What the Swedes Read: Eugenio Montale

Daniel Handler
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  • Laureate: Eugenio Montale (1975, Italy)
  • Book read: Satura, translated by William Arrowsmith

It’s so great when something great turns out to be really great. I have a memory, shoehorned into my first novel, of standing at Michelangelo’s David, at what was probably the height of my teenage cynicism, and realizing that even though everyone said it was amazing, it was. From Roth­ko to Shakespeare, Citizen Kane to Gilgamesh, so many of the greats are great, by which I mean that they have not only the lasting heft of a masterpiece but that moment by moment they manage to engage in the business of delight. There are masterpieces that are worth the long haul—I emerged from Don Quixote as if from a marathon, just as breathless and proud—and they are not to be ignored. But hot damn, go listen to Sgt. Pepper. Everybody knows it’s a great album, a milestone of pop craftsmanship, and a bright, guiding star in the world of music. But also, it’s great like a great ice cream cone.

The poetry of Eugenio Montale, Nobel prizewinner and Italian literary powerhouse, is great like this, too. Everybody loves this guy. Montale is often described as a “poet’s poet,” and indeed the complexities of his work have been explored hither and yon by his comrades in arms. I’ve seen books with different translations of Montale put side by side, something you don’t see done with, say, Wisława Szymborska, who will pop up again in a future column. But even that scheme doesn’t feel like an academic exercise—you get the feeling that they’ve been laid out just for the joy of it, the way a Coltrane fan will cue up three live versions of “Greensleeves.” Mention Elizabeth Bishop to a group of poets, and you’ll hear a lot of reverence and respect. Bring up Montale and people act like he paid last night’s bar bill.

Sometimes, though, respectability outshines enthusiasm. A writer gets enough serious praise and you begin to get the feeling that they’re someone you ought to read instead of someone who will actually delight you. I read a ton of Montale in my early twenties, when I was writing poetry myself, and loved it, and yet it was something like twenty years since I’d taken down one of his books from my shelf. I guess I was busy respecting him. Although it was part of the gambit of this Nobel project that I read something new, I owned so much of Montale’s work already that finding something I hadn’t encountered felt more like scraping the barrel, so I took down Satura, a collection published a few years before the Swedes awarded him the prize. Here’s what they said about him—

At his best Montale, with strict discipline, has attained a refined artistry, at once personal and objective, in which every word fills its place as precisely as the glass cube in a coloured mosaic. The linguistic laconicism cannot be carried any further; every trace of embellishment and jingle has been cleared away.

—and all this is true. Montale was famed for his announcement that he wanted to “wring the neck of eloquence,” and his straightforward language was seen as a refreshing tonic to the flowery flourishes of Old Country poetics, a style that seemed in tune with his unyielding antifascist stance. But nowadays, when an unyielding antifascist stance seems less like a startling point of view and more like a necessity, “every trace of embellishment and jingle has been cleared away” seems like an awfully flowery way of saying the guy is easily, happily readable:

I spy a bird perched in the gutter,
a pigeon maybe but not so plump,
with a tiny crest, but who knows,
with the windows closed, could be the wind.
If the speedboats wake you up, and you
spy him too, that happiness is all
we’re given to know. It costs too much,
is not for us, and those so gifted
haven’t a clue what to do with it.

I love how clear this poem is, and how clear it is about being completely muddy. You can read it once and take it as a lovely, captured moment, not unlike a number of poems in which someone’s staring out a window. But the word choices stick in the brain, and when you go back and look at it again, suddenly everything’s delightfully slippery. The image of a bird gets knocked askance—“maybe,” “but who knows”—until it “could be the wind,” and, wait a minute, why would something you’re looking at perhaps be something you can’t see? We get a fun, surprising detail like “speedboats,” and then, in the last few lines, this enormous idea that feels so conclusive and yet so difficult to get ahold of. “That happiness”—spying something we don’t know is there—“is all we’re given to know”? And that last sentence, tripping over itself? Every phrase seems perfectly clear, but before I summarize it I’d like to look at a few more translations, just to see how else such a light, light concept has been rendered.

It was like this throughout. A short poem, almost a fragment, that looks like a lusty little love thing—

Your arms, so wonderful!
When I die, come embrace me,
but take off your sweater first.

—has a chilly breeze running through it that at second glance—“when I die”—turns the “arms” into something else. A poem that begins with the name of a painter spotted in the newspaper winds through musings on art and fame but then loses itself in lines that sound comic, eerie, and sad all at once:

I wonder how tapes from two reels
got so tangled together, and whether that ghost
could be the original and me the copy.

Again and again, Montale’s work offered the seriousness of great poetry and the thrill of a great read, and I had the proud and smiley feeling that the Nobel people had really picked a great one, not just great like so many of the knottier artists I’ve made my way through, but great, you know, like poems you just want to read. “And Paradise?” asks a character in a longer sequence called “Xenia II.” “Is there a paradise too?” “I think so, Signora, but nobody likes / those sweet dessert wines anymore.”

The specific and the eternal, ephemeral delight and dogging mystery—Montale’s poetry put me in a glorious daze, but there is a downside to reading someone famously great and enjoying his work. It’s a sheepishness, one that comes over me quite a bit during this project as I put ink to paper to salute writers who have received, with the Nobel, the biggest salute there is. The world has told us certain works of art are great, but somehow we didn’t believe the world until we went out and found out for our own tiny selves. Put on Sgt. Pepper, your charming columnist tells you. It’s a great album. You heard it here first. “I’ve been reading Eugenio Montale,” I said to a poet friend of mine, when he asked me for a recommendation. “He’s great.”

“I have a tip for you, too,” he said, rolling his eyes. “You know what else is great? Ice cream.”

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