The Moon and the Bonfire
A Melancholic Perspective on the Truth
There is a melancholy to Cesare Pavese's oeuvre that is deeper than his demise, a self-inflicted death that inevitably provides a context for his life but shouldn't be allowed to limit the work. In John Berger's A Fortunate Man, Berger offers in a more recent edition an afterword to this book he wrote in the sixties. The fortunate man of the title, a doctor in a small English village, took his life some years after the book was written, and Berger says "John the man I loved killed himself. And, yes his death has changed the story of his life. It has made it more mysterious." It is important also that Pavese's life and work remain mysterious, not too reliant on a suicide that was nevertheless hardly a surprise if one reads into the work what came out of it. Many writers have taken their life Hemingway, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, David Foster Wallace but not all of them made suicide a central theme. Pavese named one of his stories exactly that, while numerous passages in his important diaries, This Business of Living, allude to its possibility. "Where is...the youth of twenty who wanted to kill himself because he felt good for nothing...?" "If a man does not save himself no one can save him." "No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide." Among Women Only opens on a suicide attempt and ends on its success.
Yet to read the work through the prism of Pavese's death is to miss a melancholy that pervades the work and gives it sentence by sentence less the prolepsis of biographical fact than the mood and mode of a certain disposition. It is a melancholy that wonders what might underpin a life, give it stability and meaning, while at the same time insisting that purpose ought to be found. The difference perhaps between a pessimist and a melancholic is that the pessimist expects the worst while the melancholic wishes for the better that they cannot quite find. One often sees in Pavese's work a very specific kind of envy that has nothing to do with the ego but which wishes to share a value others possess, habits others master, a home people can call their own. The narrator in The Moon and the Bonfire, who has been living in America, talks about wishing to have a wife and son who could live in the countryside. "But I have never had a son and don't let's speak about a wife what use is this valley to a family that comes from across the sea and knows nothing about the moon and the bonfires?" The narrator refers to a passage a little earlier, when locals believe that where you "kindled a bonfire at the edge the crop grew quicker and heavier", and that "as for grafting, unless you do it when the moon is only a few days old, it doesn't take." A pessimist might say this is the stupidity of human nature, hopelessly lost to superstition but the figure Pavese presents envies people's ability to believe, aware that he cannot. As Pavese says in This Business of Living: "As long as we believe in superstition, we are not superstitious. To be superstitious is essentially retrospective...to us it seems merely chance." (This Business of Living) Pavese seems to suggest that the problem from a certain perspective doesn't reside in those who practice superstition but in those who cannot believe in it. If someone purposefully acts with the aid of superstition then that is fine; the problem resides the moment one can't believe in the superstition anymore and fails to act. As Pavese says, drawing together rites and superstitions, "the great task of life is to justify oneself, and to justify oneself is to celebrate a rite. Always." (This Business of Living) As his older, childhood friend Nuto says: "...a superstition is only a superstition when it does harm to someone and if anyone were to use the moon and the bonfires to rob the peasants and keep them in the dark, then he would be the backward one and shot in the square." The narrator disagrees, reckoning that if people are going to believe in such superstitions then "there was no use having so much to say about the government and the priest's sermons, if he was going to believe in these superstitions like his great-great-grandmother." Yet he also reckons that "before I could speak, I must become a countryman again. An old man like [the poor sharecropper] Valino will know nothing else but he will know about the land."
In The Moon and the Bonfire, the narrator can envy those who believe in the rites just as rich characters in The Devil in the Hills would be justified in envying those who are ostensibly below them socially. Speaking of the comfortably off characters in the book, the narrator says: "the abandonment and solitude of the Greppo was a symbol of her [Gabriella] and Poli's mistaken life. They did nothing for their hill; and the hill did nothing for them. The savage waste of so much land and so much life could bear no other fruit than discontent and futility." The narrator thinks of another character in the book: "...the vineyards of Mombello and the sharp face of Oreste's father. To love a land you must cultivate and sweat over it." (The Devil in the Hills). If superstition helps you to act then so be it; if a pessimistic rejection of the superstitious leaves you in a state of lassitude then this might ostensibly seem like a more enlightened view but still leaves one incapacitated. Is it better to lack wealth and the benefits of a modern education if it leads to action and the possession of the former results in inertia? Pavese offers such thoughts provocatively; as if his own melancholy often rests in refusing to reject the superstitious without being able to believe in it either. However, his work isn't inclined to praise the pastoral like Pagnol's or Jean Giono's there is usually a narrative consciousness keeping characters at a remove from the natural environment even as Pavese describes it. In 'Land of Exile', the narrator is employed building a road in the far south of Italy: "the squalid village seemed to me a kind of penance such as we have each to suffer at least once in a lifetime" and yet it was "also as a place where I could withdraw from the world to sort out my ideas and find fresh experiences." In 'The Cornfield', someone says "we're agricultural workers, we are. Fed up with planting cabbages, so we've emigrated." Ambivalence in Pavese is the thing.
Looking at the titles of The Moon and the Bonfire and The Devil in the Hills, we can see that Pavese suggests something has been lost without quite enough being gained. If The Moon and the Bonfire indicates that there is meaning in the old traditions and superstitions, in The Devil in the Hills, the title suggests the problem with new ways. Referring to petrol as the devil, the narrator says, "peasants don't know what petrol is. Sickles and mattocks, that's what's important to them. Before washing out a cask or cutting down a tree they still study the moon." Petrol will make their work easier but it won't make it more meaningful. What matters much more is the dignity of the work: "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 the technique of an activity for its own sake, as one lives for the sake of living." (This Business of Living) The devil in the hills can lead to the sort of production that makes farming intensive and the living secondary.
Thus Pavese's perspective is less to envy those who have plenty but those who have little and know how to cultivate it rather than exploit it, however complicated such envy may be. In The Moon and the Bonfire, the narrator can never quite find a home for himself, envying Nuto, who has a relationship with the Piedmont village and surrounding landscape. The narrator, Anguilla, is an adopted child; Nuto not only of the land but of a family on the land. Nuto is also someone who was a musician who toured the region as a young man and is now a carpenter. He is rooted in time and place as the narrator isn't and though Anguilla left for the States and isn't without money on his return, he believes he hasn't only not found what he was looking for but perhaps has become ever more dispossessed as a consequence of his peripatetic existence. He was after all interned in the US: a man no longer, if ever, at home in Italy, he found himself imprisoned when Italy become the enemy during the war. It was also as though his years in the States made him aware of how many were dispossessed; not tied to the land that they could claim as their own but moving from place to place to find work. This would have been in the thirties during the Great Depression, and Anguilla wonders whether "it is possible to be born and live in a country like this? Yet they got used to it Pavese tells us, finding seasonal work where it was to be found and leading a life which gave them no peace: they spent half the year in the mines and the other in the country. People's financial insecurity was manifest.
There is in a lot of Pavese's work, though, underlying insecurity much deeper than the social and which puts into perspective many words that can be taken for granted: words like envy or superstition. A person might be envious of others but if that envy happens to be for what others have as personal success, beauty and wealth, then there isn't much of a question. If a person regards superstition as backward and pointless then they can remain comfortably ensconced in their forward-minded and purposeless existence. Pavese isn't suggesting that the peasants are right to believe in superstition, but he does acknowledge they have a more meaningful life than those unable to believe. What often matters to Pavese characters is the ability to live purposefully and often the problem of trying to do so. As Pavese says, "it is only following instinct, the initial, spontaneous way of living, that one can feel justified, at peace with one's self and with one's own standard." (This Business of Living) Pavese adds, in what might seem like a skeptical approach to notions of progress, that "generations do not age, every youth of any period, any civilisation, has the same possibilities as always." (This Business of Living)
People are full of superstitions no matter how scientific our modern period, as Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud have well noted. Piaget sees that the child at an early age believes in all sorts of things that reason counters when they answer why bears have four feet that "they've been naughty and God has punished them." (The Child's Conception of the World) Few adults would be inclined to think this is why bears have four feet but they might wonder if their own misfortune has arisen because God has inflicted it upon them. Freud notes that "superstition is in large part the expectation of trouble; and a person who has harboured frequent evil wishes against others, but has been brought up to be good and has therefore repressed such wishes in the unconscious, will be especially ready to expect punishment for his unconscious wickedness in the form of trouble threatening him from without." (Psychopathology of Everyday Life) The person might know there is no cause and effect, but they might believe there is.
In respect to envy, a more satirically inclined writer may see that to be jealous of others can lead to various problems for the covetous as we find in 'envious' writers like Waugh, Nabokov and Amis, yet the suggestion is usually that the envy resides in material elements that the characters wished they possessed themselves. In Nabokov's 'Spring in Fialta', for example, the narrator envies a writer who not only has literary success but is also married to the woman the narrator loves, while in Amis's The Information, the unsuccessful central character is jealous of the smooth career trajectory of his rival. However, the writers explore envy as a material condition while Pavese is determined to show it as the very point of ontological crisis: as a sign of disintegration or the seeking of integration. When the narrator in The Moon and the Bonfire says, "at first when they shouted bastard at me as I ran to school, I thought it was a word like coward or beggar and called them names," before adding, "although I was already a grown boy and the municipality didn't pay us any more money, I still didn't quite understand that not to be the son of Pardino and Virgilia meant that I had not been born in Gaminella and had not come from under the hazels or from our goat's ear like the girls."
There are a lot of negatives in that sentence, various ways in which the narrator recognises his non-existence. As Mark Rudman says, of Anguilla: "the foundling is a kind of minus man. He does not receive a salary for his labor, only his board; his room is among the animals in the barn. He has no status; he doesn't even merit a name." (Introduction to Moon and the Bonfires) Nuto, on the other hand, plays music and performs in a band, comes from the region and from his parents' loins, and while now, after the war, he works as a carpenter rather than as a musician, it is a trade that pays. He also isn't above believing in the superstitious, as we've noted, while at the same time shows sympathy towards communism, yet one that understands the community. When Anguilla asks if he is communist, Nuto says "what we need are communists who aren't ignorant, who don't disgrace the name of communism." The envy Pavese explores is a little like the superstition that he refuses to reject. To be envious of others isn't to want socially what they possess but to recognise the degree of one's own self-dispossession. To suggest that Anguilla straightforwardly envies Nuto his self-possession would be to miss the point; he envies Nuto much more complexly than that partly because the envy cannot reside in the materiality of another's life but in the spiritual anguish of one's own, and in seeking some of the well-being of another.
As the narrator looks back on the time he first knew Nuto, he remembers a boy who was already a man, and someone others respected and admired. He also learned from Nuto that "...you didn't speak for the sake of speaking, to say that you had done this or that, what you had eaten or drunk, but work out an idea, to find out what makes the world go round." The narrator says that in the years that followed he learned a great deal more from Nuto, including why he also believes that another boy who treats others with disrespect just because he wears shoes every day and that nobody makes him work shouldn't be admired. "It's you who keeps him by working his family's land. But he doesn't even see that." Nuto knows that rather than the worker beholden to the land-owners it is the land-owners who are beholden to the worker. One oughtn't to envy one's social superiors; better instead to muse over how that superiority is attained. A person isn't backward because they work the land and rely on superstitions in the working of it; they are so however if they regard those with money and status as naturally entitled to their privileges. Anguilla like many a Pavese narrator may not be happy in his life but the unhappiness of Pavese figures rarely takes the form of false-consciousness; and they can admire lucid consciousness in others.
However, we can't ignore that the book is about much more than Anguilla's feelings of anguish and unease even if it is his mood that permeates the novella, someone who is lucidly self-aware and never left unaware of his lowly beginnings, encapsulated in one scene when as a boy he is working in the kitchen garden of the local wealthy family, the Matteos. Here he overhears two of the daughters, Silvia and Irene, talking. "Do you think he'll have heard" one sister says. "Not him, he's only the farm boy." He escapes those beginnings by going to the US but he also misses the full rise of Fascism and the war too. Some have seen in Nuto a far more compromised figure than Anguilla generally presents him as, with Rudman saying: "There is an artful mendacity in the presentation of Nuto. He is a false center, a conjurer's trick, a marker to throw you off the path. As The Moon and the Bonfires proceeds, Nuto is increasingly exposed, his limitations defined. He is enormously tight-lipped; the narrator finds it difficult to pry the truth out of him, but it becomes evident that his reticence is a defense that enables him to go on." (Introduction to Moon and the Bonfires) However, others see Nuto differently. Donald Heiney says, "...under the influence of his friend Nuto, and under the very influence of the land, the moon, and the crops themselves, he comes to believe, or more precisely to return to his childhood belief; and in this gradual acceptance of belief the reader accompanies him. In this process Nuto, in his arguments with the narrator, serves not only as a kind of shaman, but as a spokesman of rural folklore." ('Geography of the Moon')
If much of the book is taken up with Anguilla's reflections on his childhood, then an important part of its conclusion focuses on those who stayed in Fascist Italy after the narrator flees, details unavoidably refracted through other characters in the novel who have reasons to speak and reasons to remain silent. If the two older sisters Silvia and Irene are attractive, the youngest, Santa, who was but a girl when the narrator left Italy, grew into a great beauty and with a strong personality, someone who fights at night with the partisans and yells at the Fascists but who has also it seems slept with a number of them. Is she a traitor to the cause or willing to sacrifice her body to a greater good? She has helped the partisans too but also enjoyed Fascist favours and by the end of the book she will end up dead, killed by the partisans themselves in a horrible bonfire that will bring to mind yet again the title in another image of conflagration.
But it is as though Pavese is less interested in telling a story about Fascist Italy than finding images that capture the non-being of being, and that Fascism is just another opportunity by which people can find an identity in the world, however suspect. Heiney says that "Pavese has at least one mark of an important writer: from beginning to end his work is self-consistent and seems to be groping its way, book by book, toward the expression of a single, complex statement." ('Geography of the Moon') Pavese himself says "the symbols we all carry around inside us which we unexpectedly discover in the world outside us, and, with a wild pounding of the heart, recognize as our own these are our authentic memories. They are also discoveries in the true, the proper sense of the word." ('State of Grace') The symbols that Pavese indicates we all carry inside ourselves are those that the artist puts to work in one's fiction: the sort of symbols that needn't be especially abstract but are nevertheless consistent with the writer's preoccupations. These symbols needn't represent mythological abstractions invoking Gods of love and war, bravery and beauty, but can offer instead an imagistic consistency that suggests an aesthetic coherence. "It is even possible to trace a consistent imagery through Pavese's work," Heiney believes, seeing that "hills, crickets, sea, nudity, moon, America, harvest, earth mean the same thing, perform the same function, from his earliest published poems to his last novel." ('Geography of the Moon') It is all very well for a writer to put numerous high-flown references in the work that the diligent reader then fishes out, but Pavese's idea of symbolism is more nuanced and mysterious than that. The purpose rests in objectifying memory and subjectifying myth. "These touches when, without pausing in your story, you seize the opportunity of using memories to deepen the total experience, are more symbolic than descriptions. Although they may be imaginative," Pavese says, "in the sense that they recur at moments when it seems natural to clarify an inner reality, they play the same part in your story as the recognized attributes of a God or a hero do in a myth...stories within the story alluding to the hidden reality of the character." (This Business of Living) What happens is that the fiction has its own narrative integrity which meets with an image structure that allows the writer simultaneously to express the impersonal and the personal. If the story is simply autobiographical nothing will be aesthetically achieved; if simply deliberate and abstract, nothing mysterious will be found. "While actually writing, we are blind to it...Then there is no such thing as technique? There is, but what really counts, the new growth, is always a step ahead of the technique we knew, born of what flows unconsciously from the pen. To be conscious of our style means that we have finished expressing part of our mystery." (This Business of Living)
Thus when discussing The Moon and the Bonfire, one doesn't ignore the work but views it through much more than plot and characterization, seeing in it what makes it a Pavese novella first of all. The book has four time zones of which the narrator has access only to three. There is the childhood he looks back on, the recent past in the US that he muses over, the present back in the rural region of his youth, and lastly the period to which he doesn't have direct recall: the years leading up to and during the war. It is here we can see the Pavese technique at work, the unconscious need to narrate a novel through insisting the most dramatic parts are inaccessible to the narrator's purview, as well as indicating the incapacity for action. Rather than making the Fascist period the centrepiece of the book, it functions almost as a coda. Instead of the narrator proving himself a somebody fighting in the war, he remains a nobody who left for the States to make something of himself, returning to Italy after the war not feeling any the more integrated for having left and feeling potentially even more alienated from the environment in which he was, by virtue of adoption, removed. One needn't assume that this is irony at work: if only Anguilla hadn't tried to make his way in America he would have potentially made himself of value fighting for the partisans at home. As Heiney notes, in actual fact Pavese was the opposite of Anguilla: the writer never did set foot in the US and was jailed for anti-fascist activities in the mid-thirties. The autobiographical would have been paradoxically less capable of registering the Paveseian style than the rejection of it, partly because what makes Pavese's work distinctive is the passivity of the central characters so often in his novels. Whether it is the couturier Clelia in Amongst Women Only, or the young student in The Devil in the Hills, the characters that are central to the novel aren't central to the narration.
This was a common enough device in early 20th-century fiction and perhaps exemplified in The Great Gatsby, but it gives to Pavese's work a still greater sense of melancholy than even Fitzgerald's fiction. If in The Great Gatsby one senses a narrator who never quite has access to the titular character; in Pavese's novels the enigma is as much in the peripheral characters narrating the material as the more active characters within the work. Most of the dramatic events in The Moon and the Bonfire are narrated rather than dramatized, viewed at the one remove of narrative consciousness rather than directly as agent-oriented action. There is a whole novel in the last section of the book when Nuto details the war years to Anguilla but Pavese allows it to be a confirmation of the pessimistic, of Pavese's very particular brand of empathic melancholy.
What this consists of is the dilution of the dramatic by virtue of the empathic, a sense that no matter how ostensibly important events happen to be that are taking place in one's milieu, there are numerous other events elsewhere of a similar magnitude. The Pavese consciousness recognises that as soon as one gets just a little outside oneself, this empathic melancholy gets activated. In The Moon and the Bonfire, the narrator starts speaking three-quarters of the way through the book about the farm where he worked as a boy, La Mora. He says "one thing I always think about is how many people there must be living in this valley and in the world, for that matter, and the very same things are happening to them now as happened to us then, and they don't know it and never give it a thought...there's probably someone like me who wants to get away and make his fortune." Later he says, "I was thinking how everything happens again as it happened before I saw Nuto in the gig driving Santa up the braes to the fair, as I had driven her sisters." While for many a writer the story would surely rest on making the most of Anguilla's adventures as an emigrant in the US, and certainly in Santa initially enjoying assignations with a Fascist lieutenant before joining Nuto as a spy for the partisans, Pavese is looking for something other than dramatic enactment. The American years remain vague or rather allusive as he once again shows empathic melancholy when thinking of the difficult lives of others: "Then I thought to myself that for all the Californians' smartness, these ragged Mexicans were doing something that none of them could have done to camp out and sleep in the desert..." What happened to Santa can only be told indirectly, however vividly. We hear that while working for the partisans, she still had access to power and started informing Nuto about various pieces of information people were telling her. Once she tells him to hide any guns they have; two days later the blackshirts turned the house upside down looking for them. But someone comes and tells Nuto and the others that Santa has been spying for the Germans; that "even captured Germans had had her messages on them, reporting dumps to the fascist headquarters." In an environment of such distrust, she is shot but not buried. Instead, the novel ends by announcing as we have noted that she too became a bonfire: the local leader of the partisans "...made us cut a lot of twigs in the vineyard and we piled them on top of the pile and set fire to it. By mid-day everything was burnt to ashes."
Just as Anguilla can show sympathy for Mexicans sleeping out in the cold desert so he can absorb the terrible story of a woman he never met, only the girl that she was which he can half-recall. Santa's experiences don't interest Pavese as they might another novelist though he wouldn't pretend they are irrelevant either. What matters is how he makes experiences affectively pertinent. Here we have the book ending on a character who was but a very young girl when he left for the States and whose beauty can only be a rumour. Yet she serves very well Pavese's interest in both symbolism as Pavese couches it and the melancholy that permeates his work. If symbols are what we carry inside us and which coincides with the world outside, then what the outside world does is generate events that coincide with one's feelings about the world. Nobody can recognise the entire world but one can see aspects of it that preoccupy us even if they are not part of us; that they are not our direct concern but they do reflect our perception and our disposition. In Among Women Only, we have noted that the book starts with a young woman's attempted suicide and ends on its success, and the female narrator, Clelia, arrives in Turin and witnesses someone carried out of a hotel room on a stretcher. By the end of the book, Clelia will know well the social milieu in which the woman she witnesses on the stretcher, Rosetta, moves as the book suggests the possible reasons why someone might take their life. Rosetta needn't especially interest Clelia (and of course Pavese) but she does because the writer is fascinated in exploring stories at one remove as if it isn't so much the person who preoccupies him but the nature of given predicaments. If one can say there but for the Grace of God Go I, this has a specific function in the writer's work because it rests on another that in some manner coincides with one's own I. It means that certain events reflect a sensibility that can comprehend the need, for example, to take one's life, the sense of unease and distrust that could lead to Santa's death even if another would focus on the heroic dimensions of a story concerning the partisans.
Thus when Rudman says "the sudden reversal at the end, when Nuto at last reveals that Baracca, the local leader of the partisans, suspected Santina of being a spy, and ordered her execution, is shocking and should cause the reader to cry out, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy" this is close to what Pavese appears to mean when he talks of clarifying an inner reality with the presence of myth. Such an approach doesn't need to be active and perhaps for certain writers like Pavese benefits all the more from passivity. To invoke a myth needn't be to replicate it or dramatise it but simply to activate it. A retelling of King Lear or the Oresteia is still a dramatization and may even too consciously offer the sort of replication that denies the mysterious Pavese finds so important. It also suggests, too, an active form that modernist fiction is often suspicious over, offering a narrative agency we noticed that writers such as Fitzgerald wished to resist. It is exemplified in EM Forster's observation that in Proust's In Search of Lost Time 'what really matters in the book is not events but the remembering of events. Many tragic events occur and many funny ones, but they take their final shape in the meditations of the narrator." (Two Cheers for Democracy) What replaces dramatisation is crystallisation: the clarity of a thought rather than the throughline of an action. It doesn't mean that there won't be drama; just that it can be at one remove and no less revelatory for that. It allows for the maximum amount of space between the inner thought as Pavese expresses it and the realisation in enacted form indirectly. As Pavese insists, "of course one has the right to use characters, not so much to produce an effect but rather as a means of construction; just as in life, not for sentiment or experiment, but to realise a significance." Pavese is here talking about Thomas Hardy and reckons in the great English writer's work, in the melodrama he sees (perhaps unfairly) in Hardy, that "the characters speak through the external pathos of the scene, existing not as persons but as lay figures that lend a verisimilitude to the emotional drama." (This Business of Living) What Hardy does according to Pavese is manage to move us but not through the characters who remain at the mercy of Hardy's overriding voice but through the narrative assertiveness of Hardy's telling.
There is no such authority in Pavese's approach but we might think that the characters in most great writer's work, whether melodramatic or otherwise, pass through the consciousness of the writer, taking into account Pavese's notion of descriptions versus symbols. Thus the writer utilises memory and experience to describe, yet out of this need for description sits a symbolic necessity that opens the material up far beyond the autobiographical and the realistic. If it is too close to memory or too close to description (to the autobiographical or the realistic we might say), the writing struggles to find a first principle that one might call a certain, albeit in Pavese's case melancholic, relationship with the truth
© Tony McKibbin