Timeless Themes

DIALOGUES WITH LEUC'O By Cesare Pavese, Boston: Eridanos Press, Translated by William Arrowsmith, and D.S. Carne-Ross, 201 pp., $19.95 CESARE PAVESE (1908-50) has been called the greatest mid-century Italian writer, and ``Dialogues with Leuc'o'' is widely considered his masterpiece. Pavese himself called it ``the least unfortunate thing that I have ever put on paper,'' and certainly it is unique among his works.

A native of Italy's Piedmont region, Pavese spent most of his life in its capital city, Turin. As a student, he wrote a thesis on Walt Whitman, and later went on to do many translations of English and American literature. In the 1930s, he took over the editing of the journal La cultura from his friend Leone Ginzburg, who would die in prison, survived by his wife, the writer Natalia Ginzburg. Pavese himself was sentenced to internal exile in a remote Calabrian village when the Fascist government suppressed the journal in 1935. There he completed his remarkable volume of poems, ``Lavorare stanca'' (translated into English by William Arrowsmith as ``Hard Labor''), and was able to return to Turin after serving seven months of a three-year sentence.

Like other of Italy's leading anti-Fascists, he became a Communist, although apparently not a particularly devout one. He wrote nine novels with contemporary settings, including ``The House on the Hill,'' ``The Beautiful Summer,'' ``The Moon and the Bonfires,'' and ``Among Women Only,'' most of which appeared in the harsh decade of the 1940s. In 1950, following a brief love affair with an actress, he killed himself in a Turin hotel room, leaving his suicide note on the first page of the manuscript of ``Dialogues with Leuc'o.''

The book comprises 27 prose dialogues that set forth with stunning power and concision the timeless themes embedded in Greek mythology. Here we can find a conversation between the great hero Achilles and his friend Patroclus on the eve of the latter's death on the battlefield; an exchange between the wandering Odysseus and the goddess Calypso, serene on her changeless desert island; a talk between the bound Titan, Prometheus, and his rescuer, Heracles; an encounter between Endymion, smitten with love for the moon, and a mysterious stranger who speaks ``like a god.'' Employing deceptively plain, colloquial language in dialogues that run, on average, no longer than six pages, Pavese achieves a modern version of Hellenic simplicity: a simplicity that crystallizes within its smooth, bright contours a great deal of complexity.

A number of themes, woven together, form the matrix of Pavese's stark, melancholy vision. One is the difference between those like children, gods, and animals, who have no knowledge or fear of death, and men and women, who are haunted by the knowledge of their mortality. Another is the contrast between the old mythological era of the Titans, when men, gods, and beasts mingled and mated to produce monsters, and the ``new'' dispensation of the Olympians, who imposed law, limit, and meaning on the world, building their new order on killing those (often kindly) monsters. Several dialogues ponder the human propensity towards bloodshed; others raise questions about the nature of fate and destiny.

These questions are seldom answered. What Pavese accomplishes instead is to revive a sense of the mystery of those mythic meetings between gods and mortals, which still lives in any encounter between human beings and the unknown.

The clear-eyed pessimism that emerges in these marmoreal, oddly sunny, dialogues may well be related to the experience of Fascism that shaped the lives of Pavese and his contemporaries, like the Ginzburgs and Primo Levi. Pavese recognizes the restlessness that drives mortals to go looking for trouble, but in his view, this restlessness is born of the need to find meaning in a limited life-span.

This well-regarded English translation of ``Dialogues with Leuc'o,'' first published in 1965 by the University of Michigan Press, is being issued by Eridanos Press as the 17th in its Eridanos Library of important works by foreign authors. It will make a valuable addition to anyone's library.

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