The Second Life of Art
The Second Life of Art offers the first substantial selection of Eugenio Montale’s essays to be published in English translation. (A slimmer and more fragmentary anthology, Nel nostro tempo, 1972, appeared in translation in 1976 as Poet in Our Time.) Montale, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975, has been deemed one of the great poets of the twentieth century, yet he has suffered from the general American indifference to Italian literature. The recent publication of three book-length critical studies—Rebecca West’s Eugenio Montale: Poet on the Edge (1981); Glauco Cambon’s Eugenio Montale: A Dream in Reason’s Presence (1982); and Claire de C. L. Huffman’s Montale and the Occasions of Poetry (1983)—remedies this neglect to some extent, and The Second Life of Art may send new readers to Montale’s poetry, which is available in several fine bilingual collections.
The bulk of the essays assembled here were drawn from Sulla poesia, a collection published in Italy in 1976. Many of the pieces originally appeared in newspapers, where most of Montale’s criticism was published, and they are accordingly brief. The volume is divided into six sections. The first, “On Culture & Society,” is somewhat misleadingly titled, for most of the essays therein deal with poetry and the nature of art, with an emphasis on the crisis of the arts in the modern world. The second section, “On Italian Writers,” will be of interest chiefly to specialists, with the exception of the superb “Dante, Yesterday and Today.” The third section, “On Other Writers,” includes reflections on Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden, among others. “Observations and Encounters” includes sophisticated examples of the celebrity interview; Montale visits André Malraux, George Braque, and others. Sometimes charming, sometimes irritating, these are insubstantial pieces. “Tributes” collects five brief eulogies. The concluding section, “Interviews & Self-Criticism,” ranging from 1931 to 1962, includes some of the most interesting and valuable pieces in the book.
Jonathan Galassi, who selected and translated the essays for this collection, has provided a long introduction as well. While useful and perceptive at points, Galassi’s introduction does a poor job of defining the value of these essays—drawn from fifty years of literary journalism—for a contemporary American reader. Particularly misleading is his observation that “We need only mention names such as Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Celan, and Milosz to be reminded what totalitarianism has contributed to the poetry of our century. Montale’s work, too, might be seen, from one point of view, in this light.” Here Galassi not only repeats the pernicious half-truth that oppression “produces” great literature, but also conflates Montale’s relatively serene existence with the tragic experience of an Osip Mandelstam or a Paul Celan. As Joseph Brodsky has said (writing several years before Montale’s death), “Thank God that his life has been so uneventful.”
Neither is Montale well-served by extravagant claims for his essays—comparisons, for example, to the criticism of T. S. Eliot. There are no pieces in The Second Life of Art which remotely approach Eliot’s seminal essays, as Montale himself would surely be the...
(The entire section is 1390 words.)