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.
Three sections of the book are made up of some twenty short, idiosyncratic pieces, each having at its center some odd, revelatory incident or some striking observation. Most of them were written as feuilletons for the Corriere della Sera. The feuilleton is not the precise equivalent of our “column.” Though it is as brief, its conceits are generally more literary and less self-consciously ephemeral. Montale’s seem to me masterpieces of the genre. Casual, impressionistic, they are like the ink and wash sketches of a sixteenth-century master—one or two lines, a touch here and there of the perfect shading.
The lightness of touch can be deceptive at times, allowing us to forget that Montale was among the most erudite and cosmopolitan of writers. When he was young he translated Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Melville into Italian. He was a passionate lover of opera, and in his youth had trained with the baritone Ernesto Sivori. When he grew older he took up painting. The passion for culture in all its forms animates—however subtly—these pieces. Montale perceived the life of his time in the music of Stravinsky, the painting and sculpture of Braque and Brancusi, the vastly different poems of Pound, Eliot, Auden, Char, and Cavafy.
Of a reception given for T.S. Eliot, Montale wrote:
Eliot had not yet won the Nobel Prize, but he was considered the most likely of the papabili and his fame among the young of two worlds was undisputed. Which did not preclude a feeling of embarrassment among those present who, as they entered, were unable to make out the poet on first sight. Naturally, those who had seen his photograph did not hesitate; but the rest—attracted by a name that remained simply a name, unrelated to some physical image—were unable to choose among so many heads of hair, so many pairs of glasses, so many authoritative faces. Then a murmur rose among the uncertain, a direction was pointed out, an indicating arrow shot in the air toward a distinguished gentleman, thin and unbearded, somewhere between fifty and sixty, more “clergyman” than professor but for his limpid and penetrating gaze, which was protected by a pair of tortoise-shell glasses.
The effect is that of a camera rolling through a crowded room. The confusion of “so many heads of hair, so many pairs of glasses” is at once cleared away. Before we have caught our breath we are face to face with the famous tortoise-shell glasses.
In the piece “On the Trail of Stravinsky,” Montale is a cultural reporter, in Venice to cover the world premiere of the Auden/Stravinsky Rake’s Progress. Though he claims to be on the trail of the composer, he never gets to meet him. There is always some obstacle or failed connection. But chance brings him to the restaurant where Auden, Spender, and MacNeice happen to be eating a mussel stew.
Wystan Hugh Auden, the librettist of the Rake in collaboration with Chester Kallman, is forty-four years old and five feet seven [sic] inches tall, and lacks, or has lost, the youthful expression and the flowing hair that certain photographs lent him. He is a strong, cordial, human man whom one seems to have known forever. He divides his time between Ischia and New York; now an American citizen, he has taken the opposite route from Eliot, who was American and became English. According to Stravinsky, who chose him on the advice of Huxley, Auden is the Bach of modern poetry. He does what he likes and knows every secret of technique. And in fact his poetry is sweet like Spenser’s, ironic and witty like Pope’s, dry and discursive like Eliot’s. He jumps from the old to the new with perfect non-chalance, enjambs his stanzas like the best of Byron’s Don Juan, juggles modern thought with acrobatic agility; moving through time and space among the ghosts of Kierkegaard and the invective of Karl Barth, he has abandoned the religion of Marxism for the Anglo-Catholicism into which he was born; and finally (and for me, today, this is his greatest attraction) he loves opera and in the libretto of the Rake has succeeded in writing a masterwork of the genre.
Two pages later, the premiere over, when Montale runs into Auden at the airport, he cannot resist adding a final stroke. Auden “jumps aboard the plane like a roebuck. His carrot-colored head enters the cabin, disappears.”
Montale was much interested in English and American poetry and he has a great deal to say, both directly and by inference, about Eliot, Pound, and Auden. Of the three, he was temperamentally closest to Eliot, in whom he found a poetics not unlike his own. Montale had worked out on his own notions similar to Eliot’s “objective correlative.” But even more than Eliot the poet, I think, Montale admired Eliot the critic and essayist. He valued Eliot’s search for a usable past, for ways to enrich modern art and thought with the best of the European tradition. That he did so in a lucid, classical manner was for Montale a great achievement.
Montale was somewhat harder on Pound. He was irritated by the “abridged, night-school, accelerated-course” approach that Pound took to that same cultural past. He thought Pound’s energies were deployed superficially and lacked a center. Nevertheless, he had respect for some of Pound’s work, particularly the early collection Personae. As to the question of Pound’s fascism, Montale, who had distinguished himself by his uncompromising opposition to Mussolini, gave him the benefit of the doubt. He was convinced that Pound could not have known about the crematory ovens. “Pound,” he writes—and he knew the poet for many years—“was a profoundly good man, of this I am sure.”
Montale went several times to see Malraux, Brancusi, and Braque. Three less kindred personalities cannot be imagined—the diplomat engagé, the misanthrope-perfectionist, and the sage of Cubism. What is so fascinating about these accounts is Montale’s ability to absorb the imprint of a personality from the briefest and most formal of circumstances. Braque is detached, monumental. Brancusi is rude, and this meeting is our one chance to see Montale’s equanimity shaken. As for Malraux, Montale spends several hours letting the man reveal himself. Montale is awed. Soldier, diplomat, art historian, novelist, Malraux has managed to do everything with Gallic flair. What’s more: “He has spoken for an hour and a half, giving the illusion of talking to a friend and of having opened himself up for the first time.” But finally the visit is over, and Montale is on the street searching for a taxi.
I go out under the first raindrops and skirt the deserted pool. I don’t know whether to envy the regal destiny (or anti-destiny) of André Malraux, but this evening I am less unhappy with my own. And for this too I can thank the regal author of The Voices of Silence.
Tact, at times, can be the deadliest weapon of all.
In a beautiful untitled poem in Ossi di seppia, Montale, not yet thirty, wrote his credo. It is an apostrophe to the sea, and at one point he proclaims:
It was you who first taught me
my heart’s puny tumult
was only a moment of yours—
that at bottom I kept your hazardous
law: to be vast and various
(translated by Sonia Raiziss
and Alfredo de Palchi)
Vast, various, steady—Montale’s work was all these. And if the sketches seem diffuse, the meditations that open the collection have a steadiness, as well as vastness and variety. Here, where Montale deals with the issues that usually are printed in capital letters—Man, Time, Culture, History—we find his curious blend of humaneness and pessimism at its strongest. The same sensibility persisted for fifty years. Montale himself tried to account for this persistence. In one of his self-interviews, he describes his temperament as something autonomous, an entity with its own laws and almost immune to history. “From birth I have felt a total disharmony with the reality that surrounded me,” he writes. And then, taking into account fascism and two world wars, he adds: “I had reasons for unhappiness that went far above and beyond these phenomena.” The reader should not suppose that Montale was unmoved by the larger tragedies; he is merely saying that he felt his own more deeply, that they had been present from the start. Ultimately, though, the public and private forms of despair are fused in a quietly charged tone present in everything Montale wrote.
Fascism, collectivism, the erosion of a great tradition—all are, for Montale, manifestations of the same tendency. There is no name for it. To call it “historical decline” or “entropy” is not to define it. But recognizing this tendency can result only in a tragic view. Montale also recognized that one is still forced to act and decide, and every act and decision has bearing upon the surrounding world. Thus, despair notwithstanding, there is the choice to be made: to submit to history, or to live “in spite of” it. Montale’s career exemplified the latter choice. His vision of decline did not prevent him from putting his life into the service of ideals of beauty, goodness, truthfulness. Perhaps deep down he did not exclude all hope. As late as 1944, in an essay entitled, fittingly, “A Wish,” he wrote:
It is simply the old battle of good and evil, the struggle of divine forces fighting in us against the unchained forces of bestial man, the dark forces of Ahriman. Thus in us and through us a divinity is brought into being, earthly at first, and perhaps celestial and incomprehensible to our senses, which without us could not develop or become cognizant of itself. And because of this we must simply say no to every exploitation of man by man….
This seems uncharacteristically Manichaean, out of keeping with Montale’s secular nature. Yet the vision here of man creating the divine for himself is not that of a practicing Christian.
A later essay, “Man in the Microgroove,” published in 1962, presents a view that seems more characteristic. The conceit in this piece is that history can be likened to a phonograph record, in whose grooves the future is already pressed. The terror is, of course, that nothing can be altered, that history is not a struggle of opposing forces but a fait accompli. Worse still is the possibility—or probability—that the future is one in which the contours of humanistic culture and its traditions have been completely eradicated. Montale closes this speculation with a double negative that is anything but reassuring:
And yet the real history, the one that counts and is not to be found in books, is precisely this one, the one made by simple men; and it is the only one that still rules the world. Tomorrow perhaps it too will disappear and then science will be able to record a truly unheard of man, a new zoological specimen whose distinguishing features I fortunately don’t know. I am not entirely sure that this portentous individual is not already hidden within the microgrooves of the record.
If anything will save culture, it will be the work of a few artists. So Montale believed. This is less, I think, a profession of elitism than the considered view of a man who saw a whole generation swept by fascism. How were the values and lessons of the past to be carried into the future if not in the hearts of a few special people? The public at large would not undertake such a salvage operation. And how were civilized values to be kept alive and disseminated if not through art? In the light of these questions, the thesis of the title essay is of central importance. In “The Second Life of Art” (1949), Montale argues that art does not attain its full meaning until it is seen apart from the setting in which it was created. That is, the melody does not really live until it is recalled outside the concert hall; the line of poetry only matters when it has come to the reader in a situation detached from the actual reading of the poem. This is a controversial idea, for it postulates “memorability”—whether conscious or unconscious—as a requisite attribute of art. For Montale such experiments as Dada, aleatory music, or Duchamp’s “found objects” preclude the possibility of a second life in the experience of the viewer. Montale’s position is conservative, to say the least. But then, conservation was his mission. He simply feared that the past would not reach the future on such rickety bridges.
Montale’s tendency in his poetry, his prose, and, I suspect, his life was to avoid final pronouncements. He needed to be in a state of uncertainty; for him it was tonic. He saw himself as living in the breach between the diminishing past and the fearsome future. There are more comfortable places to station oneself, but I don’t think it ever occurred to him to move. Montale’s path required that, having lost his rusty shoehorn, he make do with his “red plastic model.” He would carry on, but he was not going to pretend that the replacement was just as good. He could lose it, he says, “without regret.”
February 17, 1983