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Living in the Breach

The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale

edited and translated by Jonathan Galassi
Ecco, 354 pp., $17.50

Literary traffic between Italy and America has always been fitful. The greatness and complexity of Dante have proven, in a sense, a liability. After all, who can undertake to read Italian literature without first knowing Dante? It is partly because of Dante that Petrarch and Leopardi are so little known, and that the Italian masters of our century—Montale, Ungaretti, Saba, and Quasimodo in poetry, Pavese, Gadda, and Svevo in fiction—have been more heard of than read. Translators have worked hard, but in spite of their efforts the graft has not taken well.

But we have more to blame than just the stature of Dante. There is also the arrogant view of Italy as the small country where ruins are eternal and the president’s name changes every few months. The accumulations of the past once represented wisdom, and wisdom, in turn, was power; but now it is the opposite: traditions and ancient patterns are seen as dead weight. The brutal eruptions of history have shouldered them to the side.

The reader of Eugenio Montale’s essays will have to rid himself of this preconception, for they are the speech of a supremely civilized man, a cosmopolitan in the old sense, a poet and thinker for whom writing was for more than fifty years an intense vocation. What might once have been just an important collection of literary essays has taken on the symbolic aspect of a last stand. Montale carried on the European cultural tradition until he died in September 1981, while that culture eroded around him.

Montale was born in 1896 in Genoa. He died at eighty-four in Milan, roughly a hundred miles away. Though he traveled widely in his time, he remained wholly Italian, bound to his region, his time, and, most of all, to his craft. Montale was one of the fortunate artists who discover their gift early and never relinquish it. After 1925, when he published Ossi di seppia, the work that changed modern Italian poetry, his stubborn presence exerted its influence on Italian letters. He weathered two world wars and the fascist interregnum without ever compromising his liberal humanism. The slow, patient work continued. He published few volumes of poetry, but each was a major event; he wrote hundreds of essays and feuilletons. During his years as literary critic for Milan’s Corriere della Sera, 1946 to 1973, he published several pieces a week. But in spite of this large oeuvre, he remains an incalculable figure, hard to place. His private life, his emotional sources, were kept hidden. In his poetry he practiced an aesthetic of reserve that kept his most intimate thoughts away from gossip; antecedents and connecting threads were sketched, suggested, but never explained. His prose, on the other hand, is civilized, ironic, in certain places warm or humorous, but nearly always public. We see both the emotional and the intellectual sides of his sensibility in his work, but the private man remains remote.

Still Montale was not playing a sly game. From time to time, when he deemed it appropriate or necessary, he would use a personal or confessional anecdote. In the present collection, for instance, we find this:

For many years I carried with me a rusty metal shoehorn I was so ashamed of that when I stayed in a hotel I’d hide it so the maid wouldn’t see it. It was the only thing that had been with me since childhood. One day in Venice I forgot where I had hidden it, or rather forgot the shoehorn itself, and I never had the courage to inquire about it. In all probability it is sleeping today at the bottom of the lagoon. Still, I feel remorse, and when they tell me that a cosmonaut has circled the globe six, ten, or sixty times, I think the greatest discovery would be the one that would bring me back my old rusty shoehorn. I know perfectly well that if the shoehorn were to reappear on my table I would feel more terror than joy. Consciously or not, I rid myself of it. I must therefore accept the assistance of chance and continue to live without that magic, silent, rusty Oliphant, as I must confess that I have dared to replace it with a red plastic model which I now set out in plain view and could lose without regret.

I cite this passage because it expresses concisely Montale’s temperament, and gives a glimpse of the associative intelligence that informs his essays: the ability to leap—from shoehorn to cosmonaut—the contrast between the values of public and private life, the use of telling detail. If Montale had a method for writing essays, it was the subtle method of the flâneur, the method of no method. Somewhere in his writings he speaks of this, comparing his approach to that ancient practice of searching for water with a hazel rod, the water in this case being those crystalizations of insight not available to the reasoning faculty, and the rod being the receptive sensibility.

One finds in this passage, obliquely stated but unmistakable, Montale’s uneasiness. This is what makes him an exemplary modernist: the perpetual strain in his work between the vanishing certainties of the past and the onslaught of a most frightening future, a future in which all received values would most likely be compromised, if not negated altogether. Expressed emotionally in his poetry and somewhat more intellectually in his prose is Montale’s vision of the present as a perilous strait between two very different kinds of time, the vision of a man acutely sensitive to the velocity of historical change.

The essays under review, a small selection from Montale’s prose, span a full fifty years of activity. The book begins with ten general meditations, the first, “Style and Tradition,” published in 1925, and the last, “Is Poetry Still Possible?” the poet’s acceptance speech for the 1975 Nobel prize. The titles show Montale’s central preoccupation and his growing pessimism over its future. The perspectives of these opening essays help to define the concerns of the shorter pieces that follow, which are largely appreciations of writers and artists. For everything connects, implicitly, with one question: how will the culture of the past survive into the future? How will human values, as they are exemplified in great works of art, weather political barbarousness and the vacuity of mass society?

Montale is not much interested in stating those values or investigating the great artists of the past. The values are understood. As for past artists, with the exception of his essay on Dante—in which he asks, “What does the work of Dante mean for a poet today?”—they are treated as a patrimony; they are not discussed. Montale is interested in the present and the struggle of the artist in the twentieth century. These are mainly sympathetic essays, sensitive to the particular problems in each writer’s career. Montale is rarely judging: he cannot seem to sustain the attitude of superiority that is required. And he hardly ever condemns.

The first section of literary pieces is called “On Italian Writers.” At least three of those writers—Dino Campana, Giovanni Pascoli, and Gabriele D’Annunzio—may be unfamiliar to American readers; their works are either not yet translated, or, in the case of D’Annunzio, little read and out of print. Of the others, two, Italo Svevo and Benedetto Croce, are better known, but probably only Dante is truly familiar. Even without knowing these writers, however, the attentive reader will be repaid by his experience of the relaxed flow of Montale’s prose style, the rhythm of his sentences, and by seeing what impressions and ideas influenced the poems in Ossi di seppia and the later work.

Montale’s poetry, like his prose, followed no program, but hewed closely to the shifts of his inner life. Nevertheless, at various points in his career the critics were eager to link his work with this or that school, most often with “hermeticism”—the movement that espoused the aesthetic of difficulty and veiled reference. Montale would have none of it. In one of the self-interviews reprinted in The Second Life of Art, he asserts:

The intentions I’m outlining today are all a posteriori. I obeyed a need for musical expression. I wanted my words to come closer than those of the other poets I’d read. Closer to what? I seemed to be living under a bell jar, and yet I felt I was close to something essential. A subtle veil, a thread, barely separated me from the definitive quid. Absolute expression would have meant breaking that veil…an unreachable goal.

Montale’s profession of no profession gives him a remarkable critical openness. He never has to defend one school against another, or attack in the name of a poetic ideology, in a country which has been in this century a vat of isms. It is instructive to read his essays on Campana, Pascoli, and D’Annunzio, to see how carefully he read his predecessors and contemporaries. Although he could not make use of the style or approach of these poets, he could still judge them on their own ground. Of Campana, for example, whose excessive Rimbaudian style was far from Montale’s own ideal of compression and clarity, he wrote:

Dino Campana, who, as Cecchi has said, “passed like a comet,” may not have exercised “an incalculable influence,” but the traces of his passing are anything but buried in the sand. There was nothing mediocre in him; even his errors we should not call errors but inevitable collisions with the sharp corners that awaited him at every step. The collisions of a blind man, if you will. Visionaries, even if they happen to be “visual” like our Campana, are inevitably the most artless, the blindest of creatures on this earth.

Many critics writing today could learn something from the combination of sympathy and discrimination Montale displays here.

In a charming sketch Montale describes his friendship with Italo Svevo, the friendship of an eager young poet and an aging grand seigneur of letters. As he carefully assesses Svevo’s career, Montale gives us a clear interpretation of the successive self-portraits identifiable in Svevo’s characters, a sequence that culminated in the unforgettable Zeno Cosini: in Zeno, Montale suggests, the artist created his Doppelgänger. But in doing so, by showing the interplay of character and locale, he achieved something even more remarkable. He brought a whole city to life.

We have said that Trieste lives at the edges of [Svevo’s] Una vita and absolutely invades Senilità; but at this point Trieste is the very weft of La Coscienza di Zeno, the first warp, so strong that it could be called the producer of its characters themselves, as if the fundamental tone (the tone and rhythm of a city with a double aspect, intensely European and yet unmistakably linked to a very different stock by language, blood, and traditions)—as if the fundamental tone had created figures, characters, situations, by parthenogenesis.

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