I think it was Picasso who said that an artist mustn’t chase after beauty, but run ahead of it (I was sure it was Picasso who said it, but I haven’t been able to find this quotation again anywhere).*
Luigi Spagnol, Storia di un libro
(introduction to a lecture in Venice, on 26 January 2017)
Italian publisher Luigi Spagnol was one of a kind. A polymath. Translator, artist, publisher of an above-average number of bestsellers. The man who brought Harry Potter to Italy, who translated, among others, Winnie the Pooh. He persuaded Luis Sepúlveda to try his hand at writing for younger readers, and that gave us The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly.
Correre davanti alla bellezza is a collection of Spagnol’s articles in the publishing trade press, some of his talks, interviews and essays. The foreword, by business partner and friend Stefano Mauri, traces the history of how Gruppo editoriale Mauri Spagnol, one of Italy’s largest publishers, now a conglomeration of twenty different imprints, was set up in 2005. Mauri and Spagnol were “brothers in work”, as the former puts it, despite their different backgrounds. Their fathers, too, had been business partners before them.
Every evening, as soon as my father came home, he would play the electric guitar, surrounded by Pop Art and designer furniture. A few blocks away, in the Spagnol household, people were playing and listening to classical music in a living room rich in antique furniture and 19th-century paintings.
It is clear from this premise that they had heated discussions before making decisions. But what they had in common was enough for two company directors to get on: they were honest, devoted to their work, ambitious; and even though they disagreed on practically everything, they held each other in high esteem.
Mauri continues with a tribute to the talented, artistic Luigi Spagnol, his exceptional instinct for good books, his originality and his fine mind always in search of knowledge.
He was highly educated and inquisitive, was always reading, liked studying languages, from Arabic to Swedish, published and adored authors like Margaret Atwood, Philippe Claudel, Philip Pullman and David Almond. He had huge respect for readers and always tried to put himself in their shoes.
The first part of Correre davanti alla bellezza centres on the world of publishing and literature. In it, Spagnol discusses a variety of subjects, some of which, although obvious at first sight, are explored with a sharp insight and stark common sense that make you realise how many truths you take for granted and, as a result, forget. I found myself reading and nodding in agreement vigorously every few sentences. Whether you’re a publisher or a writer, Spagnol says, the only “taste” you can truly trust is your own, so please yourself, be true to yourself when writing and publishing. He goes on to condemn sexism in the world of literature and publishing.
And I wonder: why? Why do we do it? Why do we obstinately refuse to see the world through, also through the eyes of great women artists whose only flaw is to belong to a sex different from ours? […] It’s not hard to work out what we gain from this: power, control, and with these, money, self-esteem, gratification.
There is a wonderful lecture on the genesis of a book, and its journey from writing to publication. Spagnol’s love of the written word is palpable on every page.
I know many people complain that too many books are published, and some even that too many are written. As far as I am concerned, the thought that someone, this very morning, may have woken up intending to write a book never ceases to fill me with joy, hope and admiration.
As someone who loves going to the London Book Fair and has sorely missed it in the past two years, I found Spagnol’s article describing the Frankfurt Book Fair (to which I’ve not yet been), a real treat. His descriptions of the Agent Centre transported me straight there, and I could practically eavesdrop on the pitches and negotiations between agents and publishers. He notes the quasi absence of physical books there and explains the reason:
As a matter of fact, in the translation rights market of books written in English, which is by far the largest […], and more than others dominated by literary agents, a printed book is viewed with suspicion by whoever might buy its translation rights. It means that the agent wasn’t able to sell it before it was published, as usually happens; it means that they have already pitched it to many other publishers who’ve rejected it. It’s not a good sign, even though the history of publishing is full of rejected books that went on to become bestsellers.
Not all countries act that way: the French, for example, seldom pitch a book before it’s been printed; I suppose they do this above all to be different from the British and the Americans.
The second part of the book contains the transcription of an in-depth conversation about art between Spagnol and art critic, publisher and academic Demetrio Paparoni, as well as an extract from an incomplete, unpublished essay on music. Again, what emerges from these is not only Luigi Spagnol’s deep love and respect of art (he was, among his many talents, a painter; his works were the focus of a recent exhibition in Milan), but his keen sense of analysis, his insatiable inquisitiveness, his open-mindedness, his wide-rangingculture and his high cerebral and emotional intelligence.
Correre davanti alla bellezza gives us an enlightening insight into the world of publishing and into the fascinating thought processes of an exceptional mind. I would also call it very much an interactive book, in that you cannot remain passive while reading it. Every sentence knocks at your brain and heart, demanding a reaction, a response. Agree, disagree, put the thought on hold for later, until it’s more fully formed – but think! And, on some level, as a reader you end up having a conversation with the book – and a highly-satisfying one at that.
If there is an after, I am certain that Luigi is trying to persuade Lucho [Luis Sepúlveda], who passed away just a few months before him, to get back to work.
(from Stefano Mauri’s Foreword)
You don’t need to be a translator, a publisher, a writer, an editor, an artist or a musician to connect with Correre davanti alla bellezza. All you need is a sense of wonder for all the beauty that humans can create.
* Translations in italics by Katherine Gregor
By Katherine Gregor
CORRERE DAVANTI ALLA BELLEZZA (Running Ahead of Beauty) Non-Fiction
by Luigi Spagnol (Longanesi, 2021)
With warm thanks to Viviana Vuscovich, Mariagrazia Mazzitelli, Lara Spagnol, Gruppo editoriale Mauri Spagnol, Milan.
Published in English translation this month: Almarina by Valeria Parella (John Murray Press, July 2021). Translated by Alex Valente
After studying art in Paris, Luigi Spagnol began his publishing career at Longanesi before becoming editorial editor then C.E.O of Salani. From 2005, he was vice president of Gruppo editoriale Mauri Spagnol. Also a translator, he produced versions of works by, among others, P.G. Wodehouse, Jean Giono and A.A. Milne. He passed away in June 2020, at the age of 59.
Katherine Gregor grew up in Italy and France before going to university in England. She has been a theatrical agent, press agent, teacher and one or two other things before becoming a literary translator from Italian, French and, on occasion, Russian. She also writes original material and is currently working on a non-fiction book.
Read previous posts in The Italianist series:
THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. CON I PIEDI NEL FANGO: CONVERSAZIONI SU POLITICA E VERITÀ (With Your Feet in The Mud: Conversations About Politics and Truth) by Gianrico Carofiglio (with Jacopo Rosatelli)