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Winner of the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize, Lucy Hughes-Hallett‘s biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio is a book with a big mission: to write inventively about...

Winner of the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize, Lucy Hughes-Hallett‘s biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio is a book with a big mission: to write inventively about the life of someone with whom most everyone outside of Italy is entirely unfamiliar whilst also promoting the literary legacy of a man celebrated within his own country and little translated (much less read) everywhere else. In the end, Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War (Knopf, 2013) succeeds on both fronts, which is precisely why it remains one of the most lauded biographies of the last year.

It’s not a straightforward day-by-day narrative. Rather, the story zooms in and out, taking flight and exuberantly soaring through whole weeks, months, years only to, at other moments, slow down to sensuously revel in the details of a weekend on the beach or an afternoon spent in bed. There’s something about this technique that beautifully mimics the ways in which we often reflect upon our own lives, with whole boring years blotted from memory whilst every single detail of a particularly haunting evening is eternally seared upon the brain. This is, I imagine, in large part why the book is such joy to read- because (at the risk of making sound simple something which very much isn’t) we’re reading the life of a flamboyant character written in much the same way we tend to think upon our own.

d’Annunzio thought words, written well, could inflame nations and excite history and change the world. For him, writes Hughes-Hallett, “writing was a martial art.” Artistically, he was a poet, novelist, playwright and lover (the classification isn’t accidental- for d’Annunzio experienced love affairs as real relationships and literary creations), but also a soldier, flier, and politician. Those are the raw ingredients of his story. Superficially fascinating, to be sure, but it’s Hughes-Hallet’s mixing of them that so animates the biography of this short, bald man with narrow sloping shoulders and terrible teeth. And it’s the tensions that emerge through the telling that ensure that, even if you’ve never read a word of d’Annunzio’s poetry, his story sticks with you, which is a sign of an both a good book and an interesting life.