of Italian history from 1896 to 1981
by Lorenzo Matteoli
The Department of Italian
The School of European Languages
The University of Western Australia
Three Public Lectures to mark the birth
Eugenio Montale was born one hundred years ago and fifteen years ago his physical life ended. He lived through two world wars, the birth of Fascism and its twenty years in power, the high expectations and disillusions of the aftermath of World War Two, fifty years of Christian Democrat government and its countless declared or undeclared associations with the Communist Party, their final failure, the aborted revolution of the seventies, terrorism and restoration.
He was a poet and he died a decent man.
Montale kept clear of political power and distanced himself from all regimes: a declared choice, a clear censure, a bitter denunciation. He never accepted nor was he ever accepted by the fascist regime nor by those that were to follow.
Very few, if any, Catholic or Marxist critics have been able to free themselves from the zealotry that has almost always tainted Italian culture, particularly so in those years: the choice to stay clear that Montale stood by during his whole life was disregarded. The two parties either rejected him or attempted a cheap form of patronage. He maintained a contemptuous distance, that of one who knew what he did not want, what he was not, who neither seeks nor holds any other certainty.Yet he was understood by his generation as he was by those that followed. The Nobel Prize awarded to him in 1975 was in aknowledgment of a free man and a poet.
Montale's poetry is a minimal chant, intimate and vital; it speaks of time and space, it calls up infinity and evokes eternity through the colours, the light and the simple details of everyday images. To listen is easy, to feel and understand it is also easy. Literal comprehension is a useless exercise for annotators: the poet's obscurity is the reader's liberty.
The hopeless yearning to relate our life to the life of the universe is a constant implicit theme in his poetry, with the constant, sweet or terrible, intuition: ...nothingness at my shoulders, the void behind me.
It is this intuition that produces his affectionate embrace of life, his careful attention to the small daily details and the burden of going ...with my secret, among men who don't look back.
Each one of us is a poet, very few write poetry.
Maybe one morning walking
The desire to have somebody publish a Posthumous Diary fifteen years after his death confirms his impotence in the face of the relentless flow of time and the droll irony with which he fights the battle which he knew was already lost.
I have attempted to write an evocative synthesis of the last one hundred years of Italian history associating it to events in Eugenio Montale's life and to a few chosen poems and verses, in order to sketch a profile of the man, of his poetry, of his time. The exercise could lead to conclusions which would probably be better not to reach. Poetry is not born, its contingent motives are totally accidental and inconsistent. Poetry is, says Montale. Outside of history, outside of space, outside of society. Any contingent interpretation is automatically reductive and eventually wrong. Comments and quotations from Montale, from his friends and reviewers are supplied in the footnotes to create a picture of the man and of the poet: a fragile person despite his apparent toughness, certainly neither easy nor facile.
To trace Montale's journey and his critical and active presence through the history of this century may be useful to understand our own paths. If such understanding is needed.
People who met him were mainly interested in his words and in his thoughts. Thus very few comments are available on his human profile: physical appearance, expressions, posture, idiosyncratic gestures ... A portrait of the man can be perceived by collating the rare comments of many different authors. The following are excerpts translated from the collection of articles which appeared in the Italian press in the weeks after his death: 'per Eugenio Montale, gli interventi della stampa quotidiana' by Armida Marasco, Galatina Congedo Editore, Lecce, 1982.
Montale had a very sweet smile, a smile that was his defense against the world: an invitation to relinquish any harshness... he seemed to be seeking protection, in a bashful way, behind his thick eyebrows and his clear, intense expression, very often hidden behind the smoke of a cigarette which he drew on with great rapacity. (Claudio Altarocca, Il Giorno 14/9/81)
He used to spend long hours at the newspaper, from 9.00 in the evening to 2.00 in the morning, just in case of any emergency that could require his immediate action. (Gaetano Afeltra, Il Tempo 15/9/81)
An intellectual, outside fashionable circles and current fads, he was a civil poet, always committed to the right cause without emphasis, advocating the dignity of the human being against the barbarity of ignorance and intolerance. (Maurizio Ambrogi, La Voce Repubblicana 18/9/81).
Sour, sharp and shy: out of sincerity and not out of conformity or pretension ... skeptical, with the hint of a smile perhaps tainted with bitter irony. (Il Secolo XIX, 15/9/81)
With decisiveness, even with anger, he would end up sharing the statements of the most celebrated modern philosophy: it's better not to talk about things you do not know. (Alberto Arbasino, la Repubblica 15/9/81).
He had a permanent little heap of cigarette ashes on his right shoulder, because with a hasty nervous flip of the hand he would shake his cigarettes right at that height... he greeted me smiling with quick ticks of his face blowing out or pulling in his cheeks ... at home, where he moved around with fast, short and usually uncertain steps, he would be continuously shooting quips, short witticisms, noble gossip, sharp memories ... in the salons that he chose and yet detested with great amiability, he would stay on his own, like a hedgehog, fizzing out vitriolic lines, shaking with guffaws that rose from his belly to his cheeks in long throbs. ... He loved minestrone in which he soaked bread and silver beet salads that hardly any restaurant serve any more. ... I do not know who will ever dare to say this, but this gentleman, never known to have spoken a swear word, who always bowed to ladies, and lived listening to the noise of woodworms, was the toughest revolutionary in the history of our poetry. (Giovanni Arpino, Il Giornale Nuovo 14/9/81)
I do not recall the great poet of Cuttlefish Bones, nor the Senatore a Vita (Senator for life) of the Italian Republic. I recall 'Eusebio' during a trip to the Holyland and during some social evenings in Milan, the private Montale, but not the minor one, crafty, wicked, ironic both towards others and himself so as to be among the most pleasant companions I have ever had...
The private Montale, Eusebio, had his own subtle way of ridiculing arrogant and pretentious intellectuals: he would bring the conversation around to humble matters and, with his literary authority, he would force them to pretend to be interested. (Giorgio Bocca, la Repubblica, 15/9/81)
Montale, 1935, Florence: to me he appeared
as solid as a rock, but a benign rock. Precise and intense in the silence
of a quiet moment at the Caffe' (Le Giubbe Rosse) in Piazza Vittorio,
Montale would characterise with his profile the feeling of the whole place.
In those moments one did not care about his poems, but one felt the commanding
authority of his lifestyle... Even his voice, I recall, was perfectly
suited to that way of being.
Montale has interpreted better than anybody else in Italy the spirit of our time: which, regrettably, is negation, aridity, desperation, nihilism. One must say that in this representation he was neither complacent nor cynical. And here lies his salvation both as an artist and as a man. (Bonaventura Tecchi, in Omaggio a Montale, edited by Silvio Ramat, Arnoldo Mondadori, 1966)
At this point I was struck by curiosity: would it be possible to find somebody who had known Montale personally and talk to him? It came to my mind that Indro Montanelli was his colleague at the Corriere della Sera . Montanelli, the doyen of Italian journalists, who directed the Corriere della Sera, Il Giornale and La Voce, could certainly provide me with some personal memories of the man Montale. Through friends in Milan I was able to reach Indro Montanelli on the phone and here is how he recalls his friend and colleague Montale:
Montale? Eugenio Montale? Well of course I knew him! we shared the same room at the Corriere della Sera for many years...! You want me to talk about Montale? on the phone?! from Australia?! ... Oh my God... that's wild... I can't talk about the poet: I am not qualified, but the man, o yes the man... it would take hours, so many things to say, memories to recall...
He was a loner and his relationship with others difficult, I'd say very difficult: he was extremely shy. In a permanent state of anxiety. He suffered due to his incapability of doing something. Anti-fascist by character, by nature and culture: he could never have mingled with that gang of bandits ... and to keep clear in those days simply was not allowed. He was constantly gnawed by existential apprehensions and scruples. He was always firing quips which he immediately regretted, begging ... don't say that to anybody please... The quips regularly made the day of the whole editorial staff.
He had a wicked sense of humour, taking on anybody and himself as well, very amusing company, demanding yet great fun, clear memories, sharp anecdotes. Ignorance and stupidity were always the targets of his cutting comments.
An idiosyncratic and curious habit:
when at the table he would hold his glass of wine with two hands reaching
down to it with his lips instead of bringing it up to his mouth, a revealing
gesture... When talking to him he would look at you intensely with his
light blue-greyish eyes, as if he were searching for your words before
you uttered them...I could talk for hours about him... if you come to
Italy we can have lunch together... so many things to say... it was a
long time ago. I think I did write about him in one of my books...Incontri,
I think...well compliments to Australia for the lectures... I would not
have thought....so far away.... Bravi gli Australiani... G'd on you....mates!
Adolescence 1896 - 1910 (Montale is 14 years old)
The Giolitti era, first Italian expansion in North Africa, scandals and financial speculation in Rome, workers' and peasants' unrest throughout the country. Workers' and peasants' Unions were founded. Italy was a country substantially based on agriculture, the leading class was a staunch, conservative bourgeoisie, industrial revolution at its dawn. Problems of recent political unification were still acute, cultural differences between North and South divided Governments and public opinion. A curse that was to remain for decades to come and still is one of the major problems of contemporary Italy.
Arts: The Futurist Manifesto was published in Paris in 1909. In 1907 Giosue' Carducci died (Nobel Prize for Literature in 1906), the so-called crepuscular poets gained renown in Italy.
Montale is privately tutored by his sister Mariannina, the family, one of affluent traders (the father Domingo is an importer of marine paints) originating from Monterosso (Cinque Terre on the coast North of La Spezia) and now living in Genoa.
The difficulty of following a regular course of studies that prevents him from going to University is, with the wisdom of hindsight, the very reason for his subsequent cultural independence with respect to conforming currents of thought at the time of his early formation. Self-taught he does not belong to the group of rich bourgeois kids who attends the University and he continues to study and to learn deeply conscious of his ignorance.
Youth 1910 - 1920 in Genoa (Montale is 24 years old)
The Italo Turkish war, the conquest of Libya in 1911, WW 1 (1914-1918), Montale enlists and goes to the front where his elder brothers are already.
Victory, after the nightmare of the disastrous defeat in Caporetto (a name that still stands for defeat in Italian). The problems of post WW1 were the seeding ground for Fascism with weak governments incapable of handling peasants' and workers' unrest. The debate within the Socialist Party became extreme and the left Stalinist wing split at the Socialist Party Conference of 1921 in Livorno: where the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was born.
A sequence of Governments headed by Francesco Saverio Nitti, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando preceded the last Giolitti Government before the advent of Fascism (1922). The political manoeuvre that marked the times was 'transformism': the parties in power changed their ideological platforms, issues and alliances in order to remain in power. Agrarian reform and industrial incentives induced a period of economic expansion. A slow industrialization transformation started in the North. Union unrest and the 'red danger' encouraged right wing reactions.
In the arts: literary avangarde, Futurism broke the paradigms of current cultural expression. The national emerging poet (il Vate) in those years and for many years after was Gabriele D'Annunzio (1865-1938). The occupation of Fiume by fascist rebellious voluntary Militia under the leadership of D'Annunzio was the big event of 1919. Giovanni Pascoli, the last romantic poet probably the most important, even if not completely qualified representative of the 'crepuscular movement', died in 1912.
Montale received his degree in accounting in 1915: a title he always found despicable, but that is now the pride of all the accountants in Italy, and maybe not only in Italy. He studied to be an opera singer as a baritone: the career not taken that he was to regret for the rest of his life (And I had other interests, and maybe I was not so dumb: to be a good singer one has both to be a bit of a genius and stupid at the same time) . He reads and studies classical authors and enjoys the privileges of being the youngest in the family: to do what he wants which leads to some misunderstandings with his father.
In 1916 he writes To laze at noon that was later published in Cuttlefish Bones (1925 by Gobetti, Turin).
In 1919, while enlisted in Parma, he met Sergio Solmi, after the war he is close to the literary circles in Genoa (Camillo Sbarbaro) and in Turin (Pietro Gobetti). The poem that best represents this period of his life is To laze at noon:
To laze at noon, pale
To gaze at the cracked
earth, the leaves
To peer through leaves
at the sea,
And then walking out,
dazed with light,
The gap between our life and whatever else is identified by a precise image: a wall crowned by jagged shards of broken bottles. The glare of the sun, the distant scales of sea and the sounds of the afternoon tell of his deep affection for life and give expression to his sense of yearning... in sad wonder.
Young man 1920 - 1930
Fascism in power at the peak of its popularity. The regime is responsible for horrible political murders (Giacomo Matteotti and the Rosselli brothers): those who do not agree are bashed, punished in humiliating ways by being made to drink large mugs of castor oil, exiled or imprisoned. Political support is obtained through demagoguery, boisterous nationalism and bashing gangs. Italy becomes an 'imperial power'. The Duce controls information, formation and culture. The regime occupies all fields of the arts: literature is in the function of the regime, painting and poetry are used for the celebration of the regime. Futurism is so close to fascist themes as to become its emblem: the tolerance towards Fascism of the majority of the futurists, or the ability of Fascism to allure them, tainted the movement and only recently has Futurism been reviewed with a more sober critical attitude.
Montale meets Saba, Italo Svevo, and Pound and begins his reading of English authors (Shakespeare, Browning, Donne, Henry James and it seems Manley Hopkins). He was intellectually attracted by the French writers: Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Guérin, Taine, Jammes, Lemaitre, and Valéry.
Primo tempo publishes the collection of verses Accordi in 1922, in 1925 Gobetti (Turin) publishes Cuttlefish Bones. In 1925 Montale signs the anti-fascist manifesto proposed by Benedetto Croce, and the literary gazette L'Esame publishes his very important essay on Italo Svevo (Omaggio a Italo Svevo) .
In 1927 he is employed by the publisher Bemporad in Florence, he meets Drusilla Tanzi his life companion since then: they will eventually get married only in 1962, one year before her death. In 1929 Montale leaves Genoa and goes to Florence where he is appointed director of the Gabinetto Scientifico Letterario Vieusseux. These are the years of his correspondence with Salvatore Quasimodo: one can read in those letters some nasty quips about Cardarelli and Ungaretti, the well-known poets of the time. The poem of this period that is mainly quoted as an ideological and political statement is Don't ask me for words... (Non chiederci la parola) from Cuttlefish Bones:
Don't ask me for words
that might define
Ah, that man so confidently
Don't ask me for formulas
to open worlds
A statement of not belonging and of unwillingness that was taken as bourgeois indifference by some later critics. Montale's position is clear to us today; his continued not belonging to the political scene of the sixties and seventies has made it clear beyond any possible ambiguity.
Montale stated the absolute and un-negotiable priority of the right of each individual to his private life, a claim for abstraction, freedom and cultural independence. If damning one system of values implies or can be seen as the automatic support for another equally disgusting system then the only acceptable, decent solution is the declared statement of not belonging .
The lifelong commitment of Montale is the claim to the right of the poet to live outside the curse of his time denouncing the misery of the human condition without any distinction nor choice of side.
He was very conscious though that not belonging would also be the only way in which his message could be enhanced and become a strong issue in the general cultural misery: only isolated people communicate (Sulla Poesia), was his theory. Time and events proved him right.
Montale was revolted by the cultural vulgarity of Fascism, he felt desperately helpless against the sludge of conformity. His choice was an exacting one and he called it decency.
First maturity 1930 - 1940 (Montale is 44 years old)
The darkest moment of Italian Fascism. Subalternity to Germany brings to Italy (Axis Rome Berlin Oct. 23, 1938) the anti-Jewish laws and the shame of racial persecution starts. Top intellectuals took part in literary contests (Littoriali della cultura) with essays celebrating the Aryan race. Some of them in later years became leaders of the Communist Party and of the Christian Democrat Party (Antonello Trombadori, Davide Lajolo, Amintore Fanfani and many others who won the Littoriali by writing essays celebrating The Aryan Race, Tripodi Italia Fascista in Piedi, Longanesi, Milano 1961). Mussolini attacks Ethiopia in 1935 and the subjugation of this barefoot army of shepherds is easy. With the victory in Africa the foundation of the Italian Empire is announced by the Duce in his historical address of May 1st, 1936. The gloom of WW2 is clearly anticipated by the Pact of Steel with Germany May 22, 1939.
A heavy propaganda programme convinces the prone public: dissent is for the very few. Industrial autarchy and cultural isolation are the signs of the time. Montale lives in Florence and this is how he decsribes that period of his life:
... I repeat, this period [in Liguria] was an extremely formative one. But as regards cultural growth, the twenty years I spent in Florence were the most important of my life. It was there that I discovered that, besides the sea, there is also terra firma - the terra firma of ideas, tradition, humanism. There I found a different nature, one that pervades man's worth and thought. It was there that I learned what civilization has been and can be...
In Florence at the famous Caffe' delle Giubbe Rosse he attends the circles of the young Italian Ermetismo, he writes for Solaria (avangarde literary magazine). His comments on Fascism are public and unforgiving, he fears and despises in a gutsy way the stupidity of the regime he feels deprived and disgraced as an Italian by the fascist vulgarity. At the Caffe' he speaks loudly and clearly of his impatience: by that time his disgust had become a maniacal syndrome on account of his feelings of helplessness. His friend Silvio Guarnieri reproaches him for what he feels to be a biased critical position: Montale reacts violently raising his voice gesticulating with his hands.
In 1934 the fascist Prefect of Florence summons him and dismisses him from the post as director at the Gabinetto Vieusseux, effective immediately, no severance payment awarded. The place is taken by his friend Bonsanti. Montale feels insulted by what he considers a betrayal of friendship. To make a living, Montale works as a translator: the loss of the job at the Gabinetto Vieusseux relieves him from the constant terror of losing it and from the incessant harassment by the Florentine Fascists. Drusilla Tanzi (nicknamed Mosca) takes care of his daily life during those days.
In 1939 he published Occasions with Einaudi, a year later the book was reprinted with the addition of four poems. The ongoing tragedy exudes from the pages of Occasions (as in Dora Markus ... 'a murderous faith yields poison. What do they want from you? '...) Montale's dark detachment is conveyed by the gloomy, oppressive atmosphere of the whole book: truncated memories, sad farewells, desertions, actual and conceptual obscurity...
The whole record of Montale's fierce relationship with the fascist regime portrays the strained drama of a free intelligence anxious to reject without being compelled to fight, refusing to assume a heroic profile, constantly maintaining the right not to be a hero and fired by the fury of helplessness.
The emblem of this period:
Non recidere, forbice,
Un freddo cala ... Duro
il colpo svetta.
Do not cut, scissors,
A chill falls ...
hard shears the hit
From "Le Occasioni" I propose
the translation of Dora Markus, possibly the most famous and mysterious
poem of the period. In 1926 Bobi Bazlen wrote to Montale telling him that
a beautiful lady with fantastic legs was living with him and Gertrude
in Trieste: Dora Markus. Bazlen even sent a picture of the famous legs
and added a playful comment: you should write a poem for her. Montale
would never meet Dora but the name (and the picture) stirred his imagination.
The first part of the poem was written in 1926 and left unfinished until
1939 when he added the second part (this incidentally with a different
lady in his mind: Gertrude). Hundreds of pages of comments and interpretations
have been written about Dora Markus and again it may be useful to recall
Montale's position on "obscurity" (see note 2) as the intrinsic
element of poetry. The landscapes: in the first part the drama - the city
of Ravenna shimmering in the smog; the delicate Petrarca lights in the
second part. The sounds: I tried to translate the Italian words that resonate
like steps on the timber boards with equivalent English words. The colours
(words that glisten like the red scales of the mullet). All is consistent
with the poetry/painting style of the early Montale. The female profile
is barely sketched: the sign with the hand, the storm of her sweetness,
her tired resistance evoking the persecution that made her leave Austria
and now is haunting her in Italy (secretes poison a ferocious faith, what
do they want from you). Nothing is explicit in the poem, but while reading
it, the suggestion of a beautiful, mysteriously charming lady is strong
and vivid. The evocative call at the end is fierce: Do not yield voice,
legend or destiny...
(translation by LM)
Once sacked from the Gabinetto Vieusseux Montale earns a living translating and that is when his European culture took shape: a rare feature in the parochial Italian culture of the time when knowledge of a foreign language was not a common virtue even among the most sophisticated bourgeoisie. This European opening intensifies his feeling of alienation, of being a misfit in a country that at the time was even more provincial than today.
Second maturity 1940 - 1950 (Montale is 54 years old)
World War 2, the defeat, the chaos of the partial surrender, the civil war and the resistance, the enthusiasm of the liberation and of re-construction, CLN (Comitato Liberazione Nazionale), the growing communist danger. Italy learned her lesson at the price of tragedy. The stupid triumphant hallucination of the fascist regime was shattered, the sacrifice, for the wrong cause, of thousands of unknown heroes in the steppes of Russia and in the African deserts was consistent with the irresponsible behaviour of the country's political and moral leadership. After the war Italy started from scratch, the new beginning was to be marked forever by the ambiguity of the split armistice and by the shame of the civil war. The industrial and economic reconstruction was not assisted by the rebirth of national moral values. In 1947 the new Republican Constitution was approved and in 1948 with the first free elections the first post-war democratic Government came to power with Alcide De Gasperi as Prime Minister.
The era of reconstruction set the foundation for the subsequent economic boom. Italy was the Western State with the strongest Communist Party where the bulk of industry and financial banking institutions were state controlled and run by politically appointed managers. In civil life the hypocritical process of 'epurazione' (political cleansing) was completed. The political control of the State through party lobbies (lottizzazione) lays the foundation of the future overwhelming power of political parties.
In the arts it was the time of Italian Neo-realism, in cinema the trend was set by Roberto Rossellini, Cesare Zavattini, Mario Soldati, Pietro Germi.
Montale lives in Florence at the end of the war and at the beginning of the new era, although elated by the fall of the arrogant class of Fascist 'gerarchi', he views events with mixed feelings: hope and skepticism.
He joins the Partito d'Azione and works at the powerful national newspaper La Nazione. With Bonsanti and Loria he starts the fortnightly magazine Il Mondo.
The experience of belonging to the group of Il Mondo was short-lived resulting in some frustration for Montale who probably expected too much. The Partito d'Azione split and most of its members joined the PSIUP (Partito Socialista di Unita' Proletaria) at the time very close to the Communist Party. One can sense his continued disillusion for the ambiguity of Italian politics of those years, a disillusion that was to remain from then on. Montale left Florence and went to Milan where he got a job as editor of the 'terza pagina' (cultural editor) of the Corriere della Sera . He writes short essays, editorials, concert reviews, and is deeply committed to serious translations. Short writings and essays composed between 1946 and 1950 are collected and published with the title La farfalla di Dinard. The Translations Notebook is also published.
In 1943 the booklet Finisterre was published in Switzerland: it was later collated as The Storm and Other Things. In 1946 he published Intervista Immaginaria (titled: Intenzioni): a very important document and statement of his cultural and poetic creed:
A poet needs to pursue a specific truth, not a general truth. The poet-subject truth must not deny that of the man-subject, who writes what binds him to other men without denying what is distinctive and unique to him alone.
In the verses of The Storm and Other Things one would expect to find a direct and immediate response to the tragedy of the war, but there are instead only a few cryptic and enigmatic references.
Montale explains in a short essay (1946) : ...' Those who have been living for some time have experienced dire situations and serious predicaments, when everything seems to collapse and life itself is at risk ...a man ... in front of nothingness or eternity clinges to life, all the more cherished when so close to its end...'
This may be the reason for the exclusive presence in the poems written between 1940 and 1944 of personal, intimate elements: an attempt to compensate for the absurd cruelty of a world full of abominable massacres by writing poems expressing personal sorrows and pleasures or the nostalgia for an ineffable and evasive female presence.
La frangia dei capelli
che ti vela
Do not shift with your
First seniority 1950 - 1960 (Montale is 64 years old)
The so-called Italian miracle exploded: Christian Democratic Italy flourished and got rich, the process of inappropriate association of all the parties (governing coalitions and opposition) was by this time well-established. The major parties DC, PSI, PCI shared the power and all the institutions were part of their spoil system: universities, banks, industries, corporations, media, radio and TV. What Montale defined ossimoro permanente was in full swing. With the Treaty of Rome (1957) the slow process of European political unification started. In the rest of the World at the end of the Korean war another tragic conflict slowly escalated in Vietnam. The world was divided into two blocks, East and West: the Berlin wall is the crude symbol of this phase of history. In the East the Hungarian uprising dealt the first blow to the credibility of the Soviet Empire. In Italy, however very few communist intellectuals shared this perception, most of them confirming their loyalty to Stalinism, incapable of rejecting their life-long commitment and of dismissing the communist dream. Others looked away.
Montale dislikes the new system of power and does not find the new regime so different from the previous one, his repulsion for vulgarity and ignorance remains unaltered. His bourgeois background prevents him from considering the Communist Party as acceptable and at the same time of even entertaining the thought of revolution.
In Milan he translates from various languages, writes his diaries as a poet and as a cultural correspondent for the Corriere della Sera: a skeptical outsider, a staunch critic of the world around him. His world-wide fame is established. In Italy he is accepted as the greatest contemporary poet, his friendship with Quasimodo cools off.
In 1959 one can sense a hint of frustration when the Nobel Prize is awarded to Quasimodo.
Second seniority 1960 - 1970 (Montale is 74 years old)
The Italian miracle was wearing thin, industrial relations were difficult and the government coalitions began to feel the strain. After some aborted attempts with right wing coalitions (Tambroni) the center left coalitions gained full control. The informal association of all the parties got stronger and the related spoil system eventually won complete control of the state, industries, banks, the media. There was no effective opposition to the government; everything was negotiable. The Communist Party controlled many areas and was in government in a number of Italian regions and in some cities (Tuscany, Umbria Emilia Romagna, Turin, Bologna, Modena, Florence, Perugia, Reggio nell'Emilia, Genoa).
In 1968 the Workers' Unions and the Student Movement joined forces to confront the system: Berkeley and Paris had paved the way. The youth culture spread: flower power, the Beatles, rock and confrontation (la contestazione). The positive tension of the young generation and the irony of its challenge were not understood by the 'establishment' and relations degenerated rapidly. The Communist Party, with a tragic historical blunder, thought the time was ripe for revolution and tried to use the Student Movement: ride the tiger of the movement was the political slogan. The Movement was incapable of independent views and decisions. The students occupied all the important Universities in Italy, the arrogant marginal gangs prevailed (katanghesi, vikinghi as they named themselves), professors who did not comply were labelled as reactionary, taken hostages and exposed to pillory (as in China). In many places the Student Movement was supported by (self appointed) "progressive" professors, demagoguery was overwhelming. University exams became a ludicrous farce where groups of thirty, fifty sometimes a hundred students were granted political top grades (30 politico) by conniving professors intimidated by vociferous assemblies of students where any claim to common sense was despised and ridiculed. Any attempt to teach in a specific and competent way was thrashed by the ideologically intoxicated crowd. The concept of meritocracy and selection was branded as fascism. Stupid vulgarity won: consistent response to the stupidity of the system. In 1973 at the Rimini Conference the Student Movement split: a part chose to carry on the 'revolution' in a clandestine way, clearly stating its intention to wield an armed fight (lotta armata) against the system. The flow of events was set for the terrible years of terrorism that were to follow: the "years of lead" (gli anni di piombo).
In the world the Vietnam tragedy was at its final stage: the US bungled escalation prepared the gloom for a defeat that was be the turning point of Western culture. Never before had the concept of Western liberal democracy been as betrayed by cultural blindness as in this useless bloody war, never had such a high price been paid for a political mistake: the book by Robert MacNamara and a million books like this will never recover the immense loss. This is by no means an insult to those who fought and died there (58 thousand Americans and a rough estimate of one million of Vietnamese guerrillas, soldiers and civilians): they died heroes losing their lives for the the ineptitude of the world political leadership. As many did before them.
Art and literature found expression in protest, social confrontation and ethical malaise: in Italy Pier Paolo Pasolini was the reference point.
Montale works at the Corriere della Sera: translating, writing essays, reviewing concerts. He is now a nationally recognized poet with Ungaretti and Quasimodo. In 1966 he publishes his meditations and thoughts in Auto da fe'. His detachment is tragic, his despair at the stupidity and cruelty of ignorance is clearly spelled out: a bitter feeling of helplessness looms and so does his frustration, but he has no means or tool other than decency. In 1967 he is appointed 'senator for life', which at least solves the problem of a dignified material existence.
In 1969 he publishes Fuori casa a collection of his correspondences to the Corriere della Sera . In the Diary 1971 1972 we find a Letter to Malvolio that reiterates clearly his life-long political choice. The letter/poem is a sharp response to the allegation of 'qualunquismo' (non-commitment) or 'irresponsible absence' that he felt was directed towards him during the years of the Student Movement and during the tragic era of Italian terrorism.
Non s'è trattato
mai d'una mia fuga, Malvolio,
Non fu molto difficile
forse esserlo. Ma dopo.
Ma dopo che le stalle
Fu la tua ora e non è
It was never a question
of my fleeing, Malvolio
It was not very difficult
But later, when the stalls
were emptied out
This was your time and
it is not over.
Old age 1970 - 1981
The decade of lead (Anni di piombo): the clandestine fighters (former Avanguardia Operaia, Potere Operaio, Lotta Continua) manipulated by the Communist Party and by the far right, commandeered by psycho-ideologues , killed, shot in the legs (gambizzare was the slang term of those years), seized as hostages for ransom magistrates, journalists, lawyers, police, carabinieri and corporation managers with the crazed idea of destroying the 'system'.
Marginal right wing bandits with the support of uncontrolled branches of the secret services took part in the murderous dance putting bombs in trains, in railway stations, banks and post offices. An undeclared civil war flared, thousands were jailed claiming the status of 'political prisoners', hundreds were killed. This aborted revolution is yet to be acknowledged by the Italian historical and social conscience. Right-wing and left-wing extremist terrorism overlapped and interacted. The manipulation by the secret services was close to insanity, each office waging its private war: laying left-wing looking plots to help right-wing credibility and viceversa. Organized crime and the Mafia did not stand aside setting up kidnappings for ransom: all of which is history yet to be written. The Red Brigade exerted pressure on the families of prison wardens to ensure privileged treatment for their jailed comrades, jail toughies dared not touch jailed members of the R.B. fearing retaliation. Jails were hell for the unprotected. Politicians and intellectuals speculated about the difference between red terrorism and black terrorism. Billionaire publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli financed the revolution and personally took part in terrorist actions: one of the few examples of consistency between ideals and action. He eventually blew himself up while setting a time bomb on a power line pylon near Milan and he remains the symbol of the deep malaise of a bourgeoisie incapable of finding a role between political commitment, absence, complicity and revolutionary subversion. At a time of such resounding absence, one cannot fail to acknowledge the coherence of one who believed, even if one rejects such a hallucinated choice. The battling factions recovered the old tools of fascist gangs: clubs, monkey wrenches, chains, were the current ordnance of the right/left dialogue: bashings, incursions, vendettas, arson were the daily agenda. One of the many pessimistic comments of Montale in this period (Quaderno di quattro anni, Mondadori, 1977, pag. 116):
Si risolve ben poco
Not much is solved
The former prime minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigades (March 16, 1978), negotiations to free him went on for months between the Government and the R.B. At the end he was shot in cold blood after a mock trial and the body was left in the very centre of Rome (May 4, 1978): a challenge to the institutions, and an act of savage derision towards the Government. The Communist Party itself finally rid themselves of ambiguity and denounced the R.B.: they were not comrades any more, but comrades in error. Only the leader of the Radical Party Marco Pannella had the courage to call them, right from the beginning, killer comrades. In 1981 a slow process of moral reconstruction started and is still in progress today. It is difficult for a culture that has not been capable of detecting the reasons for its downfall to pull out of it. In retrospect what stands out clearly is the direct responsibility of a leading political class that was absent or too easy-going during the dramatic transition from juvenile unrest to terrorism, that lacked coherence under pressure and any reference values or goals. Many responsible people have severe critical reservations and maintain silence even today. Just as the 1943/45 civil war was for many years referred to only as 'the Resistance', so the seventies in Italy remain a problem of cultural courage.
There was an economic boom: everybody seemed to be making money, politicians, businessmen, entrepreneurs, some of the operations were clearly the making of political-financial bandits (SIR, ENI, Montedison, Banco Ambrosiano). The connivance between politicians, magistrates and entrepreneurs in improper financial dealings that occurred during these years is today a documented matter for the tribunals.
Compulsory reading of these years: Herbert Marcuse (One dimensional man), evoking nostalgia for Bakunin and McLuhann, Luddism in a vaguely millenarian and nihilistic atmosphere.
Montale publishes Satura in 1971 and in 1973 Trentadue variazioni and the Diary of '71 and '72 . In 1975 he is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature that acknowledges him as a free man and a free poet. He is now an internationally crowned and recognized poet.
In 1977 the Notebook of Four Years (Quaderno di quattro anni) is published. He is still active in literary juries in 1977/78. In 1980 his complete works (L'Opera in Versi) are critically edited and published by Einaudi. In 1981 with the title Prime alla Scala his musical reviews written for the Corriere della Sera are published.
He is eventually confined to his house in Via Bigli 15 in Milan where he dies on September 12, 1981 affectionately cared for by his life-long and loyal housekeeper Gina Tiossi.
Very meaningful if a little depressing is this conclusive thought from Quaderno di quattro anni:
All identity spent
Still alive 1981 - 1996
Italy discovers in these years the structure of corruption that has been ruling the country since time immemorial: a democracy based on theft and systematic deception. No political party is saved from ethical collapse, the country is left with no values, the betrayal of ideologies and of all basic manifestoes could not be more humiliating. Top levels of State officialdom are involved and the confusion is overwhelming. A reliable ethical guide to lead the country towards a new national programme is clearly missing. People feel let down. The boundaries between honesty and dishonesty are in a shambles: those who did not steal are pathetically incredible. A new purge takes place run by the magistrates; a whole political class is wiped out. Some of the newcomers are quickly turned over again on charges of corruption. As in all revolutions, distinctions are blurred if there are any. Some of the top corrupt leaders leave the country to escape conviction. Some leave the country out of personal disgust and frustration.
The Montalean ethics of detachment/denunciation, his manifesto of decency fit perfectly. The permanent oxymoron of the Letter to Malvolio ( ...honour and shame bound together in one pact founded the permanent oxymoron... ) eventually led to their inevitable devastating results. His poetry foresaw it all. Montale is present as always with his Posthumous Diary . Once again he states that:
Just keeping of distance was already a severe judgement.
Montale a poet of the future
The clear and complete separation between our life and whatever else is dramatically evoked by Montale's poetry. The wonderous consciousness of the brevity and inconsistency of our existence as compared to the immeasurable dimension of universal life around that all his poetry proposes is at times frightnening at times soothing. Montale did not easily accept this separation, he sensed it with ... sad wonder... Something seems to change in later years and ... at this point:
A questo punto smetti
An invitation to let go of speculative thinking and deceiving rational superstructures as useless and trust only direct feelings, what you can see with your eyes or perceive even without your eyes. The reward is fascinating:
If I leave you now
There is still light on
It is useless to search for rational explanations or try to understand obscure riddles: abandon yourself to the flow of things, accept existence and you will be part of ...whatever else.
Montale seems, with these verses, to put into practice the advice that he has been giving to those who wanted to understand the obscurity of poetry (see note 2) . Perhaps the ultimate response to Giacomo Leopardi's perception of infinity:
Sempre caro mi fu quest'ermo
Posthumous diary: 66 poems and other verses
Montale entrusts Annalisa Cima, a poet and friend, with eleven closed envelopes containing 66 poems to be published periodically after his death.
A very meaningful gesture consistent with Montale's lifelong battle against time and with his unresigned yearning to link his existence with ...whatever else. At the same time a sign of the irony with which he fought a battle that he knew he had lost from the beginning.
Time is created by feelings: when feelings end, time stops.
Specific poems and verses are irrelevant: the very idea of the posthumous diary is a poetic message, a challenge and a key to understanding his life and his ethical manifesto.
In this poem the reference is to his meeting with Annalisa Cima and to their common illness: spleen. For the first time Montale evokes something new: at the very end of the game you may find a sign ... that can give sense to everything.
In It is difficult to live Montale tells how difficult and absurdly painful it is to live without any faith through the gloom of daily massacres, ...but somehow something happens all the time and one is drawn into the game again:
E' difficile vivere
It is difficult to live
The Diary is the delicate and intense story of the love of the old poet for a young woman: the only woman a man loves and betrays for a lifetime. The love-story, with moments of playful humour and wittiness, is entwined with the feeling of the approaching end: ...I have found you, now that I must go, and we both know it.
Il tuo pallore
Parlerai di me con lo
Will you talk about me
with the same
A final comment
Living rather intensely with Montale's poetry for the last few months, reading just a part of the vast literature produced to explain him, one is struck by two feelings. The strength of his poetry, direct, intuitive, forceful existential provocation, obtained with dry synthesis, with words and verses distilled to stern minimal syllables and signs: situations, feelings, fears and concepts precisely evoked with three, four words, two, three verses. On one hand. On the other, the volume, mass, extension and abundance of explanations and interpretations, a number of the essays are in fact complete re-writings of the poems in which thousands of words try to recover, in a sophisticated, affected way, at times, and sometimes quite awkwardly, the brilliant flash of a word and of a` few dry syllables.
I tried to feel beyond the analytical precision of the scoliasti (annotators): an effort to recover the simplicity of the direct approach and its great power.
1) When Montale died in 1981 Armida Marasco collected all the articles published on him by the Italian Press for the publisher Congedo (Facolta' di Magistero, Universita' di Lecce). Reading this book is interesting: the attempts to patronize him made by the Catholic press and the tight-lipped comments of the leftist reviewers confirm how right had been his choice not to belong to any side. Here are some examples: A man whose political ideas have never exactly been the same as ours ... Giovanni Giudici , l'Unita' ; ... Montale's poetry has always been identified as the poetry of the establishment. Elio Pagliarani Paese Sera; ...My generation, frankly, was never very fond of Eugenio Montale. We perhaps wrongly read him as a classic, right away, someone who had to be honored and celebrated. In fact we resented as false that hermetic way of his anti-fascism, and we sensed something wrong in the anti-fascism of the Manifesto of Intellectuals proposed by Benedetto Croce that Montale also signed ... To be frank we preferred Penna, Saba, Pasolini. We wanted our poets to be very pure, heavenly, in the life, like Penna, or totally committed like Pasolini. Better still if in the same person we could find both profiles. We never liked poets who were also Senators. Montale reciprocated with a strong antipathy towards the Students Movement. ... It is common knowledge he was nasty and envious, as are the most rotten of the men of letters. You just praised Saba or Sbarbaro and that was it ... Eugenio Montale has died, an anti-fascist Tory, a great lyricist.... Renzo Paris, Eugenio Montale: un amore difficile, in Manifesto, 15/9/81; ... It would be easy to remember that he has been a great poet for us, for the young and for the less young among us, belonging to the silent hard core of the left, living the underground winters of anti-fascist communism under siege as if in a prison. The bourgeoisie of his country had not yet awarded him prizes, just the post as ordinary editor in a little crampy room at the Corriere della Sera, today inflated as a retrospective myth. Communists were Montalean without even having to say it. They had in this clandestine and alleged-to-be-difficult poet, a safe place that no zdanovism could disturb. Togliatti did not like Montale, he associated him in a famous article to the bottles of Morandi. The signs of the failed greatness of anti-fascist culture ... Michelangelo Notarianni, Eugenio Montale: una vita al cinque per cento , in Manifesto, 15/9/81; ...To give away the whole of Montale to the bourgeoisie would mean to fail to respond to, would fail to continue that tension and the goal of his yearning passion, his search for a breakthrough... Romano Luperini, Montale: i funerali, la poesia, Unita' Proletaria, A. VII no. 3-4 Dec. 1981;
2) This is what Montale himself has to say on the problem of obscurity: I touched one point (just one) about the obscurity or apparent obscurity of some art today: the obscurity that stems from an extreme concentration and excess of confidence in the subject. Critics deal with this obscurity like a visitor to an art exhibition who, looking at two paintings, one of mushrooms and the other a landscape with a man holding an umbrella, might ask: How much are these mushrooms a kilo? Have they been found by the painter or did he buy them at the market? Where is that man going? What's his name? The umbrella, is it real or fake silk? The obscurity of classic authors, not only of Dante and Petrarch, but the obscurity of Foscolo and Leopardi as well, has been partially explained by generations of scholars: and I feel pretty sure that the great poets would be quite surprised by the explanations given by some of their hermeneuts. Also the obscurity of some modern poets will eventually be unveiled, if there are still going to be critics. We will then go from darkness to light, maybe too much light: the light that the so-called aesthetic comments shed on the mystery of poetry. ... Between total obscurity and total brightness there is a juste milieu that poets, instinctively, respect more than their annotators do; above and beyond this limit there is no salvation, neither for poetry nor for critics. There is only a land which is either too bright or too dark where two poor jackals can neither live nor venture without being chased, captured and caged in a Zoo. From Due sciacalli al guinzaglio , Corriere della Sera, 16 Febbraio, 1950, short essay by E. Montale;
3) Original: Forse un mattino andando from Ossi di Seppia, E. Montale, Mondadori, 1948;
4) ... / La poesia non e' fatta per nessuno, / non per altri e nemmeno per chi la scrive. / Perche' nasce? Non nasce affatto e dunque / non e' mai nata. Sta come una pietra / o un granello di sabbia. Finira' / con tutto il resto. / ... .../Poetry is not made for anyone, / not for anybody else and not even for him who writes it. / Why is it born? It is not born at all and thus / it was never born. It is like a stone / or like a grain of sand. It will end / with all the rest... from Asor in Diario del 71 e del 72 di E. Montale page 95 (translation by lm).
5) Montale is quite clear about this: Man as an identified being, as an empirical individual is fatally isolated. Social life is an addition, an aggregate, not the unity of individuals. The communicating man is the transcendental ego hidden within us that recognizes himself in others. ... ... maximum isolation and maximum commitment can coincide in the artist and they should in fact always coincide. ... Thus only isolated people speak, only isolated people communicate; the others - the people of mass communication - repeat, echo, open the words of the poets, which today are not words of faith, but which may become again words of faith one day. Today within each of us is a new man and an old man in conflict: hence the conflict the unbalance of our times. The advent of the new man would be the advent of the robot, of the mechanical man and that would be the end of art. The triumph of the old man over the new man is unimaginable: it would be an even worse defeat. From The loneliness of the artist (La solitudine dell'artista ) lecture given in French, Paris May 21, 1952 at the International Conference on Cultural Freedom (translation into Italian by E. Montale, translation into English by lm)
6) That was Wittgenstein, but the same thing was said by Giacomo Leopardi, who was not a modern philosopher: The best way to hide your limits, is not to go beyond them!
7) There is a story that Montale himself tells about these years, a story that sheds light on his relationship with his father and that also tells a lot about his lifelong relationship with Fascism. The young Montale is punched in the face by a fascist tough guy because he has not properly revered the black rag . His father's comment was : You deserved it ... .
8) It was through this essay that Italo Svevo became known in Italy: Italo Svevo (a pseudonym that means Italian Swabian) was a short-story writer and novelist whose real name was Ettore Schmitz (1861-1928). The son of a Jewish glassware merchant and an Italian mother he wrote Una Vita (1892), Senilita' (1898), La coscienza di Zeno (1923). Only with this last, mature work strongly supported by James Joyce, who was his friend, did Svevo gain the deserved attention of the critics and of the world of letters.
9) Intenzioni (Intervista immaginaria ), La Rassegna d'Italia, vol.1, no. 1 (January 1946), 84-9, reprinted in Sulla Poesia (Milan 1976), 561-69 (translation by lm);
10) Here is the portrait that his friend and pupil Silvio Guarnieri gives of Montale during his Florence years (1930-1937): ...Fascism through him appeared to us as lack of culture, coarseness, bad taste and ignorance; he was always keen to capture each moment of misery and awkwardness. ... He did not contain himself, against Fascism, to sarcasm and ridicule: his confrontation was exasperated, anxiously angry. ...He had a totally negative perception of reality and clearly stated the necessity to act for a change, he would then step back from any practical action and arrive at a desolate embodiment of his human limits, he could even admit, more than to timidity, to his own cowardice. From Creare a noi il nostro destino by Silvio Guarnieri in Omaggio a Montale (pag 142) edited by Silvio Ramat, Mondadori, 1966 (translation by lm)
11) Happy the country where there is no need for heroes (Jan Jaques Rousseau)
12) Non recidere forbice from Le Occasioni, Mondadori, 1949;
13) Montale left the Party before its final collapse; this is his comment (Interview on Settimo Giorno June 5th, 1952): The Partito d'Azione was a Party formed by four stray cats each one of them wanting to be a MP: that's why I left them. In his Dialogo con Montale sulla Poesia he states quite clearly his political creed: I was a member of the Partito d'Azione for a short time, I left them, disgusted, perfectly aware that all their talking would have ended in nothing... I had hoped (simpleton) after the fall of Fascism Italians would unite and support a simple program to do away with Fascism and clericalism (without any popular front) ... ...The commitment of the poet is total, the poet as a man can eventually (though not necessarily) join a political party: but the poet is under no obligation to write political verses. He can, and must do so, if he is so inspired...
14) translation by lm;
15) La frangia dei capelli from Finisterre (Satura), 1943;
16) The Second Indochina War (Vietnam war) dates are difficult to set it is recorded by historians as starting in 1955 and ending in 1975. The Viet Minh (Viet Nam National Liberation) fought against the French since 1946, after the French defeat (1954 Dien Bien Phu, 1955 Geneva Talks) the US got involved (Eisenhower President, John Foster Dulles Secretary of Defense). President John Kennedy (Sec. of Def. Robert MacNamara) increased the US advisers from 1000 to 18.000 by the end of 1961. President Lyndon Johnson (Sec. of Def. Robert MacNamara) who sent to Vietnam almost 500.000 US soldiers, in 1968, after a disastrous 7 years of bungling policy, announced gradual disengagement of US ground troops. It was only in 1976 that the war ended with the capitulation of Saigon (July 2, 1976) now Ho Chi Minh City. Henry Kissinger at the end mastered the peace negotiations and was awarded a Nobel Prize. North Vietnamese chief negotiator Le Duc Tho declined the award.
17) In retrospect: the tragedy and lessons of Vietnam, Robert MacNamara, Brian Vandemark, 1995. According to McNamara the escalation of US military presence in Vietnam came as a result of complete misunderstanding of the culture behind North Vietnam resolve that was driven by nationalistic ideology rather then being only a communist plot. US political leadership lacked the experience and the culture to evaluate what was going on in South East Asia and ended up by relying on the schemes and visions of the military. Obviously limited to military ways of solving problems. McNamara's book is an outstanding record of how the decision-making process in a democratic structure can run loose of any effective strategic control: no vision, no thorough analysis, no alternative thinking, just bungling in and ad-hoc way on daily issues. The book must be acknowledged as an example of great (late) civic courage.
18) An allegation that is again clearly spelled out, many years later, in the article by Ezio Paris in the Manifesto of September 15, 1981 (see note 2);
19) Toni Negri Professor at the University of Padua was the most dangerous of the lot: convincing young kids, through his psychotic writings, to set bombs and kill, while he himself remained in his comfortable, protected office enjoying academic tenure.
20) Il vero poetico e' vero metafisico a petto del quale il vero fisico che non vi si conforma dee tenersi a luogo di falso. (Poetic truth is metaphysical truth compared to which physical truth that does not conform has to be regarded as false. ) Giovanni Battista Vico (trans. lm);
21) A questo punto from Diario del 71 e del 72, Mondadori, September 1977.
22) from I Canti by Giacomo Leopardi L'infinito;
23) Incontro and E' difficile vivere from Diario Postumo ed Altri Versi, Edited by Annalisa Cima, Einaudi, 1996;
24) scoliasti is a term that Montale seems to like: they were the annotators of ancient texts (marginal note= scolium, plural scolia ).