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
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
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.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada