Stories from Montale’s Farfalla di Dinard

A Stranger’s Story

(Eugenio Montale — Racconto d’uno Sconosciuto)

‘Perhaps you remember having seen the Amico delle famiglie in my house? Every Saturday morning the postman delivered to me, through the railings of our gate, our copy of this innocuous magazine — I don’t remember whether you would call it parochial or missionary — to which a certain aunt living at Pietrasanta had subscribed for life; and I would open it, glance anxiously at the puzzles and games page, and then announce in a triumphant voice: “Buganza!”

From inside the house, my father gave a grunt of deep satisfaction.

Amid the many causes of disagreement prevailing between me and him, one at least, the anxious need which the name of the Very Reverend Father Buganza unfailingly called forth, every weekend, amongst the ‘solvers’ of the Amico’s puzzles (anagrams, rebuses and charades), from whose company one reader, drawn by lot, would receive an edifying book, constituted an element of cohesion, a thread which kept me attached to my parent. To the simple-minded mania of the aged ecclesiastic, who of course would have felt it dishonourable not to respond to the weekly call, there corresponded in a certain manner that of our expectation, always hopeful and always rewarded. At that time there were no such things as crossword puzzles; but what was happening to us will show that, despite this lack, certain intersecting destinies did exist. And now I’ll tell you what happened next.

I couldn’t say who, as between my father and me, had at first settled on this strange practice. The Very Reverend gentleman was a stranger to us, he didn’t live in our city, nor did we ever bother to find out anything about him: that he was old was simply our assumption. The fact is that for many years (how many?) he had never been missing from that list of winners’ names, and by this time he had become a necessity to us, a part of our most jealously maintained habits. What would he have said had he realised the abyss which he was excavating beneath our feet? Perhaps he would have judged it the work of the devil. And yet, at that time, it was a ritual we observed most carefully. The city was changing fast, opening up to the sinister influx of modernity. Instead of cafés, bars were arriving, on whose stools were roosting strange young people in bowler hats and frock coats, who fed themselves night and day on potato crisps and Americani, if not yet the stronger cocktails. Likewise there was a feverish increase in theatres, where Viennese operettas had taken the place of La Gran Via, of Boccaccio, and of the other consolations our fathers had enjoyed. “Girly” revues didn’t yet exist, but variety shows with their starlets and chanteuses, and the first experiments in the cinematograph, were opening vast possibilities for the corruption of youth. Even I, who didn’t go to such places, had stuck onto the mirror in my bedroom the portrait of the adorable star for whom, one fine day, the name of a venerable crowned head of Europe would be altered to “Cleopoldo”. When my father discovered the portrait, a violent row erupted between us. I threatened to pack my bags and to gain, at last, my “independence”. But I didn’t have a farthing, and could I leave, on a Friday, without waiting for the visit of the Very Reverend gentleman? The next morning, Buganza, the winner of a life of the Blessed San Benedetto Giuseppe Labre, arrived in order to seal — in hoc signo! — our reconciliation.

Life ran on, unchanging, in this way. Month by month, year by year, Buganza continued to bind us together. My father lived between the house and the office (where my brothers, who were properly independent, helped him); I lived between the house and the arcades of the city’s new streets, unemployed. I was seeking a job worthy of me and of my aptitudes, that goes without saying; but what these aptitudes were, neither I nor my father had ever been able to identify. Amongst our old-established families there was always one son, usually the last, the favourite, who was not expected to occupy a respectable position. Youngest son of a widowed father, somewhat delicate since infancy, and filled with indefinable vocations of a non-commercial kind, my fifteenth, then my twentieth, then my twenty-fifth birthdays passed without my having taken a decision. The war came, which didn’t prise me from the house, then the after-war years, the economic crisis, and the great revolution which was supposed to save us from the horrors of Bolshevism. Business was going badly; you couldn’t get import licences unless you stuffed fat envelopes addressed to the offices of commendatori in Rome. But Buganza continued his visits, uninterrupted, and in our life there was a certain stability, a certain something which “held”.

One Saturday morning, there was a more than usually fierce altercation between my father and me. Some thugs had slapped my face in the street, because I hadn’t raised my hand to salute a camicia nera, and my old man maintained that they had been quite right to do so: my recklessness merited no better. The Amico delle famiglie arrived, I opened it casually, only to behold the most improbable thing, the thing which changed the whole course of our life: Buganza’s name wasn’t there!

“Buganza, goodbye!” I shouted after a brief silence; and having repaired to my bedroom I began making preparations for departure. I had decided on the fatal blow; the thread had been broken, the chain snapped; now that Buganza’s “continuo” had disappeared from our life, everything could and must change. A new existence was beginning, and it didn’t matter that I knew neither where nor how. My father acknowledged the blow with dignity, and made no further comment. But I saw that as he was watering the dahlias in the garden he looked frailer and more worried than usual, although he had no suspicion of my decision. For the rest of the day, part of the night and then the next day I was busy destroying old papers (and the portrait of Cléo de Mérode, rediscovered after years, suffered the same fate), while packing others. Unhurriedly I prepared two suitcases. Resolved as I was, what could frighten me? The following Saturday would not have found me at home, and besides, any foreseeable reappearance of the spectral priest was no longer to be feared. Buganza had interrupted his rhythm, broken his word; from now on he would be a nonentity in my life, and I could do without him. Having prepared myself for all eventualities, I felt safe from any danger, and took pleasure in prolonging the eve of my departure and savouring its sweetness. One by one I walked down the streets I had known in infancy, and retraced the routes I had followed for years when going to school; I had no friends, but I didn’t neglect a few farewell visits, not hinting at my departure and amazing everyone by my strange conversation. In the end I told my father that I needed to go away for a few days, and I don’t know whether he suspected anything further. Through the week I exchanged a few monosyllables with him. The brief days of delay I had allowed myself flew by almost without my realising it; and I didn’t notice that another Saturday had dawned until a whistle from the postman drew me back to our gate, and the greenish cover of the Amico was once more before my eyes. I opened the magazine without feeling; whether the spectre were there or not, what did it matter? Yes, the name was restored to its usual place, but a note at the bottom of the puzzles and games page struck me an unexpected blow. “We do apologise,” it said, “that due to a error on the part of our diligent printing overseer, there was omitted from last week’s edition the name of the Very Reverend D. F. Buganza, to whom we offer, with our apologies, etc., etc…”

The Amico delle famiglie slipped from my hand.

After a brief silence I went to my father, who was absorbed in reading the Caffaro, and I announced, “He’s back, did you know?”

“Who? Buganza?”

“Him. He never went away. It was a printing error. I thought it was strange anyway.”

“So did I,” said my dad with a sigh of relief.

Half an hour later I began to unpack my bags. It was no go! The chain which I had deceived myself I wanted to smash into pieces was stronger than before. And now that my father is no more, and that the Amico has disappeared and the Very Reverend Father has followed the same path, and my house is still standing, only a powerful bomb could… But not for the time being, I’d say. D’you hear? The all-clear is sounding. We can go up again.’

A hoarse whistle from the siren, a delicately waning F, did indeed penetrate from outside. I saw the stranger get up, take his friend by the arm and set forth, to finish his story in the open air.

The Yellow Roses

(Eugenio Montale — Le Rose Gialle)

‘Pretend to be my secretary,’ said Gerda to Filippo, looking at him through her reading glasses. ‘Suppose that instead of having met by chance, two hours ago, in this boarding house, you had answered a classified advertisement I had placed and I needed to give you a trial. No, I’m not setting an examination; this is simply an experiment I want to conduct, having heard you speak. It’s four o’clock, or a bit later; by eight o’clock I must have dispatched by air mail a little story, exquisitely feminine, which will appear simultaneously in twenty-five American magazines. A maximum of nine hundred or a thousand words. Unfortunately, the feminine spirit is lacking in me,’ — having brushed her hair, she imperiously threw down a sage-green hairbrush — ‘and in these cases I always need recourse to a man. You seem to me ideally suited. What? You have no interest in literature, you’ve never attempted anything of this kind? So much the better; that’s just what we need. Look inside yourself for the material for a beautiful Italian story. Isn’t there, here in this room or in the landscape we see from the window, something which awakens in you an intense memory, recent or remote, unpleasant or agreeable? Don’t ponder, don’t think about it. If there’s something there, spout it at once.’

‘There is something,’ said Filippo, pointing at a beautiful bunch of roses in a vase. ‘But it’s a simple, personal thing. These red roses in bud have made me think of other roses, yellow ones, which I couldn’t take home with me, for fear of arousing suspicions or jealousies.’

‘Yellow roses,’ Gerda conceded, half-closing her eyes. ‘That’s it. An insignificant thing, you say? Then it wouldn’t have carried such weight with you. Who did you get them from?’

‘From a poor, crippled girl in the cathedral square in M… I’ll tell you everything.’

‘In no particular order, if you please. Just as it comes.’

‘We are (or I should say we were), that is my wife and I, in the main square of M… There is thick fog. We’re waiting for “milady”, as we called her, both put-upon victim and tyrant, who stayed with us until just before the worst of the bombings. We’ve come on purpose to see her, while seeking a pretext for being here, and having only just arrived we’ve arranged to meet her by telephoning from the station. Will she come? She has to wash the dishes and find a reason for leaving. She’s not officially employed, like waitresses in a municipal canteen — the sort who wear a cap. She never goes out. In these circumstances, was it a good idea to arrange to meet her at half past two in the afternoon, in a large foggy square? Teodora (let us suppose that that was my wife’s name) is getting tired of standing waiting. Needless to say, she suggests that we go and wait for the tram from San Clemente, the suburb where Palmina lives now, four kilometres from the centre. But is it sensible to move? There’s a discussion, a bit of an argument (I don’t know whether there really was an argument).’

‘We’re in Italy, arguments are always happening,’ said Gerda. ‘Go on.’

‘So we come to a compromise. I will go and look in the square behind the apse of the church; Teodora will stay and wait where she is. She promises she won’t move. It’s foggy, gloomy, there are hawkers and street sellers passing in the distance. I make a lateral sweep around by the church, under the arcades. There’s a brief moment in which I describe the anxiety which the prospect of seeing Palmina again causes me. And suppose she didn’t come? “In love’s battle, the victor is the one who flees…” and in this instance, given that it wasn’t a question of love, it could be that she’s cunning enough to adapt the poetical motto to herself. Perhaps she knows that we have greatly missed her during my illness. But it was no longer possible for us to live together; it was hellish with everyone, with Teodora, with the tradesmen, with the concierge. She created a permanent storm around her, but she wasn’t ill-mannered. When Teodora was away, she sang at the top of her voice, “Without a penny for my bed, not a penny for my food, all that’s left to me is…” What? What? Cursed memory! Only undoubted injustices or misfortunes can express themselves in a voice as fascinating as that. Then she was ill with bronchitis, she seemed cured, but the doctor didn’t think so, and she put the matter to us in a manner which left only two alternatives. There would be no convalescence at our expense: either she would leave the hospital and come back to us, or she would go home. The English were at the gates of the city, and there were endless bombings. She arrived at the house suddenly, exhausted under the weight of her luggage. Bickering burst out immediately, I didn’t know how to make peace, and I let her go. For us left behind, there began that dark period called the liberation. Hunger, sickness, disasters of all kinds. Perhaps it was fortunate for Palmina that she was saved in time, beyond the Gothic Line. A year later, her news arrived. She had indeed left two hours after the row, taking a place in a lorry which a bomb had shattered in the Apennines. She arrived home in nothing but her shift. And with this first news, there began between her and me, between her and Teodora, a semi-secret correspondence, both threatening and affectionate. Will she, won’t she come back to us? In any case, the threads are still unbroken; and here the preceding interlude can conclude.

I make an unsuccessful circuit of the cathedral, I go back, I see Teodora’s fur coat next to a policeman (no doubt she’s asking about the tram from San Clemente); then a little figure emerges from the fog and the two shadows melt into a long embrace. It’s her, it’s Palmina, who offers me a big cardboard tube at whose end is a bunch of yellow roses. The two women move off, and I follow them, holding the mysterious tube in my hand. We need to look for a café. Palmina never comes into the city and doesn’t know anyone here, but eventually we manage to find somewhere, a big deserted place next to some billiard rooms. The women are talking, arguing, embracing, making up; I discover that the shaft of the tube containing the bunch of roses is a bottle intended for me; the roses are for Teodora. Sparkling red wine from Sorbara. I thank her, embarrassed. Teodora decides that she has one or two bits of shopping to do, the other woman offers to go with her, I can’t walk around in this gloom with a bottle and a bunch of flowers, and I decide to wait for them in the café. I stay waiting for an hour; I’m alone in a corner covered in sawdust, with the shadows of the billiard players. I think that Palmina must be cured: there is a healthy flush in her cheeks (face powder, says Teodora), and her cripple’s wheeling way of walking still seems to me one of her charms. Who knows what the two women are saying to each other? They did well to leave me here, after all. Women are particularly ill adapted to the search for lost time. Alone, I can better relish this plunge into a life which I had thought finished for ever. Will it start again? Nothing starts again. She was very cunning, Palmina, taking advantage of my natural inclination to feel that I’m always in the wrong. A maidservant who was “milady” to the point of absurdity, she always said, “Us poor servant girls,” which made me feel as if she really had been mistreated. In the end, she was just a slippery character, but alluring because of her extraordinary vitality. A lizard whose tail grows back after it’s been cut off. But she had such a gift that even people not at all devious, when next to her who was extremely devious, felt themselves to be worse than her. Only imbeciles, nouveaux riches and governesses with a French accent could be amazed that we kept her with us. Certainly, she was a scandal in the whole apartment block. I look at my watch; only twenty minutes before the train goes. We shall miss it and then I’ll have to stay here in M… until midnight, with a bottle and a bunch of flowers in my hand. No, it’s all right, here they are again, half angry with each other and half embracing. There’s still time, we leave in a hurry, Palmina makes us get into a jam-packed tram, she’s coming with us to the station. I look at my watch; it will be a miracle if we make it. (What the devil have the women plotted between them? I have a sense of longing and at the same time of threat that Palmina will soon come back to us. I’ll find out more in the train; now there’s no time.) We arrive at the station, I quickly buy a platform ticket for Palmina, and there we are under the station roof as the train arrives. Confusion, embraces, I embrace her myself for the first time, then we wave to her from the window as the train moves off. We’re standing up, and at a jolt the bottle of Sorbara flies out of my hand and rolls on the floor, decapitated. An acid, sour, sweetish smell fills the corridor, everyone looks at me witheringly, they try to remove their feet from the surge which rolls towards the luggage van. The train is going very fast; it’s night; it’s cold. Teodora has found places, and observes that bottles provided by that crazy woman have had a habit of breaking on previous occasions. An hour and a half passes in this way. The train is nearing our town. “Don’t you dare take those roses home,” says Teodora, “or our latest kitchen maid will clear off as fast as her legs can carry her if she thinks that we’ve seen the little viper in M… again. Say nothing. Offer the bunch to Professor Ceramelli who’s standing there at the end of the carriage; he’ll pass it on to his wife, who’ll welcome the present. Don’t do anything embarrassing; don’t tell him why we can’t take it home.”

The professor, an honourable person whom I haven’t seen for ten years, is amazed by this unexpected gift. He doesn’t know to what cause he should attribute it, he hesitates, I have to invent various motives of gratitude by which he doesn’t seem greatly persuaded; at last he decides to accept the flowers, the more willingly in that he’s not encumbered with luggage. The train arrives, the fog has lifted, the professor waves and goes off with the flowers. For a few seconds more, I follow the livid reflection of a neon sign on the pale flush of the yellow roses; one has snapped, its head is hanging over. Then, in the light mist… Perhaps that will be enough for you; with a bit of ordering, I’d say that…’

‘No, with a bit more disordering,’ said Gerda, looking at the clock. ‘It’s a shame I didn’t have my dictaphone here. But in two hours my first “Italian story” will be on its way. “The Yellow Flowers”: that’s a good title. Thank you.’

Donna Juanita

(Eugenio Montale — Donna Juanita)

The unsteady drone from a radio came through an open window. Gerda impatiently closed the window and turned towards Filippo, looking at him with half-shut eyes, like a tiger about to spring.

‘Don’t abandon me now the first experiment has gone so well. I need a second suite italiana for my series. This is how I make my living, you know. Is it possible that here in this room no object — a picture, a book, a pot, a flower, a photograph — has triggered an inspiration? Let yourself go; I must fish something absolutely spontaneous out of you. Spontaneity isn’t my forte: you can vouch for that, as you’ve found to your cost.’

‘No,’ said Filippo. ‘Here in this room, apart from you, nothing has spoken to my heart. But outside, oh, outside! You’ve no idea who has been shut out on the other side of the window.’

‘Who then?’ asked Gerda, looking curiously down the street. ‘Someone who wished to enchant me?’

‘A lady: Donna Juanita. The music which you abruptly dismissed was her; or rather, the overture from Suppé’s comic opera which bears that name. But it has restored her absolutely to me, in person.’

‘A first love?’ asked Gerda.

‘Perhaps a longer-lasting feeling. As I child I hated her; as a man I pitied her; then I forgot her… until the moment when I heard that overture again…

Donna Juanita came down to the beach to bathe, about midday, wrapped in a huge dressing gown and protected by a wide straw hat with a chinstrap. Tanned and beautiful, she didn’t permit indiscreet glances, and when she undressed, in the only cabin there, she was even more dressed than before. Skirt, underskirt down to the ankles, gloves, rope-soled shoes, dark glasses, her hat exchanged for a dark-coloured turban: a complete outfit which swelled when she was in the water and made her not so much a bather as an enormous jellyfish. She didn’t swim; she sat on the water, floating with great dignity. The shelve of the beach was not shallow, and everyone knew that after two metres you couldn’t touch the bottom. But she already had her fixed itinerary. With a flick of her tail she reached the first rock, the “carregún”, so called because it was shaped like an armchair; and there Juanita sat with her slippers in the water and her eyes proudly turned toward her balcony, suspended over the sea. Then she glided once more on Thetis’ bosom (the only bosom visible in that situation), the folds of her tunic extending to leeward and taking her to the “little rock”, where she planned a second stop; and then to the “middle rock”, a low platform, almost an atoll, bristling with sea urchins and razor-sharp clams; there too, half in and half out, Juanita rested for a few moments. Lastly there was the final flight: the “great rock”, ten metres of proper swimming and a clamber up to the pointed summit of the pyramid-shaped rock, which afforded a general view of her cream-coloured villa, built by the power of explosives and money on a high and impractical outcrop.

The stepping stones of the return trip were the same, in reverse order. Back on land, Juanita let her balloon deflate and drip, threw on a second dressing gown before her attire could assume a form outlining her shape, and retraced her steps up across the pebbles to her house. Behind her, an obliging servant closed a bull’s-blood-coloured barred gate. How old could she have been then? Perhaps less than forty.

From the height of a pine wood which overlooked her garden I observed her then with her two daughters, Pilar and Estrellita, lounging in a deckchair, absorbed in sipping maté and reading Caras y Caretas and Scena Illustrata, the only publications which penetrated those walls. Don Pedro, her husband, didn’t read even these; he walked back and forth on the terrace with his panama on his head; he had long soft moustaches, a clean-shaven chin, and he wore showy cravats and shirts of raw silk. His principal occupation was to follow the progress of the family mausoleum being built for him in the village cemetery; he wanted it to be a temple, of Carrara marble, with multiple spires, worthy of his lineage. The family was providing lengthy hospitality to a sculptor from Pietrasanta, the same man to whom they had entrusted the creation of the mighty Neptune and the other sea gods who were supporting on their shoulders the huge oyster which was their terrace. But the statues, beaten by the sea storms and the south-west wind, were each losing either a foot or a hand, and the situation remained thus for years. It finished in an interminable lawsuit because Don Pedro, taken with wild political ambitions, put himself forward as a candidate in the constituency, as representative of the party of order, losing by a narrow margin to a radical candidate who had, moreover, spent less than he had, so that he found himself in the position of not being able to satisfy the demands of his greedy artist. Don Pedro de Lagorio (do change his name, I beg you) did not survive the blow. He was taken to a mental hospital and died soon afterwards, roaring. (It’s certain that the electoral canvassers who had proclaimed him “the lion of the two coasts”, to impress those who, like him, had made a bit of money on the other shore, three thousand leagues distant, had not foreseen this.)

And after that, the zabaglione-coloured villa stayed closed.

Doña Juanita took hold of her babies, her “cocorite” as she liked to call them, whom no one had ever seen on the beach, and departed for La Boca, the Italian suburb of Buenos Aires where the lion had sharpened his claws and taken his first steps towards wealth.

Back to her homeland, you say? No; Italy was her country, and the lion was home-grown too. He arrived at La Boca as a lad, to which place, once he had made his “shavings” (that is to say, his loot), he had imported his “Gioannina” from her native country, to marry her; she was a cousin of his, although he knew little more of her than from a photograph. Giovannina’s transformation to Donna Juanita occurred there, as the years passed in an avenida of shopkeepers where people spoke the argot of Cicagna or Borzonasca rather than Cocoliche, the immigrants’ creole. Down there the plump butterfly emerged from her chrysalis, never managing to learn the new language, while half forgetting her own dialect and almost all her Italian, which she had never understood too well anyway. From girlhood she had always been a prisoner in the house or in the nuns’ kindergarten. She knew nothing of life. Her beloved music she had learned when she was little, listening at the puppet theatre to Il diluvio universale, with Barudda, the shipbuilder. (Barudda, make sure you get this right, is a sort of Ligurian version of the comic character Brighella.) Even God came on stage in the form of an eye inserted into a cardboard triangle. From the centre of the pupil a ray of light sprang out, produced by a dangling candle, and at that moment an automatic piano, worked by cranking handle, replaced the angels’ song with one which it was better able to spout: the aria of the three thieves, from Chueca’s zarzuela La Gran Via.

As you see, since she died I’ve made a few enquiries into Donna Juanita’s past. I’ve even discovered the plotline of the zarzuela which seals her fate. Not with three but with two thieves, she returned to the villa after the exodus. She had temporarily stopped the leak in her own perilous vessel, and the two daughters came back with her, married. Cleverly arranged marriages! But the illusion was to be short-lived. The two sons-in-law, Ramirez and Bertrán, haughty, rapacious and sporting long side-whiskers, played havoc with whatever worldly wealth remained, and kept the three women prisoner, raining blows and insults on them. Violent scenes occurred in the dining room dominated by signed photographs of great presidents, from the Mexican Porfirio Diaz onwards. Then, when there was nothing more to sell or smash, all three left again “for the Americas” (as our compatriots used to say), where it appears that they had a sad life and a worse end. Donna Juanita died first: she was in a hurry, for fear of finding the celestial “carregún” to which she aspired already occupied; and perhaps she attained it, accompanied by the Cavaliere di grazia arietta, if La Gran Via had left other lasting impressions on her. I don’t think the daughters had aspirations to anything, in life or in death. They never really had a home or a country or a language or a family. They never gained a proper life of their own, and perhaps they didn’t even suspect that an existence other than theirs were possible. I can’t tell you who now occupies the mausoleum constructed with such labour and expense. Perhaps other crazy members of the family, on the fringes; perhaps even the artist himself, regaining possession of his own work once more.

Is that enough for you? I know, you’d want to know the name of the place, the name of the beach, the springboard that launched the lion into the New World. In your neat portrait you’d like to insert a little boy hidden in the reeds so as to chuck a few harmless pebbles at Donna Juanita and her “cocorite”, guilty of having built a palace worthy of Semiramis in the cove where for years before there had been only Don Pedro’s father’s house. You’d want to know in what kind of land of prisoners, victims and alcoholics such histories were possible, at the dawn of a century which hadn’t yet dropped its mask of well-being and progress. You’d want to know…’

‘Oh, not to write it down,’ Gerda protested, having already inscribed a large title — UPSTARTS — on a piece of paper. ‘Come back soon; who knows, I might organise a cup of maté for you. But don’t fool yourself; any similarities between Donna Juanita and me stop there.’

The Regatta

(Eugenio Montale — La Regata)

Il Verdaccio — a little natural harbour defended by high cliffs, at the heart of a semicircle of old houses clinging to one another and divided only by narrow covered alleyways and tangled lanes — could be glimpsed from Zebrino’s room, on the third floor of the villa at Montecorvo where the family spent the summer months. But it was on the opposite bank of the bay, three miles or more away as the crow flies, and you would have needed a telescope to see that grimy lair of pirates and falcons, where the Saracens had never dared to land, stirring into life in its raggedy and picturesque bustle. No trains stopped there, and no passable road had reached it; it had neither hotels nor boarding houses. If any ‘outsiders’ disembarked, they risked, walking down the alleys, having the contents of brimful chamber pots overturned on their heads from the highest storeys of the houses, without the ritual warning ‘Vitta ch’er beuttu!’ (‘Gardyloo!’), which was reserved for passers-by of quality.

Up to now, the myth which had reached Zebrino’s attentive ears was that Il Verdaccio, on the contrary, was nothing but a gap in the distant cliffs, a big leafy tree, a walnut perhaps, visible despite the distance from him and growing almost on top of the port, and the white spot of a turreted house, a little removed, hanging above a rock to the east. That was the house of the Ravecca family, the landowners and almost unchallenged lords of the village. These were people who had sent their sons to technical school in the chief town of the province, and who could afford to wear good leather shoes even on working days; people who read the newspaper and showed their faces in town in the winter. Very different from the other inhabitants of Il Verdaccio: women who wore silk but always went barefoot, elusive, hairy men, sailors of little coasters, vine-dressers without vines, and smugglers.

But did these Raveccas really exist? Zebrino had never met them. Montecorvo and Il Verdaccio were not good neighbours, and the two dialects had little similarity. The expression used by the folk of Montecorvo when tipping their waste products out of the window was different from Il Verdaccio’s, as was its inhabitants’ dress. One thing, however, seemed clear to Zebrino: that his father, thirty years previously, had been on the point of betrothal to a Ravecca, the last girl in the family, now a widow burdened with children, living in a lonely house at Fivizzano. She was supposedly a poor, homely, put-upon soul, without a penny to her name and in no regard better than Zebrino’s mother; but the information in itself, which the boy had had to glean from his parents’ constant game of allusions, implications and petty bickerings, could not fail to make a distinct impression on him. If things had turned out differently, he, Zebrino, could have been born there, in that white tower, and Il Verdaccio would not have held any secrets for him. If his father had married another woman, he, Zebrino, would have been another Zebrino, indeed perhaps wouldn’t have had that nickname… In which case, would he have lost or gained?

His family’s regular flatterers, who came to the house every Saturday to borrow money, vagabonds from Pontremoli who had even been known to stop over at Il Verdaccio, and Battibirba, the mendicant monk who arrived from Sarzana to knock at doors for farthings, were sure that Zebrino’s father was a hundred cubits richer and more generous than any of the Raveccas, who’d been impoverished for years now and were racked with debts; but Zebrino senior esquire didn’t like hints being dropped about the Raveccas’ possible decline; it gave him no pleasure to place in a less than favourable light the ‘arrangement’ which his family had proposed for him in youth. Above all, he did not want to be denied a weapon, the weapon of if, with which he methodically blackmailed the faithful companion of his days. He got on well with his wife, it’s true; but if the noodles with pesto didn’t turn out well oiled and flavoured with pecorino from Sardinia, or if he thought the meatloaf was stuffed with boiled bread rather than pine seeds and sweetbreads, Zebrino senior esquire always had an ace up his sleeve, and pointing at the white house on the opposite shore he might let it be understood that there, most definitely there, he would have been spared such atrocities.

With the passage of time the myth of the Raveccas faded in the boy’s mind, taken up with other discoveries and concerns. But not before bursting out in an episode of which he alone, amongst the protagonists, grasped the secret meaning.

Every twentieth of September a regatta was held at Montecorvo, at which Lampo, the fishing smack belonging to Zebrino’s family, had been without exception victorious for years. The vessel was swifter than others in getting under way, because of its tapered shape and high prow, which kept it on top of the water; at the first stroke of the rowers’ oars it gained a metre or a metre and a half, and after that there was nothing to be done; it seemed impossible to catch it up. But that year — Zebrino was growing up; he was twelve years old by now — a new danger appeared on the horizon: the Raveccas’ drag-net boat, Grongo, not this year crewed by the distinguished heads of the family but by three muscular fishermen from Il Verdaccio who had come to the regatta for the first time; and the danger seemed grave. Once the usual entertainments were over (the greasy pole, the sack race and the anticlerical speech by the anarchist Papirio Triglia), six prows lined up in the distance, waiting for the starting gun. The course was perhaps a kilometre and a half, and the winning post was visible a hundred metres from the beach, where the first reefs jutted out from the water. A crowd had gathered on the shore, and Zebrino, his brothers and his parents followed the event from above, appearing at the balustrade of their balcony. Lampo or Grongo? Lampo had been entrusted to four local veterans — three oarsmen and a cox — and it wasn’t even as if the family honour were directly in play here; but Zebrino’s feelings were in turmoil, and nor did his family seem relaxed. Far away, the matched prows could be seen: Lampo’s high, white and red one; Grongo’s low, dark green, inauspicious one. They were the first and the third of the six, counting from the left. The pistol shot was suddenly heard, followed by the swift regular movements of the first strokes. For a while the boats appeared to be neck and neck. Binoculars were passed from hand to hand, but no one managed to focus the lenses. The boats seemed steady in the water, their oars almost silent. Little skiffs, sculls and swimmers thronged the rock which was the winning post, on which, in shirtsleeves, sat Papirio Triglia, the local bigwigs, and the jury.

The clock struck five. The sun was still blazing down on the wide bay between Il Mesco and the point at Monasteroli. The smoke from a goods train rose through a deep chimney in the rocks. And the curses uttered and the rhythmical movement of the oars enhanced the silence around the seashore.

Lampo,’ said Zebrino’s mother confidently, taking the binoculars from her nose. ‘She’s gained half a metre.’ And she seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.

‘She’ll do it,’ admitted the eldest brother, curling his fingers into a tube to make a telescope. ‘But this time it’s tough.’

‘Let’s hope those ruffians are giving it everything,’ muttered the other brother, shading his eyes from the sun.

‘Hmm,’ said Restin, a local farmer’s son, staring at Lampo with his yellow lynx eyes. ‘She’s too low in the bow today. Even she is feeling her age.’

The boats were neck and neck, as if fixed there, the oarsmen and coxes blaspheming as they bent rhythmically to their work. Half of the course must have been completed.

‘The Il Verdaccio men are pulling like mad dogs,’ said Zebrino’s father, struggling to focus the binoculars. ‘I’m afraid we’re going to lose this one.’ And, apparently casually, he looked at the white spot above the distant village.

‘We’re stuffed,’ agreed Restin, screwing up his eyes and biting his nails. ‘Grongo is holding course better. She’s got a lighter crew.’

‘It’s not over yet,’ retorted Zebrino’s mother, without looking any more.

‘I’m telling you it is,’ insisted his father, who now seemed annoyed. ‘No,’ he then admitted, ‘it’s not over yet, but it’s a matter of millimetres.’

Shouting could be heard loud and clear from the shore; Lampo and Grongo, one prow visible and one hidden, were pitching through the surf, well ahead of the other boats; the yells of the coxes overwhelmed the splash of the oars. Fifty, perhaps thirty metres to go. For an endless moment, Zebrino’s heart was on the point of bursting. Then they heard a piercing shriek:

Lampo!’ And Restin did a pirouette like a squirrel as the red prow twisted under the finishing line with a flick of the rudder and the three oarsmen threw themselves into the sea, as was the tradition for victorious crews. Half-drowned amid the breakers, Grongo also passed the line, and the crew from Il Verdaccio, beaten but not convinced by the decision, hurled gross insults at the jury and the spectators’ boats.

Lampo,’ said Zebrino’s mother proudly. ‘They couldn’t beat Lampo!

‘By the skin of their teeth,’ his father goaded her, wiping the sweat from his brow. ‘It’s the last time I’m going to trust it to those drunks. And now we’re going to buy them drinks? Are you happy, Zebrino?’

With his hand on his heart, and white as a sheet, the boy didn’t answer. Turning towards the east, his eyes were fixed on the white spot overlooking Il Verdaccio.

The Busacca

(Eugenio Montale — La Busacca)

It’s not always that children — the most natural and confident friends and enemies of the animal kingdom — have, within their grasp or at least within vision, a moderately rich variety of fauna, as happened to those who were able to frequent the zoos of our great cities before the bombs raining from the skies set at liberty rattlesnakes and the wild beasts of the tropics. There are boys — and most of them tend to live in places normally (but maybe not for much longer) regarded as civilised countries — to whom the fantastic bestiary of infancy is almost completely denied; boys for whom the Hercules’ columns of the animal world are represented by the dog, the cat, the horse, examples of which are not always especially remarkable. In cases like this, the boys of my generation, virtually ignorant of the sport of football and of complicated mechanical toys, fell back on fantasy and even resorted to the stories old people used to tell. Where the menagerie didn’t exist, they knew how to make one for themselves in their own way.

A little boy of my close acquaintance whom everyone called Zebrino because of the striped shirt he always wore (and already in that choice of nickname there was perhaps a foreknowledge of his aptitudes and tastes), who happened to live in a town almost completely devoid of bizarre zoological species, had in exactly this way sought information from the old people, from the whims of popular fantasy, and had greatly benefited from them. He spent the free months of the year, those of the summer, on a spit of land facing the sea, separated from the rest of the world by high rocky cliffs. It was a region with no passable roads; the train ran enclosed in long tunnels without stopping there, and only occasional vibrations of the earth and the smoke which escaped from chimneys bored into the rocks indicated its passage. A world of landing places, a barren world in which only the badger, the squirrels and the birds could find a more or less permanent home: not the wolf nor the bear, who need broader heathland or more extensive bush.

Zebrino was not yet a hunter, and rarely accompanied the local men when they went hunting. The varieties of migrating birds were only names to him, and didn’t greatly stimulate his imagination. But with a few of the native feathered residents — the nightjar, the busacca — he had had a close friendship from his earliest years. That he had seen them for real would have been to assume too much. He had at least once come across the nightjar, or goatsucker, dead, with its hairy, beakless mouth shaped like a suction cup, a blood-sucking bird, even though in these parts goats were extremely rare. But the busacca? Its very existence was in doubt in the minds of the most reliable men, the ones who had been to the city. And none of the hunters whom Zebrino met could boast of having killed a single one. It was, or it was supposed to be, a bird of prey, bigger than a hawk and smaller than an eagle, equipped with strong wings but not so broad as to allow it to take flight from the ground. When flushed out by a hunter it would dive from the heights of a rock and hover in the air like a glider or a kite, before landing lower or higher, according to the direction of the wind or the seriousness of the risk, but always on the edge of a sheer drop from which it could dive again. It was an unassailable daemon, slow-paced and shrewd, leathery and shotgun-proof. Sometimes the men would kill kestrels and hawks, hoopoes and black woodpeckers, wrinkled and feeble like dirty handkerchiefs pulled out of the shooters’ poacher’s pockets; but a busacca, no, that was an unrealisable dream.

This was the dream that made Zebrino a hunter for a day. He owned no guns, and at his age there was no question that he could hold a firearms licence. Although he pitied dead birds and had no intention of following the path of Saint Hubert, he thought proudly of going where no one had gone before: killing the busacca on his debut, and then abandoning hunting for ever. He was helped by Restin, the son of one of the farmers there, a boy unarmed like him but better informed about armaments and blunderbusses. They worked for several days, getting hold of a lead tube which they fixed with spikes and string to a bit of wood shaped like a gun stock; and at the bottom of the blind part of the tube, where it was grafted onto the breech of the wood, they fashioned a hole for the fuse. Then they charged the weapon with gunpowder obtained from a mine; on top of the charge they pressed a handful of squares of lead cut with shears, and to enclose the explosive and the lead pieces they stuffed a wad of waste paper into the tube, rammed down its length with a small stick. A one-shot weapon, which couldn’t fail. And they left one day before dawn, equipped with sulphur matches and a fuse stolen from the local miners.

The real challenge was to get close to the busacca, light the match and then the fuse at the first signs of their prey, follow it for ten or twenty seconds with the weapon aimed, let the fuse travel to the explosive until the gun fired… then it would simply be a matter of seeing the creature collapse under the fusillade. Zebrino insisted on the role of marksman; Restin was to light the match and the fuse at the given moment, without hesitation; the division of labour was impeccable and the honour in the task would be shared equally between the two.

They walked for more than two hours, leaving behind the last orchards and the parched olive groves, haunts of peaceful ortolans, and moved through pine woods before arriving at rocky terrain where they were confronted by inland valleys separated by great stony cliffs. The sun shone in the distance, and the sound of occasional hammering reached them from the stone quarries.

They had to wait a shorter time than expected for the miraculous encounter: a broad, enveloping shadow which passed over the ground and dived into a gorge cut atop a sheer cliff, from which a flock of little birds arose, squawking.

‘It’s the busacca,’ said Zebrino in a confident tone. (The phrase was a hawk, a blackbird, but the busacca, with no numeral, the busacca, unique by definition, because it would be nonsensical to imagine that there could be two.)

‘Are you sure?’ asked Restin, trembling, and making no attempt to hide his unease.

‘Absolutely sure. I’ll aim. You get ready. Light the first match.’

They tiptoed towards the scrub. Restin lit a first, then a second, then a third match, screwing up his nose at the stench of the crackling sulphur. The creature was so close to them, like a shadow. They were almost on the edge of the gorge. They heard a stripping of foliage, another swish, the bushes were shaking as if at the passage of a heavy body. Restin brought the match, which was about to go out, up to the fuse.

‘Yes… Yes…’ said Zebrino, offering Restin the gun, then raising it with the dangling fuse smoking. A moment passed: an eternity. The smoke curled in the air. Then they saw a tiny little bird — a sparrow or a greenfinch — fly up from the ground and perch on the bare branch of a pinaster. A few seconds had passed; the thunder was about to burst. Zebrino didn’t have the courage to look around him. Almost without wishing to he turned the blunderbuss towards the little bird, and the gun fired. There was a huge explosion, which made the weapon fly out of his hand, splitting in two, and almost threw him to the ground, covered in a cloud of stinking smoke. The roar echoed distantly in the valleys.

‘Have you hurt yourself?’ asked Restin, deathly pale.

‘No, but this was a damn stupid idea,’ muttered Zebrino, looking at the two sections of the gun a few feet away from him. The greenfinch hadn’t moved from its branch and was cheeping incuriously, looking at them.

They heard footsteps. Jumping down from the rocks were a miner, wearing an old alpine hat, and a mendicant Franciscan friar, a zoccolante, one of those who travelled the district for alms. They asked whether the two boys had escaped unscathed, and when Restin told them the story of the busacca (against Zebrino’s wishes, who furiously gestured to him to keep silent), the miner made no comment, but waved a hand towards other territories on the horizon, beyond a wide inlet of the sea stretching away from the coasts of the peninsula.

‘The busacca… ah, the busacca,’ he said, as if to suggest that it had to be sought a long way away, on other shores.

He pulled out of his pocket a can of meat, and insisted on dividing its contents between the two boys and the mendicant friar; then all four, in silence, descended towards the first fringe of olive trees.

Laguzzi and Company

(Eugenio Montale — Laguzzi e C.)

Signora Laguzzi, who lived in the apartment above ours in Corso Asmara, must not have been on good terms with my mother. So it occurred that when some article of washing which she had hung out to dry fell onto our balcony, our neighbour didn’t think it dignified to come herself to reclaim it, nor even to entrust the affair to a person in her confidence, but leant out of the window with a long stick with a flexible tip — a fishing rod — from which there hung a length of twine and a hook big enough to catch small tuna; and so armed she began an operation which only after many attempts concluded with the recovery of the fallen garment. I was a child, and little inclined to the life of the sea, even though each year I spent no less than three months at the coast; and I must have become fixated on the very idea of that genus of fish, in terms imposed on an infant imagination by the obstinate Signora Laguzzi. From that time on I could no longer see a fish hook without a vision of stray handkerchiefs or underwear or a brassiere attached to the barb. More honest than Shakespeare’s Autolycus, who hung other people’s laundry on the hedges, Signora Laguzzi boldly made use of her own hooks to rescue her own clothing, which to be sure no one prevented her from doing. No one, unless perhaps a little boy (myself in person), who in between each attempt at capture did his best to throw the booty out of range.

The balcony was large, and curved on two sides: the only people who strolled there were my father, before dusk, when supper was over; and I, in the morning about eight, when I remained there a long time looking out for the arrival of the horse-drawn omnibus of the Istituto Vittorino da Feltre, which would take me to school along with a few other privileged children. Corso Asmara was an upward-winding street, not much frequented and at the time a bit cut off from the town. It wasn’t inhabited by elegant people, although from my balcony you could just glimpse around the corner the front gate of a patrician house where lived a family who had horses and a carriage, servants in tailcoats and a high reputation in the city. A world inaccessible even to my most optimistic expectations. The only person I knew in Corso Asmara was the tobacconist, to whom I often went to buy my father’s favourite Cavour cigars and a stick of liquorice for myself. My only possible encounters were with the tremulous ‘Barba I’ — ‘Uncle I’, so called because of the lengthy ‘Ih! Ih!’ calls he uttered while dragging his ice cream cart; and Pippo Bixio, an enemy since infancy who sometimes physically attacked me, robbing me of the cigars and liquorice.

After a few years we moved house, to a different district, to a modern apartment lower down the hill but with every comfort, including a lift, central heating (which was always off), and a dining room with a large veranda, very post-war nouveau riche. Soon after finishing secondary school I was eighteen years old, then twenty, and I began to go out in the evenings. I walked aimlessly back and forth under the arcades; I had no acquaintances and I never happened to go back to Corso Asmara. One day a young sculptor, met by chance, offered to take me under his wing, telling me I had an ‘interesting’ disposition and promising to introduce me to his circle. He was as good as his word, arriving at our next appointment in a bowler hat and patent leather shoes, and half an hour later a carriage he had hired dropped us in front of the fortress I had observed for years from my balcony. I thought I was dreaming.

I was introduced to the mistress of the house, to one of her female relations and to a German governess, all ample ladies whose hands the sculptor kissed; and then the children came forward, blonde haired, two boys and a girl, apparently in great intimacy with the sculptor. The suite of rooms was opulent, and many of the paintings on the walls seemed to be done in stripes or dots, or confetti-style, which everyone said was modern. And we visited the garden, high up above the port, affording a magnificent view. Then we took tea, served from a samovar: a shiny, burbling contraption. Everyone spoke Italian, with great refinement, although sometimes coyly slipping into the local accent. An article in the Caffaro was discussed, about Fogazzaro’s Leila, and a gentleman with long white hair sang ‘Zazà, little gypsy girl’, accompanied by the governess.

A couple of hours passed there, which seemed much too long to me, given my shyness, until I thought I should take my leave. I was told in a whisper to be sure to come again, and I left, kindly accompanied by the younger son, Giacinto, since the enviable sculptor was required to stay for dinner. Giacinto, who was about my age, extended his kindness as far as walking ten steps with me in the direction of Corso Asmara. We arrived directly beneath the balcony of my youth. Here, while the young man shook my hand with an air of protectiveness, I raised my eyes and saw, saw again, my heart thumping, Signora Laguzzi’s fishing rod hanging from her window. Obviously the immortal old woman had managed to fall out with our successors too! It all happened in a moment, but Giacinto and his family (including the sculptor) knew nothing about my past and I had made a firm decision to keep them in that ignorance. So I had the nerve to ask, ‘What the devil is going on here? Are they fishing?’

‘It looks like it,’ said Giacinto, vacantly. ‘I see that fishing rod from time to time, when I’m passing. They’re lower middle class, the people there: riff raff…’

The blow had fallen and I took it without flinching. Only the little thief Pippo Bixio would have been able to meet and unmask me. But the feared encounter didn’t happen, neither that day nor ever again. For me, a new life really was beginning.

The House with the Two Palm Trees

(Eugenio Montale — La Casa delle Due Palme)

The train was nearly there. Between one tunnel and the next, in a short gap — the blink of an eye in the case of a through train and an eternity if it was a stopping train or a workmen’s local train — the villa appeared and disappeared, a yellowish pagoda, its paint a little faded, glimpsed from side on, with two palm trees in front, symmetrical but not quite of equal size. They had been twins in the year of grace 1900, when they had been planted; then one of them took a notion to grow more than the other, and no means was ever found to retard the first and accelerate the second. That day it was a workmen’s train, and the villa, although half hidden by more recent constructions, could be viewed at leisure. On the westerly side, at the top of a stairway disguised by a hedge of pittosporum, the usual thing was for someone (mother or aunt or cousin or niece) to wave a towel to greet the ‘nearly there’, and — most important, if from the train someone responded by waving a handkerchief — to hurry up and put the gnocchi in the pot. The arrival of the homecoming relative, tired out and famished, was expected six or seven minutes later. Five hours in the train and the smoke!

That day no one waved a white towel from the top of the stairway. Federigo had a feeling of emptiness, and pulled his head back inside, before the train entered the last tunnel. Then he took his case down from the rack and readied himself, his fingers on the handle. The engine slowed with a long whistle, the dark gave way to light, and the train came to a stop with a jolt. Federigo climbed down and lowered his little case to the ground with a certain effort. It was a small station, situated in the split between two tunnels, opposite a precipice of vineyards and rocks. Anyone continuing his journey would soon re-enter the dark.

‘Porter?’ asked a barefoot, tanned man approaching the only traveller wearing a collar and tie.

‘Here,’ said Federigo, handing him the case while asking himself, ‘Who is this?’, because the face wasn’t new to him; until a light went on in his brain and he added a friendly ‘Oh, Gresta, how are you?’, hastening to shake the hand of the man bearing his burden.

This was one of his friends from childhood, a hunting and fishing companion he hadn’t seen for thirty years and had forgotten for at least twenty. A local boy, child of peasants, allowed to associate with the sons of the only proper gentleman in the place, when Federigo was or was thought to be the son of gentlefolk. They descended the steps and immediately found themselves next to the sea, separated from the waves by a low wall and a thin row of tamarisk trees. To their left another downward-sloping tunnel led to the village, out of sight; in a line to the right were the few houses of former emigrants, backing into gaps in the rock and encircled by barren orchards. They had to follow this road, veering to the right along a dried-up streambed to get to the pagoda from which no one — no one at all — had shaken a white towel in the wind. They set off, talking. Federigo rediscovered the dialect which he thought he had forgotten; and since Gresta — so called because of a plume of hair of which no trace was now in evidence — had stayed the same in every other respect, and the path and the houses to be seen around there were no less equally the same, that plunge out of his by now habitual world, that recovery of a time which seemed to him almost imaginary, really had something of the miraculous about it. Federigo thought for a second that he was going crazy, and realised what would happen if the life he had lived could be ‘played again’ from the top, in a version which must not be varied until final completion, like a recording made once for always.

On better reflection, there were variations (the failed greeting with the handkerchief, for example), and Federigo’s disorientation was of short duration. Gresta, meanwhile, seemed not to have noticed it. He spoke of anchovy fishing, of the harvest, of the year’s first passage of wild pigeons — incidentally also of the passage of the Germans and their oppression — and here too the mixture of the old and the new did nothing to confirm Federigo in his first impression of the reversibility of the temporal order.

A house the colour of saltpetre, with a sort of veranda on the second floor, seemed however to reinforce that first illusion, because every stone, every patch in the walls, and even the stench of rotten fish and tar which surrounded it, pulled him dangerously down into the well of memories; but here too the helpful Gresta hastened to relieve his confusion, telling him that Signor Grazzini, the overweight barefoot owner who had made his money gobbling diamonds in the South African mines, had died a while ago and the property had passed to other hands. Two steps further on it was the turn of a rented house, the colour of red chalk, and Federigo was afraid that he might see, emerging from it, the no less pot-bellied Signor Cardelli, greatly esteemed in the village despite having killed his first wife with a kick to the belly: a baseless fear, since no trace remained of Cardelli anywhere in the district.

And the lawyer Camponi, who had driven his younger brother to suicide in order to claim his life assurance? (A chalet with a pointed roof, in bottle green.) And the Honourable Signor Frissi, who had several times set fire to his empty shop in Montevideo so as to fill his pockets with loot? (A monstrosity of towers, of little columns, of snake-like decorations and tendrils which brought a swarm of insects and mice into the house. And from inside, pandemonium out of a gramophone horn — Ridi pagliaccio; Niun mi tema; Chi mi frena in tal momento — and the raging shouts of ‘Caramba!’ of an angry, alcoholic old man.)

For a moment Federigo was afraid he might be seen meeting the two gentlemen of quality in the neighbourhood: the first in knee-breeches, his belly wobbling above his exposed calves and a gold chain on his hairy chest; the other sombre, under a stiff straw sombrero, surrounded by a dense, tangible cohort of women in elegant dark dress, testament to the ‘position’ he had gained and of charity distributed from full hands. But there was no danger. Gresta mentioned other names, spoke of other notables, and only the shapes of the peeling houses and the sails of a wind pump carried Federigo back to the days of his youth.

At last they were in the final strait: the dry ditch, with the little path raised above it, the red bridge, the rusty gate and the upward track leading to the pagoda protected by the two old palm trees. The gravel crunched under Federigo’s shod feet; on the branch of a fig tree a tom-tit swung, filling the air with its chirping; and from the washing place a woman with white hair, not old, came forward to greet him.

‘Oh Maria,’ Federigo said simply, and again it was as if thirty years had retreated at a stroke and he, Federigo, had gone back to being the man of yesteryear, while remaining in possession of the wealth he had acquired later. But what wealth? No diamonds, no burnt shops, no relative sent to the realm of the ancestors, no material, functional contact with the stuff of the place. A diligent and involuntary effort of uprooting, a long circumnavigation amongst ideas and ways of life unknown here, immersion in a time not marked on Signor Frissi’s sundial. Was this Federigo’s wealth? It was this, yes, or little more, despite the weight of his suitcase.

At the bottom of the steps Gresta was discharged with a tip and a handshake, and Federigo followed the girl who had aged while spending all her life with those close to her. They spoke familiarly, without admitting to themselves that they had found each other so much older. They spoke of the living, and more of the dead. They arrived at the pagoda. Federigo turned round, recognised the huge amphitheatre of land invaded by the sea, saw again the bent poplar by the greenhouse, where with his air gun he had shot his first little bird, raised his eyes to the windows on the third floor, where the portraits of the ancestors were located, then entered the dining room on the ground floor and glanced at the rough walls. The array of spears and arrows, the gift of a traffic officer who had spent years in Eritrea, had gone; but the wooden engraving depicting a young and severe Verdi was still there. Federigo hurried to his living quarters and felt his heart stop, as if he had met a family ghost, when at the bottom of a certain item of chinaware he re-read the maker’s mark ‘The Preferable, Sanitary Closet’, the first English phrase he could remember. In the toilet, nothing at all had changed. Elsewhere he found alterations: beds added, empty cradles, new sacred images on the mirrors; signs of other existences which had replaced his. Then he went down to the kitchen where Maria was blowing on the coal, pulled a mosquito net across what would have to be his bed, took a deckchair, and stretched out in front of the house, a fifteenth part of which he was still the owner.

He said to himself, ‘A few days in the country with my dead relatives; they’ll pass quickly.’ But then he thought anxiously about the smell of the food which would be served to him. It wasn’t a bad smell, but it was that smell, it was the family smell passed down from generation to generation, which no one working in that kitchen would ever be able to remove. A continuity which failed elsewhere hangs on in the frying of the cooking oil, in the bitter flavour of garlic, of onions, of basil, in the herbs and spices beaten in a marble mortar. And for that continuity too, his dead relatives, condemned to a lighter diet, must sometimes have been turning in their graves.

‘But you’ve got your own house by the sea,’ his friends had often said to him, surprised to meet him on certain popular beaches where even the sea seems to be served up on a plate. Yes, he had (at least, a fifteenth part) and he had come back to look at it.

From inside the house the discreet chinking of a glass told him that dinner was served. No longer the seashell which his brother put to his mouth and blew like a trumpet to muster the family. What had become of that seashell? He must look for it.

Federigo got up, aimed his finger at the tom-tit which had risked following him as far as the poplar near the greenhouse, and mentally fired a shot.

Then he muttered, ‘I’m being ridiculous. This will be a delightful stay.’

The Bearded Lady

(Eugenio Montale — La Donna Barbuta)

The gentleman of a certain age, formally dressed in grey, standing nearby as the schoolchildren left the Collegio dei Barnabiti, hadn’t attracted any attention amongst the few adults who were waiting outside. Only the caretaker muttered, ‘I’ve never seen him here; what’s he got to do with us?’ The children emerged in groups of two or three, or solitary; a few met a grown-up who took their hand. But amongst these grown-ups the gentleman of a certain age was disappointed to see no sign of a maidservant. Perhaps a couple of housemaids with caps on, but no maidservant.

‘I was expecting her,’ whispered the gentleman of a certain age — let’s call him Signor M. for short —, and made off slowly towards the arcades of Via XX Settembre. The arcades were more or less as they had been forty years previously; nor had the school building changed much. Signor M. had changed quite a bit and he knew it, but although he avoided looking at himself in the shop windows, he could still forget that the passage of forty years had not been without effect. So he gave his hand to the lady coming to meet him, handed her the basket which had contained his lunch, and the parcel of books wrapped in a waxed cloth held tight by an elastic band, and let himself be guided as far as the difficult passageway which led to Via Ugo Foscolo, a stretch of road packed with people, where the passing carts and cars ignored the instructions of the bacchifero, as the city’s traffic officers were called: the man with the stick. Then, at the beginning of the deserted, zig-zagging ascent named after the poet of Le Grazie, Signor M. detached his hand from that of the old lady and carried on alone. She followed him, bent over, the basket and the bundle of books trembling in her hands, as the distance between them slowly increased. She couldn’t keep up with that ‘scamp’s’ pace.

Signor M. knew perfectly well that he was no longer a scamp, an urchin, and was aware that old Maria had died thirty years before, in the private hospice where they’d taken her when it was no longer possible to care at home for an eighty-year-old in steep decline, not to say in a state of putrefaction. He knew it, but since the streets and houses between the Istituto dei Barnabiti and his house of forty years ago were almost the same as they had been, he thought it wouldn’t be too foolish on his part to have evoked, in body and spirit, the deceased supervisor of his childhood trips to and from school. Why had he wanted to be present when the children came out of that particular elementary school, if not to find her there again? The places where he had been able to summon up Maria’s material existence had been reduced to two: this route and the kitchen in the family house at Montecorvo, where Signor M. hadn’t set foot for years. And there was no point in thinking about other houses which had been demolished or passed to new occupiers.

Signor M. stopped under the walls of the Parco dell’ Acquasola and sat on a kerbstone. ‘I’d better wait for her,’ he said to himself. ‘I’ve left her too far behind.’

Old since birth, illiterate, permanently bent and bearded, but the tenacious custodian of the M. family’s fortunes even before the head of the family had settled down and brought forth offspring not unworthy of him, Maria had been, from age fifteen to age eighty, the manager and decision-maker in the father’s new house. She had also had one of her own, it’s true; but to get there she had to wait for the summer holiday at Montecorvo, and then make a journey of about ten hours on foot. For two or three seasons, in the early years, she undertook this feat; then when she realised that no one remembered her there any more, or thought of her as a ‘foreigner’, an interloper, Maria detached herself completely from her ancestors’ slums. She had two houses which were almost her own, in the city and the country, children as if her own to take to school, children well spaced out in age, from two to fifteen, so offering her the opportunity of providing care and support for long periods, and, after a certain point, of going back to square one, full of reassurances to come. Pleasure in life springs from the repetition of certain acts and habits, from the fact of being able to say to oneself, ‘I’m going to do again what I’ve done before and it’ll be almost the same, but not exactly so.’ It springs from difference within sameness, as much for the illiterate as for the scholar.

‘There she is,’ said Signor M., seeing her approach, and off he went with little skips towards Via Serra, feeling a bit breathless as he scaled the Cappuccini hill. At the top he found the ‘cowshed’, where he stopped for a while to drink a glass of milk and munch two Lagaccio biscuits. He sat down again, in the garden this time, but was unpleasantly surprised to find himself in a modern café giving out a bitter smell of espressi, and no longer of milk fresh from the cow. He lingered for a moment, unsure what to do. Then when the waiter arrived he said curtly, ‘I’ve made a mistake,’ and left in a hurry, to the surprise of the few customers.

Maria had almost caught up with him, out of breath; he walked along with her for a bit. He liked to tease her with innocent jokes; it was only later that sharper arrows were fashioned. Napoleon’s troops had marched through the Val di Levanto when she was still a spring chicken. How had she managed to defend herself? Wasn’t the virginity of which she had always boasted a fib?

Of course, Maria was born half a century after the passage of those troops, but she didn’t know this, and she stuck to entrenchment behind stubborn and immoveable arguments. She said she remembered nothing, neither soldiers nor officers; she had had a fiancé, but she had never let him touch a finger of her. He had left the village to look for work and she had never heard from him again. Who knows how long he’s been dead?

Signor M. didn’t want to start an argument inappropriate to the age (ten) to which he had decided to assign himself, but almost no other speech came to his lips. Although he had reverted to early childhood, he hadn’t been able to discard the part of him which had come later. He saw Maria again in the hospice, bedridden now, but always in dispute with her fellow patients and with the nuns, who were too mean with the sugar; he re-read her death notice, received many years after he’d left the family home. Where had the old woman been buried? Who knows? He’d never visited her grave. He almost never called Maria to mind; only in flashes, in the darkest hours of his life, her image came back to him. A ragged and illiterate old woman, Maria, whose useless existence had had neither meaning nor purpose. Signor M. was certainly the only person in the world to have retained a glimmer of her memory. Sometimes he had struggled against that memory, had sought to dispose of her as one does a bit of rag past its useful life. In every house which hasn’t changed owners there’s still some empty jar, some piece of junk, which no one who comes upon it would dare to touch. Signor M. no longer had a house; in his life, no piece of ancient junk could aspire any longer to the status of taboo. There still remained that flickering, anxious shadow whom for years he had been trying to repel and who was now walking beside him, breathing hard to keep up with his sprightly pace.

‘A useless existence? What a mistake to make,’ Signor M. said to himself. When all the old maidservants have disappeared from the world, when all the cogs of the universe have a name, a function and a sense of themselves, when the weighing machine of rights and duties is in perfect balance for all, who then will be able to walk home with a ghost, who will be able to overcome the horror of loneliness, sensing at their side the protection of an angelic, bearded hag?

Signor M. leaned over the parapet and looked down at the immense expanse of grey roofs, the port, the lighthouse, and the sea lashed by a south-west wind beyond the breakwaters. One could slip down there in a lift which came up from the heart of the city. And from time to time the lift’s cabin arrived, and a group of people crossed the little square without turning around to admire the too familiar view.

A voice called him by name, bringing him back to himself.

‘Well, fancy seeing you again! What are you doing here all alone? It must be thirty years since we met.’

It was an old school chum, but not from the elementary school, a man of his own age, a face he couldn’t place. He tried to recover the name, rifling through the dark of his memory. Burlamacchi? Cacciapuoti? He knew it had four syllables…

‘Goodness,’ he said, ‘this is a welcome meeting. I’m just passing through here… by myself… and I stopped for a moment…’

He shuddered. Perhaps the other man hadn’t noticed anything? He turned and saw, next to the parapet, two or three old ladies and a few children, who didn’t seem to be bothered about him. But Maria wasn’t there; she hadn’t arrived yet, or she had gone on by herself.

‘I have to get down quickly,’ he said, starting towards the lift cage. ‘Goodbye. We’ll see each other again soon… later… I don’t know…’

He disappeared into a cabin, which closed its doors and descended rapidly. The other man continued along the curving road, shaking his head.

The Pleasure Comes Later

(Eugenio Montale — Il Bello Viene Dopo)

They had hardly sat down when her brisk and decisive choice drew a nod of assent from the young waiter who had arrived with the menu in his hand.

‘A large consommé, veal paillard, baked apple and a manzanillo.’

Manzanillo? What’s that?’ asked the gentleman with her. ‘The manzanillo tree kills you if you sleep underneath it. Its shade is deadly.’

‘It’s all the rage as a drink; some people say it’s a carob infusion. It gives you a very pleasant slight sensation of nausea. But one isn’t enough; you need three or four a day.’

She lifted her hand, pointing at the figures on an advertising poster: men and women with egg-yolk-coloured hair, in evening dress, relaxing in the shade of a great tree, and armed, as if with hand grenades, with lots of little bottles of lemonade; everyone smiling and happy.

The gentleman continued to browse the menu, unsure. To assist him, an older and more carefully shaven waiter approached, bringing the wine list.

‘Chiaretto, Bardolino, Chianti? Tokai from Friuli? Clastidio? Paradiso di Valtellina? Or Inferno?’

‘Let’s go for the Paradiso. But that’s all for the moment. I need to think about it. Serve the lady.’

The waiters withdrew and the gentleman stayed hunched over the choice of dishes.

‘Trout au bleu,’ he said quietly. ‘Sole à la meunière. Yellow eel alla Livornese. Ah ha! No, it doesn’t tempt me. It reminds me of the muddy ditch which used to run beside my house. Who knows if it’s still there? It twisted and turned. Maybe it still worms its way between rocks and reeds. You can only follow it for short sections. Well, yes and no: if it’s rained a lot, there’s some stagnant water, which the washerwomen flock to. But there are eels there, the best in the world. Rare little yellowish eels that it’s difficult to see under the greasy film of soap suds clouding the water. To catch one you had to enclose and dam one of those puddles with pieces of slate well jammed into the mud, then bail out the water with your hands, and finally, before the water trickled back in, clamber into the ditch in your bare feet and rummage around the pebbles and the rotted greenery at the bottom. If the eel appeared and we had a table fork, success was almost assured: a stab, and the pierced and bleeding creature was lifted out and thrown onto the bank, where it wriggled for a bit longer. Without a fork it was a more difficult job. The eel slipped between your fingers, showed up again under a soap bubble, and vanished. You needed half an hour’s effort to catch one twenty centimetres long, slimy, filthy, half disembowelled, uneatable.’

‘But did you eat it?’ she asked, spreading yellow mustard on the veal, which was cooked pink but with black stripes from the griddle.

‘Three or four of us ate it burnt to a crisp on a fire of straw and paper. It tasted of smoke and mud. It was delicious. But it was only the entrée to our lunch. Usually by then we had already prepared the pièce de résistance: an ortolan, for instance. For two or three hours we stayed stationed under a twisted poplar, well hidden from the narrow passageway which ran between the greenhouse, with its succulent plants, and a hedge of pittosporum. My friends had elastic catapults (commonly known as cacciafrusti) but I had the use of a Flobert which I’d managed to load with three or four tiny bits of grapeshot.

We saw the little bird hopping on the fig tree; it was honey-coloured, feeding off those fruits, opening them with quick pecks of its thin, delicate beak. It rarely moved from the fig to the poplar; and we couldn’t hide under the fig. But two or three times each season the ortolan (to us it was always him, the same one) flew over the narrow passageway and came to land in the poplar. If it was too high or too well hidden in the branches there was nothing we could do; but sometimes it perched lower, exposed, two paces from us; and then we fired all together, with the air pistol and the catapults.

It fell crookedly, or rather it landed on the ground. It was still alive. A bead of blood dripped from its beak, and its clear black eye was still shining. Then a veil closed it. The ortolan was dead. We plucked it quickly, warm as it was. The air was filled with the lightest of feathers; a breath of wind was enough to blow them away. There it lay: naked, yellow, its rear end a cushion of fat. Awkward as a mannequin, it still had a bit of plumage on its dead little head. But a minute later a good fire of pinecones in the orchard burnt that too. Skewered on a stick, it crackled and dribbled, basting itself, while the eel was blackening separately in the embers. And our delicious lunch could begin. These were great occasions; we ate like this twice a year…’

‘And to drink?’ she asked, fearlessly raising to her mouth a large glass of manzanillo.

‘A bucketful of water drawn from the well, mixed with maidenhair fern and brick dust, with ten or twelve lemons squeezed in it: semi-bitter lemons, the size of a walnut.’

The gentleman was silent for a long time, lost in his thoughts. He raised a full glass of Paradiso to his lips and took a sip, wincing. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘It’s not the same.’

‘You should get used to manzanillo,’ said the young woman, looking for an eyebrow pencil in her tortoiseshell make-up bag. ‘It doesn’t kill you. It takes all the memories away. Then you’d be like a woman who’s jumped over the ditch, and who’s no longer afraid of anything. But you want to stay in it, in the ditch, fishing out for us the eels of your past.’

The waiter came back. He seemed discouraged.

‘A chateaubriand?’ he asked ‘A bowl of scampi velouté? Twelve or twenty-four snails in burgundy sauce? A slice of Rhine salmon? Or would you prefer to begin with woodcock on toast?’

‘I should like,’ said the gentleman gloomily, ‘an ortolan’s leg cooked on a fire of butcher’s broom and an eel bone marinaded in soap. I know that’s not possible. A shame. The bill, please.’

He took a big blue note from his wallet, put it on the plate, and said to the young woman, ‘Shall we go? Next time, I promise you, I’ll start with a manzanillo too.’

‘But don’t stop,’ she said. ‘Once is not enough. The pleasure comes later.’

In the Key of F

(Eugenio Montale — In Chiave di “Fa”)

‘Starting from this D you must enclose the voice, wear it in a mask,’ explained my old teacher, performing arpeggios on the keyboard. ‘Later you can open again on the E flat, if necessary, but for now… Say u. Like this: o-o-o-uuuu… Very good.’

It seemed to me that I’d uttered a groan from the underworld, an unearthly whistle; but the old teacher was satisfied. Small, bent over the keys, both venerable and ridiculous, he sang the notes with his tiny mouth puckered like a pigeon’s egg, barely opening between the baldacchino of his great hoary moustaches and the trembling upright posts of his snow-white patchwork beard. He warbled like a hundred-year-old nightingale, and his little eyes shone behind thick lenses.

The windows (we were at the top of the house) opened onto a wide rectangular piazza, strewn with sunshades and market stalls. In the distance, on a bronze horse permanently reared up, an Argentine general heroically brandished his sword in the air. The avenue leading to the sea, to the right, was quiet, and you could read there the nameplates of midwives and obscure dental assistants. The old teacher lived a bit out of the way, but I had to be understanding. He alone, who had rubbed shoulders with Maurel and Navarrini and had won applause which brought the house down at the Imperial in St Petersburg and the Liceu in Barcelona, he alone was in a position to save me from the incompetence of the professors at the conservatoire. Lessons began very early, at half past eight in the morning, and usually lasted thirty minutes. Not long after nine I was in the public library, which was more or less deserted at that hour. The choice of books wasn’t large, and the attendant didn’t allow himself to be disturbed. But on a shelf which was always open I grazed for several months. (I read there, during that period, I don’t know how many books by Lemaître and by Scherer, the discoverer of Amiel.) Meanwhile my regular lessons continued. Gradually, I was becoming resigned to saying farewell to the voice which — let us say — I had mentally assumed to be mine. No longer Boris Godunov, no longer Gurnemanz, no longer Philip II; I was going to have to forget the notes in the lower register, the sepulchral sounds of Osmin the eunuch and of Sarastro. The old teacher was firm on this point; and he even gave me excessive hope that in the new register I would one day be able to wear Iago’s plumed fez or don Scarpia’s monocle and carry his snuffbox. He abhorred the ‘modern’ and, so far as he was concerned, he had hauled me back from ruin. My style was going to be traditional bel canto: Carlo V, Valentino, Germont père, Sergeant Belcore, Doctor Malatesta. That was what I was suited to.

Giardini dell’Alcazar, de’ mauri regi delizie, oh quanto…’ Do do do do beaten out like a gong, then a tangle of arabesques and swirls, up and up until the great ‘crowning glory’ of an F sharp which reached beyond the general’s statue before a resolution onto C natural, achieving an irresistible effect. That was how Alfonso XII, the King of Castile, came on stage; that was how my old teacher had won his own battle forty years earlier, when Don Pedro of Brazil had been seen applauding until his hands were raw. But what sadness! I no longer recognised my old voice and I had no way of assessing my new one. I owned a different instrument, and it didn’t interest me. When my half hour was over, various pupils arrived, whom I soon got to know: a bespectacled accountant from Lloyd Sabaudo, a sergeant of the carabinieri (Signor Calastrone), and a lady with a slim waist, short legs and a pagoda of ringleted headpieces on top, the wife of a businessman who didn’t understand her (as she told me immediately). After my lesson, they used to attempt the terzetto from I Lombardi. One day, sitting outside, near a stall selling mullet and calamari, I stood for a long time listening to the racket — ‘Qual voluttà trascorrere…’ — flooding down onto irritated passers-by. Madame Poiret invited me several times to her house. She lived in a crenellated, turreted villa reached by a drawbridge. She was from Caravaggio, in spite of her husband’s French name, and she addressed me as voi twenty years before that unfortunate fashion became obligatory. She made her debut in Cavalleria Rusticana at Pontremoli, then disappeared from circulation. She had nothing but her voice. She told me that the old teacher, who was always reticent with me, thought that I was the only pupil good fortune had granted him in fifteen years of teaching: the only one apart from madame, of course. I thought I was going crazy. Maybe they had all plotted to take me for a ride. I cautiously asked the old teacher, and he dispelled any doubt. I must resign myself to it: neither Madame Poiret (out of the question!), nor the engineer from the city trams, the howling Signor Amonasro, who caused the fishmongers to raise their heads in stupefaction, nor the daughter of the director of the lunatic asylum, the dusky, miniature, generously proportioned, feline princess from Eboli, nor the quavering and prissy Nemorino from Lloyd Sabaudo, nor even (oh dear me!) the unhappy Signor Calastrone, were in his opinion worthy to lace up my boots. The voice, said the old teacher, counted for nothing. What you needed was axillo (as it was termed in the dialect), or, if you will, the fire in the belly, the pepper under the tail. In Gounod’s Faust, when Valentino, the adolescent hero with the mop of pale blonde hair, sings ‘Santa medaglia’, or in the scene with the crucifixes or in the death scene, I’d be able to rival Kaschmann if all went smoothly. I emerged from that conversation embarrassed and ashamed, like a whipped dog. Did I, a weedy little library bookworm, really have a touch of axillo? And if I did, what use would I be if they didn’t give me the starring roles in the lyric repertoire?

With or without pepper, it was the devil who came to set my tail between my legs. One day, returning from a brief trip to the country, they told me that the old teacher had suddenly died. I saw him laid out on his single bed, dressed in black and surrounded by his mane of silver hair. He had become tiny. In his room were his diplomas, medals from the Tsar, wreaths of artificial flowers and framed cuttings from newspapers. His favourite pupils took turns around the room uttering little squeaks (E E E), like mice, to keep their voices going. When the funeral was over I went back to the country, and shortly afterwards I was swallowed up by military service in the Pilotta barracks at Parma. The incanto, though not the canto, was over for me. And I think that the old teacher even took with him, into the life beyond, that musical phantom, that vocal alter ego of his which, almost without my knowledge and certainly to my cost, he had diligently discovered and constructed in me, perhaps in order to revisit his distant youth. When, years later, I took to the keyboard again, I found that the Grand Inquisitor’s cavernous E and portly Osmin’s deep bass D were back in place after all. But what could I do with them now?

Success

(Eugenio Montale — Il Successo)

The other evening, at the theatre, the head of the claque must have fallen asleep. (The opera, beautiful but not popular, rather induced somnolence and made the dispensing of ‘bene’s’ and ‘bravo’s’ difficult.) Only this could explain how a bass aria, with two verses still to go, could be interrupted by ill-timed applause at the end of the first verse: at a point, that is, at which no musical phrasing, no vocal effect could possibly justify such impromptu clapping. What had happened? The head of the claque, on waking up, had given his signal at the wrong time; that was all. There were whistles, and the aria resumed; but now the game was up, and when the vocal effect arrived, and the bass decided to go down ‘to the cellar’ (reach for the lowest notes in his range), the tired applause from a quarter now geographically suspect didn’t convince anyone.

We should be most indulgent towards claqueurs. I don’t think they earn much money; and wherever the public shows unjustifiable froideur towards the champions of lyric art, they perform a perfectly legitimate function. An opera or melodrama without applause doesn’t warm the heart; it’s not even a spectacle. To forego the sight of Radamès and Ramfis in front of the closed curtain after their synchronised bellowing in ‘Immenso Ftha’, not to gaze at close quarters at their robes and turbans, is to lose half the pleasure that Aida affords; not to reinforce, with a grunt of agreement, the cackle which Sparafucile utters as he takes leave of Rigoletto, having made that shameful proposal, is to lack — at the least — charity and human solidarity. That grating little sound isn’t hard to make, but it’s not just a sound; it symbolises a whole life spent in the depths. Whoever has lived in rented rooms, in third-rate taverns and boarding houses, has heard thousands of ‘voices from underground’ (though not in Dostoevsky’s sense).

The applause the other evening took me back in time. There was a period when claqueurs were recruited from amongst the barbers. They didn’t manufacture applause for professional reasons, but out of passion; and there was little harm if that passion could also generate a few pennies. I too, when I decided to study bel canto, had my first initiation into the ‘ambiance’ from my barber. Barber Pecchioli, head of the claque in my town, was a bon viveur, and rarely gave the signal by clicking his finger against his thumb. In the best-known pieces, the most popular arias, he left the job to his initiates and to the paying public. He only intervened in difficult cases: in certain pianissimo passages, in occasional diminuendi, in the riskiest vocal attenuations. And then he whispered a ‘bravo’ so spontaneous that no one could suspect that it came at a price: it had a rate.

Personally, I should admit that I wasn’t one of his favourite customers before I entrusted my destiny as a singer to him. As an occasional client, one of those who only go to the barber for a haircut, and who refuse shampoos, lotions and expensive frictions, I wasn’t likely to encourage his affections. However, there was an occasion when he decided to seek my help as an extra, and for one evening I found myself enrolled amongst his claqueurs. The case was novel, and complicated. In my town, a rich citizen returned from Argentina used to give a concert of his own works. José Rebillo, pointilliste painter and author of assorted musical compositions, wasn’t really a proper musician; it was said of him that he hardly knew the notes; but he composed music directly via his pianola, carving and punching holes in rolls of cardboard with scissors and bradawls. The material emerging from this contrivance was then transcribed, harmonised and — often — orchestrated by other people.

In those days, the music of the future was represented almost exclusively by Wagner, who was by then tolerated by most people. But music such as Signor Rebillo’s, all discords and screeches, had never been heard. Was Rebillo a genius or a lunatic? To judge from the titles of his compositions — I remember a ‘Dying Nymph’, described as a ‘Musical Still Life’ — I should have concluded that he was, at least, a pioneer. But I was less able to realise it then than I would be today.

So there I was, on the evening of the concert, entering the Politeama with a complimentary ticket and the firm intention of doing my duty; but when the dying nymph had breathed her last and I was about to clap, a chorus of whistles and jeers arose from every row of the stalls and every nook of the balconies, and the faint cry of ‘Viva Rebillo!’ was drowned out by an almost unanimous howl of ‘Enough! Composer out! Out the door!’, achieving full volume even in ‘Death to Berillo!’, in which the composer’s name seemed to have been somewhat poetically mangled. Had a counter-claque been mobilised? Or did Signor Ribello have numerous enemies in the town? I never found out. Caught up in the tumult, separated from Pecchioli, I hastily took the part of the majority, and shamefully joined in with those bellowing ‘Down with him! Out the door!’. The evening ended with whistles and laughter, and I departed, carefully avoiding my ‘chief’.

Months later, I was taken by others to the house of the composer at whom I had whistled. He lived in a neo-Gothic tower accessed by a non-functioning drawbridge. Rebillo spent his days there puncturing holes in cardboard and spattering flecks onto huge canvases. He spoke a coastal dialect mixed with creole words; and he only read La Prensa and Scena Illustrata. No one ever understood whence this mania for the avant-garde had entered his head. Tall, fat, bald, moustachioed and unschooled, he was probably the most inspirational man ever to have come into the world. Perhaps in Paris, twenty years later, they would have taken him seriously; but in his own commonsensical, commercial town there was nothing to be done. However, Rebillo wasn’t only acquainted with scroungers and claqueurs: people who turn up only at lunchtime or to collect debts. His best friend and confidant was a postal worker, Signor Armando Riccò, a little, hairless man who sported a monocle with a cord and who wrote thousands of Parnassian sonnets. Each of his lines had two diereses, and in that achievement he declared that he had outdone his hero, the great Ceccardo. According to him, if a poet wrote a line of prose he disqualified himself. He loved exalted expressions; he said ‘humans’ rather than ‘men’; but for all that he took pride in disparaging D’Annunzio. He lived a long life, ever lofty, never published. He said he was working for posterity. Around midnight, when the barbers and the diners had gone, and Rebillo and Riccò were alone, the pianola was started up with hisses and sneezes, and Riccò recited his lines, placing great stress on the diereses and half-closing his eyes.

On calm nights, the waves broke gently against the escarpment which protected Signor Rebillo’s neo-Gothic tower, and I expect they break there still, even if the tower is no longer standing. I don’t know what became of the mountains of rolls which cluttered the composer’s study after he died. Disposing of Armando Riccò’s lines will have been less of a problem. He died in obscurity.

From encounters like these I have learned a truth which few people know: that art generously extends its consolations especially to failed artists. This is why it takes up so much space in the lives of men; and this is why the composer Rebillo and the poet Riccò, conjured up by me unwittingly from the other evening’s ham-fisted claqueur, perhaps deserve that recollecting word which every well-meaning soul owes to its teachers.

The Tortured Soul…

(Eugenio Montale — Il Lacerato Spirito….)

I’ve been looking at — and to a lesser extent listening to — a collection of old discs for voice and piano recorded between 1903 and 1908. The old gentleman who invited me to sample the secrets of his record collection has become, late in life, a guardian of the vocal relicts of that period. When he was young (forty years ago), the death knells of bel canto were already sounding. There were no discs in the golden age; and when the new invention allowed the surviving heroic voices to be captured in a can (the first wax cylinders really did look like tins of conserved tomatoes), the inadequacy of the novel technology didn’t allow for the embalming of more than their shadow. The voices emerged shrill, disembodied, excessively high in timbre. Deep voices were the most unrecognisable. Only an aficionado could today ‘reconstruct’ the prayer in L’Ebrea, ‘Se oppressi ognor…’, as it issued from the lips of the towering Navarrini (two metres tall), loaded with years and glory at the dawn of the century.

The stars of that period didn’t look kindly on the new invention; and they had reason. Confronted with the prospect of appearing to posterity so counterfeited, they thought, ‘Better to be forgotten than heard like that.’ But then someone began to waver, and others were actually caught in a scam. In 1903, at the premiere of L’Africana at the Metropolitan in New York, a person hidden in the wings managed to pick up as much as he could of Vasco da Gama’s landing, and of the inspirational arioso ‘O paradiso’ as performed by the tenor De Reszke, also freezing in the recording the backstage noises and the audience’s ovations. The disc was then printed faithfully and duplicated in multiple copies.

The copy I listened to is thought to be the only one still in existence, and it has inestimable antique value. Those who know that tune of Meyerbeer’s, with its innumerable difficulties, will still be able to get some sense of it; for others, the impression can be nothing more than a buzzing interrupted by vocal noises, ending with a harsh, declining B flat, wiped out by a wave of yelling and plaudits which sound like insults. Nothing else remains of Jean De Reszke; the old gentleman knows of no other recording of his voice.

Snatches from the aria ‘Io non son che une povera ancella’ (in Adriana Lecouvreur), performed by the superdiva Angelica Pandolfini, who created the part, and from the bold serenade ‘De’ vieni alla finestra’ (in Don Giovanni), sung by Victor Maurel, must date from a few years later. Through the deep corrosion of time, we can convince ourselves of Angelica’s prodigious achievement, but we remain astonished at the bizarre choices and vulgarity of the man who, in France, was the last-but-one surviving practitioner of Italian bel canto. The squeaks of ‘Home, Sweet Home’, performed by Adelina Patti, then in her sixties, do escape from the indecipherable; while from Tamagno’s voice at the death of Otello (a voice which sounds like a mosquito) a few shards of greatness sparkle.

I listened for quite a long time; but, more than by the sound of those now petrified voices, my curiosity was aroused by the secret which, I was sure, the old gentleman was keeping to himself. And before I took my leave, I didn’t find it difficult to get him to confess.

Passionately interested in the art of singing, unable — like Leoncavallo’s clown — to choose between the theatre and life, shy and hard to please, proud and desperately fearful, he had spent his best years trying in vain to attain a perfect performance of Jacopo Fiesco’s famous aria in Simon Boccanegra. Every day, from age 18 to age 50, in front of the mirror, his face covered with shaving cream, his shaving brush and razor put to one side, he had returned to it, threatening with his fist the closed doors of the marble palace opposite the cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa, and had thundered ‘A te l’estremo addio, palagio altero!’, before moderating his attack in ‘Il lacerato spirito del mesto genitore…’, and then descending to the final basso profundo rattle (F sharp below the stave) which completes his plea: ‘Prega Maria per me…’.

It isn’t a difficult aria, but it requires great maturity of voice, and when the old gentleman was young he didn’t consider his voice sufficiently ‘seasoned’. An unseasoned bass is an unripe fruit: inedible. The years passed swiftly. In innumerable houses, barracks, hotels, boarding houses, clinics, hospitals and rented rooms the vituperation resounded. The voice was still maturing, softening, losing the harshness of its ‘cavity’ (or its ‘trumpet’, if you will), but one day, all of a sudden, timbre and consistency failed. The old gentleman (then not so old) knew that he must seize the moment, grasp those few days of perfection to which he aspired, astound everyone with the celebrated tirade, and then withdraw into a dignified silence. One of his friends, a doctor who had decided to pause his brilliant career, often came to visit him and to attempt with him the duet from I Puritani, ’Suoni la tromba,’ but more often, solo, to provoke, with flickering eyelids and a finger on the piano, Sheriff Rance’s bitter, sneering confession, ‘Minnie dalla mia casa son partito…’, and explosive conclusion, ‘Or per un bacio tuo getto un tesoro!’, which unfortunately and inevitably brought complaints from neighbours in the building and from the concierge. The former doctor also delayed his debut for many years, waiting for his voice to season; then one fine day he lost patience, a frog in his throat sent him off his head, and the aspiring sheriff jumped from the window and managed to impale himself on the spikes of the railings in the garden below. He died instantly, without suffering.

The future collector of records took the hint, and persisted no longer in his efforts. By now his fiftieth year had elapsed, and the moment he had been waiting for had probably passed without anyone (and even less him) noticing it. It happened only occasionally, while he was shaving, that he would turn the clock back and intone, in a quavering voice, ‘Il lacerato spirito…’. At that very moment, the ghost of his doctor friend would appear next to him, and his voice died on his lips. In any case, for whom would he sing today? The art is in total decline.

The Ostrich Feather

(Eugenio Montale — La Piuma di Struzzo)

Men are a bit like books: you casually read one, and you don’t anticipate that it will end up leaving an indelible mark on you; with every enthusiasm you consume another, which seems abundantly likely to be worth the undertaking, and a few months later you realise that the effort was worse than useless. But in that first moment, at that first meeting, the final result — profit or loss — is suspended in a question mark. I often ask myself, not which books but which beings, living or dead, I might see again, in a flash and involuntarily, if I were put (touch wood) before a firing squad, or if I found myself about to drown with no possibility of rescue. Favourite men or animals? Men — or women — whom I had loved, or passing acquaintances, individuals that I’d hardly brushed against, who never suspected that they had assumed such a place in my consciousness?

If the moments before sleep, which should be filled with prayers and meditations, can resemble in some way the last moments of a life on earth, I would say, by analogy, that there will be many surprises reserved at that juncture for the homo sapiens of our day, now completely alienated and torn limb from limb, at the heart of a society becoming the more inhuman the more it concerns itself with the rights of the masses.

The other evening, before going to sleep, as I was brooding inwardly on life’s ultimate causes and repeating to myself, ‘Man, you must die,’ two strange figures, whom I had completely forgotten, came to pay me a visit; and I, emerging from my doze, was like the traveller who assesses himself in comparison with others, and, finding that his own attitudes have changed in the face of past deeds and events, has to see himself differently, thus becoming aware of the old axiom that the same water never flows twice between the banks of a river.

I was about to turn off the light when, preceded by a discreet knock at the door — tap tap tap — and by a deep ‘May we?’, which was at least a basso profundo’s B natural, I saw a sturdy soldier enter, of medium height, bearded and armed to the teeth like the ghost in Hamlet, with the addition of a large ostrich feather curving down from his hat almost to his spurs; and beside him, obsequious and ceremonial, a little old man who expressed himself more in ghostly gestures and smirks than in his incomprehensible dialect.

‘Marcello,’ I said to myself immediately, thinking of Raoul de Nangy’s faithful servant in I Ugonotti. And the memory of that character, inevitably associated with that of its famous performer, meant that I recognised without hesitation the man who had died years before in Montevideo, and was the most sepulchral forger of musical notes below the stave that the Italian theatre had ever known: the basso profundo Gaudio Mansueto, a man with broad shoulders, ex-camallo — that is, docker — in the port of Genoa, refined (when I knew him) by a successful career as a lyric artist and by an instinctive intelligence which meant, when he was in role, that he utterly dominated the stage.

‘Marcello,’ the soldier acknowledged, tweaking his pointed moustaches in the style of Marco Praga; and, approaching the piano, which was still open in my bedroom, he ran a hand over the keyboard and softly picked out the ‘Piff, paff’ which comes before the account of the siege of La Rochelle. The windows shook violently.

‘Ah,’ I said, unsurprised. And, turning to the other man, ‘And you, sir… if I may?’

‘This evening I’m dressed as Dulcamara or as Alcindoro, at your service; in real life I am Astorre Pinti, comic bass — or basso buffo if you prefer.’

‘Astorre Pinti? But I know you, Signor Astorre. We used to speak at length, when we took refuge in the building at Via Lamarmora 14, in those hellish days before the liberation of Florence.’ Unshaven and starving, always in pyjamas, his chest loaded with pendants and medallions, his voice permanently ‘in mute mode’ — E E E across three octaves, a marmot’s squeak and then a death rattle — he had skipped meals for several days, he and his numerous family. And the situation was even trickier with him. Was he alive, or dead like his companion? I’d never had any further news of him.

‘I’m sure you won’t remember, Commendatore Mansueto,’ I continued, to overcome my awkwardness, ‘that I had the honour of being introduced to you thirty years ago at Pecchioli’s hairdressing salon, in the Mazzini arcade. You took me with you into the back room of a piano tuner who was also head of the claque, and listened to my rendition of ‘Il lacerato spirito’. You advised me to persevere with my studies in bel canto.

‘Ah, ah,’ thundered Mansueto, and ‘Ah, ah,’ smirked Dulcamara, in a perfect third.

They sat down together at the piano, paying no attention to me. They played arpeggios, then pulled out of a bookcase the score of La Forza del Destino and went straight to the page they were looking for.

‘I remember,’ I added, ‘Cavalier Astorre, that you foresaw the complete destruction of Florence, a city of blasphemers: an event which occurred only in part. In your case, Commendatore, I had the good fortune to greet you again dressed as Zaccaria on the stage of the Chiarella in Turin; then I lost track of you.’

‘Ah, ah, ah,’ resounded Mansueto, and ‘Ah, ah, ah,’ echoed Astorre, in the tone of the two conspirators in Un Ballo in Maschera.

‘I don’t flatter myself,’ I continued, ‘ that I — a humble scribbler — should be remembered by such genuine luminaries of the lyric art. But if you gentlemen would be so kind as to explain to me the reason…’

Giudizi temerari,’ exploded Marcello, flinging his hat on the floor and beginning his part in the two friars’ duet. A little piece of the feather snapped off and fluttered over the piano. And he held the last syllable at the bottom of his range, like an organ note, covering the screeching of the late-night trams. From the storey above, someone knocked hard on the floor, demanding silence.

‘I’m delighted…’ I resumed, putting my hands over my ears, ‘I’m delighted, Commendatore, that your low register, in spite of your age, in spite of the changed circumstances of… your life… and of your accommodation, has retained all its force. But please bear in mind, given the late hour and the habits of my fellow residents, that it would perhaps not be inappropriate to… I’m sure you understand… People…’

Del mondo i disinganni,’ burst out Mansueto, twirling on the rotating piano stool and accompanying himself with eloquent gestures, while the other man aided and abetted him in a mocking, acerbic counterpoint, hoping that his shrill voice might make its presence felt amid that great storm.

The hurricane was raging in full force. A tempest of highs and lows, a sound from the depths embroidered by trills on a flute and by the guffaws of a rotund, irreverent friar: Guardiano’s lesson in humility and Melitone’s salacious jokes. I was still trying to speak, but my voice was overwhelmed; and the blast continued at length until it died away in a visceral ultra-low F, against which Astorre strove in vain to show off — two octaves up — his ornate chatterings.

When I unblocked my ears I heard a violent banging on the outside door. The whole block was in commotion. And loud voices and curses were even coming up from the street.

‘Enough,’ said the Commendatore, closing the piano with a crash, and ‘Enough,’ repeated Astorre, recovering the bowler hat which he had thrown aside. The two men now stood up and bowed.

‘At your service,’ they belched out together, like Gounod’s Mephistopheles, descending to an F sharp which seemed to have arrived direct from the underworld; and they left by the door, apparently satisfied with the night’s lesson.

For a long time I was shaken. The protesting voices were calming down, and the departure of the knight in full armour and the funny little man didn’t seem to arouse comment. I don’t think it probable that they left astride a broomstick. I slept very little, constantly repeating ‘Del mondo i disinganni’ to myself, and trying to unravel the mysterious meaning of that nocturnal visit. Had I been present at the meeting of a dead man and a living one, or at an evening’s outing for two defuncts? And if the two knew nothing about me, how had they ever found my apartment? And if, in the end, I was obliged to think of them as the product of my unconscious, as a hallucination, why hadn’t my unconscious given birth to characters of greater significance in my life?

Then I reflected that there was in me a link between the two personalities. In meeting Marcello, I had hoped to rival his glory, to follow in his footsteps. Sharing Astorre’s famine rations, thirty years later, I thanked the good Lord for having saved me from the dangers his life had brought him, even though I have got myself into even more humiliating scrapes. The two men were the opposite ends of an arc, of my personal, secret parabola. And they continued to be unaware of the person for whom, objectively, they had more vividly existed. We don’t always manage to live for those who want us to.

I got up and telephoned my neighbour on the floor above to apologise. He answered flatly that he hadn’t heard any noise in the night. Later, the home help who came to sweep my room, when closely questioned, conceded that she had found a feather between the wall and the piano.

‘A little chicken’s or pigeon’s feather,’ she said. She was definite. ‘Not an ostrich feather. The wind must have blown it away.’