For about eight years now, I’ve been working on a novel about D’Annunzio, the Italian poet, novelist, playwright, memoirist, journalist, playboy, war hero and (arguably) proto-fascist. More than once I’ve thought the novel was finished, only to re-examine it a few months later and decide that it needed more work. I’ve queried agents about it—quite a few, sixty or seventy—and was surprised that none wanted to represent it. But recently, I took to heart what the most thoughtful agent had said about it (even though he admitted he had not read the entire novel) and began yet another revision—or perhaps more accurately, a rewrite, since it’s virtually a new novel now. In this essay I intend to describe how the novel has developed, where it has gone wrong, and what, if anything, I can hope to do about it. Writing literary fiction well is one of the most difficult things a human being can attempt, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. So perhaps my reflections might help someone who’s facing similar hurdles.
First of all, I admit I started the novel in an incoherent way. I was fascinated by the subject, by the idea that a man might consciously seek to become a super-man (influenced by Nietzsche, but with his own peculiar interpretation of what that meant). Beyond that, I had no clear premise or story. Because I usually work imagistically, I tried that: I started writing scenes, in no particular order, and hoped that some kind of shape or pattern would emerge. It didn’t, so I had a go at arranging them chronologically. That made a certain kind of sense. And all this time, I was doing more research, not only reading the biographies, but most of D’Annunzio’s work available in English as well. I made trips to Italy and Croatia, where he lived most of his life, as well. I took hundreds of pages of notes and wrote more scenes. Some of them, I thought, were pretty good. I let audiences hear them at public readings, and one of these sections I even submitted to a magazine—the estimable Numéro Cinq—and got it published. Still, I had this nagging worry: was it just a fictionalised biography?
About four years ago, I was discussing the novel a writer friend, who told me (without having read what I’d written) that it sounded too male-centric, and suggested I had at least one important female character in the book. Of course, he had lots of lovers, all women, but none of them lasted for long, and most were little more than objects of desire. Not promising. So I hit on the idea of having his most famous lover, Eleonora Duse, who was a great artist (an actress) in her own right, visit him, when they were both old, at his mansion on Lake Garda. She would spend several days with him, and over the course of those days, he would tell her his life-story. Perhaps that was the fatal mistake: because of course, she would know most of it already, wouldn’t she? So how could I with some degree of plausibility pull this off? Well, he was a narcissist, so it wasn’t unlikely that he would have enjoyed talking about himself for several days. But I needed another reason too—never forget about dramatic tension, the teacher in me urged—and so I came up with him wanting her approval, a kind of vindication from the only lover he’d had whom he’d greatly respected as an artist. All right, but why would she want to listen to what at one point she calls his ‘absurd paeans of self-praise’? For a start, because she’s broke, largely because she squandered most of her wealth on him when they together, and she needs his help. (This is historically accurate.) And secondly, because she would like to know if she was the love of his life, as he was hers. So the marathon conversation becomes a kind of struggle of wills. She knows what he wants; he guesses what she wants. Will it a be a quid pro quo? Or will one triumph over the other? Lest it seem obvious that he will try to crush her, narcissist that he is, he’s a little more complex than Donald Trump, whom he resembles in some ways. He has a self-destructive streak, too. In one of his novels, The Triumph of the Will, the hero ends up committing a murder-suicide, not quite the kind of outcome Nietzsche envisaged for his super-men and heroes. So he might drag her down with him.
In theory, this all seems to work. However, massive technical problems arise when you try to forge the actual novel. If you really have him talking most of the time, which is the solution I hit on, in dramatic monologues, readers are forced to spend a very long time inside the mind of this rather repulsive man. Besides, the more he describes his past, the more the drama of the personal conflict in the present is diminished. On the other hand, that personal conflict can’t work unless readers know quite a lot about D’Annunzio—which, it’s fair to guess, most won’t, outside Italy. My insightful agent suggested putting the story into the third person. I did, for a portion of it, but failed—I think, looking back, because the changes I made were almost purely linguistic. I didn’t see that I needed to change the entire structure of the story.
So recently, I had another go. This time, I decided, instead of the first-person dramatic monologues, I would summarise what D’Annunzio had said in the third person, telling more than showing, as a South American writer might (Gabriel García Márquez, for instance). What’s more, I would have Eleonora interrupt him a lot more, impatient as she is with his infantile boasts about his conquests, and so she would carry the story forward. Other women who live in or near the mansion—two of his lovers, who lived with him when he was over sixty, as well as his wife, who also lived on the grounds (and in fact he had many other lovers as well, flagrantly) would take turns telling Eleonora about their experiences with him. So Eleonora and the reader would get a multi-faceted view of the man, like a Cubist portrait. It sounds perfectly feasible to me even now, as I write this down.
And perhaps it is. It might just be that I’m exhausted, or suffering from temporary blindness, or loss of nerve. It could be—I like to face facts and my deepest fears—that I simply don’t have the talent to write the damned thing. In any case, I have spent the past week in a funk. Not only do I worry that the ‘told’ sections, which are flashbacks to the past, come across as artificial, but I wonder too what the point of it is. The ‘drama’ I’ve concocted is nothing more than a vehicle, clearly. I can only claim I haven’t wasted the reader’s time if I’ve made him or her think more deeply, feel more deeply, see the world in a new and richer way. Right? Isn’t that why we write novels?
So just what am I trying to do? I am still trying to decide if D’Annunzio succeeded in his life’s ambition, which was to be a super-man. On the face of it, he did: he was phenomenally successful in almost every endeavour of his life. On the other hand, in a way, his life was a terrible failure. Like that other narcissist we are all thinking about now, his life was emotionally stunted. He loved no one, and although women fell in love with him, I’m not sure any of them loved him deeply. But beyond that, what was the point of his being a super-man? Was it simply an exercise in vanity? What was the effect of his life on the world? Quite apart from his effect on Italian letters—he has canonical status in his country, partly deserved, although his work is uneven—it’s arguable that Mussolini could not have come to power without D’Annunzio preparing the way, through his speeches and actions, which demonstrated complete contempt for the rule of law and democracy. Interestingly too, for a man who saw himself as an aesthete, and whose only interests were aesthetic and hedonistic in his youth, politics dominated his later life, and fulfilled him. A man of contradictions, then—and indeed the very first sentence of this essay, in which I list his many attributes and roles, indicates how demanding a subject he is likely to be.
Do I have a solution? No. (I am sorry if you have read this far hoping for a feel-good homily, some wise writerly advice I have to impart.) The truth is, I’m still figuring out for myself what I should do. Maybe I just plug away with it, like a good craftsman. It’s possible that the Muse will strike, and give me a miraculous vision of the solution.
Or should I just give up? That’s such an un-American thing even to ask, isn’t it? But there must be times when writers have to recognise that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.