There is no decent way of containing the excesses of Gabriele d’Annunzio’s lives. It would astonish his contemporaries to discover that he is now only faintly remembered outside Italy. Even within Italy, though firmly entrenched in the literary canon, he is most commonly recalled with a sort of collective cringe. For once upon a time, in the fervid fin de siècle – for reasons variously literary, political, military and, not least, sexual – he was one of the towering figures of European culture. Think Wilde crossed with Casanova and Savonarola; Byron meets Barnum meets Mussolini – and you would have some of the flavours, but still not quite the essence, of this extraordinary, unstoppable and in many ways quite ridiculous figure. In The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett has taken on the vast and frequently thankless task of trying to capture this strange genius, ten years after the most authoritative literary biography to appear in English thus far, Gabriele d’Annunzio: Defiant Archangel by John Woodhouse.
The story is told by Hughes-Hallett with verve, a fine storyteller’s touch and an acute eye for period paraphernalia and sensibility. Mere chronology will clearly not suffice for d’Annunzio: instead, she tries out a variety of cross-sections and settings, mosaics and micro-narratives. The book starts with a cluster of vignettes