BOOK REVIEW, IL PIACERE (PLEASURE), A NOVEL BY GABRIELE D'ANNUZIO
IL PIACERE, A NOVEL BY GABRIELLE D'ANNUZIO, 4/5
|Il Piacere is a novel written by a poet. That's perhaps the best way to describe this beautifully bittersweet novel. Its protagonist is a young poet, an Italian nobleman Andrea Sperelli. The novel feels autobiographical in many ways. How much of Gabriele D'Annuzio is there in Andrea Sperelli? It's hard to tell but I suspect a lot. Poetry is a big part of this novel. Not only is Annuzio's prose very poetic and powerful, but the fact the protagonist is a poet is significant in itself. Moreover, throughout the novel there are many literary references, from Goethe, to Keats, Byron and Shelley.|
Il piacere is the first novel by by Gabriele d'Annunzio (also the first work of his I read), written in 1889. What other novel was written around that time? The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. There must have been something in the air that year, for the protagonist of Pleasure (also translated as Child of Pleasure in English) reminds me of Dorian Gray in so many ways. Supposedly both novels were inspired by the same French source. I really need to get my hands on that French texts one of these days.
Like Dorian, Andrea is a beautiful young dandy who seduces women left and right. This is not where the similarities end. Both men are in active pursuit of pleasures awarded by life, both despise mass production of any sort and are in search of exotic pleasures. Both are orphaned aristocrats who seem to have it all: the looks, the aura of a tragic past and the material goods to enable their life of privilege. Like Dorian, Andrea is attracted to anything that is not ordinary-be it good or bad. At times, it means being attracted to someone spiritually elevated. As late Romanticism developed into Early Aesthetics, in both characters (Dorian and Andrea) we can see echoes of a Byronic heroes. They posses in their soul both the angelic and the diabolic.
There is no Lord Henry in this novel, though. Andrea doesn't fall under the philosophical influence of an older man. There are no homosexual or bisexual allusions, either. Andrea seems to be interested solely in the opposite gender. Instead of Lord Henry there is, a femme fatale, Elena Muti. She is a fascinating character. One could argue that Elena is the diabolic influence on the protagonist, but Andrea himself is no angel. Andrea lives for pleasure and art. Like Dorian, Andrea is an egocentric who puts his pleasure before anything else. While Andrea experiences moments of regret and guilt, he seems to embrace his immorality most of the time. Andrea is aware of the power he has over others (particularly women) but he seems to think he is entitled to use his powers the way he sees fit. Nevertheless, there are moments when this Byronic hero feels disgusted with himself. If Andrea despises conventions and morality of the time, he still has his principles. In other words, he is not a black and white character, but a complex one. That is what makes this novel so captivating, I think.
At the start of the novel, young Andrea suffers because Elena has left him to marry an English lord. He then goes on to indulge in a series of affairs. At times, Andrea suffers from remorse, wondering at what paint he causes to the husbands of these women (his love interests are mostly married), recalling his own intense pain at separation with Elena. Nevertheless, Andrea keeps on seducing women until husband one of them challenges him to a duel. Andrea is a more experienced duelist who has already won duels, so he stands a better change, but unexpectedly this time he ends up on the wrong side of the sword. Karma, perhaps. I think it is also possible that at some unconscious level Andrea wanted to loose the duel because he was getting fed up with his Don Giovanni lifestyle. At any rate, Andrea is injured so gravely he needs to recover for a long time and stays with his beautiful and educated cousin for a prolonged period of time. What follows is a part of novel that is quite philosophical. Andrea starts to re-examine his life and founds genuine peace of some sort. It is limpid that his grave injuries were a blessing in disguise. Andrea starts to compose verses again.
While staying with his cousin, Andrea meets her friend Donna Maria, an angelic and spiritual noblewoman who attracts him with her sophisticated nature and immaculate taste in art. He professes his love for Maria and this time Andrea seems sincere. However, it's hard to know for sure with him, isn't it? The best seducer always believe his own lies. Perhaps lie is simply a truth we have betrayed or failed to keep true. It is worth noting that what attracts Andrea to Maria is mostly the purity of her soul. It is her soul he wants to posses, not so much her body (as it was case with his other love affairs). Their relationship is showed as a complex one from the start.
Andrea, like Dorian, remains something of a mystery. Not as much as Dorian, but still in some ways, it is hard to read him. The corruption of Dorian is mostly hinted in the books (and in a brilliant way but that's another subject- if you want to read my review of that novel you can do so here). On the other hand, in Pleasure Andrea's most intimate thoughts are often described. The author doesn't cringe from describing his urges, even when they are of violent or erotic nature. That all being said, I felt that Andrea keeps his mystery. As a reader, it is hard to see what he will do next.
Maria, however, is a well developed and rounded character. She is definitely my favourite character in this novel and possibly the most moral one. The writer introduces us to Maria through her diary and so as readers we become privy to her most intimate thoughts. This was a clever move on the writer's part because Maria is not the kind of woman to reveal her feelings. Andrea is fascinated by Maria and wants to posses her soul. But what of his fascination with Elena? This is where the book gets really interesting because as fate would have it, Andrea's path will cross with that of fatal Elena Muti.
On overall, I can say that I quite enjoyed this novel. I can see how it might not be for everyone, though. Andrea is not exactly a moral protagonist. He is a decadent young man who thinks mostly of himself. When he experiences true love, Andrea doesn't exactly shine. Andrea is not the kind of man to take on life, either. Neither a friend nor a lover you can rely on. However, Andrea is also a poet and an artist. His pains seem sincere enough and even if it can be said that he has brought up his sorrows onto himself, there is a Byronic attraction to him. You almost feel like Andrea cannot help being who he is or doing what he does- up to a point, at least.
I did read this book in original, but I needed the help of dictionary to read in Italian. Either the book is filled with archaic expression or my Italian isn't well developed. Possibly both. The language is beautiful, though. It is the kind of book that you want to copy multiple quotes and passages from. The descriptions of Rome in different seasons are absolutely magical. The passions between lovers are described quite poetically as well.
“And in the kisses, what deep sweetness! There are women's mouths that seem to ignite with love the breath that opens them. Whether they are reddened by blood richer than purple, or frozen by the pallor of agony, whether they are illuminated by the goodness of consent or darkened by the shadow of disdain, they always carry within them an enigma that disturbs men of intellect, and attracts them and captivates them. "