The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War is the third major book by cultural historian and reviewer Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Twenty-two years after her award-winning biography of Cleopatra, Hughes-Hallett has again chosen a fascinating, larger-than-life protagonist – not a strong woman this time, but a man who loved, and discarded, a lengthy procession of women while pursuing distasteful political aims – and perfecting the art of self-promotion.
D’Annunzio (1863 – 1938) was a flamboyant, polarising character. He was Italy’s biggest celebrity author and a considerable influence on the writers and literature that followed in his wake. He was also an early advocate of a kind of nationalist ideology that was to become Fascism, a man who loved violence, and a mentor of sorts to Mussolini. Hughes-Hallett emphasises throughout that he was able to simultaneously maintain apparently conflicting personalities because of a near-miraculous way with words that earned him fanatical followers, and let him do pretty much whatever he wanted.
Unfortunately, he also had a fairly flimsy grip on reality, meaning that he saw nothing wrong in assuming the dictatorship of a Croatian city for more than a year, treating women like disposable possessions, or doing a Howard Hughes and retreating to an isolated, extravagant castle for the last 17 years of his life.
In keeping with her subject’s most important talent, Hughes-Hallett tells her story in beautiful, visual language. Her knowledge seems inexhaustible, and it’s a constantly informative read. She gets inside D’Annunzio’s head – and the heads of the badly-treated women who were rendered powerless by his charisma (rather than his short legs and bad teeth).
Hughes-Hallett has chosen a fascinating, larger-than-life protagonist The problem with this book lies in its pacing. Hughes-Hallett chooses to write in diary entries to cover long periods where nothing important happened in D’Annunzio’s life, which would work fine as a technique were there any build up in tension or pace, which is unfortunately lacking. The prose is stilted at times, the book is over-long, and in places there is obvious repetition – on the plus side, however, this means readers won’t forget who people are if they put The Pike down for a few days. A map would have been welcome, too: national borders and cities’ names have shifted and changed since 1920.
The characters in The Pike (D’Annunzio’s nickname, given because of his predatory nature) are fascinating – flawed, clever, influential politicians and artists, both male and female. Hughes-Hallett seeks to explain rather than judge, so we are introduced to well-rounded people who we can understand if not precisely sympathise with. This is a rich, scholarly history of a man who was synonymous with Italy’s culture and politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s just a pity that the writing, finally, isn’t quite as exciting as the period or people it describes.
The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War was published by 4th Estate on 17th January and is available in hardback from Foyles, Amazon and your local independent bookshop, priced at £25. A Kindle version is also available, priced at £14.99.
Recommended for… Anyone with an interest in Italy in the context of early 20th century European history, and those who enjoyed Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Heroes.
Other recommended reading: For another biography of a complex man obsessed with women, check out Lady Antonia Fraser‘s Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King. To read more about the growth of fascism in Italy try Caroline Moorhead‘s biography of Iris Origo, Marchesa of Val D’Orcia.