‘TO BE BORN MALE IS AN INCURABLE DISEASE.’
The writer Edoardo Albinati was born in Rome in 1956 where he still lives and teaches literature at the city’s Rebibbia prison. Albinati won Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. His work The Catholic School has been translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar and is published in England by Picador.
This interview with Edoardo Albinati was made in London on 27th August, 2019, when the writer presented the English edition of his 1,263 page book at the Italian Cultural Institute London in conversation with Fiammetta Rocco, Culture Editor of The Economist and 1843 magazine.
This interview is also available as a podcast.
Edoardo Albinati, did you really write ‘The Catholic School’ longhand?
Partly by hand. The last the last two or three hundred pages I wrote by hand.
How long did it take you to write over one thousand two hundred pages?
It took nine years. I started in 2006 and I finished in 2015, but in the middle of this period I had three or four years in which I was completely stuck and I thought that I was over. The book was not over, but I was exhausted and I couldn’t find a way to finish it. Then in 2012 the people who work in the narrative fiction section of the publisher Rizzoli New York asked me if I had a book to publish with them. I told them that possibly there was something that I had been working on for years but I was not able to finish. They encouraged, helped, supported and pushed me; everything that a publisher can do for an author to finish his work, and so I put all my energies into finishing it. The first version was 1500 pages, then I cut some. Rizzoli were quite scared when they received it, and, after having called me and phoned me and mailed me for weeks, they disappeared. There was a blackout during which they were reading the book – or trying to read it. And then they called me with the good news that it was physically possible – from a technical point of view – to publish a book of that length. So I just had to cut what was not good, not to make it shorter but to edit out the useless part of it.
Did the people at Rizzoli edit it or did you edit it yourself?
I was helped by two people. One is my daughter, and the other an editor of Rizzoli. I cross-checked their suggestions, and when both suggested cutting some pages or rewriting some passages I did. When it was just my daughter, I believed my daughter. When it was just the professional reader, I didn’t.
Did you always know it would be a very long book?
No, not when it started. I thought it would be a long book, 400 or 500 pages, but not like this.
How does a writer handle a book of this size? How can you remember what you wrote on page 10 when you are at page 972?
That’s why I got lost after a few years. But then I used the example of the director Matteo Garrone, with whom I wrote a film ‘The Tale of Tales’. To write his films and then to edit them Garrone used a very large wall panel with transparent pockets in which he put pieces of different colored cardboard to follow the different storylines of the film. And so I did the same. I had both my daughters helping me to build this, with 200 of these transparent plastic pockets. I had four main themes in the book, and I started to write these on pieces of paper and see if there were some sort of co-events in the stories.
“There are no safe areas of society.”
Edoardo Albinati, some critics say that this book is a masterpiece, that you are great writer and it’s a great novel. Others say it’s not a novel, it’s not an essay, it’s not a masterpiece. Others say why did he make such a long book. It is much discussed. Is it an historical novel?
It is an historical novel, because something that happened 40 years ago is history.
Yes. It was in 1975, forty four years ago. You don’t have to go back to the Middle Ages or to the Renaissance to write a historical novel. Life and society in Rome has changed so rapidly that after 20 years, after one generation, the entire world you are talking about no longer exists. The way people live has changed. Family life in the Italy of the ‘60s and ‘70s is something that is closer to the 18th century than to our contemporary life.
Why did you write about this as a novel?
The beauty of a novel is that you are always describing, talking about, sometimes inventing, times that maybe once existed but now don’t exist anymore. It is a novel simply because, since the beginning of this literary genre, the novel is a hybrid. It is not pure, it is not lyric, it is not theater, it is not philosophy; it is something that joins all these things together. The first novelists did that from the beginning, so I feel authorized to do the same thing and building on the contribution of the novelists of the 20th century like Proust.
‘War and Peace’ is about Napoleon and the war, but it is also the story of a family and a society where all sorts of things are happening, also because of history. The story of ‘The Catholic School’ is the story of a real school that you went to, and boys who were in school with you were part of the murder in Circeo in 1975. Is it the story of a generation and based on an historical fact?
Yes, but let’s drop the comparison with ‘War and Peace’, which is a masterpiece! We should not compare ourselves with Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dante. We writers can try to deal with others as colleagues, but Tolstoy is not a colleague, he is a genius.
How would you describe your book?
There are many stories in the book and there is one voice that is the narrator. It is not autobiographically me, and I was partially inspired by other people like me who did these things. The fun in writing is that you are free to use your own life, and the life of others, and the life of fantasy, as pure fictional material. One of the main characters of the book is the genius schoolmate Arbus. In fact the character of Arbus is inspired by a real schoolmate I had when I was in school. I didn’t see this guy again for 40 years and I never knew anything about him, but then he read the book and he wrote to me. Everything I wrote about him after he left school is completely invented. Arbus goes through a series of experiences, some of them close to madness – because he’s a pyromaniac, he is someone who is arrested because of touching ladies’ bottoms in buses, things like this. I thought he could have been ashamed or scandalized or angry with me when he read the book, but he liked it, and that’s why I think I’m right in saying that he’s a genius – because he’s open, completely open.
And then you have real murderers among your characters?
The only thing I didn’t change at all was the murder. There were three murderers: Angelo Izzo, Gianni Guido, Andrea Ghira. This is the reason why I started to write the book, because in 2005 Angelo Izzo was out of prison. In the book he is called just Angelo, but the other two I changed the names of because I couldn’t stand to write them. I call Gianni Guido “The Subdued” or “The Subjugated”, because during the first trial his lawyers tried to demonstrate that he was subjugated by the other two strong personalities. The third one, Andrea Ghira, I call “Il Legionario” because he died as a soldier of the Spanish Foreign Legion in Morocco and is buried in the Spanish North African city of Melilla under another name, but it is established that the body that is in that grave is his. Everything I write about them and about their victims really happened. I took the facts from the trials, from the recordings of the police, from the transcriptions. It is something I didn’t dare to change or to novelize.
Have you seen Angelo Izzo since the murder?
No, not at all. I’m not Truman Capote. I didn’t follow that path of getting information, meeting, talking, interviewing.
“Nothing happens for one reason in life. There is never one and only reason. There are many reasons.”
Edoardo Albinati, they say ‘The Catholic School’ is a very masculine book. There are no women here, and yet you have said that you have read many books on feminism?
I want to recreate the climate of this period. In the ‘70s feminism was probably the most relevant political thinking, but not only then, it is the political movement of the 20th century. While all the others failed, feminism remains, and is still completely alive and actual in all the countries of the world.
What does feminism have to do with the story of the book?
The feminist movement was the first in history in which people started to think about gender as distinct from the human being as such. After feminism, after women wrote about being a woman, in the ‘80s they started to think that you had to do the same thing with males. So there is not just man as the individual or human being or the subject of philosophy, but there is the male. What are the characteristics of a boy? What are the real feelings, not the feelings that we suppose that he feels to be a man, to be a boy and then to become a man? What is the intimate nature of a boy? You can discover it, think about it and narrate it if you, like me, go inside an all-male school like ‘The Catholic School’.
Is what happens in the book a consequence of Catholic education?
No, it is not a consequence. Nothing happens for one reason in life. There is never one and only reason. There are many reasons. There is a sort of carpet that is knitted with at least ten different threads with different colors.
What was the name of your school?
My school was San Leone Magno, a Catholic school. Paying schools in Italy were only Catholic, so it’s a sort of synonym for a private school. Among the issues of this school the first and most important is that it was an all-male school. The second one was that as a paying school it was just for well-off families, or at least families who could afford to pay for the education of their children.
This is not the Pasolini underclass type of world. This is a bourgeois crime in a bourgeois neighborhood?
This crime showed for the first time that things like rape and murder are not confined to the slums but are something that can happen everywhere and can be done by everybody. So there are no safe areas of society. The neighborhood in which this school was built, and almost all the students of the school came from the same area, was considered for many reasons as a safe place, where nothing serious, nothing dramatic, nothing criminal could happen.
Why did you take so many pages to tell this story?
The book covers many different issues and stories and had a lot of characters that I felt obliged to go through in my research and I like asking the reader to follow me in the same research of what it means first to be male, second to be bourgeois, third to be a Roman Catholic living in the ’70s and looking for truth, sex, religion, violence. Around page 600 to page 900 I tried to go through especially sexual violence, as one of the main features of a human being in general, of male identity. Male identity has been built for centuries on this idea of having to use force and violence, to compensate for what I think is the fragility of the male nature. Men started and go on using violence to overcome their own impotence, their own trauma.
Do you have the feeling that in this book you really went deep into your soul?
I cannot go deeper than this, because if I go deeper than this I am going underground.
Alain Elkann interviews Edoardo Albinati at the Italian Cultural Institute, London.
Edoardo Albinati © Angelo Loy
Edoardo Albinati: La scuola cattolica
Edoardo Albinati won the Premio Strega literary prize, Italy’s equivalent of the Booker.
Angelo Izzo in later life.
“The fun in writing is that you are free to use your own life, and the life of others, and the life of fantasy, as pure fictional material.”
Edoardo Albinati, do you consider yourself a Catholic writer?
First you have to believe in God, and I don’t know I’m a believer. I don’t think that He doesn’t exist, I don’t think that He exists. I describe in the book the fact of not having faith. I never had it, even though I followed the rules and I tried hard to believe.
By writing you didn’t find faith?
Will you believe in literature?
You know the song of John Lennon, I don’t believe in this, I don’t believe in that. I am quite of that school. I don’t believe in literature, I like literature. Here I want to make a difference between liking and believing. I don’t think that literature is going to change things, to free people, to make people better, but I like it. I can say I like literature in all its aspects, I love literature, but I don’t believe in literature. I am a narrator.
What is the difference between a novelist and a narrator?
A novel is a large book with a plot and with characters that do something at the beginning and by the end they are different. A narrator is somebody who follows stories and it’s the narration of your own discovery.
How do you feel about being an Italian writer?
I write in Italian, and to be an Italian writer probably means to be almost oppressed and burned by the enormous treasure of our own language, of our own tradition, of the fact that our literature was great from the outset. Nobody will ever compare with Dante and Petrarch, but Italy is a very interesting place to write about because it’s a place in which you can have all kind of experiments, in life, in love, and in politics. It’s a lively place, even if it’s not the center of the world.
At the end of the day is ‘The Catholic School’ pessimistic or optimistic?
The last line of the book says: “One song after the other, the Christmas mass at San Leone Magno was drawing to its close. And my heart finally overflowed with joy.”
Portrait of Edoardo Albinati by kind permission and © Marco Delogu.
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