April Bookclub Review: The Pike

Wednesday 30 April 2014 by

The Pike, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Biography, Book, Fourth Estate, Lucy Hughes-HallettThe Pike: Gabriele DAnnunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Published by Fourth Estate

The story of Gabriele D’Annunzio, poet, daredevil – and Fascist.

In September 1919 Gabriele D’Annunzio, successful poet and occasional politician, declared himself Commandante of the city of Fiume in modern day Croatia. His intention – to establish a utopia based on his fascist and artistic ideals. It was the dramatic pinnacle to an outrageous career.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett charts the controversial life of D’Annunzio, the debauched artist who became a national hero. His evolution from idealist Romantic to radical right-wing revolutionary is a political parable. Through his ideological journey, culminating in the failure of the Fiume endeavour, we witness the political turbulence of early 20th century Europe and the emergence of fascism.

In The Pike, Hughes-Hallett addresses the cult of nationalism and the origins of political extremism – and at the centre of the book stands the charismatic D’Annunzio: a figure as deplorable as he is fascinating.

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It’s lucky that the blurb on the back prepares you for this, because as subjects go, D’Annunzio is not the most sympathetic of creatures to read about. But you have to give it to him; he’s a fantastically fascinating character, and you simply can’t look away. He is magnetic and charming in a way that makes your skin crawl and his life is often stranger than fiction.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett writes in an endearing and inclusive manner, her prose almost as poetic as D’Annunzio – emulating her subject’s effervescent manner of writing with its worship of beauty and stinging accuracy. The Pike is not your traditional birth-life-death, linear biography, but rather leaps around from scene to scene, from moment to moment, finding the defining stories in the man’s life and exploring it.

For someone so ultimately deplorable – in his fascist views and his treatment of others (especially women) – he is worshipped like a demi-god of his time. It is an alarming mirror image of the obsession with celebrity nowadays, that adulation people focus with laser-like intensity on someone in the spotlight. D’Annunzio lives his life in the public eye – something he deliberately engineers – and is afforded many more open doors than he should have been. It’s easy to despise someone with the moral scruples of D’Annunzio (or lack thereof) but at the same time find yourself realising what an incredible man that he became.

There is no denying the pure and vivid quality of his writing (his poetry, plays and novels are famous in their own right) and there is certainly no denying that he is a genius. Unfortunately, he chooses to use it in the wrong way, and becomes a fascist of the most skin-crawling kind. His cruelty and lust for violence is nauseating, but somehow with the nature of Hughes-Hallett’s writing it is softened by the impressive nature of everything else that D’Annunzio achieves.

However, there is only so far that a fascinating subject will get you in a 644-page long biography – the quality of the writing has to stand up to scrutiny, and thankfully, Hughes-Hallett is more than up to the task. The unusual structure to the biography is cleverly done, making it an entertaining read, and not too confusing (as it was at risk of being).

In the end, it is not D’Annunzio’s annexation of Fiume that is the most fascinating part of his life, for me, but the writing. As a politician, D’Annunzio was ultimately a lot of bluff and bluster (as with any political career) that relied heavily on his ability for oration. But his writing process, that was much more impressive – his canny ability to see what others don’t, to observe and then repeat back, and then his fanatical drive that drove him to monastic seclusion as he wrote. He might not have been as fast at writing as he claimed, but he was prolific, and skilled and it’s impressive to behold.

I haven’t read a huge number of biographies – often they run the risk of being dry and hard-going – but this one felt more fiction-like in structure and easier to read. It was less of a chore to get to the end of the book. I hadn’t heard of D’Annunzio before this, but now feel the urge to find translations of some of his works – just to see what the fuss was about.

A brilliant read – I have recommended it over and over again, and it is a book I feel I could read over with as much enjoyment as the first time.

Rating, Four, Review

What did you think of The Pike?

May‘s House of Blog Bookclub is Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez! Tweet your thoughts through the hashtag #HoBBookclub on Twitter or write on the wall on the House of Blog Facebook page.

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