I took 2 books with me on vacation this year, and both have stuck with me, for very different reasons.
The first is a short story collection, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. “Ooh, short stories!” I thought when I bought it. “And apparently Munro mostly writes about day-to-day things. This will be good for dipping in and out of.” Tell you what, I had to dip out after every story just to catch my breath. I’m not even sure what the right word for this book is — haunting suggests the wrong atmosphere because the stories aren’t otherworldly at all; beautiful clarity is what the blurb says, but that doesn’t express the darkness that’s never far below the surface of ordinary human interactions; I think I said devastating in a facebook post but that’s not quite right either. I’ve hung onto the book so I can re-read later, but already it has burrowed into my brain and I suspect it’ll pop into my thoughts when I least expect it.
The other book was Gabriele D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. I don’t even remember how I came upon this. A review somewhere maybe? It’s a biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio, who was an Italian poet and political figure in the early 20th century. Possibly I had never heard of him before because people would rather forget him? — he is most infamous for leading an invasion of the city which is now Rijeka in Croatia, without the official support of the Italian government at the time.
From the start, I was hooked. In some ways, the subtitle of the book should really be “Can you believe this jerk???” because this guy really was a nasty piece of work, so reading was a bit like watching a train wreck. He starts off as a poet who’s obsessed with fame, once he’s famous he uses that fame to do whatever he likes, including plenty of womanizing that leaves his lovers at best emotional wrecks, and then moves in to politics. The kicker is that he was vehemently pro going to war in 1914, mostly because it suited his aethetic ideals about countries being founded on the blood of young men. Hughes-Hallett doesn’t use the word “sociopath”, but I will.
But wrapped around all of this is not just a history of Italy at the time but also of intellectual fashions and popular world views. Because D’Annunzio didn’t live in isolation, and if his (horrible) views and actions didn’t resonate with others, he wouldn’t have gotten very far. For instance, something that comes up a lot is the late-19th-early-20th century idea of “beauty” being everything and if you’re making beautiful things then traditional morality is beneath you. And it’s true that making beautiful things is a good thing to do, but over the course of the book you see the idea being caught up in some really ugly selfish behaviour, because it is a selfish way of thinking. In the end, I was just as much challenged by the question of what unexamined ideas do I have about the world that are ripe for being exploited for bad ends?
(My only complaint about the book is that it could have been about 25% shorter — but that could just be because I had to carry it around in my backpack!)