WRITING IS A WAY OF LIFE. The following interview was made with Alain Elkann by Letture.org following the publication of Anita by Bompiani in 2019.
Alain Elkann, your latest novel, published by Bompiani, is called Anita. Death is the “stone guest” throughout the entire novel, and we could say it is the true protagonist of the story, a powerful presence that is silent if unsettling, inspiring Milan/Misha to reflect on the afterlife. Could we say that Anita is an existentialist novel?
In one sense, yes. In rereading it, I realized that it is a novel that, in a bit of a philosophical way, makes death a protagonist. Not death as a tragedy or illness but death meant as a human condition. We all know that we are born and we die, but we don’t know what happens after death, and that is one of the debates in this book. We can all imagine the afterlife in any way we want. There are many examples, from the ancient Egyptians to what Dante imagined in the Divina Commedia: the afterlife as a big novel. There are those who have faith and believe in specific rules and those who believe there is nothing after death. So there is no great proof of what happens after death, and we all have the free will to decide what will become of us, meaning our bodies. If we want to be cremated or buried or to donate our organs to the hospitals, and so on.
This book is a strange debate between two people, during their romantic relationship, between a man and a woman, Misha and Anita, who have different plans for themselves: Anita wants to be cremated though she believes in reincarnation while Misha wants to be buried even if he doesn’t believe in, or is sceptical of life after death. The book is built around this topic which, I think, is ironic, even comical at times, but it is not a sad book about sad death. Death is treated as a part of life and therefore, each person can decide just as he decides to buy a house or go to a certain place, he can decide what to do with himself. During this decision-making process, you can have doubts or change your mind. Actually, Misha thinks about this a lot. On one hand, he thinks it would be better to be buried but then he starts thinking about cremation, and so on. As I said, all of this is taken on in a light-hearted way, as a part of life and not as a tragedy.
“Reading is a licit secret.”
Alain Elkann. Portrait by Joshua Deveaux.
“Life is serious, frivolous, superficial, tragic, sad, terrible, amazing, but it ends for everyone.” How strong is the “sentiment of fragility” in Alain Elkann?
I often think that the human condition is strange, very fragile. All it takes is an accident or an illness to lead us to our deaths. At the same time, man is able to construct so much. I mean, constructing civilization, art, science, inventing things, changing human life itself over the centuries, how we live and therefore human life is something suspended, and I think we need to continue on, do what you feel like doing, but we can’t decide when it will end. For a writer, which is my profession, it is inevitable that my body of literary works will be incomplete. At a certain point, you die and that finishes your body of work. Human destiny means you can’t decide your own life. You can decide what to do during your life, but you don’t know in what conditions. Often, in someone’s life, there will be an accident and perhaps one’s life flashes before his eyes but he survives, but it is clear that the human condition is very fragile.
Is love the antidote to death?
Love is a very important feeling that helps us live, makes us happy, makes us suffer, changes the course of our lives. It is a very important feeling, love is, and it is even more important now, in my opinion, today where it seems like the world is ever more uniform and ecological. What awaits us is a world made up of robots and artificial intelligence, but I believe the feeling of love can’t change. One of the ways for expressing art and poetry has always been love, and I don’t think this will ever end. It is perhaps the most important thing in life.
“My children and grandchildren are the backbone of my life, and I have tried to never betray them. They will be the ones to judge me:” how much of what we read in your books is autobiographical?
What I say about my children and grandchildren is certainly true, and it is part of the discussion about love that we began before. One loves his children and grandchildren so they are a very, very big part of his life. At times, they make you extraordinarily proud, other times they make you worry. So they become the backbone of one’s life, individually and as a family. I also believe that family is something very important in making a life for yourself. My novels are autobiographical, and I don’t want to say something absolutely banal, but as Flaubert says, “I am Madame Bovary.” Obviously all of the characters in the novel come from me. While a novel is clearly a transformation of reality, something invented, a story, the story inevitably comes from your own experience, your own feelings, your own obsessions, and so it is inevitably autobiographical. A person writes about what he feels in that moment, what inspires him. I believe that novels are not our own stories, they aren’t the stories of us, but they feed on the life experiences of the writer or the feelings that strike him in that moment.
“Novels feed on the life experiences of the writer.”
When did your love for books and literature begin?
I think it is something that is sparked when we are children. From the time I was very little, I loved when my grandmother read classic children’s books to me. I remember she would come to see me when I was feeling poorly, and she would read me children’s books, books by Giulio Verne, books that were read to children at that time. So, yes, I’ve read since I was a child, and I think that reading is a way of life for those who get in the habit of reading. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a trip in my life without having at least one book in my suitcase. I don’t think there has been a day of my life, for a long time now, that I haven’t read. There is something almost chemical about reading. It is an integral part of my life. And books are curious. On one hand, there are the classics, the books that have already been published, and, on the other hand, there are the books being written that will be published soon. One can try to go see and to read what is newly published or to reread books that have become classics. There are two ways we read: there are things we read for fun, as a distraction, for the pleasure of it and other times we read books for our work or research. Books and libraries have always been an integral part of my life and they still are today.
At times in my life, I have often had the overwhelming desire to buy a book, an absolute desire to go buy a book and read it. I don’t think there is anything I like more than to immerse myself in a book so much so that I’m bothered if someone disturbs me, and I can’t wait to return to the book. Then, little by little, when the book has hold of you and is nearing the end, you try to stretch it out because you don’t want it to end… reading is a licit secret: one reads in silence and then what we’ve read stays with us, something that returns unexpectedly at times. And even, in real life, we remember or compare things to something that we’ve read. So it is like a common thread, a system that has certainly been very important in my life.
Which comes first: the passion for literature or the passion for writing?
In my case, the passion for literature came first because I didn’t think about writing as a child. The real desire to write came around the age of eighteen or twenty when I’d already read quite a few books. They are quite different things. You can learn how to write from books or from teachers. They are two different things that, at a certain point, become complementary.
A collection of interviews that you have done from the nineteen-eighties up through today has just come out, published by Bompiani as well. “Doing interviews is like a continuation of university because each one is like a private lesson held by an exceptional person on a different topic,” you have said. Is there one that has had a greater impact on you than the others?
Doing interviews is a complementary experience to writing stories or books because when you are doing an interview, you aren’t writing an essay, you don’t express your opinions on a specific topic. In the end, when you do an interview, you try to tell a story in a brief space – unless we are talking about a book – that has the person you are interviewing as the protagonist instead of an imaginary character. I tend to, even in a brief interview, make it like a story with a beginning and an end and, therefore, this journalistic genre does not interfere with the creative desire to write a novel. When I said it was like at university, it is because I have chosen to do eclectic, meaning not specialized, interviews – I don’t interview athletes or writers – with a wide variety of people who are all very different. Therefore, I feel like, even now that I do a weekly interview for the La Stampa newspaper or my blog alainelkanninterviews.com, every week, I feel like I learn something new about the most wide-ranging topics. I may interview someone who heads up a fashion house or a politician speaking about political matters or an architect, an artist, a scientist, or a biographer writing a biography of someone and therefore speaking about that person. I certainly acquire new knowledge every week. Doing interviews forces you, even if you don’t cover news, to follow current events, to read the newspapers, and to try to understand what is happening in various areas of life and, little by little, choosing people that seem interesting to interview at that moment.
My favourite interview? It is hard to say because I’ve done so many. It isn’t because I don’t want to say one name and exclude others, but I just don’t have a favourite interview. Overall, they have all been very interesting. Some were adventurous, some were hard to do, others more fun, others more exciting, but there are so many that it is difficult to choose one.
“The job of a writer is to bear witness, in the end, to his own era.”
According to Istat data, more than 60% of Italians don’t read. What do you believe the reasons for this are and what are some possible solutions?
Each country has its different characteristics. I would say that literature and books are not the main characteristic of the Italian personality in that Italians are more apt to be artisans, interested in figurative arts, sculpture, perhaps even music. Take, for example, our cousins in France. The French are traditionally great readers because literature, books have a more important place in French life and French culture. So they have this foundation and, then, it is apparent that, in today’s society, where we are constantly distracted by a telephone with information, blogs, tweets, news agencies, Instagram and the like invading our lives much more than before, obviously, there is less time for reading. As I said at the beginning of this interview, in my case, reading has become a way of life because I started as a child, so I think that schools and families can create this desire for reading. If a child grows up in a family that reads, that talks about books, or has teachers and then professors that inspire reading, if someone has this habit from the time he is young, then it will be there for life. However, I am convinced that, in every country, that has so-called avid readers, that there aren’t really that many. I mean those who read a book per week. It is certainly a shame that reading is going by the wayside. Another thing that has really changed our habits is Google. Now we have a system whereby we push a button and, in thirty seconds, we have an answer to anything that comes to mind. So, for example, this means people frequent libraries less. There are some wonderful libraries in Italy, in many Italian cities, and I don’t know how popular they are or if frequenting the libraries has diminished. The bestseller phenomenon, of the book of the moment that everyone buys, and sometimes they buy and don’t read, that’s something that has always existed, even in the past.
However, I am pleased to see that books in paper form seem to be holding up better than newspapers. All of these flashes of information that we receive on our telephones have bombarded us and informed us to the point that young people are less likely to read newspapers, but the book seems to still be in existence. Of course, knowing that 60% of the population doesn’t read is not very encouraging because it is mainly via reading – not just novels but poetry, essays, history books, philosophy books, and art-history books as well – that we gain knowledge and culture. It is very important to fight to not lose the habit of reading and, therefore, the human sciences because, if we lose these, we lose a fundamental element of being human, meaning the poetic, inventive, curious, and imaginative sides…it would be a shame to lose this! We need to do anything we can, but I don’t say this because I am a writer and want to sell my books. I say this as a general educational phenomenon. Anything we can do, anything the schools can do, anything the families can do to educate, train, and inspire kids to read. It is a fundamental thing because those who aren’t ignorant are less racist…racism comes from fear and ignorance, and reading is a great antidote to the scourge of ignorance. It would be a shame for the country with the most masterpieces in museums and in history to abandon reading.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Writer is a big word. In the end, writing is a job like being an architect. Many people would like to or have written a book in their lives, an autobiographical book…being a writer is something else. It is something that you need to feel inside. The writer, even through fiction, bears witness to the world we live in. For example, to understand the Russian mentality, who Russians are, the best way is perhaps not reading history books as much as reading the great Russian novels from the nineteenth century, the great writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, and Chekhov. This is the job of a writer, to bear witness, in the end, to his own era. The style the writer uses to express himself can vary. It can be a simple, parsimonious style, for example, the style of Italy’s Alberto Moravia, or a more elaborate and complex style like that of Carlo Emilio Gadda. These are two different ways to express oneself, but, in the end, the role of a writer is to bear witness, to look around and know how to transfer what inspires him, what is around him to the book and the story. This is all something that one needs to feel inside, to have this need – a true writer wouldn’t know how to get through life without being able to write – because, actually, a writer takes on a story and then develops it, writes it in his own style, and there are different ways to do this. There are schools of writing. In the United States, and in Argentina, they are very developed, even in other Anglo-Saxon countries. That is something additional. There are those who feel this need to learn a way of writing, to belong to a genre, to a school. For example, writer Raymond Carver created – and was a teacher – of a school of minimalist writing and many American writers who began writing in the nineteen-seventies and –eighties, had Carver as a teacher and source of inspiration.
In my opinion, there are no absolute rules, people talk about the “sacred fire”…you need to feel these needs inside, this desire and perhaps, with time, as things develop, writing improves and one learns to write. Destiny is strange. There are great writers who wrote books very young and then died young. Then there are others who started writing late in life, others who wrote only one or two books, others who have written vast works. I don’t think that we can come up with rules. In short, what I would advise is for those who want to be a writer is to write and then see…then see if it is a “sacred fire” or if it is a calling or a way of life.
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Translation by Michelle M. Schoenung