The publication of Jonathan Galassi’s translation and meticulous annotation of Eugenio Montale’s Collected Poems, 1920-1954 has been justifiably celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. In an especially insightful essay in the New York Review of Books, author Tim Parks, short-listed last year for the Booker Prize, points out the difficulties Galassi faced as he labored in love to find equivalents in English for Montale’s allusive vocabulary and his masterly use of assonance and internal rhyme. Parks also took pains to place Montale in the pessimistic tradition of Giacomo Leopardi and the penchant for “negative epiphany,” in contrast to Gabriele D’Annunzio and his “purple celebrations of the world, humanity, nature and above all himself.”
Parks was not the only reviewer to treat Montale with perspicacity and Galassi with respect and gratitude. In the Los Angeles Times, poet and translator Richard Howard hailed Montale as “the greatest Italian poet since Leopardi” and added “how welcome Galassi’s scrupulous and pondered versions…prove to be.” In the New York Times, Nicholas Jenkins lauded Galassi for his years of work “retransmitting as accurately as possible the superfocused beam of [Montale’s] language,” and Jenkins made a personal declaration: “The poetry’s cadences have taken over my auditory memory, and its enigmatic images have…invaded my dreams.” Yet neither these nor any other reviewers to date have mentioned the connection between Montale and D’Annunzio, and the most amusing aspect of Montale’s famously solitary and austere life.
In 1989, nearly a decade after Montale’s death, Italian critics discovered their Nobel Prize winner had employed a “negro,” or ghostwriter, to churn out reviews and literary essays. Much as that news alone might raise Anglo-Saxon eyebrows, it wouldn’t necessarily ruffle readers in Italy, where there’s a long history of older, established authors franchising their names and slapping them like designer labels on the works of anonymous hacks. Montale himself admitted he started his career by reviewing an opera he hadn’t attended and publishing his piece under the name of a renowned critic who provided him with notes. But what shocked the literati throughout the Mediterranean basin was the fact that Montale had palmed off his journalistic assignments on an American, Henry Furst, who, among other incidents in his checkered career, served as D’Annunzio’s private secretary and later fought as a Fascist.
To say the least, this cast a lurid afterglow on Montale’s illustrious reputation and posed questions about the provenance of all his prose writing. Just as important, it focused posthumous attention on the character of Furst, who appears to have been a protean figure and, in his fashion, a pure artist, a shapechanger and conjurer who managed at various times to apprentice himself to institutions as dissimilar as the Catholic Church and the New York Times, and to individual buffoons as similar as D’Annunzio and Mussolini. Starting off as an academic journeyman, he bounced from Columbia University to the Wilhelm Gymnasium in Berlin to Exeter College, Oxford, then to Padua University and a Roman pontifical college. In his free time, he trained a boxing team, acted as amanuensis to D’Annunzio as the poet’s private army laid siege in 1919 to the city of Fiume, dabbled in theater with Gordon Cray in Florence, published a novel, a volume of poetry and a short-story collection, filed columns on literary topics for the New York Times and joined the Fascists in a last-ditch effort to save Mussolini’s Republic of Salò.