Eugenio Montale, the Fascist Storm, and the Jewish Sunflower.
Through an intriguing counterpoint of literary criticism and biographical analysis, David Hertz's book unravels the "double story" concealed behind the hidden canzoniere distilled from Eugenio Montale's encounter with Irma Brandeis: a "secret cycle" of poems whose allusive references span across The Occasions and The Storm and Other Things, with further unexpected reappearances in Montale's later poetical production (p. 9). The fil rouge lying at the heart of Eugenio Montale, the Fascist Storm and the Jewish Sunflower aims at probing both the complex relationship that united Montale and the Jewish-American scholar Irma Brandeis and Brandeis' poetical metamorphosis into Clizia: a modernist re-elaboration of the Dantean donna angelicata re-evoked by Montale in the height of the "Hitlerian spring." Hertz's volume builds on a consolidated scholarship, inaugurated by Paolo Di Caro's A Journey to Irma: un'approssimazione all'ispiratrice americana di Eugenio Montale (Foggia: Di Meo, 1999) and the publication of Montale's letters to Irma (Lettere a Clizia, edited by R Bettarini, G Manghetti and F Zabagli, Milan: Mondadori, 2006). Eugenio Montale, the Fascist Storm and the Jewish Sunflower calls for an innovative critical reappraisal of Montale's Clizia. Revealing a diffused matrix of allusions relating to the Jewishness of Irma, Hertz's reading draws attention to an additional element in the poetic anti-Fascism and even "philo-Semitism" innervating Montale's trobar clus (pp. 14, 89). If the re-employment of the Medieval motif of the senhal had the objective of disguising the identity of Montale's Jewish-American muse, Hertz points out how this poetical device resulted in a poetical myth that "dissolves the barrier between great cultural divides, joining Greco-Roman [the origins of the myth of Clizia can be traced in Ovid's Metamorphoses] Christian and Jewish traditions, during one of the most disastrous periods of the twentieth century" (p. 12). The progressive Christologization of Clizia's myth provides thus the allegorical framework to articulate an inclusive cultural universalism, to which Montale upheld in an epoch of ideological massacres and racial persecutions.
Hertz's book follows a carefully counterpointed orchestration: chapters devoted to the "micro-biographical saga" of Brandeis and Montale alternate with close readings of texts comprised in Clizia's cycle. Point of departure of this double story is the encounter of Montale with his "American Beatrice," in the Gabinetto Viesseux in Florence (Chapter 3, "Love in Fascist Florence"). Relying on a cross-reading of Irma's journal and epistolary and Montale's letters, Hertz reconstructs a lively poetic biography. The years between 1933 and 1938 represented for Montale a period of intense maturation, marked by the gestation of a sophisticated trobar clus "developed in opposition to the large-scale vulgarity" of Fascist Italy (p. 48). The search for a lyrical expression intended to transcend the cages of a totalitarian society was "of the utmost importance" to Montale: "it was rebellion rooted in the exploration of poetic language" (p. 48). On the other hand, Montale's dismissive persona produced a curious mix of impressions on Irma. Recounting her first encounter with the poet to Dino Bigongiari she wrote: "He is very gentle, very simple, quite ugly, and often dull. But his poetry leaves me esaltata" (p. 57). From this exaltation derived a human and literary exchange that can be equated only partially to a "modern-day parallel to Dante's Beatrice." Montale's American muse in fact "spoke and wrote back to her lover," becoming an important "sponsor to this work" and to the promotion of Montale's oeuvre in North America (p. 69). Hertz's volume has the merit of freeing Irma from the passive role of a mere poetic muse and addressee of love letters, rediscovering Brandeis' often underestimated role in the dissemination of Montale's poetry in the United States. This intense work of literary and cultural mediation culminated in 1962 with the publication of a Montale's issue of the Quarterly Review of Literature. It was personally edited by Brandeis and constitutes the most important translation effort in the English language dedicated to the poet before William Arrowsmith and Jonathan Galassi's translation projects (Chapter 7, "The poet and the modern Beatrice spread their myth around the world"). Hertz is aware of this important and much-needed critical reappraisal of the real Clizia and remarks how, behind the poetic mask of Montale's muse, there was "a poet, translator, fiction writer, and critic who had formative influences on some of the great poets of the twentieth century" (p. 304).
The literary contrappunto to this biographical study is given by an analysis of Montalean texts, presented in the fourth ("The woman of The Occasions") and sixth ("The storm and the sun goddess") chapters of the book. Hertz's reading touches on some of the most renowned lyrics by Montale--Palio, La bufera, Iride, La primavera hitleriana, motets from The Occasions, and pseudosonnets included in The Storm. Hertz relies on an intertextual methodology encompassing both literary and biographical elements to clarify the most cryptic details of Montale's style. Particularly striking, for instance, is the identification of a poetic senhal alluded in the syntagm sole freddoloso, encapsulated in the famous motet Ti libero la fronte dai ghiaccioli ("Brand-Eis" are the German words for fire and ice--the same elements alluded to in the hendiadys sole freddoloso--establishing a link with the Austrian roots of Irma's family name, p. 108). These exercises in close reading are meant to expose recurring symbolic isotopies hinged on two primary poles: on the one hand, a diffused allegorization of the "Fascist storm" echoed by a network of metaphors that relate to the image of bufera, but also to other semantic ramifications--exemplified for instance by references to "devilish" dances (the sardana, fandango, trescone) that conjure up further symbols of the Fascist tregenda (pp. 181-182). On the other hand, Hertz's close reading focuses on the salvific epiphany of Clizia, which articulates a stratified and changing re-elaboration of the Dantean trope of the donna salutifera, with the addition of Ovidian and Jewish overtones. This transfiguration also brings to life an "intercultural and panreligious" myth that "enables Montale to transcend the hypocrisy of the Fascist decades" (p. 235). However, the final metamorphosis of Montale's muse into a cristofora also represents the point of crisis of the Clizia Cycle, as Montale's muse is eventually "disincarnated" (p. 175).
Yet, Clizia's presence in Montale's poetry is anything but destined to disappear. In the eighth chapter of the book, "Clizia becomes a woman again," Hertz takes up later occurrences of Irma's senhal disseminated in the secondo Montale and gives "an intriguing demonstration of how memory can trump time in the poetic imagination" (p. 269). This last section brings to light the inevitable differance distancing the poetical fictio of Clizia and the real Irma Brandeis and invites reflection on the hiatus that separates "the idealistic, somewhat Manichaean symbolic world that Montale created in his poems" and "the life he actually lived." Because, as Hertz notes in his conclusive coda, "life does fertilize art, and Montale worked with what he could observe. It is naive to think otherwise" (p. 302).
Reviewed by: Tommaso Pepe, Brown University, USA
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2019|
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