Sex, drugs and demagoguery

The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Fourth Estate, RRP£25, 694 pages

Mussolini’s favourite author, the Italian poet-aviator Gabriele d’Annunzio, is regarded by many as a soft pornographer, at best a dilettante of sensation. He achieved international renown with his novel of Nietzschean derring-do, The Triumph of Death (1894). A minor masterpiece of hothouse purple-patchery, it helped to give the adjective dannunziano to the Italian language.

D’Annunzio is a difficult quarry for biographers, his penchant for cocaine-fuelled orgies notwithstanding. John Woodhouse, the writer’s most trusty exegete to date, made a brave attempt to rehabilitate his reputation in a 1998 biography, Defiant Archangel. Like Woodhouse before her, the cultural historian and critic Lucy Hughes-Hallett sees d’Annunzio as an important figure in the evolution of Italian politics and literature. In spite of his gargoyle-like appearance, women fell for him swooningly: d’Annunzio had a “beautiful voice” and a “dulcet manner”, Hughes-Hallett tells us. The Mills & Boon tone suits her subject. When not harping on twilight amours and other belle époque fancies, d’Annunzio was a war hero and prototype Fascist.

In September 1919, in an attempt to restore Italy’s pride after the “mutilated victory” of the first world war, d’Annunzio led 2,000 nationalist irregulars in seizing the Adriatic port of Fiume (later Rijeka, part of Croatia) in the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Amid displays of balcony-ranting and other braggadocio he sought to reclaim the city as Italian territory. His fighters were dubbed “legionnaires” to recall ancient Roman greatness, and they wore black shirts before the term fascismo was current. For more than a year, Fiume operated as an independent quasi-Fascist republic, giving Europe a glimpse of the dark decades ahead.

Hughes-Hallett describes d’Annunzio as a “brilliant pasticheur” – a man whom a contemporary likened to a lurking pike, snapping at passing fads and influences. But in many ways, his life was his own finest creation. He could come up with the wildest nonsense about himself (prematurely bald at the age of 22, he considered his egg-like cranium one of the “beauties of creation”). At the age of 52 he volunteered for frontline duty against the Austrians, crash-landing his warplane and losing his right eye. His lakeside villa in northern Italy, the Vittoriale, is a memorial to his bellicose exploits. On display are captured Austrian machine-guns as well as the coffin on which he used to lie and contemplate death, surrounded by leopard skins.

Mussolini was impressed both by d’Annunzio’s priapic endeavours and his violent contempt for parliamentary liberalism. Yet d’Annunzio was unhappy about Mussolini’s ties to Hitler: the Germans were a barbarous horde from the wrong side of the Alps, he thought. When d’Annunzio died in March 1938, aged 74, Mussolini was poised to issue his Hitlerite racial laws against Italy’s Jews. Some scholars believe d’Annunzio was bumped off by a blonde girl from the Italian Tyrol called Emy Huefler, who worked at the Vittoriale as a “playmate”. Hughes-Hallett keeps an open verdict on the matter.

At first glance, The Pike appears to be in narrative disarray, the chronology leaping backwards and forwards. But why start at the beginning? Hughes-Hallett wishes to be different. Unfortunately, clichés cling to her prose (“stark naked”, “landslide victory”), and a d’Annunzian influence shows perhaps in the desire to shock. Otherwise, this is a serviceable biography of a man who was more of a poseur, really, than a writer.

Ian Thomson’s biography of Primo Levi is published by Vintage

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