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
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'