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This article is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.Montale and the Muse
It was something to read on the beach: a famous old man's involvement with a beautiful woman less than half his age, messages from the beyond, an implied accusation of forgery, reputations at stake, claims and counter-claims, descents into personal insult... Over the last ten days of July, spilling into August and revived in September 1997, various Italian newspapers including the Corriere della Sera, Repubblica, and Unità ran pieces on what came to be called 'il giallo dell'estate' (the summer's mystery story). The case was opened by Dante Isella's article, 'Dovuto a Montale', in the 20 July Corriere della Sera, demonstrating to the critic's satisfaction that poems published in Eugenio Montale's Diario postumo edited by Annalisa Cima with critical apparatus by Rosanna Bettarini (Mondadori, 1996) where not, in fact, by the poet at all.
Among the first responses was Giovanni Raboni's saying, with mock-embarrassed satisfaction, 'I told you so!' His 1 November 1986 article in Europeo thought the first of these poems published poor enough to make a reader suspect that someone ignorant 'not only of metrics, but also punctuation' had transcribed them from 'a scrawled or faded manuscript, from a poor photocopy, or even a tape recording'. The Milanese poet was compelled to admit that, of these five texts, four were 'frankly bad' and only one 'pathetically, painfully decent'. Cima is reported to have threatened a libel action which never materialized. Raboni concluded from this that in Isella the posthumous poems had encountered a more authoritative prosecuting counsel.
How else could a philological analysis hold the attention of the Corriere's sunbathing browsers on that Sunday in July? Isella's article tacitly accuses Cima of having written the poems herself, and challenges her claim to the possession of literary rights. Although Bianca Montale, a niece of the poet, inherited the entire estate (in accord with a 1975 will), Cima has made public 24 bequest letters granting sole rights to the manuscript poems given her by Montale. Isella also cast doubt on the authenticity of the handwriting in these letters. Between the lines of Isella's analysis, poetry could be glimpsed consorting with the bad magic of fame, sex, and money, with immortality and the afterlife. It was not just a public quarrel between rival editors of a Nobel laureate's works; libel actions had again been threatened, and the matter of the rights was said to be in the hands of lawyers.
Annalisa Cima's bibliography includes items recording encounters with, among others, Marianne Moore and Aldo Palazzeschi. She has told how in 1968 Montale wanted to encounter her, but she, weary of such meetings, resisted. Pressed, however, she gracefully gave in; he was 72 and she 27. Montale is described as having given her, over the following decade, 85 poems in different envelopes to be opened, and their contents published, at intervals after his death. The first 24 appeared in pamphlets (1986-9) published by the Schlesinger Foundation, Lugano, set up by Cima with, we are told, Montale, who is its raison d'être. On the tenth anniversary of his demise, the poet appeared in bookshops with a new collection of poems and a new muse. Diario postumo (Mondadori, 1991) contained 30 pieces. This 'first series', as the volume is subtitled, promised an enlarged edition in 1996, the 100th anniversary of Montale's birth, a promise subsequently kept by publisher, philologist, and editor-muse.
It was Bettarini, with her reputation at stake, who defended the authenticity of the poems most aggressively, accusing Isella (and the entire Mondadori 'brigade') of having stolen for their 1984 Tutte le poesie edited by Giorgio Zampa her L'Opera in versi (Einaudi, 1981), a critical edition produced in collaboration with Gianfranco Contini. Bettarini ends her 27 July piece in Il Sole-24 Ore by asking why Isella relies on stylistic analysis, won't examine the manuscripts in Lugano, and 'why he, with only smoke and dust in his hands, with his tin ear, so familiar with the Muses as in Le occasioni to call Clizia first "Irene", then "Iris", then (at last!) Irma Brandeis, should involve himself in so delicate a question.' However, on the same day in the Corriere, Isella brushed aside the in-fighting and published testimony by a calligraphy expert, Armando Petrucci, which affirmed that manuscript poems dedicated to Cima were not in Montale's hand.
In this article, Isella asks: are the poems part of Montale's oeuvre, or are they not? Behind these plain options lies a series of possibilities. The first must be that what the muse says is true - and, moreover, that the poems are respectable examples of his late style. Few accept the latter part of this notion; even Bettarini seems to think that, good or bad, being by Montale they deserve the academic respectability of textual descriptions and the like. Given that she has collaborated on the rest of Montale's poems, obviously she should finish the job.
A more elaborate version was put forward by Andrea Zanzotto, himself the subject of one poem. He believes these texts are a self-parodic joke at the expense of the literary world, including the circles of philological editors with their minute accounts of paper, ink, variants, excisions, stains and smudges. Montale, described by some as 'cattivo' (wickedly up to it), remarked that if manuscripts of early poems were required for the 1981 critical edition they could always be fabricated, and that its panoply of critical apparatus might, Borges-like, be a fiction. He is reported to have referred to the large white volume in its shiny slip-case as a 'vespasiano' (a public toilet).
Zanzotto's theory is supported by the fact that none of these poems are in typescript, and the holograph sheets were authenticated with a notary's seal before Montale's death. Why go to such lengths? The Veneto poet believes Cima to be a participant in this self-forgery jest, which implies that Bettarini has been 'set up' by the pair of them. These works would then, equally, be a final chapter in the deconstruction of Montale's own stature and reputation, which can be seen equivocally going on in poems published after La Bufera e altro (1957). However, in her 1991 Afterword, Cima presents herself as the faithful interlocutor of the poet's final years, someone 'tested' by being handed poems on each visit, then entrusted with the task of giving him a 'life after death' by publishing these last tributes to his loves and friends, mediated in many cases by his feelings for the poems' sole dedicatee. If Zanzotto is right, Cima's published version must be a fib. She has said that were the poems false, she too would be among the tricked.
Turning to the possibility that they are not authentic, two versions of events suggest themselves. The less likely is that this is a calculated forgery exploiting a reputation and market. Shakespeare's literary afterlife is dotted with fakes such as those by the Irelands exposed through Malone's critical analysis. As with the Hitler Diaries, such deceptions meet a financially-backed desire that the things exist. The editorial director of Mondadori, Gian Arturo Ferrari, made it clear that serious pecuniary motives cannot have been realised: the 1991 edition sold 3,516 copies, and the 1996 enlarged volume 6,132. These are good sales figures for a poet's poet with a more than coterie reputation, but for a Nobel laureate in anniversary years rather poor. Still, the contested manuscripts are held in a Lugano bank and an American archive.
A second possibility is that they are an attempted outflanking of the 'brigades' who broker literary reputation. As such, the references in letters and contracts to the 'Poetessa Annalisa Cima' takes on a darker colouring, as does the appearance in a new complete Emily Dickinson (Mondadori, 1997) of two collaborative translations attributed to Cima and Montale - immortality by association. The Preface to her 1996 edition by Angelo Marchese dwells on Montale's being influenced by Cima's verse, as do 'Notes on Two Books by Eugenio Montale' (for a presentation at the Casa Italiana, New York, on 14 November 1996) to be found on the Internet: 'Montale's admiration for Annalisa Cima's poetry grew deeper and deeper; he first compared her to Emily Dickinson, in the beautiful verse "...Emily / della lombarda alta borghesia" ("...Emily / of the Lombard upper class") and then to Sappho "io vecchio vate e tu / giovane Saffo" ("I the old poet and you / young Sappho").' Neither of the phrases attributing status to the protagonists ('alta borghesia' and 'vate') is well translated. The Internet document unembarrassedly concludes: 'Therefore, Montale left a clear message: he chose Annalisa Cima not only as his literary heiress, but also as the poet who will continue the poetical message of this century after him.' A sentence in her Afterword suggests that 'Perhaps, more than a diary, this gift of Montale's to us all is a fairy tale which he tells us as the force of friendship and poetry may make real a dream.' If the dream were that Cima be taken seriously as poet and muse, Montale's gift might be expected to 'make real' just this.
Returning to the authentic side, is it possible that, Zanzotto being right, Cima was unaware of Montale's joke? If the texts are a posthumous laugh at the literary world, why not also at would-be poets hanging around old lions so as to be in with a famous group of friends, why not at the muse herself? Cima's pamphlet Incontro Montale (Scheiwiller, 1973) was brought out, it is reported, as a 'surprise' for the poet and his editors, such as Contini, to whom he wrote about an unnamed book which had no authority, had been foolishly assembled by a 'scribbler' from prose in print, and would be the cause of a worse surprise to the book's noted publisher. Cima has denied that this letter refers to her volume, and it was issued by Scheiwiller again as Incontro Montale 1973 in the anniversary year.
That they are self-forgeries and Cima a conduit for this dead man's jest might help explain why the poems have, as Isella pointed out, a stylistic similarity to some of the muse's own works: not because inspired by admiration for her verse, or because collaged by her like an unauthorized interview, but because the Nobel laureate was also parodying her poems. Would even a senile Montale have known better than shamelessly to refer to the American poet, whom he never met and that Elizabeth Bishop addressed for years as 'Miss Moore', by the overfamiliar 'Marianne'? Would he have had the good taste to avoid making obvious puns on people's names - such as Cima (a summit or peak) and Vittorio Sereni, who is described as 'anything but serene' and supposedly quoted calling himself 'a loser'?
It could only have happened to, or been perpetrated by, Montale. Many of his poems were occasioned by, and sometimes dedicated to, what he liked to describe, recalling the Bard, as an 'Only Begetter'. These muses are also acknowledged descendants of Dante's Beatrice and the Laura of Petrarch's Canzoniere. Yet, just as the 'ONLIE. BEGETTER' of Shakespeare's title page consorts oddly with the young man, dark lady, rival poets, and Anne Hathaway of individual sonnets, so Petrarch was quite up to condensing different persons into his Laura. Such inspiring figures in poems take on a life of their own, imagined projections associated with the narrated life of the lyrical 'I'. What they usually have in common is their distance from both the composing poet, and his subject 'self' in the poem. Montale's second book is dedicated to the I.B. whose first name proved difficult for Isella to remember in his annotations to Le occasioni (Einaudi, 1996). She is also a 'catch all' for various other figures, named or not, who occasioned poems: Gerti Tolazzi, Anna degli Uberti, and, strangest of all, a photograph of Dora Markus's legs.
The book's title, 'occasioni', can be seen pasted on the windscreens of used cars: a bargain not to be missed. Poets may have to take what opportunities life offers, but in doing so they skirt being taken for opportunists. If poems are inevitably appropriations, they can also be attempting to sound as appropriate as possible. They do this by keeping faith with the constraints of their occasions, even as the imaginative freedom to project offers innumerable temptations to a wishful falsifying. The isolation, distance and solitude of Montale's inspiration is one limit his poems tend to respect - as, for example, in the 'Xenia' sequence addressed to his dead wife Drusilla Tanzi. Poems dedicated to Cima mention the distance of age-difference, but frequently express a togetherness, a consoling affection, an apparent sharing of outlook, seeming to offer a solidarity of relationship among mutual friends as a stay against the coming void. Though Brandeis was a professional Italianist who published translations of Montale poems, she is far less tangible, as inspiring presence and means for making the poetry public, than Cima, who, with the publication of Diario Postumo, assumes a place in a tradition of muses that Peter Robinson reaches back more than 50 years for Montale, and many centuries for Italian verse.
There is another sense in which it could only have happened to Montale. His first three books, written over almost 40 years, take up less space than his final three collections, composed in under a decade. Though these later volumes include pieces that turn their back on the intricately constructed poems of his earlier books, they also contain work which, though of a different kind, shows no slackening of concentration or skill. Nevertheless, because of their more informal style, a forging pasticheur or calculating selfparodist would have far less trouble producing texts that resemble late works, than coming up with a 'lost' Montale poem from, say, the 1930s.
In one bequest letter appears the phrase: 'il Poeta Eugenio Montale concedeva alla Poetessa Annalisa Cima i diritti...' Giulio Nascimbeni, the poet's biographer, wrote to the Corriere asserting that the honorific 'il Poeta' would have been anathema to Montale. The following day the paper carried Cima's counter assertion that he didn't disdain 'la qualifica di Poeta'. Montale's remarks that Nascimbeni cites to support his case are echoes of ideas expressed by Sereni during the l950s and alluded to in the Nobel laureate's review of his Gli strumenti umani (1965). While appearing to support Sereni's belief that the cultural bric-àbrac of 'being a poet' or 'speaking as a poet' needed to be abandoned, Montale was also a survivor from the era of D'Annunzio. Writing in 1953 on André Frenaud, he distinguished between such poets for collectors and vatic figures like Hugo and Carducci, writers whose lives and works are appropriated by a national culture - as has been the case with the Bard. Despite his sardonic asides, Eugenio Montale, by his centenary year, had become the last (to date) of such national figures in Italy. What's more, he was capable of referring to himself (if Cima's version of events is true) with only genial irony as a 'vecchio vate'. It may just be that after him the notion of such poets will have been deposited, for permanent safe-keeping, in the museum of dated ideas.
In another poem dedicated to her, Montale writes 'Il vate è morto, evviva l'estintore'. If he saw his be-laurelled Poet as a 'relic from which we must absolutely free ourselves', would this not also be true of the Muse? Yet why throw out the baby with the bathwater? As people among others, writers of poems also need, and may sometimes be inspired by, their friends, relatives, and loves. The benefit to a poem's language that such people can provide is an occasion in which the timbres of words between equals may thrive. Since such poems placed between equals are also written to be read by others, this timbre forms an open context of communication in which the force and intensity of the words, generated by the imagined relationship, can be received by anyone willing to tune in and listen. The ambit of poet and intimates is not then a privileged realm, a jet-set of the verbal imagination, but an opportunity for unforeseeable reading relationships with total strangers in other places and future times.
The sorry service that the affair of Montale's Diario postumo has performed is to underline a dubious exclusiveness in the conception of Poet and Muse as a bewitched circle, with, in attendance, the precious few admitted to the inner sanctum. Far from occasioning the possibility of true poetic speech and helping it survive the afterlife of attention and neglect necessary for its encounters with the readers it needs and who need it, this privileged realm short-circuits the processes by which poems come to belong in intimate experience and puts poetry in among the jostlers for prestige, the scramble of hierarchic in-fighting, professional rivalry, libel actions, contested rights, and the struggle for market advantage.
In a pre-death late poem, Montale describes Brandeis in 1934 lying on a chaise longue reading a book about barelyknown saints or little-esteemed baroque poets, and says his feeling was, and is, not love but veneration. If this resembles the indebtedness that earlier poets felt in the face of a muse, it has its roots in the cults of female goddesses, of Mariolatry, Courtly Love codes, and much besides. These interwoven practices have contributed to the surviving belief that love between those who respect each other is a form of saving spiritual orientation which helps its subjects become emotionally, morally, and humanly better people. Montale's Diario postumo (whether geriatric doodling, wicked self-burlesque, or foolish fraud) glows like a coaleffect fire in the quotidian embers of that flame.
This article is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.