Interview with Enrico Palandri

Enrico Palandri spoke to ANF.

Enrico Palandri was born in Venice in 1956. His father was a career officer and Enrico grew up in several cities until the university years when he moved to London where he lived 23 years before returning to Venice.

When and how did you start writing?

I've always written something since childhood. In my teens I wrote songs that I accompanied with guitar, then more and more prose and poetry. Unfortunately, I sing much less, or rather sing in my mind when I write. I always love songs, but it does not happen anymore, as it was when I was younger, that an evening ends singing songs. When I went to Bologna to study I started writing more properly. Since then I have not really stopped, I've always had projects on what to write and every time I sit at the table, which happens almost every day, I always have something to write, a project to carry out, and even if I do not write, I have something in mind, I imagine it, I wait for it.

What are your literary references? And cultural references?

At the beginning, when I was 14, there were a lot of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. As long as I remained an Italian boy I fed of a lot of American literature; moving to London meant instead an opening up of things, in terms of better absorbing our literature, from Dante to Tasso and Ariosto and above all Leopardi. But it also meant reading Proust, Tolstoy, so many great authors. I have also always read ancient Greek and Latin literature. From Virgil to Homer to Marcus Aurelius or Tacitus. Things in music have changed around the age of twenty: I first started listening to the Italian Opera, then chamber music, in the end I tried to play some piece, first with violin, then with piano. So while on the guitar I know mostly songs, on the piano I learned about twenty pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. Having not done systematic studies I do not understand all that I play, but this has allowed me to get a little closer to chamber music, to understand it better. I've always loved cinema, but its influence has always been less profound. I like Hitchcock movies or, in recent years, the Scandinavian cinematography of the last twenty years, especially Andersson and Ostlund, but unfortunately when it comes to the films that seemed so illuminating thirty years ago, like Tarkovskij, I struggle to understand what was so interesting to me then. I believe that because of the amplitude of the text, which includes dialogs, images, music, costumes and so on, a film catch the attention and passion immediately, but it also ages quicker because the songs appear dated, clothes out of fashion: just what invited us to recognizing us with such immediacy, quickly appears foreign. It would happen the same with the novels, I guess, if we could listen to the songs Flaubert was listening to or the manierism of Abbot Prevost, but we do not see them. We read of feelings that remain, seem to remain, much more similar, generation after generation.

How do you choose the story to tell? Do characters come first, or the plot is? Can you describe your creative process.

At the beginning there is a nucleus. For example, nostalgia (for Le vie del ritorno, or leave from youth for Angela prende il volo). I think about it without knowing exactly what story I will tell but I feel the consistency of it, its weight, it seems to me there is something worth exploring. In the case of Le vie del ritorno the book actually started with what is now the second chapter, in which the two protagonists speak on Skye Island and begin to investigate what it means to be foreign to each other. From there the other chapters were born, in a quite articulated way. In the end I built a frame. In the case of Angela prende il volo I instead went around the material without writing much for a few months. Then one day I gave a lift to Ophelia Redpath, who made the cover of Feltrinelli, from Cambridge to London, and she told me about her father's death. I did not know her particularly well, but that story has somehow kick-started the story I wanted to tell, which I then wrote quite quickly, in a couple of years that is very little for me. I would say that every book writes itself when it finds the point where it can flow to the surface. Sometimes it takes more effort. The story, the plot, are important if they really are the way that nucleus needs to walk to develop itself, otherwise they risk being a superficial element that gives the feeling of a movement that does not take place. It happened to me, not in the novels I published but in others I had to give up. As you move on you push your material, and you are pushed by it until the shape it has taken can no longer really be touched because it has separated from you. In this sense, the development, the narration, the plot is more important than anything because it is what really tells in the novel. Characters in the novel are usually friends, whom I love for some time, I try to address problems from their point of view. Some have a pretty real life model at the beginning. As you work on, however, this resemblance becomes less obvious, their connection is with the internal motivations of that character, his relationship with the circumstances that take place in the novel, and inevitably he ends with leaving behind the model from which you had started. I would not say that there is a creative process that repeats itself: the only constant thing is work. Sitting down to write, which I do every day for one reason or another. Deciding that between all the things that happen, the time you spend earning yourself a living, trying to be present and available in the human relationships that make you, it is necessary to defend a time (and a lot of time!) to give life to imaginary characters and stories you do not know where they will go but who are asking you to work. Then every novel has its own log on board that would be complicated to tell, and probably not very interesting.

How important is language in your narrative?

In the novel is a consequence of choices that are made more thoroughly. Semanticism is controversial between different territories, some unconscious, other conscious, some linked to historical and public events, and other very private. The nucleus I mentioned above is a semantic nucleus. To this are attached, while the discourse attempts to develop, the syntactic and lexical questions that ultimately become the voice of the book. I think it's my voice in the end, but getting there is a long and never completely satisfactory path. That is why I would say it is a consequence of many problems that have arisen and to which we have tried to answer.

If I think of Boccalone and I fratelli minori, I think they are two important novels in many ways: on the one hand they return two different periods of the Italian history, different and yet connected. Boccalone tells us about Bologna and Italy in the late 1970s, hopes, dreams, illusions, while I fratelli minori talk to us of the heirs of those years, who also had to deal, somehow, with the disappointments of the previous generation. Can you tell us about the genesis of these two novels, also for readers who possibly have not read them.

Boccalone [the nickname of the protagonist. Ndr] recounts what happened to him in a year, the love story with Anna and the crisis of the student movement. By telling it, he discovers forms, similarities, all that can emerge around that nucleus. An immediate and quite effective book.

I fratelli minori is obviously a more meditated book: it closes a long cycle in which I have spoken of uprooting. I chose three moments, one in 1976, one in 2003, and another in an unspecified year after that. 1976 and 2003 were years of drought and lack of water, the sense of suffocation, the need to return to life are the true thread of the different stories I tell. To overwhelm the characters is the feeling that others, the older brothers, both literal and metaphorical, have lived before us, for us what was then hard to live. There are obviously no older brothers, in this sense. Water is denied to all people by something bigger, drought, in fact. But in the evolution of these characters, the older brother was also what prevented or in any way cluttered the relationship with the mother and father, intertwined intimacy, which was therefore clandestinely developed, not in a challenge to history but in an escape. Better I stop here or I write another novel answering this.

How would you define the state of health of Italian literature? Have you read anything interesting lately?

If we talk about novel, the Italian novel has lived an important post-war season when it suddenly discovered readers. This process has developed consistently, resulting in different developments throughout the following period. There have been genres, ranging from politics to sentimentalism, from mafia to political stories. This, I believe, is a rather healthy situation, even though I don’t know the sales details. Whether there will be great writers coming out of this, posterity will tell. Certainly Shakespeare cannot be imagined without the Elizabeth theatre or Verdi without the Italian Opera having had the development it had.

For years now Italy has not invested in culture (nor education). What can we do to reverse this trend before it's too late? Or is it already too late?

Only a country with a good level of education and serious cultural investment can rely on democracy. If there is no efficient education system, we find ourselves with populist political leaders who can promise they won’t make us pay taxes or other unrealistic things, to obtain consensus and not to be accountable for their choices. We are governed by sports teams and cheap music festivals, talking rubbish at every political debate in order to delegitimize it.

Even in the digital world (blog, social network) in Italy there is no great ferment in Italy, as opposed to Ireland, for instance, where new writers (say from 30 to 50 years old) are also active in the net as well as in a thousand initiatives, conferences, readings. Is culture considered something "elitist"?

I don’t know. I'm a bit out of the age range you describe... It seems inevitable having to pay a price for Berlusconi's twenty years in which society has lost its ethical and progressive character, good or bad, that it had acquired after the war. In the classroom, however, I always find young smart people, thirsty for ethics and understanding, so I'm not pessimistic about Italy.

In a recent interview, Irish writer Paul Murray said he would like to see more political involvement. And he added: "It’s very hard to write about politics, and you are sort of not supposed to write about politics, but as George Orwell said: “Believing politics has no place in art is in itself a political statement”. And it seems a political statement a lot of people here seemed to have swallowed. A lot of the books coming out are set in the country, are actually quite nostalgic, they tell of an ideal country, not the real one of the banks, the crisis, the homeless”. What would you comment on this? 

It seems to me he is right, but as I told you I don’t think you really decide what you will write. Everything is political, in a sense. It is born deeply and we are obviously made of that, even when we do not want it. Precisely because politics is so deeply part of what we are I don’t stand propaganda, wanting to declare yourself through left or right common places for fear of being seen as traitors or to earn some easy progressive patents. Each of us is political, present in circumstances that ask him to act with intelligence, humanity, respecting the principles.