Intervista tratta dal libro «L’invenzione delle personagge» curato da Roberta Mazzanti, Silvia Neonato e Bia Sarasini, Iacobelli Editore, 2016.
Quando cominciate un nuovo libro che cosa viene per primo: un evento, una scena, uno o una dei personnaggi?
A seconda del libro. Nel romanzo autobiografico che ho scritto su mio padre, ovviamente, il punto di partenza era lui, visto che il progetto consisteva, appunto, nel ricomporre in forma letteraria la personalità di quell’uomo reale. Una volta mi è stato chiesto di scrivere un testo per un libro collettivo in cui ogni autore doveva evocare un incontro importante per la propria vita; anche in questo caso, la regola del gioco chiedeva di imperniare il racconto su un personaggio realmente esistito, e mi sono ispirata – anche se molto più liberamente – dal ricordo di Viola (che naturalmente non si chiamava così), una stramba ragazza italiana conosciuta durante un soggiorno sulla malinconica costa nord del Galles.
In genere, però, quando comincio un romanzo, direi che prima di tutto si impongono un tema, un’atmosfera, le grandi linee di una storia da raccontare – anche se non so mai in anticipo come andrà a finire. I personaggi stanno annidati nelle pieghe della storia, emergono subito ma appena sgrossati, mal delineati, e l’andamento del libro dipenderà dalla dialettica che riuscirò ad avviare fra questi personaggi dall’identità ancora labile e quella storia dalla struttura ancora incerta.
Vi sembra che la differenza tra personaggia/gio sia importante? Decisiva? Ininfluente?
Decisiva nel senso che l’appartenenza sessuale, a mio parere, esercita sempre un’influenza sul nostro modo di essere al mondo, di comunicare col prossimo, di vivere le nostre esperienze (anche quelle apparentemente più neutre, come scegliere un posto in treno, sbrigare una pratica amministrativa o osservare un’ameba al microscopio). Non tanto per natura quanto per il retaggio culturale della differenza che tutte e tutti ci portiamo dietro, un personaggio incarnato è un personaggio sessuato, impossibile da sostituire con uno dell’altro sesso, anche se il suo essere donna o uomo sembra aver poco a che vedere con le sue vicende.
Se si tratta di un personaggio, questo (lui o lei) è legato a un ricordo, a un fatto di cronaca, a un avvenimento storico, personale o collettivo, a un’immagine, a una frase …?
Eccezion fatta per i racconti autobiografici, dove i protagonisti devono «solo» essere trasformati in personaggi letterari, l’origine dei personaggi è nel mio mondo interiore, nella necessità di dire, tramite loro, qualcosa che mi sta a cuore; quindi, tutti gli spunti menzionati nella domanda possono servire a dar loro vita, ma non determinano in partenza la loro personalità e il loro destino. Nell’ultimo romanzo che ho scritto, un personaggio che doveva essere svizzero è diventato spagnolo perché a un certo punto mi è sembrato importante includere nella sua storia un ricordo personale, quello di una scultura equestre che si trova a Madrid; allora gli ho inventato una storia un po’diversa da quella che avevo immaginato sulle prime, l’immigrazione a Ginevra (un tema che conosco bene), una sorella che tiene un negozio vicino alla plaza Santa Aña (anche questo un ricordo)….
Credo che tutti gli scrittori e le scrittrici diano spessore ai loro personaggi riciclando gli aspetti più svariati del proprio vissuto, ma per quanto mi riguarda il personaggio in se stesso nasce per lo più da un progetto di scrittura che rende necessaria la sua esistenza. Finora, ad esempio, non ho mai avuto voglia di raccontare la storia del protagonista di un fatto di cronaca letto sul giornale, perché nessun fatto di cronaca mi è mai sembrato corrispondere al tipo di storie che mi va di raccontare (forse potrà accadere in futuro…); ciò non toglie che spessissimo dettagli tratti da fatti di cronaca, o da storie di terze persone raccontate da qualcuno che le conosce meglio di me, mi sono serviti a dare carne e sangue a un personaggio.
Quando il personaggio si è confermato o imposto lo lasciate continuare il proprio cammino? In altri termini, trovate che i personaggi abbiano o no una vita autonoma?
Direi di sì. All’inizio, il personaggio, come ho già detto, è solo abbozzato. Il suo carattere, la sua storia anteriore e anche gli eventi che costituiranno la trama del romanzo sono definiti solo nelle grandi linee, e si andranno man mano precisando in funzione di molteplici fattori (gli episodi che vado via via inventando, l’interazione con gli altri personaggi, il clima che si instaura nel libro). Per me, la scrittura di un romanzo consiste nell’avanzare un po’alla cieca, cercando di ricostituire ad ogni tappa una coerenza fra il profilo psicologico ed esistenziale dei personaggi e le loro vicende, in buona parte non previste all’inizio – il tutto però senza perdere di vista il senso originario del progetto. I personaggi hanno quindi un largo margine di «libertà», possono dire o fare cose inaspettate – ma in realtà più dei personaggi è il dipanarsi della logica interna del libro che comanda.
Secondo voi, i personnaggi /le personagge sono più forti o no dell’autore/autrice?
Stephanie, una delle mie personagge, doveva andare a curarsi la depressione in un casale isolato nella campagna provenzale, con una terapeuta indiana tipo esorcista, il cui metodo consisteva nel cacciare i demoni dal corpo dei pazienti. La scena era già scritta, ma Stephanie, in fin dei conti, non ci è voluta andare… I personaggi resistono a certe «buone» idee dell’autrice, e a volte la spuntano! In realtà, la scena stonava, era troppo drammatica e forse gratuita. In questo caso, Stephanie è stata più forte, non di me, bensì della mia voglia superficiale di inserire nel libro una scena emozionante, ma che non c’entrava. Morale: se un personaggio sembra prendere il potere sfidando chi scrive, per lo più la sua alzata di testa è un modo di rimettere chi scrive in carreggiata, di aiutarlo (o aiutarla) a trovare le soluzioni giuste per perseguire il proprio progetto. Devo ammettere però che in certi casi questi personaggi esagerano, decidendo di punto in bianco e senza avvertire di modificare completamente lo svolgimento del racconto. E poi tocca a me rincollare i cocci rotti!
Vi è capitato di essere state sorprese dal sopraggiungere di un personaggio inaspettato? In che modo il personaggio/la personaggia è una straniera/ uno straniero per voi? O al contrario qualcuno/a di estremamente intimo?
Per quanto riguarda la prima domanda: sì, spesso, ma solo trattandosi di personaggi relativamente secondari, che contribuiscono all’atmosfera del romanzo come un paesaggio visto dal treno, una canzone che esce da una finestra, un odore, un colore.
Al principio, i personaggi sono tutti stranieri, anche quelli nei quali ho previsto, più o meno coscientemente, di proiettare una parte di me; poi diventano per forza di cose conoscenti intimi, visto che passo ogni giorno un po’ di tempo con loro a cercare di capire chi sono. Il che non significa che diventano miei amici – con alcuni di loro, francamente, non mi andrebbe di andare a cena al ristorante!
Mi sono chiesta se per me sia più facile diventare intima con le mie personagge che con i miei personaggi. In un certo senso sì: Marie, una personaggia quarantenne senza figli, che ha rinunciato ad averne per puntare tutto su una prestigiosa carriera nell’alta gastronomia, si rende conto, incontrando un potenziale amante su una crociera, di aver avuto un comportamento ambivalente «dimenticando» di comprarsi i condom prima di partire; e anche se io, invece, sono diventata madre a 24 anni, e se in fondo non provo grande simpatia per questa Marie, cogliere il suo stato d’animo mi viene naturalissimo. Mentre con certi protagonisti uomini ho a volte un po’ faticato a immaginare la loro vita interiore. Tuttavia, capisco meglio Zen, uno scultore malato di cancro che vuole assolutamente finire la sua ultima opera prima di morire, di quanto capisco Giulia, una signora «bene» che non ha mai avuto altra ambizione se non occuparsi della famiglia e tenere il suo rango sociale…
Quale tra personaggi (maschili e femminili) delle vostre letture avete amato di più?
Da bambina scandalizzai mio padre dichiarando che il personaggio di romanzo che mi sarebbe più piaciuto essere era il Capitan Tempesta di Salgari. Ma come, un uomo? No, mi giustificai, una donna travestita da uomo! Durante l’adolescenza – l’età in cui si leggono i classici – i miei personaggi preferiti erano quelli maschili: sì, certo, Natascia mi commuoveva, ma vogliamo mettere l’interesse dei suoi problemi sentimentali con quello delle profonde questioni metafisiche che tormentano il principe Andrej? Erano sempre gli uomini, nei romanzi che leggevo, a impersonare l’universale condizione umana, e proprio quella, appunto, io volevo capire studiando filosofia all’università. Ho letto e riletto « La morte a Venezia », identificandomi appieno – io, giovane donna italiana inesperta e presumibilmente eterosessuale della seconda metà del novecento – con un anziano scrittore tedesco dell’inizio del secolo stregato da un bel ragazzino polacco. Gli unici personaggi femminili che mi piacevano erano quelli in cui l’amore (preoccupazione obbligatoria delle donne) assumeva tinte abbastanza tragiche da conferir loro un’universalità paragonabile a quella degli uomini : non per niente, quando anche io mi sono messa a scrivere, ho scelto per una delle mie personagge il nome di Alissa, la protagonista de « La porta stretta » di André Gide, che rinuncia dolorosamente ad una passione ricambiata per non rubare il fidanzato alla cugina.
Da adulta, però, ho capito che qualcosa non quadrava in quel mio perpetuo mascherarmi da Capitan Tempesta, e oramai da molto tempo ho una chiara preferenza per le tante figure della narrativa contemporanea che incarnano un’universalità più vera, radicata in un corpo di donna e in un’esperienza atavica che ci è comune, a loro e a me, anche se le nostre storie individuali sono, magari, diversissime. Allora, se ne devo citare una sola, scelgo la Frederica della tetralogia di Antonia S. Byatt (« La Vergine nel giardino » e altri tre volumi), che attraversa la seconda metà del ventesimo secolo emancipandosi progressivamente, nei suoi rapporti con gli uomini e nella sua vita professionale, dalle soffocanti convenzioni del suo ambiente.
Quali dei vostri personaggi/e amate di più?
Alcuni anni fa ho scritto un romanzo che, con mio stupore, diversi editori hanno rifiutato di pubblicare. Può capitare a tutti di scrivere un brutto libro, però non questo sembrava essere il problema. Anzi, il testo è stato giudicato bello, ma…. ma che cosa? Troppo intellettuale, complicato, difficile da capire. Un testo imbarazzante, che non funzionava, senza che nessuno riuscisse chiaramente a spiegarmi perché.
La struttura del romanzo era effettivamente molto complessa, e forse richiedeva troppo sforzo ai lettori. La mia ipotesi è comunque che uno degli elementi del problema fosse la personalità della protagonista. Constance è una donna di cui si sa poco, e il poco che si sa non è rassicurante: vive da sola in una casa isolata in mezzo a un labirinto di colline, non ha figli, si è allontanata dalla professione e dagli amici, e sopratutto ha lasciato un uomo che l’amava e che lei (forse) amava, non già per un altro, ma per un progetto di vita dove l’amore non conta.
In lei avevo proiettato una parte segreta di me, la nostalgia di una vita non gravata dalla psicologia e dai sentimenti, dalla dipendenza affettiva dagli uomini e dai figli. Una vita indipendente, non già sociologicamente (nel senso dell’indipendenza economica e sessuale) ma esistenzialmente. Non avere quel perpetuo bisogno dell’approvazione altrui, trovare in se stessa la propria ragione di essere.
Questa personaggia, chiaramente, non è stata capita, o non è piaciuta. Ne ho create altre, più simili alle donne che ci si aspetta di incontrare, che sono piaciute di più. Forse somigliavo e somiglio ancora troppo poco a Constance per riuscire a farla vivere attraverso le pagine di un libro stampato, ma io continuo ad amarla e a pensare a lei.
Ce texte est ma réponse à la question «Pour qui écrivez-vous?» posée à des écrivain-e-s de Suisse romande par la revue Ecriture (n. 55, printemps 2000)
La rue est transparente et les bruits sonnent un par un, comme les notes solitaires d’une boîte à musique. Vide de l’été: les gens ont transporté ailleurs leur conviction qu’il est utile de vivre. Dans cette légèreté, la liasse de feuillets que je serre sur mon cœur dans une fourre en plastique pèse de tout le poids de sa pure gratuité.
Courage. Je pousse la porte vitrée du Copie Vite. De l’unique employée je vois d’abord les ongles roses, démesurément longs, en forme de becs d’oiseaux. Avant que j’entre (secondement je vois son non-sourire), tout en remuant des feuilles de commande jaunes, cette femme se délectait du miel fade de l’ennui. Je m’amincis, me décolore jusqu’au seuil de l’inexistence, dans l’espoir fou qu’elle puisse répondre diligemment à ma demande sans abdiquer son absence somnambule (ce que j’aurais dû faire, c’est supprimer la première page, celle où figurent mon nom, le titre, et pire que tout cette exotique et prétentieuse mention: «roman»).
– Combien de pages?
– Cent quarante-neuf.
– Et en combien d’exemplaires?
– Trois exemplaires. Je repasse plus tard?
– Non, vous pouvez attendre. Je vous fais ça tout de suite.
Courage, c’est une affaire de dix ou quinze minutes. Les après-midi closes, oublieuses, passées a démailler, à remmailler les phrases (et les pages imprimées, je les posais à l’envers, tandis qu’ici il faut qu’elles s’offrent dénudées, au fur et à mesure que la machine les recrache, à ce premier regard étranger de rencontre, à sa glaciale absence d’intérêt), les après-midi blanches et les soirées bistrées, la consomption de soi, les heures immobiles, tandis que maintenant il faut que le temps passe, sans rien à regarder à travers la vitrine, dans l’ombre verticale de la rue, et presque rien à regarder à l’intérieur (la pile de plaquettes bleues pour un jubilé d’entreprise, et celle de ﬂyers rugissants pour un rallye de motocross), si ce n’est mon roman hypnotiquement multiplié sous l’oeil voyeur et incurieux de l’employée.
Même devenu quatre fois plus long, il tient dans une seule boîte, les exemplaires séparés par des feuilles colorées.
– Qu’est-ce que je vous dois?
– Ça dépend… Vous faites ça pour qui?
– Mais… pour personne… pour moi…
– Alors, vous n’avez pas droit au rabais association…
Prise de court (et de honte), j’ai répondu à côté. J’aurais dû dire: pour ce «Néant chéri» («Nulla carissimo») auquel s’adresse Anna—Maria Ortese en écrivant Il Porto di Toledo, son plus étrange et merveilleux roman; pour ce Lecteur fantomatique, asexué, innombrable, dont les destinataires des trois copies payées, injustement, au plein tarif «particuliers», vont incarner les trois premières espèces imparfaites; pour celui-celle, mon double virtuel, désiré et aimé, qui ne me fait écho que pour se dérober.
j’ai répondu à côté, mais pas si loin. Je n’ai fait qu’un quasi-mensonge, ombré de vérité. La preuve: authentiquement fausse aurait été la réponse contraire, «pour tout le monde», si je m’étais risquée à pareille arrogance pour tenter de défendre mon droit au rabais. Car «tout le monde» est une somme d’individualités qui ont toutes mille bonnes raisons de ne pas lire mes livres, dont la première est qu’elles ont plus urgent à faire que de lire, la deuxième qu’elles ignorent tout de mon existence et la troisième que ma prose, leur fût-elle connue, ne revêt à leurs yeux pas le moindre intérêt. Une population à convaincre, un marché à conquérir. Rien qui ressemble à ce «Néant chéri», envers sincère du quasi mensonger «personne», communauté idéale de tous ces «moi» autres que moi que je suscite, ou pas, en écrivant.
La modestie sied à qui écrit, elle touche à l’ambition extrême. «Lecteur, Néant chéri qui suis cette histoire par hasard…» Quoi de plus humble que l’aveu qu’on n’espère être lue qu’à la faveur d’un dimanche désœuvré, des soldes d’un libraire, d’un volume oublié dans l’antichambre d’un arracheur de dents? Quoi de plus orgueilleux que la conﬁance surabondante dans la clémence de la fortune aux yeux bandés?
Dans l’espace entre-deux s’insinue la souffrance. En lieu et place du public-cible, une tache aveugle, sans contours déﬁnis, ou un point sans dimensions. Un amour qui, parce qu’il est sans objet, paraît condamné à rester impossible. Fernando Pessoa (Bernardo Soares, dans Le Livre de I’intranquillité):
«Et je t’offre ce livre, car je le sais beau autant qu’inutile. Il n’enseigne rien, ne fait croire à rien, ne fait rien sentir. Simple ruisseau coulant vers un abîme — cendre que le vent disperse, et qui n’est ni
fertile ni nuisible.
J’ai mis toute mon âme pour faire ce livre, mais ce n’est pas à lui que je pensais alors: je pensais seulement à moi, qui ne suis que tristesse, et à toi, qui n’es personne.»
Pessoa-Soares écrit aussi, toujours dans Le Livre de I’intranquillité: «Parfois je songe, avec une volupté triste, que si un jour, dans un avenir auquel je n’appartiendrai plus, ces pages que j’écris connaissent les louanges, j’aurai enﬁn quelqu’un qui me “comprenne”, une vraie famille où je puisse naître et être aimé.» Bien qu’il déve10ppe, dans la suite de ce texte, l’idée de la reconnaissance posthume, je ne crois pas que le poète veuille ici suggérer qu’il écrit pour la postérité. «Nous ne savons enseigner qu’aux morts les vraies règles de la vie.» Ne serait-ce pas plutôt que cette «famille» espérée (espérée, non visée, entre les deux bée le même vide, la même souffrance inconsolable qu’entre l’humilité et l’orgueil) est à ses yeux de tous les lieux, de tous les temps (y compris le passé, qui déjà nous contenait); qu’on peut, en écrivant, l’évoquer, l’invoquer, mais sans avoir jamais le pouvoir de la convoquer?
Moi, par exemple, j’en fais un peu partie, même si je crains de n’avoir presque rien compris de ce que Pessoa a voulu dire. Mais j’ai dû avoir, une fois, il y a très longtemps, dans une ville qui n’était pas Lisbonne, cette même vision: «Dans le bleu moins pâle et moins bleu qui se reﬂète sur les façades, l’heure imprécise trahit un peu plus le soir commençant».
Je pense à Pessoa. Je pense à Anna-Maria Ortese écrivant L’Iguana, «l’un des rares livres destinés à honorer la littérature italienne de l’après-guerre», afﬁrme dans les années 80 le grand critique Pietro Citati, qui ajoute: «Il a été publié il y a vingt ans; mais on dirait que personne ne l’a jamais acheté, que personne ne l’a jamais lu». J’éprouve une joie intense en me disant que l’un et l’autre ont attendu, sans le savoir, que je les lise, qu’ils ont écrit, sans le savoir, aussi un
peu pour moi.
Mais cette détresse aussi: eux, me reconnaissent-ils, moi qui écris, aussi, un peu pour eux? Pour eux qui sont morts, pour leurs semblables vivants ou à naître, pour celles et ceux qui, peu importe s’ils ne peuvent plus lire, ou pas encore, forment autour d’eux une «vraie famille». Ce que j’écris est-il reconnaissable par celles et ceux à qui j’ai l’impression de ressembler?
by Kate Griffiths and Laura Rorato
In Joy Charnley and Malcolm Pender (eds), Exercises in Translation: Swiss-British Cultural Interchange, Peter Lang, 2006, p. 89-106.
Q) You are an Italian national who moved to Switzerland and began writing in French: how do you view your position as a writer? Does the issue of national identity interest you? Do you consider yourself a Swiss writer?
A) The first thing I should point out is that I did not start writing in French when I moved to Switzerland. I belong to two cultures. I went to a French school so I did not change language when I arrived in Switzerland. As for the question on national identity, I would say that I oscillate between three national identities: I feel Italian, I feel Swiss but also French, because my cultural background is French. Having three identities gives me a certain distance from the very concept of national identity and enables me to see positive aspects in it. I think that it is much easier for me to see a part of me in each of these three identities than it would be if I had a single identity and had to recognise myself entirely in it, as this identity would inevitably become a form of oppression. I therefore understand those writers who, having a single identity, decide to reject it, sometimes violently, as in the case of Elfriede Jelinek who developed a sort of hatred towards her Austrian identity. The comparison with Elfriede Jelinek stops there, of course. All I wanted to say is that in my case, having three identities enables me to get what is most interesting out of each of them and accept as inevitable the fact that every person is rooted somewhere. Finally, coming to the question of whether I consider myself a Swiss writer, I would say that, yes, I do consider myself a Swiss writer, but not because of the way I write or the themes I deal with. It is anyway extremely difficult to define Suisse Romande literature in these terms, even though many attempts have been made. For instance, it is often said that Suisse Romande literature is far less political than Swiss literature in German and is mainly characterised by an interest in interiority. I am not interested in this kind of approach as I think that it is extremely difficult to talk of national identity in terms of a writing style. However, from a sociological point of view, I feel I am a Swiss writer.
Q) Did being a foreigner affect your career in any way, or did it make you more open to issues of ‘otherness’? Your literary works contain various autobiographical elements: do you agree with Anderson’s definition of autobiography as ‘a space of difference within discourse’ ?
A) If I may, I would like to point out that I strongly dislike the term ‘career’ as I never saw my work in terms of a career. Apart from the aforementioned issues concerning my national identity, intellectually I also have a multiplicity of identities, which manifest themselves in the variety of approaches and ‘diversions’ that led me to writing. I studied philosophy – I wrote my doctoral thesis in philosophy – and I became politically active within Feminism. From the age of eight I knew that creative writing would be my future, and this is very important in my identity as a writer, but before devoting myself to it I had to do something else. As for the second part of your question, concerning Anderson’s definition of autobiography, I wonder whether, in my case, one could say that the opposite is true. Anderson talks of ‘the space of difference within discourse’ whilst I would say ‘the space of discourse within difference’. I would also like to distinguish two aspects within autobiography. The first book I wrote was about my father. It was entirely autobiographical and I do not hide this aspect: on the contrary, I declare it clearly from the start. In my later novels, however, as in many novels, there are various autobiographical elements but they are transformed. When talking about this first autobiographical book I feel like turning Anderson’s definition upside down because whilst writing it I had the clear feeling that my task was that of re-inventing, re-imagining, therefore putting the discourse of imagination into my difference, which for me was a fact. So, I was very happy when this book was awarded a prestigious literary prize in this part of Switzerland and the president of the jury declared that I had succeeded in transforming autobiography into literary discourse, and that what I had written had nothing to do with a ‘testimony’. I am extremely pleased with this judgement as currently, in my opinion, the panorama of what we call literature is stifled by testimonies: how I recovered from cancer, was abandoned by my wife, or how I coped with a disabled child and so on. On the personal level I have a great deal of respect and sympathy for these stories, but they are testimonies. Literature is something else. By embarking on a totally autobiographical work, of course, I also ran the risk of producing a testimony. So, having been told that I had avoided this was for me a source of great satisfaction. There is a chapter in my book where I talk about our family Sunday trips and I ask myself why I am telling that story, fully aware in writing that passage that if one is unable to transport memories into the literary sphere there is no point in recounting them.
Q) In your books you often mention the importance of ‘distance’ in order to comprehend things and events. Was the choice to write in French a way of distancing yourself from the subject matter of your novels, or was it dictated by the need to appeal to a wider audience? I am thinking particularly of Un Homme tragique, which is set in Italy and describes your childhood and adolescence in Rome.
A) Undoubtedly, the need to distance myself played a vital role in my decision to write in French. To be perfectly honest, however, I am not sure whether I would have been linguistically able to write this book in Italian because I had been writing and working through the medium of French for several years. Writing in Italian would have implied re-appropriating myself of my native language in a different way. I would have had to convert my mother tongue into a literary language, which at this stage of my literary development is a permanent temptation but would have been hard then. At that time French imposed itself as the language I mastered best but the issue of distance is extremely important too. I would add that, apart from the language, some of the stylistic devices I employed were also the result of this need to distance myself from the autobiographical subject matter in order to turn it into literature. However, dialogues were a problem I had to face, as those dialogues had taken place in Italian, and not simply in standard Italian but in an Italian with a strong regional accent, which was the way my father spoke. As a consequence, I tried to limit the number of dialogues. Where a dialogue was absolutely necessary I tried to find some equivalent in French, rather than translating literally what had been said in Italian with a Roman accent. As for the issue of the audience, in fact, the opposite is true. If I had written the book in Italian and published it in Italy the number of readers would have been larger as the Italian market is bigger than the Swiss one.
Q) I was perhaps thinking of the French market. Are your books read in France?
A) This, of course, is a different problem that concerns Romande publishers as a whole, not just mine. They are unable to penetrate the French market, they don’t manage to get their books reviewed in French papers because the French are very chauvinistic and the competition is already very strong within the domestic market. As usual, everything works through clans and if you have no contacts you are excluded. The situation is slightly different for Swiss German writers. Even though many of them also feel marginalised, they are far less isolated than we are because the Germans are much more ready to accept Swiss writers who write in German as part of their family. The French, instead, consider us Romande writers as foreign writers, but not sufficiently exotic to be interesting as we write in French. Naturally, there are also some historical reasons behind this difference. After the war, German-speaking Swiss writers were able to say things that German writers couldn’t say because they belonged to the losers. This created links between the writers of these two nations allowing the level of integration to be much higher today.
Q) Un Homme tragique is currently being translated into Italian. How do you feel about it, given that Italian is one of your native languages? Do you play an active role in this translation or do you allow the translator complete freedom?
A) My translator is excellent particularly when dealing with dialogues, which for me, as I have previously mentioned, were problematic from the start. She is perfectly bilingual and she seems to have the ability to recapture what had actually been said in Italian. When dealing with more descriptive passages we encounter a few more problems, partially because my style is rather complex, but also because of the nature of Italian as a language. French is much more fluid. A perfect example is the verb to break: spezzare in Italian, with the double z in the middle, is extremely harsh, whilst briser in French is much more fluid. When talking of Italian, I often use the metaphor of a sculpture made out of crystal, whilst the equivalent metaphor for French would be a sculpture made out of clay: as a consequence, a complex sentence in French flows inevitably better than in Italian, even if the translation is excellent. As for my role in the translation, when my translator sends me passages, I read them and make a few suggestions but I think that she should have the freedom to decide whether she wants to accept them or reject them. A translation is a new work and stylistic unity is very important.
Q) Have your works been translated into other languages?
A) No, just a few passages into English and Spanish at conferences. The translation of Un Homme tragique will be a ‘première’.
Q) You started your career as a journalist. Did you always know that you wanted to become a novelist? What kind of relationship do you see between these two forms of writing?
A) As previously mentioned, I have always been interested in creative writing. At the age of nine, when asked by my teacher at school to write an essay about what I wanted to do when I grew up, I wrote that I intended to become a writer. This was clear in my mind. What is less clear is why it took me so long to pursue my ambition, since I published my first literary work when I was forty. Personally, I think that this has something to do with my upbringing. I was brought up believing that duty takes precedence over pleasure. As creative writing for me represents the utmost pleasure I had to postpone it until I finished all the things I felt I had to do: writing a doctoral thesis, giving birth to two daughters and follow their upbringing. The other fundamental factor is that I knew that I could only approach creative writing by talking about my father, as my father was a person who had a huge influence on my life. He was both a terrible burden and an inspirational light, and I could not have dealt with these issues whilst he was alive. This explains why I followed so many diversions in my life. However, your original question was about the relationship between journalism and creative writing. Well, I like writing all sorts of things, even a simple letter or an e-mail message: the physical act of writing gives me pleasure. As long as I can sit in front of a computer and write something I am happy. So, journalism was the obvious job for me, it allowed me to combine my passion for writing with the possibility to earn a living. Initially, I drew a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from journalism. Later on, when I started devoting myself to creative writing, the two forms of writing started to compete against each other and the situation began to deteriorate: each year my suffering in having to set aside some time for my activities as a journalist became stronger and stronger. In the end I decided to give up journalism because, contrary to what most people believe, when one reaches a phase in life like mine, in which creative writing plays a fundamental role, journalism becomes an obstacle. In fact, I seem to remember that an English poet (possibly Ted Hughes, but I am not entirely sure), when asked why he had not tried to make a living by becoming a journalist, instead of working in a bank, replied that being a clerk was much more compatible with his literary vocation than going into journalism. Now, I am teaching at university, which is also a very demanding job, but far enough from literature not to compete with it.
Q) You have always been interested in Feminism and for many years you edited the journal Femmes suisses. How do you view the issue of women’s writing and gender studies? Do you see in these trends the risk of a new form of ‘ghettoization’ or do you perceive them as genuine tools enabling women to have a voice of their own?
A) Let us say that I would like to make a distinction between the situation we had in the 70s and the situation we have today. During the 70s and 80s women’s access to writing was an extraordinary event and a fundamental element of the new, post-68 Feminism. The recognition that women had something different to say compared to what men had to say was very important. Women had to talk about their experience as women and express feelings that had been repressed for centuries. That was a very exciting and beautiful moment. Nowadays, the situation is rather different and I would be more reluctant to establish a link between women’s writing and Feminism. Personally, even though I read and enjoyed various books by feminist writers such as Monique Laederach (who, for instance, wrote a book entitled La femme séparée about a woman who decides to leave her husband to escape the stifling family atmosphere), when I entered the world of creative writing, I wanted to do something other than political activism. When I began writing my first book about my father I was the editor of Femmes suisses and I was dealing with feminist issues all the time. However, my interest in Feminism was of a socio-political nature. By entering the world of creative writing I wanted to experience something else. I consider myself both a feminist and a writer but not a feminist writer because I think that in our historical moment, by which I mean the beginning of the new millennium and not the 70s, women’s literature as such does not carry the same revolutionary potential as it did then and can no longer be considered the artistic voice of feminist activism. This of course does not mean that literature should be totally devoid of a political message but simply that a piece of literature should not become a tool for political propaganda. My being a feminist and a writer are not totally different things, because I am the same person, but no one activity serves the other.
Q) References to history and current affairs are frequent in your books, particularly in Homme tragique and Sentier. How do you view the relationship between micro and macro history?
A) I am very pleased to hear that this aspect was noticed because my literary ambition is to reconstruct the totality of an individual, of my characters. In our experience as human beings micro and macro history are inexorably connected. Even when we are having a relaxed chat with friends in the garden over a glass of wine, macro history is present through the radio or other media informing us of events like the London bombings or the war in Iraq, and these facts stay in our soul even when we are thinking about something else. In our subconscious, elements of micro and macro history have a symbiotic relationship and reciprocally influence each other. The perception of our personal circumstances is determined by bigger events around us and vice versa. As a writer, therefore, I am always striving to convey this continuum of feelings and sensations that can only be artificially kept apart. Even as a reader, what I like in a writer like Antonia Byatt, for instance, whom I greatly admire, is this symbiosis between public and private sphere. Perhaps, women writers – I am also thinking of two other writers whom I consider my role models: Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro – are more determined to make their readers perceive this unity in our experience of life. Male writers – although generalizations are always dangerous – can more easily separate the two spheres.
Q) In Un Homme tragique the physical deterioration of the narrator’s father seems to be mirrored in the history of Italy, which is often referred to as a ‘lost’ or ‘decomposing’ country (HT 65; 240). Likewise, Rome, with all its monuments and emblems of the past seems to acquire oppressive connotations and inspire a sense of guilt: ‘Mais moi je ne veux pas, non, je ne veux pas porter sur mes épaules les malheurs de la terre’ (HT 134); ‘C’est tout près de chez nous. La via Ardeatina est une parallèle de la via Appia [… »> on ne peut entrer là qu’ à pas lents, comme pour se faire pardonner des morts l’obscenité d’être vivants’ (HT 138). On various occasions the narrator appears to feel guilty for her lack of political engagement (HT 130). What is the role of a writer in society? Can art have a social function?
A) It is interesting that you should point out the parallelism between the decline of the father and the Italian political situation because that was precisely the message I was given by my father throughout my childhood. He used to talk about Italy in terms of a country best forgotten. What is more, the physical decline of my father indeed took place during very difficult and tragic moments in Italian history such as the anni di piombo, the years of the Red Brigades. As for the sense of guilt, that is also true because guilt is part of everyday life. There is something fundamentally artificial when people pretend not to feel guilty or to be fully satisfied with what they do to improve the plight of humanity. Most individuals oscillate between moments when they are reasonably happy for having done something constructive (be it the simple act of joining an environmentally friendly organization, or donating a small sum of money to a charitable cause) and others when they are fully aware that they do not do enough, or that what they do will not make a difference. What is certainly a feature of my characters is that they do not choose to be politically active. Personally, of course, I expressed my political engagement through Feminism. With my characters, instead, I wanted to stress this sense of doubt and uneasiness that inhabits each one of us. Finally, coming to the social function of art, as I previously said, I do not like the idea of art as a tool for propaganda. If the only message of a work of art is a militant one or if the political message is too explicit, the artistic aspect of that piece of work suffers. What is very important instead, is for writers or artists in general – I am thinking of Umberto Eco or Salman Rushdie – to use the authority they have as successful artists to denounce cruelty and injustices throughout the world by writing to newspapers or through public speeches. This is something I also do from time to time. In this case what we produce has nothing to do with art. If art can have a political message this must be achieved in a more subtle way. By appealing to the subconscious, the more elusive part of us, the part where our deepest thoughts and emotions are formed, where the factors that make us act in life develop, art can have an impact on our behaviour but not as a direct chain of cause and effect.
Q) Your works seem to be characterised by the recurrence of certain themes, the most striking of which is death. Even Sentier, which is perhaps the most positive of all your books, opens with a reference to death. Why is the theme of death so central to your writing?
A) There is certainly something in me that is particularly sensitive to the idea of the death of a child as I think that this is the most horrible and traumatic experience an individual might have to face. I have friends who lost their children and it is something I can only describe in terms of a deep sense of horror and despair, which is why it was important for me to deal with this in all my books. Sentier begins with the description of the death of a young boy, the protagonist of Avant had lost a child and even my latest book, the one I am currently writing, features a young person who comes very close to dying. As for death in general, it corresponds to one of my main literary and existential concerns, which is our human finiteness. This is perhaps more clearly visible in Avant but is present elsewhere too. In the autobiographical book, for instance, the figure of my father is an example of someone who cannot come to terms with necessity (the Greek goddess Ananke), and death, of course, is the most explicit example of necessity. Death is an extremely important theme for me precisely because it is the obvious manifestation of our finiteness. At the age of seventeen, when I was studying philosophy at school, I was given an assignment where I was asked to express my views on whether I thought that an individual should lead his/her life constantly thinking of the transience of all forms of life and experience, as suggested by Heidegger, or whether one should behave and act as if life were eternal, as suggested by Spinoza. Even then I already knew that what I was interested in was Heidegger’s theory. From that moment onward I’ve always perceived death or finiteness as something constantly present in every single moment of my life.
Q) At the beginning of Avant, Zen explains to David that, according to the Greek philosopher Zenon, ‘le temps, et aussi l’espace, peuvent être divisés et redivisés à l’infini en unites de plus en plus petites, à l’intérieur desquelles Achille reste immobile. En somme, Zénon pretend que le movement n’existe pas’ (A 9). How close is this notion to your own views on time and progress? The title Avant seems to contain this contradiction between two opposite moments (avant referring to the past but also implying a forward movement); yet many of your characters seem to feel, in a rather existentialist fashion, that there is no recuperable inner core of being that resists the ravages of time and change, and that the individual is in a permanent state of self creation.
A) This is a difficult question because it raises issues that are hard to express. I will try to answer by analysing the significance of the title Avant, a title that my publisher regrets having accepted because he thinks the book would have sold more copies if we had selected something less mysterious for it. For me, however, it was important to retain the original title for its symbolic value. I see in it two contradictory elements which are not so much those you mention but the idea of time and that of its possible non existence. What I mean is that if there is an avant (a before), there is also a now and an after, proving the existence of time, but in avant I also see a reference to a situation, before Creation, where time did not exist. Before the emergence of life and, as a consequence, of the notion of finiteness, everything was static. In my book there is a kind of nostalgia for that condition, a condition in which angst did not exist, as angst is caused by the flow of time (again, I am thinking of Heidegger). The reference to Zenon stresses this kind of nostalgia because if movement does not exist neither does time. I agree with the term ‘existentialist’ used in the question as angst is a key aspect of Existentialism.
Q) Pascal’s conceptualization of man as ‘un roseau pensant’ and La Fontaine’s fable of a reed bending but not breaking in the wind appear to occupy a prominent place in your work (Avant and Sentier in particular). Is it thought or the ability to bend that saves your characters?
A) My characters usually differ from each other and in Avant I wanted to show different attitudes towards the issues raised in the question. For instance, David, the male protagonist, is someone who can bend and adapt to the curve of time. Mathilde, instead, is inflexible. Personally, I am convinced that only the ability to think and reflect, rather than a passive acceptance of life, can save the individual. Passivity is something alien to me but I felt it was important to explore this attitude through some of my characters.
Q) Characters’ lives are peopled by the surfacing of earlier memories, likewise your texts are peopled by the periodic surfacing of earlier literary texts: certain texts are clearly cited and labelled; others are teasingly not attributed and the reader is left to pursue their thread, as Alissa in Sentier pursues the thread of her research in the library. To what extent does your narrative play with notions of textual memory in relation to the reader and the narrative voice, as it depicts tales where notions of personal memories are explored?
A) I have rather ambiguous feelings as regards the use I made of textual memory in my earlier books. In the current phase of my writing I am detaching myself from it. Perhaps I needed it initially because I was still too close to philosophy. My style was technically still rather discursive and I needed those references as a kind of support. I don’t regret having done this but this aspect is almost absent in my latest novel. By keeping the bibliographical references to a minimum I wanted to avoid turning my novels into books of literary theory. In some cases, however, I wanted to give the reader the opportunity to explore the text I was referring to, if he/she wanted to. This phase has now been superseded and in the book I am currently writing I offer no help to the readers. The fact that even in earlier books I didn’t always attribute all literary references indicates that I was striving to achieve the more independent style of writing I am experimenting with now.
Q) Whilst your work draws heavily on literature, the presence of the world of art is clear. The works of Delacroix, Mondrian and Munch are all used as filters through which characters describe their emotions. The language of your narrative likewise passes at times through the filter of art. It describes, for example, the landscape as a ‘paysage préservé aux couleurs douces d’aquarelle’ (Avant 196). Is this recourse to the image an attempt to show the insufficiency of the word, to underline that recourse to other media is necessary in order to communicate truly?
A) This is certainly true and I agree with Virginia Woolf when she says that, in a way, she regrets not being a painter and having to use words. When writing we are forced by the limitations of the medium to express things one after the other and the same applies to the reader whose fruition of the work is also linear. When producing a painting instead, even though the physical act of painting implies a beginning and an end, this aspect is less important because the viewer has a global, synthetic impression of the work. Virginia Woolf explains very clearly the need for a writer to convey the totality of an emotion, of a specific moment in life, stressing that it is very difficult to do this with words. This is why in my books I often use brackets and very long sentences. It is my way of showing the complexity of each form of experience: whilst a character is experiencing something at the same time he might remember details from his/her past or start thinking about something else. This is also why I find pictorial or visual metaphors, which easily come to me, very useful. Like many writers of modernity I have this unsatisfiable longing for simultaneousness.
Q) The role of modern media in your work appears to be an ambivalent one. On the one hand film is used, like painting, as a filter through which the characters can express or navigate their emotions. On the other, modern media seem to be associated with loss and the inability to allow true communication. The internet in ‘Carte postale de Lugano’ is depicted as a limited tool: ‘what you and I are trying to say is too cumbersome for the pixels, waves and bytes of modern media, it needs to be carried on foot, one word at a time, walking through the snow.’
A) This theme is very important to me and I have thought a lot about it, particularly from the theoretical point of view. Part of my teaching at University involves the analysis of modern media and I have written various theoretical articles on the subject. I am at the same time attracted and disgusted by the myth of transparency and absolute fluidity that media like the internet encourage us to imagine, also by the idea of the immediacy and directness of transmission that takes place without any filters and is available to anybody. In my opinion these notions are rather deceitful and this presumed transparency does not capture the truth. The truth is something extremely complex that, as the passage quoted in the question shows, cannot be conveyed through immediacy; nor can the entire content of one’s soul be suddenly made available to others. It is an illusion or, at least, if we tried to do it, could cause lots of damage. I am in favour of mediation, which is why I have a critical attitude towards the new media, even though I don’t reject them. I use internet, write e-mails or text messages but I am aware of the false illusions they can create, illusions that are the complete opposite of what literature tries to achieve. Literature is mediation par excellence. Literature is never direct. Unlike testimonies or other forms of writing, it never leads you straight to a point: it gets you there only through a process of ‘flânerie’.
Q) The importance of language and communication is clear in your work. Characters need language and you depict it often in nutritive terms. But to a certain extent communication appears fundamentally barred. Certain letters are not sent, others do not arrive and numerous characters find themselves unable to speak. To what extent could Sentier be characterized as an attempt to pass beyond language since Alissa moves closer to happiness when her hold on language becomes looser, when she is unable to put things into words?
A) There is certainly some truth in this observation. Alissa has regular meetings with her psychoanalyst and she talks a lot. She moves easily within discourse, and she manages to express her suffering through discourse. Discourse and suffering seem to be linked. However, when she has a relationship with a man who cannot express himself easily in words, Alissa is much happier. He makes her experience simpler things, enabling her to appreciate that part of her inner self that cannot be expressed verbally. This is obviously a form of recognition of the failure of language, something extremely painful for a writer, but perhaps also, paradoxically, a way of saying that if we writers stopped constantly searching for the right word that can never be found we would be happier too.
Q) If your characters explore notions of the incapacity of language, is this theme taken up also at narrative and authorial level? There appears to be an extended exploration of the possibilities of the printed medium in your novels as you play with typographical and literary conventions. You leave blank spaces in the layout of your pages, language at times breaks down as verbs disappear, sentences are not complete and ellipses speak volumes.
A) Yes, I tried to explore syntactical deconstruction in places in order to convey the complexity of human experience. Both syntactical and typographical devices are the result of this desire to portray moments of life in their multifariousness. Complexity cannot be rendered through a series of simple, straightforward sentences. These are integral aspects of my writing, particularly as I do not believe in the possibility of separating form and content. In my opinion, the things that I am trying to say can only be expressed through that kind of style.
Q) The influence of psychoanalysis is evident in your work. Do Avant and Sentier also testify to the effect of contemporary French feminism on your writing? Your frequent use of italics to highlight problematic statements (for example the platitudes of the doctor to Mathilde) is reminiscent of Luce Iririgary, whilst your frequent references to the myth of Medusa make one think of the texts of Hélène Cixous.
A) I must say that although I have read the two writers you mention in your question, I don’t feel really close to their way of thinking. What I like in them is the importance of the body and the unconscious, and the idea that the two are intimately connected. However, there is in me a certain aspiration towards the dominion of consciousness, towards discourse, towards dialectical rigour, towards rationality, which are usually considered male connotations and which belong to that universe Irigary and Cixous want to eradicate. There is in me as a person, and in my writing a deep contrast between the need to express the power of the unconscious and, at the same time, to structure my discourse in terms of consciousness. I don’t know whether this tension is perceived by the reader but I feel it very acutely when I am writing. To simplify, we could say that both the ‘male’ pole and the ‘female’ pole cohabit in me.
Q) Mirrors and mirror images appear very frequently in your books and, talking of psychoanalysis Lacan springs immediately to mind.
A) In this case I entirely agree, mirrors are very important in my writing and my next book is constructed around a series of mirror images reflecting each other.
Q) The narrative view point in Sentier and Avant is an insistently shifting one. At times the narrator is external to the characters and appears omnipotent and absolute. At other times the narrator hypothesizes as if he/she were uncertain of events and thoughts. Elsewhere, the narrator disappears as the characters step in to narrate their own lives. To what extent do your narratives constitute an attempt to challenge the reader, encouraging us to evaluate our relationship to the written word?
A) I don’t like the idea of the reader as a passive consumer of a text but what I find interesting about your question is the reference to the omniscient narrator which, in my view, stresses the point we were making earlier, when talking of the coexistence of the male and female poles in my writing. On the one hand we have the pole that tries to structure and order events, which becomes visible in a 19th century style narrator (similar to the kind of narrator we find in Balzac’s prose), on the other hand, the female pole linked to the idea of the stream of consciousness or psychoanalysis that is expressed by the characters’ individual view points. I am never entirely satisfied with either of these two perspectives, hence the constant shifting of the narrative viewpoint. I am aware that the use of an omniscient narrator is outmoded and not entirely suitable for modern writing but at the same time I cannot hide my inner longing for structure.