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This item is taken from PN Review 181, Volume 34 Number 5, May - June 2008.

Letters from Len Krisak, Peter McCarey, Michael Cullup
Wrong Valves...


For the printing of Henry Reed's drafts of Montale's motets, PNR deserves our thanks. The publication of any work by Reed that is not yet familiar to the public at large must command our interest.

And yet ... I hope I'll be forgiven (since I am by no means a scholar of Italian, as Reed most certainly was) if I raise a few small points in relation to his version of ' cosi sia....' .

Perhaps most curious in Reed's translation of this piece is his decision to jettison, as far as I can tell, metre and rhyme in bringing over Montale's very musical eight lines (they are, after all, motetti). I fully appreciate the more copious rhyme resources of Italian compared to those of English. (To achieve the formal equivalent of what Montale achieves would require a brace of feminine end-rhymes.) But surely a near-equivalence could have been attained with simple masculine rhymes, since the opportunities are plentiful, what with oak(s) and smoke(s) and brief and handkerchief. Perhaps, then, Reed has missed a graspable opportunity to convey the formal qualities of the Montale?

But of particular interest is the unfortunate choice of valve in Reed's draft. (Perhaps, since this was a draft, he might have re-thought the word.) I believe much of the power and poignancy of these poems resides in the near-novelistic story they hint at by the careful selection of emotionally laden details. If so, then isn't the key to ' cosi sia...' its depiction/meditation/implied commentary on a desk-top scene - a vignette composed of trinkets? These seem to include a lava ashtray/paperweight, a coin, a handkerchief, a painted postcard's smoking volcano (nicely echoing the lava), and the play of reflection of the sunset off the inner surface of ... a shell or half-shell. Hence the valva of the Italian - valva, valve, bivalve, half-shell, shell.

The choice of valve in English simply interferes with the reader's picture of the scene, since the word seems to offer connotations of the wrong kinds of valves. Should the poem be risking the momentarily off-putting images of pistons and car parts and plumbing fixtures at the very moment the reader needs to think shell? And with that cornet so close by, readers might even be forgiven for picturing the fingering of trumpets!

Len Krisak
by email

... and Other Blunders


I'm grateful to PNR for sending me back to Montale's Motets, but I don't believe Henry Reed would have thanked Marco Sonzogni for publishing those translations, and readers who rely on them should be warned of the blunders they contain. The worst mistakes are in the second motet ('Molti anni...') and in the last ('ma così sia...'). In the second, Reed mistakes 'you' for 'I' and translates 'Imprimerli potessi sul palvese...' as 'You might have printed them upon the great shield / which shakes beneath the battering whip of the north-east wind / inside the heart ... And it is for you to descend into a whirlpool / of immortal fidelity'.

But the literal sense of the Italian is: 'I wish I could print them on the pennant that flutters in the north-east wind in the heart, and descend for you into a whirlpool of immortal fidelity'.

In the last motet, Reed has: '... but so be it. The sound of a cornet / dialogues with the swarms of the oak-grove. / In the valve which reflects the evening star / A painted volcano happily smokes.'

It's not a valve, but a sea shell (as in 'bivalve'). And the 'fogli' later on are sheets of paper. The reader who sees 'trattiene pochi fogli' translated as 'holds a few notes' will connect it with 'the sound of the cornet' in the first line, and with the valve. This ought to be the wry and poignant closure to the cycle - and it is a cycle: the twentieth motet picks up words, sounds and images from the first. Montale, who had been looking for a pledge, a favour from the woman he writes for, is left with one or two kitsch paper weights - the Bay of Naples, perhaps, painted on a seashell, and a piece of lava with a coin caught in it: so much for the flowers on the volcano of the epigraph (missing from the translation).

A few other suggested amendments; numbers denote the motets, in order. This is not an exhaustive list, but it covers the main problems.

1 For 'Like the pointed sights of a gun', read 'as by a well-aimed shot'.
6 From 'The hope of seeing you yet again', delete 'yet'.
7 For 'shuttles' read 'house martins'.
9 For 'more hoarse than your heart' read 'feebler than your heart'.
10 For 'the squirrel beats its tail like a torch on the bark', read 'beats its torch-like tail...'
13.For 'pallid crowd' read 'dull tangle'.
15 For 'the chisel which eats the desk' - think of a burin, like the point of the pen, making marks like woodworm.
17 Sonzogni writes that 'Reed did not translate the words at the end of Montale's seventeenth motet, 'scintille degli zoccoli'. There is a good reason for that: Montale hadn't written them yet. Reed made his translation in the early 1950s, and Montale amended the text to include the phrase 'scintille degli zoccoli' in the ninth edition, around 1960. Sonzogni's long note on Shakespeare, Tsvetaeva, Buzzati and intertextuality only confuses the issue.

If Henry Reed was the perfectionist described by Sonzogni, then my guess is that he set out to translate the cycle and realised, after this first rough-out of the texts, that it would take a lot more work, and set it aside. Anyone who wished to recreate in another language the verbal amulets Montale made in Italian would have to decipher them, learn them by heart, and then figure out how they might produce anything like what had been achieved with strict metre (largely hendeca-syllabic), recurring themes and supersaturated rhyme and assonance. Reed took part of the first step in that process.

Peter McCarey

Exasperated and Confused


I imagine I wasn't the only reader exasperated and confused by the quotation in your editorial (PNR 180) from the Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice. I puzzled long over this and finally decided that the Archbishop's argument is probably as follows:

Any crime involving religious offence can result in a religious person or group being unable to defend themselves in public either because their social status is low, or because the legal process does not discriminate between religious and civil demands. The low social status of a religious person or group might well make them victims of those with more social power, further exacerbating their problems. In these circumstances, it might well be increasingly difficult for such a person or group to communicate their religious sensitivities.

Those who write for the newspapers may well have misrepresented him but, surely, he lends himself to misrepresentation. I'm sure all of your readers could, if required, mention the names of a number of journalists who are able to present complex arguments with great clarity. Disparaging references to the media and appeals to the significance of intellectuals do little to clear the air.

All of us are, at the moment, experiencing a great deal of stress as we try to accommodate the plurality of allegiances current in our society, and to make sense of them. In the process, we are having to reconsider what it might mean to be British in the twenty-first century. For some of us this is much more stressful than for others. In this volatile situation, the influential and the powerful - of whom the Archbishop of Canterbury is one - must, I believe, make sure that their public pronouncements are clear and unambiguous.

Michael Cullup

This item is taken from PN Review 181, Volume 34 Number 5, May - June 2008.

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