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The Pike (2013)

by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

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2056115,586 (4.14)10
THE TIMES BIOGRAPHY OF THE DECADE WINNER OF THE 2013 SAMUEL JOHNSON PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION WINNER OF THE 2013 COSTA BOOK AWARDS BIOGRAPHY OF THE YEAR The story of Gabriele D'Annunzio, poet, daredevil - and Fascist. In September 1919 Gabriele D'Annunzio, successful poet and occasional politician, declared himself Commandante of the city of Fiume in modern-day Croatia. His intention - to establish a utopia based on his fascist and artistic ideals. It was the dramatic pinnacle to an outrageous career. Lucy Hughes-Hallett charts the controversial life of D'Annunzio, the debauched artist who became a national hero. His evolution from idealist Romantic to radical right-wing revolutionary is a political parable. Through his ideological journey, culminating in the failure of the Fiume endeavour, we witness the political turbulence of early 20th-century Europe and the emergence of fascism. In The Pike, Hughes-Hallett addresses the cult of nationalism and the origins of political extremism - and at the centre of the book stands the charismatic D'Annunzio: a figure as deplorable as he is fascinating.… (more)
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This is a mammoth biography of the Italian godfather of fascism, Gabriele d'Annunzio. Claimed as Italy's greatest living poet and playwright in his day, he was lauded by Mussolini. D'Annunzio, in turn, detested Mussolini and considered him a "crude imitator". He equally detested Hitler. He embraced Nietzschean ideals, wrote a lot about Country, Flag and Sacrifice, evolved the visual style of much fascist spectacle but never specifically claimed he was a fascist himself. He was a massive self-promoter, narcissist and serial seducer of women (only for some of his writing to display distinct homoerotic tendencies). It's a fascinating but highly detailed book with some 640 pages of text; little seems to be omitted.

D'Annunzio was born into comfortable circumstances in the Italian east-coast province of the Abruzzi. From an early age he determined to become a great writer; as he grew into manhood, he also developed an enormous libido. Growing up in a recently-unified country, he admired the heroes of the Risorgimento, and absorbed political turmoil just as avidly as he did all the latest artistic trends. He was widely read and had a solid understanding of his art. In time, those arts came to embrace the poetry of action, promotion and spectacle, as well as the more traditional ones of verse, prose and drama. He seized upon the works of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, and soon embraced the idea of the "superman" - not our modern image of some caped superhero, doing good for all and fighting evil, but rather the idea of the "superior man", whose innate qualities set him above the ordinary mass of the people. To such a man, rules, moral norms and laws should not apply, for only then can they achieve their destiny to lead. His studies of Italian history led him to identify with the Romans and to yearn for a time when Italy could regain the power and status that once was Rome. He also identified with the condottieri, the Renaissance mercenary leaders who waged war across the peninsula at the same time as many of the world's greatest artists and thinkers were founding Western civilization. This contrast fascinated d'Annunzio.

He identified with the Futurist movement, which in turn reinforced his fascination with power, new technologies and mechanised warfare. D'Annunzio's self-publicism arose at the birth of mass media; he was ever anxious to embrace, and what was more understand, new media. The propaganda of fascism was essentially his invention. In the years before the First World War, he was lauded by many of the greatest literary figures of the age. This led to his leading a lifestyle well beyond his means; even as a best-selling author, he was regularly evading bailiffs and fleeing from debts. Bankruptcy drove him to Paris in 1909; five years later, he returned to Italy to await his Destiny.

Having agitated for Italy to join World War I in 1915, he went to the front and participated in various military actions - but always those that reflected well on him and that he could write about, turning the action and attention onto himself. He was especially active in writing about the "irredeemed" territories that Italy should seize by force of arms to establish the nation's esteem amongst the other World Powers. He came to concentrate on the territories on the Dalmatian coast, now part of Yugoslavia; at the end of the war, a number of these places were about to change hands, and d'Annunzio wanted to be certain that the hands they fell into were Italy's. He concentrated on the port city of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia) and marched into the city at the head of a band of irregulars who would eventually become the basis of Mussolini's Blackshirts. Over the next year, he declared himself the leader of a new Utopia based on Nietzschean principles, only to find himself unable to control his followers and outmanoeuvred by politicians in Rome. Mussolini rose to power partly on d'Annunzio's coat-tails; he stole his ideas, his style and his methods and made them his own.

D'Annunzio died in 1938 at the age of 74; perhaps the one area where the book falls down is that the narrative ends with his death. There is nothing about the extent to which he is remembered today in Italy. His books are all still in print (most of them written before his moves into politics, war and totalitarianism), though we are only left with contemporary accounts of the praise they attracted. It is difficult to get any idea of what d'Annunzio was like as a novelist. At the same time, I was led to wonder about what this book was telling me about modern Italian history. Although Mussolini imposed racial purity laws similar to Hitler's in 1938, Italian Jews were not deported to concentration camps within the Reich until German troops moved into the country in 1943 in pursuit of war aims. Indeed, until the 1970s, many Italians believed that their country had played little or no role in the Holocaust. This book isn't specifically about the wider role of fascism in Italy, but the extent of the adulation for d'Annunzio at the time, the hints about his status since his death, and the parallels that the book invites with more recent Italian politics gives pause for thought.

The book has a wry turn of phrase at times; it is not dry and is certainly no hagiography. And throughout, I felt the urge to compare d'Annunzio with political figures of our time hard to deny. Such figures - narcissists, serial liars, persons who claim the moral high ground whilst not practising their own creeds, people who use high rhetoric to whip up a following amongst the populace whilst personally despising the ordinary people for being followers, people who feel that they are too important for rules to apply to them - are unfit for public office and in a just world would be excised from public life. I do not need to supply names. ( )
1 vote RobertDay | Apr 12, 2021 |
A fascinating history of a fascinating and little known man. The book is very cleverly and entertainingly structured, not a straight chronological telling of his life. It gives a chilling insight into the nature of fascism and how it was able to take such a grip in countries like Italy - particularly when describing its mythology and sense of style and oratory. This is also a very instructive account of Italian history which helps with an understanding of how Italy is where it is today (e.g. how someone like Berlusconi has remained so popular). It's only weakness is that, like so many books these days, it's too long and too detailed. It needed editing. D'Annunzio was such a public figure for most of his life and very much into a celebrity lifestyle that the author ends up with far too much information. ( )
  stephengoldenberg | Apr 6, 2016 |
A sprawling portrait of a singularly bizarre individual; d'Annunzio, by all rights, should have been in disgrace and shunned a hundred times over before World War I for his sexual and financial misadventures but he instead channeled his aesthetic gifts and his own Nietzschean will to power (or at least acclaim) into becoming an agitator for Italian entry into war and then built on that to ultimately become "leader" of the city-state of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia) to protest the "mutilated" victory that Italy was having to endure for her efforts. Consider this part of the general project to demonstrate the organic nature of Italian fascism as an acceleration of the dream of Italian great power status as a tool to create Italians.

The problem with this book is that while Hughes-Hallett does a fine job of illustrating the streams of experience and tradition that created d'Annunzio, she is probably weakest at illustrating what were the attractions of the man's artistic output to the populace at large, to the point that they would overlook that he was the proverbial bad man who was dangerous to know. This is considering that one of her goals in writing this book was to avoid the dichotomy of overlooking the man's politics for the sake of his art or damning his art due to his now discredited politics. ( )
1 vote Shrike58 | Jul 11, 2014 |
A brilliant, scholarly, yet well paced narrative describing the life, times, & events in Gabriele D'Annunzio's life. Whilst this is also a documentation of the development of fascism from an Italian point of view, this is more a close character study of a promiscuous, drug addled icon of that movement. The author clearly feels a good story in her research has had made a complex, lurid, repulsive character like D'Annunzio very accessible & very, very memorable. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote aadyer | Jun 23, 2014 |
Sociopath. ( )
  picardyrose | Oct 28, 2013 |
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THE TIMES BIOGRAPHY OF THE DECADE WINNER OF THE 2013 SAMUEL JOHNSON PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION WINNER OF THE 2013 COSTA BOOK AWARDS BIOGRAPHY OF THE YEAR The story of Gabriele D'Annunzio, poet, daredevil - and Fascist. In September 1919 Gabriele D'Annunzio, successful poet and occasional politician, declared himself Commandante of the city of Fiume in modern-day Croatia. His intention - to establish a utopia based on his fascist and artistic ideals. It was the dramatic pinnacle to an outrageous career. Lucy Hughes-Hallett charts the controversial life of D'Annunzio, the debauched artist who became a national hero. His evolution from idealist Romantic to radical right-wing revolutionary is a political parable. Through his ideological journey, culminating in the failure of the Fiume endeavour, we witness the political turbulence of early 20th-century Europe and the emergence of fascism. In The Pike, Hughes-Hallett addresses the cult of nationalism and the origins of political extremism - and at the centre of the book stands the charismatic D'Annunzio: a figure as deplorable as he is fascinating.

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