Books: In Homage to Gianfranco Contini |
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In Homage to Gianfranco Contini

Esercizî di lettura sopra autori contemporanei con un’appendice su testi non contemporanei, nuova edizione aumentata di ‘Un anno di letturatura’;
Una lunga fedeltà, scritti su Eugenio Montale

The welcome reissue of Esercizî di lettura brings to a logical fruition Gianfranco Contini’s typically meticulous efforts in the past few years to gather and arrange some of the essays which for almost four decades have been bestowed on learned journals and critical magazines, read out as addresses to learned societies, conferred as prefaces on critical editions, send as letters to foreign countries, contributed to Festschrifts for fellow philologists or (which is virtually the same thing) simply handed out to friends. Esercizî di lettura takes its place beside the previously issued Altri esercizî di lettura of 1972 and the massive, inexhaustibly enriching Varianti e altra linguistica of 1970. I hope Professor Contini will forgive the pun — and Dante’s grim shade the blasphemy — if I suggest that we can now see bound into these three volumes, if not into one, the leaves that were before-hand scattered through the universe.

Viewed in all their implications, the 1,500-plus pages of this extraordinary trilogy should convince the appropriately receptive lay reader that Contini is the heir of Ernst Robert Curtius as a scholar and critic of European literature. I recall how once, in Cambridge, a notoriously able young don engagingly admitted that he had sent back Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis to a learned journal with a covering note saying that he did not know how to review it: the book was so learned it was beyond him. Square the distance of that gap and you will judge how far the reading which underlies Contini’s major writings is beyond the present reviewer. But there is at least one crumb of comfort to be had when facing the failure inevitably consequent on trying to sum up work so unsummable. It is the common reader who is likely to see common significance.

The specialist reader already knows about Contini’s central importance to Italian scholarship and appreciates the living nature of his erudition. But the specialists’ awareness of Contini has so far resulted only in a very slight common awareness. For this, perhaps, there are two main reasons. First, the exceptional difficulty of translating his style into thinkable, let alone readable, English: the compression is such that even Italians have trouble with it. Second, the fact that until these volumes appeared Contini had no book to show which could possibly exercise influence on the same scale as Mimesis or Curtius’s great European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, each of which had a large but comfortably ascertainable continuity of theme. With Contini the organic unity is both smaller and larger: smaller in the sense that he tackles particular problems individually, larger in the sense that these particular problems are brought together only in the scope of his learning.

Contini’s erudition is therefore central to his character both as critic and philologist. Indeed his is a mind in which scholarship and criticism can be seen to be united, and the ordinary professional critic (who in this country especially is as likely to be an artist as an academic) can expect to be at best disturbed, and at worst disabled, by the example Contini provides of seemingly fathomless preparation combined with the most intelligent receptivity possible. For the pragmatic composer and dismantler of ad hoc critical principles, a challenge to values is guaranteed. Salvation lies in the realization that the full contents of a mind like Contini’s can be transferred only to another mind like Contini’s. We must content ourselves with absorbing what we can.

As its full title indicates, Esercizî di lettura consists of two smaller, earlier collections. The first edition of the proto-Esercizî was published in Florence in 1939 and there was a new edition after the war, in 1947. Un anno di letteratura was published, also in Florence, in 1942. In the new Einaudi compilation, the esercizî for the first time contain the essay on Umberto Saba which was censored in 1939 and ended up being published in Un anno. The essay on Thomas Mann was also censored in 1939 but was included in the esercizî in the 1947 edition. (Between 1939 and 1942, doubts as to the perfection of Saba’s Aryan background had apparently — Contini slyly hints — moderated. Mann, however, continued to be an unperson.) The essays take their proper place with as little fuss as when they lost it. Contini fought his battles with Fascism the same way he now lectures, in a whisper. There are no grand gestures, just a steady determination to get on with preserving and extending civilized values. It was a measure, of course, of Fascism’s relative moderation vis-à-vis Nazism that scholarship was allowed to continue at all.

For many years these two books were the only volumes to which a student of Contini’s work could have recourse, and it was an elementary obligation to make them once again readily available. The author’s tardiness on this point is no doubt partly due to his feeling, expressed when the esercizî first came out, that it was a posthumous book. His reason, he now says, for devoting such care as he has done (entirely sufficient, needless to say) to the job of reissuing these (and, by implication, his other) writings is further to reinforce their nature as objects, ‘come di sassi da gettare dietro le spalle’ — like stones you toss over your shoulder. Not the worst way, he might have added, to mark a trail.

The esercizî within the new Esercizî di lettura still begin with a series of fundamental essays on Contini’s then contemporary poets; contemporary in the sense that he was the younger man putting the century’s work in order for his own generation. The essays devoted to Clemente Rèbora and Dino Campana first appeared in 1937, and are grouped under the heading ‘Due poeti degli anni vociani’.

It is worth noting at this point that one of the several tasks Contini undertook in the pre-Second World War period was to assess, on behalf of the periodical Letteratura, the poets of the pre-First World War period who were associated with the periodical La Voce. As usually happens in such cases, the critical power passed to the younger men as a necessary consequence of defining the older men’s creativity.

The essay on Saba dates from 1934, as does ‘La verità sul caso Cardarelli’, which connects with the postwar ‘Lettera da non spedire’ (Letter not to be sent) ‘a Vicenzo Cardarelli’ in Altri esercizî. It can be seen from these datings that the placing of the first two essays is strategic, not chronological: La Voce set out to raise Italian culture to the European plane and that was the aim which Contini wanted to bring under review in 1939. He then went on to discuss other still-developing poets.

There are three essays on Ungaretti. The first (‘Ungaretti, o dell’Allegria’) concerns the so-called ‘first’ Ungaretti, the second (‘Materiali sul “secundo” Ungaretti’) the ‘second’ Ungaretti, i.e., the author of Sentimenta del tempo rather than of L’allegria. These two essays date from 1932 and 1933 respectively — early, brilliant work. The third essay, ‘Ungaretti in francese’ of 1939, is more mature. Two of Contini’s first essays on Eugenio Montale round out this first, searchingly argumentative section of the book. Montale was the finest poet of the new generation and Contini (some years the younger) was its finest critical mind, but both things were yet to be proved.

Forty years later their ascendancy is beyond question. These two early appreciations of Montale, like the other essays on that gratifying subject which appear in Un anno and in Altri esercizî, are now separately collected in the other, smaller but equally concentrated book, Una lunga fedeltà, where they gain from being set with their successors, but lose something by being separated from equivalently occasional writings devoted to other poets. It goes beyond instruction — it is close to inspiring — to see the young critic defining the qualities of the outstanding poet’s early work, when the fact that he was outstanding had yet to be fully established. (It should be pointed out in fairness that Sergio Solmi wrote an important notice — now amplified and collected in his Scrittori negli anni — when Ossi di sepia first appeared in 1925.) At that point Contini, the philologist, the man of Italy’s past, was conspicuously a man of its present — the contemporary man of letters. That the two roles only apparently conflict is a first principle in his idea of his own activity: an idea which he has lived to the full.

There are almost a score of comparable essays on other contemporary figures — Emilio Cecchi, Antonio Baldini, Nino Savarese, Georgio Vigolo, and so on — but perhaps it will be more useful to sample Contini’s commentary on one or two of the poets already mentioned whose reputations are international. The first noticeable characteristic of Contini’s criticism is his ability to make a general statement about an author which the reader sees to be both widely applicable and original. This quality is the heavily condensed residuum of Croce’s requirement that the critic should give an account of the poet’s stato d’animo — his condition of mind. When Contini says that Campana was an anarchist who did not know how to liberate the man of order within himself (‘Questo anarchico, questo “bohémien” non seppe liberare l’uomo d’ordine ch’era in lui. . .’) he is producing something better than an epigram. Of the ‘first’ Ungaretti he says (and the awkwardness is all in my translation) that the background on which the poems are incised is a vivid feeling of concreteness combined with an insatiable regard for far-off things: a distance opens and a self-sufficient lyrical unit (‘quella che si vorebbe chiamare la monade lirica’) immediately introduces itself. His analysis is both definitive and evocative: that, we feel, is the way Ungaretti writes about the world.

Of the ‘second’ Ungaretti he says that the poet’s weakness tends to be the underlying (sottolinearità is one of the early Contini’s favourite words) of everything about a subject in the desire to exhaust it impressionistically. The argument is mature in all except its tendency to deny the poet a future — from young critics, the prognosis of a poet’s condition is nearly always gloomy. Here I can recommend turning to the 1942 essay on Ungaretti in Altri esercizî, where Contini puts these two preliminary essays in perspective by conceding his early urge to be dialectical about the two volumes L’allegria and Sentimento del tempo: the young critic, he ruefully admits, ideally wants his subject-poet to die. Not having yet had a career of his own, he finds it hard to see how the poet could want one either. As a bonus, Contini adds a highly illuminating remark emanating from the territory where the philological shades into the critical: Ungaretti’s obsession with corrections negated inspiration as a fundamental characteristic (a denial which Contini thinks can never be rooted in fact) but was also his safeguard against an a priori sweetness. Tracing these essays through the two books we reap the benefits of a concern continuing in time. It is usually the way with Contini: he stays with a subject for as long as it is creatively alive. The extreme case among his contemporaries has been Montale. But the same applies to the past.

Writing of a poet, Contini produces phrases so densely apposite that they definitively influence the reader’s view. He says of Saba’s seeming clichés (‘vista dilettoso’, ‘campagne grate’, etc.) that they are not literary furniture but genuine optimism. It would be hard to think of a more suitable qualifying introduction to Saba’s deceptive ease. But, as often as he says something which attaches itself permanently to the immediate subject, Contini says something else which leads us on to his total scope. Linking Ungaretti’s ‘consolation’ with Leopardi’s, he writes of the release which Leopardi found in setting the hammered phrase in the single scheme. A point of style in the present leads to a point of style in the past — and with this critic, for whom taste is objective, all poetic problems are eventually problems of style. Criticism leads back to philology as surely as it first emerges from it.

In the nine essays constituting the “Appendice su testi non contemporanei’ of the proto-esercizî at least two should catch the immediate attention of the general reader. Both are philological essays, but as always with Contini cogent criticism is abundant. ‘Come lavorava l’Ariosto’ (how Ariosto worked) shows how the variations and editions of Orlando Furioso embody the relationship of poetic ‘being’ to ‘not-being’ — again it is a Crocean distinction, the famous opposition between poesia and non poesia which Contini was already subtilizing and modifying. Contini welcomed the editing of Ariosto which had been carried out by Santorre Debenedetto, who confirmed that Ariosto did not make prose sketches of his stanzas (tradition had always held that he did) but narrated and reflected directly in verse. Poetic education, says Contini succinctly, had completely penetrated habit.

‘Una lettura su Michelangelo’ (1937) is an inquiry into Michelangelo’s sonnets from the stylistic viewpoint — which is always Contini’s viewpoint, but is here made usefully explicit. Style, says Contini, is the author’s way of knowing things. For what he means by Michelangelo’s Petrarchism it is advisable to consult the essays on Petrarch in Varianti, which form, along with the essays on Dante in the same volume, one of Contini’s most weighty contributions to the understanding of poetry.

Un anno gives an early indication (the year was 1939-40) of the variety and solidity of work the mature Contini has since become accustomed to getting through in twelve months. There are six essays on contemporary writers, three ‘almost philological’ essays, and a piece on Le Corbusier which besides being as interesting as Walter Benjamin on the subject of Paris is presciently disinclined to welcome the benefits promised to that city by modern architecture. Hence we are given a glimpse of the critic of the plastic arts Contini might have become. But he seems to have been content to leave that side of things to Roberto Longhi, whose writings he later selected and edited to form a critical history of Italian art and whose status as a prosatore he has always been concerned to emphasize — e.g., with the three essays (‘Contributi longhiani’) in Altri esercizî, in the first of which (‘Sul metodo’, 1949) he defined the quality inherent in Longhi’s memory, which was already famous for quantity: ‘la memoria, per quanto eccezionalissima, di Longhi è la facoltà di seriare l’immagine fra le immagini prossime, in ogni direzione, second linee il più posibile complete.’ (‘Longhi’s memory, besides being exceptional, is the ability to arrange an image in series with its neighbours along lines as complete as they can possibly be — in every direction.’) Contini calls this a scientific gift; before the facts, to the extent that they are facts, there are no two methods.

Longhi, of all the writers connected with La Voce (although his maturity came later), is perhaps the one whose influence on Contini was formative. Contini praises in Longhi qualities he could legitimately value in himself, if modesty allowed. He calls Longhi’s Piero della Francesca of 1927 a classic of contemporary letters and its author a true writer. It is interesting that he should feel the need to insist. (Longhi’s writings on art bristle with references to literature. Contini’s writings on literature are not quite so replete with references to art, but they occur often enough, are always illustrative, and reveal a profound culture. One of his few appearances as an out-and-out art historian is easily obtainable in the popular Rizzoli series Classici dell’Arte, No 43: Simone Martini. He wrote the introduction, ‘Simon Martini gotico intellettuale’ — tough going for the casual dabbler.)

Near the end but at the heart of Un anno is a reply to an inquiry about ermetismo. While defending the poet’s right to difficulty, Contini shows that hermeticism as an ideal is a logical mistake. Hermeticism, if it could really be attained, would involve isolation, and so, like every poetry of the Absolute, deny the possibility of individuality, which can arise only where collaboration is possible: i.e., in society. Contini’s compliments to other scholars are no mere log-rolling. He has always had a sense of the cooperative venture remarkable in one so outstandingly gifted.

And now, with Esercizî di lettura ranked alongside Altri esercizî and Varianti, we can see more clearly just how extraordinary that gift is. The two esercizî volumes are the epitome of his writings on the present and near past. The varianti volume is the epitome of his writings on the far past. Each epitome lends the other force. Together they show a scope which brings up the whole question of erudition.

In ‘L’influenza cultural di Benedetto Croce’, a long essay written in 1966 to introduce the Ricciardi anthology of Croce’s writings and now included in Altri esercizî, Contini gives an intensely compressed account of Croce’s intellectual history which contains by implication all he thinks on the question of his own inheritance from the great philosopher. The problem, says the younger man, is to be post-Crocean without being anti. Croceanism, in the pejorative sense, he defines as the diffuse monograph-mongering of those who append their nests and cobwebs to Croce’s trunk. Of the epigones one has to be dismissive. But there is no justifiable way of dismissing Croce himself.

Croce deserves something better — criticism. And one of the many vulnerable points Contini finds in Croce concerns erudition. There was a contradiction in Croce between his urge to deal with particular problems and his voracity for omniscience, a hunger which — especially in the late stages — often got out of control. It is important here to realize that Contini is not talking about volume of knowledge so much as relevance. That knowledge could be even more voluminous than Croce’s and still be relevant is shown by the ‘Memoria di Ramón Menéndez Pidal’ which Contini read as a commemorative address to the Accademia dei Lincei and which is also collected in Altri esercizî. Menéndez Pidal was one of Contini’s great masters: a scholar who, the pupil says, spontaneously longed for the totality of knowledge. The emphasis is on the spontaneity. In Menéndez Pidal, says Contini, we saw the acceptable limit of intellectual curiosity, an exact symbiosis of the folkloristic collector, the textual critic, the palaeographer, the grammarian, and the historian of language, culture, institutions and politics.

Contini’s separation from Croce is perhaps more simply illustrated elsewhere in the Altri esercizî in the 1944 letter to France called Introduction à l’étude de la littérature italienne contemporaine. Here Contini is summing up his ideas for a French audience which necessarily knows less than about Croce than an Italian one, so the argument is less compressed (and Contini’s French is a good deal easier to follow than his Italian anyway). Croce wasn’t interested in scholarship as Contini conceives it: he called it the study of waste paper. For Croce, the study of a poem began after it was finished. Contini asserts his right to study a poem on its way to being born. Such an approach has to link art with life. For Croce the temptation (backed up by his fundamental theoretical separation of categories) was to divorce the two beyond reconciliation. Croce thought that nothing of interest in poetry had happened after Carducci. But Contini could see that scholarship meant nothing if it denied art a present.

On this last point Contini has enjoyed throughout his critical life the privilege of access to a contemporary poet whose eminence is difficult to argue with. Una lunga fedeltà collects six pieces on Montale ranging from Introduzione a Ossi di seppia of 1933 to Sul Diario del ’71 e del ’72 — which latter is actually the blurb from the wrapper of the book. There is little on the Diario and hardly anything on Satura, but the first three collections (the Ossi, Le occasioni and La bufeta) inspired some superb critical writing. Montale grew to greatness before the eyes of Contini’s generation, assuring them (and thereby reassuring them) that in an age of rhetoric the classical retreats to a hidden world — and survives. Anyone with an interest in Montale’s poetry can consult this miniature book and see Contini’s critical intellect working at full force: to borrow one of Montale’s most famous lines, qui tocca anche a noi poveri la nostra parte di ricchezza. Here even we poor get a share of the wealth.

(T.L.S., 22 November 1974)