THE INTERVIEW AS A LITERARY GENRE
A self-interview along with Elisabetta Sgarbi, taken from a conversation between Alain Elkann and Elisabetta Sgarbi, who writes:
“This piece was born from a game between me, the publisher, and Alain Elkann, an author of mine. I asked Alain a few questions to which he answered like duplicating himself, as if he was detached from his own self, that is like he was answering the question he himself made. An auto-interview where I, the interviewer, hide to let the interviewed take the centre of the stage.
“It is some sort of funny homage to his method to ask questions and obtain answers: a peculiar method that presumes, even in its canonical form, the partial hiding of the interviewer so that through short and punctual questions the interviewed can reveal himself with complete freedom and no interior restraints. A Socratic method, one would say.
“Here you have Elkann himself telling his story, and he does so through this method, which is also his reference philosophy: the absolute respect of the Other. A respect than can definitely be routed in his Hebrew ethics, which are intertwined to his cultural education. Thus the interview turns into a “journey”, as Elkann says, a journey through people and places. And there come the memories of excellent people like Carlo Maria Martini, Elio Toaff, Hassan bin Talal of Jordan… and it all springs up from his ability to urge, at the right moment, something that is undefinable at the beginning, but quite clear and definite at the end. That is the interviewed self.”
Elisabetta Sgarbi, Editorial Director, Bompiani
TEN YEARS OF SCHOOLING WITH THE BEST PROFESSORS IN THE WORLD
From the time I was a child, I realised I didn’t know how to be a painter or a sculptor, nor did I have the technical ability to express my feelings through drawings or sculptures. So, at around age seventeen, I “fell back” on writing, and for me that meant writing fiction or fantasy.
I didn’t read newspapers and I wasn’t interested in the news. On one hand, I was curious about writers and their books or stories, and on the other hand I was naturally inquisitive about their lives. Their biographies interested me more than anything. I remember I was obsessively passionate, not just about the works of Joyce (Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Dubliners), but in particular about how Joyce lived. For example, because Joyce was a friend of Svevo one winter he went from Trieste to Rome, and then he returned to Trieste feeling troubled. In short, I wanted to understand how he lived as a writer.
For some time my own life as a writer ran parallel with the editorial job I held. Out of the blue, at around forty years of age, I was asked to write a Life of Moravia in interview form. It actually seemed like a ghastly intrusion. I was furious about having to do it. It wasn’t my line of work. I was always very reluctant about doing journalism, about doing anything other than telling stories or writing novels. Nonetheless, I did it. Following this, there were interviews for La Stampa and for television. I came to understand that, considering that I was largely self-taught, interviewing was a continuation of my apprenticeship. It meant entering into the lives of others, seeing how they lived, what kind of smells came out of the kitchens in their homes, if they were in their underwear or wore double-breasted suits, if they were arrogant or if they were not. I realised that in interviews I liked to, for example, ask Versace how one sews a dress; ask Gae Aulenti how one designs a house; ask Zoff how one coaches a national team or plays goalkeeper; ask Messner how one climbs a mountain; or ask a politician what a parliamentary battle is. And this is what I did, starting with Moravia and continuing on. Ten years of schooling with the best professors in Italy and perhaps, at times, in the world. An extraordinary learning experience. I learned sublime things and little things from these people. From how to furnish a home to how to dress, from the books they have in their libraries to the schedule they keep; if they travel a lot and how they pack a bag. I had the privilege of being milk-fed this information, which is the material and manna of a novelist. And, thanks to television, I learned something else that is very important – moderation and asking brief questions, knowing when to cut things short, sometimes jumping from one topic to another with the non-logic of a novel.
An interview is a visit I pay to someone. It’s a pleasure. It is fun. It’s a part of the day and it has an objective – putting that moment into a framework. It is a moment of great concentration that creates an event out of curiosity. I remember once when I didn’t know what to ask Tinto Brass [an Italian filmmaker known for his erotic movies]. I was a bit bored, waiting there at Cinecittà with all these starlets, whores, vulgar women and dwarves. Then I saw this man coming in with a huge cigar in his mouth, and I absolutely didn’t know what to ask him (because one of the most important rules of interviewing is not to be prepared). But seeing him there smoking a cigar, and seeing how large he was, I said to him, “Are you modelling yourself on Orson Welles?” He turned red. He said, “How did you know? I’m married to Cipriani’s sister and we own the Locanda Cipriani Torcello. When I was younger I used to see Orson Welles there, eating so voraciously and puffing on a cigar.” And the interview went from Welles back to Tinto Brass.
One has to know how to find a “hook,” just like in a novel. I don’t have a preconceived line of questioning that leads to where I want the person to say this or that. Slowly I come to understand what I want to be told, where I want it to go, and this is how it begins.
I let people say what they want to say. I let them express themselves and make mistakes. I allow them to express the character they’ve built. There are interviews with a theme and those with no theme. Moravia was a maestro and he was also self-taught, and I think that an artist needs to learn for himself what he needs, the materials that he needs so that his work is creative, is authentic and follows a unique path.
Then again, beyond all this there’s chance, there is the great randomness of life. Doing an interview is about life. In fact, you can’t interview a dead person. Although it would probably be interesting to do so.
There are some interviews I did that still surprise me. I did an interview with Cardinal Etchegaray on the faith of the pope during a trip to Israel and Jordan, and, when he explained that the pope goes to sacred places to reinforce his faith in order to be able to reinforce the faith of others, there were moments of such emotion for me and for the cardinal that at the end he felt the need to tell me, “Do you know that I’ve never said these kinds of things outside of a church before?”
Another thing I love about my work is the “cooking.” As I’ve said before, for years I have used these blue Swiss notebooks of the same size. When an interview goes three pages longer than the first half of the notebook, it is done. I stop. It’s a question of size. I write down all of the questions and I write down all of the answers. And my interview is an exact dictation of everything I’ve asked and everything answered, and that is it.
I did an interview with Fanny Ardant that wasn’t published. She is a character who invents herself, and thus her answers are, in a certain way, also invented. It’s absolutely literary. She creates a character and responds exactly as that character would respond.
As I was saying about size, an interview has its own ceremonial, a proper order that is really important in the rhythm of the interview. People love to talk about themselves. They love to talk and talk and you say “Thank you.” It’s up to you to decide when the interview is over.
Just as with poetry, an interview has rules. There is its own special metre. And as I have come to believe more and more that this work is in practice like “cooking,” after doing it for a while I’ve developed an instinct, a habit, and a way of making people talk about themselves. And if I think about it, I don’t like to talk about myself, and I wouldn’t ask myself any questions. I absolutely do not love giving interviews. I don’t want to say anything. I have absolutely no interest in my own responses. If others want to know who I am, I shouldn’t be the one who has to tell them.
When I was writing the Life of Moravia I spent two years living with Moravia. Living in the sense of going to restaurants, to the cinema, talking about lovers and dreams, travelling, going to the United States, to Canada, being in Paris, being in Rome, being in Sabaudia, fighting, not working, interrupting, and suffering – over, for example, the news about Pasolini. I remember we were in Sabaudia and it was terribly hot, Moravia had sweat running down his back as he talked about Pasolini for three days, in that very same house where Pier Paolo had lived.
Once I told Moravia about a trip I took to Berlin. Right away he said, “Let’s go back to the hotel. I forgot to tell you about when I was in Berlin as well.” In less than an hour, in his hotel room, he told a passionate tale of his trip, when he saw Hitler raving like a lunatic from a balcony.
I don’t actually know if he really did see Hitler, or even if he was really in Berlin. I know that in half an hour he wove a wonderful story during this conversation, when he was over eighty years of age. I remember that during that trip I took notes of some pieces to add to the book on the hotel’s stationery. In the first draft of the book he had spoken a lot about Elsa Morante, with whom he was intellectually in love, and less about Dacia Maraini, who he was in love with in all senses of the word. So it was necessary to add in various things about his life with her… And so I did.
There were certain people that he talked about joyfully, recounting various times and events. He really liked to talk about Carlo Levi, though he didn’t want to talk about Chiaromonte. He liked to talk about Pannunzio. There were easy sessions and then there were the tantrums – both his and mine. And hurt feelings. There were times I was offended and times he was offended. Sometimes we played this kind of game, which was to say that they’d already paid us the advance to write the book; and so every time I would say, “I am not going to do the book if you act like this,” he would respond, “They’ve already paid us the advance.” In the end, when the book came out, we discovered that they had never actually paid us the advance.
There were long breaks of a month or so, when Moravia would return to Rome and I had to be in Paris, because at that time I worked in a publishing company. Every time we saw each other after such a break it was all new again. In Life of Moravia you can sense these changes of mood and even the different places where we worked because it really was like we were living together and had all that cohabitation brings with it. Our little rituals, for example. If we were working in Rome, in I came and he was already at the table; having finished his writing he was having his tea. It took months for me to make him realise that perhaps I would like something to drink as well. There was a bit of everything in these encounters – ritual, work, a life of friendship and everyday life. And then it was done and the book came out. And it’s not an interview this Moravia book. It is Moravia, talking for hundreds of pages. The original manuscript, which was given as a gift to Harvard University’s library of rare books and manuscripts, was more than 1,800 pages. It was a huge undertaking, and Life of Moravia is a big slice of our “long meeting.”
The book Interviste (Interviews) covers eleven years, 1989-2000, and is the history of a culture, of a country, and some of its most diverse personalities.
Now I have done hundreds of interviews, both in written form and on television, and this has taken me to innumerable houses, workplaces, theatres and cities. There have been some themes, there was the period of interviewing mayors, the political period. Then there were the important senior citizens, such as Norberto Bobbio, Rita Levi Montalcini, Leo Valiani and Pietro Ingrao. I’ve interviewed cardinals and men of the church. I went to Igauzu Falls to interview father Antonio Paoli about God and to the Cottolengo in Turin to speak with sister Giuliana Galli. I was with Cardinal Noè and Peter Ustinov in Saint Peter’s, at night, with the entire diplomatic corps and the Curia. I interviewed father Piccirillo at Monte Nebo, from where he went on to meet the pope, and I have interviewed various prime ministers and Presidents of the Republic, home office, justice and foreign affairs ministers. I remember Ciampi and his computer at the Treasury Ministry. I remember Amato in his country house in Ansedonia, and Tronchetti Provera in his office in Milan. I remember Messner in his house which was a castle near Bressanone, on a sunny day at the end of August with apples everywhere. I remember Giulio Einaudi in his studio at Telemontecarlo, at his house in Rome, at his house in Turin, and at the Einaudi publishing company. Then there was Attilio Bertolucci in a modest flat in Monteverdi. Mario Luzi’s flat in Florence was even more modest, with modern furnishings, books and newspapers and notebooks in considerable disorder. Then there was Adriano Sofri, in prison in Pisa in an empty room with just a desk, and Carmelo Bene, dressed all in black, in a ridiculous ground floor flat in Rome where he simply did not want to be interviewed. I met with Paolo Conte in Asti where he was playing the piano in a recording studio. The Conte television interview was aired the night of the Falcone tragedy, and Beniamino Placido said, “This interview is a reply to terrorism.”
And there are more: Isabella Rossellini at the Hôtel Raphaël in Paris, which has always been a home away from home for the entire Rossellini family, the only touchstone for that family of nomads. Sophia Loren in a flat in Geneva when she turned sixty, she was so elegant. Then there was Edda Ciano, who said some terrible things on the telephone at night and then added, “I have nothing to say.”
I also remember those who did not want to give interviews. I chased after Francesco Rosi, but never convinced him; I couldn’t even talk on the telephone with Nanni Moretti; and Cuccia, whose secretary very discreetly said, “Mr Elkann, the President is honoured and he thanks you, but as you know, he does not give interviews.”
While I have not yet interviewed former president Scalfaro, others come to mind, such as Francesco Cossiga at his home in Rome or Silvio Berlusconi in Arcore, three months before he entered politics. He said to me, “Mr Elkann, let’s find a way to wrap this up.” And I responded, “You decide how, sir.” And he said, “Something off the cuff, anything?” “Yes, whatever you’d like. The first thing that comes to mind.” And he said, “Well, let’s wrap up this way, Mr Elkann. I’m just thinking about this right now for the first time. As a message, I’d say, for example ‘Forza Italia’.” Then he stopped. “I didn’t say it well. Let me say that again. Forza Italia.” I didn’t know that two months later the Forza Italia party would be born. He did though. [editor’s note: Forza Italia means ‘Go Italy,’ is a common football chant and would later be the name of the political party created by Berlusconi]
There are still other interviews I’d like to talk about. When I had finished my book with Cardinal Martini, he asked for a meeting. It was in August. He was alone and wore a dress shirt. I had seen him dressed in red with the sash, dressed as a clergyman, but never before had I seen him in a white shirt. And I have never been so intimidated, because you no longer knew he was a cardinal. He was an elegant gentleman with a white shirt. He said, “Mr Elkann, we need to write a final message, an afterword.” I responded, “Yes.” He asked, “But Mr Elkann, how much time will you give me? I am very busy.” I told him, “Your Eminence, I can give you a maximum of three months.” He responded, “You are asking quite a lot of me.” We finished at midnight. The next morning at 7:30 a.m. his secretary called me and said, “Mr Elkann, where can I fax you His Eminence’s afterword?”
For the book Le mura di Gerusalemme (The Walls of Jerusalem), however, I had an appointment with Cardinal Martini in a convent of nuns in the Vatican. I arrived, and I saw another journalist from Famiglia Cristiana. I thought this was strange. I said, “I have an appointment with His Eminence at 4 p.m. My name is Elkann.” The nun looked at me and said, “Yes, His Eminence will arrive in ten minutes.” The other journalist said, “I have an appointment with His Eminence. I’m from Famiglia Cristiana.” “Yes, His Eminence will arrive in ten minutes,” responded the nun. Ten minutes passed, and the phone rang. The nun came back and said, “Mr Elkann, His Eminence is coming down,” and then she turned to the other gentleman and said, “His Eminence is coming down.” He and I scowled at each other a bit. After ten minutes Cardinal Tettamanzi, who had an appointment with the journalist from Famiglia Cristiana, showed up along with Cardinal Martini who had an appointment with me. We did our interviews in two neighbouring little rooms. I had the impression that my colleague was curious about what I was asking Cardinal Martini, just as I am still curious about what he asked Cardinal Tettamanzi.
I will close by remembering two interviews. First, the interview with Professor Elio Toaff, another great friend of mine with whom I had long sessions, usually in the morning in his apartment in the Roman Ghetto or in his office at the synagogue. Toaff is a wonderful man. A smiling man, an attentive grandfather, a man resolute in his mission and a great scholar at the same time.
And another extraordinary interview was with Indro Montanelli at the Versiliana. There were two-and-a-half hours of questions and answers in front of 1,500 people. We talked about many topics, ranging from euthanasia to Giuliano Amato, from prostitution to Camp David. Non-stop. From anecdotes on Fascism to memories of Longanesi, and much more. Montanelli is the person whom I have interviewed the most frequently, but almost never about himself. He is reticent and shy, and doesn’t want to put himself at the centre of attention. He prefers to be hidden behind his ideas and sharp judgements.
Being an interviewer is a special job. It is a real journey, a journey between places and between people, where the places count, just like they do in the Bible.
And this is my life, day after day.
See also http://www.elisabettasgarbi.it
21st July, 2000.