REFLECTIONS ON CORONA AND QUARANTINE. Sandro Veronesi is an Italian writer. After earning a degree in architecture at the University of Florence, he started a career that includes novels, essays, interviews, screenplays and television programs.
Sandro Veronesi, how and where are you spending these days of mandatory quarantine?
I’m in Rome, at home with my Roman family – my wife and two children who are 10.5 and 7.
What about your other children?
My 20-year-old son is in isolation in Prato with his girlfriend. I also have a 28-year-old son in London in his little house, trying to go out as little as possible in anticipation of what is about to hit there. Then I have a 26-year-old son trapped in Australia, and we are trying to get him back to Italy.
How is this experience for you?
I am living the domestic life, certainly not the life of a writer. I don’t read or write. I no longer have time. There is so much to do in a home with no help at all. We have to stay with the children, make them study, go do the shopping. So, I’m keeping up with the family and not working.
“I wake up every day thanking God that I’m not one of the people who have to take these decisions.”
Sandro Veronesi, do you think this time will serve you in your writing?
I recently read a tweet by Stephen King. He says that writers who set their stories in the present need to stop and think about what the present is. The present we knew and the past. I keep a journal, and I write at night when I’m absolutely exhausted.
What do you think about all of this?
Last night, in my journal, I reflected on something I said a few days ago in English during a Dutch television programme. In actuality, we are the virus. Corona is an antibody. If we look at this from nature’s point of view, in a Leopardian sense, the dangerous organism is man who behaves like a virus, attempting to mould everything to his tastes and pleasures. I ask myself, what is the point of man on this planet? We’ve seen that nature, sooner or later, gets rid of the species it doesn’t need. I don’t think this is a divine punishment. It is a naturalistic/scientific reaction. Many books have been written on the plague by names like Manzoni, Céline, Giono, Camus….
Do you think literature is necessary at times like these?
It would be if there were a shared sense of cultural heritage because our minds would be prepared. Many things have already been predicted. The dramatic composition of these dystopias is very similar to today’s reality. This history that has already been lived could teach us to not make certain communications mistakes, for example. But it is all pointless because literature is not shared cultural heritage. It is something for the elite. Those that give the nightly updates with the numbers of dead or ill haven’t read Saramago or Camus. Otherwise, they would communicate in a different way. The way they communicate doesn’t work. And, anyway, people aren’t staying home. I’m staying home because I’m part of that elite that is well-read, and for whom literature serves a purpose.
Do you think people are reading your book Il Colibrì, which is up for the Premio Strega this year?
This is certainly not something that has crossed my mind. I’m closed up in my house, and I can’t go to the bookshop to see if anyone is, by chance, holding or buying my books. The book sold well before the bookshops closed. And maybe people are at home reading it.
“I’m in the habit of using fear to work up my courage.”
Are you shocked to see the bookshops, schools, and universities all closed?
I am shocked to see that public services are still open. I’m shocked to see the buses going around town. The last social thing I did was spend an hour and fifteen minutes at the Libreria Feltrinelli in Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome, before the city shut down.
What did you do there?
I bought some letters by Beckett and essays by Saul Bellow (There is Simply Too Much to Think About) published by Big Sur. There is a phrase on the back cover that I couldn’t have written better myself, but it’s something I’ve always thought as a writer: “The only thing that really matters is caring, believing, and loving. If we don’t care, don’t immediately care, then perish books both old and new, and novelists and governments too. If we do care, if we believe in the existence of others, then what we write is necessary,” Saul Bellow. I read this the last day before things were shut down.
Aside from daily survival with your family, which you are dealing with along with many others, do you think that writers have an obligation to make sure their voices are heard?
Certainly but they have to have one to begin with. We have to think about what Stephen King said about what the world will be like after. I can’t say that the voice I had before will be the same after. There are writers like Michel Houellebecq that use literature to offer a look at imaginary worlds to come that aren’t necessarily so imaginary.
Do you think literature is prophetic, that it can predict what is coming?
My books have been prophetic about my personal life. And that certainly counts for something. My book that did worse, actually it was truly a disaster, was Venite Venite B-52, and it was ahead of the curve on the fact that a “telecracy” was on the way, with the rise of Berlusconi. But the message was not received, and, today, it is obsolete.
What strikes you or scares you about what is happening?
From a pragmatic point of view, all of the people dying in Lombardy. The numbers in Bergamo, Brescia, and Cremona are out of the norm. This tells me that there is something that has escaped us. Seeing those coffins is so tragic and horrible. Seeing people die without the comfort of a priest. This has really struck me. In a certain sense, the rest of Italy is in line with other countries, but more are dying in that area than in the rest of the world. Job wrote, “Man plans, God laughs.” I share this idea, with Job from the bible and Roth’s Job, which is a very illuminating read.
Are you fearful or anxious?
People are scared, and probably rightfully so. I’m in the habit of using fear to work up my courage.
How do you work up courage?
Fear gives me energy, energy for my own good.
In your opinion, how are Italy, Europe, and other democratic nations taking on this pandemic?
I feel like I’m seeing many mistakes, and I’m inclined to be very critical of my government and other governments. But I wake up every day thanking God that I’m not one of the people who have to take these decisions.
“I’m not sure that myself and others are up to the task of what comes afterward.”
Sandro Veronesi, are you a man of faith?
I am not a man of faith but I trust in those who have faith. Faith helps. People who have faith will make fewer mistakes. With my evangelical writings, a theatre monologue (Non Dirlo) that I wrote a long time ago, I wouldn’t say that I was converted, but I gained a better understanding of what faith means for those who have it, and I trust them more. I’m not talking about extremists of course. I’m talking about people who have a dialogue with God.
What do your children say?
The three eldest have a Jewish mother, and they were raised nonreligious. My 10-year-old daughter wants to have a communion, do catechism. Just like I did.
Do you think she is praying?
I think so. One thing that strikes me is that when I prayed, I gave God the “Lei” [formal form]. At the time, you gave everyone the formal form. Now, everyone is informal even with God. This is a good thing. When I think about the Jesus I studied, he did away with formality.
Do you feel something changing inside of you in these days?
Yes, I’ve never kept a journal before. Reflecting on this virus, I made a list of things I like and things I don’t like. I like to travel, eat fish and meat, go by car – all of these things are toxic and there are seven billion of us. Economies are going to crash, and it will be an opportunity to re-evaluate everything. They may tell me that I can no longer go by plane so I won’t do it anymore.
If people weren’t actually dying, would this be a sort of spiritual exercise?
Giving in to a bigger idea is something that connects us to nature.
What is your mood right now?
I am certainly not enjoying myself. I think about Marco Carrera, the protagonist of my book Il Colibri. He is a small man but he knows how to become a bigger person in situations that require it. If I were sure I’d be able to take on what comes next, to make myself a bigger person, then I would be quite calm. My fear is that I’m not sure that myself and others are up to the task of what comes afterward.
Portraits of Sandro Veronesi courtesy of Marco Delogu
ENJOY THIS INTERVIEW? SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND.