At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Cesare Pavese - writer and translator

Author introduced great American writers to Fascist Italy


Cesare Pizzardo translated the works of many American novelists
Cesare Pizzardo translated the works
of many American novelists
Cesare Pavese, the writer and literary critic who, through his work as a translator, introduced Italy to the Irish novelist James Joyce and a host of great American authors of the 20th century, was born on this day in 1908 in Santo Stefano Belbo, a town in Piedmont about 60km from Turin.

Pavese would become an acclaimed novelist after the Second World War but was frustrated for many years by the strict censorship policies of Italy’s Fascist government.

It is thought he devoted himself to translating progressive English-language writers into Italian as the best way by which he could promote the principles of freedom in which he believed.

Pavese’s translations would have given most Italians they first opportunity to read writers such as Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Gertrude Stein, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos and Daniel Defoe, as well as Joyce, who would ultimately spend many years living in Italy.

The son of Eugenio Pavese, an officer of the law courts in Turin, Cesare had a fractured childhood. His father died when he was only six and his mother, Consolina, is said to have shown him little affection, as a result of which he grew up learning how to fend for himself.

He was born in Santo Stefano Belbo, situated in a picturesque vine-growing area east of Alba in southern Piedmont, because his parents were staying at their holiday home there when his mother went into Labour.  As soon as he was old enough, he moved to Turin and attended the lyceum – the Licio Classico Massimo d’Azeglio – where he was taken under the wing of the Italian anti-Fascist intellectual Augusto Monti.

Pavese hid in the hills outside Turin during the Second World War occupation of the city by German soldiers
Pavese hid in the hills outside Turin during the Second
World War occupation of the city by German soldiers
Monti was later imprisoned by the regime for his vociferous opposition, a fate that would befall Pavese not long after he had left the University of Turin, where he was mentored by Leone Ginzburg, husband of the author Natalia Ginzburg.

He had begun an affair with Tina Pizzardo, a young Communist he met at the sparsely-attended anti-Fascist meetings he used to frequent, and agreed for her to use his address as somewhere to which she could have correspondence delivered because her own movements were under surveillance.

However, when the authorities intercepted letters from Altiero Spinelli, a jailed anti-Fascist dissident, and found they were addressed to Pavese’s apartment, he was arrested and sent to a prison at Brancaleone in Calabria, almost 1,400km (870 miles) from Turin.

Pavese later wrote a book about his ordeal, although for many years his work remained unpublished by his own choice, rather than it be censored.  When a volume of his poetry was published during his incarceration, a number of poems were deleted by the Fascist authorities.

On his return to Turin after a little more than a year in jail, he found that Pizzardo had begun another relationship and countered his sadness by throwing himself into his work, again mainly in translating.  He became a close associate of Giulio Einaudi – father of the pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi and son of the politician Luigi Einaudi – with whom he helped establish the Einaudi publishing house. Natalia Ginzburg also worked there.

The young communist Tina Pizzardo, with whom Pavese had an affair
The young communist Tina Pizzardo,
with whom Pavese had an affair
Pavese was conscripted to fight in Mussolini’s Fascist army but avoided front-line action because he suffered from asthma. Instead, he was confined to a military hospital for six months.

In his absence, German troops occupied Turin and on returning to civilian life when he was discharged on health grounds Pavese went into hiding in the hills around Serralunga di Crea, near Casale Monferrato, where he remained between 1943 and 1945.

Most of Pavese’s work, mainly short stories and novellas, was published by Einaudi, appearing between the end of the Second World War and his death. In that time he was a member of the Italian Communist Party and worked on the party’s newspaper L’Unità.

The main character in many of Pavese’s stories was often a loner, whose relationships with both men and women tended to be short-lived. The stories are often bleak yet he was admired for the tautness of his prose, which was favourably compared to that of Ernest Hemingway.

They tended to draw comparison with his own life. As well as his affair with Pizzardo, whom he felt deserted him, he had a brief relationship after the war with Constance Dowling, an American actress, but that too failed and is seen to have been a contributory factor in his death at the age of only 41.

It came at a moment when he appeared to be at the height of his career, hailed as one of Italy’s greatest living writers.

Works such as La casa in collina (The House on the Hill) and Il carcere (The Prison), which were published as a two-novella volume entitled Prima che il gallo canti (Before the Cock Crows) and based in his experiences in prison, were regarded as confirming his genius, as were Il Compagno (The Comrade), Dialoghi con Leucò (Dialogues with Leucò) - philosophical dialogues between classical Greek characters – and La luna e i falò (The Moon and the Bonfires), which he dedicated to Downing.  

In 1950, he won the prestigious Strega Prize but two months after receiving the honour he was found dead in an hotel room in Turin, having swallowed an overdose of barbiturates.  Entries in his diary indicated that he had been profoundly depressed following his break-up with Dowling, which he took as a sign that he would never find happiness in marriage, or with other people.

The village of Santo Stefano Belbo
The village of Santo Stefano Belbo
Travel tip:

Pavese’s life is commemorated in several ways in Santo Stefano Belbo, where there is a museum housed in the house his parents owned in what is now Via Cesare Pavese, while the Cesare Pavese Foundation, which was established in 1973 and has its headquarters in Piazza Confraternita off Via Cavour, promotes not only the work of Pavese but encourages and supports other writers.

A plaque marks where Cesare Pavese lived in Turin
A plaque marks where Cesare Pavese lived in Turin
Travel tip:

In Turin, Pavese lived in the same building for 20 years on the Via Alfonso Lamarmora, one of the elegant residential streets in the grid of criss-crossing thoroughfares that characterises the centre of the city.  Via Lamarmora links Corso Stati Uniti with Via Sebastiano Caboto, bisecting the busy Corso Luigi Einaudi. There is a wall plaque marking the building that contained his apartment.


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