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

The first skinhead.

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)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide