The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986
La Repubblica, December 15, 1981; written on the death of Eugenio Montale.
To write about a poet on the front page of a daily newspaper entails a certain risk. One has to make a “public” statement, underline a vision of the world and history, and the moral teaching implicit in his poetry. Everything one says is true, but then one realizes that it could be true also of another poet, that the unmistakable accent of those lines has been left out of the discussion. Let us, therefore, try to keep as close as possible to the essence of Montale’s poetry in explaining why today the funeral of this poet who was so little inclined toward anything official, and so far from representing the image of “national seer,” is nonetheless an event in which the whole country feels involved. This is all the more singular considering that the great declared faiths of the Italy of his time never numbered him among their adepts; indeed, he never spared his sarcasm toward any “cleric either red or black.”
The first thing I would like to say is that Montale’s lines are unmistakable on account of the precision and uniqueness of verbal expression, the rhythm, and the image evoked:
… il lampo che candisce
alberi e muri e li sorprende in quella
… the flash that crystallizes
trees and walls surprises them in that
eternity of an instant.
I am not speaking of richness and versatility of verbal technique, a gift that other Italian poets have had to a supreme degree, and which often goes along with a copious and overblown style, a thing as remote as possible from Montale. Montale never wastes a stroke, but comes out with the unique expression at the right moment and isolates it in all its uniqueness.
discendevamo tra i vepri.
Nei miei paesi a quell’ora
cominciano a fischiare le lepri.
we went down into the thickets.
In my parts, at that hour of night,
the hares begin to sing.
I will come straight to the point: in an age of generic and abstract words, words good for all purposes, words good only for not thinking and not saying anything, a plague of language that spreads from the public to the private sector, Montale was the poet of exactitude, of deliberate choice of vocabulary, of terminological precision used to pin down the uniqueness of an experience.
S’accese su pomi cotogni,
un punto, una cocciniglia,
si udì inalberarsi alia striglia
il poney, e poi vinse il sogno.
There kindled on the quince trees
a spot, a shell-scale,
we heard the pony rear up under the currycomb,
and then the dream took over.
But all this precision to say what? Montale speaks to us of a spinning world driven by a wind of destruction, with no solid ground to stand on, where we have no help but that of an individual morality hanging on the edge of the abyss. It is the world of the First and Second World Wars, and perhaps even of the Third. Or perhaps the First remains out of the picture (beneath the already rather faded photos in the cinémathèque of our minds run the spare, minimal lines of Ungaretti), and it is the precariousness of the world as seen by young people after that war that forms the background to Ossi di seppia, as the mood of Occasioni is one of waiting for a new catastrophe, and the theme of La bufera is the acting out of this, and the ashes it left. La bufera is the best Italian book to come out of the Second World War, and it is talking about that theme even when it is talking about something else. Everything is implicit there, even our anxieties of afterward, right up to those of today: the atomic catastrophe:
… e un’ombroso Lucifero scenderà su una proda
del Tamigi, del Hudson, della Senna
scuotendo Vali di bitume semi-mozze dalla fatica,
a dirti: è l’ora.
… and a gloomy Lucifer will alight on a bank
of the Thames, of the Hudson, of the Seine
shaking bitumen wings half stunted with fatigue,
and tell you: the hour has come.
and the horror of concentration camps past and future (in “Il sogno del prigioniero”).
But it is not the direct descriptions or declared allegories that I want to place in the foreground. Our historical condition is seen as a cosmic condition, and even the most minute natural presences in the poet’s everyday observation appear as vortices. It is the rhythm of the verse, the prosody, the syntax, that contain this movement in themselves, from the beginning to the end of his three great books.
I turbini sollevano la polvere
sui tetti, a mulinelli, e sugli spiazzi
deserti, ove i cavalli incappucciati
annusano la terra, firmi innanzi
ai vetri luccicanti degli alberghi.
The wind whips up the dust
onto the roofs, in eddies, and on empty
squares, where horses with lowered heads
sniff the ground, stock-still in front
of the glittering windows of hotels.
I spoke of an individual morality to resist the historical or cosmic catastrophe that from one moment to the next might erase the ephemeral traces of the human race; but I have also to say that in Montale, however far he is from joining in any chorus or any impetus toward solidarity, we always find a feeling of the interdependence of each of us with other people’s lives. “Occorrono troppe vite per farne una” (“Too many lives are needed to make just one”) is the memorable ending to a poem in Occasioni in which the shadow of a kestrel in flight gives the sense of the destruction and re-creation that imbue every form of biological and historical continuity. But the help that can come from nature or from men, if it is not to remain purely illusory, must connect with a tiny rivulet that rises “dove soio/morde l’arsura e la desolazione” (“where only/drought and desolation grip”). It is only by swimming up rivers until they become hair-thin that the eel finds a safe place to procreate. It is only “a filo di pietà” (“by the hairbreadth of mercy”) that the porcupines on Monte Amiata can find anything to drink.
This difficult heroism dug in one’s very gut, and in the aridity and precariousness of existence, this antiheroic heroism, is the answer that Montale gave to the problems of poetry in his generation: how to write verse after (and against) D’Annunzio (and after Carducci, and after Pascoli, or at least a certain image of Pascoli). It is the problem that Ungaretti resolved with the flash of the word in all its purity, and Saba by regaining an inner sincerity that included pathos, affection, and sensuality—human features that the man who was Montale rejected, or thought could not be said.
There is no message of consolation or encouragement in Montale unless we accept the awareness of an inhospitable and stinting universe. It is along this arduous path that his message continues that of Leopardi, even if their voices sound very different. In the same way, Montale’s atheism is more problematical than Leopardi’s, shot through with continual leanings toward something supernatural that is at once corroded by his basic skepticism. If Leopardi dissolves away the consolations of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the suggestions of consolation put forward by Montale are those of our contemporary irrationalisms, which he evaluates one by one and drops with a shrug, constantly reducing the surface of the rock under his feet, the rock to which he clings with the determination of a castaway.
One of his themes, which over the years became more frequent, is the way in which the dead are present in us, the uniqueness of every person whom we cannot resign ourselves to losing: “il gesto d’una/vita che non è altra ma se stessa” (“the gesture of a/life that is not another, but itself”). These are lines from a poem in memory of his mother, in which there are birds that have returned, a gently sloping landscape, and the dead: the repertoire of the positive images in his poetry. At this moment we can scarcely give his memory a better frame than this:
Ora che it coro delle coturnici
ti blandisce nel sonno eterno, rotta
felice schiera in juga verso i clivi
vendemmiati del Mesco …
Now that the birdsong of the quails
soothes you in sleep eternal, scattered
happy swarm in flight toward the harvested
slopes of Mesco …
And go on reading “inside” his books. This is a sure guarantee of his survival. For however many times we read them and reread them, his poems seize us as soon as we open the book, and we can never exhaust them.