Books: Cultural Amnesia — Eugenio Montale |
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Eugenio Montale (1896–1981) was Italy’s most famous poet after World War II, and eventually established himself beyond challenge as the living embodiment of his country’s humanist culture in modern times. Immediately memorable even when he was obscure, he was the nearest thing to a national lyrical voice since D’Annunzio, and a distinctly more enticing prospect. Whereas the posturing D’Annunzio had been one of the harbingers of Fascist hysteria, Montale, growing up in the Fascist era, was a portent of the more level tones of the liberal democracy to come. Educated in the fine shades of love, loyalty and emotional truth during histrionic times, he gave everyday sanity a lyrical voice for which his recovering country was grateful. His Nobel Prize in 1975 was welcomed as a sign of restored national prestige. Every educated Italian knows at least a few lines of Montale. People familiar with the standard episodes of Dante and lyrics of Leopardi can usually quote from Montale’s famous poem about the sunflower (“Bring me the sunflower mad with light”). Beginning readers of Italian can be confident that a few hard hours spent between a dictionary and Montale’s first, reputation-making collection, Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones), will promote them directly to the hub of Italian literature in the twentieth century, and give them a phrase or two that everyone will be delighted to recognize. One of the young Montale’s principal objects was to tame rhetoric, the verbal inflation to which an over-musical language is prone. (The hardest trick in an Italian poet’s book is to avoid rhyme: Montale could dodge it forever.) There have been many attempts to translate the masterpieces in Montale’s main body of lyrical poetry. All have failed, but at least they have provided a wealth of parallel texts. For a long while the task of translating his exemplary critical prose looked equally doomed, but Jonathan Galassi finally did an acceptable job with The Second Life of Art (1982). Galassi sometimes misses the easy rhythm of a Montale sentence, but he always catches the dry neatness of its argument. Widely read in several languages but devoted to the value of common experience, the urbane and affable Montale was an enchantingly down-to-earth writer in every form he touched: even his most difficult poetry is full of concrete detail. He was also a singer (his early training provided the bedrock for his superb music criticism) and a painter. Alas, it was revealed after his death that a certain knack for sleight of hand had been among his talents: some of his reviews of English books had been written by a student, with whom he split the take.

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Art destined to live has the aspect of a truth of nature, not of some coldly worked out experimental discovery.

IN HIS CRITICAL PROSE, Montale often reminds you of Flaubert’s insistence that we don’t love literature. Montale didn’t love literature either: not in the sense of drawing his principles from it. He practised literature. As a practitioner, Montale was ready to countenance experiment. He had time for Ezra Pound. When he said, in reference to Pound, that talent presupposes dignity for anyone on whom it is conferred, he was being forgiving about Pound’s politics. He knew he was being generous: Pound flagrantly represented the sort of capitulation to Fascist rhetoric that Montale had not made. But Montale felt no need to be generous about Pound’s technical experiments in fragmentation and panscopic allusiveness. Montale simply thought they were legitimate: as he said much later of Auden, it didn’t matter how lyricism happened as long as it happened. In his own era there were hermeticists in whom he was determined to detect the lyricist even when they themselves had given up. What Montale loved was music, and that was where this cry from the heart came from. He was born and raised as a musician—he could sing at professional level—and was there as a critic at most of the first nights that counted in the long last gasp of the classic Italian opera. Budding critics of television or the movies, if they really want to know how the response to a cultural event can be turned into a critique of the whole society behind it, should get a reader of Italian to take them through a few paragraphs of Prime alla Scala, Montale’s splendid compendium of the best pieces he wrote about the teatro lirico on its way to exhaustion. What destroyed it—or anyway, what marked its destruction, since cause and effect were hard to distinguish—was intellectualism. Late in his life, Montale was in the audience when the avant-garde composer Luigi Nono tried to persuade the Italian musical public that he had been sent to make their lives more significant with a Marxist arrangement of notes. Early in his life, Montale had also been in the audience when the great last operas of verismo had made the audience’s lives more significant without Marx getting a mention: all it had taken was melody, orchestration and thrilling theatrical effect. Montale was thus ideally placed to point out that Nono was a brain in a bottle.

We should concede, however, that the contrast between the truth of nature and the experimental discovery is not always clearly marked. Stravinsky, when he ventured into the atonal, did not sacrifice feeling: and presumably he would not have gone there unless he felt the need for a new range of opportunity. The Impressionist painters thought they were being scientific, and in the matter of the analysis and combination of colours they actually were. In the Renaissance, perspective was an experimental discovery, and must, with its chambers and mirrors, have looked cold enough until you saw the results. Vermeer’s studio probably looked more like an optical laboratory than the simple rooms he sets in front of us. In all the arts, and at all times, there have been technical experiments. Rhyme must have felt like a technical experiment when it was being discovered, and probably sounded like it when its discoverers were exploring its possibilities beyond the immediate bounds of sense. In modern writing, I have had it explained to me, by admirers of John Ashbery in his later phase, how the stutters and elisions of his diction are a release mechanism for modulations of tone. To me they sound like the merest gesture towards complication, but so did the repetitions of Philip Glass until I listened harder. (The harder I listened to Stockhausen, however, the more his repetitions remained merely repetitive.) The real problem with Montale’s protest is that in the earliest days of his poetry—at the time of Ossi di seppia and La bufera e altro—he might have been vulnerable to his own suspicions if he had come back from the future. In the lush context of Italian lyricism, his acerbities of diction were an experiment. They just happened to be a fruitful one. In his heart of hearts, he knows that the two terms of this statement are not as polarized as he makes out. He was just finding a polite way to say how much he hated self-consciously modern, wilfully unseductive, sedulously rebarbative, proudly repellent, unapologetically giftless music. In any kind of bad art, it is when the gift is gone that the experiment really does take over—the eternally cold experiment that promises to make gold out of lead, and bricks without straw. Leaving coldness aside (and we should leave it aside, because barren artistic experimentation can also be done in a white hot frenzy), it might be useful to mention that Montale, in another essay, came up with the perfect term for a work of art that had no other subject except its own technique. He called it the seasoning without the roast.

True culture is what remains in a man when he has forgotten everything he has learned.
This, however, presupposes an absorption, a profound penetration of his character.

Montale was careful to say that we should take it in before we forget it. Ezra Pound is famous for saying roughly the same thing (he said culture begins when we forget what book a fragment came from) but the idea is easier to accept from Montale. We can safely assume that his vast reading got into his writing, as a distillation if not as a frame of reference. After his death it turned out that the vast reading had not been quite as vast as we thought. He read widely in foreign languages and made the citations to prove it, but some of his reviewing of books in English had owed an inordinate amount to an assistant, who not only read those books, but wrote the pieces about them that were published under Montale’s name. Montale had always modestly called English una lingua che non si impara mai—a language that one never learns—but here was evidence that he had found it even harder than that. It was an almighty scandal even by Italian standards, but eventually died down in the Italian way. Nobody ever supposed that Pavarotti sang worse for having finagled so much tax money, and in the long run it was tacitly conceded that Montale, after a lifetime of hard work, had a few easy hours coming to him in the bar while some young hopeful knocked out the article for tomorrow’s Corriere della sera.

Scandals aside, Montale’s learning in languages other than his own (including in English: he really had read a lot of it at first hand) was an abiding astonishment, and in Italian he had quite simply read everything that counted. On top of his knowledge of literature, there was his knowledge of painting: his praise of Roberto Longhi’s art criticism is an act of communion with the great scholar that could beguile any lucky Italian student of art history and lead him by an enchanted route into the principality of literature in the next valley. Longhi knew how to write about painting; Montale knew how to write about writing about painting; and the chain of response has no weak links until it gets to you. Your turn, and welcome to civilization. And to cap his knowledge of literature and the plastic arts, there was his knowledge of music, which amounted to something far beyond expertise: if not the incarnation of the art, he was the incarnation of its appreciation. Take all his critical competencies together, and you get an enchanting picture of a man who illuminated his life by saturating his mind with the arts. It is quite easy to convince yourself that the results show up in his poetry. But don’t we have to take the connection on trust? His poetry is not notably allusive to the arts. How do we know that his character was profoundly penetrated by them? What if he not only, in the superficial sense, forgot everything he learned, but actually and radically forgot the lot?

In conversation, Martin Amis once disturbingly suggested to me that no matter how much you admire a novel, after about a year you forget everything in it. He was proposing a rule of thumb, not a law of thermodynamics, but judging from my own experience he had a point. The reason I keep on reading Lucky Jim and The Great Gatsby is that otherwise I would be certain to forget them, and I know it’s time to read Madame Bovary again when all I can remember is (a) Emma’s lewd cab-ride in Rouen, (b) her being impressed by the physical glossiness of the landed gentry, and (c) her husband’s lack of success with his operation on somebody’s—whose?—foot. When so much goes, what is it that remains, and can it usefully be called an absorption? It might be better to call it a habit. Perhaps we just get into the habit of passing good things through our minds, and the better the things, the better the habit. It might also be that the passing through is the essential event: a polishing of the pipe, like El Dorado’s throat.

We all know trainspotting types who remember useless things. They can have fun with it when they meet a fellow sufferer. But there is nothing amusing about the man who has hurled himself at an exalted art-form and remembered it all. Some of the worst cases have had it hurled at them in early life, and so are not really responsible, but you do meet near-maniacs who chose their fate in the years of maturity. I knew a man once—knew him briefly—who could refer to every aria in every opera by its first line, and always in the original language. He couldn’t just do it for Verdi and Puccini. He could do it for Janáček and Moussorgsky. Worse than that, he couldn’t not do it. During a single interval in the Crush Bar at Covent Garden you would see people departing from him as if launched by a catapult. I knew another man who remembered not just the full cast but all the technical personnel of every film he had ever seen. I wished the two of them in hell together, but at various times each chose me for a victim, and it was an ugly reminder that when it comes to art, forgetting is almost as important as remembering. I love memorizing poetry, but only the poetry I love, and I pity anyone who, without even trying, remembers all the poetry he reads. At Sydney University, one of my contemporaries had that affliction, with the result that his early career was distinguished by his winning a prize with a poem which had previously, in a large part, been written by someone else—a very public embarrassment. Without the capacity to forget, we would not be able to go back to something we love with the delicious twin certainties that it will yield a familiar pleasure of the highest quality, and still be new all over again. The triumph of Proust is that he can give you that feeling on first reading. He can do it because he set himself, in his earliest years, to remembering what it felt like to forget.

Memory tests: in Michael Frayn’s novel Towards the End of the Morning, what does the hero say to reassure himself when he notices the rust eating the paint-job of his car? (It’s the good strong brown undercoat showing through.) (But what is the name of the hero?) In Portnoy’s Complaint, what does Portnoy say his real name is when he is trying to convince the Wasp girl skater that he is not Jewish? (Porte-Noir.) And what is his name for the fantasy girl who puts out every time? (Thereal McCoy.) (But what is the real name of the fashion model he calls the Monkey, and why can’t you remember that, if you can remember the title of the Yeats poem he recites, or half recites, to win her favours?) (It was “Leda and the Swan”). You can remember the name of the weekly show that J. D. Salinger’s Glass children appeared on (It’s a Wise Child) but was it radio or television? And at the end of Franny and Zooey, how many of the Glass children are dead? Is it “Sergeant X” or “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” that features the Dostoevsky quotation “Gentlemen and teachers, I ask you, what is Hell? I submit it is the agony of being unable to love”? Was it inscribed by a Nazi official, by his wife, or by the protagonist? In which novel by Evelyn Waugh does Mrs. Stitch drive her little car down the steps of the men’s lavatory? What kind of little car?

In the paragraph above, there is not a novel, novella or short story mentioned that I have read fewer than three times, and in every case I am not only dimly aware of things I half remember, but painfully aware of things I have forgotten. It gets even more painful when it comes to painting. When the Courtauld collection was still in Bloomsbury I must have looked at Manet’s A Bar of the Folies-Bergère at least a hundred times. There is a man in the mirror: probably he wants her for a mistress. On which side of her head does his image appear? I am damned if I can remember. But perhaps, if one could remember everything, one would be damned indeed. In the last weeks of a slow dying, it might be better to forget. One hopes that there will be a saving mechanism to it, a kind of mental economy. In my prime I thought that H. L. Mencken’s fate—semantic aphasia—was the most cruel possible affliction for a man who had given his life to words: a punishment for love. But from the inside looking out it might have felt like a release.

A release from memories of beauty might be just the ticket: what else, after all, would they make you do, except long for what you can’t have, more life? Perhaps we will forget what was lovely and remember what was true. Already, at no great age, I sometimes fancy that I can feel that happening. Recently, for the tenth time at least, I sat through a video of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Winter Dreams, in the brilliantly sensitive television production by Derek Bailey. All over again I was ravished by what MacMillan did to make Darcey Bussell and Irek Mukhamedov dance as if they were mad about each other. Yet once again I am already forgetting the steps, while remembering better than ever what I have never forgotten since I first saw the work: the unsensational and quietly desperate pas de deux in which Darcey Bussell and Anthony Dowell act out the extinction of their marriage. When the lovers dance, they fly: they fly into a passion. When the married people dance, they die—almost nothing happens. But their doomed little movements are the work of MacMillan’s choreographic imagination at its dizzy height. At one time, by his invitation, I was going to write for him a spoken ballet about Nijinsky. I suppose the project never really had a chance, but it paid off in that I saw a lot of him. Since the first time I saw Mayerling I had always thought he was a genius, and in the other full-length ballets evidence went on accumulating that any MacMillan pas de deux for lovers was an ignition point of modern art—a floodlight on the possibilities of human movement as a plastic equivalent for poetry. He was an easy man to embarrass, so I had to be careful how I told him what I felt, and when he declined into his last illness I shamefully ran out of things to say. I would like to think that this is a way of saying them. (A tip to young writers for when they grow old: if you have felt gratitude for a fellow artist’s life, don’t content yourself with telling him personally: say it in public—someone who knows neither of you might take heart.) I thought MacMillan’s talent so great that it got beyond the beautiful. When his lovers danced sublimely, you could take it for granted. But when he found a steady poetry for slow heartbreak, he gave us something to remember at the point of death. You get no prizes for seeing that his first pas de deux for the lovers in Mayerling is beautiful. But there is a prize for seeing, in Isadora, that his pas de deux for Isadora Duncan and Paris Singer grieving for the accidental death of their children is beautiful too. If it ever came to the point where a lifetime’s memories of artistic exaltation shrank to nothing except a single image, an image of dignity would be a good one to see. One would want to retain at least that much. But Montale must have had that idea in mind, or he would not have talked about the inevitability of forgetting in a way that emphasized the quality of what is remembered.