Death Will Come And It Will Have Your Eyes
The Last Poems of Cesare Pavese
Turin. Raw, breathable mist rising from the Po. A more venomous one from the heavy traffic across its bridges. But in the piazza Castello and along the corso Vittoria Emanuele the light lifts into a beautiful autumnal day. Autumnal too, in the turning season's fashionable colours, are the sallow Torinese brunettes. They windowshop under the famous portici, arcades where every shop sells luxury goods: shoes, leather luggage, perfumes, English raincoats, smoking accoutrements, handmade chocolates. The rich are always with us.
The guidebook I looked through on the 90-minute flight describes Turin as a city held together by a fierce adherence to each of its contradictory clichés. (A principle invariably followed by guidebooks themselves.) City of Nietzsche and the Holy Shroud. Hannibal and Charlemagne. The Lingotto test-track and the Mole Antoniella. Gramsci and Agnelli.
It's also the city in which the writers Cesare Pavese and Primo Levi committed suicide.
A little while ago I found the building in which the latter had lived: 75 corso Re Umberto. I hadn't thought to buy flowers, but I stood on the pavement opposite for a minute in some vague private ceremony of sorrow and remembrance for the sorrow and remembrance he'd carried till the weight grew more than he could bear.
I realised later I didn't know any of the addresses in Turin at which Pavese had lived. But I knew where he'd died.
The Hotel Roma is an unremarkable building from the outside. I studied it for a while from across the street, and took a photograph of the facade. Then I crossed to the doorway and walked into the foyer. The man at the reception desk looked up. I was not a guest at the hotel, so I had to say something to justify coming in off the street. I asked to see the tariff, as if I was thinking of booking a room. It now cost almost 150,000 lire for a single room for one night, I saw. I wondered how much it had cost in 1950, when Pavese spent his last night here - and if the bill was ever paid.
The man behind the counter had an interesting face - elegant in feature, yet as savage as a caricature in the glossy blackness of his hair, the thickness of his eyebrows, the blueness of the well-shaved jaw and the creamy pallor of the skin. It was the face of a small-part actor who's been in many films but whose name you've never known.
When I mentioned Pavese a polite expression of well-rehearsed grief appeared on his face, as if to show it still pained the employees of the Hotel Roma to be reminded that such a man had come to such an end in their establishment. It was so patently a trained reflex that I wondered just how many literary pilgrims, programme makers, biographers or ghouls turn up here in the average year to ask the number of the room in which Pavese died – or even go as far as to book it, try out the bedsprings and contemplate that last view from its window.
I still don't know who Constance Dowling was. She played only a few small or supporting parts in undistinguished films. Ephraim Katz's International Film Encyclopaedia doesn't even list her: one minor actress in Dow, Peggy is followed by another in Down, Lesley-Ann. No Dowling, Constance. . . . Most people have never heard the name, and certainly wouldn't recognise her face onscreen. I myself have only ever seen her once.
Up in Arms the film was called. It came on the box one wet winter afternoon when there was nothing but the box on. It was made in 1944 and, according to the Film Guide in the Radio Times, was Danny Kaye's film debut. It was one of those films Hollywood turned out for the War Effort. But by then the war must have been as good as won, because they slackened off on the Message and did it as pure entertainment, musical-comedy style. Danny plays a liftboy. Liftboy loves Office Girl. She likes him, he's a nice boy, But. She falls for Other Guy instead. But Other Guy, played by Dana Andrews, is liftboy's Best Friend. . . There's also this other girl, played by Dinah Shore, who's in love with Danny but he's so used to her he doesn't notice it. She's the perfect Girl Next Door to his Boy Next Door, but Danny's the only one who doesn't realise this. . .
The fight for freedom interrupts this growing comic tangle of romance, and everyone gets drafted. But war's a catalyst for lovers, and being drafted's one more comedy of errors in a film like this: all the principals get posted in the same batch by mistake. The troopship out to the Pacific is one long series of songs, dance-sets and chase routines around the decks, and the way all this is going to work out is without surprise. The whole film's just the subplot of a Shakespeare comedy in Hollywood conventions (and shot in uniform because it's 1944.)
Anyway, the point is that Mary, the glamorous office girl who's fated not for Danny but for Dana Andrews, is played by Constance Dowling.
I didn't know this when I started watching. But some way into the film, because I didn't recognise her I looked her name up in the Radio Times. And after that I couldn't take my eyes off her. It was a curious, belated and ambivalent encounter - to behold for the first time this woman whose name I'd long known: the actress with whom Cesare Pavese had fallen so unhappily, so fatally in love.
He'd met her in Rome, where she was on location for a film. That was in 1950, six years after Up In Arms was made. Pavese was by then a famous literary man. A string of novels lay behind him, and that melancholy masterpiece The Moon and the Bonfire had appeared that year. (The Italian edition still bears the dedication, in English: "For C. The ripeness is all".) Another superb novel, Among Women Only, had just won the Strega Prize. He was at the height of his reputation and his powers. And it was the year that he committed suicide.
I'd been interested in Pavese's work a long time, and despite minimal Italian I'd begun translating his poetry. Pavese is one of those rare writers who are what one critic has called authentic "Double Firsts". This is a ludicrously academic way of classifying greatness in writers who, almost by definition, will have lived and worked outside of educational institutionalism; nevertheless it's a useful metaphor for designating those very few writers who can be placed in the first rank both for their novels and their poetry. Pavese is also one of those writers other writers learn from: about inwardness and indirection, ordinariness and subtlety. One thing is certain: there is nothing remotely like him in English, and few writers in any language can match that unique, disconsolate undertow of the sadness of all things which his best work reveals.
So it had been a peculiar, and somehow moving experience for me to see, onscreen and for the first time, this minor Hollywood film-star with whom the shy, solitary writer had fallen so desperately in love.
It must have been a hopeless business from the start. Pavese had never had much success with women, and the cool, uncommitted and maybe flighty young actress who'd emerged to me from his diaries and letters seemed a typically unlucky choice. Choice is the wrong word, of course: a lonely and unhappy person like Pavese doesn't have the privilege of exercising judgement over such matters. It simply happens, and you suffer it. If the woman doesn't love you, all you can do is make a fool of yourself or watch her make a fool of you. And know there's not a damn thing you can do to change things. At least, that's how it always had been with Pavese. It's only in a Danny Kaye film where all the misunderstandings and false hopes and confusions turn out well, and even the misfit gets the girl.
I don't even know if Constance Dowling was always cool or uncommitted, and certainly not that she was flighty; that's simply the received idea of love affairs between shy literary men and actresses. In fact, from the early days when he was exalted to have found her, his diary also tells us she was "so good, so calm, so patient. So made for me". Perhaps only the last statement was untrue. . . But all anyone really knows - and all that finally matters - is that she happened not to love Pavese in return. In their brief, fruitless relationship, what Constance Dowling was was free. And Pavese's tragic, everyday misfortune was that where she was concerned he was in thrall. So, if she'd appeared to me as capricious or even cruel, that was only because I was going by type - and because my sympathies were on the rejected lover's side. But on the other hand, and from the loved one's angle, nothing is more irritating than an agonised and lovesick beau. Which Pavese, who had bet his final chance of a happy life on this, must often have appeared.
So much ancient grief, so many uncertainties. Who was Constance Dowling? What became of her? In the film, she ends up with Dana Andrews, Danny Kaye gets Dinah Shore. Six year after Up In Arms is made she meets Pavese. They seem to have had a brief relationship, which may have held days or nights of happiness for both of them. But only her diary, her reminiscences, could tell us how she felt. As it is, we only have Pavese's. And, from this source, we don't even know if the affair was consummated, or how successfully or how often: the terseness of Pavese's diary entries on the subject is such as to perform the office of discretion to the prying, necrophile gaze of biographical posterity.
Meanwhile, the post-war political situation in Italy in 1950 is difficult: in real life, wars, or the problems of international relations, threaten lovers rather than unite them. You can guess, however, that it was not the political tensions of the day which divided these two. Her letters - his diary tells us - become intermittent, neutral. In her absence Pavese burns away slowly, like green wood (as he puts it in a poem), tortured by the uncertainty of everything.
On March 22, 1950 he writes:
Nothing. She has written nothing. She could be dead. I must get used to living as though this were normal.
Then on March 25:
One doesn't kill oneself for love of a woman. One kills oneself because love - any love - reveals us in our nakedness, misery, vulnerability, nothingness.
On May 8:
The cadence of suffering has begun. Every evening, as dusk falls, a tightening of the heart until night comes . . .
The act - the act - must not be out of revenge. It must be a calm, weary renunciation, a closing of accounts, a private rhythmic deed. The final beat.
And, cursorily, on May 16:
Now even the morning is filled with pain.
Pavese's diary goes on in this way through a whole Spring and Summer. March, April, May, June, July, August. Six months. A long time to burn slowly. Yet the diary entries, though unchanging in their preoccupation with her, are sporadic, almost terse. And his reticence on those days when he wrote of his desperation is typical and moving. "I thought I knew something about suffering," says a character in one of Pavese's short stories, when the woman he is obsessed with leaves him, "but those three days were like a whirlwind." So must have been Pavese's last six months.
Pavese wrote the penultimate entry in his diary on August 17, nine days before the suicide:
Why should it amaze you that other men pass you by and know nothing of all this torment, when you yourself rub shoulders with so many and do not know, are not interested, what their pain is, their secret cancer?
The following day, August 18, 1950, he writes his final statement:
A little courage is all it takes.
The more the pain grows precise and definite, the more the instinct for life reasserts itself and the thought of suicide recedes. It seemed easy, just thinking about it. Even women have done it. I need humility, not pride.
I am sickened by all this.
Not words. An act. I shall write no more.
Nor did he. Eight days later, on the night of August 26, he booked into the Hotel Roma. He was given Room 305. In it he took an overdose of sleeping pills. Sometime before the morning of the 27th he went wordless into the long hole. He was not yet forty-two years old.
Aside from his diary's tormented preoccupation with Constance Dowling and with the idea of suicide, Pavese left some unpublished poems relating to his failed love affair: eleven short lyrics grouped under the title Verrà la morte e avrà in tuoi occhi and addressed "To C. from C".
Written in March and April of that year, these were the last poems he wrote.
Most filmographies in book form are silent on the subject of Constance Dowling, though there are several website pages under her name. From these it appears that she was born in New York City in 1923. The photographs show a beautiful young woman with what is known as a "heart-shaped" face and the elaborately styled hair worn by female film-stars at the time. She is described as "hazel-eyed". After working at the New Theatre School to pay for acting classes she stars in several Broadway theatre productions and makes her film debut in 1944 in Knickerbocker Glory, a Nelson Eddy vehicle. She briefly becomes a Goldwyn Girl, but is then dropped. She undertakes "a long, painful" affair with the film director Elia Kazan, a married man. In 1947 she moves to Rome with her sister, actress Doris Dowling. Becoming fluent in Italian, she "mingles with the intelligentsia of Europe: Sartre, Moravia, Hemingway, Somerset Maugham, Robert Capa and George Bernard Shaw". Later she starts her love affair - qualified in the website page by the standard adjective "torrid" - with Pavese. Following his death, she returns to the United States in 1951. In 1955 she marries a Hungarian-born writer and producer named Ivan Tors, by whom she has three sons. In 1951 she makes another film made in Italy called City of Pain. In 1954 she appears in the science fiction melodrama Gog, which her husband produces. In the 60s she works as a guide in the Dolphin Laboratory in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
She died on Oct 28, 1969 of cardiac arrest. She was aged forty-six. Her husband and sons survive her.