that he ended up in prison "because he tried to punch some sense into the head of a soldier who was having an affair with that wife of his. They gave him five years and he hadn't yet finished the first." By the end of the story someone she was knocking around with knocks her about so badly that she ends up murdered. "D'you know the best bit? He bashed her seven times, all in the face."
Whether the stories offer passion and murder as in 'Land of Exile' and 'The Leather Jacket', projection as in 'The Idol', or low affectivity in 'Suicides' and 'Wedding Trip' that leads to the woman's demise, the relationship is not the highest purpose one can aim for, but the lowest. It results in painful indifference or passionate enslavement. In 'The Cornfield' the narrator says of one young woman in love "she felt her heart contract...why had he lied?...But once the day of the race was over, she would never leave him. He meant too much to her." In the lengthy story 'A Great Fire', a character says "It is said that to understand other people you must love them. I do not know whether it is true."
Pavese seems to offer such a perspective not as a philosophy of life, merely an angle that unavoidably permeates his own fiction. "It happened that I became a man when I learned to be alone", Pavese says in his diaries; "others when they felt the need for company." At another moment he writes, "it happens that a conversation overheard makes us pause, interests and touches us more deeply than words addressed to us." Pavese offers it in the plural, but it is a statement with the sense of the singular. There were many writers of importance in Italy from the thirties to the sixties: Moravia, Primo and Carlo Levi, Calvino, Pasolini and Bassani, and most were concerned with the problem of memory and the difficulty of existence, but perhaps no one more than Pavese captured the loneliness of a lonely profession. "I know that I am forever condemned to think of suicide when faced with no matter what difficulty or grief...the thought of it caresses my sensibility." It would also, as we've explored, hover over much of his work.
© Tony McKibbin