Gabriele D'Annunzio (his name means Gabriel of the Annunciation which seems appropriate with hindsight in that he was John the Baptist to Mussolini although he probably thought he was himself the Messiah) was an Italian poet, gossip journalist and multiple philanderer with a flair for endless self-promotion and a total inability to curb ridiculous extravagance. His poems, his novels and his plays combine meticulous observation with the grand passions of opera. They are charged with erotic and often sado-masochistic imagery. They shocked and sold. Getting ever more carried away with his own rhetoric, GD'A began to glorify war in the decade leading up to WWI. Following a peace in which Italy, despite being one of the victorious powers, seemed to gain little, GD'A 'invaded' the disputed town of Fiume and declared UDI with himself as its dictator. In many ways he becomes the bridge between Garibaldi and Mussolini in Italy's anti-parliamentary history. Certainly both GD'A and Mussolini had rapacious sexual appeitites; in this way he is also a cultural ancestor of another strong-man Italian politician Silvio Berlesconi.
There are clearly many ways in which Mussolini learnt from GD'A. H-H suggests that the speech style that GD'A developed and Mussolini later used is based on the call-and-response nature of the liturgy. GD'A led the way in ignoring parliament: he persuaded Italy to join in WWI despite parliamentary disapproval. GD'A also showed the fascists that it was possible to flout the law with impunity: having declared UDI, Fiume was regularly provisioned by pirate and bandit raids on the stores of the Allied armies blockading it; GD'A was finally allowed to leave Fiume unpunished. Finally, H-H suggests that the political spectacles beloved of the Fascists, and later the Nazis, was developed by GD'A.
In this biography Hughes-Hallett acknowledges her debt to GD'A's extensive notes (he even made observations when flying in an open-cockpit plane to bomb the Austro-Hungarian empire) but shies away from a simple retelling of his life on chronological order. Rather, she seeks themes, although these are mostly arranged chronologically. And she seeks explicitly to demonstrate that there is no contradiction between the romantic poet and the demagogue obsessed with blood.
She succeeds. This wonderful book really gets to the heart of its horrible subject. GD'A was not a nice man at any time. He was vain and carried self-satisfaction far beyond arrogance to the point where he seems to have seen himself as superman and the rest of humanity as disgusting and bestial plebs and proles. He was a famous seducer: women gave up reputation, husbands, children, fortunes and titles to be with him. He broke their hearts with his regular infidelities. The only person he truly loved was himself.
He is a child in a sweetshop when it came to possessions as well. Even when his wife and children were hungry he would spend the latest earnings from the latest journalism on trinkets and objets d'art. He fled from city to city, and even left Italy, because he was pursued by creditors; still his extravagances continued. Perhaps he didn't realise that his failure to pay his debts meant that someone else suffered but I suspect he didn't really care.
Was he insensitive or was he truly cruel? Whilst having an eight year affair with a famous actress, second only to Sarah Bernhardt, he wrote a novel in which the hero is writing a play for an ageing actress, once beautiful and promiscuous, who is now pathetic with stinking breath, who suffocates him when they make love.
If a deity's defining act is that of creation" says Hughes-Hallett then GD'A was a god; one of his heroes crash-lands a plane on a deserted beach and looks around and thinks 'There is no God if it is not I'. GD'A does not fear blasphemy: even Robinson Crusoe was only Monarch of all he surveyed.
He glorified war as an act of sacrifice; the blood of those who have been slain calls out to the living to sacrifice themselves. Perhaps, as H-H suggests, this is just an overt and honest version of the way we consider Afghanistan. We can't pull out if it means that all those who have died have lost their lives 'in vain' and so we are prepared to ask more young men to die. Perhaps GD'A, for all his selfishness and blood-lust and carnality, was just us without the pretence of being civilized.
Perhaps then we should blame the Romantic movement for Fascism and Nazism. GD'A and his peers extolled Art: in war they regretted the destruction of monuments more than the death of people.
Of course, as H-H points out, GD'A was an aviator. He was "literally an Ubermensch"; he was above men, a Nietzschean superman. He was detached from the pain and the misery created by the bombs he dropped.
Although GD'A was a Romantic author who incorporated high drama with gushings of sentiment and lashings of passion into his prose, one way in which he excelled was in his meticulous observation. There seems to be a fashion in modern fiction writing to create a convincing character or scenario by providing a great deal of detail; this is often obsessive (for example in December by Elizabeth Winthrop). But D'Annunzio's descriptions were precise, the details mattered, the adjectives used were exactly right (H-H records that he would always give the exact shade of a colour). For example, he describes "sheep grazing incessantly, like leeches sucking sustenance from the wet ground".
This is a wonderful biography about a remarkable if horrible man.
December 2013; 644 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57