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(Eugenio Montale — L’Angoscia)

I’m very sensitive to the atmosphere of northern cities, and the sight of Zurich with its Gothic-revival pinnacles shrouded in snow, the city armoured with slabs of ice along which glided big silent cars, their colours changing as they passed luminous neon signs; Zurich spectral, empty and at the same time swarming with life (until five in the afternoon) held me enchanted as I stood at the double-glazed window. It was about four o’clock; the city had one more hour’s life in it. My breath faintly misted the inside pane. The room was overheated but the thermometer showed that it was 22 degrees below zero outside. The telephone rang. It was the hotel’s hall porter.

‘There’s a Frau Brentano Löwy here,’ he told me. ‘She says she has an appointment with you. Shall I send her up?’

‘Please do.’

She must have been one of those intellectual women in turbans who had congratulated me, the previous evening, at the end of my lecture. She had asked to speak to me at four o’clock, for an interview for an illustrated magazine with a wide circulation. Her speciality was ‘Great men in slippers’. When she was short of truly great men, she was prepared to content herself with individuals of medium size who were nonetheless interesting. A few indiscreet titbits of information, a colourful remark, a photograph, and the job was done. She was a professional interviewer, endowed with discernment and sensibility, and — from what people had told me — very highly paid. She knocked on the door and came in. She was wearing a blue turban topped by a red feather, an extremely close-fitting tailor-made dress, and an expensive fur coat which she took off straight away. Dark hair, probably tinted, age uncertain, about …ty-five.

‘A cup of tea?’ I suggested.

She accepted. I telephoned for two teas to be brought up to the room.

‘I don’t have many questions to put to you, Signor Montana,’ she said. ‘Here is a little questionnaire. Are you in favour of a United States of Europe? Would that be a federal version with partial renunciation of individual sovereignties, or merely a defence treaty, an alliance which shares a powerful army? Do you consider UNESCO’s peripheral activity useful? Are you in favour of or against the hanging of the black man MacGee who is said to have raped an American woman? Which person would you name if you had to award a Peace prize? Do you think that the rights of woman are sufficiently safeguarded in Italy? Do you prefer atheistical or Christian existentialism? Do you think that the figurative still has a meaning in the field of the visual arts? Are you in favour of or opposed to euthanasia? Do you consider that a common European language is a matter of urgent necessity? In any such new language, does it seem to you that a contribution of three per cent from the Italian language would be sufficient?’

She stopped, took a sip of tea, then continued.

‘These are straightforward matters, as you see. And now a few personal questions. Do you like animals? Which animals do you prefer? Are you sure that you have sufficiently acted in their defence? Do you prefer cats to dogs, or vice versa? Have you undertaken useful work in opposition to animal vivisection?’

She ceased, and scrutinised me through her monocle. A moment of silence followed, interrupted by the chiming of a clock.

‘I’ve always thought that I preferred cats to dogs,’ I said, apologising for beginning with the simplest answers. ‘Later, the hysterical passion of certain ladies for the tribes of cats which surrounded them made me turn with interest to dogs. But my conversion is recent; it’s owed to the fact that dogs (more than cats) stay in the memory — they ask to survive in us. Theoretically, I am opposed to the idea of an afterlife, and I think that it would be in the highest degree noble in man and beast were we to accept that we will sink into an eternal Nothingness. But in practice and by heredity I am a Christian, and I cannot escape from the idea that something of us can, indeed must, endure. The dog Galiffa, whose photograph I can show you, distinguished colleague, has been dead for more than forty years. In this photo, the only one of him in existence, he appears beside a friend of mine who’s also dead. So I am the only person alive who retains the memory of that merry mongrel with red fur. He loved me, and when it was too late I loved him too.

Passepoil,’ I continued, ‘was my second dog: a Scottish terrier of the most doubtful breeding. We didn’t like each other very much, and I gave him to some friends. I don’t have a portrait of him, but in the canine Elysian fields perhaps he remembers that I saved him from being run over by an automobile. The third dog was Buck; he was an Alsatian. He was well-behaved, and very affectionate towards my tortoise, with whom he shared his meals. When he had distemper, I managed to send him to a certain peasant family at Val di Pesa, near Florence. But the following night he ran away and came back home, after a journey of thirty kilometres. The distemper got worse, and an injection of poison carried him off. I didn’t see him dead. It was euthanasia or something like it, Frau Brentano; as you see, we are almost on the topic. The fourth dog was Pippo; he was a schnauzer by breed. He was born in Olga Löser’s villa, a house in the olive groves with eight pictures by Cézanne inside. The former owner has died; I survive. But Pippo lives in a town in Le Marche. He was very touchy, and never forgave me for having given him away. But at a certain point, life debarred me from keeping dogs.’

‘Oh, life!’ said Frau B.L., sighing. ‘Life in Italy! I have marvellous memories of Italy, where I stayed for a long time. An adorable land, but the men… if you knew how I had to struggle… always ready to ambush one! Are you like them? Or are you different?’

A tear trickled down her cheek, advancing with difficulty through her face powder. Two fiery eyes examined me.

In a halting voice I spoke a few words.

‘Yes, Frau Brentano, I am different, very different,’ (and perceiving an emotion, perhaps of disappointment, in her)… ‘but at bottom, no, not too different,’ (and fearing an aggressive gesture on her part)… ‘but, in the end, I think yes, different, different from them all.’ I was sweating; every word seemed to me a terrible gaffe.

The telephone rang. ‘Frau Brentano’s car is here,’ said the porter.

‘Many thanks for your interesting statements, Signor Fontale,’ said the lady, extending her lipstick from its case. ‘I shall make mention… of your difference.’

Out she went with a nod of her head. Later she sent me a cutting of the interview. It had nothing to say about dogs or male ambushes; its topic was ‘Herr Puntale and the modern problem of anguish’.