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An English Gentleman

(Eugenio Montale — Signore Inglese)

I know a gentleman who spends the Christmas holidays in Switzerland, in order to practise a sport of his own invention: ‘the fake Englishman’. I have guessed the reasons which induce him to play this role outside England. The fact is that in the British Isles Englishmen are two a penny; they love neither themselves nor visiting foreigners, and they don’t manage properly to ‘act the Englishman’ even on their own soil. In order to act the Englishman, a different ambience is required: a social milieu of sophistication and indifference, in reality uncomfortable but apparently offering every comfort. Albion — combative to its very core, frenetically busy and borne down with troubles — is most definitely the last country in the world in which it’s possible to act the Englishman to significant advantage.

The fake Englishman whom I know, and whom for years I have been trying vainly to emulate, has probably not been able to hide his true identity from the management of the hotel where he stays, and from its keen-eyed concierge. But that doesn’t matter. As soon as his papers have been handed in, the game has begun. And the game consists in refusing to participate in any kind of sporting event, in remaining all day in the hotel lobby, consuming — at the appropriate hours — tea and cakes, and in accepting, without batting an eyelid, the hotel’s prix fixe menu, even if this offers the kinds of avoidable dishes that the Italian clients, having uttered colourful imprecations in Roman dialect, replace with rare fillet steaks on the griddle or striped veal paillards.

If, for example, the menu includes Irish stew, that sweetish mixture of boiled goat meat and tinned carrots and peas, the fake Englishman will skewer with his fork every sinew of billy goat, every little piece of carrot, every pea, and swallow them with religious devotion; just as he will pretend to have ingested, at the dawn of every day back at home, an endless succession of bloaters and porridge.

The fake Englishman smokes Dutch cigars and drinks the coffee they bring him, without asking for filter coffee; subsided into an armchair, he passes the afternoon reading articles about the oligarchy of Berne in the eighteenth century and the august Gibbon’s opinions on the same; he diligently scrutinises the news in La Gazette de Lausanne, not forgetting the death announcements, and he probably finishes his day glancing at a book from the hotel library, selected from amongst the most inoffensive: Wilkie Collins, perhaps, or Ouida. The fake Englishman is polite to everyone and speaks to no one; the only word that falls from his lips is the occasional ‘…kyou’ of thanks if some courtesy is paid to him by other foreigners, or by waiters. In the evening the fake Englishman dons that black costume which the Italians — not the English — call uno smoking, and he wears it with ease, as if he has had years of training. On New Year’s Eve, the fake Englishman attends the New Year ball, but he doesn’t dance because he doesn’t know how to dance or perhaps because he doesn’t know anyone.

He has a bottle of brut champagne brought to him in a bucket, he permits a little coloured paper hat to be placed on his head, he puts a trumpet to his mouth and blows it along with the others; he’s enveloped in streamers, blissful and foolish. When midnight sounds and the orchestra falls silent and the room plunges into darkness for a moment, and all those present stand and raise their glasses and the corks pop and the embraces and toasts and good wishes begin, the fake Englishman stands up too, raises the stem of his glass and drinks to his own health and to that of various others, far away. Then as the dances resume, he rises in a dignified fashion, murmurs a ‘…kyou’ of thanks to those who make way for him, breathes a second ‘…kyou’ to the lift-boy who opens the door for him, and with equal dignity permits himself to recede in the direction of his room.

The following day, immaculately dressed in grey, he is among the first to come down for breakfast. He seems to have resigned himself to the small ‘continental’ meal, without porridge or government-issue sausages, and contents himself with tea and slices of buttered bread. The hotel is empty; the other guests are still sleeping or have left, in their bear costumes, in the direction of their funicular railways. The fake Englishman stretches out in an armchair and removes the bookmark from an old unreadable novel. He looks at the flakes of snow which flutter onto the windows; he tries in vain to light his cigar with a lighter which is of course broken, then strikes a match on its box and lights the cigar; a plume of the sweetest smoke unrolls. The fake Englishman rests his head, reads, swims in the smoke, sleeps, dreams. He will leave tomorrow. Where will he go? Only I know.

I don’t know this gentleman’s name; I meet him from time to time in the streets of Milan, transformed into a garrulous and ill-tempered inhabitant of that great city. I don’t know whether he has noticed me in the way that I have noticed him. I don’t know whether he knows that for years I have been trying, obstinately and in vain, to imitate him. I don’t know whether he has ever been to England, and whether he has felt there the same combination of admiration and ennui that I have. I only know that in an imaginary association of fake Englishmen, the presidency would be awarded to him and the vice-presidency to me.