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.
After surviving World War II and his Fascist escapades, Furst settled in La Spezia on the Ligurian Riviera, where he met and befriended Montale. By 1948, Montale was already a recognized poet, but a penurious one. To make ends meet, he accepted a position with Corriere della Sera, where he was supposed to review English and American fiction and do “book chat” features on famous writers, living and dead. The trouble was that he had little facility for journalism and no tolerance for deadlines. For him all writing was like opening an artery and bleeding out words drop by drop.
To complicate matters, Montale’s personal life, tragic as it must have seemed to him, had the trappings of an Italian bedroom farce. While living with one sickly woman he had to care for, he consorted with another who had a different sort of malady–serious literary aspirations. Reduced to transient quarters in a hotel and in desperate straits, he wrote to Furst, “I find it hard enough to read a book, even in Italian…. I don’t even know where to keep the books. There’s no room for them in the hotel and at the office they’re stolen. When I go home, if you can call it that, I have to be a nurse, not reader.”
Thus the celebrated poet entreated the obscure American to rescue him, and Furst, fluent in French and German as well as English and Italian, agreed to grind out reviews of authors as radically different as Joyce Cary and Ivy Compton-Burnett, Julien Green and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He also produced critical evaluations in Italian of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. In fact, Furst was so learned Montale had to caution him to tone it down a notch or two. “Don’t display too much knowledge of English and American literature,” Montale wrote him. “You should show an average knowledge which could be attributed to me.”
Although Montale paid Furst for his efforts, he never publicly acknowledged him, never granted him the recognition that might have made his “negro” a full citizen in the republic of letters. What’s worse, Montale appears to have been two-timing Furst. As it was in his romantic life, so it was in his literary life; he just couldn’t remain monogamous. He had a second ghostwriter, a woman, who translated English-language books into Italian and let Montale sign his name to them.
The Collected Poems contains an essay on “Reading Montale,” but it does not mention the contretemps that erupted a decade ago when the novelist and filmmaker Mario Soldati, friend to both Montale and Furst, published a book detailing their relationship. In his volume of reminiscences, Rami Secchi (“Barren Branches”), Soldati excoriated Montale for his failure to credit Furst. At the same time, Il Giornale of Milan published several letters from Montale to Furst that corroborated the story and divided opinion in Italian arts and letters. Marco Vallora noted in La Repubblica that both Alexandre Dumas père and Luigi Pirandello had followed similar ghostwriting practices; Alberto Moravia wrote in Corriere della Sera that “it is difficult to justify Montale’s conduct, whatever the circumstances in which he found himself.”
Many might object that this debate is an inconsequential sidebar. But nobody appears to have seriously researched the subject by following up journalistic revelations a decade old. In a detailed chronology, Galassi notes that Montale often averaged a hundred articles annually, a flabbergasting number for a deadline-phobic poet. It wouldn’t simply be interesting, it would be intellectually responsible to determine exactly how much of Montale’s prose Furst produced.
Moreover, publication of Galassi’s landmark volume of translations invites a reassessment of Montale’s own translations. Surely anyone who translated Shakespeare, Yeats, Eliot and Faulkner deserves close reading. How good was Montale’s work? How good and how much was actually his ghostwriter’s work?
Even assuming that Montale wrote every word of every poem published in his name, scholars should do a textual analysis and set this issue to rest. Why don’t the worker bees in what Richard Howard refers to as the “academic cottage industry” of Montale criticism compare the great man’s verse with the poetry of his obscure friend?