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The Art of Life-Making

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

This piece is featured from this year’s Worlds festival. Also on site, from the provocations we have: Vesna Goldsworthy’s ‘How to Become, and Remain, a Writer’, and Sigitas Parulskis’ ‘The Street Without a Name‘.

I’m going to talk today about Gabriele d’Annunzio, who was the subject of my latest book. I haven’t misunderstood the brief. I’m aware that this isn’t one of those festivals to which authors come primarily to plug their own books and enhance their own reputations.. Nothing wrong with that. I’ve done it myself – often, shamelessly and with pleasure. But we’re here to step back from that process, and reflect upon it.

I’m going to use d’Annunzio as my way into the subject because – living from 1863 to 1938 – he had such a sophisticated and prescient understanding of the way a modern literary reputation is made.

D’Annunzio had the highest possible ambitions for his work. He described himself as ‘the greatest Italian author since Dante’. He was erudite, immensely well-read in half a dozen languages (ancient as well as modern). He was an intellectual polymath who interested himself in everything from baroque music to Hindu mysticism to the design of aeroplanes – and, yes, he was very well aware that in that he resembled Leonardo da Vinci, another great Italian with whom he liked to associate himself.   But he was never too highbrow to consider the commercial side of the book business.

He was a genius in the art of self-promotion. He once wrote to his publisher that he was delighted with him because ‘You really know how to push a book’.   When his secretary started up a literary magazine d’Annunzio advised him to pay more attention to publicity. ‘Why don’t you hustle your review?’ he asked ‘Take an example from TOT.’ TOT was a remedy for indigestion, with a high-profile advertising campaign.

One of the reasons d’Annunzio seemed to me an excellent subject for a book was that he had such a keen sense of the zeitgeist – to write about him was to write about his age. And he was fully aware that the modern era was going to be an age of advertising and publicity and marketing. Of hustle. It’s significant that the protagonist of one of the first masterpieces of literary modernism, James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, is an advertising salesman.

To introduce d’Annunzio briefly to those of you who don’t know him…. His work isn’t well-known outside of Italy now (partly because it is very hard to translate – something I expect we’ll talk about this week), but in his day he was an internationally acclaimed poet, novelist and playwright. He was much admired by his peers. Henry James wrote about him repeatedly and hailed him as another ‘Master’. Even Ernest Hemingway, who detested d’Annunzio personally, conceded that you had to admire him for the great beauty of his writing, despite his being, in Hemingway’s words, such ‘a jerk’. He was also a phenomenally successful serial seducer, whose love-life kept the gossip columns busy for decades.   And his life had a political dimension. He was a passionately committed nationalist, an elitist, a militarist and a war-monger. Believing that what the new Italy needed was a ‘baptism of blood’, he was instrumental in bringing Italy into World War I. A generation older than Mussolini, he came up with many of the ideas and political practices which would become commonplace under fascism.

He published his first book in 1880. It was a time when literacy rates were rising and printing costs were falling, both at an exponential rate. New journals were springing up all over the new nation of Italy, then only ten years old. The technology of printing was progressing by leaps and bounds. Later, when he was at the peak of his success and one of his speeches was published across the entire front page of the Corriere della Sera, d’Annunzio visited the print-works and wrote about the thrill of watching his words flowing off the paper’s brand-new presses – 300,000 copies to be distributed across Italy that very day. He was acutely aware of, and interested in, the fact that he lived at the beginning of the age of the mass media. He became a celebrity, and he thought and wrote a great deal about what that meant.

In his reclusive old age he was to write about ‘the horror’ of ‘being Gabriele d’Annunzio’. He was fully aware that his public persona was an artificial construct. It had a separate existence from that of the human being, himself. He used to talk about commissioning a life-size waxwork of himself. He said he would like to seat it in a window overlooking Venice’s Grand Canal, so that gondoliers could point it out to tourists. Like many celebrities, he longed – at least sometimes – to be able to separate himself from his celebrity. Instead he had a forbiddingly high wall built around his garden, while profiting by his fame to lure star-struck young women into his lair.

A character in his first novel, Pleasure, tells the young hero ‘You must make your life, as you would make a work of art.’ D’Annunzio was an aesthete, of the same generation as Oscar Wilde and Huysmans, whose A Rebours directly inspired Pleasure. The idea of life as an art-work is – partly anyway – an aesthetic one. D’Annunzio did aspire to live beautifully. When he was waiting for a woman he would set out expensive china tea and crystallised violets on a silver tea set. He filled the room with lilies. He burnt incense. He scattered rose-petals over his bed.   He devoted the last eighteen years of his life to transforming his beautifully sited but otherwise unremarkable house on the hills above Lake Garda into an extraordinary piece of installation art. Its every room, and every part of its garden was (and is) devoted to the celebration and commemoration of himself. Rooms are cluttered with bibelots and weapons and sexual trophies (he liked to steal a glove from each woman he bedded). The garden ornaments include half of a real warship, its rear embedded in the hillside, its prow cantilevered out as though about to steam off into the sky above the lake. D’Annunzio once said ‘I am a better interior decorator than I am a poet.’ He wasn’t being self-deprecating. He was never self-deprecating. To him clothes, furniture, the decoration of a room were serious matters.

But d’Annunzio’s art of life-making was about much more than damask cushions and stained glass. Life wasn’t something that happened to him: it was something he was working on. Long before he had two sticks of furniture to rub together he was building up his own reputation and shaping his life-story into legend. Looking back on his career he explained how he had come to be known as ‘The Poet’, and a national hero. ‘I knew how to give my actions the lasting power of the symbol.’

He began young. He published his first volume of verse when he was a sixteen year old schoolboy. It was well received, but the respect of book-reviewers wasn’t enough for d’Annunzio. A few months later, when his next collection was ready for publication, he sent an anonymous telegram to the editor of a journal in Florence, informing the editor of the tragic death in a riding accident of that brilliant young prodigy, that great poet in the making, Gabriele d’Annunzio, himself. The editor ran the story. It was picked up and repeated by other journals across Italy. What might this marvellous boy have done if only he had been granted more time? What a loss to Italian literature! Condolences to his sorrowing family! And so on and so forth. After a week, d’Annunzio sent a second telegram – this one signed – to the Florentine editor, reproaching him for having caused such terrible distress to himself and his family, and magnanimously informing the man that he had decided not to sue.

It worked. By the time d’Annunzio left school and moved to Rome at the age of eighteen, he was already a famous poet.

That was his first publicity stunt. There were many more. At the age of twenty d’Annunzio eloped with the daughter of the Duke di Gallese, first informing his friends in the press. The young couple ‘secretly’ got on the train in Rome. When they arrived in Florence they were met on the platform by a crowd of reporters. D’Annunzio’s poem, in which he describes (in startlingly graphic detail) seducing his young wife in a bluebell wood, was published within days and sold like hot cakes.

Twice, with a novel about to come out, he fought duels with close friends. Duelling was illegal but considered dashing and glamorous. In each case no one was hurt. In each case the duel ensured that d’Annunzio’s name was in the papers just as his book appeared in the shops.

He wanted fame. He was also interested in it. He played with the idea of it. His first novel Pleasure came out when he was 25. Its hero is a young aristocrat and artist called Count Andrea Sperelli. In the novel the fictional Sperelli makes an etching of his mistress lying asleep on a marvellous blue silk bedspread embroidered with all the signs of the zodiac. In reality d’Annunzio commissioned an artist friend to produce the picture exactly as described in the novel, adding the titillating detail that, as the woman lies there, her upper body partially exposed, a greyhound leans over to lick her naked breast. The real-life artist, entering into the spirit of the thing, signed it not with his own name but with that of the fictional Andrea Sperelli. ‘We’ll sell it with an air of mystery’ explained d’Annunzio. The etching went on display in the front window of a fashionable picture-dealer’s shop on the Corso and a limited edition of prints were sold at high prices. D’Annunzio was living in the pre-modernist era, but this was a cheekily post-modernist move. Art was imitating art, and trespassing into the real world. A real picture, by a fictional person was generating real money, and further publicity for d’Annunzio.

Nietzsche declared the death of God. D’Annunzio, who was of the same generation as Nietzsche and greatly admired him, was present at the death-bed. The decline of religious faith left a moral vacuum: why strive to be good if there is no God to please? It also left a vacancy in the public’s emotional life. D’Annunzio used to see the aged Franz Liszt sitting in the audience at concerts in Rome in the 1880s. Four decades previously Europe had been swept by ‘Lisztomania’. Now d’Annunzio noticed that Liszt was still worshipped as ‘an idol’. His adorers gazed at him ‘in a kind of religious ecstasy, as devotees might gaze when the priest elevates the host’. As his own reputation grew, d’Annunzio himself became the object of that kind of veneration. He was an unbeliever. But he learnt a great deal from the church’s rituals and liturgy. Increasingly his public appearances came to be staged like sacred ceremonies, and he adopted priestly rhetoric, engaging his followers in a dialogue, a sequence of calls and responses like that between priest and congregation.

Literary reputation could be transmuted into the worship of a celebrity. It also has an erotic charge. D’Annunzio wryly observed that ‘neither the strength of Hercules nor the beauty of Hippolytus has as much power to thrill a woman as fame does’. He was a star, and he had his groupies. He profited by the sexual opportunities his fame brought him and he thought about it as well, writing that it must be sweet for a woman to be able to think that she possessed (at least temporarily) someone whose work made hundreds of others ‘swoon with passion’. When, in his thirties, he embarked on his most famous love affair, with the great actress Eleonora Duse, he saw that phenomenon from the other side. ‘When the theatre echoes with applause and flames with desire, he upon whom, alone, the diva gazes, upon whom she smiles, is intoxicated by pride.’     He also, naturally, made use of their relationship to boost his own career. They were Italy’s foremost celebrity couple. With Duse producing and performing in his plays d’Annunzio was assured a vast audience.

One aspect of his growing reputation which d’Annunzio took little notice of, perhaps because he liked to see himself as being the creator of his own greatness, was the influence of chance.   In 1890, when d’Annunzio was living in Naples, a French school teacher called Georges Herelle visited the city. He read and enjoyed a Neapolitan journal, and when he left for home he took out a postal subscription to it. When d’Annunzio’s novel The Innocent began to appear in it in serial form, Herelle was ‘dazzled’. He wrote to d’Annunzio and asked permission to translate it. When his version was published in Paris 1892 it was a tremendous success. Sales were prodigious, and d’Annunzio’s new admirers organised a conference at the Sorbonne to celebrate his work.

In the preamble to this festival there’s mention of the importance to a writer’s reputation of being known in the right place. This is an instance of it. In the 1890s Paris was the Western world’s intellectual entrepot. It was from reading Parisian journals that d’Annunzio had picked up on the fashion for Japanese art. The Italian publishing industry was still small. The Italian fictional tradition was slim. It was through reading French authors that d’Annunzio had made himself into a writer. It was through French translation that he had discovered the Russian novelists whose work he had imitated, and that he had first read Nietzsche. Had Herelle not visited Naples, d’Annunzio’s international reputation would have grown much more slowly, if at all. After the success in France of l’Intrus Herelle translated d’Annunzio’s other novels as well. German and English publishers took note, and commissioned translations of their own. And so d’Annunzio achieved international recognition.   And the more admired he was abroad, the more Italians celebrated him at home.

I’ve said how much he wanted that recognition, that fame. He once wrote of one of his fictional characters, a writer, that he was ‘drawn to his public as a predatory bird is drawn to its prey’. He was describing himself. He continued to write poetry all his life, but he quickly realised he could never reach the huge readership he wanted by that route. H took up journalism, writing reams of diary pieces and gossip columns as well as reviews of art and literature. When his highbrow friends expressed their distaste for the press, he said that an idea planted in a magazine would germinate and sprout far more quickly than one planted in a book.   He began to write novels because he had noticed that the journals he wrote for sold better when they were publishing a serialised novel. When he switched to play-writing he was, once more, following the crowd. We may think of theatre as entertainment for the middle-classes, but in late 19th century Italy it was a genuinely popular art-form. Writing plays, d’Annunzio could speak to the illiterate. His first nights were riotous – literally. There were demonstrations outside theatres where his more provocative woks were playing. They were also grand. Royalty attended his premiers. In Paris in 1910 he got involved with the brand-new form of cinema, the first of his intellectual peers to do so, writing the inter-titles for the silent epic Cabiria, and being paid so much money for them he and his secretary literally couldn’t believe their ears when the offer was made.

This restless pursuit of an ever bigger public wasn’t motivated only by financial greed, and a hunger for attention and praise. D’Annunzio did want fame and prestige. And he was very pleased that those intangible things could be transformed into money. A hotelier once decided not to bank the cheque with which d’Annunzio had paid his bill, declaring that d’Annunzio’s autograph was worth more to him than the money it represented. D’Annunzio told his secretary to broadcast the story far and wide, in the hope that the many, many tradesmen to whom he was in debt might make the same choice. But he wasn’t cynical. His main motive for seeking to reach ever more people was that he really cared about the political message he had to deliver.

He was a fervent nationalist from childhood. Aged thirteen, he wrote that his mission was to ‘teach the people to love their country… and to hate the enemies of Italy to the death!’

Becoming a poet, he saw himself as the voice of the new nation.   In his early years he wrote love poetry, or lyrical descriptions of nature, or neo-pagan fantasies about fauns and centaurs, but he saw his writing as a patriotic service. He was a creating a new great literature for the new great Italy. When he wrote in celebration of the glories Renaissance art or the beauty of the Tuscan landscape he was developing a back-story for the new nation.   Later his writing became more overtly polemical. His plays, especially, celebrate heroic masculinity. Nietzschean supermen fight in African wars, or build ships to conquer Italy’s enemies in the Adriatic. History is set to serve propaganda. The might and grandeur of the ancient Roman empire, or the mediaeval Venetian one, are glorified as models for a new Greater Italy.


d’Annunzio’s reputation was not just a launch-pad from which he could fire off his political ideas. It was itself a weapon.

When in May 1915, Italy entered the Great War on the side of France and Britain, he was overjoyed. Initially the military command tried to keep him away from the action. If d’Annunzio was killed, they thought, the loss of such a famous Italian would be a dreadful blow to national morale. He was outraged. He used all his contacts, up to and including the prime minister, to get himself an active role. Finally he was appointed ‘liaison officer’ with the freedom to do pretty much whatever he pleased.

He was an orator, roaring up and down the lines in his big shiny car. He harangued troops going into battle. He delivered eulogies at the grim mass burials when battle was over. Every one of his contemporaries who heard him speak, including those who detested him, agree that he was a spell-binding orator.   General Diaz, Italian commander in chief for the latter part of the war, said that a battle before which d’Annunzio had spoken to the troops was already three quarters won. D’Annunzio’s own notebooks for the war years show how observant he was of the ghastly details of trench war-fare, but in his speeches, all of which were promptly published in pamphlet form and distributed to the troops and to those back home, he doesn’t describe the reality of conflict. He elaborates an inspirational vision of war as a great foundry in which the nation is being forged. He talks of how men from all over the Peninsula, people whose differing dialects made it impossible for them even to converse with each other, were being brought together in the purifying fire of suffering to create a wonder, a secular miracle, the birth of a great country. The uneducated teenage conscripts to whom he was speaking did not – as even he conceded – quite follow what he was saying, but they were moved by his presence among them. Once when he was visiting the trenches a shell exploded nearby, killing some dozen men. The soldier standing next to him said ‘they can be spared, but if you died, where would we find such another?’ He was worshipped, but he was also hated. When a group of soldiers mutinied, refusing to go back to front –line, they chanted ‘Kill d’Annunzio Kill d’Annunzio!’ as they opened fire on their officers. To them, as to his admirers, the fame he had won as an author made him the embodiment of Italian militarism.

He was also an aviator, taking off from Venice in the tiny flimsy little planes of the day, flying over Trieste and other Austrian-occupied ports. He dropped bombs on Austrian ships in the harbour. Over the city-centres he dropped pamphlets calling upon the population to rise up against their Austrian masters. His writing had become a martial art.

The war over, his literary reputation underwent another metamorphosis, being transmuted into political power when he made himself dictator of the disputed city of Fiume.

That adventure over, he withdrew to Lake Garda, to devote himself to cocaine, to doing up his house, and to cashing in on his literary reputation, repeatedly rewriting and republishing his own wok.

As d’Annunzio withdrew from public life, Mussolini succeeded him as the front-man of the Italian nationalist right. D’Annunzio never publicly endorsed the Fascists. He saw them as vulgar, brutal imitators of himself. But if d’Annunzio was not a Fascist, fascism was certainly d’Annunzian. He wrote to Mussolini ‘Is not all that is best about Fascism taken from me?’


When I began researching my book about him I read a number of the early biographies. Repeatedly I came across one or other of two linked arguments. That d’Annunzio couldn’t really be a great writer because his politics were so obnoxious. Or, conversely, that his poetry is so beautiful that he can’t really have held those obnoxious opinions. So I’m going to conclude, not with a conclusion, but by asking two questions d’Annunzio’s case raises. First – Can we respect an artist whose politics we deplore? (to quote the title of an essay of d’Annunzio’s, we might call this ‘The Wagner Question’) Second – Can literary reputation be a screen, behind which deplorable ideas can be smuggled into our minds?

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, 2015

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