Cesare Pavese

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Saturday, 29 October 1983

The thing that makes Cesare Pavese so difficult to read is his simplicity. For Pavese, nothing is complicated. It is all simple. And agonising in its simplicity.

Take the short story The Idol.¹ Pavese does not even bother to mention that he meets Mina again in a brothel. One concludes very quickly that the opening action is set in a brothel, but Pavese has no interest in actually telling the reader this. What he does tell the reader about is the important thing, “the quiet stillness of that day” – and he is absolutely right in his observation of the way the stillness of that mood and the violence of the emotions which spring from it can be inextricably bound up in one another, so that the stillness symbolises the storm, as well as prefiguring it. For nothing changes, that is the point: neither Mina nor the narrator change at all. They just make each other suffer for a certain period of time. (Here again, this is Pavese at his most realistic – none of that rubbish about development of character, etc. Any developments that happen in Pavese happen too late – the last line.)

Pavese identifies the main point and just sticks on it all the way through the story – pressing the wound from start to finish. There is no let-up. There is no relief – for the reader or for the narrator. Pavese has no time for irrelevancies and diversions, for comic interludes and flights of fantasy and long pontificating-sessions. His world is essentially tragic: your fate is in front of you, the door has closed behind you, and all you can do is talk. But you can only talk about one thing, your fate, so that is no let-up at all.

Nothing is described that is not relevant to the story. And things are described only as they become relevant – the coarse towel, the Persian blinds, the smell of soap and rubber are all slotted into place as they become important to – as they become, one might very nearly say – the action. A good example of this economy – of this refusal to entertain – is on pages 96–97 of The Leather Jacket.

“… If you don’t want to, we won’t get married, but give up this life, have pity on me, you’re the only woman worth the trouble. Even in the old days, at Voghera, you wouldn’t listen to me when I begged you. Tell me how I should plead with you now. This life you are leading…”

“I like the life I’m leading,” Mina said calmly.

My face fell. I could have hurled a stone at her. Dazedly I looked around me, struggling to control myself and my keen agony. Then a wild fury rose in my heart, and keeping my voice low I flung at her every insult I could think of.
“You see? And you wanted to marry me,” Mina remarked.

The insults the narrator throws at Mina are completely insignificant (their impotence is stressed by the way they are reduced to a single sentence of reported speech). All that matters is how the narrator pleads and how Mina responds.


¹ Published in Cesare Pavese, The Leather Jacket, Quartet Books Ltd (February 25, 1980).

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