Timeless Themes

Article excerpt

DIALOGUES WITH LEUCO By Cesare Pavese, Boston: Eridanos Press, Translated by William Arrowsmith, and D.S. Carne-Ross, 201 pp., $19.95

CESARE PAVESE (1908-50) has been called the greatest mid-century Italian writer, and "Dialogues with Leuco" is widely considered his masterpiece. Pavese himself called it "the least unfortunate thing that I have ever put on paper," and certainly it is unique among his works.

A native of Italy's Piedmont region, Pavese spent most of his life in its capital city, Turin. As a student, he wrote a thesis on Walt Whitman, and later went on to do many translations of English and American literature. In the 1930s, he took over the editing of the journal La cultura from his friend Leone Ginzburg, who would die in prison, survived by his wife, the writer Natalia Ginzburg. Pavese himself was sentenced to internal exile in a remote Calabrian village when the Fascist government suppressed the journal in 1935. There he completed his remarkable volume of poems, "Lavorare stanca" (translated into English by William Arrowsmith as "Hard Labor"), and was able to return to Turin after serving seven months of a three-year sentence.

Like other of Italy's leading anti-Fascists, he became a Communist, although apparently not a particularly devout one. He wrote nine novels with contemporary settings, including "The House on the Hill," "The Beautiful Summer," "The Moon and the Bonfires," and "Among Women Only," most of which appeared in the harsh decade of the 1940s. In 1950, following a brief love affair with an actress, he killed himself in a Turin hotel room, leaving his suicide note on the first page of the manuscript of "Dialogues with Leuco."

The book comprises 27 prose dialogues that set forth with stunning power and concision the timeless themes embedded in Greek mythology. Here we can find a conversation between the great hero Achilles and his friend Patroclus on the eve of the latter's death on the battlefield; an exchange between the wandering Odysseus and the goddess Calypso, serene on her changeless desert island; a talk between the bound Titan, Prometheus, and his rescuer, Heracles; an encounter between Endymion, smitten with love for the moon, and a mysterious stranger who speaks "like a god. …