February 9, 2022
The other day you asked me if I was acquainted with the poetry of Eugenio Montale.
Yes, I answered. And my thoughts backtracked to many years ago. To a young woman on her first trip abroad who was discovering Italy. Way back when. Surely the book was still on her bookshelf, one among the many that had accompanied her over the years. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long to find it, with Quasimodo’s poetry on one side and Pirandello’s short stories on the other. There it was on the middle shelf of the rickety book case originally intended, despite its provisional status, for volumes of an encyclopaedia aimed, in pre-computer days, at growing children. Now no one looked at encyclopaedias any more, but a book of poetry – that was a different story.
A dog-eared yellowing paperback, Ossi di Sepia (Cuttlefish bones) by Eugenio Montale. A strange choice, one might think, for someone learning the language. The picture on the cover, very small and appearing on all the Mondadori series of I poeti dello “Specchio”at the time, is of the hand of a woman with a ruff around her wrist. She is opening (or perhaps closing?) a small red book. Yes, way back then. The edition dates to 1948 when Montale was 52. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975. But what matters more here is the fact that that young American woman had received it in 1956 from an Italian boyfriend who knew no English, but wanted to share the delight he felt in these poems. The pages are beginning to detach, wanting to go elsewhere.
But wait. The slender book has something more to tell you. In between the pages, the edges a darker tan where light had managed to wheedle its way in, is a fragile sheet of notepaper folded in half. How many years has it been sitting there? It is covered with a list of words, in Italian, and their equivalents in English. Words found in the poems, and looked up in a dictionary that must have accompanied the young woman on her travels: sollevare, sedile, la rada, ilare, folletto, folto, rada, canneto, anguilla, twenty-seven words in all. To which poems do these words belong? Certainly they were unfamiliar at the time or would not have been listed. True, one doesn’t necessarily refer to a rada or a cannetto, a clearing or a canebrake, every day, but anguila or viuzza, eel and lane, might just be part of everyday life.
A book is a treasured life-long companion and as such is to be respected and loved. It is so much more than just a story in printed letters. A child should be encouraged to scribble in the margins, to enter into a dialogue with what is read. Years later, they will be precious reminders of the child that was and how much more satisfying it is to see that childish handwriting than to scroll down an anonymous printed page on one’s iPad.
Montale has left us a heritage on printed pages, but the reader, in annotating them, has also left a sign of the personality of a young American woman and her adventures in meeting up with a new culture and in learning a new language.
Postscript: the yellowed sheet of paper has now been put back between the pages of the book, to be rediscovered perhaps ten or twenty years from now by the grandchild of the writer.