Reviewed: The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

The first skinhead.

Gabriele D’Annunzio's baldness inspired youths to shave their heads in homage
Gabriele D’Annunzio's baldness inspired youths to shave their heads in homage. Photograph: Archivio GBB/Contrasto

The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War
Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Fourth Estate, 704pp, £25

Gabriele D’Annunzio was born in 1863 on the Adriatic coast of Italy. As a schoolboy, he worshipped Napoleon and Byron and he found fame as a poet while still a teenager. Italy was only recently unified and the country awash with fervent nationalism and excitement. In his early years, D’Annunzio worked as a journalist and wrote novels and plays. In 1897, he briefly became a member of parliament, describing himself as the “candidate for beauty”.

He moved to Paris in 1910 and returned to Italy at the start of the First World War. He visited the front, giving inspirational, bloodthirsty speeches, and worked as a propagandist for the government; later in the war, he commanded a squadron of bombers and celebrated the battles in curiously archaic poetry. After the war, he promoted ultranationalist causes in Italy. He lived in increasing splendour and debauchery, paid for by the fascist state, and died in March 1938.

It is worth beginning with this summary of his life for two reasons. First, because D’Annunzio is largely unknown, particularly in this country, and this book, like all biographies, makes the implicit argument that its subject deserves to be much better known. Second, because such a bland chron - ology is the opposite of Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s beautiful, strange and original structure. The Pike – named after D’Annunzio’s quick grasp of new ideas and fashions – sets out the inner life of this fascinating man and does so in a dazzling jumble of fragments and obsessions.

He loved flowers. His contemporaries thought that he wore make-up. He liked morphine and later cocaine, marrons glacés, ice cream, cunnilingus. He loved the history and myths of ancient Rome and he adored things that were new. He was a very early aviator and was delighted by the shiny cars given to him by Fiat. Ernest Hemingway called him “brave” and Henry James praised his novels. He was profoundly superstitious but not religious, except in his frequent selfcomparisons to Jesus or Saint Sebastian. He kept greyhounds.

He wrote everything down – his dreams, what his lovers smelled of, what he ate – and this allows Hughes-Hallett to create an extraordinarily intimate portrait of him. The key to the book’s success is that we feel we are inside his life. This in turn is an act of imaginative sympathy, which matters because this man was both profoundly nasty and the originator of much of the worst of the 20th century.

In September 1919, D’Annunzio marched, along with 200 recently demobilised soldiers, into Fiume, a city on the Adriatic that Italians wished was theirs. For 15 months, D’Annunzio was commandant of what he liked to call the “city of the Holocaust”. It was a place of endless ceremonies, hysterical speeches, sex and drugs, mysticism and xenophobia, strong men in black shirts; it was also, Hughes-Hallett writes, a prologue “in which some of the darkest themes of the next half-century’s history were announced”. Mussolini, then a newspaper editor, was watching carefully. Lenin sent d’Annunzio a congratulatory pot of caviar.

The story of the 20th century is the story of fascism, its rise, its manifestations and its persistence. If you want to understand fascism, you must start with D’Annunzio; and if you wish to understand him, then here is your book. He came up with the central term and image of fascism – the “fascio” or bundle of rods tied around an axe – and he referred to himself as “Il Duce” long before Mussolini. He was bald, so youths shaved their heads in homage; this is why we have skinheads. His rhythmical style of speaking, building up through repetition into hysterical rhetorical questions (Hughes-Hallett describes his speeches as “acts of collective self-hypnosis”), was copied by Hitler.

This book is as much intellectual history as biography. Hughes-Hallett shows how just as D’Annunzio borrowed from Dostoevsky, Byron and Tolstoy, he in turn was copied by the futurist Marinetti, as well as Mussolini. She makes the chilling point that the young neo-Romantic poet’s path to violent, rightwing revolt “grew organically out of longestablished trends in European intellectual and social life”. His thinking was, in her terms, “abhorrent” but not “aberrant”. It might be tempting to dismiss the crazed excesses here, even the extreme politics, or to chuckle at his bad taste, but to consider him an eccentric would be to overlook much of this history of his and our own time.

Hughes-Hallett never quite says this but it is implicitly clear as the mosaic of her book accumulates. D’Annunzio wished to create what he called “a politics of poetry”: he was a master of slogans, chants and spectacles. He was interested more in his celebrity and position than in any ideological content; he was happy to ally himself with the socialists when it served him.

As the great historian of Europe Tony Judt once wrote, “Fascists don’t really have concepts. They have attitudes.” In fashioning himself into a public figure, D’Annunzio prefigured both mid-20th century fascism and our modern cult of celebrity. We have all learned from him without knowing it.

Daniel Swift teaches at the New College of the Humanities. He is the author of “Bomber County: the Lost Airmen of World War Two” (Penguin, £9.99) and “Shakespeare’s Common Prayers” (Oxford University Press, £18.99)