A dexterous delineation of the celebrated Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938), who mastered poetry, drama, fiction, nonfiction, women and war but stumbled elsewhere.
A journalist, critic, cultural historian and biographer, Hughes-Hallett (Heroes: A History of Hero Worship, 2004, etc.) crafts an appealing combination of genres, blending elements of biography, fiction, and cultural, social and military history to create about as complete an image as possible of this most protean personality. The more we read of this man’s accomplishments, failures, ambitions, weaknesses and obsessions, the more remarkable it is that he can be imprisoned in print. But the author manages to simultaneously incarcerate and liberate him in her pages. She begins with a 1919 military mutiny led by D’Annunzio (she returns to these events 400 pages later for a more thorough treatment): He and his followers took over and occupied the city of Fiume (now the Croatian seaport Rijeka). It didn’t last. At times, the author’s narrative technique resembles a photo album: She continually pauses to offer snapshots of her subject’s life, career and enormous sexual appetite. Moreover, she grasps time by the throat, bends it to her purposes, often advancing thematically rather than chronologically. By the end, however, we have learned about her subject’s background, his writing career (some have called him the greatest Italian writer since Dante), his war exploits (he was a fearless pilot in World War I, earning citations for bravery), his choreography with the fascists (he met several times with Mussolini), his profligacy (in every sense) and his astonishing literary productivity.
Due to the volume’s design, some will not find it useful as a standard reference book (we must search for dates), but most readers will delight in touring the deep, tangled wood of a most astonishing life with a most engaging and learned guide.