Monday, November 3, 2014


Eleonora Cavallini (ed.), La "musa nascosta": mito e letteratura greca nell'opera di Cesare Pavese. Nemo, 10. Bologna: Dupress, 2014. Pp. 227. ISBN 9788895451718. €23.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Barbara Graziosi, Durham University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Cesare Pavese (1908 –1950) began his literary career as a translator, focusing on American authors who were, in his day, new to the Italian public (Dos Passos, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Gertude Stein, among others). He published poetry, but first commanded attention with the novel Paesi tuoi ("Your villages", 1941), an account of a factory worker and a peasant on their release from prison, and the tragic events triggered by their arrival on the farm of the latter. His final novel, La luna e i falò (translated as The Moon and the Bonfires, 1950) followed a man who, after emigrating to the United States, returned to his ancestral landscapes in the Piedmont region. His oeuvre was dominated by single, lonely figures, and the hills of northwest Italy.

This collection of articles explores Pavese's engagement with ancient Greek literature and myth. Given that he is one of the most important authors of the Italian twentieth-century, and that classical culture pervades his oeuvre, the topic has attracted surprisingly little attention. Pavese himself complained that his readers failed to recognise his 'hidden Muse.' A preface he wrote to the first edition of Dialoghi con Leucò (1947) began with this statement: "Though many insist on considering Cesare Pavese a stubborn, realist writer, specialising in Americano-Piedmontese landscapes and suburbs, he reveals here a different aspect of his personality. No true writer lacks his lunacy, his fancy, his hidden Muse...." (Translations, here and elsewhere, are my own.) Dialoghi con Leucò represents the most explicit engagement with Greek myth: it stages a series of dialogues between ancient and imaginary figures, such as Ixion and a Cloud, Eros and Thanatos, Sappho and the nymph Britomartis, Mnemosyne and Hesiod. It is not, however, the only point of contact between Pavese's work and ancient literature, and may not even be the most significant.

Pavese was preparing to qualify as a teacher of Latin and Greek when he was arrested on charges of anti-Fascism in 1935. After some months in prison he was sent into confino, internal exile in the remote village of Brancaleone in southern Italy. When writing to Augusto Monti, who had taught him Latin in school, he claimed that he spent his time there "catching flies, translating Greek, avoiding sea views, walking in the fields, smoking, keeping a diary, re-reading correspondence sent by the Fatherland, and preserving a useless chastity." Later, when he worked for the publisher Einaudi, he collaborated with Rosa Calzecchi Onesti – the most important translator of Homer in twentieth-century Italy. He examined the relationship between the classical and the familiar, both as a critic and an author. When he committed suicide, he left various notes: one was addressed to his friends ("I forgive everyone, and ask everyone to forgive me. OK? Don't engage in too much gossip."); another echoed the Delphic injunction ("I sought myself.").

In her two-and-a-half page introduction, Eleonora Cavallini quotes Italo Calvino's view that Greek literature and culture were indeed important to Pavese, then briefly mentions Dialoghi con Leucò and Pavese's role as translator, and editor of translations, from ancient Greek. Gianni Venturi, a leading authority on Pavese's work, opens the collection with a chapter where he explores his own relationship to Furio Jesi, another Pavese critic: he publishes a letter in which Jesi warns against the narcissism of autobiography in literary criticism; Venturi, for his part, considers it "a duty". In the second chapter, Traina investigates the role of landscape in Pavese's engagement with antiquity, noting his aversion to the sea and his attachment to the hills of Piedmont – which become "classical" not through literary or archaeological references, but through a simultaneous anthropology of ancient Greece, and modern Italian peasant culture. Alessandro Bozzato investigates Pavese's relationship to the cinema, mostly telling a story of missed opportunity, but also noting how Straub's Le Genou d'Artémide (Cannes, 2008) attempts a "perilous parallelism" between Pavese's Dialoghi con Leucò and his final novel La luna e i falò. I do not find the parallel far-fetched at all: the film makes a perceptive contribution and, more generally, it seems important to trace the connections between Pavese's explicit reworkings of classical literature and his novels. This is precisely what Maria Cristina Di Cioccio does, successfully, in the fourth chapter. She argues that the tragic Oresteia, rather than epic, offers a model for the Second World War in Pavese's work. This is not surprising given that, in the Italian experience, the war was fought door-to-door, between family, friends, and neighbours. Archilochus' ripsaspis (the man who gleefully abandons his shield) is important for Pavese, both as an autobiographical figure (he never joined the armed resistance, unlike several of his friends) and as a metaphor for the many fascist soldiers who deserted after the armistice of 1943. She concludes that myth, for Pavese, offers an important model for the interpretation of history.

The next chapters deal more specifically with Pavese's classical learning. In a useful article, Alberto Comparini establishes what exactly Pavese studied, and when. Archival documents show that, unusually for a young man of the bourgeoisie, he did not learn Greek in school, choosing a second modern language instead (English, in addition to the compulsory French). He later disguised his ignorance of Greek, however, in order to be allowed to study literature at University. For all that he eventually learnt the ancient language and translated a broad range of authors, his approach never became narrowly philological, and he continued interrogating – with greater insistence than many of his contemporaries, who had learnt Greek when still boys – the broader significance of ancient culture. Equally strong as Comparini's contribution is Giovanni Barberi Squarotti's, on the pencil annotations Pavese made in his copies of classical texts, which relates them to comments in his letters and diary. What Squarotti shows is important: Pavese integrated ethnographic and anthropological theory with convincing close reading of texts. His comments on Homer's epithets show this, as do his observations on tragedy: "[C]haracters do not speak to one another, but to a confidante, to the chorus, to strangers. Tragedy represents, in that each character makes his case to the public." It is easy to relate comments of this kind to the isolated figures that populate Pavese's own novels – but he is not just self-referential. His readings of ancient literature are convincing, and important. Enrica Salvaneschi focuses on some recurrent expressions in Pavese's oeuvre, and traces their origins in his reading of Greek authors. Eleonora Cavallini discusses unpublished translations of lyric poets, made during his confino: Pavese notes that Ibycus was killed "on the main road... near here", and identifies with Sappho "who sleeps alone" (to the point, in fact, that when he copies the original text of fr. 168b Voigt, he changes the feminine μόνα to μόνος, "alone" in the masculine). Sara de Balsi offers a short study of Pavese's work on Homeric epithets: he wanted to preserve, in Italian translation, both their hieratic formularity and what he called (in English) their "matter-of-factness." The article sheds some light on the translation of Rosa Calzecchi Onesti, which he edited, and which is both faithful to the Greek and highly innovative in creating a modern, Homeric form of Italian.

In a final group of essays, Lucilla Lijoi shows how Paesi tuoi stages a perverted form of Homeric hospitality. There is no explicit reference to the Odyssey or other ancient texts: what interests Pavese are deep structures. Bart Van der Bossche traces how individual subjectivity and cultural formation interact in Pavese – especially in the perception of landscape. His article is perhaps the most important in the collection, in that it offers a key for reading Pavese's entire work. Autobiographical experience and classical aesthetic are intertwined. At first, Pavese finds the Mediterranean landscapes of southern Italy emotionally dead, joking that "Helicon ... is the hill of Turin". In the course of his exile, however, he begins to extend his perception through ancient literature and fragments of experience: "the girls who planted amphorae on their heads and went home a passo di cratere" ("with their krater-walk"). Even children, according to Pavese, never experience directly, but always also through symbols and stories – i.e., myth. The autobiographical is not prior to the classical, nor indeed vice-versa. There are sudden revelations. Greek attitudes towards the sacred are mentioned together with Anderson, An Ohio Pagan. After Van der Bossche's incisive intervention, Monica Lanzillotta offers a rather long-winded reading of the dialogue between Ixion and a Cloud, relating it to Pavese's (and Hesiod's) intuition that "monsters never die." Elena Liverani discusses Pavese's approach to Plato as a theorist of myth, and as an author able to frame his dialogues in a manner that is simultaneously "realistic and symbolic" (a description that fits Pavese's writing too). I am less convinced by Liverani's effort to see Platonic influences in Pavese's dictum "Gli errori sono sempre iniziali" ("Mistakes are always at the beginning"). Angela Francesca Gerace offers an account of Pavese's reception of Euripides in the dialogue "The Argonauts." Unfortunately, the article is methodologically flawed, and the resulting characterisation of Euripides wavers unsteadily between Gerace's own presentation of the playwright as a proto-feminist and Pavese's more misogynistic reading. Finally, Beatrice Mencarini tackles The Moon and the Bonfires. She explores the relationship between the main character, Anguilla, who on his return from America "no longer believes in the moon," and his local friend Nuto, for whom the moon (and the bonfires) remain active symbols – indeed tools – of death and renewal. She concludes that Pavese, like Anguilla, can no longer relate to myth. This seems misguided to me – not only in light of the comments made by Van der Bossche and others in the collection – but also in view of Pavese's own words: "No true writer lacks his quarti di luna," "his lunacy" or, translating more literally, "his slices of moon."

The collection, as a whole, suffers from a fault that characterises much current Italian academic writing (and indeed other forms of writing too, including journalism): it seeks to inform those who already know. This diminishes its value for international readers interested in classical reception, and indeed for Italian general readers and students. Another editorial problem is the frequent return to the same passages and works: Dialoghi con Leucò features too often, while interpretation of the novels (harder, because of the absence of explicit classical references) is limited. Contributors sometimes offer incompatible interpretations of the same passages: the lack of cross-references, indices, and explicit dialogue between contributors makes it hard for readers to find their bearings. Unlike Pavese's own work, this collection remains focused on textual detail, and never systematically addresses broader cultural questions. The volume might have investigated how the Italian left inherited and shaped the classical tradition, reacting against Fascist appropriations (a topic Pavese addressed explicitly, and in order to answer those who criticised his own interest in the irrational, — on the grounds that Mussolini had spread enough irrationality already). Related issues include the creation of a new poetic language, in dialogue with antiquity; the role of Greece (as opposed to Rome) in Italian anti-fascist classics; landscape and the failures of Italian unification (here a comparison with the Sicilian poet Quasimodo, and his relationship to ancient Greece, might have been instructive); Pavese's international interlocutors (e.g. Nietzsche, the Cambridge ritualists, Kerényi, and the many authors he translated). Pavese, in short, had broader horizons than this collection does. Still, Cavallini has the great merit of having identified an important topic of investigation and, I hope, having paved the way for further study. Classics was not a national project for Pavese, and his work deserves international readers.

Table of Contents

Introduzione, Eleonora Cavallini
1. "Nobile semplicità e quieta grandezza". Gli dei lontani e il furore di vivere nei Dialoghi con Leucò, Gianni Venturi
2. "Allora la semplice frase 'c'era una fonte' commuoverà". Paesaggio e memoria dell'antico in Pavese, Giusto Traina
3. Così sono nati i santuari, Alessandro Bozzato
4. L'eroe e il suo destino in Cesare Pavese. Alcune riflessioni su La casa in collina e Dialoghi con Leucò, Maria Cristina Di Cioccio
5. Il mestiere di leggere i Greci. La cultura greca di Pavese nei Dialoghi con Leucò, Alberto Comparini
6. Pavese e le fonti antiche: una ricognizione sui postillati, Giovanni Barberi Squarotti
7. Cesare Pavese: grecità sommersa, emergenze di mito, Enrica Salvaneschi
8. "E in primavera le mele": due frammenti di lirica greca nella traduzione di Cesare Pavese, Eleonora Cavallini
9. Pavese e l'Iliade: interpretazione e traduzione degli epiteti esornanti, Sara De Balsi
10. Parentele mostruose: la rete (in)ospitale di Talino e Polifemo, Lucilla Lijoi
11.Un vivaio di simboli: dialogare con il mito greco, Bart Van den Bossche
12. "Molte cose sono mutate sui monti": la hybris di Issione nella Nube pavesiana, Monica Lanzillotta
13. Recorsività platoniche nel pensiero di Pavese, Elena Liverani
14. "Respirava la morte e la spargeva": variazioni di femminilità euripidea nei Dialoghi con Leucò, Angela Francesca Gerace
15. La luna, i falò, la nudità. Pavese e il mito dell'Eden perduto, Beatrice Mencarini

1 comment:

  1. Only a few remarks.
    1) Pavese's letter of November 5th 1935 ("Esercito il più squallido dei passatempi: acchiappo mosche, traduco dal greco, mi astengo dal guardare il mare, giro i campi, fumo, tengo uno zibaldone", and so on) is addressed to Adolfo Ruata, not to Augusto Monti (Lettere I 462).
    2) The movie discussed by Alessandro Bozzato, as he speaks about "spericolato parallelismo", is "Dalla nube alla Resistenza" by Straub-Huillet (1979), not "Le genou d'Artemide" by Straub alone.
    3) The fragments of Greek lyric poetry discussed by me are not unpublished: they are part of a letter to Maria Sini Pavese (December 27th 1935) and were published by Lorenzo Mondo in 1966 (Lettere I 489-491).
    3) The diatribe between Pavese and Franco Fortini about the "Collana Viola" is punctually discussed in Giusto Traina's article.
    4) Pavese never mentions Quasimodo, but I do (p. 113).
    Another little remark: someone who teachs in an English University should speak a decent English. But translating the tragic "Va bene?" (written by Pavese on his copy of the "Dialoghi con Leucò" before committing suicide) with "OK?" is an offence.