Books: Stoic Laureate

In one of his great poems, Wallace Stevens speaks of "musing the obscure." That phrase seems to be the unspoken motto of the Swedish Academy. Last week it again passed over such notables as Vladimir Nabokov, Graham Greene and Saul Bellow to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Eugenic Montale, 79, an Italian poet virtually unknown to the public outside his native land.

This time, at least, the award appears to be less for political balance than for literary merit. Although Montale's output is meager—five volumes in 50 years—he is greatly valued by...

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