IN HER PRIZE-winning biography of Gabrielle D’Annunzio, an Italian poet and proto-fascist warmonger, Lucy Hughes-Hallett declares: “I have made nothing up.”
It’s not hard to see why the author, an established and respected writer, felt the need to reassure readers. D’Annunzio’s life, which spanned the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, is so fantastic, and illuminated by Hughes-Hallett with such intimate detail, that it seems hard to believe.
Who is this guy, you think. Why haven’t I heard of him before? After publishing a volume of verse in his youth, D’Annunzio anonymously info-rmed newspaper editors that he had died in a tragic riding accident — a ploy that made him instantly famous when his second volume appeared soon afterwards and it emerged he was alive after all. He went on to write prolifically, get involved with various actresses and aristocrats, fail to pay his hotel bills, and eventually help drag Italy into World War I. One friend — and later enemy — likened him to a lurking, predatory pike.
In 1919 D’Annunzio rebelled against the government, seized a city in what is now Croatia and declared himself head of a new Utopia. It didn’t work out. In old age, he retreated to a grand Italian estate where he held court on the deck of half a battleship that had been dismantled, transported to the estate and reassembled on a hillside.
One critic described D’Annunzio as a “preposterous” character, others label him repellent. But he also makes for an extraordinary tale. The Pike, published by Fourth Estate, rec-ently won the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize, Britain’s leading award for non-fiction. Hughes-Hallett told Reuters about the writing of the book:
How did you arrive at D’Annunzio as a subject?
D’Annunzio described himself as the greatest Italian poet since Dante, and he wasn’t far wrong. Philandering poets are two-a-penny, though. What really interested me about him was his life’s political dimension. He was a precursor of Fascism, who made himself dictator of his own little city-state in Fiume. Writing about him, I could trace the way Fascism evolved from all sorts of innocuous-seeming Romantic ideas. In my last book, Heroes, I wrote about the way the 19th century cult of the “Great Man” paved the way for 20th-century dictators. D’An-nunzio was part of that story... I quickly realised he was far too fascinating to be dealt with so briefly — he had to be my next book.
What were your richest sources and how did you access them?
D’Annunzio always had a notebook in his pocket, and used it. Stacks of those notebooks are preserved at the Vittoriale, the bizarre house above Lake Garda where he lived in the 1920s and 30s. Drawing on them, I was able to know what he read, what he ate, what he did in bed, everything he thought and felt — a fantastically rich body of material that allowed me to be as formally experimental as I pleased.
What discoveries about D’Annunzio most surprised you?
As an aviator during World War I he went up in tiny, flimsy planes, dropping bombs and pamphlets over Austrian-occupied cities like Trieste. His most astonishing notebook is one in which he scribbled notes to his pilot about a bomb which had jammed. D’Annunzio writes ‘When we land I’ll cradle it in my arms’. He was in many ways a deplorable person, but he was fantastically brave.
How did it feel to win (the Samuel Johnson Prize)?
It feels good in all sorts of ways. What made me especially happy was that what the judges said about the book showed that they had really got what I was trying to do in it.
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