Dialogues with Pavese: Roberto Ludovico

Not only a Pavese scholar, but first of all a Pavese reader: for our column Dialogues with Leucò we interviewed professor Roberto Ludovico.

Dialoghi con Pavese: Roberto LudovicoRoberto Ludovico is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He received his BA in Italy, at the University of Bari, where he graduated in Foreign Languages with a philosophy thesis on Modernism. He then pursued graduate education with a Master and a PhD in Italian Literature at, respectively, McGill University (Montréal, Canada) and Brown University (Providence, USA). Since 2003 he has been teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Though he does not consider himself a specialist of Pavese, his research work has intersected with Pavese multiple times and for different reasons: at first when studying Calvino, then when working on the literary journal “Solaria” (through which Pavese published the first edition of his collection of poetry, Lavorare stanca). While working on Franco Antonicelli, he published the previously unpublished Ricordo di Pavese (Memory of Pavese) on the journal “Italica”, with an essay on Pavese and Antonicelli. As part of his research on Renato Poggioli, he has analyzed the correspondence between Poggioli and Pavese (edited by Silvia Savioli for Edizioni dell’Orso in 2011, with his introduction). More importantly, prof. Ludovico makes a point of enjoying Pavese – whenever possible – as a reader-user, without the filter of the critical analysis and interaction.

The correspondence between Pavese and Poggioli

You wrote the introduction to A Meeting Of Minds, which collects the correspondence between two intellectuals as relevant as Cesare Pavese and Renato Poggioli in the years 1947-1950. What aspects of Pavese as an editor and organizer of culture do emerge from these letters?

The epistolary exchange between Pavese and Poggioli is centered – as we can easily imagine – around editorial matters concerning the period during which Poggioli was working on the publication of his anthology Fiore del verso russo for the publisher Einaudi; another volume – La teoria dell’arte d’avanguardia – should have followed, but Einaudi later refused to publish it for ideological reasons. From their exchanges around this complicated matter, in my opinion, two identities of Pavese emerge: Pavese as an individual and Pavese as a member of the editorial board of the Einaudi publishing house. In the beginning of their correspondence, Pavese, who obviously edited the forthcoming edition of the Fiore and who knew very well its content, did not show any hesitation in going forward with his publishing plans. As an individual, therefore, Pavese thinks and acts independently without limiting the freedom of expression of the author with whom he is working, including his critical stance toward the most repressive aspects of the Soviet cultural policy. We cannot rule out that Pavese had his own concerns about the reception at the Einaudi publishing house of the anti-Soviet statements that dotted the anthology; nevertheless, it is meritorious for him the fact that he proceeded with his intentions, determined to publish the book without any editorial interference. This, at least, was the case until Einaudi and the other members of the editorial board decided, immediately before the print release, to add a note from the editor which distanced the publisher from the anti-Soviet claims expressed by the author. In the letters written during the last
months of 1949, Pavese is clearly negotiating the uncomfortable role as go-between for Einaudi and Poggioli, who resided in America. At this stage, he found himself on one side struggling to mediate between the publisher and Poggioli, and on the other side, more importantly, to reconcile Pavese himself as an individual (the one we meet in the letters before Einaudi’s intervention) and Pavese as a spokesperson for the publisher, compelled by his professional role to adjust to an editorial stance that he may have not entirely agreed with.

The letters were written in a period during which Pavese – also because of the ideological schematism due to the Cold War – redefined his American myth after his juvenile enthusiasm. Did the letters help us to better understand the less known “political” figure of Pavese, member of the Italian Communist Party, so far present only in some pages of his novel Il Compagno and his articles for the Communist newspaper l’Unità?

Honestly, I don’t think that – had it depended on him – Pavese would have added the editorial forward (which he himself wrote, as Silvia Savioli, the editor of the volume, demonstrated) to Fiore del verso russo. In the same way, it is reasonable to think that Pavese would have not backtracked on the publication of Teoria dell’arte d’avanguardia, as he and Poggioli had already informally agreed upon. The editorial project was later canceled by Einaudi’s editorial board as a result of the controversy surrounding the publication of Fiore. These are not choices made by Pavese, but choices imposed on him by the circumstances he was facing at the time: the ideological position that prevailed within Einaudi’s editorial board, and the political circumstances of 1950s Italy, to which you refer in your question. As such, Pavese was torn between his own perception of contemporary culture and politics, and the external pressures which he had no choice but to adapt to. Without any intention of speculating on his intentions, I would suggest that he struggled with this uncomfortable situation in which he was forced to choose between his loyalty to Einaudi and his loyalty to his own personal principles (and to Poggioli). This likely contributed in some measure to Pavese’s deep depression, which led him to his suicide a few months later. In replying to a letter from Poggioli of January 30th, 1950, in which Poggioli defended his ideological position between anti-Fascism and anti-Communism, Pavese portrayed a very clear analysis of the political climate of his time and of the way it influenced the relationship between intellectuals and institutions. On February 16th, he wrote to Poggioli: “Badi però che il suo rifiuto – «né rosso né nero» – significa attualmente in Italia «sospeso tra cielo e terra», «né dentro, né fuori», «né vestito né ignudo» – insomma una situazione quale soltanto Bertoldo seppe sostenere e con una facezia dopo tutto. In Italia, ripeto, non so altrove.” (“Consider, however, that your refusal – «not red nor black» – in Italy, today, translates to being «suspended between Earth and the sky», «not inside nor outside», «not dressed nor naked» – a situation, that is, that only Bertoldo managed to resolve, and with a joke after all. In Italy, I repeat, I don’t know elsewhere.” Our translation]

I’ve thought for long time about the implications of these few lines, that have become especially relevant in my current work. Here, Pavese (the “political” and also realistically pragmatic Pavese) shows to Poggioli a snap-shot, as effective as it is direct in its exposition, of Italian history in its own doing, and – so to speak – from the inside. We should not forget also that Poggioli, who moved to the US in 1938, did not directly experience in Italy a historical period of foundational importance for the post war years (from 1938 to the War, the Resistance, the institution of the Italian Republic, and what followed) that radically transformed the Italian identity. By gently admonishing Poggioli (“badi però”: “consider, however”) on the Italian situation “attualmente” (“today”), in my opinion Pavese was not simply addressing his interlocutor, but he was talking to himself, too. He was indeed well aware of the profound uneasiness with which he was living a similar tension: “né dentro, né fuori” (“not inside nor outside”). The fundamental difference between Pavese and Poggioli, in this case, is in Pavese’s sharp awareness of the reality surrounding him at that specific point in history in Italy, and of the effect that this status of uncertainty had on him.

Pavese’s books in Amherst

A few years ago, the library of your university received from Lawrence Smith some books which belonged to Pavese: among them, the copy of Moby Dick that he translated, which he gifted first to Leone Ginzburg and then to Constance Dowling. What events or programs have you organized so far, and which are you thinking to organize, to promote the knowledge of these books? Are the students interested in studying them?

This question gives me the opportunity to thank – once again – Lawrence Smith for the generosity of his donation and for the honor of choosing our library and our university to receive and preserve his Pavese collection, and above all the five volumes containing Pavese’s autograph inscriptions. The two-volume edition of Moby Dick is perhaps the most precious because – as Lawrence Smith explained – it links the two individuals with whom Pavese had the strongest connections (Leone Ginzburg and Constance Dowling); this also shows how Pavese likely fantasized that he could fill the void left by the former with the presence of the latter. When the acquisition and cataloguing processes were completed, in September 2018, my UMass colleague Andrea Malaguti and I, in collaboration with the DuBois Library, organized a round table titled “Cesare Pavese and America”Participants to the initiative included esteemed colleagues and Pavese scholars such as prof. Mark Pietralunga, prof. Geoffrey Brock, who recently translated Pavese’s poems into English, and finally – as a distinguished guest – Lawrence Smith himself. In that circumstance we presented the collection to the public, formally acknowledged Mr. Smith, and, of course, conversed about Pavese (the entire video recording of the event is available online thanks to the DuBois Library). The emergency due to the Covid pandemic has unfortunately interrupted every in-person event, but the richness of these volumes in my opinion goes well beyond the specific initiatives within the field of Pavese’s studies. I’ll explain: the five volumes containing Pavese’s autograph inscriptions are located in the Special Collections Department of our library, but they have been entirely digitized and made available to all scholars and readers of Pavese, all over the world. In the current era of the technological reproduction, these materials are available to everybody with just one click. Nevertheless, this universal accessibility has not diminished the relevance of their uniqueness. Although contents are available to everybody through the web, only the physical interaction with the book – and with the marks left by Pavese’s pen – evokes the full seductive power of the book as an object. Only the reader’s physical interaction with the books activates that special chemistry that connects the author, the addressees of those dedications, and the book itself. In this sense, these books are objects capable of extraordinary educational and formative powers that enhance the learning experience of our students. Indeed, they tell the stories of actual people not only through their printed content, but above all through their physical presence. For this reason, I hope – in fact, I am sure– that they will inspire our students, not only in Italian literature or 20th century classes. Our duty, as educators, is to take advantage of all the potential that this generous gift was entrusted to us.

Pavese: an hyper-Modernist

You studied the role of the journal “Solaria” in broadening Italian culture in the 1930s by connecting it with European avant-garde movements. Recently, some scholars of Pavese studied his belonging to the Modernist movement: considering your studies, do you think that Pavese could be considered a Modernist? Which role did the European literature of his time have on his poetry?

There have been long and intense discussions about this topic, and I can only address this question with an open answer. It was not a chance that the first edition of Lavorare stanca was the last volume published by Edizioni di Solaria, when the publication of the journal had already been interrupted. This was also the last editorial effort completed by Alberto Carocci as director and founder of one of the journals that most effectively contributed to reconnect Italian literature with Europe, when “Europe” in fact meant Modernism. Pavese’s poems, we could say, represent the point of arrival of “Solaria”’s stylistic research in the field of poetry; in the same way, Vittorini’s Il garofano rosso (published in the final issues of “Solaria”) completes Carocci’s magazine itinerary toward a modern Italian novel, and represents, at the same time, Vittorini’s achievement of a literary, stylistic, and even ideological maturity. For “Solaria”, Pavese represents the extreme boundary of the journey undertaken by the journal in 1926, aimed to facilitate the introduction of 20th century Italian literature to the Europe-wide conversation on Modernism. This path ended, as I tried to show in my book on “Solaria”, exactly at the same time when the Modernist movement was ending. An end which symbolically coincided with the international congress of anti-Fascist writers that took place in Paris in 1935. Starting from that moment, and through the entire Nazi-Fascist occupation of Europe and the Second World War, the figure and role of the intellectual as defined by the prominent Modernist canon was no longer viable, and needed therefore to be redefined before resurfacing at the end of the war, deprived of the sacred aura with which Modernism invested the arts and the intellectual. Because of his biography, Pavese, who was born in 1908, formed his literary tastes during the most advanced phase of Modernism and reached his intellectual maturity when Modernism started to decline. If we consider the definition of artistic and literary Modernism as the product of the historical, social, and philosophical crisis of modern society, we could define Pavese as a hyperModernist: he lived and witnessed the crisis of the crisis of Modernity, so to speak. As many others born in the first decade of the 20th century, Pavese experienced a moment of historical transition. As such, he lived between two eras, pre- and the post-WWII, which are separated by the darkest abyss of our History, which is the Holocaust. Based on this, I would consider Pavese’s ambiguous position when confronted with historical and political events especially during the Resistance, not as turning a blind eye to reality, and as an abdication to his civic duty, but as a form of psychological paralysis (that translates in the inability to act) in facing the unexplainable development of History.

Studying Pavese today

Which could be, in your opinions, the directions for future research which will preserve Pavese’s relevance within the fields of Italian, European, and World Literature? Which directions did the academic research on Pavese followed, in the US?

The research on Pavese can still be very important for Italian Literature, and I cannot possibly map all the existing and possible directions it could follow. Based on my own interests and competences, I would say that – considering that the study of Modernism in Italy is still relatively recent – there is still a lot of work that could be done in this context. For the reasons that I previously mentioned, Pavese can be a key author in this field of studies for two reasons: the intersection between his personal and literary experiences with Italian and European culture and history, and the international scope of his formation and interests. In order to produce satisfying results, the study of Modernism in Italy can only be approached through an international perspective. The formation and the interests of Pavese (as a translator, too, of course) make him a relevant mediator between Italy (Torino, le Langhe), Europe, and America. His being situated on the border separating two eras, indeed, provides us with valuable insight to understand and appreciate the interaction between Italian literature and the other Western literatures’ innovative approaches. In North America, where I live and teach, big emphasis has always been given to Pavese as an Americanist and translator, and to his fascination for America and its culture. This is, in our colleges and universities, the best way also to introduce American students to Pavese. But it is only a starting point, because Pavese’s importance is universal. This is true, I believe, because of the profound humanity of his personal and intellectual experience, which make him the symbol of an era and of an existential condition whose significance is neither Italian, nor European or American, but universal. A true classic author, as I have already claimed in the past. As such, he is a treasure of World Literature.

Un Pavese ci vuole: paraphrasing a famous passage from La luna e i falò, I chose this as the title for a series of Web interviews with Pierluigi Vaccaneo, director of Fondazione Pavese. Seventy years after his death, do you think that we still need Pavese? And why? 

Un Pavese ci vuole: no doubt about it. Today more than ever, urgently. I would like to address this question as a private reader of Pavese, and not as a scholar of 20th century literature. The characteristic that I instinctively associate with Pavese’s experience (I am intentionally avoiding the term “literature”, which could be restrictively interpreted as his artistic production only) is, before anything else, his vulnerability. I am convinced that fragility and vulnerability also happen to be the qualities that intrinsically characterize the most authentic human experience, as it should be expected in our times. At a time when individualisms and nationalisms are making their come-back, as if they were normally acceptable; at a time when shrewdness in social relationship is usually passed off as smartness, and presumption and abuse are embellished by confusing them with success, we urgently need models representing – especially in the eye of young people – different ethical standards of behavior. Such behaviors and ethical principles need to be “weak”, if I am allowed to borrow a philosophical concept theorized by philosopher Gianni Vattimo. In this sense, Pavese is an irreplaceable and indispensable champion of humanity. It is up to us, as scholars and educators, to actively respond this need for such models by highlighting certain aspects of Pavese’s life and work.