Review – Eugenio Montale, Xenia, transl. Mario Petrucci

Eugenio Montale, transl. Mario Petrucci, Xenia, Bilingual Italian / English, 84 pp, £9.99, Arc Publications

Twenty-eight poems, some only two or three lines long, addressed to his dead wife by a poet in his late sixties and early seventies; Montale’s Xenia makes an approachable and moving introduction to this great but difficult poet. The Italian originals are beautifully presented in this book from Arc, though notes would have been helpful.

My feelings about Petrucci’s versions are ambivalent.  He presents the first poem like this:

Dear little insect
they called – I don’t know why – fly,
this evening on the brink of dark
while I was reading Deutero-Isaiah
you recomposed, right here, beside:
but had no glasses
couldn’t see me
nor could I, without their spark,
tell you from murk.

“Mosca” – Montale’s wife’s nickname – means “Fly” in Italian.

Reading that aloud, you’ll see how well he’s used phrase lengths and breathing pauses to write something that flows swiftly, easily and expressively off the tongue. I admire the way his “why” / “fly” rhyme creates a dramatic, incredulous emphasis on “fly” and I’m sure many readers will like the effect. To me, though, this jazzy, energetic, extravert style seems at odds with the tone and feeling of the original, which hovers between tenderly intimate address to “Mosca” and meditative self-communing. Said in such a way, by a man addressing an absent presence, feeling her in his imagination but sadly aware that she now exists only there, the words “Stasera quasi al buio” (“this evening, almost in the dark”) become poignant because of the simplicity with which they present an image of the poet’s twilit loneliness, suggesting both the desolation of bereavement and his own approaching death.

There’s a different problem in line 5: the sheer unnaturalness of the intransitive “recomposed” and the lack of a noun or pronoun to follow “beside”. The Italian “sei ricomparsa accanto a me” literally just means “you reappeared beside me”. Perhaps that didn’t seem emphatic enough to Petrucci, but to me the beauty of these poems lies in the quietness with which Montale allows his subtleties and complexities of meaning to emerge.

Such problems recur. There are also a number of clear misrepresentations of the sense of individual statements, presumably for deliberate effect. Overall, Petrucci’s Xenia versions are livelier in style than the translations by William Arrowsmith and Kate Hughes but they’re much freer. They’re enjoyable in themselves and interesting as a take on the original, and they won a PEN Translates award in 2016, but I’d recommend Arrowsmith or Hughes to someone wanting the English text as an aid to closer engagement with the Italian.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review originally published in The North 60


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