Book about fascist Italian poet wins top prize

A biography of Gabriele D'Annunzio, a fascist Italian poet who influenced dictator Benito Mussolini and is described as being a "repellent egotist" who loved "flowers, poetry and sex" has been awarded the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, the most prestigious award of its kind in the UK.

Book about fascist Italian poet wins top prize
A biography about fascist poet Gabriele D'Annunzio scooped the prestigious Samuel Johnson prize. Photo: Agence de presse Meurisse/Wikimedia Commons

The book, called The Pike and written by Lucy Hughes-Hallet, won the accolade, along with a £20,000 (€23,800) prize, on Monday night. The biography fended off competition from finalists including Charles Moore's biography about the UK's late former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

It tells the story of D'Annunzio's life as a writer and revolutionary, charting his rise to national hero. 

The controversial poet, who was also known for his high-profile affairs with several women, made an impact in politics as well as through his writing, with the two often being intertwined. At one point, he was seen as a rival to dictator Benito Mussolini.

"Writing about him meant I was writing about the entire cultural ambience in which he lived," Hughes-Hallet recently told BBC Radio 4.

"He was a decadent and he was a great enjoyer of the good things of life – flowers and poetry and sex; he was an enthusiastic and surprisingly successful seducer."

Martin Rees, chair of the judges and Royal Astronomer, said Hughes-Hallett's narrative “transcends the conventions of biography.”

He added that readers “will be transfixed by her vivid portrayal of D'Annunzio – how this repellent egotist quickly gained literary celebrity and how his oratory influenced Italy’s involvement in the First World War and the rise of Mussolini. The book shows how fascism rose partly as a perversion of nationalism – a trend still sadly relevant in today's world.”

Don't miss a story about Italy – Join us on Facebook and Twitter

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


‘Being bilingual has made me a more creative writer’

Formerly a California banker, Marie Ohanesian Nardin moved to Italy 31 years ago after a short trip to Venice turned into something permanent. Now she has written a book based on her experiences, and tells The Local how the lagoon city has changed her own outlook on life, and how learning Italian has made her a better writer.

'Being bilingual has made me a more creative writer'
Marie Ohanesian Nardin has just published her debut novel, set in Venice. Photo: Private

“In writing you’re always told to show and not tell, and I found I could do that because I arrived in Venice unfamiliar with the language and the culture, so I had to watch!” Nardin tells The Local. “That experience forces you to be very very observant; everything was completely new, completely different from everything I knew.”

Her novel, Beneath the Lion's Wings, is told through the eyes of Victoria, an American who makes the move to Venice. While the book follows Victoria's romance, Nardin says her number one goal in writing the book was to get across her own love and respect for the city she now calls home.

Nardin first set foot in the lagoon city during her first ever holiday, a trip around Europe with a friend back in 1985. They had scheduled only a couple of days in Venice on the way to Florence, but minutes into the trip, something happened that would tie Nardin to the city permanently.

“My friend and I were in a water taxi going to our hotel, and it was all so beautiful, and we passed a gondolier. I took a photo and said to her ‘I think I’m going to like Venice!’. That gondolier is now my husband.”

After catching that first glimpse of her husband, Nardin says she never expected to see him again, being used to the enormity of Los Angeles, where she lived and worked and never ran into anyone twice. But the next day, she and her friend were in St Mark's Square when her husband spotted her in the crowd and invited them for drinks.

They've now been married for nearly 31 years, so this is a story she has told time and time again. Almost every time she does, someone tells her it sounds like something out of a book or a movie. “So eventually, I just started writing,” she says.

While her novel is semi-autobiographical, Nardin has made some changes, including accelerating through her own two-year long distance relationship, during which she and her husband relied on long distance phone calls and writing letters.

“We really wanted to be together. He was open to coming to the US, but I was also open to moving to Italy, and you can’t really be a gondolier in California!” she explains. “So I left a promising career, my family and friends and came to Venice.”

Adapting as completely as possible to the new culture, even without the language skills to begin with, was key for Nardin. “I never tried to make Italy America. You can’t move somewhere thinking that the way you’re used to is the ‘better’ way,” she says. 
Learning and understanding how the city and country work is essential not only for would-be expats but also for tourists, the writer explains, commenting on Venice's ongoing struggle with mass tourism. “I urge people to explore Venice, not just come for a day to see the Grand Canal and put a tick on your list. And there are ways to do this on a budget, even though it’s an expensive city.”
The novel is her way of sharing 'her' Venice, including an insight into the city's gondolier tradition, which she learned a lot about through her husband, the third generation of his family to work in the iconic boats.
“I wanted to provide an inside look at this, because it has traditionally been very closed off but I’ve been able to observe it very closely. My first question when I got here was why there weren’t any women gondoliers. Now, there are a few, but it’s been a difficult road for them. I remember that when I would approach the gondola station, my husband’s uncles would stop me from going inside. That mentality has since changed, I think, but I wanted to cover it,” she tells The Local.

Now the writer says she can't imagine living anywhere else, praising the healthcare system, the fact you can find centuries of culture around every street corner, and the Italian outlook on life. One of the key differences she describes is the attitude to work.

“In Los Angeles, there’s this perception that you are what you do, and I would say that in Veneto people work really hard, but it’s never just about work; they find time to do other things too. I find that asking what someone does for a living isn’t necessarily the first question people ask at parties any more,” she says.

That didn't change the fact that there were fewer career opportunities in Italy, particularly in the field she had been working in and without Italian skills. Nardin worked in several jobs including at a Venetian glass shop, teaching English, and working on political campaigns within the American community in Italy. The writing came later, and the book has been a project almost a decade in the making.
It's now been through several incarnations and taken so much time and care she refers to it as “almost like a third child!” Her choice to self-publish the novel means she has been responsible for the marketing alongside the writing, and is promoting it on a book tour in the USA this spring.

Now fluent in Italian, Nardin says that being bilingual has helped a lot with her writing. Being able to speak and read in another language gives you a different perception of words, she says.

“I think writing comes out more creatively because you can develop a story with both languages. The words are also easily readable because you’re highly aware of what it is like to carefully listen to words as you learn a new language.”

Despite having lived half her life there, Nardin says some locals still see her as 'la straniera' (the foreign one), but she doesn't mind. People who know her see her as half-Italian, and besides, in a city with as long a history as Venice's, even after three decades in the area she is still, relatively speaking, new.

“Venice always reminds me that we as individuals don’t have a permanence, just like this city which is aging, but it’s also been a survivor,” she tells The Local. “It's undergone all these changes over the centuries, from having extreme wealth and being a global power… now it's completely transformed.”

READ ALSO: Becoming a gondolier: the long road to riding Venice's waterways