Cultural Cohesion, p.56Clive James
London Review of Books, 1980; later included in
From the Land of Shadows, 1982
Why did I bother? I suppose it was because I had guessed that the barbarians were at the gates, and that the sophisticates like Professor Booth would let them in. It will be noted that the structuralists were already on the scene. The spear points of the semioticists were glittering meaningfully on the horizon. As the armies of folie raisonnante closed in on the universities, Grub Street, I felt, was the last ditch: if it couldn’t defend itself, the very idea of a jargon-free critical prose would be irretrievably lost. By now we can see that it almost was, and would have been altogether if literary theory had not had its own destruction built into it: there was no way of remembering any of it after the examination paper had been answered.
But literature would have survived anyway, like the Church in Poland under the Warsaw Pact. It was literature, not humanist criticism, that made literary theory ridiculous. Consider a single point in a single novel: the relationship between Fascination Fledgeby and Riah in Our Mutual Friend. Dickens has made the goy the financial exploiter, and the Jew the victim. He has turned an expectation upside down. But to know that he has, you have to know what that expectation was, and how it operated since at least the time of The Merchant of Venice. And where did Dickens’s liberal view come from? From a realistic analysis of Victorian capitalism, or merely from his great heart?
It takes years to read the history, literature and moral philosophy leading to that single point; and there are thousands of equally significant points in that single work of art; and there are thousands of works of art. There was simply no time to read literary theory: a fact it tacitly admitted by making itself unreadable. But while it ruled the universities, a generation of teachers impervious to literature passed on their impudence to a generation of students who would have been better left idle.
HOW MONTALE EARNED
The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio
Montale, edited and translated by Jonathan Galassi
Prime alla Scala by Eugenio Montale
If Eugenio Montale had never written a line of verse he would still have deserved his high honours merely on the basis of his critical prose. The product of a long life spent clearing the way for his poetry, it is critical prose of the best type: highly intelligent without making mysteries, wide-ranging without lapses into eclecticism or displays of pointless erudition, hardbitten yet receptive, colloquial yet compressed. The only drawback is that it constitutes a difficult body of work to epitomize without falsifying.
For a long time Montale’s English translators added to the difficulty by not being able to read much Italian or, sometimes and, not being able to write much English. Then a few competent, if restricted, selections emerged. But the problem remained of transmitting Montale’s critical achievement in its full, rich and all too easily misrepresented subtlety. Now Jonathan Galassi has arrived to save the day. His style does not always catch Montale’s easy rhythm, but much of the time he comes close, and the explanatory notes on their own would be enough to tell you that he has mastered all the necessary background information. One of the most active of Montale’s previous translators was under the impression that Dante employed the word libello to mean “libel” instead of “little book.” A dedicated and knowledgeable student of the tradition from which he emerged, Montale was a stickler for detail, so Mr. Galassi’s wide competence comes as a particular refreshment. In all his phases as a poet, from the early, almost Imagist toughness to the later anecdotal relaxation, Montale started with the specific detail and let the general significance emerge. His prose kept to the same order of priority, so it is important that the details be got right. Galassi had several volumes of prose to consider, all published late in the poet’s life. Sulla Poesia of 1976 is the principal collection of literary criticism as such, and indeed one of the most interesting single collections of literary essays in modern times, but the earlier Auto da Fé of 1966 (Montale must have been unaware that Elias Canetti had given the English version of Die Blendung that same title) is its necessary complement, being concerned with the question of mass culture—a question made more vexing for Montale by the fact that, although he didn’t like mass culture, he did like popular culture and thought that elite culture would kill itself by losing touch with it.
There are also some important discursive writings on literature in Fuori di Casa (1969), the book about being away from home, and the Carteggio Svevo/Montale (1976), which chronicles Montale’s early involvement with the novelist whose merits he was among the first to recognize, and whose concern with the artistic registration of the inner life helped encourage Montale in the belief—crucial to his subsequent development—that what mattered about modern art was not its Modernism but the way it allowed private communication between individuals, the sharing of deep secrets in a time of shallow rhetoric. In addition, there is the abundant music criticism, but most of that, at the time this book was being prepared, was not yet available in book form, so Mr. Galassi largely confined himself to the general articles on music scattered through the volumes mentioned above.
Even with so considerable a restriction, however, there was a lot to choose from. The richesse must have been made doubly embarrassing by Montale’s habit of returning to the same point in essay after essay in order to elaborate it further, so that there is a real danger, if you settle on a single essay in order to demonstrate how he has aired a given topic, of getting the idea that he glosses over difficulties in passing, whereas in fact one of his salient virtues was to stay on the case, sometimes for decades on end, until he had it cracked. To sample him is thus almost always to belittle him: it is misleading, for example, to have him speaking as an anti-academic unless you also have him speaking as an appreciator of solid scholarship, and no representation of Montale as the hermeticist young poet can be anything but a travesty unless he is also allowed to speak as the reasonable man who didn’t just end up as the advocate of appreciability, but who actually started out that way. One of the big compliments Mr. Galassi should be paid is that, given this very real problem, he has selected well. All the books are fairly represented, most of the main different emphases in Montale’s stable but manifold critical position are touched upon if not covered, and the quiet giant comes alive before us, as a personality and a mind.
To an extraordinary extent the two things were coextensive. Like one of those periods in Chinese history when Confucian self-discipline and Taoist impulsiveness nourished each other, Montale’s inner life was both naively fruitful and sophisticatedly self-aware. It makes him great fun to read, as if the smartest man in the world were a friend of the family, one of those good uncles who aren’t avuncular. In Italian the title essay of the book was called “Tornare nella Strada” (“Back into the Street”), but the term “second life” recurs throughout the piece and comes right from the centre of Montale’s essentially generous artistic nature. No poet could be more learned about the cultural heritage of his own country and his learning about the cultural heritage of other countries is impressive too, but he says, and obviously believes, that it is not the appeal of art to adepts that interests him most. It is not the first life that matters, but the second life, when a theme from an opera gets whistled in the street, or a phrase from a poet is quoted in conversation. This view might sound crudely populist or even philistine when excerpted, but as argued in a long essay, and fully considered during a long career, it proves to be a highly developed exposition of the elementary precept that art must be appreciable, even if only by the happy few. It doesn’t have to be immediately appreciable, and indeed in modern times any attempt to make it so is likely to be just a coldly intellectualized programme of a different kind, but if it rejects the possibility of being appreciated then it disqualifies itself as art. “The piece goes on and on,” he says regretfully of Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon,
Montale realized quite early that to propose such a line would involve a perpetual obligation to dissociate himself from unwanted allies who would mock any kind of difficulty, even when it was legitimate. That there could be such a thing as legitimate difficulty Montale did not doubt, since he himself embodied it as a poet. But he also didn’t doubt that Modernist enthusiasms would open the way for illegitimate difficultly in large quantities, and that the enemies of art would therefore have a lot at which to point the finger while they made their strident calls for a responsible culture. Mussolini liked quotable quotes, and Palmiro Togliatti’s idea of art was of something which people could sing or recite while they were lining up to join the Communist Party. If you don’t much like Expressionism, the way you say so is bound to be modified by the fact that Hitler didn’t like it either. Montale’s lifelong apoliticism was very political in this sense—that he spoke for the autonomy of culture at a time when political forces were trying to co-opt it. Art should be responsible only to itself. But responsible it should be. “Mastery,” he said in twenty different ways, “consists of knowing how to limit yourself.” It was the necessary corollary of his other famous proposition, the one about how it isn’t the man who wants to who continues the tradition, but the man who can.
The man who can is the man with inspiration. But the inspiration has to come from life. This was where Montale parted company from the Modern movement as a whole. For Montale, art which had nothing except its own technique for subject matter could only be a monster. “An art which destroys form while claiming to refine it denies itself its second and longer life: the life of memory and everyday circulation.” It would be a conventional enough conclusion for any artist to reach in old age but all the evidence suggests that Montale started out with it. Even back in the 1920s, when he was the unfathomable, linguistically revolutionary young poet of Ossi di Seppia, he had that social humility to go with his fierce artistic pride. Maturity was part of his gift.
“Style,” he wrote in 1925, the year of the first publication of Ossi di Seppia, “perhaps will come to us from the sensible and shrewd disenchanted, who are conscious of the limits of their art and prefer loving it in humility to reforming humanity.” The idea had been made very relevant by the events of the 1920s. The international avant-garde had already projected, and was bringing into being, an art without limits. Fascism was bringing into being a reformed humanity, or supposed it was. To this latter end, the mobilization of art was alleged to be essential. In the event, Italian artists and intellectuals were slow to provide Mussolini with the accreditation he would have liked. He gave them medals but, as Montale points out, even when they accepted the medals they did not give much in return.
Montale accepted no medals and gave nothing—not to the state, anyway. What he gave, he gave to his country. As a poet he continued and deepened his original course of writing a new, compressed poetry which, from the puffy and sugared cappuccino that the Italian lyric had become, was a direct and vertiginous return to the Dantesque espresso basso. Later on, when his early manner relaxed into the luminous transparency of the love poetry and the slippered reminiscence of the verse diaries, that initial rigour was still there underneath, keeping everything in terse proportion. In the most rhetorical age of Italian history, his poetry was always as unrhetorical as could be. His prose kept the same rule, to the end of his long life—a serietà scherzevole, a joking seriousness, a humane ease whose steady claim on your attention reminds you that he is the opposite of dispassionate. He is a passionate man in control of himself, having seen, or guessed in advance, what self-indulgence leads to.
Montale’s defence of art against utilitarian pretensions, whether from the state or on behalf of the mass audience, has general relevance for the modern world, but the specific conditions of recent Italian history brought it into being. Faced with the stentorian claims of bogus novelty, it was inevitable that he would appeal to tradition. Yet it was a tradition from which he personally was trying to fight free. Certainly his unusual capacity to speak generally about the arts without declining into abstraction springs partly from a detailed engagement with his European literary predecessors. But that much he had been born to. Eliot, with whose name Montale’s was often linked, got into the European tradition from outside. Montale, born inside, had to get out from under its crushing weight. He talked his way out. Mr. Galassi’s selection from Montale’s many essays on Italian writers shows the poet humanizing the past, pointing out what is permanently current. The great figures rise from their tombs of scholarship and speak as contemporaries, even the grandiose and torrentially eloquent D’Annunzio, the poet who was everything Montale strove not to be. In fact, the essay on D’Annunzio leaves you thirsty for more. If it were as long as the one on Svevo, you would feel that D’Annunzio was at arm’s reach, instead of still soaring around above you with goggles preposterously flashing, pursuing those “flights of omnivorous fancy which does not always turn what it touches into gold, but which will never cease to amaze us.”
Montale’s admiration for D’Annunzio was real, but a long way within bounds. For Svevo it was a profound sympathy. D’Annunzio wanted to conquer the world—an uninteresting prospect. Svevo’s universe was in his own soul, and that interested Montale very much. Montale’s young enthusiasm helped the diffident Triestine businessman to the recognition he deserved as Italy’s most important modern novelist. But here again it is necessary to emphasize that Montale was much less concerned with Svevo’s technical advance into Modernism than with his thematic return to a solid, communicable, everyday subject—which just happened to be the one subject everybody could recognize: namely, the failed adventures in the soul. At a time of heated bombast, Svevo offered concreteness and the slow maturity of considered awareness. “Removed from contact with the world of letters, Svevo developed in solitude.” Montale was also talking about himself. He was not removed from the world of letters, which was never likely to leave him alone, but he always cultivated his solitude in a way which Svevo had helped show him was the key to being a modern artist. The life had to be private before it could be public. The other way round was just publicity.
The essay on Svevo would be enough by itself to demonstrate that Montale, if he was ever anti-academic, was not so for lack of scholarly instinct. He had respect for scholarship but was early aware that it would tend to put the past beyond reach, if only by providing “too much light.” He had a knack for making then seem as close as now—the obverse of another knack, equally valuable, for sensing what was eternal about the present. The section on foreign artists has essays about Valéry, Auden and Stravinsky which bring out their full dignity. A keen student of English, he enjoyed Auden’s verbal playfulness in a way which would have horrified F. R. Leavis, who admired Montale and therefore assumed that he took a stern line against frivolity. But Montale was always willing to forgive intellectual sleight-of-hand if something unexpectedly lyrical should come out of it. His admiration for Stravinsky was withdrawn only when neo-classicism, which at least allowed the possibility of spontaneous feeling, gave way to serialism, which didn’t. Apart from a few sour words about Brancusi, who was a bad host, Montale never belittles a real artist, no matter how variable his work or questionable his personal odyssey, believing that “true poetry is in the nature of a gift, and therefore presupposes the dignity of the recipient.” But he isn’t dewy-eyed either: the false positions that creative people can get themselves into, especially politically, fascinate and appal him.
Foreign students who own the monumental, fully annotated Contini/Bettarini L’Opera in Versi of 1980 are likely to remain deprived for a long time yet of an equivalent edition of the prose. They will find Galassi’s book a useful tool even if they don’t need the translation. Experts might sniff at being told who Svevo was, but it doesn’t hurt to be told that Federico Frezzi was a poet of
I can’t see that Mr. Galassi has fudged much in the way of information. Where Montale speaks of genius as a long patience, I think he expects us to know that Flaubert said it to Maupassant, although lately I have seen the remark attributed to Balzac. Here it is attributed to no one but Montale, who was good enough at aphorisms of his own not to need other people’s wished on him. Also when the humiliated and offended are mentioned at one point, and the humiliated and afflicted at another, these are indeed accurate translations from two different essays, but Montale is almost certainly referring to the title of the same novel by Dostoevsky in both cases.
But this is nit-picking. Montale’s range of literary reference is so wide that even the most alert editor is bound to let a few allusions get through unannotated. More serious is Mr. Galassi’s seeming determination, despite his evident familiarity with Benedetto Croce’s basic works, to remain unaware that you must be very careful not to translate the word fantasia as “fantasy,” when it should be “imagination.” In English, thanks to Coleridge, “imagination” is the categorically superior term. In Italian, after Croce, fantasia is categorically superior to immaginazione. Imprecision on this point is made galling by the fact that for Montale, as for every other Italian writing in the twentieth century, it was Croce who made precise discussion of the subject possible.
More serious still, the translation is often glutinous. Montale’s enviably colloquial flow can’t be reproduced unless you are sometimes content to write several sentences where he wrote one. The arbitrary genders of Italian enable a prosatore of Montale’s gifts to construct long sentences in which you don’t lose track. It’s impossible to transpose them intact, as Mr. Galassi proves on several occasions by producing a construction so labyrinthine that Ariadne’s thread would run out halfway.
Cultural Cohesion by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes