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Signor Stapps

(Eugenio Montale — Il Signor Stapps)

The story has a preface. Late one winter afternoon in the year 19.., Mr Lazarus Young, M.A., Ph.D., a tiny little man, terribly shy, who always sported a magpie feather on his squashed-flat hat, saw on a pile of snow in a street in the Bronx in New York a young sparrow numb with cold, more dead than alive; and in taking pains to save the sick creature he missed his sailing on the transatlantic liner which was supposed to conduct him to Europe. Taken in hand by reputable specialists, the bird had been snatched from the jaws of death and luxuriously accommodated in a temperature-controlled cage expressly constructed for it, with the aim of maintaining it at a constant temperature of 22 degrees. All this, including the missed voyage on the Jacques Cartier, had cost two or three thousand dollars; and now Snow Flake, called Snow for short, whose feathers had achieved the extreme hoariness of old age, astounded visitors to the villa at number 48 Via dell’Erta Canina in Florence, where Mr Young lived, on average, for a month every five years, leaving his house in the hills with its gardener and cook waiting for him there during his holidays. In the year when I got to know him, Mr Young, surprised by the ‘iniquitous’ sanctions imposed on Italy by the League of Nations, left Florence in a hurry after an even shorter stay than usual, and returned to his native Saint Louis, Missouri, to remove himself from an atmosphere in which he had been unable to breathe; but there remained at the address an unusual guest in charge of Snow. Signor Josef Stapps was a tall, fat man, somewhere between forty and sixty years old, blue-eyed, always freshly shaved, his chubby cheeks criss-crossed with bluish veins, showy in the extreme in his great bell-shaped Raglan coats and in all the particulars of his coiffure, his cameo rings, inlaid walking sticks, kangaroo gloves, luxury scarves and handkerchiefs, cigarette holder and pipe by Dunhill, etc.

Signor Stapps installed himself in the villa’s blue room, a long chamber adjoining the bathroom, illuminated by four large portholes which gave onto olive trees and the garden ending at the road; and prepared himself to spend there the whole of the dreadful period which was opening upon us. It’s worth going to the trouble of a parenthesis to explain our friendship, brought about by chance, but spontaneous and inexplicable. If it has previously been noted that the loves of others, and even more those of our friends, look incomprehensible to us, seem to us excessive and artificial; almost as if we felt in them the waste of a laudable faculty that we believe to be well managed and reasonable only in our own breasts: the same thing, with small variations, may be said about friendship. And in this area our judgement is tyrannical and scolding. ‘You’re going round with who?’ and so on. Yet the message is profoundly unjust; and each of us has had at least one friend whose friendship he has had to explain even to himself, without discovering the reasons for it.

For me, one of these friends was Signor Stapps. To listen to him, I was the only man in my milieu that he deigned to frequent, although he was no misanthropist, and he never failed to allude to noble acquaintances, to long-standing bonds, to intimate associations with people in exalted circles, international, out of reach, now in flight and in hiding. But in truth I think that for six months I was the only person that he saw in Florence, and I can say the same thing for him with regard to me; he was my sole companion during that long, exhausting wait for a cataclysm which didn’t come, or came six or seven years later. How was it possible that one solitary man, and a mediocre man at that, can take the place of a whole universe? Yet heroic Stapps, the only sentry at his post in a city which had been one of the pulses of European civilisation, wasn’t unequal to the task to which I had mentally assigned him.

Signor Stapps, to tell the whole truth, was a man whose origins and life were not of the clearest. He said that he was Bohemian, that he had been married three times, that he had been a member of the Czech diplomatic service and had quarrelled with his friends Masaryk and Beneš; but he didn’t know the language of his own country and he didn’t speak decently any tongue accessible to me. With me he used a mixture of bad English and bad French, or an even more convoluted Esperanto. ‘I have delivered the falcon,’ he said to me on the day he set free a hawk which he had acquired. In the Young residence, he had no contact with the staff. A brilliant cook, during the day he made his own meals, improvising the most delicious dishes; and in the evening he dined with me in the ‘dives’, emptying great flasks of Chianti, tossing complicated salads with the inevitable drop — ‘Oh rien qu’un soupçon’ — of Worcester sauce, and discoursing on the poor quality of the mustard and the fish roe. Back at home, late in the evening, he listened to Gilly crossing the park, the ghost of some suicide who, at about midnight, dragged his cart across the gravel; and then he set to work.

What work? That he was a writer didn’t seem imaginable, given his lack, as I’ve mentioned, of the grasp of any language that managed to suit him or approach his needs. I think he had in mind a miscellany of poets from all over the world, from the T’ang dynasty to Rilke, in the original texts which he claimed to know: a book for his own use and consumption, an anthology for a Robinson Crusoe, for a last survivor of a culture which he felt to be threatened. At any rate, Stapps, half soldier of fortune and half dandy, was a devout priest of this culture, which was perhaps the link which united us. Through the old streets of the city, lies belched from the radio, a menacing stream of abuse; nowhere was anything displayed but swastikas and German books; the noose of sudden home-grown madness was tightening around our necks; but Signor Stapps, with his gold teeth and the inane smile of a fake forty-something, ‘delivered falcons,’ pasted Sumerian poetry into his book, fed Snow Flake with hypophosphite and prepared his famous blazing hot stews, ever imperturbable, wrapped in a cloud of hints, reticences, vanity and imperfect literacy. He was there, at his post, Josef Stapps, and as long as he remained there I felt that a great sense of hope was still available to us.

Late one autumn afternoon we went up to the villa, Antonio Delfini and I, to taste a new edition of the goulash which Stapps had served to President Stambolijski, in Neuilly, in 19… The ascent through the orchards and gardens was a dream, the meal cooked by him and served by us put fire in our bodies, and a peckful of the yellow paprika stew was also granted to poor Snow, half-blind and chirping in his permanent oven. Then followed peppery speeches, in the usual jargon, music on the phonograph, libations in liqueurs and, later, in camomile tea. At midnight the can-can was interrupted so as to listen to Gilly passing, and I too recognised, shuddering, the screech of the cart’s wheels on the gravel; and later we went down to the city centre, Antonio and I, tottering and half ablaze, but convinced that one window was still open in the world by virtue of the fact that on that same evening, and in all latitudes, many Signori Stapps had no doubt paid homage to the frivolities of a culture which was seeking to outlive the masters of the moment.

That was the last evening I saw Signor Stapps, but the period in which I needed him would thenceforth go down amongst the great hymns of victory. A few evenings afterwards, coming up Erta Canina, I saw that the room with the portholes was closed, and Mr Young’s concierge told me that Signor Stapps had departed suddenly, leaving me his best wishes. I should add that since then I have heard nothing from him. With regard to Snow, the poor little thing could not have survived the violation of the dietary regime prescribed for it by an ornithologist at Johns Hopkins University, and they had found it dead, the day after we left, white as a sheet and curled up in a ball on its perch in the overheated cage. The concierge confirmed that it had been exactly eleven years and three months old. Signor Stapps, before leaving, buried it with his own hands at the foot of a tree in Gilly’s garden.