Cesare Pavese, Lavorare Stanca

I’ve just read Pavese’s Lavorare Stanca (1936) in the Carcanet parallel text volume Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930 – 1950, translated by Geoffrey Brock.

Reading this first collection straight through left me with slightly mixed feelings, both enthralled and in one way dissatisfied. Some of the strengths of Pavese’s writing and vision are obvious and formidable even on casual acquaintance. His compassion for the labouring poor and the dispossessed, for prostitutes and bullied wives, for the lonely, the violent and the broken by age makes his portrayal of individual characters deeply moving. The cumulative effect is far-reaching. The characters Pavese describes become more and more metaphorically, even mythically resonant. After a while you feel you’re encountering not merely a series of individual lives but a vision of life itself reduced to its most elemental appetites and conditions.

In art, vision and understanding are nothing without expression. I felt that in some ways Pavese had found the perfect style and metre  for what he wanted to express.

Its fundamental qualities can be seen clearly in both Italian and English in these quotations from the beginning of the first poem in the collection, “I mari del Sud” (“South Seas”):

Camminiamo una sera sul fianco di un colle
in silenzio. Nell’ ombra del tardo crepuscolo
mio cugino è un gigante vestito di bianco
che si muove pacato, abbronzato nel volto,
taciturno. Tacere è la nostra virtú.

We’re walking one evening on the flank of a hill
in silence. In the shadows of dusk
my cousin’s a giant dressed all in white,
moving serenely, face bronzed by the sun,
not speaking. We have a talent for silence.

Clarity, simplicity, a steady pace that abstains from comment and drama, that seems to leave things to speak for themselves by their massive, elemental presence and that seems to find nothing in the scene more important than anything else are qualities that I think you can see in both the Italian and the English . But of course there is comment and selection of a subtle and unobtrusive kind going on all the time, not only in what Pavese has chosen to include but in how he has ordered it. For example, the way they are placed as short phrases at the beginning of lines puts a quiet but irresistible emphasis on the words “in silenzio” / “in silence” and “taciturno” / “not speaking”, foregrounding ideas of non-communication and essential loneliness that will be central to the collection. “Tacere è la nostra virtú” / “We have a talent for silence” gains emphasis by contrast with the more leisurely descriptive sentence that has preceded it, and the paragraph as a whole ends three lines later in the word “silenzio” / “silence”.

This approach works brilliantly for Pavese in poem after poem. However, I did eventually feel that it grew cramping by coming to seem monotonous towards the end of the collection. I’ve said that the power of Pavese’s vision impresses itself in a cumulative way, so I was left with a paradoxical sense that the very qualities of style that made this vision so compelling were also eventually diminishing its impact.

Of course I am very aware that this response may simply reflect the shallowness of my acquaintance with Pavese so far, and I don’t want to overstate it. The metre of Lavorare Stanca might well seem more varied to someone more familiar with it than I am, or to someone more sensitive to the patterns of stress and intononation in Italian. I found the collection deeply moving and engaging and will come back to it soon. I’ve written this as a first step to trying to absorb Pavese’s approach more fully, for the sake of what it can offer me as a writer as well as a reader. But I’ll read his late poems with their different metres first.


For some reason footnotes don’t seem to transfer from Word in the new version of WordPress. These detailed comments should have been footnotes to my third and fourth paragraphs:

The metre of Lavorare Stanca as discussed by Brock in his discussion generally involves a “fairly strict” accentual-syllabic line of four anapaests.

Admittedly the qualities I’ve talked about in my two quotations appear better in the Italian than the English because in English a high ratio of unstressed syllables to stressed ones tends to produce a tripping effect. Also, however skilful the translator, the different laws of different languages make it impossible to carry effects over precisely. I think Brock is right to keep ideas in an order as close to Pavese’s as he can, but in English the order of the adverbial phrases seems slightly odd, and therefore slightly arty. It would sound more natural to put the adverbial of place before that of time and say “We’re walking on the flank of a hill one evening”. And of course Italian doesn’t force the choice between “we walk” and “we’re walking”, and it makes more frequent use of the historical present than English does. These are reasons for reading translations of poems in parallel text wherever possible.

In the Italian there’s a glimmer of chiastic ordering in the sequence “silenzio”, “taciturno”, “tacere”, “silenzio” which is lost in the English, but Brock’s triple repetition of “silence” has its own effectiveness.

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