It is characteristic of the atmosphere of legend in which Gabriele d'Annunzio has lived that even the authenticity of his name has been disputed. It was said that his real name was Gaetano Rapagnetta, and the curious will find amongst the Letters of James Huneker the boast that he was the first person to reveal to America the fact that d'Annunzio's name was "Rapagnetto"--a purely personal contribution to the legend. Yet, the plain fact, as proven by his birth certificate, is that the author of "The Child of Pleasure" was born at Pescara, on the 12th of March, 1863, the son of Francesco Paolo d'Annunzio and Luisa de Benedictis. _Il Piacere_, to give this novel its Italian name, was published when d'Annunzio was only twenty-six years of age, and except for an unimportant and imitative volume of short stories, it was his first sustained prose work. It is the book which at once made the novelist famous in his own country and very soon afterwards in England and France, where it was the first of his works to be translated. In America d'Annunzio was already known as the author of a powerful realistic novelette, "Episcopo & Co.," which was published in Chicago in 1896, two years before "The Child of Pleasure" appeared in London. As has so often happened since, America led the way in introducing into the English language a writer who is one of the foremost figures in Continental European literature.
In order to realize the sensation which Gabriele d'Annunzio created, it is necessary to glance back at the opinions of some of his early champions in foreign countries. Ouida claims, I think rightly, that her article in the _Fortnightly Review_, which was reprinted in her "Critical Studies," was the first account in English of the author and his work. In the main, although besprinkled with moral asides, it is, with one exception, as good an essay as any that has since been written on the subject. Ouida was sure that the wickedness of d'Annunzio was such that the only work of his which will become known to the English public in general will be the _Vergini delle Rocce_, because "(as far as it has gone) it is not indecent. The other works could not be reproduced in English." In proof of her contentions Ouida disclosed the fact that the French versions of the trilogy, "The Child of Pleasure," "The Victim," and "The Triumph of Death," were bowdlerized. At the same time she obligingly referred her readers to some of the choicer passages in the original, such as Chapter X of "The Child of Pleasure," where she claimed that "ingenuities of indecency" had been gratuitously introduced. For the guidance of those interested in such matters I may explain that, by a coincidence, the "ingenuity" in question is almost identical with that which was cited in the earlier part of _La Garconne_ as proof that Victor Margueritte was unworthy of the Legion of Honor.
After Ouida in England came the venerable Vicomte Melchior de Voguee in France, who is best known to readers in this country for his standard tome on the Russian novel. In the austere pages of the _Revue des Deux Mondes_ he carefully explained to his readers that d'Annunzio's lewdness must not be confused with the obscenities of Zola, whereat Ouida protested that they were alike in their complacent preoccupation with mere filth. The Frenchman is the sounder critic, it must be said, for while d'Annunzio frequently parallels some of the most unclean--in the literal, not the moral sense--scenes and incidents in Zola, his attitude about sex is as unlike Zola's as that of the late W. D. Howells. Only in "Nana" did Zola describe the life and emotions of a woman whose whole life is given up to love, and then, as we know, he chose a singularly crude and professional person, using her career as a symbol of the Second Empire. D'Annunzio has never described women with any other reason for existence but love, yet none of his heroines has poor Nana's uninspiring motives. They are amateurs with a skill undreamed of in Nana's philosophy; they believe in love for art's sake. Consequently, the French critic was right in insisting that Zola and d'Annunzio are two very different persons, although confounded in an identical obloquy by the moralists. He is, however, not quite so subtle when he tries to argue from this that, in the conventional sense, d'Annunzio is more moral.
At this point I will cite an unexpectedly intelligent witness, one of the early admirers of d'Annunzio in English, and the author of an essay on him which is assuredly the best which has appeared in that language. This is what Henry James has to say of "The Child of Pleasure" in his "Notes on Novelists": "Count Andrea Sperelli is a young man who pays, pays heavily, as we take it we are to understand, for an unbridled surrender to the life of the senses; whereby it is primarily a picture of that life that the story gives us. He is represented as inordinately, as quite monstrously, endowed for the career that from the first absorbs and that finally is to be held, we suppose to engulf him; and it is a tribute to the truth with which his endowment is presented that we should scarce know where else to look for so complete and convincing an account of such adventures. Casanova de Seingalt is of course infinitely more copious, but his autobiography is cheap loose journalism compared with the directed, finely-condensed iridescent epic of Count Andrea."
It would be difficult to find, couched in such euphemistically appreciative language, so accurate a summary of the intention and quality of this book. Casanova is pale, diffuse, and unconvincing, indeed, beside the d'Annunzio who so early gave his full measure as the supreme novelist of sensual pleasure in this book. As Arthur Symons so well says, "Gabriele d'Annunzio comes to remind us, very definitely, as only an Italian can, of the reality and the beauty of sensation, of the primary sensations; the sensations of pain and pleasure as these come to us from our actual physical conditions; the sensation of beauty as it comes to us from the sight of our eyes and the tasting of our several senses; the sensation of love, which, to the Italian, comes up from a root in Boccaccio, through the stem of Petrarch, to the very flower of Dante. And so he becomes the idealist of material things, while seeming to materialize spiritual things. He accepts, as no one else of our time does, the whole physical basis of life, the spirit which can be known only through the body."
D'Annunzio has declared that the central male character in all three novels, Andrea Sperelli in "The Child of Pleasure," Tullio Hermil in "The Intruder" and Giorgio Aurispa in "The Triumph of Death," are projections of himself. They are as autobiographical as Stelio Effrena in "The Fire of Life," which is generally accepted as an elaboration of the poet's life with Eleonora Duse. His attitude, therefore, is clearly defined in the passage where he says: "In the tumult of contradictory impulses Sperelli had lost all sense of will power and all sense of morality. In abdicating, his will had surrendered the sceptre to his instincts; the aesthetic was substituted for the moral sense. This aesthetic sense, which was very subtle, very powerful and always active, maintained a certain equilibrium in the mind of Sperelli. Intellectuals such as he, brought up in the religion of Beauty, always preserve a certain kind of order, even in their worst depravities. The conception of Beauty is the axis of their inmost being: all their passions turn upon that axis." He is, in other words, the re-incarnation of Don Juan, pursuing in woman an elusive and impossible ideal.
If d'Annunzio had not gone into the adventure of the war, with its sequel at Fiume, we might have continued to enjoy the spectacle of the adventures of this restless soul amongst feminine masterpieces. As a soldier and a statesman his prestige in the English-speaking world is low, and we are apt to forget while reading the political bombast of the years of the war and the period after the Armistice that it differs in no respect from all other patriotic claptrap, except that it is the work of the greatest living master of Italian prose. Of this fact his early novels are a needed reminder to a generation which is making its acquaintance with Italian writers of to-day through the intermediary of a converted anti-clerical, who cannot even retell the story of Christ without branding himself a vulgarian. In the prim days when young d'Annunzio first flaunted his carnal delights and sorrows before a world not yet released from Victorian stuffiness, the word "vulgar" was a polite English epithet for "fleshly," an adjective much beloved by indignant gentlemen who were permitting their wrath to triumph over their desire to be respectable. It is a word which we apply nowadays to the writings of a vulgarian like Papini, whose name is now as familiar to the general public as d'Annunzio's was when "The Child of Pleasure" was first translated. That is a measure of progress in this connection which justifies the hope that the "idealist of material things" will find again an audience which can understand and appreciate his quest.
D'Annunzio has nothing to offer the sterile theorists of the new illiterate literature, who are as incapable of appreciating his refined and subtle perversities as they are of admiring the beautiful form in which his full-blooded and exuberant imagination clothes his conceptions. He is an aesthete, but his aestheticism has never expressed itself in barren theory, but has always turned to life itself. He realized at the outset of his career that life is a physical thing, which we must compel to surrender all that it can offer us, which the artist must bend and shape to his own creative purposes. It has been said that d'Annunzio had a philosophy and Nietzsche and Tolstoy were invoked as influences, but there is as little of Tolstoy's moralizing in "The Intruder" as of Nietzsche's pessimistic idealism in "The Child of Pleasure" or "The Triumph of Death." Whatever conclusions may be drawn from the problem of the Eternal Feminine as postulated in all his novels--and that is the only problem which he confronts--it is hardly to be dignified by the name of a philosophy. One gathers that men can be exalted and destroyed by the attraction of women, but the author remains to the end--as late certainly as 1910, when the last of the novels in the first mood, _Forse che si, forse che no_, appeared--of the opinion that they are the one legitimate preoccupation of the artist in living. Elena Muti in "The Child of Pleasure," Foscarina in "The Flame of Life," Ippolita in "The Triumph of Death" are superb incarnations of the one and ever varied problem which troubles the world in which d'Annunzio lives.
An American critic, Mr. Henry Dwight Sedgwick, once demanded in tones of passionate scorn that d'Annunzio be tried before a jury of "English-speaking men," and he called the tale: "Colonel Newcome! Adam Bede! Bailie Jarvie! Tom Brown! Sam Weller!"--notes of exclamation included, from which one was to conclude that the creator of Sperelli, Hermil and Aurispa would slink away discomfited at the very sound of those names. Yet, on the other hand, can one imagine Andrea and Elena, Giorgio and Ippolita arguing with our advanced thinkers of the moment: Is Monogamy Feasible? or Can Men and Women be Friends? D'Annunzio is not to be approached either in a mood of radical earnestness or of evangelical fervor. He must be regarded as an artist of sensations, an Italian of the Renaissance set down in the middle of a drab century. He began his life by a quest for perfect physical pleasure through all the senses, and inaugurated its last phase with a gesture of military courage which was not only a retort to those who, like Croce, had called him a dilettante, but an earnest of his conviction that he was a great artist of the lineage which bred men who were simultaneously great men of action.