Jacqueline Risset died on 4th September 2014. She was a poet and a poetical person. With her death we lose a voice, the voice of a woman of great culture and intelligence. With her angelic smile she was very attentive to the support of her friends, and to sharing with them small observations and big concerns about what was going on on our planet. I had the privilege of being one of her friends, and I shall try to follow her example of modesty and devotion to literature. I cannot forget the remarkable translation into French that she made of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. For that alone we should be grateful to Jacqueline’s memory. Alain Elkann
If I love Italy, it’s Dante’s fault
Jacqueline Risset, what made you decide to come and live and work in Italy?
I was fascinated by the Italian Renaissance as well as the modern aspects of a country that at that time seemed like a workshop. Furthermore, I wanted to escape from the resolution and tedium of the French academic path.
When did you come to Italy?
The first time I came was in 1965. Then when I finished university in France, I returned because I had decided to study mythical Rome. Then I discovered there was no mythical Rome but just a book that told the teachings of a Carbonaro pope.
So then what did you do?
I was disappointed. My favourite book at the time was Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, and I thought there were Charterhouses of Parma all over the place. I read a series of novels devoid of female characters except for Pisana, the protagonist of a novel by a little-known writer named Giuseppe Rovani. I was interested in Italian current events because I felt like there was a different sense of political unrest as compared to what was happening in France. The Communist party in France at the time was terribly Stalinist, yet I arrived in Italy to find a Communist party that was alive and well and people that hadn’t studied but that were incredibly skilled at political analysis.
Is it true that you then became friends with Fellini and wrote a book about him?
I mainly wrote about the film The White Sheik and the fascination with illusion and the power of disillusionment. I met Fellini through Zanzotto, a dear friend of mine, who took me to meet him on the set of Casanova. Then I went back when he was shooting Interview, and by then I had translated Dante’s Inferno. I went to see him with the French publisher Flammarion, and I remember that there was a big elephant on the lawn at Cinecittà that was the protagonist of this exotic episode in Interview. Fellini sent us away because there were three of us and we were late. Then he called me. I had given him my translation of Dante, and Fellini, who really loved the great poet, told me I was like a clairvoyant because I really knew how to capture Dante’s voice in the best possible way. And this is how he asked me to work with him. He came to pick me up in a white Mercedes, and we looked through the dialogue in Interview with me writing the subtitles for the Cannes Film Festival. At one point he asked me to also do the dubbing, but then he changed his mind. In his opinion, the French loved the cinema so much that they could see the film in its original language with subtitles.
Well, why had you translated Dante?
In the beginning, I liked Petrarch better. But then I started working with the avant-garde magazine Tel Quel, which had a special Dante issue that the poet Sanguinetti was working on as well. So thanks to the new Petrocchi edition, I discovered a Dante that was much more bitter and modern than I had imagined. Dante had been modernised in a way. Reading all of him, I found it impossible that he wasn’t a part of French culture, so I asked the director of the French publishing house Seuil why Dante wasn’t part of his collection. His response was that “Dante is a dusty writer.” Thus I started working on Dante, and I found him to be surprising and extraordinary.
Why did Dante punish Paolo and Francesca for their love?
He does it not only to punish their love but to punish himself as well. And when he faints listening to the story of Paolo and Francesca, he is thinking he may be like them. His love for Beatrice is different because it involves God. Dante thought, “I should make everyone fall in love with my words.”
And what about sex and love?
They aren’t the same thing, but they are intertwined. Love without sex and sex without love are a bit like “orphans.”
Is writing poetry like falling in love?
In a sense, yes, also because, for me, poetry comes about in the moment. It’s not that they are all love poems, but the loving moment is the model. Though at times, there are even tragic moments.
But love makes us suffer.
Certainly. And if it doesn’t make us suffer, it isn’t love. Because love brings us joy, and joy is something childlike. If there is no joy then it almost isn’t worth living.
Was Italy a great love for you?
I would say so, and it is an enduring love because in the morning, when I walk out into the streets of Rome, I am surprised each and every time at its extraordinary beauty. There’s a mix of all of the eras and styles in the capital, though the great architect Le Corbusier called it an open-air bazaar and said it should be levelled to the ground.
What language do you write your poetry in?
Usually in French, but it’s possible I dream about a phrase that I then use in Italian as well.
Dreams were primordial for Fellini as well, weren’t they?
Yes, certainly. He wrote The Book of Dreams, which is truly extraordinary. I published Sleep’s Powers for Nottetempo [in Italy], which talks about these exact things.
July 15th, 2012.