There can be few subjects more enticing or more repulsive to the biographer than Gabriele d'Annunzio. Imagine a monster assembled from the worst bits of Oscar Wilde, Giacomo Casanova, Beau Brummel and Benito Mussolini and you may get close to a mental picture Italy's most prominent writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In narrowly literary terms, d'Annunzio's life is the tale of a sumptuous talent frittered away in pretentiousness and narcissism. He was both a decadent and a modernist who combined sparkling verbal virtuosity with a gift for appealing to the mass market. Some of his verse is lodged firmly in the nation's memory. Yet the bulk of his oeuvre is unreadable bombast. Literature, for d'Annunzio, was ultimately a repertoire of poses. So what really distinguishes him - and what holds Lucy Hughes-Hallett's engrossing biography together - is not his writing career. Rather, it is the near-pathological urge to make a work of art out of his own existence. For d'Annunzio, style was life.
A connoisseur of everything from music to motor cars, sculpture to women's clothes, he cosseted his greyhounds and abandoned his children. A man of goatish depravity, he treated his numberless lovers with indifference, and then plundered his sexual adventures for racy subject matter. One reviewer of his novel Pleasure said it "smelled of sperm".
But d'Annunzio was no harmless sensualist. Of all the things in which he found beauty, violence afforded the most enduring delights. For him, war was the last word in poetry. He regarded most of the population as cattle whose true purpose was to be slaughtered on the altar of national greatness. Italy's tragedy was that he articulated his bloodthirsty élitism with such brio that it acquired a popular following. He became the most vivid example of Benjamin's dictum that Fascism is the aestheticisation of politics.
The Great War was d'Annunzio's apotheosis. He undertook death-defying propaganda stunts by biplane and speedboat, and saw the industrialised carnage of the front as the fulfilment of his own imaginings. The Italian High Command loved him. Peace left him depressed. But in September 1919, as the map of Europe was redrawn and Italy slipped towards anarchy, he found a new purpose by leading an unauthorised march on the disputed port of Fiume (Rijeka).
The city was to be his utopia. For well over a year, Fiume became a parade-ground for nationalist hotheads, and a theatre, boudoir and drug den for the poet and his adorers.
To anyone who knows the existing biographies, The Pike will not bring any surprises. But Hughes-Hallett writes vastly better than anyone who has covered the subject before. She warns us where the story is headed: d'Annunzio generated many of the poisonous streams of ideology that would flow into the Fascist swamp. It was from him that Mussolini's blackshirts stole many of their slogans and much of their liturgy. Duly prepared, we are then allowed to relish d'Annunzio's hyper-acute powers of observation, his undoubted charm, and to hear the most salacious gossip – all the while maintaining a safe ethical distance from his appalling beliefs. In Hughes-Hallett's capable hands, this odious figure is transformed into a surreptitious treat.
John Dickie is Professor of Italian Studies at UCL; Lucy Hughes-Hallett appears at the 'Independent' Bath Literature Festival tomorrowReuse content