Every so often you find yourself somewhere and you think you are dreaming. Or that you’ve died and gone to heaven. Or that suddenly the human race has reformed, and put aside war and despoliation of the planet to turn to culture and human friendship. The feeling often coincides with a visit to a place like Italy, because despite its sizeable contribution to war and despoliation (not to mention the idiozia of its current head of state), it has also contributed perhaps more than its fair share to culture, perhaps human friendship, too.
The little town of Mantova, or Mantua in English, that I have only ever known through Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet (to Mantua; /Where thou shalt live, till we can find a time / To blaze your marriage), has for 13 years been hosting a literary festival for four days at the end of the summer. It is the perfect venue, with its wide squares and palazzos and parks, its cobbled car-free streets, its mild climate, its medieval/Renaissance atmosphere. It is not overwhelming with other things to do or see, the way nearby Verona or Venice would be; and it has just enough cafe’s and restaurants to keep everyone in macchiati and agnolini.
The main, central square, Piazza Sordello, often looks like the running of the bulls, except the bulls are replaced by bicycles; you’ve never seen so many cyclists and bicycles in one small town, ridden not by self-conscious athletes with expensive, ridiculous gear but by elegant ladies in dresses or fathers with one baby behind and one in front. They ride in a slow and stately way, never growing impatient with all the congestions of book browsing festival attendants or other locals; they bounce over the treacherous stone cobbles with grace.
While the emphasis of the festival is Italian literature, obviously, and all the events are held in Italian with the help of interpreters where necessary, there were some eminent representatives of world literature present: Nadine Gordimer, Amitav Ghosh, Anne Michaels, Slavenka Drakulic, Daniel Mendelsohn, Fay Weldon, Alan Sillitoe, Roberto Calasso, in addition to the dozens of Italian authors whom I haven’t heard of because they’re not translated, or don’t get the attention they deserve outside Italy; not to mention other guests from Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Eastern Europe, Germany… I went to meet, at last, one of my authors, Muriel Barbery. Her Italian and American publishers were also there, Edizioni e/o / Europa Editions, as were her Italian translators. For two days I lived in a happy babble of Italian and English and French, discussing literature, feeling generally as if I were in a dream, or a brief utopia… and eating amazing food (when interviewed, Ms. Barbery was asked among other more weighty things, the indispensable Italian existential question: Che cos’ ha mangiato? She’d had fish, from the nearby lake).
I have very odd contradictory and ambivalent reactions at times to being a translator into English. There is the obvious problem that Americans and Brits “don’t like” to read work in translation (or in any case such is the publishers’ lame excuse), The Elegance of the Hedgehog being a recent notable and happy exception. There is the fact too that literature is not considered vital to the UK/US culture the way the movies are, for example, and that Anglo-Saxons read far less than the French do, or if Mantova is anything to judge by, the Italians, as well. So there is less of a market for literature in translation in the US and the UK. And when you come to a place like Mantova, you feel ashamed, or sorry, that you were not born Italian (heads of state notwithstanding).
The day after the first (sold-out) event, where Muriel Barbery was interviewed by an Italian journalist, all the local papers had long articles, with photographs, of the event. There was even one, I believe, in La Repubblica, which is a national paper. Can you imagine even Philip Roth being given such coverage, outside the New York Times or the New Yorker? We were having coffee on the Piazza Sordello, and I happened to glance over at the next table; a woman was reading the write-up about the event the previous evening, and there was a color photograph of the scrittrice francese. Immersed in the article, the woman was utterly unaware of the presence of Signora Barbery (the very scrittrice in question) just behind her. It would have made an eloquent photograph in itself.
It makes me sad to think back on the poor attendance given some events like this that I have attended in the US. The empty chairs. The lack of newspaper coverage. The sense one has, as an author, of struggling against generalized indifference. Perhaps the Pen World Festival attracts people in New York, but that’s New York. I don’t even know of other literary festivals in the US anything like on a scale of Mantova, unless you could term the AWP conference a festival of literature; it is extremely costly and filled not with local people but writing program people, creative writing teachers and students. It’s a business, a commercial networking affair. The events at Mantova were only‚¬4.00 to attend, although many were free. Nearly all were sold out, standing-room only affairs.
The landlord of my bed and breakfast was attending the festival, although he didn’t seem a literary sort, but clearly I can’t judge who attends these sorts of events or why. I unfortunately only had time to go to Muriel’s events, and I was sorry my Italian isn’t better. There were a lot of good-natured questions, a lot of laughter. A sense that everyone was exactly where they wanted to be at that moment, enjoying conversation about a book they had loved (over a million copies sold in Italy) with the person who wrote it.
I met my Italian counterparts, the two women who had translated Paloma and Rene separately. I felt we were like three necessary shadows, basking in something we couldn’t quite understand, grateful we didn’t have to deal with autograph seekers (of which there were some) or sign several hundred copies of L’eleganza del riccio. But we were there to celebrate success, and appropriately, the food and wine and conversation were commensurate and outstanding (although I shied away from the local dish of asino donkey meat stew.)
They were out of agnolini, but the ravioli amari were delicious. And even the waitress, as she cleared away our plates, wanted to know about the festival, the writers.
Perhaps it has something to do with the music of Italian, the beauty of the language; you breathe it, like the warm gentle air. It’s part of life. Oh, I know it’s an illusion, and it was a dream for two days, a brief glimpse of the best of all possible worlds for someone who lives and breathes words daily. Still, maybe I should brush up on my Italian.