Dinner with Elena Ferrante by Rosie Goldsmith

A year ago, in the summer of 2015, the final novel of The Neapolitan Quartet by the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante was published in English, translated by Ann Goldstein. The journalist and director of European Literature Network, Rosie Goldsmith, along with thousands of readers world-wide, was gripped by these four novels and their insight into Italy and women’s lives.

Rosie has spent a lot of the past year obsessing about Elena Ferrante, launching #RivetingReviews on this website with a review of the final novel in the Quartet and with other mildly fanatical Ferrante posts.

On October 1st 2015 Rosie hosted a #FerranteFever evening with translator Ann Goldstein and fellow-addict the novelist Polly Samson, in collaboration with Ferrante’s English language publisher Europa Editions at Waterstones Piccadilly in London.

And #FerranteFever continues through 2016!

On November 1st this year, both the USA and UK will hold a simultaneous #FerranteFeverNight (to be hosted by Rosie, ofourse, at Waterstones Piccadilly, ofcourse).

Meanwhile, to feed your fever, there is a BBC Radio 4 dramatization of My Brilliant Friend, in the Reading Europe series, starting this Sunday 31st July, dramatized by the brilliant Timberlake Wertenbaker.

And on 16th July 2016 Rosie gave the keynote address on international literature in the UK at the National Writers’ Conference in Birmingham, organized by (the brilliant!) Writing West Midlands. Here, in full is Rosie’s lecture, entitled

‘DINNER WITH ELENA FERRANTE’

WWM-Raspberry

Yes, I’ve had dinner with Elena Ferrante. It’s true!
She’s the elusive Italian writer who’s taken the literary world by storm with her brilliant novels on women’s lives – and she’s managed to keep her identity secret.

I’ve also met Karl Ove Knausgaard, the great Norwegian writer – a few times in fact – but he is rather long-winded – I mean a six volume autobiography with the pompous title My Struggle..…. And I told him what I thought too!

And for a bit of light relief from Elena and Karl Ove, I love meeting up occasionally with the master of the short novel, the Icelandic writer, Sjon.

In fact, I spent the night with him.

We all communicate in English, by the way – because even though I do speak a few languages, Icelandic and Norwegian are not two of them.

So I admit it:

I’m a literary luvvie!

I LOVE reading and I LOVE hob-nobbing with writers…

especially when they come from foreign lands.

I have indeed met Elena and Karl Ove and Sjon – but through their novels.

And I have met them thanks to their translators, Ann Goldstein, Don Bartlett and Victoria Cribb, because they and the hundreds of other foreign writers I’ve met over the decades don’t write in English but rely on their trusty interpreters to reach us, because English is the language everyone wants to be translated into. Or indeed is obliged to be translated into to be read by the inhabitants of our angloamericanasianafricancolonial Anglophone world.

I didn’t just have dinner with Elena Ferrante but breakfast and lunch as well: I could not stop reading her Naples Quartet. Do read it – and be transported to Italy. Cheaper even that EasyJet or Ryanair.

‘My Dinner With Elena Ferrante!’

‘I slept with Sjon!’

Now I make no apologies for resorting to cheap gutter-like tabloid methods to grab your attention today – I’m a journalist after all and we live in terrible tabloid times.

I’m here to talk to you as a ‘literary activist’ –a journalist, writer, critic, filmmaker, director of the European Literature Network, broadcaster, media trainer, curator and chair at festivals and events, a linguist and a proud champion of International Literature and Language Learning in the UK.

I also love fashion, food and Facebook. And shoes!

For me, all these activities and passions belong together.

They are part of my devious strategy to grab you by the shoulders and make you listen.

I believe we are currently in a crisis in the UK. To quote one French minister this week, it’s like watching a cross between Game Of Thrones and Monty Pythons.

Our minds and our borders are closing down.

We are in danger of becoming more introverted and insular.

We need to take action – in order to protect our little minds and our little island from sinking into a sea of ignorance.

One passport to a more interesting life is literature.

And that’s why you are here today.

That’s the literature you write, or you read, or you translate.

If you want to travel the world even further then read international literature.

Literature is a window on a wider world.

Literature is not a privilege for the few but a pleasure for the many.

It costs little – except hard work, motivation, an open mind and support.

I went to a comprehensive school in Cornwall – and I learned Latin, French and German there to A-Level. I read library books voraciously. I wrote diaries and stories and drew comic books. I won the BBC’s Jackanory Short story competition for my story about a dog called ‘Biscuits’.

For my prize I visited London for the first time, and appeared on the Jackanory Children’s TV programme. My parents took to Madame Tussaud’s and bought me a pair of black patent leather shoes. I was eleven. I was hooked on stories – and also on shoes.

Thanks to good parents and teachers, to libraries and a holiday on a campsite in Venice where I met a German woodcutter – ask me later – I turned to a life of travel, languages at university, working abroad, a career in BBC Foreign Affairs and arts – I presented and reported for Crossing Continents, Europhile, A World In Your Ear, Front Row, Open Book and From Our Own Correspondent. I am not saying this to self-promote but simply to make the point that if I can do it anyone can.

I know I am preaching to the converted. This is a Writers Conference!

You are all testament to the importance of language and literature and knowledge of different cultures ––

We all know – and feel – that writing and reading lead to a greater understanding of our own souls, psyches but they also give us insight into the lives of others.

But out there in ‘the real world’ they may not know all the things we know.

So mission Number One: let’s be more sharing and caring about our love of literature and language.

And if the naysayers ask, where’s your proof, where are the statistics?

you can tell them:

The book industry is part of the Creative Industries and they contribute 10% of our GDP!

According to the CBI last year,
Deficient language skills and the assumption that “everyone speaks English” are costing the UK economy around £48bn a year, or 3.5% of GDP….

Poor language skills act like a “tax on growth”, hampering small to medium-size exporters, who are unable to employ the language specialists brought in by global companies… It also deters us from trading internationally’.

SO HOW CAN WE SHARE AND CARE?

HOW CAN WE ENGAGE MORE WITH WRITERS BEYOND OUR SHORES?

HOW CAN WE STOP THE BREXIT OF OUR MINDS?

LET’S GO WILD: let me rattle through a few ideas

 At the next Birmingham Literature Festival 6th -15th October – pick out one new author a day you haven’t heard of and go along; you never know, you might be meeting Elena Ferrante.

At literature festivals until about a decade ago, I was dismayed how rarely foreign fiction featured. Even in major multicultural cities, such as London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Edinburgh, people read pitiful amounts of translated literature but, increasingly, more fiction is being translated and published.

We’ve had a slight increase – instead of about 3 Percent of what we read being in translation – stop a moment to take that in– it is now 4.5% for literary fiction. That means that 95.5% of what we read is still originally in English. Stop again: that means we are ignorant of the majority of literature being produced in the majority of countries of the world. If there were a new Tolstoy or Kafka would we know about them today?

Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sjon have broken through this pitiful percentage for several reasons – mainly because they are excellent writers and have intriguing backgrounds, but also because their translators are excellent. Because they’ve been well-promoted by their publishers, reviewers, by word of mouth, by celebrity endorsers– it’s a combination of happy events.

I remember chairing events with Sjon and Knausgaard only a few years ago and there were probably about 20 people in the audience – max.

So I’m back on my soapbox.

Go to literature events and Festivals…propose some events of your own.

EURO STARS – I liked the name. It’s now an event. ……

This is the age of Anything Goes – you can – for example – combine fiction with fashion. One day I woke up with an idea: I LOVE fashion and I LOVE Fiction…and I am intrigued by how writers use and describe dress and accessories in their novels.

I started up a series for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where I invite famous writers to talk about how fashion and costume impact their literature and lives – Margaret Atwood, Joanna Trollope, Linda Grant, Sarah Dunant and Jung Chang have been my guests.

In 2013, I created the festival ‘High Impact: Literature from the Low Countries’ to celebrate Dutch writing in English, and I toured English cities with six top Dutch writers. To create ‘High Impact’ is now my mantra in drawing attention to the UK’s problems with foreign literature and language.

In October 2013, I was Artistic Director of ‘Greece is the Word’ at the Southbank Centre, which I created with the ambition of helping writers and performers from crisis-ridden Greece to become better known over here. It was a sell-out and it spawned a week of Greek events round the UK.

In November 2014 I was asked to create 2 Italian events to mark the Italian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Without hesitation the 2 subjects I chose were ITALIAN FOOD and FASHION. These subjects are for me the perfect way to examine our attitudes to modern Italy and the Italian language – because they are so central to our lives.
We all think we know them well, but because they are so familiar we take them for granted and our attitudes and grasp of the language remains superficial, touristy…

So as ‘literary activists’ we need to employ Joined-up thinking.

Join the dots! Join! Ask questions, join in discussions.

Enter competitions. Sign up to Newsletters and Blog posts…

Whenever you travel read a novel or poetry from that country. It can be a crime novel – anything! But it will tell you so much about the way people live.

If you can’t attend the Edinburgh International Literature Festival or Cheltenham or Hay-on-Wye then follow them online…these days there are all kinds of live podcasts and periscopes and videos. Adopt a writer on Twitter or Facebook. If you meet an author and love that author then spread the love – take a photo put it on Facebook; start a Facebook BookClub…

One excellent online club for lovers of foreign literature is called the English PEN Translated Literature Book Club.

And watch the BBC…listen to the BBC…

Yes, I’m biased, but I am bowled over by the continuing dedication of my alma mater to All Things Literary …

Just take one day in the BBC Schedule: go through the Radio Times or listing magazine and circle your favourite programmes – I do!

There are serializations, dramatizations, books of the week, Front Row, Open Book, Book Club, Points of View – the great literary essay is not dead – AL Kennedy wrote last week on ‘Belongings and Brexit’ – it was a master class in structure, content and delivery . It moved me to tears.

There’s the BBC Short Story contest…write a short story! So much literature on the BBC! Who can forget The Night Manager? This year’s 400th anniversary of Shakespeare? There was ‘War And Peace’…let’s remember that W&P was written in RUSSIAN! Madame Bovary was written in FRENCH…and GUNTHER GRASS in German – that doesn’t mean we love them less does it?

WHAT ELSE?

Support your local libraries and universities and bookshops…they are full of interesting, dedicated people who need you, your ideas and your support.

Write blogs or reviews of the books you have read …check out all the different online sites

Be inspired by museum and gallery exhibitions – of Indian fabrics or Egyptian Sunken Cities or Russian art…Listen to Curators’ talksanything could spark a story in your head.

Go to the theatre…musicals…the opera…If you can’t afford the time or the money to attend the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company or Glyndebourne these days there’s no excuse: head off to your local cinema.

If you’re a translator attend the annual International Literature and Translation events at London Book Fair…or the International Translation Day with Free Word Centre and the British Library; The British Centre For Literary Translation courses; Writers Centre Norwich; European Literature Night at the British Library, which we started in 2009 and is still going strong…

From Norwich to Newcastle – we are all networking, participating, engaging, multi-platforming…this is not about London-centricity.

The political mentality of our United Kingdom may be narrowing but our minds must remain open – we’ve got the internet, we can join lobby groups and clubs and associations…

There’s the international work of the British Council, the British Library, Southbank Centre, The Arts Council, Arvon Foundation, Free Word Centre – engage in their translation slams or debates.
Talk loudly at conferences, schools and community centres – but not in libraries!

Bombard Facebook, Twitter, the BBC and any passing celebrities with poetry or stories.

Become a literary activist.

Languages and literature have been the great gifts in my life that keep on giving and I don’t want to lose them.

I had no privileges or money. I am simply loud, lucky and wear bright colours.

Today I am angry and afraid that we are set to lose the progress of the past few decades in globalizing our publishing industry, translations services, media, education system, business, trade, diplomacy, the economy, culture and society.

Reading books, reviewing books, writing books, knowing languages are assets to improve our own lives but also our wider society. They make us cleverer, wiser and richer.

Before I close I want to tell you a little about my work in Europe.
I left the BBC and went freelance in 2009.

I found a new drum to bang: the promotion of international literature and translation in the UK.

It was an opportunity to combine all my interests and to put them to good purpose. I helped to launch a new national venture to celebrate contemporary European fiction in English, entitled European Literature Night (ELN).

I chair the judges and we read through 50-70 extracts/ the annual ELN event at the British Library.
ELN is now a popular ‘literary brand’ in the UK and I’ve taken Polish crime writing and Hungarian vampire fiction round the country.

I also created the independent European Literature Network.

This spring I received my third ACE Grant to help fund this work and the website.

For any of you who would like to join or participate do visit the website: www.eurolitnetwork.com
It’s a first, it’s free and it’s a real networking hub for translators, publishers, writers, festival directors and arts leaders.

It’s not a vanity project or money-spinner for me.
If you fancy reading and reviewing European books in translation just contact me via the website www.eurolitnetwork.com

By the end of the year I want to start a magazine of International Writing in English and I want it to be available in bookshops from Cornwall to Glasgow to Galway – I want it to be fun, fashionable and fabulous.

(Forget the OTHER ‘f’ for the moment – FUNDING!)

The crisis over the UK membership of the European Union has further fuelled my revolutionary zeal. Our work is even more important.

I cared deeply about remaining in the EU – even though it is deeply flawed, it was better for us in all ways as a country – prejudice and ignorance of the true situation have driven us out.

It is now even more urgent that we remain European and international in our minds and in our work. We must keep the windows in our minds open.

So do join me today by becoming a literary activist.

And do join me later for dinner – sit down with a glass of Italian red wine or a cup of coffee and enjoy your dinner with me and Elena Ferrante.

And you never know, maybe I am Elena Ferrante!

By Rosie Goldsmith

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