Dialogues with Pavese: Alberto Bertoni

A unique and still very actual work: for Dialogues with Pavese we interviewed professor Alberto Bertoni, who has recently edited a new edition of Lavorare stanca.

Alberto Bertoni has been, since 2016, Full Professor in the Department of Classical Philology and Italian Studies at Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna, where he teaches Contemporary Italian Literature (Bachelor’s degree level), 20th Century Prose and Narrative Genres and 20th Century Italian Poetry (Master’s degree level). His field of expertise are prosody and contemporary poetry and narrative. He is the author of several studies, articles, and books. Among them: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Taccuini 1915-1921 (from the autographs now at Yale, 1987); the chapter L’Emilia e la Romagna in Einaudi Italian Literature, directed by Alberto Asor Rosa (1989); Dai simbolisti al Novecento. Le origini del verso libero italiano (1995, awarded with Russo and Croce prizes); Una distratta venerazione. La poesia metrica di Giudici (2001); the anthology Trent’anni di Novecento. Libri italiani di poesia e dintorni (1971-2000) (2005); the editing of Alberto Bevilacqua’s Poesie (2007) and Romanzi (2010); the editing of Alberto Montale’s Quaderno di quattro anni (2015); Poesia italiana dal Novecento a oggi (2019); and Una questione finale. Poesia e pensiero da Auschwitz (2020). Also, he co-authored Francesco Guccini’s autobiography Non so che viso avesse (2010). In 2021, he edited a new edition of Cesare Pavese’s first poetry collection (1936 and 1943) Lavorare stanca (Interno Poesia), which he published with a note to the text by Elena Grazioli.

Ph. @Dino Ignani

For Lavorare stanca Pavese himself chose this blurb: «One of the most isolated voices of contemporary poetry». Where did this awareness come from and what did this feeling of complete isolation mean to him, during the 1930s?

It meant being completely extraneous to the fixed patterns of a political regime and an academic culture that were more and more aligned. On one side, the recognized and preserved models of “modern” poetry embodied a mechanical adoption – rooted in school teaching – of Symbolist poetics as experienced by Pascoli (reduced to a rural and childish dimension that was quite limited)
and D’Annunzio (celebrated for his magniloquent style, very different from the darkest vibrations of an increasingly analytical writing, which we would today define as “deconstructed”). All of this with, on the background, a fake Greek-Roman classicism. On the other side, the experiments of the youngest writers focused on the Hermeticism on the wake of Giuseppe Ungaretti’s Sentimento del tempo (1933) and the earliest Quasimodo’s poems. The youngest followers of the Hermetical poetic were motivated by an unusual mixture of Christian participation (in particular the Florentine group, led by Luzi and Bigongiari) and Surrealism, the latter purified from its most extreme positions and adapted to the Italian culture of the time. Pavese was completely extraneous to both of these perspectives. In his first book, he focused on two very different approaches: the more and more explicit anthropological tension between the urban and the rural dimensions (and between the youth and the elderly, men and women), which – rooted in a fairy and local dimension – was not approved by the Fascist regime; and the English-American world (especially, the American one), which he derived from Whitman and Melville in the 19th century, and from the epic of Western movies and the magical realism of Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner in the 20th century.

In your introduction, you wrote that only recently critics have recognized Lavorare stanca as unique in Pavese’s bibliography and in the development of European and Italian poetry during the 20th century. Why was the book underrated? Which studies and researchers did contribute to this change?

Being against a generalized, politically approved culture meant that Lavorare stanca was removed by the canon. The book was censored since its first edition in 1936; its publication coincided with its author’s internal exile to Calabria, due to specious motivations; its second edition was published in the exact moment when the civil war, set forth by the 8th September armistice, broke out and its author fled the public scene to isolate himself in the Monferrato region. Despite Pavese’s increasing celebrity, culminated with his suicide in 1950, Lavorare stanca was basically removed from the most accepted and celebrated mainstream of Italian poetic tradition as it evolved after the Second World War. It is enough to mention the complete lack of understanding of the book’s deep originality and diversity manifested by Contini and Mengaldo, two of the most relevant Italian representatives of contemporary poetry: they diminished its relevance and defined it as a kind of neorealist report. It took a long-time commitment by much more empathetic readers towards Pavese as a poet – like Calvino and Mila, Guglielminetti and Coletti, Scarpa and Masoero – to finally acknowledge Lavorare stanca an innovative role, reestablishing not only its philological and specialistic dimensions, but also its human aspect, which makes the book still very actual, even today after almost seventy years since its last edition.

You defined the book as a kind of realistic experimentalism, explaining the influence of Whitman and America on Pavese when he wrote these poems. Is this the best way to also explain the coexistence of realistic and mythological elements?

Yes, absolutely. With his degree in Anglo-American literature, Pavese has been innovative since his first literary approaches if compared to the cultural context within which he would have worked shortly afterwards. He was very innovative not only in his earliest poems (around 1930, when he was 22), but especially as one of the first translators of Moby Dick. Although it might look like an oxymoron, the connection between American literature and myth is very active on the hermeneutics level. Following this direction, it was a young researcher from our Department, Riccardo Gasperina Geroni, who effectively focused on the mythical background in Lavorare stanca. A background confirmed by the necessary relationship between Pavese and Ernesto De Martino, ethnologist and anthropologist. Indeed, from a similar perspective, the book can be easily connected – both ideally and chronologically – to the extraordinary and very original Dialoghi con Leucò, published in 1947. 

Since the ones made by Pavese in the second edition (1943), this book has undergone many changes. Why did you choose to maintain the last will of the author, as witnessed by the 1943 edition?

I claimed this choice. In 1943, Pavese was already an eminent figure within Einaudi’s publishing house: in the following years, he became its editorial manager. For this reason, he could change, complete, or amend the book anytime. The 1943 edition thus corresponds to the last will of its author and – according to my philological education – such will must be respected and kept as a reference for any present or future new edition of the book. I would like to add, on a more personal note – which being personal can be contradicted – that I consider this final version as the poetic masterpiece of Pavese, although his later collection Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi is regarded in better terms.

In his diary, Pavese meditated on the form of this book: he wanted to write a canzoniere, a unitary book, not a collection of individual texts. What is your opinion about this?

The most plausible answer to this question is that Pavese – if we consider the macro form of his poetry book – is not the author of a canzoniere, and he would have never been. His canzoniere corresponds to the system of his novels and short stories. Saba who, on the contrary, composed a real canzoniere, planned its structure and form in 1921, and then again in 1945. In other words, Saba conceived his poetic work as a canzoniere since the beginning. Maybe, we can affirm the same for other poets, such as Sandro Penna and Amelia Rosselli; for sure, this is not the case for Ungaretti, Montale, or Sereni, to quote only three examples of supreme quality poets. Opera omnia, the collected works of an author, are totally different from canzoniere. Here is the point: the 20th century is not an historical period that produced the Book of poetry; on the contrary, all the structural energies of the its authors were devoted to the balanced, fictional, and always compact form of the collection of poetry. From the perspective of internal cohesion and compactness, Lavorare stanca satisfied Pavese’s requirements, but I would not use the term canzoniere because it refers to something different. We can read collected works of authors such as Giudici, Zanzotto, De Angelis, Magrelli, but we cannot say that these are canzonieri. In these collections, almost every book has its own identity, a similar poetic language, and always a specific value. Apart from his hopes and thoughts about a canzoniere, Pavese is the author of just that one book of absolute quality and value, when compared to its historical and stylistic context: Lavorare stanca, a deeply innovative book for its experimental use of the long verse, derived from Whitman and replacing the Italian hendecasyllable; its use of a varied lexicon, open to words from English; and its employment of the cinematographic technique for the representation of its images.

“Un Pavese ci vuole”: this misquotation from a very famous passage from La luna e i falò was the title of a series of  web-interviews  I conducted with the director of Fondazione Pavese, Pierluigi Vaccaneo. Seventy-one years after Pavese’s suicide, do we still need him? And, whether yes or no, why?

We still need him, absolutely. I would say that, while in the 1970s Pavese’s function was strongly and effectively embodied by songwriters (first of all, in Italy, by Fabrizio De André) or authors/directors/actors, today we are returning to the original, also among the youngest generations. This happens because of Pavese’s deep intellectual honesty, his experimental taste, his attention for the American culture (at his time, soon-to-be dominant on the entire Western world), his inventive and organizing skills, and finally the tragical fate he chose for his own life. Since that day in 1950 when he took his life, his existence has become indissoluble from his literary work and the remembrance of future generations.

An interview by Iuri Moscardi