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How Montale Earned His Living

The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale, edited and translated by Jonathan Galassi
Prime alla Scala by Eugenio Montale

If Eugenio Montale had never written a line of verse he would still have deserved his high honours merely on the basis of his critical prose. The product of a long life spent clearing the way for his poetry, it is critical prose of the best type: highly intelligent without making mysteries, wide-ranging without lapses into eclecticism or displays of pointless erudition, hardbitten yet receptive, colloquial yet compressed. The only drawback is that it constitutes a difficult body of work to epitomize without falsifying.

For a long time Montale’s English translators added to the difficulty by not being able to read much Italian or, sometimes and, not being able to write much English. Then a few competent, if restricted, selections emerged. But the problem remained of transmitting Montale’s critical achievement in its full, rich and all too easily misrepresented subtlety. Now Jonathan Galassi has arrived to save the day. His style does not always catch Montale’s easy rhythm, but much of the time he comes close, and the explanatory notes on their own would be enough to tell you that he has mastered all the necessary background information. One of the most active of Montale’s previous translators was under the impression that Dante employed the word libello to mean “libel” instead of “little book.” A dedicated and knowledgeable student of the tradition from which he emerged, Montale was a stickler for detail, so Mr. Galassi’s wide competence comes as a particular refreshment. In all his phases as a poet, from the early, almost Imagist toughness to the later anecdotal relaxation, Montale started with the specific detail and let the general significance emerge. His prose kept to the same order of priority, so it is important that the details be got right. Galassi had several volumes of prose to consider, all published late in the poet’s life. Sulla Poesia of 1976 is the principal collection of literary criticism as such, and indeed one of the most interesting single collections of literary essays in modern times, but the earlier Auto da Fé of 1966 (Montale must have been unaware that Elias Canetti had given the English version of Die Blendung that same title) is its necessary complement, being concerned with the question of mass culture—a question made more vexing for Montale by the fact that, although he didn’t like mass culture, he did like popular culture and thought that elite culture would kill itself by losing touch with it.

There are also some important discursive writings on literature in Fuori di Casa (1969), the book about being away from home, and the Carteggio Svevo/Montale (1976), which chronicles Montale’s early involvement with the novelist whose merits he was among the first to recognize, and whose concern with the artistic registration of the inner life helped encourage Montale in the belief—crucial to his subsequent development—that what mattered about modern art was not its Modernism but the way it allowed private communication between individuals, the sharing of deep secrets in a time of shallow rhetoric. In addition, there is the abundant music criticism, but most of that, at the time this book was being prepared, was not yet available in book form, so Mr. Galassi largely confined himself to the general articles on music scattered through the volumes mentioned above.

Even with so considerable a restriction, however, there was a lot to choose from. The richesse must have been made doubly embarrassing by Montale’s habit of returning to the same point in essay after essay in order to elaborate it further, so that there is a real danger, if you settle on a single essay in order to demonstrate how he has aired a given topic, of getting the idea that he glosses over difficulties in passing, whereas in fact one of his salient virtues was to stay on the case, sometimes for decades on end, until he had it cracked. To sample him is thus almost always to belittle him: it is misleading, for example, to have him speaking as an anti-academic unless you also have him speaking as an appreciator of solid scholarship, and no representation of Montale as the hermeticist young poet can be anything but a travesty unless he is also allowed to speak as the reasonable man who didn’t just end up as the advocate of appreciability, but who actually started out that way. One of the big compliments Mr. Galassi should be paid is that, given this very real problem, he has selected well. All the books are fairly represented, most of the main different emphases in Montale’s stable but manifold critical position are touched upon if not covered, and the quiet giant comes alive before us, as a personality and a mind.

To an extraordinary extent the two things were coextensive. Like one of those periods in Chinese history when Confucian self-discipline and Taoist impulsiveness nourished each other, Montale’s inner life was both naively fruitful and sophisticatedly self-aware. It makes him great fun to read, as if the smartest man in the world were a friend of the family, one of those good uncles who aren’t avuncular. In Italian the title essay of the book was called “Tornare nella Strada” (“Back into the Street”), but the term “second life” recurs throughout the piece and comes right from the centre of Montale’s essentially generous artistic nature. No poet could be more learned about the cultural heritage of his own country and his learning about the cultural heritage of other countries is impressive too, but he says, and obviously believes, that it is not the appeal of art to adepts that interests him most. It is not the first life that matters, but the second life, when a theme from an opera gets whistled in the street, or a phrase from a poet is quoted in conversation. This view might sound crudely populist or even philistine when excerpted, but as argued in a long essay, and fully considered during a long career, it proves to be a highly developed exposition of the elementary precept that art must be appreciable, even if only by the happy few. It doesn’t have to be immediately appreciable, and indeed in modern times any attempt to make it so is likely to be just a coldly intellectualized programme of a different kind, but if it rejects the possibility of being appreciated then it disqualifies itself as art. “The piece goes on and on,” he says regretfully of Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon, “but it does not live during the performance, nor can it hope to do so afterward, for it does not affect anything that is truly alive in us.”

Montale realized quite early that to propose such a line would involve a perpetual obligation to dissociate himself from unwanted allies who would mock any kind of difficulty, even when it was legitimate. That there could be such a thing as legitimate difficulty Montale did not doubt, since he himself embodied it as a poet. But he also didn’t doubt that Modernist enthusiasms would open the way for illegitimate difficultly in large quantities, and that the enemies of art would therefore have a lot at which to point the finger while they made their strident calls for a responsible culture. Mussolini liked quotable quotes, and Palmiro Togliatti’s idea of art was of something which people could sing or recite while they were lining up to join the Communist Party. If you don’t much like Expressionism, the way you say so is bound to be modified by the fact that Hitler didn’t like it either. Montale’s lifelong apoliticism was very political in this sense—that he spoke for the autonomy of culture at a time when political forces were trying to co-opt it. Art should be responsible only to itself. But responsible it should be. “Mastery,” he said in twenty different ways, “consists of knowing how to limit yourself.” It was the necessary corollary of his other famous proposition, the one about how it isn’t the man who wants to who continues the tradition, but the man who can.

The man who can is the man with inspiration. But the inspiration has to come from life. This was where Montale parted company from the Modern movement as a whole. For Montale, art which had nothing except its own technique for subject matter could only be a monster. “An art which destroys form while claiming to refine it denies itself its second and longer life: the life of memory and everyday circulation.” It would be a conventional enough conclusion for any artist to reach in old age but all the evidence suggests that Montale started out with it. Even back in the 1920s, when he was the unfathomable, linguistically revolutionary young poet of Ossi di Seppia, he had that social humility to go with his fierce artistic pride. Maturity was part of his gift.

“Style,” he wrote in 1925, the year of the first publication of Ossi di Seppia, “perhaps will come to us from the sensible and shrewd disenchanted, who are conscious of the limits of their art and prefer loving it in humility to reforming humanity.” The idea had been made very relevant by the events of the 1920s. The international avant-garde had already projected, and was bringing into being, an art without limits. Fascism was bringing into being a reformed humanity, or supposed it was. To this latter end, the mobilization of art was alleged to be essential. In the event, Italian artists and intellectuals were slow to provide Mussolini with the accreditation he would have liked. He gave them medals but, as Montale points out, even when they accepted the medals they did not give much in return.

Montale accepted no medals and gave nothing—not to the state, anyway. What he gave, he gave to his country. As a poet he continued and deepened his original course of writing a new, compressed poetry which, from the puffy and sugared cappuccino that the Italian lyric had become, was a direct and vertiginous return to the Dantesque espresso basso. Later on, when his early manner relaxed into the luminous transparency of the love poetry and the slippered reminiscence of the verse diaries, that initial rigour was still there underneath, keeping everything in terse proportion. In the most rhetorical age of Italian history, his poetry was always as unrhetorical as could be. His prose kept the same rule, to the end of his long life—a serietà scherzevole, a joking seriousness, a humane ease whose steady claim on your attention reminds you that he is the opposite of dispassionate. He is a passionate man in control of himself, having seen, or guessed in advance, what self-indulgence leads to.

Montale’s defence of art against utilitarian pretensions, whether from the state or on behalf of the mass audience, has general relevance for the modern world, but the specific conditions of recent Italian history brought it into being. Faced with the stentorian claims of bogus novelty, it was inevitable that he would appeal to tradition. Yet it was a tradition from which he personally was trying to fight free. Certainly his unusual capacity to speak generally about the arts without declining into abstraction springs partly from a detailed engagement with his European literary predecessors. But that much he had been born to. Eliot, with whose name Montale’s was often linked, got into the European tradition from outside. Montale, born inside, had to get out from under its crushing weight. He talked his way out. Mr. Galassi’s selection from Montale’s many essays on Italian writers shows the poet humanizing the past, pointing out what is permanently current. The great figures rise from their tombs of scholarship and speak as contemporaries, even the grandiose and torrentially eloquent D’Annunzio, the poet who was everything Montale strove not to be. In fact, the essay on D’Annunzio leaves you thirsty for more. If it were as long as the one on Svevo, you would feel that D’Annunzio was at arm’s reach, instead of still soaring around above you with goggles preposterously flashing, pursuing those “flights of omnivorous fancy which does not always turn what it touches into gold, but which will never cease to amaze us.”

Montale’s admiration for D’Annunzio was real, but a long way within bounds. For Svevo it was a profound sympathy. D’Annunzio wanted to conquer the world—an uninteresting prospect. Svevo’s universe was in his own soul, and that interested Montale very much. Montale’s young enthusiasm helped the diffident Triestine businessman to the recognition he deserved as Italy’s most important modern novelist. But here again it is necessary to emphasize that Montale was much less concerned with Svevo’s technical advance into Modernism than with his thematic return to a solid, communicable, everyday subject—which just happened to be the one subject everybody could recognize: namely, the failed adventures in the soul. At a time of heated bombast, Svevo offered concreteness and the slow maturity of considered awareness. “Removed from contact with the world of letters, Svevo developed in solitude.” Montale was also talking about himself. He was not removed from the world of letters, which was never likely to leave him alone, but he always cultivated his solitude in a way which Svevo had helped show him was the key to being a modern artist. The life had to be private before it could be public. The other way round was just publicity.

The essay on Svevo would be enough by itself to demonstrate that Montale, if he was ever anti-academic, was not so for lack of scholarly instinct. He had respect for scholarship but was early aware that it would tend to put the past beyond reach, if only by providing “too much light.” He had a knack for making then seem as close as now—the obverse of another knack, equally valuable, for sensing what was eternal about the present. The section on foreign artists has essays about Valéry, Auden and Stravinsky which bring out their full dignity. A keen student of English, he enjoyed Auden’s verbal playfulness in a way which would have horrified F. R. Leavis, who admired Montale and therefore assumed that he took a stern line against frivolity. But Montale was always willing to forgive intellectual sleight-of-hand if something unexpectedly lyrical should come out of it. His admiration for Stravinsky was withdrawn only when neo-classicism, which at least allowed the possibility of spontaneous feeling, gave way to serialism, which didn’t. Apart from a few sour words about Brancusi, who was a bad host, Montale never belittles a real artist, no matter how variable his work or questionable his personal odyssey, believing that “true poetry is in the nature of a gift, and therefore presupposes the dignity of the recipient.” But he isn’t dewy-eyed either: the false positions that creative people can get themselves into, especially politically, fascinate and appal him.

Foreign students who own the monumental, fully annotated Contini/Bettarini L’Opera in Versi of 1980 are likely to remain deprived for a long time yet of an equivalent edition of the prose. They will find Galassi’s book a useful tool even if they don’t need the translation. Experts might sniff at being told who Svevo was, but it doesn’t hurt to be told that Federico Frezzi was a poet of Foligno who wrote a long poem in imitation of Dante, thus, apparently, earning himself immediate and lasting oblivion. Montale would have approved of a footnote that gave Federico Frezzi of Foligno the dignity he had coming. Even a very minor artist was a good thing to be.

I can’t see that Mr. Galassi has fudged much in the way of information. Where Montale speaks of genius as a long patience, I think he expects us to know that Flaubert said it to Maupassant, although lately I have seen the remark attributed to Balzac. Here it is attributed to no one but Montale, who was good enough at aphorisms of his own not to need other people’s wished on him. Also when the humiliated and offended are mentioned at one point, and the humiliated and afflicted at another, these are indeed accurate translations from two different essays, but Montale is almost certainly referring to the title of the same novel by Dostoevsky in both cases.

But this is nit-picking. Montale’s range of literary reference is so wide that even the most alert editor is bound to let a few allusions get through unannotated. More serious is Mr. Galassi’s seeming determination, despite his evident familiarity with Benedetto Croce’s basic works, to remain unaware that you must be very careful not to translate the word fantasia as “fantasy,” when it should be “imagination.” In English, thanks to Coleridge, “imagination” is the categorically superior term. In Italian, after Croce, fantasia is categorically superior to immaginazione. Imprecision on this point is made galling by the fact that for Montale, as for every other Italian writing in the twentieth century, it was Croce who made precise discussion of the subject possible.

More serious still, the translation is often glutinous. Montale’s enviably colloquial flow can’t be reproduced unless you are sometimes content to write several sentences where he wrote one. The arbitrary genders of Italian enable a prosatore of Montale’s gifts to construct long sentences in which you don’t lose track. It’s impossible to transpose them intact, as Mr. Galassi proves on several occasions by producing a construction so labyrinthine that Ariadne’s thread would run out halfway.

This prevalent fault of lumpishness—so unfaithful to Montale’s conversational urbanity—is exacerbated by a light peppering of strange English usages, or misusages. On page 57, to take one example, “the game is up” should be “the game’s afoot” or possibly “the game is on,” but as it stands it means the exact opposite of what Montale wrote. “Poetry is the art that is technically available to everyone: all it takes is a piece of paper and a pencil and the game is up.” On page 134, “gild the pill” literally translates the Italian expression (indorare la pillola) but in English sounds like an unhappy conflation of “gild the lily” and “sugar the pill,” which mean something separately but not a lot together.

The Second Life of Art, of the books in English by or concerned with Montale, is easily the most important to date. Of the books in Italian, Prime alla Scala has been long awaited. From 1954 to 1967 Montale wrote regular opera notices for the Corriere d’Informazione. It was always clear that when the pieces were collected the resulting volume would be one of the strongest on his short shelf. But the complete work, which he did not live to see published, is beyond expectation. It shows him at his best: in love with the subject and full of things to say.

Montale attended most of the La Scala first nights in the great period when much of the conducting was being done by his ideal maestro, Gianandrea Gavazzeni. The bel canto operas were being rediscovered, mainly because of Callas. Early and middle Verdi was being honoured for the first time as the full equivalent of the later operas and not just as the preparation for them. Meanwhile it was becoming ever clearer that the tradition could be added to only by reassessing the past. The new composers, with the qualified exceptions of Stravinsky and Britten, lacked the secret.

Montale’s criticism, underpinned by his early training as a singer, was part of all this. The book abounds with solid detail. (“Her diction was clear and precisely articulated,” he says of Callas, “even if her almost Venetian Italian rendered difficult the doubling of consonants.”) Beyond that, in his usual way, he draws conclusions about art in general. The crisis in music is traced as it happens, by someone who was there, in 1916, at the first performance of one of Leoncavallo’s last operas and lived to hear the endlessly repeated notes of a new work by Nono bore the audience starry-eyed in the name of social awareness. Yet Montale’s own repeated note is one of endurance, a refusal to be crushed under the weight of justifiable pessimism: the new composers might have lost touch with any possible public except themselves, but Bellini lives again, Verdi is reborn in full glory, the past enthralls the present and reminds it of what art is. In the modern era there is no way for music not to be self-conscious. Being that, it has small chance of being spontaneous. But Montale, remembering how he himself found a way of being both, always talks as if other people might somehow manage it too.

These are necessary books about the arts, in a troubled period when one of the threats facing the arts is that there are too many books about them. Montale said he thought of journalism as his secondo mestiere, the day-job whose demands relegated his real calling, poetry, to evenings and spare time. But the fact that he was obliged to spend so much time thus earning a living is a good reason for liking the age we live in—a liking that he shared, despite everything. He was the kind of pessimist who makes you feel optimistic, even when he can’t do the same for himself.

(London Review of Books, February–March 1983;
later included in Snakecharmers in Texas, 1988)


Sadly, the first thing I feel bound to say about this essay on Montale is that I still believe he was a great artist. It shouldn’t need saying. But all too soon after his death his copybook was retroactively blotted in a big way. It emerged that a good few, and perhaps most, of his reviews of books in the English language had been written by someone else. Montale had made a practice of handing the book to a subaltern, specifying the word length, publishing the results under his own name, and splitting the payment. If it had been discovered that Vermeer had known van Meegeren personally, and actually supplied him with paint, the scandal could not have been more rancid. It could be said in Montale’s defence that in Italy there has long been a tradition by which prominent painters whistle in the apprentices of their bottega to help fill the less challenging stretches of a canvas. It could also be said that in Italy there is a long tradition of outright corruption in all walks of life. At the time when Montale was posthumously rumbled, about half of Italy’s politicians were facing a stretch in gaol, and nobody was surprised except them, because when everyone is on the take the moral outrage is confined to those who get pinched. But Montale should have been above all that.

Most of the time he was. Take away the stuff he farmed out and there is still a large amount of steady, responsible, thoughtful and generous reviewing—criticism in its most nourishing form. Take all that away, and there is still the poetry, which remains near the apex of European achievement in modern times. It should subtract nothing from a quiet triumph to find out that its author was a bit more complicated than we thought. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I was pleased when the man I revered as the epitome of selfless literary endeavour turned out to share a few characteristics with the man who fixed the World Series. But I wasn’t displeased either; just even more fascinated. The way to avoid that kind of fascination is to concern yourself entirely with art and learn nothing about artists: an impossible ideal and probably a hollow one. There are still a few major compositions by Stravinsky that I haven’t sat down to listen to properly. I could have devoted some of the time to them that I spent reading the first volume of Stephen Walsh’s biography. It reveals Stravinsky to have been a nasty piece of work in several respects. But I don’t, on that account, love the music I already know any the less, and might even feel inspired to search through the rest of it with reinvigorated concentration, having found out that the demigod really was a human being all along. There was something perfect about Montale, and now there isn’t, but somehow the bones of the cuttlefish are picked cleaner than ever, now that the soul which chose them for an emblem of purity turns out to have dealt the occasional card from the bottom of the deck.

(Reliable Essays, 2001)