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« In Which We Slide Down The Surface of Things »

An Unspoiled Child


The diaries of Cesare Pavese are a treasure trove of insights into the relationships between man, art, and women. When he is a misogynist he is kinder than any before him, when he is naive he is consistently instructive in his ignorance. Most of all, he is so perceptive that his private writing, never intended for publication, ascends to the greatest heights of literature. The following abridged excerpts from his diaries in the year 1950 were translated by A.E. Murch. These were Pavese's last entries before his suicide on August 27th of 1950.

1st January

Rome is a crowd of young men waiting to have their shoes polished.

A morning walk. Bright sunshine. But where are the impressions of '45-'46? After some effort I found what inspired me then, but nothing new. Rome is silent. Neither the stones nor the trees tell me anything more. This amazing winter; under the clear, cold sky, the berries of Leuco. The usual story. Even grief and suicide were part of life, shock, tension.

At great periods you have always felt, deep within you, the temptation to commit suicide. You gave yourself to it, breached your own defenses. You were a child.

The idea of suicide was a protest against life; by dying, you would escape this longing for death.

3rd January

The directions that destiny can take are not subject to variation. We may affirm that a certain undertaking (sometimes? always?) is good, that it welds together all our days in a planned development - but it was, initially, a bud that had to take its own course and come into existence.

4th January

Now I see, I realize, what is so wrong with Rome. Easy friendliness, taking life as it comes, money earned and spent without a thought, yet everyone's standards, tastes, desires are wholly subjugated to money-making.

Even your thirties are beginning to seem to you like infancy, adolescence. Now the culture you acquired then can be used in your novels. Virility becomes a matter of intuition ("fiction-writing") when it seems a part of your adolescence.

When one has absorbed an experience and can view it with detachment, it takes like a childlike ingenuousness. Great poetry is ironic.

14th January

I am filled with distaste for what I have done, for all my works. A sense of failing health, of physical decadence. The downward curve of the arc. And your life, your loves, where are they? I retain a certain optimism: I do not accuse life, I find that the world is beautiful and worthwhile. But I am slipping. What I have done I have done. Is it possible? Desire, longing, the urge to take, to do, to get my teeth into something new. Can I still do it? (All that because of a flood of unfavorable reviews of Diavolo sulle colline.)

Thinking again of the sisters D., I know that I have lost a great opportunity of playing the fool. Rome grows more colorful as I look back.

9th February

Corollary. The theme of a work of art cannot be a truth, a concept, a document etc, but only, once again, a myth. From myth directly into poetry, without passing through theory or action.

26th February

A trip to Tuscany and Emilia. I thought of my essay on poetry and popular culture; thought, above all, of the connection between the countryside and culture, of the natural (botanical and mineral) roots of art. At Florence (Rovez-zano) in Val Pesa, Elsa - Siena - you felt why that land has given birth to art. The country expresses the grace of Florence and Siena. But when a civilization is no longer linked with the country, what will be the radical sources of its culture? Are we henceforward to be cut off from the influx of botany, minerals, the seasonal changes of the countryside upon art? It would seem so.

27th February

I saw S. Asciutto again, hard, taciturn, weary. He spoke of his pleasures, his trips into the country and up the mountains after coleoptera, in the rain; he listened absentmindedly and in silence to my talk about Tuscany, my vivacity, my poses. He never made a comment. The embarrassment I felt would at one time have been disastrous, tragic. What sustains me? The work I have done, the work I am doing.

6th March

This morning at five or six o'clock. The morning star, huge and quivering on the mountains of snow. Excitement, trepidation, insomnia. Constance was sweet and submissive, but none the less detached and firm. All day my heart has been pounding and still has not calmed down. (For three nights I have hardly slept. I talk and talk.) What is called passion, is it not simply this wild beating of the heart, this weakness of the nerves? I am much worse than I was in '34 and '38. Then I was frenzied with desire, but I was not ill.

Yet it all seems to me a passing wandepunkt. All of it. But she is a well-known figure, socially and morally. Suppose there were some misunderstanding?

And I? Am I not deluding myself as I used to do, mistaking for human values those simple accessories of distinction, glamour, adventure, the fashionable world? America itself, its sweet, ironic return to my life in terms of human values? Can it be true?

9th March

My heart throbs; I tremble, I cannot stop sighing. Is it possible at my age? What is happening is the same as when I was twenty-five. Yet I feel confident and (incredibly) serenely hopeful. She is so good, so calm, so patient. So made for me. After all, it was she who sought me out.

But why did I not dare, on Monday? Was I afraid? ... It is a terrible step to take.

16th March

It was a terrible step, yet I took it. Her incredible sweetness, her "Darlings," her smile, her long-repeated pleasure at being with me. Night at Cervinia, nights at Turin. She is a child, an unspoiled child. Yet she is herself - terrifying. From the bottom of my heart, I did not deserve so much.

20th March

My heart is still with you. A condescending phrase from a superior to an inferior. Why should I be so pleased about it? Obviously, I am receiving favors, not bestowing them. How can one possess without being possessed? Everything depends on that.

From the talk I had this evening it seems clear that I am “possessed” because I enjoy playing the interesting role of a man who “belongs” to a woman. I ought to be the master and take my pleasure calmly, as though by right. I shall be loved more. Only so shall I be truly loved. But shall I enjoy it more? Whenever I have been the possessor, I have had no pleasure at all. The old story.

Then I must be possessed without showing it. But is it possible to make love with a prudent awareness, a predetermined self-control?

pavese with constance dowling22nd March

Nothing. She has written nothing. She could be dead. I must get used to living as though this were normal.

There are so many things I have not told her. Deep down my terror at the thought of losing her now is not a longing for "possession," but the fear that I shall never more be able to tell her those things. What they may be I do not now know, but they would pour out like a torrent if I were with her. That is creation. Oh God, make me find her again.

23rd March

Love is truly a great manifesto; the urge to be, to count for something, and, if death must come, to die valiantly, with acclamation - in short, to remain a memory. Yet my desire to die, to disappear, is still bound up with her: perhaps because she is so magnificently alive that, if my being could blend with hers, my life would have more meaning than before.

25th March

One does not kill oneself for the love of a woman, but because love - any love - reveals us in our nakedness, our misery, our vulnerability, our nothingness.

26th March

Before leaving for Milan. Nothing. Still nothing. How can I bear it? Now, in the street, by myself, I speak excellent English.

cesare w/ constance27th March

Nothing. I have a live coal in my breast, embers glowing under the ashes. Oh Constance! Why? Why?

28th March

Good. She has written. I have talked to her long distance. She does not want me at once. Oh well, that is fine. Work.

26th April

Beyond doubt, there is in her not only herself, but all my past life, the unconscious preparation - American, my ascetic restraint, my intolerance of trifling things, my work. She is poetry, in the most literal sense. Is it possible that she has not felt it?

Curious, this procession of women - I., L., R., L., and all unawares, V. and D. They all know or guess that a sacred mystery is taking place within me, and are filled with wonder.

The opinion of all those who know is that she has been very impressed by me, that she thinks more of me than I imagine. Can they all be wrong? They are women.

27th April

And now. Everything is happening at once. Truly, to him that hath shall be given. But he that hath, does not take. The old story.

8th May

The cadence of suffering has begun. Every evening, as dusk settles, my heart constricts until night has come.

10th May

The idea is dawning on me, little by little, that, even if she does come back, it will be as though she were not here. “I’ll never forget you,” is what is said to someone one means to leave. Anyway, how did I act myself towards women who weighed me down, bored me, women I did not want? Exactly like that. The act - the act - must not be a revenge. It must be a calm, weary renunciation, a closing of accounts, a private, rhythmic deed. The last remark.

27th May

My happiness of '48-'49 is paid for in full. Behind that Olympian contentment lay my impotence and my refusal to become involved. Now, in my own way, I have gone down into the abyss: I contemplate my impotence, I feel it in my bones, and I am caught in a political responsibility that is crushing me. There is only one answer: suicide.

Dilemma. Should I act in perfect amity, doing it all for her own good, or diabolically explode? A pointless question - already settled by my whole past, by fate: I shall be a diabolical friend, gaining nothing by it - but perhaps I shall have the courage. The courage. Everything will depend on having it at the right moment - when it will do her no harm - but she must know it, she must know it. Can I deny myself that?

Certainly, I know more about her than she does about me.

20th July

I cannot finish with style. How she still attracts me.

18th August

The thing most feared in secret always happens.

I write: oh Thou, have mercy. And then?

All it takes is a little courage.

The more the pain grows clear and definite, the more the instinct for life asserts itself and the thought of suicide recedes.

It seemed easy when I thought of it. Weak women have done it. It takes humility, not pride.

All this is sickening.

Not words. An act. I won't write any more.

Cesare Pavese took his own life in 1950. You can find past diary entries here.

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