Cesare Pavese ‘The Night You Slept’ (translation)


Cesare Pavese

For me Cesare Pavese was both the poet and the diarist of my late adolescence. I don’t recall exactly when I read his poetry but I know that his diary ‘Il Mestiere di Vivere’ (The Business of Living) was a book that had an enormous influence on me around the age of seventeen. It was, perhaps, a period of heightened sensitivity. In any case Pavese’s poetry and diaries as well as his book of retold myths Dialoghi con Leuco (and to a much lesser extent his novels) influenced and shaped a certain mentality. Alongside Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’s The Outsider (which I had read in my earlier adolescence), Pavese’s particular brand of anguished melancholia drew me in. I am not sure whether there are texts from which one can’t escape but, in many ways Pavese’s particularly pessimistic and fatalistic vision of the world drew me in and had claws. I think that I no longer find the diaries that convincing (and rarely reread them) and many things irritates me even about his poetry. Yet his final collection Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi (Death will come having your eyes) written in a few weeks of final desperation over his failed love affair with American actress Constance Dowling held me in their power. In late 1991, early 1992 I decided to try to translate them – it was the one collection that I wanted somehow to render in full. Perhaps because Pavese himself had written a final poem in English therefore belatedly moving through a border (as well as having translated American classics). I am not sure how I find his poems anymore. The fixation of an adolescent, the bitter adulation of a suicide, that need for some form of fatalism. All I remember is that the lyric abandon from the narrative core that had characterised Pavese’s earlier poetry led me to an almost metaphysical adulation of these particular poems of Pavese. At one point I translated at least eight or ten of the poems but I have only found one of them entitled The Night You Slept. Here is the translation that I made in 1992 (with the Italian original):

The Night You Slept.

Even the night resembles you

The remote night that mutely

Weeps, inside the deep heart

As the stars pass wearily.

A cheek brushes a cheek

A chill shiver, someone

Writhes, pleading alone,

Lost in you, in your fever.


The night suffers yearning dawn

Poor gasping heart

O stony face, dark anguish,

Fever that saddens the stars

There is he, who like you, awaiting dawn

Searches your face in silence.

Spread out under the night

Like a sealed, dead horizon

Poor gasping heart

A distant day you were the dawn

Anche la notte ti somiglia,
la notte remota che piange muta,
dentro il cuore profondo,
e le stelle passano stanche.
Una guancia tocca una guancia –
è un brivido freddo, qualcuno
si dibatte e t’implora, solo,
sperduto in te, nella tua febbre.

La notte soffre e anela l’alba,
povero cuore che sussulti.
O viso chiuso, buia angoscia,
febbre che rattristi le stelle,
c’è chi come te attende l’alba
scrutando il tuo viso in silenzio.
Sei distesa sotto la notte
come un chiuso orizzonte morto.
Povero cuore che sussulti,
un giorno lontano eri l’alba.

This cycle of ten poems by Pavese was something of an obsession for me in that Trieste of the early 1990s. I remember returning once to the city years later finding two or three telephone booths of the city littered with typed copies Pavese’s late poetry. A very Triestine coincidence for me. I couldn’t quite imagine another city where I would have made this discovery of finding my favourite poems in public telephone boxes. Pavese no longer holds for me the aura of a Saba, a Montale, an Ungaretti or even a Campana. But it is still so difficult to finally shed the adolescent yearning for the tragic lines of a Pavese (or a Rilke for that matter).

About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

3 responses »

  1. Thanks for the translation and background story. I’m a translator myself, learning Italian and discovering these poems by Pavese (and others by Montale), and your post helped quite a bit.

    • Thanks very much for your comment. Yes Montale is a very fine poet- and someone I’ve appreciate more and more. I read less and less poetry nowadays and somehow couldn’t imagine trying to translate poetry anymore. However, these poems seemed desperately important to me at one point. Other favourites of mine were Quasimodo, Ungaretti, Pasolini, Saba, Penna, Caproni, Montale (though she had just a small book of poetry and a fascinating poem-manifesto called ‘Il Mondo Salvato dai ragazzini’) and Dino Campana. I still read some of them when I make it back to Italy. What languages do you translate from?

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