Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.09

Alberto Comparini, La poetica dei 'Dialoghi con Leucò' di Cesare Pavese.   Milano; Udine:  Mimesis, 2017.  Pp. 200.  ISBN 9788857533377.  €20.00.  

Reviewed by Francesca Irene Sensini, Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis, membre de l’UCA (

Alberto Comparini’s essay La poetica dei Dialoghi con Leucò concerns what the critic considers the foundation as well as the true aspirations of Pavese’s work, namely, the author’s philosophical and aesthetics-oriented digging into the consciousness of being. The twenty-seven dialogues that make up Pavese’s essay, first published by Einaudi in 1947, are presented by Comparini as a series of didactic dialogues focused on human destiny that aim at comparing and contrasting the human and the divine, and as a series of reflections on the archetypal themes upon which Western society is based. By approaching the main core of Pavese’s essay in such a fashion, Comparini rediscovers and brings back to the reader’s attention an allegorically complex, apparently extravagant work (a ‘heretical book’, in Pavese’s own words) if judged according to post-war expectations and standards, and therefore often neglected by critics.

Comparini’s essay is divided into six sections followed by an index of names and an exhaustive bibliography, both aimed at solving the issues of text-reconstruction. Comparini carefully analyzes the genesis, composition, and editing of Pavese's work. He does so through a deep analysis of the dialogic genre, of Pavese's research, and of the symbolic, allegorical categories that he employs, so as eventually to achieve an analysis of Pavese's re-writing of myths within the framework of modernism.

In the essay’s first section, “Architettura e geostoria dei Dialoghi con Leucò”, Comparini illustrates and analyzes the steps leading to the editing of Pavese’s text and examines its para-textual framework. In so doing, Comparini reveals how relevant such editorial and contextual actions are in understanding how the work was written, as well as the author’s goals in writing it. Comparini focuses on the origin of the title and its literary and biographical implications. He identifies the nymph Leucò and Pavese’s beloved Bianca Garufi as an intermediary pair: the former, between the divine and the human, and the latter, between Pavese and his ability to be a poet. In the last paragraph of the section, Comparini uses a series of fundamental archival sources to study the work’s macro-textual architecture, on which Pavese toiled untiringly between 1946 and 1947 in order to provide his work with both structural consistency and expository clarity.

In the section “Wirkungsgeschichte. Il caso dei Dialoghi”, the notion of ‘effectual history’, advanced by Hans George Gadamer in his Wahrheit und Methode (1960), is invoked; it allows for the analysis of Pavese’s work in its socio-historical context and also for further readings that are at once contextualized and yet metahistorical. Such interpretations concern two separate phases: 1947-1954 and 1952-2014. Each period has a chapter devoted to it.

Firstly, Comparini highlights the contrast between rationalistic aspirations of a culture then emerging from the ruins of World War II and Pavese’s effort to re-build the history of humankind through the paradigm of classical myth. One might expect that the historicists and Marxists who prevailed in Italian scholarship in this period would have viewed the Dialoghi as an extra-historical, ethically impoverished work. Nonetheless, Comparini quotes Italo Calvino’s witty analysis of the work in Bollettino di informazioni culturali di Einaudi (1947) as a sort of prophetic interpretation, in order to forestall simplistic readings that would overemphasize the historical nature of the Dialoghi as a backwards-directed quest for the foundational archetypes of human experience. Instead, Calvino’s appraisal underlines the work’s ethical and anthropological dimensions and the models of the dialogic genre that are present in it. The influence of Leopardi’s Operette morali is evident, but the much older generic pattern of the dialogues of Lucian of Samosata is also highlighted. Calvino’s interpretation runs parallel to that of Mario Untersteiner. In fact, Pavese’s work seems to be well-grounded in classicism and its values, and both Calvino and Comparini view it as an ethically-oriented work: as a search for the fundamental values upholding humankind’s liberation as carried out by going back to the dawn of a mythical past.

The volume's second part focuses on actual re-readings of the Dialoghi. Until the 1970s, the critics followed two main scholarly approaches : one was devoted to the ethnological/mythical frame of the work; the other was focused on its classical/European background. From the 1970s onwards, and until the 1990s, a certain comparative approach was prevalent. This led to the interpretation of Pavese’s work as an attempt to create a connection, both ethical and aesthetic, between modernity and antiquity. In the 1990s, the more purely literary dimensions of the Dialoghi received their due, and more capacious approaches to the text were now envisaged.

Comparini identifies two further lines of research: first, in studying Pavese’s peculiar notion of modernity and modernism, and, secondly, in re-defining the author’s notion of classicism. Comparini especially emphasizes the paramount importance of Bart Van den Bossche’s studies, which perfectly combine both orientations, and those of Eleonora Cavallini, Anco Marzio Muterle, Antonella Falco, and Antonio Catàlfamo on language and Greek literature, viewing them as a moment essential to the work’s creation. Monica Lanzillotta’s study of modern classicism in the Dialoghi is also recalled as being of utmost importance. This resulted in the conference held in Ravenna on March 19-20, 2013: “La Musa nascosta: mito ed epica greca nell’opera di Cesare Pavese”, organized by Eleonora Cavallini, the proceedings of which were published by Ed. Dupress, Bologna, in 2014.

The section “Letture, fonti e auctores dei dialoghetti pavesiani” deals with Pavese’s background as an academic and as a self-taught student in the field of classical literatures, especially Greek literature, starting when he attended Liceo D’Azeglio in Turin. Here, he was strongly influenced by Augusto Monti, through to the university years and the period of confino (internal exile) in Brancaleone Calabro.

The section devoted to “Dialogismo, simbolo e allegria nei Dialoghi” deals with the definition of such concepts as “dialogismo polifonico”, as well as allegory, in order to provide a new key to understanding Pavese’s own rendition of myth. Comparini suggests that Pavese’s work should be viewed as a corpus, and he analyzes the author’s meta-literary speculations. He draws attention to the theatrical nature of the Dialoghi by utilizing Bakhtin’s categories; he categorizes the crowd of dialoguing characters as both absolute (‘bearers of an irrefutable thought’) and relative (‘guarantors of the dialectic possibility of the dialogue’), symmetrical or Figur-Forme pairs—to speak in Auerbachian terms—which would mean that each character is the other one’s prefiguration and as well as accomplishment. The examples drawn from the Dialoghi fully explain the truth of such an original and sharp categorization carried out by Comparini.

The critic concludes by emphasizing that allegory is a “rhetorical-cognitive device” aimed at enabling the reader to acknowledge the elements of universal continuity that rise from the mythical tale. The following chapter, “Pavese, Leucò e il modernismo”, gives Comparini the opportunity to analyze Pavese’s notion of modernism through a series of recent studies by Franco Moretti, Romano Luperini, Raffaele Donnarumma, and Massimiliano Tortora. However, he does not overlook the American school, namely, Luca Somiglia and Mario Moroni. Hence, Comparini successfully underscores a peculiar feature in the modernist interpretation of Pavese’s Dialoghi: in fact, the work attempts to de-mythicize myth itself, and as myth becomes free from the burden of literary tradition, what becomes clear is its universal value and meta-historical message.

In the last section “Tu consideri la realtà come sempre titanica”, Comparini assumes the idea of the double monstrueux (‘monstrous double’) as portrayed in La violence et le sacré (1972) by René Girard as the theoretical foundation for his own key to reading Pavese’s work. Drawing on Graziella Bernabò’s arguments in her essay I Dialoghi di Leucò di Pavese tra mito e logos (1974), where the ethical relevance of the poetic word was seen in the rediscovery of the pre-Olympian, titanic element, rather than in the Apollonian one exclusively, Comparini delves into the theme of the double monstrueux as the basis for any approach to Pavese’s work, particularly when a future commentary is envisaged. The encounter of the human and the divine, as staged and hoped for in Pavese’s text, is then guaranteed by the re-integration of the savage and primitive rituals, that is, by acceptance of mankind’s monstrous, titanic, beastly origins.

Alberto Comparini’s essay, which I have tried to summarize without detracting from its sharpness or critical and document-based richness, has many merits. It approaches Pavesian criticism by a vivid and rigorous use of the historical and comparative method, which helps reveal the complex and stimulating reception history of the Dialoghi in particular and of Pavese’s oeuvre in general. Indeed, Comparini's references to Pavese's opera omnia prove equally important, and they broaden the boundaries of the essay, giving it a wider, more ambitious scope. Likewise, the use of unpublished papers from the Gozzano-Pavese Turin archives make this essay remarkably valuable.

I also deem it important, or, rather, essential to this most exhaustive reading of the Dialoghi, to stress the interpretative, multi-disciplinary framework of Comparini's essay, as classical elements and comparative philology merge with Gadamer’s hermeneutics, Genette’s criticism, and Bakhtin’s aesthetics. These are just a few main reference points in this multi-layered study of the Dialoghi. In conclusion, this research presents a systematic synthesis of the critical material and cultural substratum of the Dialoghi. Nonetheless, it also offers a new, radical, theoretically powerful instrument to read the work and thus becomes an essential milestone for those academics who desire to approach and study Pavese’s work or, generally speaking, his peculiar modernism.

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