Notturno by Gabriele d'Annunzio, translated by Stephen Sartarelli
In an attempt to understand Gabriele D'Annunzio's book-length prose poem Notturno, and the magnitude of its first full publication, one must begin by considering three elements which contribute to making this a very unique text. These are the circumstances which catalyzed its creation, the unique method of D'Annunzio's composition and, finally, the way it functions as a reading experience. Before you can even consider the poem, reading the harrowing behind-the-scenes account in Italian translator and scholar Virginia Jewiss's introduction is a must.
Flying a propaganda mission in January of 1916, D'Annunzio, "was forced to make an emergency landing, and suffered a detached retina in his right eye. In an effort to protect his remaining good eye, his doctors ordered him to remain immobile, both eyes bandaged, in a dark room in his house in Venice." This story, though impressive in itself, merely sets the stage for the creative process behind Notturno. It doesn't explain D'Annunzio's approach to writing, just the horrifying accident and seemingly antiquated recovery process. While recovering, the ever-industrious "D'Annunzio recorded his own brief thoughts not on leaves but on thin strips of paper, each wide enough for just one or two lines of writing, which his daughter Renata, whom he affectionately called Sirenetta, prepared for him." For three months, during the doldrums of a Venetian winter, D'Annunzio was tended to by Renata. After recovering, the two worked on collating and rearranging what amounted to thousands of the small strips. The poem, in initial book form, saw the light of day in November 1921. After outlining this history, Jewiss tries to categorize Notturno for the reader. For Jewiss, and D'Annunzio, by extension,
Notturno is a diary of darkness and light, a labyrinthine journey through time as memory, fantasy and hallucination blur in the searing pain of his eye. In a tone that oscillates between lethargy and zeal, he promotes his self-styled myth of the poet as hero, casting himself as a Nietzschean Übermensch, yet simultaneously revealing his doubts and fears.
It's hard to categorize. It's a diary, a will, a letter, a lament, a poem, an abstract novel, a fugue, an elegy for man and country, and above all, a sensory flood. The D'Annunzio who crashed, healed and wrote was quite different from the man who took off on that mission. Again, Jewiss offers a terrific summation. "Notturno rises above the specificities of any particular conflict or political perspective to get at the heart of man's unceasing search for beauty amid the ruin of war." This can be further reduced to a search for beauty amid ruin. A search for something enlightening or enriching amidst unrelenting horror, sadness, fear and the other dark corners D’Annunzio explores.
Divided into three sections eerily referred to as offerings (possibly sacrificial, given that all D’Annunzio went through), and including a terrifically comprehensive section of annotations from translator Stephen Sartarelli, Notturno is a deceptive work. The First Offering opens with a Latin quotation translated as “And in Darkness dreams of the sick one.” That will tip off even the densest of readers: you’re in for it. "It" being a dark, disorienting ride through suffering. However, you don’t expect the moments of beauty which glimmer amidst the darkness. Interestingly, you come to crave them. They are buoys tossed out to the reader during the worst parts of the swell. As D’Annunzio chronicles his suffering, the book’s visceral quality unseats you.
“Fleshless, all nerves and bone like some sickly root of the soul, the hand repeats the motion without cease.” It’s a testament full of inky smudges, blood, and tears. The combination of formal novelty and emotional intensity make for a challenging but ultimately rewarding read. D’Annunzio is a man who knows the hardship and dedication necessary for an author’s life. “Experience dissuaded me from trying to write with eyes closed. The difficulty is not in the first line, but in the second, and in those that follow.” This goes for both author and audience. D’Annunzio regularly exposes you to such horror that a conscious effort to push through is necessary. However, it’s imperative that you do so. Too much has been suffered through by man and author. When he writes, “I have the urge to tear my eye from its socket, that I may see no more,” you worry that he just might before things are finished.
The Second Offering opens with a horrifying description of one of D’Annunzio’s many lowpoints:
Mere pages later, he laments his life as “a sack of blood” and intones, “It is not true that death is the same for everyone.” Injured, restrained, swaddled in darkness. What does he have left to do but think about death? Yet, it’s the writing, that sets it apart. When “the boredom of immobility” settles around him, he picks up his pen. The Third Offering begins with a series of pastoral reflections, before descending into more bitter accounts of illness, loneliness and disorientation, but ultimately offers a strange hope.
Tonight the bed sways and shakes like a double wing stretched between sea and sky. I open my mouth to drink the Adriatic’s vigor, but no cool draught enters my throat. Iodine turns my mouth to metal, my throat to steel. Steel heated red in the forge of my burning eye and tempered in the pool of my thick blood. I cry out and do not hear my cry.
Never since have I felt such yearning for happiness upon seeing the stars tremble and fade at the first breath of dawn, nor have I ever again possessed in me the measure of that unexpressed song -- until this moment, brought back to me by the mystery of goodness.
After D’Annunzio has opened his eyes, the reader is able to close theirs in relief and gratitude.
Notturno by Gabriele D’Annunzio, translated by Stephen Sartarelli