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About Eugenio Montale, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1975
Eugenio Montale (1896-1981)
Italian poet, prose writer, editor and translator who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1975. Montale made his breakthrough as one of the chief architects of modern Italian poetry in the 1920s. The Italian writer Italo Calvino has called Montale's LA BUFERA E ALTRO (1956) "the finest book to have emerged from the Second World War". In his work, Montale focused on the dilemmas of modern history, philosophy, love, and human existence. Montale was also a student of music-especially bel canto.
Eugenio Montale was born in Genoa. He was the youngest of five children of Domenico Montale, who ran an import business, and Giuseppina (Ricci) Montale. His formal education was cut short by ill heath. Montale spent his summers at the family villa in a small village nearby the Ligurian Riviera, and later images from its harsh landscape found their way into his poetry. Originally Montale aspired to be an opera singer, dreaming to "deput in the part of Valentine in Gounod's Faust". However, he also was interested in literature, especially Italian classics, French fiction, and such philosophers as Arthur Schopenhauer, Benedetto Croce, whom he regarded as "master of clarity", and Henri Bergson. During World War I he served as an infantry officer on the Austrian front. Upon to his return to his family home, Montale took up singing again. After the death of his voice teacher in 1923, he abandoned his operatic hopes, and began his literary career by writing for several publications.
Montale moved in 1927 to Florence, where he worked briefly for a publishing house. In 1928, he was appointed director of the Gabinetto Viesseux research library. As a critic, he helped along with James Joyce the writer Italo Svevo (1861-1928) to gain critical attention. His first collection of poetry, OSSI DI SEPPIA (1925, Bones of the Cuttlefish), was published by the anti-fascist Piero Gobetti; Montale also signed in the same year Croce's Manifesto of anti-Fascist intellectuals. Ossi di seppia included several poems about his childhood's Liguria and its scenery. In the following collections, such as LE OCCASIONI (1939, The Occasions), Montale's expression grew more subjective and introspective. The love lyric of The Occasions are about "Clizia", who has been identified with Irma Brandeis, a Jewish-American scholar of Dante, whom Montale met in the 1930s. She appeared as Montale's Beatrice or Laura in several poems.
With his difficult, pessimistic, and introspective early works Montale was superficially associated with his contemporaries Giuseppe Ungaretti and Salvatore Quasimodo, representatives of hermeticism in poetry. Loosely, the term denotes obscure, difficult poetry, in which the symbolism and images are subjective and the words have emotionally suggestive power. Montale once noted, "The poet does not know-often he will never know-whom he really writes for."
Montale was always an opponent of fascism, but he showed understanding to Ezra Pound, in spite of Pound's sympathies for the Fascist regime. In 1938 Montale was dismissed from his cultural post for refusing to join the Fascist Party. His poems were not included in school syllabuses, but Italo Calvino mentions in his essay 'Eugenio Montale, 'Forse un mattino andando (1976), that he learned several of them by heart in the early 1940s. Montale withdrew from public life and spent the following years translating into Italian such writers as William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, whom he once characterized as "a poet-musician", Herman Melville, Eugene O
Neill, and others. He was especially impressed by Eliot's The Waste Land. This work had caught the pessimism and mood of confusion felt by many between the world wars, but whereas Eliot remained for many readers inaccessible, Montale was more open, and also expressed feelings of love. Politicians he despised, and he was sarcastic about every "cleric, red or black". Eliot knew Montale's work and published a translation of Montale's 'Arsenio' in an early number of The Criterion.
After the war Montale moved to Milan, where he contributed to the literary page for Corriere della sera, the most influential Italian daily newspaper. He wrote among others about Ettore Schmitz, who became known under the name Italo Svevo, W.H. Auden, a "cosmopolitan poet in every sense of the word," Emily Dickinson, "a virile soul", and Henry Furst, an unknown poet, who published his poetry in private editions. Montale reviewed almost all important new Italian books and his opinions influenced other reviewers. In spite of Pound's sympathies for the Fascist regime, he considered Pound a profoundly good man.
Montale's third major collection, La bufera e altro (The Storm and Other Poems), drew from the experiences of World War II and post-war anxieties: "and a shadowy Satan will disembark on the bank of the Thames, the Hudson, the Seine, shaking his bitumen wings half-worn by the effort, to tell you: the time has come". Hitler, Hell's messenger meets in 'The Hitler Spring' Mussolini in Florence, and the poet and his muse, Clizia, exchange long farewells. The poem is concluded with an apocalyptic vision: "Perhaps the sirens, the tolling bells that greet the monsters on the evening of their witches' Sabbath are already mingling with the sound that, unloosened from heaven, descends, conquers, – with the breathing of a dawn that tomorrow, for everyone, breaks again, white, but without wings of horror, over the scorched wadis of the south." (transl. by George Kay)
When Montale's earliest poems were mostly set in Liguria, from Le occasioni and La bufera e altro Montale widened his angle of view and range of expression. SATURA (1962), Montale's fourth collection experimented with dialogue, journalistic notation, aphorism, commentary, and half-strangled song. 'Satura' is Latin for a stew or mixed dish. In such poems as 'Gotterdammerung' and 'Non-Magical Realism', he satirized the proliferation of ideologies, which promised more than they could accomplish: "Twilight began when man thought / himself of greater dignity than moles or crickets."
In 1967 Montale became a member-for-life of the Italian Senate. He died in Milan on September 12, 1981. Montale was married to Drusilla Tanzi; she had separated from her husband in the late 1930s, but Montale and Tanzi were not married until in 1958, after her husband died. The couple had no children.