Presentation Speech by Anders Österling, of the Swedish Academy
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
As we all know, this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to Eugenio Montale, from Italy. He comes from Eastern Liguria, a coastal landscape whose harsh character is reflected in his poetry. In this there echoes through the years a musical surge of waves which confronts his own destiny with the stern and beauteous majesty of the Mediterranean. Montale’s famous first book from 1925 bears too the strange title Ossi di seppia, which means “Bones of the Cuttlefish” and clearly emphasizes his distinctive Ligurian character.
At the outset of his career he encountered the fascist dictatorship’s atmosphere of suppression of free speech and enforced standardization. Montale refused to write to order and therefore came to belong to the picked troop of free authors who, in spite of everything, managed to hold their own under cover of the so-called hermeticism. His personality was hardened by bitter experience. He served in the first world war as an infantry officer in the Tyrolean Alps, and later became head of the famous Vieusseux Library in Florence. In 1939 he was abruptly dismissed; not having a fascist party membership card he could not be regarded as an Italian citizen. Not until 1948 was he appointed an editor of Corriere della sera, the big Milan newspaper, in which for many years he has made a name for himself as an outstanding writer on cultural matters and as a music critic.
Montale has slowly confirmed his key position in Italy’s modern literature during this epoch, in many ways so tragic for his native land. To a great extent he can be said to represent this sombre awareness, which seeks individual expression of collective sorrows and troubles. As a poet he interprets this awareness with calm dignity and without any political publicity. He has also gained a seriously listening audience, a fact remarkable in that his lyrical writing is restricted to five books of poems at long intervals. The foremost work is undoubtedly La bufera e altro (“The Storm and Other Things”), which was published in 1956. Nor does his reserved and thoughtful temperament court popularity.
Montale himself once stated that as an Italian he wanted before anything else to “wring the neck of eloquence in the old rhetorical language, even at the risk of finding himself in an anti-eloquence”. Actually he has gladly taken that risk, and his latest book of poems, Diario, a diary from the years 1971 to 1972 consists largely of ironic remarks and epigrams in which the ageing poet lets himself go and criticizes contemporary reality with an almost anti-poetic tendency. His winged horse is a fairly restless spirit, which refuses to stand still docilely in the stall of honour.
But at his best Montale, with strict discipline, has attained a refined artistry, at once personal and objective, in which every word fills its place as precisely as the glass cube in a coloured mosaic. The linguistic laconicism cannot be carried any further; every trace of embellishment and jingle has been cleared away. When, for instance, in the remarkable portrait-poem of the Jewes Dora Markus, he wants to indicate the current background of time, he does so in five words: Distilla veleno una fede feroce (“A fierce faith distils poison”). In such masterpieces both the fateful perspective and the ingeniously concentrated structure are reminiscent of T.S. Eliot and “The Waste Land”, but Montale is unlikely to have received impulses from this quarter and his development has, if anything, followed a parallel path.
During the half-century in which he has worked, Montale’s attitude can be summed up as a fundamental pessimism on the classical line from Leopardi. This pessimism is seldom purely emotional, but manifests itself as a deeply mature, rational insight retaining the critical right both to ask and defy. His conviction is that poor humanity is slipping downhill, that the lessons of history have little value, and that world destitution is going from bad to worse. When he surveys the present juncture he finds that the real evil lies in the fact that the scale of values of another age can be completely lost; in other words, the memory of the great spirits of the past in their striving to build up something which enables us to create another picture of our earthly existence and its conditions.
But his resignation does contain a spark of confidence in life’s instinct to go on, to overcome the accumulated obstacles. Montale would not be the born poet he is, if he did not believe deep down that poetry – without being a mass medium – even in our time is still a gentle power which, unperceived, can act as one of the voices of human conscience, faintly heard admittedly, but indestructible and indispensable.
Dear Mr Montale! In the all too brief time at my disposal I have tried to present your poetry and to justify our award. It only remains for me now to express the heartfelt congratulations of the Swedish Academy and to ask you to receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature from the hands of His Majesty the King.
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