14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 7 January 2014
The subject of this biography Gabriele D'Annunzio is a truly strange character that almost none of us has ever heard of, but who had a profound influence on Italy before and after the first world war.
I think Francis Wheen nails it with his comment on the back that "This is a magnificent portrait of a preposterous character..."
D'Annunzio was so strange, riddled with odd character traits, he really was a person you just couldn't make up. I won't go on and on, if you read it you'll find out what I mean.
I have to mention that Lucy Hughes-Hallett writes with amazing fluidity and elegance. She seems very psychologically acute and it's really hard to see how anyone else could have done this better.
A couple of things I didn't like about the book:
it doesn't start from the beginning, the timeline chops and changes at the beginning so you get to hear about really extraordinary exploits when you have no measure of the man, and then it goes into linear time again and you have the young D'Annuzio who is brilliant at school and always seeking mentors and women etc...
It's just too long. At 644 pages, I was getting fed up to the back teeth of the perverse pathological nature and antics of the eccentric subject and I thought that it would have been an even better read at about 350 pages. I suppose she was really comprehensive and did not want to leave any telling details out.
An extremely interesting, really well written book about an unforgettable character, you will learn a great deal if you read it and you may not agree that it's too long, so all in all 4 stars instead of 5.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 8 December 2013
I teach an AS-level History paper in totalitarian states, which includes Mussolini's Italy. So I'd heard of D'Annunzio and his seizure of Fiume. Amazingly, as a child I'd even visited Fiume (now Rijeka) in what was then Yugoslavia on a school cruise, which time it was a faded, shabby, and plaster-peeled shadow of its former self. But I knew very little about D'Annunzio's astonishing life and career. This book has the great virtues of being about a modern phenomenon and being written in an extremely readable way. I couldn't put it down. D'Annunzio was completely reckless in every way with himself and everyone else he came across. A shameless lothario, adventurer, an aviator who pioneered aerial bombing, a fantasist and visionary, he was horrifically misguided with his indulgent love of violence and nationalism that made him a proto-fascist. No wonder Mussolini admired him. The author paints her picture brilliantly through a narrative that is essentially a flashback from where she starts the book. Frankly, at well under a tenner the book is a bargain - if you have the slightest interest in history this will grip you with the opportunity to read about someone who created his own mythical image. Best historical biography I have read for years.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 27 January 2014
This is the best biography I have read in recent years. The timeline is unusual but gets to the essence of the character far more quickly than the alternative of working out the nursery years in detail and then losing energy just when the character becomes truly interesting. D'Annunzio himself remains beyond my understanding and despite his many obsessions, it is really only in his final years in virtual exile at Gardone freed of financial worries by the state to build his Vittoriale that there is any predictability in his life. The book gives a fine and unusual view of the developing Italian nation, the need to unite disparate peoples by the shedding of blood in wars that could have been avoided, the shameful waste of compatriots' lives in the doomed assaults on entrenched Austrian troops in the alps, the influence of the distant Versailles Treaty negotiations on the early development of Italian fascism, and the role of form and rhetoric in shaping political function. D'Annunzio was never far from this action, although while the prototypical fascist leader he never endorsed the particular strain practised by Mussolini. The book is highly readable, in fact even exciting towards the end. A very few parts (mainly vernacular sexual terms and references to current technologies) might have been written or omitted to please me better, but those are minor quibbles.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 28 December 2013
Above all, I enjoyed every minute spent reading this book.
I can see why it has won an award: it is obviously the product of a lot of research (and the author cites her sources quite carefully - how refreshing in a popular biography); she writes in engaging prose; she does not hide her personal view of her subject (an appalling man but an irresistibly interesting one); and she gives us everything we need to form our own view of him - though admittedly it's likely to coincide with her own.
I wondered for a while whether the author's narrative device really worked, giving us snapshots of D'Annunzio at several points in his life before she returns to the beginning and starts the comprehensive chronological narrative. On reflection, I think the introductory chapters give us a bare-bones portrait of the man and his character, giving the reader a perspective which fills out as the conventionally ordered narrative progresses.
What the book isn't is an evaluation of D'Annunzio's literary output. While his own self-publicity and self-aggrandisement account for part of his popular following in Italy, nevertheless he would never have become a national hero without his literature - poems, stories, novels and plays - making him, at least in popular perception, a Renaissance man transplanted into the late 19th/early 20th century.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
This is a biography of Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863 to 1938), whom Romain Rolland had likened to a pike, a predator of other people's ideas which he then powerfully reshaped, and the author constantly reminds us of those of D'Annunzio's contemporaries all over Europe who had views similar to his own. Contemporary ideas - literary, artistic, political - were grist to his mill, and D'Annunzio was extraordinarily many-sided: a famous poet and playwright, his texts rich, sometimes overheated, with imaginative similes and suffused with an eroticism often mingling pleasure and pain and occasionally sprinkled with revolting imagery, especially scatological about his enemies; a journalist; a charismatic public speaker; a connoisseur of music, painting and European literature; a compulsive and minute recorder of all his experiences, especially sensory ones, which will then feature in his novels (as will the love-letters he wrote to his various amours); an aesthete and a dandy. He spent extravagantly beyond his means, cramming his homes with precious objets d'art, textiles, masses of flowers, staying at the most expensive hotels, and leaving bill after bill unsettled. He kept a string of thoroughbred horses and many dogs, mostly greyhounds. On four occasion bailiffs stripped him of the bulk of his precious possessions.
He was a promiscuous womanizer, and women fell for him although he was small and in later years quite ugly, with a waxen complexion and bad teeth. From his schooldays onwards, he was a ruthless self-publicist, ready to invent parts of his biography. A lover of the past, he also anticipated Futurism in his enthusiasm for modern machines - cars, aeroplanes, torpedoes, machine guns - just as he blended an effete Decadence with macho Fascism. He was physically brave, even reckless as a driver and a rider, and did not fear death on the battle fronts.
He was tender and seductive in personal contacts, but ferocious in his intoxicated and intoxicating speeches advocating war, bloodshed and self-sacrifice. With vituperative frenzy he would call for violence to be used against "treacherous" parliamentarians who opposed Italy's entry into the First World War or his adventure in Fiume. He shaped an existing Romantic mind-set into a political programme which was the precursor of Mussolini's (whom, however, he despised). He was, for example, responsible for the image of the fasces which would give the name to fascism, fostered the black uniforms of the Arditi which were the precursors of the Blackshirts, introduced the fascist salute, and gave Fiume a corporate constitution which would become a feature of Mussolini's state. In 1893 he read Nietzsche and found in that philosopher the crystallization of what he had long come to believe: that people like himself were Supermen, Beyond Good and Evil.
All this Hughes-Hallett foreshadows in her brilliant Part I called "Ecce Homo", (75 pages) in which she presents an unchronological kaleidoscope of a kaleidoscopic life. She then settles down to a more chronological account for the remaining 563 pages, but these are equally arrestingly written.
She describes the nature of his poems, novels and plays; his participation as reporter, orator, fighter by sea and in the air in the bitter campaign against Austria in the First World War, and his rage at the miserly rewards Italy received at the end of the war.
In September 1919 he responded to the appeal of the Italian majority in Fiume to help them join Italy. There followed the grotesque period of his rule there - a mixture of anarchy and dictatorship, violent, bacchic, a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah - that would defy description, except that Hughes-Hallett manages it in 86 superb pages. The Italian government did not want a war with Yugoslavia, and after 15 months drove him and his legionaries out of Fiume.
For the remaining 17 years of his life he shut himself away in a house above Lake Garda, writing, womanizing, receiving pilgrims. From there he watched Mussolini seize power in 1922 and secure the annexation of Fiume in 1924. Mussolini adopted wholesale all the techniques that had made D'Annunzio so effective, but the latter never publicly endorsed fascism. Mussolini, however, paid court to him, funded his always extravagant expenditure, and would play the chief mourner on D'Annunzio's death.
In her introduction Hughes-Hallett says that she has been "sparing" in using condemnatory language about D'Annunzio. She doesn't need such language: the story she tells leaves this reader in no doubt what an appalling man D'Annunzio was. The wonder is that this self-indulgent self-dramatist should have been so idolized, rather than being ridiculed, by so many.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 4 August 2014
I am only half way through, while d'Annunzio is a fascinating character, the chapters aren't in chronological order, which may be fashionable but I find it slightly irritating. Also the excess of elaborate detail, I feel it could have been written much more succinctly. I have had to have a break for a while and read something else. And despite, or perhaps because of the authors best efforts to damn d'Annunzio, so far I find myself warming to the guy...