A Dream in the Presence of Reason

Clive James

Poetry, Eugenio Montale said in his Nobel Prize address, is not merchandise. On that basis he excused himself for having turned out comparatively few poems. Put together, however, they make a volume of impressive dimensions, especially if you count in the fourth dimension, time. Annotated with unimpeachable scholarly patience and critical judgment by Gianfranco Contini and his pupil Rosanna Bettarini, L’opera in versi is the book with a capital ‘b’, or libro with a capital ‘l’, which this great poet, as personally modest as he was vocationally proud, always looked forward to in trepidation and worked towards with confidence. Unless, which seems unlikely, Montale wrote a hill of material in the very year of his death, there is not much that escapes its purview. It contains all the poems, all the variants which led up to the established texts, and a closely relevant selection from the poet’s prose, ranging from pertinent sentences drawn from already well-known articles and interviews to excerpts from letters never before seen in public. If this book is not the first and best way for the average reader to become acquainted with Montale, for the average reader who has become so acquainted it is likely to be appreciated as the ideal assemblage and distillation of everything he has come to know and respect about a great national poet. A national poet and a world poet, since his cultural significance extends to providing a living definition of civilisation applicable beyond any kind of national barrier, including that of language – and now that he is dead the living definition becomes more alive than ever.

When the book with a capital ‘b’ finally materialises, those readers who absorbed its component volumes as they came out are apt to be loud in their admonitions to the younger student that there is something soulless about approaching a poet by way of a tombstone-sized tome, especially when, as in this case, the binding appears to have been carried out in Carrara marble. Such warnings have in them an element of age envying youth, but there is no gainsaying that Montale, the least bombastic of creative mentalities, is an unsuitable subject for monumental treatment. Once through its clinically white portals, however, even the novice will soon realise that here is no sepulchre, although he should equally realise that this is no way to begin. He should begin as Montale would have wished him to, with the individual volumes in Mondadori’s Lo specchio series, starting with Ossi di seppia and being shamelessly ready to employ every teaching aid that comes to hand – including, if possible, one or two live Italians. Montale stripped Italian poetry of its rhetoric, but that doesn’t mean that he simplified its vocabulary. Quite the reverse. The cuttlefish bones, the ossi of his strategically chosen first title, are emblematic not just for their being picked clean but for their particularity.

What Pasternak said of Pushkin’s poetry – that it was full of things – is conjecturally true of all poetry and certainly true of Montale’s, which even at its simplest is lexically so analytic that the Italians themselves must underline words to be looked up later. Students do it with a ballpoint and often with impatience, thereby manifesting in little that temporal frenzy to which Montale opposed himself and all his work, cultivating, and to a heartening extent attaining, a divine detachment. There is consolation in this for the English-speaking reader whose Italian is not fluent. When he buys a copy of Ossi di seppia or Le occasioni or La bufera which has been heavily scored by a student and sold after the examination has been passed or failed, he may possibly make up in spiritual resource for the previous owner’s geographical advantage. While emphatically disclaiming the title of linguist, Montale was a devoted reader in the other European languages, and something of what he undoubtedly got out of them we can legitimately hope to get out of him. He writes the universal language of considered experience. Youth, even when it speaks fluently in the same tongue, finds that language hard to hear, while those who have grown older can sometimes recognise it in a foreign face.

If one is reluctant to let the point go, it is because of a proprietary eagerness to assure younger readers now coming to Montale that the permanent currency which he will in future seem to possess was once actual. He was there. You could buy Corriere della Sera off the news-stand and read an article by him. L’Espresso, while occupying itself as usual with the imminent downfall of capitalism, would devote its colour magazine to some of the Xenia poems and decorate them with the poet’s own drawings. Without benefit of clergy, he made a subtle but immediate impact on everyday Italian life. There were always critical articles about him by other hands but the critic who mattered most was the man himself and everything he wrote in prose was devoted to keeping the space uncluttered between his poems and anyone who might want to read them. He could be an elusive poet and sometimes an outright difficult one, but never wilfully and always in the belief that at least to some extent art had to be possessed in common if it was to be individual at all. Mayakovsky is reputed to have admired Montale’s first poems. Montale conceded that this was just possible, but couldn’t imagine a greater difference than the one between his own voice and that of a man-megaphone. Another difference, which he was too modest to claim, is that it was he, rather than Mayakovsky, who found the natural measure with which to represent a people. He found it not through loudness but through quietness; not by the striking of public attitudes but by the searching of the private soul; not in wooing the future but in cherishing the past. As the decades of variously inflated eloquence succeeded each other, his unique tone gradually revealed itself for what it was – the sound of natural speech.

Natural but compressed, Montale enjoyed insisting that when he wrote at all he wrote easily, without much revision. He said the secret of his way of working was all in waiting for the miracle (un’attesa del miracolo) and that miracles, in these times without religion, are rarely seen. But all this can mean is that he did a lot of composing in his head. The proof is in the variants, which show that the work was not always complete before being set down in manuscript and sometimes went on after the first printing. In ‘I Limoni’, the first full-sized poem in Ossi di seppia and consequently the first poem of Montale’s that most of us ever read seriously, the very first word in the famous first line (Ascoltami, i poeti laureati) was just Ascolta at one stage of the manuscript. In other words, he was merely saying ‘Listen’ in the imperative instead of inviting the reader’s complicity with the intimate ‘Listen to me’ which now seems so prophetically characteristic of his tone.

In Le occasioni one of the poems which most admirers would recommend to a beginner is ‘Carnevale di Gerti’, even though certain aspects of it are notoriously something of a puzzle. The mysteries could remain unclarified without damaging the poem’s status. Perhaps its incantatory potency to some extent depends on them staying ravelled. Nevertheless it is useful to be able to look up the notes and discover, from relevant citations out of essays and interviews, just who Gerti was and exactly what form her sortilege took. Gerti lived in Graz and told the future by dripping hot lead into cold water. But the poem is also set in Trieste and Florence. Montale himself is quoted as finding the poem diffuse and obscure, but he was looking back on it through his own life. For those of us who must try to remember 1928 through writings by him and others, the diffuseness and the obscurity seem more like a clarity so concentrated that its depths dazzle. There are many times when Montale will make us think of Mandelstam and here is one of them. They had a similar way of remembering their toys. The forms and colours in ‘Carnevale di Gerti’ were all once played with in the nursery. And those very forms and colours, we find out, were sounds and colours in an earlier version. If you move the hand of your little wrist-watch, says the narrator, everything will fall back inside a disintegrating babelic prism di forme e di colori. Only it used to be di suoni e di colori. Strange that so perfect an image was once so different.

Gerti, it turns out, is also the woman in the second part of that other famous poem in Le occasioni, ‘Dora Markus’. In the first part, Dora Markus is the woman addressed because the story being told is of a life not yet lived. Thirteen years later, he added the second part, making the subject Gerti, whom he had known. Dora Markus, it transpires, he never knew. He heard about her in a letter from his friend Roberto Bazlen, here adduced. Bazlen told Montale that Gerti had a friend called Dora Markus who had marvellous legs (gambe meravigliose): a poem should be written. Montale wrote the first half out of pure imagination. When he came to write the second half he needed to write from experience, so he addressed Gerti as Dora (La tua leggenda, Dora!) and thus, according to his own later judgment, gave the poem a conclusion, if not a centre. But any amount of such ancillary information, fascinating though it is, will scarcely deflect the reader from his conclusion that ‘Dora Markus’ is all about the one woman, her lost country, and the ivory amulet that enables her to exist. The marvellous legs, incidentally, were left unmentioned.

After Le occasioni comes La bufera, and so on to Satura (including the Xenia poems), the Diario del ’71 e del ’72, the Quaderno di quattro anni, all the otherwise uncollected verse and finally the complete translations, minus, no doubt for reasons of space, the original texts which appear on the facing pages in Quaderno di traduzioni. Montale’s later work poses the same sort of aesthetic problem to the Italians that Auden’s later work poses to us. From Satura onwards, he becomes steadily more sparing with the lyrical incantation that abounded in his early work even at its most dedicatedly austere. Perhaps his lyrical impulse worked like a mathematical gift and was exhausted comparatively early. More likely, as with Auden, he simply wanted, as he grew older, to find more direct ways of telling the kind of truth experience brings without its having to be searched for. At least one reader has found Montale’s ‘diary’ poems more and more interesting as time goes on. But for all their plainness – you can read them almost as easily as his prose – they attract at least as much documentation as the early work, so that after an hour or so of ferreting among the notes you could be excused for wondering if poetry should need so much help to sustain itself.

The first answer is that in Montale’s case it definitely doesn’t. If the back of this book were torn out and thrown away, the front of it would still be something to take with you. The second answer is given in a tiny poem from Satura which says that although poetry rejects with horror the glosses of the scholiasts, it can never be quite sure of being sufficient to itself. Contini’s archival, scholarly and critical accompaniment to Montale’s poetry goes back to well before World War Two and has obviously always had Montale’s co-operation, however diffidently given. The extracts from Montale’s half of their correspondence would by themselves be sufficent to make this volume a treasure-house. It is impossible to tell how the two editors divided up the work. Whatever Rosanna Bettarini’s share of the painstaking labour, she has done it with the pellucid logic and thoroughgoing economy befitting a continiana. But the presiding curatorial spirit is Contini’s. His critical articles on Montale are collected in a little book of which the title, Una lunga fedeltà, is exactly right – a long faithfulness. For all the long time they knew each other, he paid Montale the compliment of giving him the same quality of attention he gave to the great poets of the past. In his central book, Varianti e altra linguistica, the essays on Dante and Petrarch – essays which for their combination of learning and penetration excel even those of his master, Ernst Robert Curtius – there is nothing said which he was not equally ready to say, mutatis mutandis, about Montale. He studied the poetry of the past on the assumption that in the present there could be great poets too.

For Contini history is now and now is history. His memorabilia give off light and gather no dust. His apartment in Pian de’ Giullari outside Florence boasts no negotiable wealth apart from a single small Morandi. The bullion is on the bookshelves and in the desk drawers. It is a comfort to realise that there are usually one or two people like him whatever the circumstances: in the Soviet Union, for example, where recent conditions could not have been more inimical to the documentation and iconography of the creative life, the few genuine scholars among the party functionaries of Literaturnoe Nasledstvo have achieved prodigies. Facing, during the Fascist era, pressures not entirely dissimilar, Contini dedicated himself to serving the continuity of humane studies. Even in the tour de force of stylistic analysis by which he claims the anonymous Fiore as the work of Dante, he is manifestly dealing with his chosen writer as a living human being: he once jokingly called himself a structuralist before structuralism, but it was a joke he could afford to make, since it never would have occurred to him that there could be any such thing as a text separable even momentarily from the individual expressive personality. But, like Curtius, who greeted Proust in the same terms with which he had appraised Dante, Contini never lapsed into the common scholarly vice of allowing familiarity with the past to breed contempt for the present. On the contrary, he further developed his innate capacity for treating now as if it were as rare and cherishable as then. Montale himself, when a young man, formed a friendship with Svevo which was instrumental in preserving the senior writer’s achievement and making it known to the Italian public. Such friendships are basic to modern Italian cultural history, which has gone through times when a lot has depended on trust. Just such a friendship later obtained between the mature Montale and the brilliant young philologist Contini. The scholar recognised the poet’s importance and set about making sure that the paperwork was properly attended to. In less tactful hands, the job might have looked like hagiography, but Contini’s critical sense is too human for that: a love of literature that can make Arnaut Daniel seem contemporary was never likely to make a contemporary seem mummified.

Contini’s critical sense is in this book only by implication, as the intellectual foundation underlying the scholarly edifice. The critical sense which becomes more and more pervasive as one consults the notes belongs to Montale himself. But once again this is not the first and best way to start. In this book he is necessarily talking only about his own work: he can be interesting about that, but he is positively illuminating when talking about other poets and he is one of the touchstone modern critics when writing about art in general. Just as the beginner should go to the individual volumes in order to become intimate with Montale’s poetry, so he should go to Auto da fé and (especially) Sulla Poesia in order to take the full measure of Montale’s criticism, which apart from anything else is such a model of apparently relaxed style that it provides an unbeatable means of attaining fluency in reading modern Italian prose. A trained singer in his early days and a practising painter all his life, Montale possessed a genuine background, not just pretensions, across the whole range of the arts. He was as variously curious as Auden and less frivolous. He was as aphoristic as Valéry but less exquisite. He was as deeply read as Eliot but less keen to prove it. Beyond all that he was reasonable. He was fond of quoting Tommaso Ceva to the effect that a poem is a dream in the presence of reason. His criticism is reason made tangible over the whole field of artistic creativity in recent times, with particular emphasis on making sense of Italian cultural history in the 19th and 20th centuries. Readers who have not previously moved outside the field of modern criticism written in English are likely to encounter Montale’s prose with surprise, relief and delight at hearing a voice which is intelligent, serious, rigorous and generous all at the same time.

Montale, like Contini and every other modern Italian who thinks seriously about literary matters, has the immense advantage of inheriting the philosophical and critical achievement of Croce. Broadly it can be said that these later writers, disciplined by the tumult of events, have nullified Croce’s compulsive system-building while extending the consistency which helped make the vast edifice of his idealism so imposing. Students of philology will know the importance of Contini’s arguments against Croce’s dismissal of the study of variants. But at the practical level of everyday critical opinion, Montale himself has always shown a similar ability to refine the theoretical heritage and combine it with what he has learned as a working artist. If you can imagine a Randall Jarrell less worried about the place of the superior mind in a democracy, you will gather something of Montale’s capacity to talk about art in general without being carried away by general ideas. He had an unerring ear for the dogmatic no matter who was pronouncing it. It might have suited the first part of his book with a capital ‘b’ to agree with Gide that what mattered about poetry was the element of incantation. Montale (in Sulla poesia) said Gide seemed to have forgotten that the accord, or let it be the compromise, between the sound and what it signifies does not allow of partial solutions in favour of either term. Montale believed that the emphasis which Gide was favouring had in fact helped to sterilise French poetry after Baudelaire. Montale’s insistence on maintaining an inclusive view of what poetry might be would have been persuasive in itself, even if his later poetry had not gone on so thoroughly to shift the emphasis away from any vestige of word music as it had commonly been conceived.

Perfectly conversational yet unfaltering in its dignity, Montale’s critical prose is difficult to translate well and all too easy, some of the evidence suggests, to translate badly. Perhaps the Italianist academic community in Britain might have formed a committee to ensure that the job of translation would be, if not inspired, at least learned and consistent. However that may be, the matter of translating Montale’s prose into English is in a very unsatisfactory state. He is in almost as big a mess as Croce, who was entombed by the slapdash enthusiasm of his principal translators and lives on only to the extent that he was incorporated – some might say plagiarised – by Collingwood.

Lacking a centralised, responsible strategy for translating Montale’s critical writing into English, the English-speaking Italianists resort to isolated individual efforts. Not surprisingly, the Americans do the job most lavishly, having the larger grants. Edited by Michael Palma, The Man I Pretend to Be presents I colloqui and selected poems by Guido Gozzano in parallel text, the English translations being by Mr Palma, who also translated the introductory essay by Montale. Gozzano was a predecessor whom Montale valued highly, so that by reading this essay you can get some idea of what his critical prose is like when he is being affirmative – not that he was ever really anything else. In another essay, collected in Sulla poesia, Montale compared Gozzano with his beloved Puccini and said that their fruit fulness was no less valuable just because it had to be eaten with a spoon. Mr Palma certainly has the linguistic resources in Italian to provide a useful crib for anyone who wants to read Gozzano’s poetry. But when it comes to Montale’s prose, you quickly find that what he lacks is the necessary control of English. He makes Montale sound stiff – harsh treatment for a style which in the original flows with such ease. In a footnote to Montale’s introductory essay we find Mr Palma wondering about a reference to Francesco De Sanctis. Is Montale, Mr Palma asks himself, talking about the distinction De Sanctis drew between ‘the idea of a work of art and its manifestation’? He is talking about something much more elementary – namely, the distinction De Sanctis drew between poetry and art. That distinction, one of the fundamental ideas in De Sanctis’s aesthetic theory, is mentioned everywhere not only in his criticism but in Montale’s too, and thus constitutes a fairly large topic for Mr Palma to be puzzled about.

If unsatisfactory translation from Montale’s prose is to be regretted, unsatisfactory translation from his poetry is pretty well inevitable. There is no need to rehearse here the various attempts, beyond saying that poets with strong personalities of their own tend to make Montale sound like themselves, while poets with no special individuality tend to make him sound like nothing. Montale himself was an assiduous translator from other languages, employing someone else’s literal translation of Cavafy’s Greek but working without intermediaries when dealing with English, which was his passion. The Quaderno di traduzioni proves that he was a patient translator, fully aware that even to begin registering the idiomatic and syntactical subtleties of another language was no light matter. He called English ‘una lingua che non s’impara mai’ – a language that one never finishes learning. Nevertheless he thought translating some of his favourite English poems worth trying even if what he came up with was no better than a crib. Probably the same holds true in reverse for his own poetry, of which any translation, especially of the early work, is unlikely to exceed the status of a crib, but for which cribs can come in handy even with the later poems at their most prosaic. By this measure, Kate Hughes’s testo parallelo of Xenia and the Mottetti is welcome. It would be an even better crib if it were more strict. Possibly in deference to poetic imperatives of her own, Miss Hughes does quite a lot of leaving out, putting in and switching things around. In the 14th poem of Xenia I, the lines ‘Dicono che la poesia al suo culmine/magnifica il Tutto in fuga’ come out as ‘They say poetry/celebrates the All in flight,’ which means that al suo culmine has gone missing, perhaps because it means ‘at its height’ and Miss Hughes didn’t want a rhyme with ‘flight’. But she could have said ‘at its peak’ or ‘in its fullness’ or something similar. And in the beautiful 13th motet, the gondola that slides by in a dazzle of tar and poppies might, I suppose, almost as well slide by in a glare of tar and poppies, but what it can’t possibly do is slide by in a diamond glare of tar and poppies: by imposing the idea of a diamond Miss Hughes makes you momentarily wonder if she knows whom she is dealing with. Montale’s self-imposed task was to divest Italian poetry of cheaply poeticised effects, not to increase their number.

Examples, alas, could be multiplied. Nevertheless Miss Hughes is right to see that Xenia is a good way for the English-speaking reader to begin acquiring Montale in Italian. Not only has the bewilderingly specific vocabulary of the early poetry been left behind, there is a story to follow. The heroine of the Xenia poems, Mosca, was Montale’s last and most transfigurative ispiratrice. Her emergence into straightforward narrative sums up and transcends Montale’s various preliminary dedications to a mysterious female interlocutor, constantly changing definition and probably identity. With his earlier muses Montale established a spiritual communion as subtle as Rilke’s, but without the plaintive longing for the unattainable. With all his muses through to and including Wera Ouckama Knoop, Rilke apparently depended, for the ability to generate his febrile metaphysical excitement, on never attaining his object. Montale has the same certainty that the mental connection is what lastingly matters, but the certainty is made doubly certain by emanating so obviously from ordinary love as most of us know it. In Rilke, the Sehnsucht, the longing, begins before love and happens instead of it. With Montale the sense of loss happens after the event – in the case of Mosca, after her death. In all of modern poetry it is hard to think of a similar example of the loved one evoked as a fully alive, fully individual human being rather than as the poet’s imaginative figment. Montale translated ‘La Figlia che Piange’ and was as susceptible as anyone to the revelation of divinity through the female form, but while never growing out of it he grew on from it, so that although at the end all the original intensity of vision is still there, it has been joined by the facts of ordinary human personality, which have become radiant too. Mosca is an old woman who can’t see and who can hardly walk, but like Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura she is the light-source of the poet’s vision and, unlike Leopardi’s Silvia and Nerina, she has been talked to, touched, lived with for a long time and then lost. There is no one quite like her in Italian poetry or any other poetry I can think of, but the reader, even through the imperfect medium of a parallel text, will immediately recognise her as poetic, and all the more so for being real.

The sense of place that Montale brought with him from Liguria he gave to the world. Like all the historically-sensitive poets in the Twenties – Yeats, Eliot, Rilke, Valéry and Mandelstam are only some of them – he found his creative impulse dominated by a hypertrophied urge to preserve the texture of civilised life. They all reacted in different ways and it is easy to play favourites. Miss Hughes unreservedly recommends Leavis’s Listener article on Montale, but those of us who read it when it came out are apt to remember that Leavis characteristically employed Montale as a means of finding Valéry inadequate and was thus able to belittle Eliot because Eliot had admired Valéry. I am only one of many people who would have liked to be a fly on the wall when Montale and Leavis were reciting ‘Le Cimetière Marin’ at each other. But no greater opposition of two critical minds can be imagined: Leavis’s heresy-hunting was exactly the kind of thing Montale was against. Montale believed in separate individual talents adding up to a collaborative society of the intelligence. But then he had been obliged to believe that, with no room for self-indulgence: in Italy, where orthodoxies had been imposed at administrative level, the kind of argument Leavis was employing could be recognised for what it was.

Nevertheless we can’t help feeling a greater affinity with some writers than with others, or thinking that some took a more fruitful course. Montale speaks for the century as unmistakably as Mandelstam, with the additional consideration that by chance he was able to live on, and so reach his full, slow flower. (‘On respire,’ wrote Contini when introducing Montale to a French audience, ‘davoir affaire pour une fois à un poète qui n’a pas été un enfant prodige.’) The fragments Eliot shores against his ruins belong to a civilisation which he says we would have lost whatever happened. Yeats, too, is farewelling something that was never ours. Even Valéry’s lost kingdom is somewhere in fairyland and Rilke has to be in a castle before he can give you his sense of the past: he needs all those armigerous trappings, and if his patroness is not in the Almanach de Gotha he feels uprooted. But Montale and Mandelstam both avoided social nostalgia. Mandelstam’s nostalgia was, famously, for a world culture. Apart from that, as history crumbled around him, he sought salvation, not by harking back to the lost society, but by focusing with ever-increasing sharpness on the furniture of his own memory and so giving his individual life more and more meaning the more it was officially denied that such a thing could matter. Threatened with death, he hoped to be born again in the form of children’s games. It was an angelic wish, an annunciation. The new reader will find Montale’s poetry bathed in the same light.

Montale was a long time bringing the full facts of his everyday life into his poetry, but the feeling of the thingness of things is there from the start. Rhetoric was already official state policy when Montale, through the Ossi di seppia, insisted that it was stone walls, stagnant ponds, blades of grass and the instantaneously apprehended cloud of sea spray that really lasted. Leaving to others the attempt to preserve the memory of a vanished social order, he set about preserving the memory of everyday landscapes too ordinary ever to have been enrolled in anybody’s scheme of the spectacular. At the beginning his propensity for regarding the unregarded sounded like despair: people thought that Montale’s waste land was like Eliot’s. But Montale’s pessimism was more robust. If I cry, he later wrote, it is a counter-melody to enrich the great cloud-cuckoo-land which is the future.

Always realistic in his expectations, Montale dreamed in the presence of reason: no matter how jaundiced the view he took of life in Italy, he never gave the impression that it was the whole of modern life he was rejecting. Democracy, if it could be re-established, might not be paradise but as this world went it was a lot better than nothing. For this reason, and unlike most of the other major contemporary poets I have mentioned in connection with his name, Montale seems to give the present time the credit it has got coming. His poetry and prose taken together offer a complete literary personality which it is possible for the reader to embrace in its entirety, with no need to make allowances for neurasthenia or a self-consciously reactionary political stance. Montale had the robustness to face the world as it was and is. As the Italianists will know from the Carteggio Svevo/Montale, what the young writer and his master recognised in each other was the determination to learn from life and not from books. In Montale’s case, this principle made his wide reading all the more telling as he pursued it further. It isn’t the man who wants to, he said, who continues the tradition, it’s the man who can – and he’s sometimes the man who knows least about it. He was the man who can. But he was also, gratifyingly, the man who knows everything about it.

Always thrilled by the emotional abundance of grand opera. Montale said he didn’t trust anyone who preferred Falstaff to Trovatore. He didn’t mean that he disliked refinement. He just meant that refinement means nothing without energy. Without posing as the man inspired – he called himself an artist among bourgeois and a bourgeois among artists – he was the embodiment of literature as a way of being true to life. Believing that the particular truth comes first and the general truth grows out of that, he began as the tutelary spirit of his own bleached region and ended by handing a whole country back to itself. When his compatriots read him they look back into their own lives and find the meaning of what they have been through. Our own experience is not so different from theirs that we can’t share something of the same revelation. He cultivated his solitude until it belonged to us all.