The new season of our themed column on Cesare Pavese’s contemporary critique opens with writer and translator Claudia Durastanti. Read the interview by Iuri Moscardi.
In 2020, Einaudi republished all the books by Pavese with new covers and introductions and you wrote the one to the novel La bella estate. When did you first encounter Pavese’s books and what has he represented for you, as a person and a writer?
I first read Pavese in high school, I was exposed to the poems in Lavorare stanca, but that was it. I really reconnected with Pavese during my first year of college: I bought Il mestiere di vivere and Vita attraverso le lettere, then slowly descended into his fiction and short novels. I believe this sequence of steps has allowed me to shape my own personal idea of Cesare Pavese, and the result would have been perhaps different if I read his novels before or into a void, without the particular sense of gravity irradiated by his journals and letters. It would be simple to say I fell in love with the man and then learned how to accept the writer, that’s a bit close to Sontag’s interpretation of Pavese, almost as if the «sad hero» serves a function that the novels can’t uphold, but that was not my case. The life of Pavese, as he told us and wrote about it, is a low intensity epic accumulating materials and bricks that will build and solidify the novels, and they have no possible existence without each other. Pavese taught me how he wanted to be read, through his own words. I was always interested in the relationship between writers and their journals – Woolf, Plath, now Ernaux – but Pavese was my first, and he displays more variations of style and motives, he draws an entire landscape subject to the rotation of the seasons. Also, we were on opposite journeys in our youth: me leaving America, he desperately wanting to get there. It felt personal.
It is a question that should not be asked, but: if you have one, what is your favorite, among Pavese’s books? Why?
I would say the tryptic of La bella estate, these three short novels combine compression and melody in a masterful form. Although through different characters and gender perspectives, social classes and sense of milieu, one can feel the rhythm of a single life unfolding in movements, like observing a slow-motion blossoming flower until death. Its sense of time, its sense of senseless virginal and rapturous joy and later muted decay still haunts me.
In your introduction to La bella estate, you focused on one aspect of Pavese as a narrator: his ability to write about women and girls, identifying with them. This was very modern, for his time, and not many other writers so far have shown this ability. As a woman, a writer, and now the editorial director of the feminist publishing house La Tartaruga, what do you think about this aspect?
It was very modern and also not taken seriously; La bella estate (the short novel) was considered to be a minor and regrettable episode in the tryptic since the main characters are two young girls in a twisted relationship in which they shape and mirror each other. Pavese did one unforgivable thing: he forgot about his many muses and he became them, he turned his impossible longing inwards, and transformed his voice in order to be these girls rather than getting at them. There’s been extensive debate on Pavese’s misogyny, although no human being outside his obsessive and intimate perception of reality was spared of his loathing and contempt at times, regardless of gender. But how can a true misogynist devote his lyrical attention to these truly marginal characters in the Italian life at the time, which is young girls, and free them from the captivity of being solely muses for the external gaze? I think Pavese succeeded because he was more similar to his female lovers, whether the real ones or imagined ones, than he ever cared to admit, mostly in his desperate and stubborn openness to be wounded. I am not equalizing the female experience to a perpetual wound, but I think Pavese took many risks in exploring the relationship between his own body and appearance and the world outside, and he often felt marginalized compared to what was socially desirable or considered proper for a man. He opened himself up even if it hurt and he wanted to retreat. I recognize this experience as I believe many women I read and publish with La Tartaruga would do. I still wonder what kind of girl Cesare Pavese would have been. Or was.
On the website of the American Academy in Rome, where you have been fellow in 2015, I read that you came to the Academy to work on a novel based on the relationship between Cesare Pavese and Fernanda Pivano, ending up writing about a stripper living in Rome. Why did you decide to write a fiction about Pavese and Pivano? And, if you want to
tell us, why did this project fail?
I’m not sure it truly failed, at this point. Maybe it just became my white whale, Pavese would have approved! The act of mentoring and choosing someone for mixed reasons – older man believes in a younger’s woman talent and also as a maddening frustrated crush for her –, a suspended state of ambiguities that won’t ever solve into a proper sentimental or sexual relationship, the idea of being side by side when an entire world collapsed into another (America into Italy), the act of assigning one translation as a selfish gift, a young girl that will make that translated book immortal, the recurring question if this simple life fact was really a gift or some sort of theft of what Fernanda Pivano could have become otherwise. What was the alternative for the girl? I like the idea of some
people being car accidents in one’s life, the thing that just hits you and forever changes you. And I especially like it when there is no sex or conventional love involved. But this is a very specific set of feelings, it goes beyond Pavese and Pivano although their mythical life and bond carries it to a nice level. This is forever in the back of my mind. It informs a lot of my writing, even if it doesn’t openly mention them.
Pavese was a translator from English of American and British authors, like you; a novelist, like you; and an editorial manager, like you. In a certain way, he tried to be an anthropologist, like you. Have you ever considered how many aspects do you share with him? Most importantly, have you ever considered him as a model for you, in one or in all these intellectual roles?
Speaking as a writer, I was never capable to defend the child and teenager I had in me in order to have something remotely comparable to Pavese’s greatness. His devotion to every single person he was and had been while growing up, his fierce attention to literature and human relationships alike, was a tremendous effort and I believe it killed him. It was almost a maniac effort to erase and suspend time, to relieve many ages of the soul in one instant, the never-ending instant of discovering something new. He wrote a lot about loss, but he never truly lost anything he had in his mind or his heart. I know it might sound cheesy, but through short forms of writing he was capable to uphold a sense of infinite longing that I’ve never truly encountered in a writer except Fitzgerald. Pavese didn’t translate him. He loved him too much, and I believe it would have ruined him. I became several things in the publishing industry, which is of course very different at this time, shedding many past versions of me. And I did try to translate Fitzgerald: it would have been pretentious not to do it. Only one great writer could abstain from that.
“Un Pavese ci vuole”: this misquotation from a very famous passage from The Moon and The Bonfires was the title of a series of video-interviews I conducted with the director of Fondazione Pavese, Pierluigi Vaccaneo. Seventy-three years after Pavese’s suicide, do we still need him? And, whether yes or no, why?
I’m quite intrigued by the fact that right now many American and British writers would mention Pavese or Ginzburg as their favorite writers. This was not the case at all even ten years ago. I feel a vengeance, since for many Italian academics Pavese was not literary enough. It takes a blind reader to miss the gracious choice of adjectives, the longing for a hidden and mysterious structure in building character and place (he was an anthropologist in the end), the perennial quest to understand what was going on in the dark valleys of a wounded country. I love a writer who is not afraid to have fear on the page. That poetic shakiness is everything, and I hope that’s why readers need him. I read Pavese, I put the book aside and I ask myself: what’s that crack in the wall? When did the earthquake happen? It’s way too easy to tear one’s heart apart with bombs.
Claudia Durastanti is a writer and a translator. She is the author of four critically acclaimed novels. She writes for several literary supplements and is on the board of the Turin Book Fair. She is the Italian translator of Elizabeth Hardwick, Joshua Cohen, Ocean Vuong. Strangers I Know, a finalist for the Premio Strega in 2019, has been translated into twenty-five languages. She lives in Rome.
An interview by Iuri Moscardi
Photo credits: Sarah Lucas Agutoli