Cesare Pavese (pah-VAY-say) explored the central existential concerns of twentieth century humanity, making him one of Europe’s foremost post-World War II literary figures. Pavese was born to Eugenio, a law clerk, and his wife, Consolina, at the family summer home in Santo Stefano Belbo, a small village in the Piedmont hills. The family had their permanent home in Turin, a northern industrial city that, along with the hills and peasantry of the Piedmont, provided inspiration for Pavese’s literary work.
After his father’s death in 1914 Pavese’s austere and stern mother reared him. She sent him to the best private schools and, in 1927, to the University of Turin. In the 1930’s he was imprisoned for anti-Fascist activities, and after World War II he joined the Communist Party. Yet this political involvement did not reflect his real interests, which were almost entirely literary.
Both politics and love widened the gap between what he thought he should be–a loving, politically committed family man–and what he actually was, an introspective, solitary creative artist. Bitterly disappointed in a love affair in the mid-1930’s, Pavese lost confidence in his ability to establish normal relationships with women. Only his work sustained him. At the age of seventeen he wrote a friend: “As for me, my will to work gets feebler every day, but if I lose it altogether, I shall kill myself.”
Despite continuing despair over his personal life, he was disciplined and productive in his literary efforts. In the 1930’s he translated several American literary works, began keeping a journal, wrote poetry, explored the meaning and literary uses of mythology, and joined the Einaudi publishing house. He wrote his first three novels while translating seven works for Einaudi from 1938 to 1941 and carrying on other literary and editorial work.
World War II consumed the attention and lives of his friends and countrymen, yet Pavese hardly mentions the war in his journal and did not join the wartime resistance to the Fascists. When several of his friends were killed, Pavese retreated deeper into his world of introspective solitude.
After the war Pavese continued his editorial and creative activity, working at an extraordinary pace. His novels expressed mature understanding of the human condition. In The House on the Hill he explored the meaning of the war and resistance for those who had fought and those who, like himself, had concentrated their effort on survival. His alienated and indecisive central character, Corrado, who cannot commit himself to anything, finally finds self-acceptance by honoring those who died for the commitments he cannot make.
If Corrado comes to understand and respect humanity caught up in war, in Among Women Only Pavese explored the corruption in Western society that allowed the war to happen. Clelia, a successful couturiere, returns to her hometown of Turin to open a branch of a Rome fashion house. There she finds that although her former working-class friends have nothing to offer her, the high-society people she now serves lead unauthentic and boring lives. Clelia does not find happiness, but her work at least affords her some degree of peace and serenity. Love, friendship, church, and politics do not allow an escape from her solitude–but work, even service to the hollow elite, allows her to live.
Unfortunately, not even his work provided Pavese with an escape from his inner torment. By 1950 he was honored and respected in Italy, and he won the Strega Prize for literature. In late 1949, however, he wrote: “You no longer have an inner life. Rather, your inner life is objective and is the work . . . that you do. That is dreadful. . . . You are drying up.” By 1950 he believed that he had reached the “downward curve of the arc. . . . I am slipping.”
Pavese killed himself on August 27, 1950. His suicide did not result from momentary despair or from the desire to make a grand existential gesture. His calm calculation was that choosing to die at that time was following his destiny to its end, an end he had foreseen as a teenager when in 1927 he wrote “Pavese is dead.” The world benefited from the fact that his literary work had allowed him to hold off the void for twenty-three productive years beyond that moment of adolescent despair.