Slow

(Eugenio Montale — Slow)

I have sent in a request to join the Slow Club, a branch of which has been established in our town. Amongst the details of my career history, I state that I am a walker, and possess neither a car nor a driving licence. In point of fact, in the face of ‘the wear and tear of modern life’, the Club proposes, rather than herbal drugs and drinks, a particular mode of being, a resolutely anachronistic way of life. The Club is located in a little suburban villa, vaguely Palladian in tone; it has no telephone, and its rooms are furnished in a style ranging from Tudor to Biedermeier. It’s heated by wood-burning stoves, and the only newspapers to arrive there are several years late, an arrangement which has involved long negotiations with the various administrations and particularly steep prices. The secretary who accompanies me around the rooms tells me that the most recent portrait is that of La Belle Otero, and that the youngest poet admitted to the library is the glorious Baffo. In the reading room an old Alsatian cuckoo clock may be admired. The only drinks available at the bar are camomile, tisane and mandarin punch. The only games permitted are draughts, bingo and the goose game; not chess, which requires excessive intellectual dynamism. Ladies aren’t admitted to the Slow; nor are people who talk a lot and are inclined to proselytise — officials and priests, for example.

While I admire a bound collection of copies of Scena Illustrata, the quiet converse of a few of the members reaches me. Here are the examples which I’ve been able to recall.

First member. ‘Our colleague Wickers, from the Chicago club, who is studying the pace of life in snails, was telling me that it can’t be compared to our own. If a snail were to succeed in seeing us in our entirety, it would comprehend nothing about us: only the flicker of a piece of reactive apparatus, whose movements and sounds it would be impossible for it to identify. Wickers has sent us his works by delayed post; and I think that within two years they’ll be available for consultation in our library.’

Second member. ‘Yesterday one of my female relatives was married. You will receive the notification in a few months’ time. She had been engaged in ’14, but on hearing the news that her father had been seriously wounded in the war, she had made a vow to the Madonna that she would not marry until she had embroidered with her own hands some three or four hundred chasubles for mass. When the father recovered and her fiancé returned safe and sound from the front, the girl refused to release herself from her vow. A month ago the nth and final chasuble was finished; and so the fiancé, repeating without realising it the beautiful story of Isaac, has been able to lead her to the altar after waiting faithfully for thirty-three years.’

Third member. ‘Which of you remembers Carlo Marinelli, who was at university with me? He was killed at the gates of Gorizia, in 1916, a few days after hearing from his young wife that their first child was happily expected. Carlo answered straight away, but the letter, by who knows what hindrance, only arrived at its destination the other day, thirty-seven years late. Imagine with what alarm the wife, now white-haired, recognised the handwriting. Amid much news and other expressions of affection, Carlo asked his wife to baptise the child with the name Glauco, or Margherita if it happened to be a girl. It was a bit late, because they had baptised the baby girl, by now married and a mother, with the name Anna. But, as chance would have it, Anna is expecting a child on this occasion, and so the father’s wish will be fulfilled, although with the leap of a generation.’

Fourth member. ‘In a few days’ time I shall take the liberty of presenting the executive committee with an infusion of verbena, in a porcelain service which I’ve recently received. It was bought in China in 1819 by Admiral Lonefield, an ancestor of my wife’s. The admiral, astounded by the excellence of certain local craftsmen, ordered a set of hand-painted tea and coffee cups. “Willingly,” said the leader of those humble artisans, “but we don’t make things in sets, especially not for a man like you. It’ll need a bit of time: not much, a few years. You will have the most beautiful service ever seen in England.” Sir Roger Lonefield, surprised, agreed to the proposal, left a reasonable sum there, and departed for his own country; but on the return voyage his frigate, The Green Bird, was wrecked on the coast of Liberia, and none of the crew could be saved. A month ago, in January ’53, my wife, Lonefield’s last descendant, took delivery of a voluminous crate, marked ‘Extremely fragile’, from which, amongst truly mountains of cotton, newspaper and mistletoe (for protection against shocks), there emerged a series of marvellous pieces, on some of which were reproduced the face and the exploits of the admiral. The experts are shrieking at the miracle. It hasn’t cost us a farthing. “The sum paid by Admiral Lonefield,” explained the accompanying letter, “has matured during the course of 133 years so as to cover our costs, even taking into account the inevitable decline in the value of the currency.” There followed expressions of regret for the slight delay, owed additionally to the search for heirs; a delay compensated for, it was added, by the unfailing love and artistic care with which the best Chinese painters had set about this difficult task.’

I would have wished to listen further, but by now several yellowish faces had lifted from their armchairs suspiciously to observe the stranger, and the cuckoo appeared a full six times from the clock to mark the hour (cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo) with exasperating slowness; at which sound everyone said, ‘It’s getting late,’ and stood up.

‘In a few years, you’ll receive a response to your request,’ said the secretary accompanying me. ‘As long as you don’t provoke talk about yourself, it’s probable that you won’t be blackballed. I’ve ordered a carriage for you.’

And sure enough, at the door a phaeton, drawn by a pony and driven by a coachman in livery, was waiting to take me back to town.