Vol. XXIX , #2 Herman Melville's ; or The Whale
Edited by Damion Searls
Review of Contemporary Fiction
This Business of Living: Diaries 1935–1950, by Cesare Pavese
Reviewed by Tayt J. Harlin
Trans. A. E. Murch. Intro. John Taylor. Transaction, 2009. 350 pp. Paper: $29.95. (Reprint)
Natalia Ginzburg once wrote that Cesare Pavese's "conversation could be pointed and invigorating like nobody else’s." The observation will strike one as all too true after reading his extraordinary diaries. Whether meditating on matters aesthetic, philosophical, or romantic, Pavese brings to bear a metaphysical yearning and a dry, compressed expressiveness to rival that of Kafka, Weil, and Cioran. The journal begins with the aspiring poet eagerly parsing the distinction between the “material unity” and “spiritual unity” of his work and claiming “how allusive, how all-pervading, every future subject must be to me . . .” Soon, though, whatever hope that might underlay his passionate purposefulness is crushed by self-flagellation: “Have I really ever asked myself what I ought to do according to conscience? . . . And even where my work is concerned, have I ever been anything but a hedonist?” Pavese translated Defoe, Melville, and Joyce, and he studs his diaries with provocative reflections on a startling array of authors, including Horace, Murasaki, and Flaubert, about whom he admonishes, “Be careful not to take seriously Flaubert’s reviews of reality. They are based on no other principle but this: all is filth, except the conscientious artist.” He treats the war years in largely abstract terms: Pavese was one for whom, though he lived a fairly colorful life (confined for antifascist activities, lover to the American actress Constance Dowling), emotional fibrillations took precedence over exterior circumstances. He aspired to an existence that would be utterly inaugural, suffused with a sense of revelation. His suffering stemmed from his inability to carry out the impossible task of raising his life and work to the level of myth. A year before his suicide, he mourned, “I wanted to go on, take it further, absorb another generation, become everlasting, like a hill.” These journals are a bracing testament to that struggle.