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Book Talk: The Pike, a biography that reads like a novel

LONDON (Reuters) - Early on in her prize-winning biography of Gabrielle D'Annunzio, an Italian poet, serial seducer and proto-fascist warmonger, Lucy Hughes-Hallett declares: "I have made nothing up."
/ Source: Reuters

LONDON (Reuters) - Early on in her prize-winning biography of Gabrielle D'Annunzio, an Italian poet, serial seducer and proto-fascist warmonger, Lucy Hughes-Hallett declares: "I have made nothing up."

It's not hard to see why the author, an established and respected writer, felt the need to reassure readers. D'Annunzio's life, which spanned the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, is so fantastic, and illuminated by Hughes-Hallett with such intimate detail, that it seems hard to believe.

Who is this guy, you think. Why haven't I heard of him before?

After publishing a volume of verse in his youth, D'Annunzio anonymously informed newspaper editors that he had died in a tragic riding accident - a ploy that made him instantly famous when his second volume appeared soon afterwards and it emerged he was alive after all.

He went on to write prolifically, bed various actresses and aristocrats, fail to pay his hotel bills, and eventually help drag Italy into World War One.

One friend - and later enemy - likened him to a lurking, predatory pike.

In 1919 D'Annunzio rebelled against the government, seized a city in what is now Croatia and declared himself head of a new Utopia. It didn't work out. In old age he retreated to a grand Italian estate where he held court on the deck of half a battleship that had been dismantled, transported to the estate and reassembled on a hillside.

What makes the raw material of d'Annunzio's life so riveting is the fact that he was an assiduous note-taker, always jotting down his observations and thoughts. That detail and insight allows Hughes-Hallett to take the reader into the story almost as if it were a novel.

One critic described D'Annunzio as a "preposterous" character, others label him repellent.

But he also makes for an extraordinary tale. "The Pike", published by Fourth Estate, recently won the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize, Britain's leading award for non-fiction. Hughes-Hallett told Reuters about the writing of the book:

Q: How did you arrive at D'Annunzio as a subject?

A: D'Annunzio described himself as the greatest Italian poet since Dante, and he wasn't far wrong. He was a notorious seducer. His numerous lovers included Eleanora Duse, the greatest actress of the age, with the possible exception of Sarah Bernhardt (with whom d'Annunzio also had a fling).

Promiscuous poets are two-a-penny, though. What really interested me about him was his life's political dimension. He was a precursor of Fascism, who made himself dictator of his own little city-state in Fiume. Writing about him, I could trace the way Fascism evolved from all sorts of innocuous-seeming Romantic ideas.

In my last book, "Heroes", I wrote about the way the 19th century cult of the Great Man opened the way for 20th-century dictatorships. D'Annunzio was part of that story. I wanted to write a couple of paragraphs about him, so I started reading, and quickly realized he was far too fascinating to be dealt with so briefly - he had to be my next book.

Q: He's not well-known to modern readers. Why - until your biography - had he slipped from view?

A: In Italy he's still honored as a poet, but his association with Fascism has made him something of an embarrassment to liberal Italians. In Britain he's little known, partly because his books haven't been well translated, partly because our knowledge of history is so shamefully insular. Not a bad thing for me - it was a boon to be able to tell such an extraordinary story to people reading it for the first time.

Q: What were your richest sources and how did you access them?

A: D'Annunzio always had a notebook in his pocket, and used it. Stacks of those notebooks are preserved at the Vittoriale, the bizarre house above Lake Garda where he lived in the 1920s and '30s. Drawing on them, I was able to know what he read, what he ate, what he did in bed, everything he thought and felt - a fantastically rich body of material that allowed me to be as selective and as formally experimental as I pleased.

Q: How did your view of him change as you learned more about his life?

A: A lot of what d'Annunzio thought and wrote when he was a young poet seems harmless, or baffling. It is only when read alongside his mature political writing that it begins to make a dreadful kind of sense.

Q: What discoveries about D'Annunzio most surprised you?

A: As an aviator during World War One he went up in tiny, flimsy planes, dropping bombs and pamphlets over Austrian-occupied cities like Trieste. His most astonishing notebook is one in which he scribbled notes to his pilot about a bomb which had jammed. D'Annunzio writes 'When we land I'll cradle it in my arms'. He was in many ways a deplorable person, but he was fantastically brave.

Q: How did you plan the writing of the book?

A: I was determined not to write a book which plodded straight from birth to death. The form I arrived at plays around with chronology and uses a lot of different voices and tones. I vary the tense, and the pace. Sometimes I go in very close up - sometimes I pull back for a larger view. Making all the formal decisions is much the hardest part of writing, but also the most satisfying. There are wonderful moments when you begin to hear it in your head, every part working musically together.

Q: Judges in the Samuel Johnson Prize said The Pike "transcends the conventions of biography". How did it feel to win?

A: It feels good in all sorts of ways. What made me especially happy was that what the judges said about the book showed that they had really got what I was trying to do in it.

Q: What will your next book be about?

A: And now for something completely different - I'm writing a novel.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Hugh Lawson)