How Montale earned his living

Clive James

  • The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale translated by Jonathan Galassi
    Ecco, 354 pp, $17.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 912946 84 9
  • Prime alla Scala by Eugenio Montale
    Mondadori (Milan), 522 pp, October 1981
  • Eugenio Montale’s Poetry: A Dream in Reason’s Presence by Glauco Cambon
    Princeton, 274 pp, £16.80, January 1983, ISBN 0 691 06520 9

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, hard-bitten yet receptive, colloquial yet compressed. The only drawback is that it constitutes a difficult body of work to epitomise 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 élite 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 recognise, 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.

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