The French wordsmith Romain Rolland, himself no slouch at being derivative as a thinker, likened his Italian contemporary Gabriele d’Annunzio to a pike, the freshwater predator famous for lying still and snapping at whatever comes.  What stood for prey in this simile were the ideas of d’Annunzio’s immediate literary predecessors or near coevals, which made Rolland’s tag tantamount to a sentence of lifelong, flagrant, and indiscriminate plagiarism.

It is noteworthy that the first, British edition of Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography was entitled The Pike, with only the book’s subtitle, Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War, now left to woo the American reader.  Frankly, I am not a little surprised that the disturbing “Preacher of War” has been left in, since the Americans—or, rather, those Americans who publish and review books nowadays—prefer to avoid controversial imagery at all cost, with the result that we may well look forward to new translations of Tolstoy’s novels entitled Peace and Ms. Karenina.  “Poet,” though of somewhat limited appeal, is OK, “seducer” is rough and ready and will draw the preening spinsters who watch Sex in the City reruns, but “preacher of war” is much too allusive to figure in a book’s title.  Who does this Hughes-Hallett dame think the guy was, Ronald Reagan?  Then why should we at Knopf publish his biography?

Eerily enough, the abridgement of the title, neatly corresponding to a general abridgement of intellectual liberty in a country expressly ideated to sustain it, chimes in with the subject of this book.  If Gabriele “The Pike” d’Annunzio ever learned anything from the past, grasped anything of the present, and had a foretaste of anything in the future, it was that democracy progressively enfeebles the culture that has reared it, and, once this culture is gone, has no immunity either to dictatorship from within or conquest from without.  Today, as the American publisher’s sense of style illustrates, Britain, and perhaps Europe generally, is yet a furlong behind the New World in the race to eventual self-destruction.

“The incompatibility of egalitarianism with the cult of beauty preoccupied nineteenth-century thinkers of all political persuasions,” writes Lucy Hughes-Hallett.  “In the decade before d’Annunzio was born,” she goes on, Heinrich Heine

prophesied how the “red fists” of the communists with whom he sympathized would smash “all the marble structures of my beloved art world.”  Beauty, genius, high culture could none of them coexist, Heine thought, with social equality.  “The shop keepers will use my Book of Songs for shopping bags, to store coffee or snuff for the old wives of the future.”  What saddened Heine enraged d’Annunzio.  He has one of his fictional heroes reflect with bitter irony on the function of poets in a democracy.  How, he wonders, can they make poetry of the deplorable passing of power to the masses?

So, an elitist, then, as a New York publishing executive might sum it up.  Indeed he was, and d’Annunzio’s biography is a powerful memento mori to remind us, his fellow elitists and putative blackguards, what a fine line it is one treads between the temptations of aristocratic elitism and those of common authoritarianism.  An artist is a special being?  One that should be anointed by the omnipotent state, complete with secret police and its torture stations dotting the realm, to hold sway over ordinary men, the philistine and the shopkeeper?  A capital idea!  But who is to decide whether the being in question is an artist by God’s command, or else merely an artistically minded impostor—like d’Annunzio himself, a lifelong plagiarist, a pretentious babbler, a tinpot aesthete, a provincial parvenu, and, last but not least, a social climber compared with the likes of whom Cecil Beaton resembled a Franciscan friar?  Because if it’s the state that is to decide, then one day the overthrown tyranny of the philistine and the shopkeeper will be recalled as a golden age, complete with nymphs and satyrs cavorting amid ivy-covered palaces of lily-white marble, even as both the Heines and the d’Annunzios of the new epoch toil in obscurity—or worse, fertilize the Siberian plain.

Of all the figures on the 20th-century stage none more resembles d’Annunzio than the Russian “Voice of the Revolution,” Vladimir Mayakovsky, albeit with two substantial caveats.  One is that Mayakovsky, before his ecstatic embrace of Bolshevism, had been a poet of genius, an innovator commensurate with Pushkin in his influence on Russian prosody.  The other is that, to get Mayakovsky out of the way as a meddlesome pop idol, Stalin contrived to bring about the poet’s suicide, whereas Mussolini—finding himself in an uncannily similar predicament vis-à-vis his own “Voice of the Revolution”—paid for d’Annunzio’s tacit neutrality with gifts and honors.

I have recently returned from a quick tour of d’Annunzian haunts in the hills above Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake, dominating the northern provinces of Verona, Brescia, and Trentino.  The epicenter of d’Annunzianism—a relic of the Fascist epoch, yet akin to Goethe’s shrine in Saxe-Weimar, Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana, or Wagner’s Bayreuth—is but a demagogue’s shout away from Salò, where, in 1943, Mussolini established the Italian Social Republic, only to be hanged upside down from the roof of an Esso gas station for his trouble.  As d’Annunzio died in 1938 and had not witnessed the ignominious end of the political initiative that for public-relations reasons counted his art and thought among its inspirations, this monster of self-aggrandizement bears the name Vittoriale, “Villa Victorious.”

Walking through the warren of rooms still suffocating the visitor with perfumes and unguents—d’Annunzio was as sybaritic as he was hypochondriac—and filled with so much exotic bric-a-brac it all looks like stolen goods in Fagin’s attic, I kept recalling a passage in Hughes-Hallett’s book where d’Annunzio’s major-domo thinks that, if he “had nothing better to do, d’Annunzio would be entirely happy bathing, dressing and spraying himself with perfume from morning until night.”  In short, Vittoriale, where d’Annunzio spent the last two decades of his life, is such a puerile mixture of the pretentious and the precious, it makes regarding its owner with any degree of seriousness an utter impossibility—Hughes-Hallet or no Hughes-Hallett.  His Vittoriale persona brings to mind a wealthy college student determined to fabricate a precocious autobiography by surrounding himself with onyx obelisks and tortoiseshell combs.

How could a person so trivial come to bear the title of Il Vate (“The Bard”), or even Il Profeta (“The Prophet”)?  We must remember that d’Annunzio was born in 1863.  Europe’s fin de siècle pinned him to its map almost exactly at his life’s midpoint, and I have often noted that people thus impaled seem to have lived two lives in one.  In his early 20’s, when his literary career was just beginning, he absorbed and regurgitated the decadence of Wilde, Swinburne, and Huysmans, gorging on the aestheticism of the Pre-Raphaelites and nibbling on Nietz sche.  In his late 40’s, when d’Annunzio had established himself as an uncompromising modernist and audacious aesthete, along came futurism, with its cult of the machine—especially the machine gun—and a fresh set of bizarre and colorful contradictions.  By the time he turned 60, when Mussolini had just taken power, d’Annunzio was not so much a pike as the spider at the center of a cultural web that spanned the breadth of Europe, supreme maestro of discernment in all things literary, and Italy’s acknowledged arbiter of artistic taste.  Moreover, as ambassador plenipotentiary from the world of art to the new Fascist government, he was now a political figure.

A culture commissar of Fascism, playing Lunacharsky to Mussolini’s Lenin?  Well, not quite, actually.  Though a social climber par excellence and a nonpareil self-publicist—or, perhaps, precisely because of this—d’Annunzio thought the Duce stupid and vulgar, which did not prevent him, naturally, from receiving the gifts and favors with which the regime showered him.  At Vittoriale the visitor is flabbergasted at the sight of half a battleship, protruding from the hillside, which Mussolini had delivered to d’Annunzio so the poet could play admiral and arrange private drills on the Puglia’s deck for his guests.

The curious detail here is that Mussolini was, in fact, an intelligent man who cared deeply for his country and her people, whereas d’Annunzio was an egomaniacal fool.  As for vulgarity, convoluted paradoxes and an abundant application of Coty’s cologne are not always in better taste than plain speaking and the building of railways.  To plumb the chasm that divides a second-rate thinker from a first-rate politician, it may be enough to compare d’Annunzio’s encyclopedic twitter focusing on race, blood, and the whole complex of protofascist symbolism with what Mussolini told Emil Ludwig in a 1933 interview:

Race is a feeling, not a reality.  Ninety-five percent, at least, is a feeling.  Nothing will ever make me believe that biologically pure races can be shown to exist today.  Amusingly enough, not one of those who have proclaimed the “nobility” of the Teutonic race was himself a Teuton.  Gobineau was a Frenchman; Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an Englishman; Woltmann, a Jew; Lapouge, another Frenchman.

Things are not always what they seem, and in precious few cases is this more so than in politics and in what Hughes-Hallett calls “seductions.”  Apart from the world-renowned actress Eleonora Duse, it appears that a majority of the women so notoriously bedded and discarded by d’Annunzio on both sides of the fin-de-siècle divide were plain, unhappy, and often in bad health—in short, easy pickings for a philanderer whose fame was in the ascendant.  It is significant that a great beauty of the day, the Parisian courtesan Liane de Pougy, had this to say of the man, then in his mid-30’s, who, as was his custom with the ladies whenever he was feeling flush, had sent a carriage filled with roses to meet her on her arrival in Florence: “There before me was a frightful gnome with red-rimmed eyes and no eyelashes, no hair, greenish teeth, bad breath, the manners of a mountebank and the reputation, nevertheless, of a ladies’ man.”

“A sparrow that’s been shot at,” in the words of a Russian proverb, “won’t be fooled by chaff.”  Evidently Mlle. de Pougy, like Mussolini, was stupid and vulgar as far as d’Annunzio was concerned.

That just about covers it, then—the poet, the seducer, the preacher of war—leaving but one question unanswered, and I do hope this won’t sound like something on the lips of an editor at Knopf.  Why should we bother?  Why write this biography?  Why read it?  The answer is that our own epoch is so egalitarian, sterilized, and drab—colorless beyond the most nightmarish imaginings of an aesthete like d’Annunzio—that even a skeptical student of his achievement, such as myself, will forgive his vacuities, excuse his pretensions, and pardon his foibles.  He was a man like many in his day, but from the vantage point of the molehill that we pygmies call the present he looks a giant.


[Gabriele D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 576 pp., $35.00]