A Life Not Worth Living
Born in 1908 in the region of Piedmont, and found dead in a hotel room in 1950 after taking his life in Turin, Cesare Pavese wrote brilliantly about despair but also about the hills, vineyards and fields in the Piedmont region. Whether focusing on the city in Amongst Women Only or the country in The Moon and the Bonfires, Pavese was a writer above all of unease, and thus his diaries, This Business of Living, shouldn't be read as an aside to the work but central to it. As he says in it: "Every luxury must be paid for, and everything is a luxury, starting with being in this world", a version of original sin that isn't quite biblical but can certainly appear strict.
In 'Suicides', the narrator recalls an affair with a married woman, someone who is estranged from her husband and whose simple nature he couldn't tolerate rather than whose unfaithfulness he couldn't accept. If the latter were so he would merely be a hypocrite, and if he couldn't countenance her marital status he would have been unreasonably jealous: what right would he have to his jealousy; she is, after all, another man's wife and not his own? But Pavese escapes the expectations of the compromised character as hypocritical or pathetic, as the man whose affair leaves him shallowly guilty or emotionally desperate, and instead produces a specific type of monster. The central character's atrophied state leaves him unable to love and hollows out the love of another so completely that she cannot by the end of the story, by the time of her suicide, even like herself. As the narrator recalls the affair while he takes his coffee in the local caf, he feels guilt that is his own within feelings that never quite seem to belong to him. To be himself, to be someone who loves, is beyond him, but the integrity in the story, even in the character, and not just beyond it in Pavese's telling, resides in the lucidity of self-acknowledgement.
If Charles Darwin could say in Descent of Man that "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge", we might wonder if there is a variation of this morally: that a person who does ill, works very hard to claim the value of their deeds, and how many might be inclined to give a little to charity all the better to hide exploitation in other areas of their lives?" One strip mines a country and in turn pays for a couple of hospitals. There will be no opening ceremony for the exploitation but we can expect speeches of gratitude at the ribbon-cutting. Pavese, who was a Communist, nevertheless wouldn't have been interested in so broad a caricature of sublimated guilt as the one above, but instead in culpability that remains something of a mystery, one that needs to be examined and traced rather than categorically politicised.
In 'Suicides', the narrator's guilt is twofold, or rather doubly temporal: there is not just Carlotta's suicide in the recent past but also a suicide from many years earlier. As a teenager, the narrator was friends with Jean and the two of them agreed to a suicide pact; Jean killed himself, the narrator didn't, and this youthful 'failure' haunts the narrator's life and exacerbates his enervation, and perhaps leads to Carlotta's suicide as he treats her terribly and cannot love her. "Don't you love me?" she asks. "The little love I was capable of burned up when I was young" he replies. But who this love was for, remains ambiguous. Jean and the narrator were both in love with the same woman, and Jean, the unhappier of the two, nevertheless wasn't the one to suggest they kill themselves. They only had one gun, Jean went first and put the barrel into his mouth and fired. The narrator didn't know what to do and ran away. Carlotta asks if he really loved that woman and he says "what woman?" The person he loved, he insisted was Jean. Yet earlier in the story he says that when he first got to know Carlotta, he "was just recovering from a bitter blow that almost cost me my life...it had so long been my lot to spend my nights and days humiliated and infuriated by a woman's caprice." It seems it wasn't the woman he loved when he was young that was the source of his unhappiness but his friend's death, but then it appears there have been other unhappy loves, and one in particular that leads him to treat Carlotta badly. "...having been treated unjustly, I revenged myself, not on the guilty one but on another woman, as happens in this world."
This might seem suffocatingly narcissistic but Pavese was interested in making literature out of life, just as he translated numerous writers he admired in an attempt to bring a broader range of work to Italy. "He apparently translated Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner ..." (Paris Review) Anthony Madrid says, adding that Pavese translated Moby Dick when he was twenty-three. More importantly, for Pavese's own work, "the [American] critic Leslie Fiedler reckoned that "in our classic books, Pavese found a method for making biography symbol, for transforming the most private impulses of the heart into myths of social utility; and for him the first of these myths was the image of America itself, a legend of a search for freedom, which Pavese used in order to transcend the limits of his own personality, to move his obsessions from the level of confession to that of communication." There is little doubt that Pavese was a writer preoccupied with love and with literature, and that if Fiedler is right, what he managed to do was usually take the personal and transform it into the general - in finding in art an objective correlative to feelings that could be abstracted into fictional form.
Yet it was as though love was the curse that literature couldn't quite cure, and Tim Parks proposes that "two events precipitated Pavese's suicide: a failure in love and a success in literature. In early 1950 he met the American film actress Constance Dowling, fell in love, took a brief holiday with her, convinced himself, against the advice of all his friends, that something might come of it. Afraid of the worsening political situation, Constance left Italy in early summer and did not return." Parks also notes, "Meantime in June, Pavese won the Strega prize, Italy's most important literary award. 'So, I'm king of my trade,' he writes. 'In ten years I've done it all.' (London Review of Books) Literature that could potentially sustain him, leaves him disillusioned: he lost a prize from one perspective, a woman, and gained another, a literary award.
Yet Pavese was the sort of writer who could entertain such thoughts without the consolation of them. Many may see winning a beautiful woman (which is what Dowling was; a model and an actress) as part of the victory of life, along with winning a major prize for literature. But Pavese's ambivalence towards success is perhaps consistent with a need to find in the biographical a creative distance: that while he wished to talk about his feelings, he didn't wish to talk only about his feelings. Equally, his interest in politics indicated someone for whom success was of little value unless it could be universalised and hence his interest in Communism, joining the party after the war and writing for the Communist paper, L'Unita. Perhaps Pavese's pervasive and crippling depression could only be alleviated by the density of art, the width of equality and the love of a woman. If literature was reduced to prizes, communism a failure and love impossible, what was there to keep one alive?
Yet in 'Suicides', the narrator lives while his friend has long since died, and Carlotta dies too by her own hand. What keeps him alive we might wonder, a question unlikely to be asked of many a central character but an ongoing enquiry when thinking of Pavese's figures. Among Women Only, for example, opens on a suicide attempt and ends, many pages later, with its success. In 'Suicides', all one can hope for is small pleasures. The narrator says there are mornings when he likes the way the city appears strange to him while he sees it with different eyes. Things are familiar and yet odd and he reckons these "for me, are the only days in the whole year that I really enjoy." He also reckons "I am convinced that never in my whole life shall I have anything more precious than the revelation of how I can derive pleasure from these moments." In contrast, "I am convinced now, that no passion is powerful enough to change a man's true nature. Even fear of death cannot alter his fundamental characteristics." He is speaking chiefly of passion and reckons: "once the climax of passion is over one becomes again what one was before - honest man or rogue, father of a family or a mere boy - and lives one's own daily life."
Throughout the story, the narrator can see disgust and self-disgust and doesn't much distinguish between the two. In crisis, he sees that one's true nature is revealed and it horrifies us. "The insult to us is so atrocious that we would rather be dead, but there is no one to accuse us except ourselves." Yet he is alive and others are not, and he may be the cause of both suicides. To feel self-disgust would seem not the human condition, but his condition, and yet though he talks of cowardice when refusing to kill himself after Jean succeeded, he also proposes that while most people confronted by the horror of their own nature would prefer to die, there he is still alive.
Thus rather than seeing that he treats Carlotta badly he claims that people treat others badly; that his mistreatment of Carlotta is the way things are, evident in his claim about the way things happen in this world. Thus he also wonders whether if Carlotta had any mystery to her whether things might have been different. That he would have been the victim and not the tormentor. "Would things have turned out differently with any other woman? Another, I mean, who would be capable of humiliating me as my nature demands?"
As he recalls moments of remorse that seems too weak a word for the guilt we might believe he ought to feel (and yet a word often used in the story), he reminds himself how badly he treated Carlotta. This would include leaving her in the middle of the night, telling her that the affair doesn't matter to him, or turning up when he feels like it, knowing that Carlotta yearns for his presence. When he appears after a couple of nights' absence, he sees her eyes swollen. She was suffering for love and he was bored with indifference. But, of course, it had been the other way round with others, and that was usually the way the narrator liked it: suffering was at least a strong feeling, and yet doesn't he admit passions are of little use, and the small pleasures are what matter?
Maybe one way of accommodating these apparent contradictions, and seeing them more broadly in Pavese's work and life, was that he sought an escape from the tyranny of the ego, and from a master/slave dialectic that kept creating winners and losers, in society, in literature, in love. At the end of the story, the narrator lives but the writer who wrote it we now know ended up the way of Jean and Carlotta. It creates in the work and beyond it a haunting question: what is it to be alive, and if it means competing with others in various manifestations, if it means being loved and bored, or loving and anxious, is life worth living at all?
© Tony McKibbin