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René de Ceccatty, you are a French writer. Why did Japan and Italy become so important to you?
I was sent to Japan as a young teacher, instead of doing military service. I learnt Japanese and was fascinated by Japan and Japanese literature, and it stayed in my private and intellectual life. Italy was very different. I grew up in Tunisia and a young Sicilian lady who was with my family talked to me in Italian, so the language was familiar to me from the beginning. As a teenager, the books and movies of Pasolini were very important for me, and when I was older I began to translate Italian works and often went to Italy.
Pier Paolo Pasolini is a link between Alberto Moravia and his wife Elsa Morante, because he was both the friend of Alberto Moravia and for some time also very close to Elsa Morante. Was it because you wrote a biography of Pasolini that you decided to write the biographies of Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante?
Yes. When I began to read Italian I read Pasolini and Moravia. Moravia has a simple language for foreigners reading Italian, and the main reason I did it was his friendship with Pasolini. When I met Moravia for the first time we spoke a lot about Pasolini, and about Moravia’s wife Elsa Morante. Later I translated more novels and short stories written by Moravia, and I needed to understand the friendship of the trio and what differentiated their work. In my biography of Moravia I speak and write a lot about Pasolini, and in my biography of Elsa Morante I write a lot about Moravia and Pasolini.
Sometimes they travelled together, in India, Egypt or Africa, but the lives and the way of thinking of these three great writers was surely very different?
Yes, but the three of them had the idea of being a poet. Just one was really a poet. Pasolini. I’ve recently translated Moravia’s poetry into French, and it will be published soon. Moravia was fascinated by poets, he wanted to be a poet. Elsa Morante’s first collection of poetry was published by Longanesi. The director of the collection was Nico Naldini, Pasolini’s cousin. At the same time Pasolini published L’usignolo della Chiesa Cattolica. The friendship between Pasolini and Moravia was very intellectual and rational, they needed to understand their country, Italy, and not only Italy but the people of Italy and politics. But between Elsa Morante and Pasolini there was something else. Elsa Morante was fascinated by homosexuals, she fell in love with Visconti, and when she met Pasolini she had just left Visconti and it was very important for her to meet another gay creator. There were other deep links between them, even if they had a quarrel about her work La Storia because Pasolini didn’t like it.
La Storia was not Elsa Morante’s masterpiece but it made her a very popular writer and was a bestseller. Why didn’t Pasolini like her novel?
One of the reasons was because she spoke about the poor people of Rome suburbs and he thought that they belonged to him, that he Pasolini was the writer of Roman people. He also thought, like other critics, that Elsa Morante didn’t understand the struggle of poor people during the war and idealized her characters. And he didn’t like the use of language in La Storia because, according to him, Elsa Morante invented a language which was not the right language of poor people. He was a very severe critic. They split after the publication of the book and she didn’t speak with him anymore.
“I want to understand how a writer who is very different from me works.”
René de Ceccatty, Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia had many links. They were both writers and also had this strange destiny of her Jewish mother and his Jewish father. They wanted to have a Catholic marriage to show that they were not Jewish at the time when Jews were persecuted in Italy under the fascist regime during the war. When Alberto Moravia wrote La Ciociara (Two Women) he talked about this strange moment when they had to hide near Fondi in very uncomfortable and difficult circumstances in order to escape the persecutions. The bond between Moravia and Morante, in bad times and good, was very strong, but still you managed to tell two different stories of two different lives?
During the war, Moravia found out that Elsa Morante was a very courageous person. She was writing Menzogna e sortilegio (House of Liars) but she could not write this book in Fondi because conditions there were too hard. When he was writing La Ciociara he wanted to write a real homage to his wife, because the younger character of the novel (Rosetta, Cesira’s daughter), according to me, is a kind of Elsa Morante. Until his death Moravia admired his wife as a person and as a writer, there is no doubt about that. He had to bear the character and bad temper of his wife, but there was something deeper that led him to admire Elsa Morante. They had very different ways of writing. For him it was important to be clear, to understand all the words rationally. For Elsa Morante, the main thing was to get to a kind of obscure thing inside the words. She wanted to understand something very black and dark, in her and in the world, but Moravia was very different because he absolutely wanted to make the readers clearly understand the world. One couldn’t imagine two more different personalities.
Elsa Morante was constantly quarrelling with Alberto Moravia in their difficult relationship, but did she admire him?
Yes, she needed him and she never wanted to divorce him, not only because she was Catholic and believed in the eternity of love within marriage. She needed his kind of person, because she knew that Moravia was absolutely honest intellectually, and it was very important for her to have this solid, strong person, near her. She couldn’t imagine her life without him, but she could be very hard when speaking about him.
It comes out in your book that for Alberto Moravia writing was effortless. His big struggle was the fact that he was ill. He had tuberculosis of the bones. He didn’t go to school. He had a terrible childhood. He was suffering, and therefore writing his first novel, Gli Indifferenti (The Time of Indifference), was actually a relief for him. He started the famous masterpiece when he was 17 years old, and therefore when he met Elsa he was already a well-known international writer. On the other hand Elsa Morante had to struggle to become a very important writer herself.
Yes, but she was also precocious and she wrote her first short stories when she was 15. Both of them were clever and intelligent young writers, but she was not well known, so it was hard for her to live with a very well-known writer. She had to wait until after the war, 1947/48, to become really famous, and then it was with the help of her husband. This was rather humiliating, and she had to struggle against this humiliation. She didn’t want to be called Mrs. Moravia, and often she was called Mrs. Moravia. You are right to use the word struggle. She had to struggle to become Elsa Morante, and her success came because when Menzogna e sortilegio was published, Georg Lukacs, the great literary critic, said that it was the most important novel of the 20th century. Acknowledged as a great writer she became very proud, and that was another problem for her, because she was both very proud and also felt humiliated. During all her life, there were the two contrary powers in her: an immense pride and the feeling of humiliation. That’s one of the reasons she felt so attracted by the humble people in La Storia.
Reading your books this quite strange paradox comes out. Alberto Moravia was ill, sick, but he was born in a well-off bourgeois family. His father was a successful architect and his mother an aristocrat, and his whole life he criticized the bourgeoisie. He was always against his origins. On the contrary, Elsa Morante came from a poor and uncertain background – she didn’t know who her father was; her mother was a poor schoolteacher. When she met Moravia she was a poor young person of a different class. She was attracted by Visconti, then she was attracted by Moravia. Why was she attracted by wealthy upper class people?
She was not only attracted by the fact that he was well-off. No, she was attracted by the sense of criticism which was in Moravia and that he would struggle against the bourgeoisie in his first novels. That was the main thing for her. She wasn’t fascinated by his money or social rank, but by his intelligence and his capacity to criticize his origins. It would have been impossible for her to be with a man who just allowed her to be rich and have a place in society. She wanted to have a man who would be the most important critic of his own origins. It’s not contradictory in her that she was attracted by a bourgeois. In Menzogna e sortilegio (House of Liars) all the different classes of the society are represented – the poor, the rich and the nobility, so it was important for her to have a vision of all society. Moravia was interested in very poor people, and in his Racconti Romani (Roman Tales) he speaks about all the different parts of society.
René de Ceccatty, how was it for you as a writer to handle these two lives and write these two books?
Moravia was hard work, because I wanted to describe not only a life, but the world that surrounded the writer. For the life I had great help in your book, Vita di Moravia (Life of Moravia), the first time that Moravia gave such deep interviews. You helped him to have a memory of his past, which he hated, but you helped him tell his story with many details. It’s something absolutely exceptional. This material was very important for me, because I wanted not only to describe his life, but to understand all his relationships with other people.
And Elsa Morante?
For Elsa Morante it was different, because I was embarrassed. I felt that Elsa Morante didn’t want somebody to tell her story, so I had to not be too invasive in the description of her life. She was more secret. Moravia was not a secret man. He wanted to express all his opinions and was very direct when he spoke with other people. For him it was very simple to speak with other people, but for Elsa it was very different because she wanted to hide many parts of her life. The great difficulty for me was to understand up to what point I could go and what she didn’t want to be told. I could not possibly have written her biography when she was alive, because she would have killed me if she had known that I was writing it. When I was writing about Moravia, I felt secure and didn’t have any reticence, but when I was writing about her I felt very ill at ease because I felt that it was not fair to write about her. I had a kind of guilt. I don’t want to say that my book is the truth about Alberto Moravia, but a kind of truth. But for her, I know that something which is very important for her doesn’t appear in my book, and it’s a very strange feeling.
As a novelist why are you attracted to writing biographies?
Because even in my own fiction books I want to catch the truth about myself, and to understand myself I need to write about other people whom I admire. To write novels it’s necessary to have written biographies, because to build fictional characters you have to know how a real person is built. Writers build an image of themselves.
You are also a playwright who has worked with many famous actors and actresses, like Claudia Cardinale. An actor becomes a character in a play. Does a biographer also become a character? Are you a kind of actor when you write?
When I was working with Isabelle Adjani in my play adapted from La Dame aux Camelias, every night, during every show, I was under the proscenium – because there was an underground – and she was playing above my head. It was a very deep experience for me, to understand what succeeds in performance. Writing and being in a theatre is very similar, because it’s the creation of a world of imagination. The strange thing is that Elsa Morante didn’t like theatre, she thought watching theatre and playing on stage a horrible thing, but at the end of her life she was fascinated by actors. Her last real friends were actors.
The cover of René de Ceccatty‘s biography of Alberto Moravia
During the shooting of La ricotta, from left to right: Ettore Garofalo, Elsa Morante, Bernardo Bertolucci, Adriana Asti, Pier Paolo Pasolini.
©Archivio Gian Piero Brunetta.
René de Ceccatty is a great expert on the literary and cinematic work of Pasolini.
Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante
Maria Callas, Elsa Morante and Pier Paolo Pasolini
“Moravia is the greatest novelist in Italy. Perhaps the only great novelist in Italy.”
René de Ceccatty, at the end of the day, what do you feel about Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante, these two writers, these two extraordinary characters?
I think that Moravia is the greatest novelist in Italy. I have declared it many times and people are shocked, but I think that really he is, and perhaps the only great novelist in Italy.
Because he used novels to say something he couldn’t say otherwise. The most important things he had to say were said in his novels, and that is the definition of a great novelist. I do not think that Elsa Morante is a great novelist. And we can say that her novels are sort of poetry, more than proper novels. She’s a great writer, of course, and a great poet, but not really a great novelist, because she had many things to say in poetry and even in her texts like Pro e contro la bomba atomica she had many ways to express her world. But Moravia had none. Even if he wrote articles and diaries, the most important things are in his novels. For instance La noia and La Ciociara tell a lot about him.
Are you going to write other biographies?
I don’t know if I will write other biographies, because these three writers are in a special place in my heart.
Do you follow contemporary Italian literature?
Sometimes I’m asked to translate young writers and sometimes I don’t want to because they do not fit with my deepest feelings. I don’t want to seem to criticize other writers, but it is important for me to have a deep and true relationship with the text, not with the person but with the text, because you can destroy a book translating it.
Why do you like to translate?
Because I want to understand how a writer writes, how a writer thinks. Moravia was very different from me in many ways, but I wanted to understand his very clear intelligence. In translating Moravia, I understood him. When I was only reading him I didn’t understand him completely.
Did you translate Elsa Morante?
No (except the quotes in my book), but recently I translated La Divina Commedia of Dante. It’s important to have a relationship with literature written in other languages and to understand how it works in French. I wanted my translation to be able to be read very easily, because I wanted the reader in French to have the pleasure of reading. Not the feeling of becoming intelligent and understanding 14th century Italy, but the pleasure of reading the story.
What are you doing now?
For 30 years I have translated Japanese with a Japanese friend who has now left France and lives in Japan. So I’m translating by myself a novel called Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. And for the same reason: because I want to understand how a writer who is very different from me works. I forced myself to write every sentence of the text in Japanese before translating it.