What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: Salvatore Quasimodo (Italy, 1959)
  • BOOK READ: The Selected Writings, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

My copy of The Selected Writings of Salvatore Quasimodo doesn’t exactly make a case for reading him. For one thing, there’s the hideous cover design—come on, Minerva Press—with a drawing of Quasimodo in the style of a courtroom sketch artist, his polka-dot tie extending down between “Translated by” and “Allen Mandelbaum.”[*] Then there’s the fact that the book was withdrawn by the Long Island University Library, no doubt due to the fact, attested to by some paperwork pasted on the inside back cover, that no one ever checked it out. And then there’s Quasimodo’s reputation in America, which more or less guarantees his place in the pages of an ugly, ignored edition. Everything I encounter about him tells me he should most certainly be read, assuming you’ve already digested the two other great Italian poets of the era. I try to imagine a student at Long Island University browsing the stacks, already familiar with Eugenio Montale and Giuseppe Ungaretti. How many people could fit that description?

As it happens, I do—except for the Long Island University part. Italian literature has long moved me, and the poets in particular often achieve a balance between passion and precision that’s hard to find in verse. The language of modern Italian poetry is rarely obscure, but the poems are rarely obvious, which is a pretty good recipe for engaging the reader. For a while I fell into Cesare Pavese, whose work feels reckless but never uncontrolled, like those Italian films where everyone is hopping in and out of bed that still feel arty rather than trashy, and before long I found Montale, another Nobel winner (watch this space!) beloved of many American poets, and then Ungaretti, who’s a little wilder and weirder.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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  • Bonus trivia and design note: my copy of The Selected Writings was presented to the Long Island University Library by Mrs. Fairfield Porter, wife of the noted American painter whose striking portraits adorn books by poets like James Schuyler and John Ashbery. That’s how to do it, Minerva Press.

Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

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