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

Thu Dec 19, 2013 11:40am EST
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By Richard Woods

LONDON (Reuters) - Early on in her prize-winning biography of Gabriele 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.   Continued...