‘I could go to the town where Cesare Pavese was born,’ I had told the editor, somewhat at random, vaguely imagining the Piedmont and not even coming up with some commemorative event that would give the trip some justification. Then I realized the event couldn’t be any more pitch-perfect: Pavese was born one hundred years ago, no more and no less, in Santo Stefano Belbo, a town of 4,000 inhabitants in the province of Cuneo, which is reached from Genoa, Turin, or Milan. I decided to travel by way of Milan, thinking I would have time later to go to Turin, Pavese’s true city, the city where he lived for most of his life and where, in 1950, he decided to die. In the end I didn’t go to Turin and I almost didn’t make it to Santo Stefano, since I came close to missing every one of my many connections, which I nervously followed on a too-large map I’d bought of the region. The fear of missing my trains had to contend with my dread of elbowing my fellow travelers every time I opened that famous map.
No sooner do I arrive than I meet Anka and Alina, two Romanian sisters who wait tables at the restaurant close to the station. Alina has lived here for three years with her boyfriend, a native of the town. She doesn’t speak English, so I communicate with Anka, who comes to Santo Stefano every summer to see her sister and to work. Anka hasn’t been to any other cities in Italy. I ask her if she gets bored and she tells me yes, because almost no one here speaks English, much less Romanian (and many of them, still, cultivate Piedmontese). ‘There’s a Chilean in the village,’ she tells me. ‘You should meet him.’ I answer that I’m not here to look for Chileans, I came to see the house where Cesare Pavese was born. ‘But the Chilean might like to meet you,’ she says. I say, to be polite, that I would like to meet him as well.
Anka recommends Il Borgo Vecchio, a reasonable bed and breakfast in Marconi street, very close to the town centre. They take me there in their car; I ride in the back seat, keeping three teddy bears company. I ask Anka if Alina and her boyfriend have children. Anka tells me they don’t, but that Alina’s boyfriend is just like a child. Then she translates the conversation for her sister and they don’t stop laughing for the rest of the ride.
This is not a trip someone from the country of Neruda should take. We grew up in the cult of the happy poet, we grew up with the idea that a poet is someone who lets metaphors fly at the least provocation, who accumulates houses and women and devotes his life to decorating them (the houses and the women). We grew up thinking that poets collect – in addition to houses and women – figureheads of ships and five-litre bottles of Chivas. To us, literary tourism was for gringos or the Japanese, people who pay money to be wowed with marvelous stories.
Fortunately, there’s none of that in Santo Stefano Belbo, a town that makes its living from the vineyards and enjoys a stability that looks very much like boredom. In Santo Stefano the children learn from a very young age that a great writer was born in this town, and that he was never happy. The children of this town learn the word suicide at a very early age. The children know ahead of time that, in this town, as Pavese said, lavorara stanca.
The bed and breakfast is comfortable. The room costs forty Euros, nothing compared to Milan. The family lives downstairs, Monica and Gabriel, and their children: a nine year-old girl and a four-year-old boy who don’t say hello to me, but who smile as though holding back their hellos. Gabriel has a wine shop that operates across the street from the hostel. He knows English, unlike Monica, who nevertheless talks and talks with the absolute confidence that we will understand each other in the end. The key word is Pavese. The only word that she says and I understand is Pavese.
Only now do I fully take in the landscape. A tranquil green lingers in the eyes and everything seems to fit into one long look: the valley, the hill, the church, the ruins of a medieval tower. I search for the setting of The Moon and the Bonfires. I adjust the image to position the Belbo River and the road to Canelli, which is the vanishing point in the novel, the corner where the world begins.
Then I let Monica bring me to the Center for Cesare Pavese Studies, where I see the hundredth anniversary commemorative exhibition, which basically consists of a display of first editions. A series of discrete circles on the ground mark the route that goes from the Center to Pavese’s birth house. It’s Wednesday and the house is only open on the weekends, but it’s possible to visit it tomorrow if we get in touch with the person in charge. In the meantime I get in a visit to Pavese’s grave, situated in the place of honor at the entrance to the cemetery.
Just as going back to Pavese’s diary has been disappointing – I’d reread This Business of Living on the plane and I couldn’t understand why I used to like it so much – visiting the village that serves as the setting of The Moon and the Bonfires brings on a complex emotion. Pavese interrogated that landscape with truthful questions, impelled by the vertigo of someone searching for memories within his memories. I gradually recognize the terrain I’m walking on while I think of some verses of ‘South Seas’, and about the poem ‘Agony’, which isn’t Pavese’s best but is the one I like the most: ‘The mornings when I was twenty are gone. / Tomorrow, twenty-one: tomorrow I’ll walk down the street; / I remember each stone, each wide strip of sky.’ I regain, as I walk, the Pavese I prefer, precisely the one of The Moon and the Bonfires: ‘We need a country, if only for the pleasure of leaving it,’ I recite from memory. ‘Your own country means that you are not alone, that you know there is something of you in the people and the plants and the soil, that even when you are not there it waits to welcome you home.’
Before going to sleep, I compare landscapes like a person looking for the differences between identical pictures. For a moment I think I will stay up all night imagining that world, measuring those memories of someone else’s, but the truth is that very soon, sleep overtakes me.
I take pictures, a lot of pictures. There is one I especially like, where Pavese’s portrait is displayed in the window of a children’s shoe store. There are allusions, drawings, graffiti related to him everywhere: Santo Stefano Belbo pays tribute to the poet, and there is beauty in the effort. But Pavese’s hundredth birthday does not provoke shrillness. He was not such an appealing character as Neruda. Thank goodness.
To Pavese, Santo Stefano is the place of origins and dreaming, the theatre of childhood. ‘Modern art is a return to infancy,’ he says in his diary. ‘The enduring motive of art is the discovery of things, a discovery that can come about, in its purest form, only in the memory of childhood.’ His thinking is close to Charles Baudelaire’s: the artist as convalescent, who comes back from death to observe everything as if for the first time. Pavese takes it further: ‘In art, only what has been learned innocently can be expressed well. The only thing for an artist is to return to the time when he was not an artist and find his inspiration there, and that time is childhood.’ Pavese idealized his native village, but he did so by turning it into an ambiguous territory. The character that comes home in The Moon and the Bonfires, after living in the United States and making his fortune, returns to a loved and abhorred place.
I’m sure that foreigners come to Santo Stefano, like me, just to see Pavese’s birthplace, which turns out to be a fairly uninspiring house. ‘The poet was born in this bed,’ the guide tells me, and there’s nothing for it but to imagine little Cesare crying like the damned. There is also a gallery crammed full of drawings that aren’t at all good, hung one next to the other in order of arrival. The guide tells me these are the winning works in an annual contest held in the writer’s honour. I think about how these walls crammed full of first places and honourable mentions once displayed, in their day, a welcoming nudity. But the disarray of the homage, maybe, is better.
According to Italo Calvino, the area of Langhe in the Piedmont was famous not only for its wines and truffles, but also for the desperation of the families who lived there. Calvino was thinking, surely, of the brutal dénouement in The Moon and the Bonfires, which I’m not going to give away here. I search, absurdly, for signs of desperation in this world of people walking slowly home from work.
I receive Anka’s message: ‘At eight, in the Fiorina bar, you’ll meet the Chilean,’ she’s written on a piece of Hello Kitty stationery. Suddenly the realization hits me that it is, precisely, 18 September. I imagine he will be glad to celebrate with a compatriot. I buy a CD and copy onto it all the Chilean music I have on my computer. But Luis, the Chilean, turns out to be a Peruvian from Arequipa. I give him the CD anyway. Luis is thirty-five years old, has lived in Italy for six years, and four years ago he took up residence in Santo Stafano. He works in a water pump factory. ‘I’ve never read Pavese,’ he tells me suddenly, apropos of nothing: ‘A man’s got enough with his own troubles,’ he adds, and he is quite right.
I talk to some of Luis’s friends. Fabio, twenty-six years old, is the friendliest. We speak slowly and manage to understand each other. He doesn’t like to read, he says, but like every Santo-Stefanian worth his salt he knows Pavese’s work well. ‘I like him because he talks about this town,’ he says. ‘But, deep down, I don’t like him,’ he corrects himself, as if thinking out loud, as if deciding on it then: ‘No, I don’t like Pavese.’
‘I don’t like the Chilean, Neruda, either,’ I answer.
‘I know several of Pavese’s poems by heart,’ says Fabio, laughing.
‘I know some of Neruda’s, too,’ I tell him, and we keep laughing and now I have a friend with whom to drink the next bottles of Nebbiolo.
In the poem ‘The Suicide’s Room’, Wisława Szymborska evokes the bewilderment of friends confronting the suicide a man of who leaves behind, by way of explanation, just an empty envelope propped up against a glass. Cesare Pavese, on the other hand, wrote a very long suicide note over the course of fifteen years, which ever since then we have read as a masterwork. Over the four hundred pages of This Business of Living, Pavese cultivates the idea of suicide as if it were a goal or a requirement or a sacrament, until finally, it becomes difficult to moderate the caricature. This is not Wisława Szymborska’s enigmatic friend, nor the suicidal man in a poem by Borges who says ‘I bequeath nothingness to no one.’ On the contrary, Pavese is conscious of his legacy: he knows he leaves behind an important, accomplished body of work, he knows he has written high poetry, he knows that his novels will bear the passage of time with decorum. He had no reasons to take his own life, but he took on the task of inventing them, of making them real. This Business of Living is a record of theories and plans, of diatribes and digressions, but as you read there’s no doubt that what prevails is the recounting of morbid thoughts, almost always extreme and at times fairly ridiculous, the thoughts of an aged youth who little by little is becoming an immature old man. Maybe you have to be like that youth or like that old man in order to appreciate Pavese’s diary to the fullest extent. Maybe you have to be suicidal in order to read This Business of Living. But it’s not necessary to be suicidal in order to enjoy books like The Moon and the Bonfires, The Beach, Hard Labor, or Death Will Come and Will Wear Your Eyes.
The greatest virtue of This Business of Living is that it gives clues to Pavese’s work: if we took out the references to his love life, we’d be left with a slim and excellent book. It seems to me now that there are many unnecessary pages in the book: his impressions about women, for example, don’t match up with the truthful or at least realistic understanding of the feminine in The Moon and the Bonfires, Among Women Only or in some of his poems. At times Pavese is barely witty, and rather vulgar: ‘No woman marries for money; they are all clever enough, before marrying a millionaire, to fall in love with him first.’ His misogyny is, frequently, rudimentary: ‘It happens to all men in their lives that they encounter a pig. It happens to very few that they meet a loving and decent woman. Of every hundred, ninety-nine are pigs.’
Funnier and darker is the humour in a passage where he comments on the saying about one nail driving out another: for women it’s all very simple, he says, since they need only find a new nail, but men are doomed to have only the one they were born with. I don’t know if there is humor, on the other hand, in these phrases: ‘Prostitutes work for money. But what woman gives herself unless she has calculated it first?’ The following joke, in any case, strikes me as very good: ‘Women are an enemy race, like the Germans.’
It’s true that I’m committing an injustice by depicting Pavese as a precursor to stand-up comedy, but to disparage him is to continue the game that he himself proposed. Another brief or not-so-brief book that could come from This Business of Living has to do with Pavese’s literary self-flagellation. At first, understandably, he doubts his own writing: he complains about his language, his world, his place in society, he retracts his own poems, he wants to write them over again, or not to have written them at all. He wants to experience the pleasure of refusal, of starting, always, from zero: ‘I have simplified the world into a banal gallery depicting gestures of strength and pleasure. In these pages there is the spectacle of life, not life itself. I must begin all over again.’ It is not a casual observation, because it contains an ethics: the artist is forever an amateur whose successes threaten the progress of the work. But he complains so much that listening to him at times becomes unbearable. Soon after his initial complaints, Pavese has constructed an immense body of work that gives him real satisfaction, one that allows him to be someone very much like who he always wanted to be. But now he complains all the same and a bit more: ‘They say to you: “You are forty years old and have made your name; you are the best of your generation and will go down in history; you are exceptional, authentic. . . Did you dream of anything else, at twenty?’’’ The answer is, in a way, moving: ‘I wanted to go on, take it further, absorb another generation, become everlasting, like a hill.’
Pavese was a good friend, says Natalia Ginzburg, because friendship came to him naturally, without complications: ‘He had a cautious, reserved way of shaking hands: a few fingers were extended and withdrawn; a secretive, parsimonious way of taking his tobacco from its pouch and filling his pipe; and if he knew that we needed money he had a sudden, abrupt way of giving it to us; so sudden and abrupt he’d leave us openmouthed.’ In a passage of Family Sayings, and in a brief and beautiful essay in that brief and beautiful book called The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg recalls the years when she and her first husband worked with Pavese at Einaudi – difficult times that the poet had trouble settling into: ‘At times he was very unhappy, but for a long time we thought that he would be cured of this unhappiness when he decided to become an adult; his sadness seemed like that of a boy – the voluptuous, heedless melancholy of a boy who has not yet got his feet on the ground and who lives in the sterile, solitary world of dreams.’
Natalia Ginzburg’s opinions are well-rounded and precise: ‘The mistakes Pavese made were more serious than ours. Ours were the products of impulse, imprudence, stupidity and honesty. His, on the other hand, were born of foresight, cleverness, calculation and intelligence.’ And then she notes that Pavese’s main virtue as a friend was his irony, but that when the time came to write or to love he suffered, suddenly, from an attack of seriousness. The observation is crucial and, to tell the truth, it has hovered persistently over my rereading of Pavese: ‘Sometimes, when I think of him now, it’s his irony that I most remember and I cry, because it doesn’t exist any more: there is no trace of it in his books, and one can only find it in the lightning flash of that wicked smile of his.’ To say of a friend that there is no irony in his books is saying a lot. For long passages of This Business of Living, in effect, the humour is limited to injections of sarcasm or mere wallops of naïveté.
‘My growing antipathy for Natalia Ginzburg,’ notes Pavese in 1946, ‘is due to the fact that she takes for granted, with a spontaneity also granted, too many things in nature and life. Her heart is always in her hand – childbirth, monster, little old ladies. Ever since Benedetto Rognetta discovered that Natalia is sincere and primitive, there’s just no way to live.’ Friendship allows for these nuances, and Ginzburg responds in her cutting, delicate way: ‘We saw all too clearly the absurd convolutions of the thoughts in which he imprisoned his simple nature; we wanted to teach him something too – how to live in a more elementary, less suffocating way. But we were never able to teach him anything, because as soon as we tried to set out our arguments he would lift his hand and say that he was already well aware of all that.’
I should state here that I stand with the sincere and the primitive, not with the know-it-all. Because without a doubt, Pavese was a know-it-all. For that very reason, his soliloquy becomes maddening. What he knew most of all, in any case, was that he suffered immensely: ‘Perhaps this is my real special quality, not genius, not goodness, not anything else. To be so obsessed by this feeling that not a single cell in my whole body is unaffected.’ Maybe he secretly agreed with his friend Natalia. I think of this fragment from his diary, which perhaps gives the key to Pavese’s suffering: ‘The man who cannot live charitably, sharing other men’s pain, is punished by feeling his own with intolerable anguish. Pain is rendered acceptable only by raising it to the level of our common destiny and sympathizing with other sufferers.’
Something’s gone awry with this article. My intention was to remember, in his birthplace, a writer I admire, and it’s clear that my admiration has waned. I talk it over by phone with a friend who has never liked Pavese. ‘Maybe the first time you read This Business of Living,’ she says, ‘you wanted to commit suicide. All literature students want to commit suicide,’ she says, and I laugh, but right away I answer, with Pavesian seriousness, that no, I never wanted to commit suicide. Maybe back then, at twenty, I was impressed with his way of expressing turmoil, his precise description of a suffering that seemed enormous and that, even so, couldn’t compete with the possibility of depicting it. It’s odd, I think now: Pavese struggles with language, he constructs an Italian of his own, or a new one; he validates the words of the tribe and the problems of his time. He doesn’t stick to formulas, he doesn’t trust in proclamations or false atavisms. He is, in that way, the perfect writer. But in another sense he is a poor man who longs to put his small wounds on display. I wonder if it was necessary to know so much about Pavese. I wonder if it truly mattered to anyone to know about his impotence, his premature ejaculations and his masturbations. I don’t think so.
Pavese used to reread and rewrite his diary, to bury some hurried observation he’d made, or, more often, to ratchet up an intensity that was already quite high. In This Business of Living, the many self-references and the use of the second person constitute his rhetorical strategies. The second person reprimands, humiliates, but sometimes urges fortitude: ‘Courage, Pavese. Take courage.’ The effect never struck me as essential: any one of those fragments would work better in the first person. More than complexity of self, the second person conveys the difficulty of the split, and it always comes off as sensationalist: ‘You also have the gift of fertility. You are master of yourself, of your fate. You are as famous as any man can be who does not seek to be so. Yet all of that will come to an end.’ Some parts, though, are remarkable: ‘You remember people’s voices better than their faces. There is something indicative, spontaneous, about a voice. Given the face, you do not think of the voice; given the voice – which is nothing – you tend to make a person out of it, and you search for a face.’
I reread some pages and I quickly come to appreciate him again: once again, I like Pavese.
‘We only admire landscapes we have already admired,’ he says in his diary. I wonder if Santo Stefano Belbo has changed much over these decades. I’m sure it has. But I like to think Pavese would discern a subtle permanence.
As I wait for the train that will take me back to Milan, I reread passages I’ve marked in The Moon and the Bonfires. The town has moved past the violence that Pavese depicts, the senselessness of a life tied to the earth. I imagine the bonfires on the hill, I remember Nuto and the lame child in the novel; I try to calibrate the distance Pavese avails himself of in order to construct that slight, dark book.
Did I like Santo Stefano Belbo? I think so, I think I liked it, or I’ve liked knowing that Pavese liked it. For him, the attraction carried with it, always, an implicit zone of repudiation, and this is also what has happened to me: I’ve hated Pavese’s diary – hated the diary he loved – and I’ve loved his other books. I don’t reach a conclusion, or I do, but it looks too much like where I started: in The Moon and the Bonfires, Pavese said everything he had to say. The rest, his life, is one long marginal note, nothing more than the long note to accompany a delayed suicide.
I’m still at the station. I got here too early. I decide not to look at the landscape any more, to concentrate on the book. I read: ‘It was Nuto who told me that you can get anywhere by train, and that when the tracks end, the ports begin, that ships have schedules, that everything in the world is a web of routes and ports, a schedule of people who travel, who make and unmake, and everywhere you go there are capable people and there are foolish people.’
‘The world is full of people who travel, who make and unmake,’ I repeat out loud, as a kind of strange joke, just before I get on the train.
Photograph by Paul Barker Hemings