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A few notes

Eugenio Montale, the greatest Italian poet of the 20th century, wrote these 50 stories, which were later collected as the book Farfalla di Dinard (which is also the name of the very last, very short story) for two newspapers, Corriere della Sera and Corriere d’Informazione, between 1946 and 1950. The first, partial collection was published in 1956. Subsequent editions added to the number of stories collected, until l’edizione definitiva appeared in 1975. Over the last year, with the essential help of friends in England (Paul Ashton and David James) and Italy (Angela Stoffella and Arturo Tosi), I’ve translated the stories under the English title The Dinard Butterfly. (I haven’t consulted the one previous translation, The Butterfly of Dinard by G. Singh, which was published in 1971 by the University Press of Kentucky.)

Many of the stories are autobiographical, some obviously so. But Montale also uses various devices to veil, albeit thinly, the autobiographical content. The first story, ‘A Stranger’s Story’, is clearly about Montale’s youth and the increasing tensions between him and his father, even though the narrator is a person apparently overheard telling the story to an unknown listener in an air-raid shelter during the Second World War. Zebrino, the nickname given to the boy in the striped shirt in ‘The Regatta’ and ‘The Busacca’, must be Montale in childhood. His family, Genoese business people, had a house in the Cinque Terre, and there Montale spent the long, languid summer holidays as a child and young man. Many of his early poems celebrate that place. Federigo is obviously a pseudonym for Montale as a grown man, a person of the intellectual class. He appears in ‘The House with the Two Palm Trees’, revisiting after many years the Cinque Terre house, of which he still owns a fifteenth part. He appears in ‘The Guilty Man’, being dismissed from his post at the Gabinetto Vieusseux, a venerable cultural institution and lending library in Florence, because he won’t join the fascist party. The unnamed gentleman in ‘The Bearded Lady’ must be Montale musing regretfully on his relationship with the family servant who accompanied him to and from school in Genoa.

On the other hand, I think it would be unwise to assume that all the stories where the protagonist is ‘I’ are straightforwardly autobiographical. In ‘On the Threshold’, for instance, it only dawned on me gradually that the story is describing the protagonist’s death in a car accident, and his immediate transference to an afterlife, partly familiar, partly a mysterious Kafka-like bureaucracy. But Montale did really serve in the Italian army in the First World War, where he may well have met Nicola, his afterlife guide. The two opera singers in ‘The Ostrich Feather’ obviously didn’t in reality appear in Montale’s flat just as he was about to go to bed. So we know that this story is a fantasy, or perhaps describes a dream. But we also know that Montale, as a young man, really did have ambitions as an opera singer (‘In the Key of F’ feels to me straightforwardly autobiographical), and he probably did meet those men in reality, as described in ‘The Ostrich Feather’.

I’ve no idea whether the stories about unhappily or resignedly married couples (‘Little Angelo’, ‘Remnants’, ‘The Flight of the Hawk’, ‘The Bat’, ‘‘‘Would you Change Places with…?’’’) have any autobiographical content. And is there anything of Montale in Filippo, who supplies Gerda with stories for her American readers in ‘The Yellow Roses’ and ‘Donna Juanita’? I don’t know. I do know that Clizia, in ‘Clizia in Foggia’, is the nickname Montale gave to his American lover Irma Brandeis, whom he met in 1933. She was Jewish, and escaped back to America before the war.

It might help to remember that in poetry Montale was a modernist. He enormously admired Eliot, and was influenced by him. And I think that the elements of fantasy, unreality, whimsy, dream — the departures from straightforward storytelling, whether in the first or the third person — are carried over into these stories. Once someone had invented the term ‘magic realism’, it became easier to appreciate One Hundred Days of Solitude. Montale is sometimes a bit of a magic realist avant la lettre.

Anyway, I find the stories intriguing, rueful, ironical, often very funny, but also imbued with the pessimism of a man who has seen his great country take the disastrous turn to fascism, and who has survived, though not unscathed. Federigo has no choice but to give the fascist salute in the presence of the fascist mayor of Florence, his boss, who is about to sack him. Perhaps only by making small compromises of that kind did he, and lots of other honourable non-fascist Italians, remain alive during that dreadful period. At the end of the hilarious ‘The Man in Pyjamas’, the protagonist asks the woman behind the hotel bedroom door, ‘How do you know that I’m a loser?’ ‘We all are,’ she replies, before shutting the door in his face. There’s a sense of individual as well as national loss throughout these stories.

A Stranger’s Story

La Gran Via is a one-act comic zarzuela (zarzuela is a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre with spoken and sung scenes, the latter incorporating operatic and popular songs, as well as dance). It was composed by Federico Chueca and Joaquín Valverde, with a libretto by Felipe Pérez y González. It was first performed in Madrid in 1886, and became a cult success in Spain and throughout Europe.

Boccaccio, or The Prince of Palermo, is an operetta in three acts by Franz von Suppé, to a German libretto by Camillo Walzel and Richard Genée, based on the play by Jean-François Bayard and others, based in turn on The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.

Cléopâtre-Diane de Mérode (1875-1966) was a French dancer, renowned throughout Europe for her glamour as well as for her dancing skills. When King Leopold II of Belgium saw her dance in 1896, he became infatuated with her.

Il Caffaro: a Genoese daily newspaper, founded in 1875. It closed in 1943.

The Yellow Roses

The Gothic Line was a defensive line during the Germans’ Italian campaign in the Second World War from 1943 to 1945. It was their last major line of defence along the northern Apennine mountains as they retreated.

Donna Juanita

Donna Juanita is a three-act operetta composed by Franz von Suppé, with a libretto by Camillo Walzel. It was first performed in 1880 in Vienna. Its plot has to do with romantic affairs consequent on the arrival of English troops in San Sebastian after the treaty of San Ildefonso in 1796 between France and Spain.

Caras y Caretas was a popular weekly magazine published in Argentina from 1898 to 1941. It still exists, having been relaunched in 2005.

Scena Illustrata was an Italian fortnightly magazine of literature, theatre, current affairs and sport, founded in 1884.

Cicagna and Borzonasca: villages near Genoa.

La Gran Via: see note to ‘A Stranger’s Story’.

Laguzzi and Company

Il Caffaro: see note to ‘A Stranger’s Story’.

Antonio Fogazzaro’s last novel Leila was published in 1910. Following the Catholic Church’s condemnation of one of his previous novels, Il Santo, Fogazzaro, a liberal Catholic, attempted in Leila to reconcile his liberalism and rationality with the teachings of the Church. In vain; the Church banned Leila too.

In the Key of F

François Élie Jules Lemaître (1853-1914) was a French critic and dramatist.

The French critic Edmond Scherer was a friend of Henri-Frédéric Amiel (1821-1881), the Genevese moral philosopher, poet and critic. After Amiel’s death, Scherer was influential in getting Amiel’s Journal Intime published. Although the Journal was, as the Avertissement which accompanied its publication remarked, ‘the confidant of [Amiel’s] most private and intimate thoughts’, the book enjoyed great success across Europe.


La Prensa is an Argentinian daily newspaper, founded in 1869.

Scena Illustrata: see note to ‘Donna Juanita’.

Clizia in Foggia

Maria Malibran (1808-1836) was a Spanish singer who sang both contralto and soprano parts, and was one of the best-known opera singers of the early 19th century in Europe and America.

Dancers at the Diavolo Rosso

The Italian Social Republic was the puppet state — popularly known as the Republic of Salò — which Hitler created for Mussolini and his Republican Fascist Party after Mussolini’s overthrow in July 1943.


Scena Illustrata: see note to ‘Donna Juanita’.

Little Angelo

Cardinal József Mindszenty was the leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary from 1945 to 1973. He was uncompromisingly opposed both to fascism and communism in his country, and was imprisoned and tortured as a result.

Falling Ash

18BL was a mass theatrical experiment staged at the behest of the fascist government on the banks of the Arno in April 1934. Its name refers to the Fiat truck used by the Italian army in the First World War.

‘One, No One and One Hundred Thousand’ is the title of a 1926 novel by Pirandello.

Gian Galeazzo Ciano was Mussolini’s foreign minister and son-in-law. He was executed by firing squad in January 1944.

The Film Director

Vallarsa, a comune in Trentino, and the surrounding area saw some of the most bloody fighting between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies during the First World War.

The Guilty Man

Mistica was a movement associated with the Sandro Italico Mussolini School of Fascist Mysticism, established in Milan in 1930. Its intention was to train future leaders of Italy’s National Fascist Party, and to inculcate in the population the quasi-religious, mystical nature of fascism which Mussolini wished to promote. There were Chairs of Fascist Mysticism at various Italian universities. There was a branch of Mistica in Florence.

On the Beach

The canti carnascialeschi were late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century songs used to celebrate the carnival season in Florence.

Laudi dugentesche were thirteen-century religious praise songs.

Saint Patrick’s Well in Orvieto was built between 1527 and 1537 at the instruction of Pope Clement VII, who had taken refuge in the city when Rome was sacked, and who feared that without a well Orvieto’s water supply would be insufficient in the event of a siege. The well has ramps in a double helix, allowing mules to carry water up and carry empty vessels down at the same time.

Taylorism is a scientific theory of management that analyses and synthesises workflows, with the aim of improving economic efficiency. It is named after its founder, the American mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915).

Bésame mucho’ — ‘Kiss me a lot’ — is a popular song written in 1940 by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez.

A Short Break in Edinburgh

Arminianism is a branch of Protestantism based on the teachings of the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). It has influenced many later Protestant movements. Arminius rejected Calvin’s doctrine that it is God who elects some for salvation. He proposed instead that salvation is conditional on faith.

Darbyists are followers of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), an Anglo-Irish Bible teacher, an influential figure among the original Plymouth Brethren and the founder of the Exclusive Brethren.

The Pictures in the Cellar

Giovanni Huss (Jan Hus) (c. 1372-1415) was a Czech theologian and philosopher, and a seminal figure in the movement which later became Protestantism. He was burned at the stake for heresy against the doctrines of the Catholic Church.

Filippo De Pisis (1896-1956) was an Italian painter and poet.

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) was an Italian painter and printmaker.

Giacomo Manzù (1908-1991) was an Italian artist, sculptor and printmaker.

Rita Boley Bolaffio (1898-1995) was an Italian artist and poet.

An English Gentleman

Ouida was the pseudonym of the popular English novelist Maria Louise Ramé (1839-1908).

In some parts of Switzerland, people dress up in animal costumes on New Year’s Day. The costumes represent the different dangers the people have had to face in the past, including bear attacks.

New Year’s Eve Dinner

Signor Pantaleoni is a Commendatore in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, and so addressed as ‘Your Eminence’.

The Snow Statue

Grock (1880-1959), real name Charles Adrien Wettach, was a Swiss clown, composer and musician. He was called ‘the king of clowns’ and ‘the greatest of Europe’s clowns’, and was once the most highly paid entertainer in the world.

In Tuscany in the 1940s and 1950s, as everywhere in Europe, scarecrows were used to scare birds from crops, including crops of peas.

The Dinard Butterfly

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) was a French painter of portraits, genre scenes, and historical topics.