Thursday, October 2, 2014

Cesar Pavese's "The Moon and the Bonfires": Book Review

Published shortly before the author's suicide in 1950, after an affair with an American actress, the hardboiled nature of Cesare Pavese's final novel demonstrates his skill, honed by translations of American literature, in integrating the hardboiled prose style or Chandler, Cain, and Hemingway back into Italian. Or vice versa, as R.W. Flint's rendering in turn of Pavese emphasizes its affinities. I am reminded of how Hemingway tried to convey Spanish idioms or Italian landscapes in his own fiction, so Pavese's familiar tone, for American readers in this 2002 edition for New York Review Classics, should find a ready reception among those curious to see how an Italian enamored of American sensibilities tries to work them into his own language, and his own post-war sensibilities.

The results, to me, are modest but successful on these terms. Mark Rudman's introduction might be read as an afterward, for he gives away the whole plot and its climactic scene. However, Pavese's decision to treat that as the final two pages of his novel, and to cut away from any lasting denouement, attests to his skill, and daring.

Other writers would have softened this or pressed it into a framework more pliable. It's true that for long stretches of this 150-page novel, not much happens, on the other hand, so the action that does occur, told in retrospect, does matter more. I was not as pulled into the narrative as I expected. Perhaps as a Californian, viewing the remove at which Oakland, Fresno, the great valleys, and the desert of this state are evoked in a stylized manner (reminding me of the rather endearing way Kafka imagined his Amerika) kept me distanced. I was not convinced by the narrator's loves or adventures, for these--nodding back to the tough-guy inspirations--are not given enough depth to draw you close.

However, in the smells of Italy's lime trees, the legend of how the moon fructifies the fields if bonfires are set at its margins, and how as in 1914, so since: war is "a lot of dogs unchained by their masters to murder each other and keep their masters in control" (88), there is enough to satisfy a reader. "Maybe it is better that way, better for everything to go up in a bonfire of dry grass and for people to begin again. That was how it was in America--when you were sick of something, a job or a place, you changed it. Over there even whole towns, with taverns, city halls and stores, are as empty now as graveyards." (120-1) This sparely told pastoral narrative leaves its impression, in a muted, melancholic manner. Not the lively evocation of the war against the Fascists I had suspected, Pavese prefers to tamp down the emotion, and to use memory and equivocation to explore his national pain.

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