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…

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