Pavese in

by Marco Montagnin

Edited by Andrea Armellin

Cesare Pavese was arrested on May 15th with anti-fascism. The sentence for such an action was confinement. On 4th 1935 Pavese arrived at Brancaleone Calabro. Initially his sentence included three years ousted from his beloved city Turin, but thanks to his request for clemency he only stayed there until March 1936. At the beginning of 1935 he was already working on a draft, for Solaria [1], his first poetry collection: Hard Labour

While in enforced confinement, in Calabria, Cesare Pavese continued to work on his poetry and during this time his edition was finally published. It was his first unique collection and quite different from his works thereafter. Hard Labour probably contained the hopes of a young writer who, in pursing his own identity, tried to emerge thanks to his own unique style. Later in his life he partially abandoned poetry, with sporadic returns, changing his way of composing poetry. From a is own personal narrative verse Pavese moved on to a more rhythmic one. The latter, not inferior to the former, remained as Calvino wrote “an isolated voice in Italian poetry” . His revolution had failed and his following works, in prose and verse, failed too. This led him to write All this disgusts me. / Wordless. A gesture. I’ll Never Write Again [2].

He had failed from his own point of view: despite his latest novel, which won the Strega Prize [3], nothing was enough to revive a life that he constantly saw falling apart, since his period of confinement. On 27th August 1950 Pavese committed suicide.

During his confinement, Pavese continued to work on his poetry. In fact, he was able to secure a publisher despite the doubts of the latter (Solaria edition edited by Alberto Carocci, 1936).

The publisher was concerned with Pavese’s style, a far cry from Ungaretti whose style was the prevailing flavour of that period.

Hard Labour can be considered as a collection of oppositions: the opposition of Whitman’s work and vagrant life, the opposition of Augusto Monti (Pavese’s professor and friend) between the Orthodox Piedmont and Sansossì Piedmont. «The title “Hard Labour” will be Pavese’s version in opposion to Augusto Monti’s (and Whitman’s), a version without gaiety, but rather misery for those who do not integrate: a boy in an adult world, without vocation in the world of employment, without a woman in the world of love or family. Without weapons in the gory political struggle or civil duties» [4].

This is how Italo Calvino introduces Pavese’s work.

Among the poems written by Pavese, between 1935 and 1936, you can notice a change – the sea. The first poem that opens the work entitled “South Seas”, written in November 1930 and dedicated to Monti, along with other poems, was sent to Solaria for a potential publication that never took place. In this poem the sea is mythologized as a heroic place, an immense and an undefined entity that takes away, that gives back; that enriches – it is archaic. Pavese describes how his cousin, took to the sea and was forgotten, considered dead, he spread the news “if he is not dead, he’ll eventually die” [5].

Cesare Pavese was a passionate translator, a true Americanist. This overseas predisposition is reflected in the ocean’s nuances, as if it were America itself: wild, untamed and immense. An ocean that could bring profit or could break into adventure like the novel Moby Dick that he translated. It is this same work that appears in his poem South Seas:

Just one dream lingers in his blood: he encountered once, as a stoker on a Dutch vessel, the Cetacean, and watched as heavy harpoons flew across the sun, he saw whales fleeing in foams of blood and chasing them and raising their tails and fighting the spears. He mentions it sometimes [6].

The sea during his confinement, became that of Ogygia, Pavese fell into the thoughts of his ancestors. It was still that primitive sea where naked men and women bathed, a source of sustenance, yet he was a prisoner and so he wrote “I’ll smoke in the depth of the night, ignoring the sea” [7]. That is how he ended Burnt Lands [8] a “remembrance” poem that the author recollects with regret, left to smoke alone, he ignores everything, even the sea.

The sea is found again in Paternity, published in 1935, considered pointless. This poem represents the poet’s sufferance, compelled into a small village. Besides the clamour of people, the only two sounds he can hear are the crashing sounds of waves that are pointless, since they cannot grant the poet anything; and the rhythmic sound of a train, the only way back to Turin – which is forbidden. “From the dark window a hoarse gasp enters, and no one can hear it if not the man that knows everything about the tedious sea” [9].

Pointlessness is the central theme also present in his next poem Lo Steddazzu [10]; “There’s nothing more bitter than the dawn of a day when nothing will happen. Nothing more bitter than pointlessness” [11]. During his time in Calabria, Pavese found himself facing an empty and monotonous life, to a point where the author himself wondered “Is it worth the sun rising from the sea and another long day commencing? Tomorrow’s dawn will rise with a diaphanous light and it will be just like yesterday and nothing will ever change” [12]. this in January 1936 and is the last poem that the author wrote in confinement.

Paternity and Lo Steddazzu are the last two poems that bring Hard Labour’s poetical spiral to an end. It closes with reference to the eponymous poem Hard Labour where the author wonders if “Is it worth being alone, knowing I’ll always be alone?” but the author seems to know the answer: no life is not worth living alone, without a woman it becomes pointless “It is only by strolling the squares and the streets that we can notice that both are empty. On must stop a woman to talk to her and decide to live together” [14], the poet remained true to this idea and put an end to his pointless life 14 years later. A life marked by amorously failed love stories and writings that failed to achieve the success he had envisaged.

[1] an Italian literary magazine, published in Florence, between 1926 – 1936 and was known for its significant influence on young Italian writers.

[2] Tutto questo fa schifo. / Non parole. Un gesto. Non scriverò più.”, C. Pavese, in Il mestiere di vivere Diario 1935-1950, Einaudi, Torino 2016, p.400. Translated by La Livella’s translator.

[3] The Strega Prize (Premio Strega): the most prestigious Italian literary award and awarded annually since 1947 for the best work of prose fiction by an Italian author.

[4] Italo Calvino in Introduzione, Poesie edite e inedite, Einaudi, Torino 1962. Translated by La Livella’s translator.

[5] “se non era morto, morirebbe” C. Pavese, in Le Poesie, Einaudi, Torino 2014. Translated by La Livella’s translator.

[6] Translation by Matilda Colarossi, open for consultation at

[7] “Fumerò a notte buia, ignorando anche il mare.” C. Pavese, in Terre Bruciate, Lavorare stanca, Einaudi, 1936. Translated by La Livella’s translator.

[8] Translation of Terre Bruciate. Translated by La Livella’s translator.

[9] “Dalla nera finestra /entra un ansito rauco, e nessuno l’ascolta /se non l’uomo che sa tutto il tedio del mare”. Translated by La Livella’s translator.

[10] The Morning Star over Calabria. Translated by La Livella’s translator.

[11] “Non c’è cosa più amara che l’alba di un giorno /in cui nulla accadrà. Non c’è cosa più amara /che l’inutilità”. English Translation by André Naffis-Sahely.

[12] “Val la pena che il sole si levi dal mare / e la lunga giornata cominci? Domani /tornerà l’alba tiepida con la diafana luce /e sarà come ieri e mai nulla accadrà.” Translated by La Livella’s translator.

[13] Val la pena esser solo, per essere sempre più solo? Translated by La Livella’s translator.

[14] Solamente girarle, le piazze e le strade/ sono vuote. Bisogna fermare una donna/ e parlarle e deciderla a vivere insieme. Translated by La Livella’s translator.