"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 19, 2014

"The Moon and the Bonfires" by Cesare Pavese (1950)

The overriding sentiments in The Moon and the Bonfires by the poet and novelist Cesar Pavese (1908-1950) are nostalgia and melancholy, as well as bitterness. The narrator - a "bastard" (orphan) who has been brought up by peasants, known as Anguilla, "The Eel" - has twenty years ago left his native Piemonte village to make his fortune in America. He has succeeded modestly and returns a self-made man (although there is something shadowy in the way he made his fortune, which is never explained), but also realizes about America that "the more places you see, the less you belong to any of them," and therefore after WWII has decided to return to his native place in northwestern Italy. But he finds that the world he knew has been eradicated by years of war and political unrest - a drama that is still present: the seemingly so innocent fields still render up a grim harvest of dead bodies of German soldiers or Fascists from shallow graves.

[Santo Stefano Belbo, the Piemonte village which is the location of the novel]

Time among the hills has not stood still, and most people of the narrator's idealized past are now dead. The only remaining link to that past is his old pal Nuno, who still works in the village as a carpenter. When he was in his teens, The Eel looked up to the older Nuno, who was a responsible man and Communist activist. He now finds a weary Nuno who says that after the war things went from bad to worse and that people still live as beasts, "except for the dead." Nuno is also cagy about what happened exactly during the war, and the story of events - of executions and reprisals - that took place in the village only emerges gradually. This is tied to the fates of people of the rich farm at the Mora where the narrator started working and living as a farmhand when he was thirteen - after his adopted father Padrino sold his farm. Here he started idolizing the three beautiful daughters of Sor Matteo, the owner, Irene, Sylvia, and the much younger and rather wild Santino. Now he learns about their sad fates, especially of the youngest one, who as a sort of femme fatale became involved with both the fascists and the partisans and was eventually brutally killed.

Also the present is not without its catastrophes. The peasant now renting the hardscrabble farm where The Eel spent his youngest years, is a violent and sadistic man who uses violence against his sister-in-law with whom he lives after his wife's death, and who also mistreats his son Cino who is lame. The narrator has befriended Cino and tries to help him escape from his despairing situation. Frustrated over the unfavorable conditions in a new contract for his land, the farmer batters his wife to death, and sets fire to the hovel with his aged mother still in it, before hanging himself from a sturdy tree - the boy Cino fortunately manages to escape. Life's horrors go on repeating themselves - the world the narrator has idealized in his memory, is in fact ugly and terrifying.

What remains is the consolation of the sun-drenched landscape, scorched and harsh, but also beautiful. By the way, this countryside has prospered considerably in the last 50 years, mostly thanks to the local muscat grapes and the resultant sparkling wines.

The novel has been written in an elegant and spare style, which is rather understated. The "bonfires" of the title allude to the local custom to light bonfires during important festivals. Later, of course, there are other bonfires caused by the war: the burning of farms, the burning of the corpses of the dead.

[Cesar Pavese - Photo Wikipedia]

Pavese - a graduate from the University of Turin in English literature - was plagued by depression and asthma, and he was singularly unlucky in his relations with women. In the 1930s, he had a girlfriend in Turin who was involved in anti-Fascist activities. He helped her, was arrested, but never mentioned her name and took the blame on himself. As a result he was put in prison and later briefly exiled to Calabria. When he finally could return to Turin, he was told that just the day before she had married another man.

And in 1950 he had a turbulent affair with the blonde American model/actress Constance Dowling (who had also been the girlfriend of Elia Kazan). Pavese never recovered from her rejection and finally took his own life in a hotel room in Turin. One of his last poems was entitled "Death will come and she'll have your eyes."

The Moon and Bonfires was translated by R.W. Flint and is available from The New York Review Books. 
From the same publishing house we also have The Selected Works of Cesare Pavese, presenting a number of short novels: The Beach, a comedy of romantic misunderstandings; The House on the Hill, a novel of war in which a teacher flees through the countryside; Among Women Only, a tale about a fashion designer; and The Devil in the Hills, a road novel about three young men roaming the hills in high summer.