Analysis of Cesare Pavese’s The Moon and the Bonfires

The Moon and the Bonfires is the famed Italian author Cesare Pavese’s (1908–50) last novel. Published in June 1950 by the Italian publishing house Einaudi (where Pavese held a prominent position), the novel met immediate critical and commercial success. “To be rooted,” wrote Simone Weil, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Rootedness can come in many forms and guises. For some, this stability, this grounding, implies a link with family and tradition, as well as a fundamental tie to the land. Written feverishly between September and November 1949, Pavese’s last great novel, The Moon and the Bonfires, tells the story of one man who attempted, although unsuccessfully, to go home again. The novel was published a few months before the author’s unexpected death in 1950.

The storyline of The Moon and the Bonfires weaves together three distinct yet related narratives. The first narrative, which frames the overall structure of the novel, tells the story of an unnamed narrator who, after making his fortune in the United States, returns to Italy to rediscover the hills of his youth. The narrator is revealed to have been an orphan taken in by a peasant farmer and his wife. His childhood, told in a selective series of flashbacks, consisted of working on his “adopted family’s” farm for room and board and dreaming of traveling beyond the hills of Canelli, a neighboring village that marks the boundary of the known world for the peasants of Salto; a fictionalized name is given to the hills of Pavese’s own youth, Santo Stefano Belbo.

The narrator’s childhood friend is a clarinet-playing Marxist named Nuto. Nuto is based on Pavese’s real-life friend from Santo Stefano, Pino Scaglione. Nuto, like Scaglione, never leaves the borders of the hills around Salto, yet somehow he seems to contain the wisdom of a worldly intellectual on the most practical level, all the while still believing profoundly in the superstitions of the hills. Therefore, the novel’s title invokes the superstitious nature of the peasants in and around the hills of Santo. If there is an “authoritative” figure in The Moon and the Bonfires, it is certainly Nuto.

The second storyline details the unnamed narrator’s time in the United States. Fleeing the Fascists of World War II, the narrator escapes to the United States and eventually makes his way to California, where he works at various jobs, but mostly as kitchen help in what can only be assumed is a roadside diner. There he meets a young woman whom he almost marries. The “almost” is fundamental to Pavese’s oeuvre. This notion of hesitancy and lack of fulfillment suggests a sense of profound failure to commit and take root—to start a family and begin building a life. Although the California episodes take up less than a fourth of the story, they expand on the theme of severe isolation and remoteness that pervades much of Pavese’s work.

The third storyline depicts the peasants of Salto and their confrontation with fascism. Most of the story is revealed to the narrator via conversations with Nuto, who until the end is very reluctant to recall this troubled aspect of Salto’s past. When bodies begin to be discovered, however, Pavese shows the reader that the past may be inescapable. Perhaps most important is the figure of Santina, the youngest daughter of the family that took the narrator in as a boy, and the mystery surrounding her murder by the partisans. Pavese reveals to the reader, slowly and in much the same way William Faulkner reveals in his storylines, that she was either working on the side of the Fascists or the partisans during the war. The narrator’s entire trip back to Salto seems to be headed for the revelation of what side Santina was on. At the end of the novel, Nuto (a partisan) tells the narrator that he was a witness to her murder. We are never told on whose side Santina stood.

Pavese’s straightforward, some have argued, American-influenced style does not cancel out the complexities of his storylines. Italo Calvino has stated that the significant meanings in Pavese’s work reside in what is left unsaid. The Moon and the Bonfires is one of those fundamental works that has gone mostly unread in the United States. Yet to read it is to experience the fractured nature of Italy during and after World War II, as well as the profound condition of “being at home in the not at home,” which informs so much of our postmodern condition. Moreover, the novel suggests that one can never be free from an entanglement with the past. Pavese’s own relationship with the partisans, of which he was never an active member, can be read as informing much of the action in this novel. Pavese’s suicide, just months after the publication of The Moon and the Bonfires, presents us with, not a culmination of his oeuvre, but an all too abrupt ending.

Biasin, Gian Paolo. The Smile of the Gods: A Thematic Study of Cesare Pavese’s Works. Translated by Yvonne Freccero. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1968.
Campanello, Margherita, ed. Cesare Pavese: atti del convegno internazionale di studi, Torino, Santo Stefano Belbo, 24–27 ottobre 2001. Florence, Italy: L.S. Olschki, 2005.
Lajolo, Davide. An Absurd Vice: A Biography of Cesare Pavese. New York: New Directions, 1983.
McDonald, Harris. Three Italian Novelists: Moravia, Pavese, Vittorini. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968. O’Healy, Áine. Cesare Pavese. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Pavese, Cesare. The Moon and the Bonfires. Translated by R. W. Flint. New York: New York Review of Books Press, 2002.
Riccobono, Rossella, and Doug Thompson, eds. ‘Onde di questo mare’: Reconsidering Pavese. Market Harborough, U.K.: Troubadour, 2003.
Thompson, Doug. Cesare Pavese: A Study of the Major Novels and Poems. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Categories: Italian Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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