The Pike – Lucy Hughes-Hallett
I wasn’t sure about this book before I picked it up. It had received good reviews, winning the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction last year but my scant recollection of the subject, Gabrielle d’Annunzio, suggested to me that he was too unappealing a character to spend a month of my spare time reading about – the book weighs in at just over 600 pages. Hughes-Hallett does a great job in telling what is a fascinating story and, mercifully, does nothing to convince the reader that d’Annunzio was anything other than the repulsive character that we know him as.
D’Annunzio was a complex character and you can see traits of the priapic Casanova, the foppish but erudite Oscar Wilde and the fascist Benito Mussolini in him. Born in 1863 he rose to fame in Italy as a poet. Although his literary success gave him access to wealth he always spent more money on his lavish lifestyle than he earned and was constantly harassed by and on the move from creditors. Indeed, he was forced to flee to Paris in 1910, joining the burgeoning literary demi-monde there. He sought thrills – romantic, narcotic and speed, an early advocate of the motor car and the airplane. Whilst seemingly irresistible to the ladies, he was described as a jerk by Hemingway.
He returned to Italy in 1915 to rally the troops and was an early advocate of the use of aircraft as a weapon and carried out many sorties over the Austrian border, raining incendiaries or more often leaflets on the bemused enemy. He lost the sight of one eye in an air crash but this did not diminish his bellicose spirit.
The Italian Austrian theatre in the First World War is little remembered by us Brits but was as bloody and wasteful of lives as the Western killing fields. D’Annunzio was a warmonger demanding that every inch of newly acquired Italian territory in the Dolomites should be drenched in Italian blood. For him it truly was dulce et decorum pro
Despite overcoming the Austrians, the Italians were stitched up at the peace talks in Versailles – how many of the 20th and 21st century troubles can be laid firmly at the door of the peace negotiators? – creating what d’Annunzio called the stench of peace. He took matters into his own hands by marching into Fiume in September 1919 in what is now in Croatia with the intention of creating a utopia based on his proto-fascist and artistic ideals, setting himself up as dictator. He remained a thorn in the side of the Italian government for 15 months until they eventually sent in gun boats and blasted him out.
But the tide was turning in Italy and Mussolini’s thugs were in the ascendancy, borrowing many of the trappings and ideas of the failed Fiume experiment. Whilst never formally siding with Mussolini, d’Annunzio’s retirement in effective house-arrest was funded by the fascists and much of the time until his death in 1938 was spent in a cocaine-induced priapic stupor.
A thoroughly unpleasant man but skilfully and wonderfully portrayed by Hughes-Hallet.
Oh, and why the Pike? Because of his habit of rising to the surface and gobbling up everyone’s ideas.