The novel is called The Martial Artist, and it’s based on the life of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the poet, playboy, war hero, proto-fascist statesman and sometime prince of pirates on the Dalmatian coast. This story is being narrated by D’ Annunzio himself in 1923 to his ex-lover, Eleonora Duse, once the most famous actress in the world, who has come to visit him at Il Vittoriale, the museum-palace on Lake Garda where Mussolini keeps him a virtual prisoner—and figurehead of fascism. In this reminiscence he is telling Eleonora about his first visit to the Western Front in 1914. D’Annunzio was instrumental as a propagandist in bringing Italy, which was supposed to be neutral, into the war on the Allied side, and later fought with great distinction in all three services (he became the most decorated Italian of the war, although he enlisted at the age of 52.)
—Garry Craig Powell
First Battle of the Marne, September 1914
The Peugeot waiting at the kerb outside my hotel in the Marais is as shiny and black as the carapace of a beetle. It coughs politely as Bertillon, the owner, cranks the starting handle with his gauntleted hand. Rocco, my valet, loads the trunk with leather suitcases and lays hampers on the back seat. I have had him pack petit-fours, tongue, caviar, paté de foie gras, fruit in abundance, as well as baguettes, pain au chocolat, eau minerale, and a bottle of burgundy for Ugo Ojetti. The engine growls, but before Bertillon can reach the driver’s seat he finds that I have beaten him to it. What is more, Ojetti, in a plain grey suit and trilby, is already in the passenger’s seat beside me. With his upturned moustaches and malevolent monocle, he winks at me.
—Mais monsieur, —Bertillon begins. —I understood when your friend engaged to hire the car that I would be driving.
I fix him with a lordly look. My eyes pierce the Frenchman’s with the certainty that I will be obeyed. I am wearing English riding breeches with puttees, a russet overcoat trimmed with yellow fox fur that curls like a collar of gold around my neck and ears, and a tweed motoring cap.
—I always drive myself, —I say. —You need not fear. I am a superb driver.
Although Bertillon declares he has never before entrusted his machine to anyone, he relinquishes control as if he has no will of his own. He is a plump little creature, as white and doughy as a bread. He climbs in the back, and the bête noir is soon lumbering along the lanes of Picardie. The roads curve like banderols, those ribbon-like pennants one sees in paintings of medieval saints. Pigeons burst from the hedges as though the wing of an angel has suddenly opened, and fall around us in grey squalls.
With my high celluloid collar—oh, so uncomfortable!—I sit erect at the wheel, my shoulders squared like a horseman with a handsome seat. We drive through villages of smashed shops and houses. In one of them we stop and stretch our legs. It is a ruin, deserted: it would touch some archaeologist of the future. On a stucco house-front, blue shutters flap in the wind, banging lazily against the wall. In another dwelling, roofless but intact on one side, a pile of rubble on the other, there is a toothless cottage piano, a vase of artificial flowers such as the gypsies make from pipe-cleaners and silk, and grimy dolls lying on a dusty carpet like the victims of a massacre. Back in the car, leaning forward nervously, M. Bertillon talks incessantly about the brutality of the Germans. I am not listening. I look at the farmhouses, the still-smoking stubble and black sheaves of wheat, the skinny Frisian cows with swollen udders. We see a couple of human corpses, a fat old woman reclining on the grass verge as if taking a nap, and a bony old man on his knees beside her, his face in the grass as if he were grazing, his arms at impossible angles. Then a boy, face down on the road, legs flung out, stiff as a cardboard puppet. Ojetti sighs, moans, perhaps weeps. Bertillon keeps saying Mon dieu, mon dieu, les sauvages. I feel nothing. Too many live, as Nietzsche says. We need this blood-letting to purge us. My heart thumps, excited at the car’s power and speed, or because I will soon be at the Front where I will finally see Death and discover my mettle. Or is it because I am still remembering yesterday afternoon with Mme. Fournier-Kasinsky? It was a routine seduction, nothing out of the ordinary, except that for a bourgeoise she was quick to take to the pleasures of oral love, and surprised me by flinging open the drapes on the windows, although she was naked, apart from her black silk stockings, which were embroidered with cherries.
—You don’t mind the neighbours seeing us? I said. ˗˗˗The lights are on.
—Tant mieux, —she said, pouting her lips like a spoilt schoolgirl. —I want them to see us. J’en trouve très passionant. Et vous?
I felt as if I were onstage in a cabaret in the Pigalle. But yes, it was exciting. The smell and taste of her sweaty armpits, the stretch-marks on her breasts and belly—for some reason I cannot get them out of my mind. She raised her upper lip in a sneer as I fucked her, repeating mon Dieu, mon Dieu, as if she were unable to believe what was happening, yet never once looking me in the eyes, which I found disconcerting. So what? Could it be that as Death draws near, the urge to procreate becomes imperative? I must find a prostitute in Soissons or Rheims, I decide as I drive. No, the primitive urge is not merely more imperative, but more significant, more numinous. As the car clatters along the narrow lanes of Picardie between the high hedges, a procession of women flee past, most of them nameless, even faceless, though I recognize many: Splendore, Giselda, the two Marias, wife and Gravina, Olga Ossani, Barbara, you, naturally, Alessandra, Giuseppina, Nathalie, Isadora Duncan, Ida Rubinstein, Romaine Brooks, Luisa Casati… Perhaps it is the faces of these women, it occurs to me, that I shall see on my deathbed, and not the spines of my books. Maybe my loves have invested my life with meaning.
But the rumblings and detonations that I assumed was distant thunder are growing louder, and judging by the Frenchman’s agitation—the man yaps like a lapdog—I have been mistaken. A bombardment is underway. We pass muddy army trucks, marching infantry, pack-horses, and tents in the fields, including one with a red cross. The landscape becomes lunar, drained of colour, blighted. Blasted trees stand like scribble against a grey sky. Craters pock the desert surface. Dead horses and mules lie on their backs like beetles, their bellies inflated, their legs in the air.
—So now we are at the Front, Monsieur, we have seen everything and we can turn around, —Bertillon says in a high, strained voice. —N’ est-ce pas?
I speak to Ojetti in the middle of the Frenchman’s utterance, pretending not to have heard him. Ugo keeps up a gay and lyrical banter as we reach the outskirts of Soissons, driving along roads lined with rows of little brick workers’ houses, and factories and warehouses, and elm-trees, dogs running in a frenzy, and a line of blind soldiers, each touching the shoulder of the man in front of him. We pass a parabola of big black nests: in each slumbers a plane. At a barrier a corporal halts us and inspects my pass from General Galieni.
˗˗˗The Germans are shelling the town, ˗˗˗he says. ˗˗˗Do you not hear?
˗˗˗Are you saying we cannot continue?˗˗˗Ojetti asks.
˗˗˗You may proceed, ˗˗˗the soldier says, ˗˗˗although you will probably be killed.
I thank him and put the car in gear, ignoring Bertillon’s womanish wailing. We climb a low hill, winding past carts filled with the wounded, and from its crest gaze upon the city: the twin spires of the cathedral reaching for the grey sky like imploring hands, and between them, it seems to me, an angel balancing on the roof. Without pausing, I take my hands off the wheel and stretch them towards it. All is beautiful. Suddenly there is a flash, like sheet lightning, and the air breaks, buffets us. One of the spires has gone. Now only one arm is raised to heaven, one arm and a mutilated stump. I cry out to the wounded in the carts, who, it seems to me, are bleeding on behalf of that bloodless stone.
Presently we are in the main square. A pond of blood pools in the middle of it: a scarlet man and a scarlet horse lie glistening in it. I halt the car. Beside the red lake is a smashed mess of broken wood, wheels, leather harness, bones and hunks and strips of meat, the remains of a team of horses. Bertillon begs me to turn around and leave at once. One of the towers of the cathedral has been neatly sliced off at the level of the roof of the building; the other still points to the sky like the arm of a prophet. Out of one of the houses a French officer comes running. Even with his crested helmet on, he looks like a teacher or a professor, with his horn-rimmed glasses, but he shouts furiously as he reaches the car:
—Who the hell do you think you are? What the hell are you doing?
—We are here to watch the bombardment, —I tell the lieutenant with a slow smile. —We have a safe-conduct pass from General Galieni.
From the pocket of my coat I extract the pass and wave it at the officer. He snatches it.
Frowning, the Frenchman reads. His eyebrows rise and he shoots a look at me, at last taking in the pointed beard, the waxed upturned points of his moustache, the penetrating eyes.
—You are M. Gabriele D’Annunzio, the writer?
—At your service.
—Monsieur, allow me to express my surprise. I am the greatest of your admirers. I have read all your novels, seen all your plays; it is only your poetry that I don’t know well, because little of it has been translated into French. But what am I saying? I am desolated by my rudeness. Please forgive me.
—I only wish I had a volume of yours here, so that I could beg you to sign it.
—Le Triomphe de la Mort would be appropriate, no? Can you tell us where the battle is?
The lieutenant’s eyes widen. —But this is the battle, M. D’Annunzio. You are in the middle of it. The Germans are less than a hundred metres away, over there.
—Excellent. Might I be permitted to give some cigarettes to the men?
—Naturally, monsieur. You may do anything you wish, though I must warn you that it is very dangerous to remain here.
Bertillon chimes in: —You hear, monsieur? It would be prudent to leave at once. It is very dangerous!
—Don’t tell me you are afraid, Bertillon, ˗˗˗says Ojetti.
Bertillon clutches the secretary’s shoulder with a hand like a talon. —I am mortally afraid, monsieur. Are you not?
Ojetti smiles, impervious to fear, casting an ironic glance at me. I climb out of the car, pocketing the keys in case Bertillon decides to leave without us, and take a big blue box of Gauloises I have brought with me from the back seat. The lieutenant points to the house he has come from, and trots in that direction. Bertillon scampers after him, his arms flailing as if he were falling off a cliff. Ojetti and I follow like men out for a Sunday stroll. When a shell whizzes past or bursts in the air, we gaze around with dreamy expressions. On reaching the shelter of the house, we find two platoons of poilus, who eye us with amazement and disdain, then with amusement and camaraderie, when they discover that I am the playboy they have read about in Le Petit Parisien, Le Matin, and other illustrated papers. As I open the box and throw cartons of cigarettes at the men, they cheer and shout ribald remarks:
—So what’s La Duse like in bed, eh? Big tits? (That is exactly what they said.)
—How does it feel to have Rubinstein’s legs wrapped round your neck, I want to know!
—Il est tant petit, ce gentilhomme.
—Il doit être grand là bas, où la taille a plus d’ importance. Tu sais ce qu’ on dit des italiens.
—He’s got balls, I’ll give him that.
—How about changing places with me, Italian? I want to ride Isadora Duncan. Just once!
—You lucky little bastard!
—And this is how he does it: by writing fucking poetry. Right? You talk about tenderness, and sighing, and the deep pools of their eyes, when all you’re after is getting inside their knickers. Have I got it right?
I grin. —You have discovered my secret.
—But what the fuck are you doing here? a poilu asks. —Are Italians all mad?
—We are mad with love for our Latin brothers and sisters, —I say, with a manly nod at Ojetti, who nods back, —and mad with hatred of the barbarians from the north. I have come here because I want to see the war for myself. And this is my pledge to you: I will not rest until Italy is fighting beside you. I will use my voice to convince my countrymen that they must do so. And if I succeed, I swear I will fight alongside you myself.
While I am speaking, the men grow quiet and stare at me with an intensity I know: at my first speech in Venice—remember?—I learned I had the power to move people deeply with my oratory. When I am finished, there is a moment’s stunned silence. Then the lieutenant cheers, everyone joins in, and soon everyone is crowding around me and Ojetti, slapping our backs and shaking our hands. These are the first steps to the alliance.
That night, while I visit a backstreet brothel—I have a ferocious Fleming, a tall redhead with a heavy chin who allows me to tie her to the bed but has the temerity to bite me back when I sink my incisors into the freckled white flesh of her shoulder—that very same night, Rheims Cathedral fulfils itself in flames. I am a celebrant at that great, sacred rite.
No, not the night before, my love, but that same one. You are obstinate! And your memory has never been accurate. Yes, I am sure.
And what’s more, strange to recount, I am there too. You can read the accounts in the newspapers. “Monsieur D’Annunzio sat calmly taking notes in his automobile while the conflagration lit up the night sky.” I read it myself in Le Matin or Le Petit Parisien, or perhaps Le Journal: so it must be true, eh? Surely you are not accusing me of making this up?
I remember the dizzying, dazzling flash, but no crash—only an eerie, preternatural silence, an eager, expectant silence, as when the mob gathers in the square beneath the guillotine with bated breath to hear the head of the innocent roll into the basket. Finally there is a crash so loud that I feel it more than hear it, like a box on the ears, a blow from a heavyweight. The earth shakes; the air ripples. From the roof of the cathedral an aurora borealis of flame pours and waves, a cauldron of colour, crimson, orange, butter and black. Sparks fly among the stars.
Someone, Bertillon or Ojetti, tries to stop me, but I cannot help myself. Like a man mesmerized I stumble towards the conflagration at a stately pace. Bertillon is screaming, Quel désastre, quel désastre, quelle tragédie! He squeals at me to stop, but I reply, or perhaps only think, Can you not see how beautiful, how perfect, this is? I hear Ugo guffawing. Perhaps I sleepwalk? As I step into the church, the great rose window, lit by the fire outside, starts to rotate, and the colours of the stained glass—the richest reds and blues, the deepest purples, yellows and greens—are liquescent, sublime. Some madman is still inside, playing a Bach cantata on the pipe organ while the window slowly spins like a kaleidoscope and the fire crackles and spits. Beside myself with ecstasy, I pick up a shard of stained glass, a stone flower, and a strip of twisted lead. I stuff the last two in my pockets but hold on to the thick gold glass as if it were a talisman, choking and spluttering as the smoke billows around me. Rafters rain from the ceiling, forcing me to retire from the glorious spectacle, but not before seeing that a miracle has occurred: the building is freed by the fire from the burden of its weight, and the entire edifice, this vast stone ship, is sailing unmoored into the oceanic sky. Church and firmament are one.
Outside once more, as the fire consumes the roof and I hear the groans and bellows of crashing timbers and masonry, Ojetti appears, Disque Bleu Caporal alight in his lips, to drag me away, shaking his head. I tell him my rapture is not merely aesthetic, for this holocaust is a rebirth, a resurrection, the soul of France is undergoing a Messianic awakening. I have never needed a God to prop me up or comfort me, but there is a spiritual exaltation in all this. It reminds me of the night I hired the organist in St. Stephen’s cathedral at Mulhouse in Alsace, where I had gone at night with Tom Antongini and two bovine Alsatian girls, and sat in the chilly dark for hours listening to Buxtehude and Bach, never once thinking of fucking—or very well, rarely thinking of fucking. Later, when I found myself in a half-timbered inn room with that blonde dairymaid, practical and matter of fact as she was as she took off her clothes, she turned into an ethereal creature, a fleshy seraph like one of Raphael’s, a nebula of stars spinning from her grey eyes like the silken threads of a spider’s web, and I found that I was floating on a vast, sunlit cloud, beyond Time, rippling aloft with that cool-fleshed creature, far above the world, impossibly slowly, impossibly gently; I knew sex as sacrament, just as the fire was a sacrament.
What really happened the night Rheims Cathedral burned? Did I hallucinate my recollection of being there? I would consume cocaine when I became a fighter pilot, to stay awake, but that was later. Could I have been in two places at once? The artist can; the super-man can. I only know what burns on the altar of my memory. No man knows more.
Certo, Eleonora, they accuse me of lying, of making things up, as if that were a crime. The literalist swine say that the next day I did not see with my own eyes the dead poilus bound upright, to stakes, in bands of ten, in mud and blood-spattered uniforms, their puttees lacerated by barbed wire, their boots broken, cheeks sprouting stubble, open eyes staring like those of soulless madmen. I did not smell the stench of soiled drawers, of stale sweat; nor did I hear the buzzing of the flies around the open wounds. When I said that this sight reminded me the fasci, the rods bundled around an axe on ancient Roman coins, they did not believe me. I only pretended to see and think these things, the pettifoggers insisted. I invented this image of the fascio because it was such a potent symbol, the axe the bringer of life and death, the soldiers standing together like staves around it, strong and stiff even in rigor mortis. This is what they do not understand: that an act of imagination can transform reality. I dream, therefore I am.
—Garry Craig Powell
Garry Craig Powell was born and educated in England, but now teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. His linked collection of stories, Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012), which is set in the contemporary Persian Gulf, was longlisted for the Frank O’ Connor Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. He is completing the novel The Martial Artist, whose protagonist, Gabriele D’ Annunzio, was in real life the most famous writer and playboy in Italy, as well as the most decorated war hero, a pirate leader, the founder of a short-lived utopian state on the Dalmatian coast, a proto-fascist statesman, and eventually a prince.