Fourth Estate, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Pike, By Lucy Hughes-Hallett

An illuminating study of the Italian poet, dandy and aesthete who inspired Fascism

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.

Get money off this book at the Independent bookshop

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 tomorrow

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London