You’ve lived forty years in Italy, most of your life, do you feel Italian?
I certainly feel very much at home here now, after all these years. Sometimes people don’t realise I’m a foreigner. Which always cheers me up. But after a few minutes there’s usually a bit of an accent that gives you away. I probably spend two or three weeks in the UK every year between book presentations and holidays. The rest of the time I’m in Milan.
When and how did your relationship with Italy begin?
I went to the States to do a PhD and fell in love with an Italian woman who became my wife. Soon enough I gave up on my PhD, we did a year in London, then thought we’d try Italy. I certainly never envisaged living here, nor did we initially plan to stay for long.
How hard was it early on fitting in in Italy and learning the language?
Hard. I was twenty-five. I didn’t feel particularly gifted for languages. We had no money and so I had to work from day one, teaching English at first. I would spend all my spare time between lessons in the public library in central Verona, reading novel after novel, writing down every word I didn’t know. Conversations were difficult. Italians knew a lot less English then. You had to speak Italian or you were simply excluded. It was a couple of years before I felt confident as a speaker, and many more before I felt I had really arrived in the language. Now, obviously, I’m grateful that I went through that. Today it’s all too easy to live in English here. To follow English media, live a virtual life. That wasn’t possible in the 1980s.
How long did it take you before you felt you could write about Italy?
I’d been here almost ten years before someone asked me to write what became my book Italian Neighbours. Even then it was a process of discovery, thinking over all my experience of the country in those years. It makes me smile when people write about another country after just a year or two.
You’ve written several books of non-fiction about Italy – they seem to chart your journey through Italian life: do you agree?
For sure. I wrote about neighbours. I wrote about children, the whole young family scene. About football fandom. About my endless train travels to and from Milan to teach and elsewhere. Finally I found a formula to write about the world inside an Italian organisation like a university, where a libel case looms over every sentence. And about walking from Rome to Cesenatico, following Garibaldi. I’ve always been very aware that the country is at once hugely seductive and, for many, desperately cruel, in some respects wonderfully lively and stylish and in others profoundly gloomy and rigidly conformist. My fascination has always been to understand the connections between the society’s various manifestations. And the connections between ordinary life and the country’s literature, which I’ve written about regularly too. In the end, it’s a package deal. I love the place, but don’t gush. There is much to hate too. Obviously when I write about Italy now I’m very aware that the book will be read and judged in Italy. I’m maniacally attentive to the Italian editions!
There is such range in your writing about Italy: what guides you in choosing your subjects?
I suppose I just realise that there’s an area of my experience, the train travel, the stadium-going, that could be used to open up Italy tout court. I don’t have the impression of choosing subjects, but of suddenly realising there’s something I’d be excited to write about. Perhaps instinctively I go where I feel life is intense, where I will find energy. A Season with Verona, for example, the football fan book, was one of the best things I’ve written about people in general. It was so extraordinary travelling week after week with those wild young men.
Your book Literary Tour of Italy is marvellous: how did you approach discovering Italy’s literature?
I was lucky. Out of the blue the New York Review of Books started asking me for essays on Italian authors. Saba, Montale, Verga, Nievo, Morante, Boccaccio. Many, many others. I quickly realised it was a way of deepening my knowledge of the country, of understanding the connection between a people’s history and their literature. I always like to think of each author I tackle as one in a chorus of voices, somebody whose individuality depends on the particular way they react to circumstances and themes that are common to the others as well.
Which Italian authors did you read first?
Natalia Ginzburg is probably the easiest novelist for a learner to tackle. Then Moravia. I read all the novelists of the thirties and forties. Morante, Pavese, Calvino. Then slowly back in time, Verga, Manzoni, Nievo, Leopardi, Foscolo, on and on to the fountainhead, Dante. I’d probably been here ten years before I could read him with any confidence.
Do you get upset at how little Italian literature we read in English? Is that changing?
No. There is such a rich English-language literature. And the world is vast. French literature, German, Spanish. Many, many others. One can’t read everything. Italian seems to get a reasonable amount of attention. It’s a mistake I think to abandon one’s own literature to read mostly foreign literature. Our own literature and writers should be precious to us. It’s our grounding in our own literature which then allows us to savour the foreignness of others.
You’ve written eighteen novels, a few set in Italy, but not all: how far does Italy define and influence you as a fiction writer?
Interesting subject. My first vocation was as a novelist, working initially in a British tradition for a British or English-speaking public. Then slowly, through the nineties that shifted, inevitably. Now to my surprise I find I’ve become my own creature, for better or worse, bringing my own particular range of experience to the party. Probably the recent book Italian Life, half memoir, half fiction, was the closest I’ve got to presenting a fictional Italian world in English.
You are one of our best-known translators from Italian, how long did it take before you felt you could translate from Italian?
I started working as a commercial translator quite soon, after a couple of years in Italy, translating more or less everything, technical manuals, art catalogues, tourist brochures. That was extremely useful. You pick up so many words, learn what’s standard Italian and what isn’t. I was offered my first literary translation at thirty, after five years in the country. But really one goes on learning year after year, even now, and I’d be a little anxious going back to check the work I did then.
As readers (or reviewers!), how should we read translations from Italian if we don’t know the original?
You bring to the book what you have, in terms of language and context. What else can you do? As a reviewer, it’s worth staying alert to the internal coherence of the writing, which is often where translations slip up. As a general reader, just enjoy!
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