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Gabriele D'Annunzio: He thought a blood sacrifice was needed for Italy to be reborn

In most Italian towns of any size, there will be a Via Nino Bixio, a Via Cadorna and a Via D'Annunzio. The commemoration of irrational bloodmongers seems to have had a vogue among Italian town planners, but of all the post-Garibaldi statesmen who led Italy into war and Fascism half a century after its establishment as a nation, the reputation of Gabriele D'Annunzio remains the most vexatious. 

Like his French counterpart Louis-Ferdinand Céline, D'Annunzio's status as a literary icon is, in the words of his latest biographer, "confusing to those simpleminded enough to believe that artistic talent and refined sensibility are incompatible with political extremism and an appetite for violence". Lucy Hughes-Hallett's luminously intelligent Life begins with the premise that "disapproval is not an interesting response" to a man who, while never himself a Fascist, was — well before the emergence of Mussolini — the real inventor of Fascism. Her account of the career of one of Italy's greatest writers is also an expansive investigation into the roots of Fascism in post-Romantic European thought and an acute analysis of Italy's ignominious and ongoing love-hate relationship with democracy.

Hughes-Hallett uses a "legato/staccato" technique, whereby conventional linear narrative is interposed with shorter vignettes of the poet's life — a form of montage that finds effective parallels in D'Annunzio's own writing. As a method of sustaining interest over more than 600 pages, it works brilliantly. Rather than having to wade through piles of what Holden Caulfield called "David Copperfield kind of crap", we feel we know D'Annunzio from the start. As Hughes-Hallett demonstrates, D'Annunzio was a writer of extraordinary formal virtuosity and visionary prescience. His first novel, Pleasure, reads like a film script, though it was published in 1889, five years before the movie camera was invented. Indeed, the sheer excessiveness of his life seems to require a cinematic approach.

Born in 1863, D'Annunzio's life was almost perfectly contemporaneous with that of the state founded two years earlier and whose figurehead he became. No one could have fulfilled the nationalist need for "imaginative state building" more impressively than he, nor perhaps was anyone more intellectually suited to his self-creation as the voice of Italy. The breadth and suppleness of his mind remains astounding. While his rejection of democracy was as much a matter of aesthetics as of politics, in his detestation of the "grey flood" of egalitarianism which was engulfing his country, D'Annunzio perfectly understood the need to appeal to the masses. 

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