Translated from Italian by Elizabeth Harris
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be here. Hello, everyone. I wanted to greet a number of you in person, but I see now that some of you slipped by in all the confusion. My apologies. As you might imagine, I’m pretty confused myself. I’m feeling embarrassed and pleased at the same time, embarrassed, perhaps, because I’m not able to take in so much pleasure all at once. Thank you.
Now I should say something about my book—my first book, that is, since it’s pretty clear, as everyone keeps telling me, that I’ll almost have to write another, and then another, and another. Just the idea of it sounds scary, and I get embarrassed when someone wants to know what I’m working on right now. A lot of people treat me like I think writing’s the most important thing I do, as if it’s my duty, practically my reason for being. I have to admit I’ve brought this up because I’d really rather not talk about it, and because there have been some very important things for me, in these past months, that had nothing to do with writing, and I don’t really consider myself a professional writer, or that I’ll become one in the future. I explained all this to somebody once when he asked me the fairly typical question of what I think comes first—life or art.
I’m not even sure what that question means exactly—all I know is I feel constrained to stay in my life, that this is a chore that fills my days. If I’m embarrassed by certain situations or questions, maybe that’s because I’m really not sure how to think of what I’ve done as “art.” This book, for instance, seems like something I’ve done pretty much the same way I try to get along with others: I do my work; I look at things; in short, I try to maintain my life.
So this is my first book. I’m thirty-two—I’ve been writing and scribbling since I was fourteen, and I’ve never published anything before. Just one story, a few months back, in a fiction journal, but this was a sort of anticipatory move, meaning the book was already in the works. All told, that makes eighteen years of writing and not publishing. Now that I think about it, that’s a pretty long time, especially since I’ve always been around people devoted to writing. By “devoted,” I mean they believed that writing—their writing—was an important part of their life. A few years ago I also helped, very marginally, on a journal, a nice journal, though I can’t take any credit for that, and this journal helped its founders get some notice and gradually make connections with fairly established writers, with very serious journals, with important publishers. Of these guys, a few have achieved what I’m just doing now, that is, “the book,” others are getting close, and the rest are all publishing fairly regularly in the right journals. I say this to point out that even if all this was going on in a provincial city, this isn’t a matter of being particularly provincial, in the worst sense. I, on the other hand, never published a thing. Not that I wasn’t writing. I wrote all the stories in this book in the last year or two, but the truth is, I’ve pretty much always written: poems, tiny stories, even a tragedy in verse. There were always opportunities to publish—in the journal I mentioned, or in other small journals, anthologies, et cetera. But I never did. Truth is, I’m a little uncomfortable thinking about that time (four or five years back). All these things were happening around me, but nothing seemed to be happening to me, and I have to tell you all now that I understood very little about what was going on back then. And so I’m kind of sorry I ever mentioned this journal and these guys, my friends: because during those years they were doing something crucial for themselves, and the right thing would be to remember that time by, well, let’s say by celebrating it properly. But I can’t.
Back then I just wanted to be there to help—not “to learn” or something along those lines, but to watch others live. All I wanted, for myself, was to retreat, stay hidden. Not that what I wrote stayed in a drawer. I sent out photocopies, ten, fifteen copies, to those closest to me, but hardly anyone else. I think someone said I was a flirt—that I was just playing at being the poet and didn’t want to put myself to the test of publishing. But in my defense, I don’t think what I was writing was all that great.
When, thanks to the journal I mentioned, my friends started making contacts with other journals, with established writers, with publishing houses that were small but still important, I always hung back. There were readings I skipped, people I avoided meeting. For a while, we were inviting writers here for panels and readings, and I’d stay as far back in the audience as I could, in the back row, and I wouldn’t attend the dinners. My readers were family members, a few friends, those closest to me. Sometimes I felt like a character from one of Achille Campanile’s stories, the famous Gambardella. This Gambardella, Campanile tells us, was quite famous, but only among a few close friends. It was a bit like that for me. Not that these “close friends” didn’t praise me, encourage me, support me. What they saw in me, I couldn’t say. When I reread what I wrote back then, it all seems pretty pointless, and the truth
is, I’m a little worried that a few months or years down the line, the stories in this book will feel the exact same way.
I knew all this bending over backward my friends were doing for me made some sense, had some value, some effect. Just maybe not for me. It really felt like I was different from the others. Something was missing. Confidence—or better—the ability to acknowledge things: to tell myself and others, “I made this, and it’s beautiful.” I lacked this, and what goes with it—the drive to publish. Of course all I wanted was to publish. I wanted it so much I couldn’t bear going through all the regular channels my friends were so doggedly pursuing: their own little journal; their first contacts; first publications in other journals; first book with a tiny obscure press, helping out with the costs; the three-line reviews; and so on. I just wanted to step outside my door one fine day and run into an editor who would tell me: come by tomorrow and we’ll do a book—you’re really great. Someone might say that’s exactly what happened. I skipped the regular channels. Thinking about it now, though, I have to say this feels more like I lost out in the end. I’m facing something important— something dangerous, life-changing—and I’m about as prepared as I was fifteen years back. I haven’t made my bones yet, and I have to use them.
Being around writers, pseudo-writers, wannabe-writers—smaller cities are chock-full of them—I’ve come across quite a few that I’ve tended to call “the nutjobs.” Still do. This type puts publishing above everything else, has turned it into a fetish. And of all those people so rabid about publishing, I haven’t met a single one whose writing’s any good. When I worked in Venice, we’d go for a sandwich on break at a coffee bar in Campo San Barnaba, and there was this little old lady, in her sixties, tiny, badly dressed, wispy gray hair, who’d wander around with a few copies of her long-dead husband’s Treatise on Everything in a plastic bag. She was selling it for five thousand lire, and she’d tell everyone the story of this book, how publishing it destroyed her husband (the book was enormous, too), because he thought it would bring joy to everyone, universal joy. But all they wound up with was a house full of books. Sometimes she said her husband died of sorrow. Other times she hinted that someone wanted to hurt him, was out to get him. I have to admit I bought a copy and spent a few nights trying to figure out what was going on inside that man’s head, what drove him so hard. The book was illegible, incomprehensible, even the typography was crazy, with half the words in cursive and boldface and oddly spaced and in single and double quotes. So half the words, then, were supposed to mean something beyond their normal meaning, something modified and ineffable, that you could only guess at. That book represented a closed universe, and all you could really make out was how unbelievably lonely this man must have been. I think about how much pain it must have taken for someone to distance himself from the world like that, and how much hope this man, in his madness, had pinned on his book, like a spell to break his loneliness.
And I could also feel it, deep inside me: I was too much like the nut-jobs. I’m not talking about some obvious, superficial likeness, but something real. This philosopher with his treatise is an extreme example, but I’ve met doctors, lawyers, professors, very serious professionals completely taken over by this madness. Think of all the publishers making a living off of them, Lalli, Joppolo, and that magazine now, Write to Publish. I’ve even learned that doctor-writers have their very own association, complete with conferences, publications, and everything, structured along the same lines as the endocrinologists association or conferences for cardiovascular surgery.
If you’re not familiar with the kind of publisher I mean, let’s just say that Umberto Eco, in his opening to Foucault’s Pendulum, is describing something very real. These people have two great obsessions: themselves and how others judge them. It’s the same for me. When I sit down in front of a keyboard and start to write, I truly believe in what I’m doing. But then a short time later, when I reread what I just wrote, I’m truly afraid. Here’s why: Even if I don’t think I can change or cut a single word, I also can’t imagine some stranger enjoying what I wrote.
I once attended a reading by a group of women writers. They were all respectable women—I happened to be there because an ex-classmate’s mother was the organizer and ran a few hotels at the Abano hot springs, very luxurious places, full of Germans. The reading was held in one of these hotels, in the main hall all done in rococo style, with white, gold, and pale-green stucco and late-eighteenth-century-style furniture and rugs. There were maybe fifty women in the group. They were dressed up for the occasion. They read one, maybe two or three poems each. After every poem the room burst into applause. I saw tears of real emotion. Not one of those poems was remotely tolerable They were all awful, and fake. I found this unnerving; it warranted some kind of explanation, but there wasn’t any. These women were in complete solidarity with one another. I could never be part of such a group—I could never clap for an ugly poem. I’m not passing any judgment here— there are times to show your gratitude. But here, after these poems full of pain and nihilism, clapping, quite frankly, seemed almost uncivil. If I read a poem in public and the people burst out clapping afterward, I think I’d openly rebel. Maybe I’d scream, tell them: “You idiots—don’t clap your hands like you’re at the circus. I didn’t just put on a show. I’ve expressed something here, a part of me. I’ve made myself vulnerable. I don’t want some inarticulate response like clapping. I want silence. I want you to think about what I’ve read, mull it over.” That’s what I’d say, something like that.
At these readings—I didn’t just go to the one, meaning, I kind of went looking for them, I’d go just to feel disgusted—there’d often be university professors who’d analyze the poems after they were read, their praise full of erudition. Truth be told, I always thought these professors must be getting paid to do this, or maybe they were under some kind of social obligation, I don’t know. But they couldn’t have been serious. Maybe they did it just to get the chance to stand in front of an audience and savor what it was like to feel completely needed. The only thing I felt for these people was contempt.
Of course this was plain jealousy. You might say I was about as unfit for a social life as these people were for literature. By unfit I mean inept. I knew there wasn’t much difference between these people and me. We, the women of this group and I, were just on different social levels. Obviously, I was also jealous about this.
By “social levels,” I don’t mean richer or poorer. I grew up in a family that was anything but poor, though we were very isolated. We always lived much more modestly than we needed to. When I was a child I didn’t understand this; I truly believed my family was much poorer than the families of my little friends and classmates. I always felt I was physically, materially inferior. My friends were allowed things I could never imagine. They had this capacity to get what they wanted, which I didn’t have. I used to think that because I was poor, the right thing to do was to distance myself from what I wanted. When I grew older and realized I wasn’t actually poor, I still felt inferior. I lived near others with limited intellectual and material means, yet they still lived much better than me. I felt I’d been raised to make only partial use of my resources and skills. What was left unused, I needed to conserve, for some future goal, of course. What that goal might be, I couldn’t say. I still can’t. I think my parents suffered a great deal from the privations they experienced during the war, and so they protected themselves, reserved their resources and skills, afraid there’d come another time of hunger and danger. My parents were teenagers during the war. My own upbringing couldn’t have been better. I believe each of us has to do what we can to preserve our own existence, according to our own convictions of what we need in order to be. And so this is also why, for many years, I never wanted to expose myself to publishing.
But here I am, all the same, with this book in my hand. There’s my name on the cover. It wasn’t my idea to give this talk in this city where I’ve been living the past twenty-three years. The publisher thought it would be a great opportunity, and to tell the truth, I couldn’t come up with a good reason not to. They told me that when the common reader reads a book, he thinks he’s dealing with a real person. Then they told me the common reader’s more inclined to buy the book when he thinks he’s got something in common with the author: in this case, a city. Finally, they told me the common reader enjoys his recently purchased book more after he gets the chance to find out if the author’s dark-haired or blond, good-tempered or bad, single or married, that sort of thing. So here I am, for all to see. This morning, I spoke with a nice kid from the city paper. He called yesterday and explained that to make the paper’s deadline, we’d be better off meeting this morning than here in the bookstore. Five o’clock is already too late, as far as a paper’s concerned, for anything other than crime or headline news. This young guy had read the entire book, very carefully, you could tell. He’d almost destroyed it, pored over it, underlined everywhere, dog-eared the pages. He’d practically memorized it. He kept pounding me with questions that I tried not to answer. We played hide-and-seek for a time. Then he said, “Listen, let’s stop playing around. You’ve got a responsibility with this book. Putting our little journal together was like jazz on the radio at night, when hardly anyone is listening, maybe at times even no one’s listening, but the music’s playing all the same. If you didn’t want to get noticed, you shouldn’t have published it. Or you could have published it and then moved to New Zealand. Or not even that far—there are lots of ways to keep your privacy. But you put your home address on the inside cover. And here it is—a Saturday evening—and you’ve got this fancy presentation in the largest bookstore downtown, with a reception and everything. Come on—be reasonable. Loosen up some.” Well, I want you to know this boy’s little speech wasn’t at all inappropriate. He wasn’t trying to offend me in the least. He just thought I was shy and was trying to get me talking. I’d have done the same thing myself. There are writers who’ve managed to maintain a state of almost complete privacy. And then there are criminals who are extremely well known: we know all the robberies they’ve ever committed, they’ve got identikits, they show up on bank-security footage. And yet we still don’t know who they are: their name, exact age, address—the details you automatically put down, for instance, when you’re filling something out, some form. “I, the undersigned, Mr. So-and-So, place of birth, current residency,” et cetera. By definition, a criminal’s a public, if mysterious, personality. I realize that how I wanted to present myself on the jacket flap wasn’t at all like the normal bio. I didn’t want to include anything about myself except my personal data: name, age, home address. Anyone can come find me. But that’s not an open invitation. I’m not looking to have a house full of intruders. I do want to say, though, if a person reads my book and wants to have some private contact with me, that he physically can. By doing this, meaning, by putting my home address on the jacket flap, I thought I was making it clear that when it came to my relationship with the public, I very much wanted to be left alone. I realize this is somewhat paradoxical, but believe me, I only realize this now. The person who hides might be someone who wants to be looked for or at least wants to pique other people’s interest. This person also wants (secretly wants) to listen in on what others have to say about him. Like children hiding under the table to hear the grown-ups talking. I don’t hide—I’ve never hidden in my life. Physically, I mean.
A few months back, at the start of the downward path that led to my agreeing to the production of this book, I got a call from a literary agent. He’d read something of mine that he thought was good; he’d found out someone had taken an interest in me (the editing world’s a sieve, I remember thinking); in short, he was doing his job. He thought I was young—younger than I am, by the way—and inexperienced, and he wanted to offer me the benefit of his professional expertise. We had a very pleasant conversation. This man seemed truly kind, sensible, capable. At one point, he asked me what I did for a living. I told him, I’m the deliveryman for a science and technical bookstore. (Note: not this bookstore.) He said: “Now, that would be something funny to stick on a book jacket.” Not that I was offended. I’m very well aware that writers in this country are generally men of letters, academics, or well-known journalists. But try telling Luigi di Ruscio that his job working in an Oslo factory is something funny.
For me, being a deliveryman is something vital. Maybe, if I think about it, there’s also something decadently romantic (an old-fashioned flouting of social conventions) and childish about this, that this is how I make my living. I’ve had other jobs; for years I even worked for a trade union, in their press office. I was quite willing to do the work; I was good at it. One day I realized that what I was really good at was being obedient. No one believed in the ideals and objectives of the union more than I did, and of course it was up to me to promote these ideals. My obedience wasn’t even obedience: it was complete identification, like a fetus identifying with the body of its mother. In the end, I decided I needed to find a job that still might require my obedience, but just over small things, on an everyday scale—unfair but bearable, an existence that wasn’t “happy, no, but safe,” as the mummies sing about themselves in Dr. Frederick Ruysch’s lab in Leopardi’s operetta.
Just a few days ago, a boy wrote me from Brussels, where he produces this strange Franco-Belgian-Italian journal, very grim, a touch Métal Hurlant, a touch Edgar Allan Poe. He went on for seven pages about this idea of his, the “rebel I.” He spoke of rebellion like it was a moral duty, even if he was talking about rebelling against pretty much every moral code, and to him this “rebel I” was a very strong I who’d be a “nonconformist” no matter what and would always find the necessary space to lead a “life of liberty” and would always go against the current, or else harness that current to suit his needs, and so on. This “rebellion of the I,” according to this boy, had to be initiated by the group or maybe even by the masses, because the isolated “rebel” is scary, revolting, comes off crazy, winds up marginalized—or even worse—gets sucked back into “the system” and annulled. Now, on a regular basis and in the most ordinary of ways, I get to experience not counting for much. Even so, my “I” (sorry to refer to myself this way, like a thing, but I’ve been sucked into a language that isn’t mine—trying to escape someone else’s language, I’ve been snagged by it, and it’s not pretty)—well, in short, I’m no “rebel.” I’ve had to endure being subjected in so many ways to so many things that I’ve reached the point by now where, even if I want just the opposite, I’m basically, entirely, a “subject.” I saw many young people trying to rebel, but those were very different times when, in my opinion, the call for revolution came as the new heirs were being selected to the ruling class. Some of these kids actually died; many others lost or used up all their passion for life (now gone for good) on their failed revolution; others passed the test and went on to be deemed worthy to pass over, so to speak, to the side of the selectors.
For my part, I don’t think it’s a good idea to take on a much stronger enemy. I prefer protecting my life, keeping everything inside. Whenever I try explaining this to someone, I’m told my thoughts are inhuman. Even my Catholic friends don’t approve.
I’ve just made this big abstract speech, which I regret. What I should have been discussing was this phone call I got from an ex-friend, someone I hadn’t seen for many years and didn’t want to see, and that this friend called to say he’d read a review of my book in the paper, and then when this friend came to my home that same night to get my autograph on my book that he’d just bought (but naturally hadn’t read), what I should have told this friend was: go away, I don’t want to see you. Instead, I was polite. Caught up in the moment, I was even happy to sign my book, and I wrote: “With the same fondness as always.” Which, thinking about it, really means: “With no fondness whatsoever.” I’m not trying to say I hate the people who read my book. Far from it—I’m very happy you’re all here, and that you’re willing to sit through this little chat of mine that’s a tad incoherent, I know, and even a little offensive. The journalist from this morning made me happy, too. His questions were nice and simple: how did I get the idea for the book, what was it like to publish, what were my future plans.
In a way, I was coerced into writing this book. I’d put together a tiny journal, maybe a hundred copies, with this friend of mine from Rome, a woman who wrote really beautiful poetry. The journal included some of my young friend’s poems, and this small timid story of mine. I say “timid” because the story was really about someone hiding. This idea for a mini-journal, what started all this, had just sort of popped up on its own a few months before. This friend and I had been writing back and forth for years, sending each other stories, poems, ideas for movies, that sort of thing. But mostly, through our constant letters, we’d developed a friendship. I’m
not sure I can say what a friendship is exactly, but I’m sure that’s what she and I had. In short, with her in Rome, the center of the universe, and me in the provinces, we still both felt equally isolated, with no people around who shared our interests. Just to make things clear, I wasn’t actually alone. For my part, I’d pretty much chosen to isolate myself these last few years, honestly, after spending too much time with too many people in too many unclear, exploitive relationships. Just dealing with others had become too much like work—a hassle. So I’d gone into hiding: I could do this, because there were people I really knew I could count on, a few people who were absolutely safe: the girl I mentioned; a friend here in the city; another who’s always traveling, one day she’s far away, the next she’s knocking at my door . . . . You might say these people saw the world for me. Well, this girl and I decided we wanted to expand our correspondence, find new friends, people “like us,” as she said. In one of her letters, this girl used an image I really liked: putting our little journal together was like jazz on the radio at night, when hardly anyone is listening, maybe at times even no one’s listening, but the music’s playing all the same, the radio waves are traveling along through the night, embracing the world. I myself thought of something more banal: a message in a bottle.
So we put together a mailing list that included a small number of ideal readers and then the usual addresses, journals, some academics, important writers. I couldn’t have guessed what would happen next. From my point of view, it was almost a mistake. And I’m still stunned by it. Since the journal was tiny, with only a limited number of copies (very basic, just photocopies), I sent it out in pretty much any order I pleased. The first person to contact me, at home, was the very first person I sent the journal to, along with my sheepish little cover letter. And thanks to this person, my story from this little photocopied journal wound up reprinted in the trade magazine of a large publishing house. And now here’s the book.
I agreed right away to have my story reprinted, with an enthusiasm that wasn’t natural for me—and it’s something I’ve regretted ever since. As for the book, I’ve been caught up in one phrase especially: “This isn’t just your book, it’s everybody’s.” I have to admit that this is true: I’ve experienced it a number of times myself. As a reader, of course. And I heard it on the phone from this same person who’d called me, and who I’d only known about for a few weeks, and only through his books; and I considered his books to be mine. I really can’t protest and sound reasonable. I don’t mean to say I regret this book. I tell myself: it’s fate. What I mean is, for me, publishing it was unnatural. Something I was forced into. “Unnatural” doesn’t mean “negative” or “wrong.” It means that left to myself, I would have dropped the idea.
When I got the letter from the publisher telling me that they’d be, quote, “happy to have me among their authors,” my first thought was: okay, now they’ve broken Pandora’s vase. I truly felt my body was like a vase, and someone had struck my body so hard it cracked, and through this crack seeped my entire imagination, and my body was left empty. All my imaginings were left to wander the world, beyond my control. I could meet them on the street, meet people wearing them like puffy, translucent space suits, a sort of gray ectoplasm. And even while I thought this, I also knew this publishing offer was not only something I wanted (and had
wanted all along, I might add) but that what I’d done, sending this little journal around to a group of ideal readers, et cetera, was exactly what I needed to do to obtain this result. And that my tiny story—my tiny, timid story—was the most shamelessly seductive thing I’d ever written. Me, who can’t even charm the waiter at the pizzeria. Without even realizing it, I’d done the exact right thing to obtain this particular result. And now that this result was before me, my mind and body were doing everything in their power to retreat, to return to the secrecy—practically a dungeon—where I’d preserved myself these many years. In the months that followed, I fought long and hard against my publisher friends, and I wasn’t being coy, either; I was fighting for my survival. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. Preserving my secrecy took more strength than I could muster. It was easier to live normally, in the world.
I can’t really say that I’m entirely satisfied with this book as is, but I don’t think I’d ever be entirely satisfied with a book of mine. There just came a point when I had to say: words, you must go now—I don’t know you anymore. You’re not my children. You don’t resemble me in the slightest. I don’t feel a thing for you. I don’t want to see you anymore. Scatter. Scat. Telling it now, I guess all this sounds pretty dramatic, but it’s really what I was thinking. A year’s gone by since then—no, more than a year. In the meantime, my publisher friends have broken me in some, tamed me, trained me; and so, thanks to them, I’ve decided to accept whatever comes in this whole business, as long as it’s reasonable. But even if it’s reasonable, it still makes me anxious and keeps me up at night. Standing here in front of you isn’t easy. They told me I’d have to talk a while, then take any questions. I know there’ll be a couple for sure, to get things rolling. I probably shouldn’t say anything, but two girls from the bookstore have prepared a couple of really nice questions that I’m prepared to answer, to get things rolling. It’s tragic, the moment of silence following a talk. I don’t mind it myself: it’s a moment to evaluate. After listening to someone for an hour, you get to decide if the person’s interesting or not. The guy doing the promotion for this, who organizes these things, says he doesn’t want there to be a “blob effect.” They say The Blob is one of the best things on Italian television. And the moment I start talking, I really do feel like I’m being engulfed by a blob. Like a spider feels when it leaves its hole to find an enormous lens, and behind this lens, the entomologist’s enormous eye.
One of the many reasons—all of them, excuses—that I don’t think the stories in this book are really publishable is that much of what’s in them really happened—to me, or other people, or between me and other people. If I ever managed to write something entirely made up, I don’t think I’d regret publishing it. I could probably even “face the struggle,” throw myself into the process. That story in the photocopied journal includes an incident someone saw himself in and which he asked me, in pretty harsh terms, to get rid of or at least change. I think the person suffered a great deal because of this event, even though very few people read the story with this version of the event included. I want to make something clear: almost no one, in my opinion, would have recognized the person from this passage. Later, though, I discovered that it was exactly these few lines that really made an impression on those who read them. And that’s how—and I’ll say it, even if it makes me look somewhat stupid—that’s how I discovered that my stories constitute the “restructuring,” so to speak, of my tiny world. In my stories, the events seem determined, which wasn’t true when these events occurred. In some places, I’ve described situations I’m still going through, but they mean something different in the stories than they do in real life. It’s silly to ask which of these meanings is the real one: it could be the third meaning or the fourth. I ask myself what force compels a few real events, which can never be defined or governed, and then some imagined things, which are more defined than real events—but staying defined means always having to change. I ask myself what compels all this to hurl itself headlong into something so precise and defined as a story, that has a beginning and an end. I think there must be some kind of grudge against reality in all of this.
Just by telling the story of something that happened but changing it ever so slightly, I’m able to get my very small—my petty—revenge against this reality that’s hurt me, and against my imagination for cultivating that hurt. As long as the story’s there in my room, on paper or floppy disk or only in my memory, it still gets to be imprecise or ill-defined. Seeing the story in print has a whole different effect. There’s a sense of finality that I’ve almost never experienced in my unfinished life, and those rare times I did, it felt like a great loss. I think the relationship between things told in stories and things that actually happened is a bit like the relationship between daily events and then the transformation of these events in our dreams at night. Many have dreamed of a dear friend dying, but that doesn’t mean they want it to happen. On the contrary, the dream might be some kind of exorcism. I’d like to say that my main goal in life is to return the same affection that many have for me and to at least be kind to all those others who don’t have feelings for me one way or another. Maybe someone out there doesn’t like me, but I doubt it. Someone did threaten me with a knife once, but it was nothing personal: he didn’t hate me, he just hated the social class he thought I belonged to, had been born into. And surely this hatred comes from believing, like this person must have, that hating a particular social class can save a person’s life. In the end, exchanging your own life for someone else’s has a certain honor to it, at the highest level. I didn’t know this guy with the knife, but he was someone who could be called a good old-fashioned “fascist thug.” We were behind the high school, and it turned out he had it in for me because of my brother, who was four years older and in a hostile political party. I’d only been at that school a few days, but apparently I’d already been pegged. A few years later, this guy really did kill a man. I, too, can feel it inside me, that I could harbor this kind of hate. Maybe I’m even predisposed, by nature or by upbringing, to hating this way. I’m capable of wanting violence.
I remember when my first little story was reprinted (like I said, in a large publishing house’s trade journal) that they asked me for a black-and-white photo of myself. The journal was going to press; there wasn’t much time. They phoned me on a Friday, and the photo had to be on the editor’s desk by Monday morning. They told me to send it special delivery, postage due. Unfortunately I didn’t have a black-and-white photo of myself. I took a half-hour break from the bookstore to go to the photographer’s studio. The photographer told me he couldn’t get me a print before Saturday at noon. There was no mail service on Saturdays. And so after the
bookstore closed that Saturday, I took the train to Milan to deliver my photo in person. I’d been told the caretaker’s office was open until seven. The three-hour trip to Milan was my first peaceful moment during that hectic time when so many people were just dropping into my life, various editors, literary agents, and other terrifying characters I’d never laid eyes on before. I didn’t like my black- and-white photo. During those hours on the train, I realized I wasn’t at all happy with what was going on (what others would certainly have considered my good fortune). After my pilgrimage by subway and tram, I arrived at the publishing house in the dark (it was January). The night was foggy. The publisher was located on a large, filthy street, in a half-residential, half-industrial area, really ugly. But what struck me the most was that at the top of the building—a parallelepiped structure with nothing friendly about it but nothing negative, either, just nondescript—on the roof, I could see, from where I stood below in the dark and fog, what looked to be a lush garden. The building was six, maybe seven stories tall. After I gave the caretaker the envelope with my photo, I waited on the traffic island for the next tram, and I stood looking up at that garden. Well, imagining more than looking. There were lamps on the roof that lit the garden.
I’m not even sure it really was a garden: from below you could see small trees all along the edge of the roof, and it seemed like it should be a garden. I thought about the hanging gardens of Babylon, and I wondered how many centuries and millennia it’s been now that hanging gardens have symbolized vast wealth and treasure. Sure, during the time of Babylon, raising water must have been a very complicated affair, while these days practically anyone can afford a nice garden on the roof. But that night, I felt deeply offended. I’d traveled by train, hurried, come to this cold, stinking place, to bring my tiny and not so tiny offering—a photo that contained my soul—to this enormous building that housed a god who’d demanded my offering but probably didn’t even notice when he got it. The tram was arriving, and I would no doubt be returning home diminished, dispossessed, dispirited. I’ll never forget this pain. I beg you, all of you here (and I think I’ve finally managed to say what I had to, after all this hemming and hawing that was more from fear than anything else, because just bringing up certain things is scary), I beg you, please, try and understand my pain even a little, or at least try to accept it as something that could happen and could be true. The books I’ve read have taught me many things, but above all, they’ve taught me to preserve my life and to tuck my voice away inside my life and keep it safe—my voice, unique and private, my unique treasure and my health. I love you all.
Giulio Mozzi is the lives in Padua, Italy. His numerous books include six story collections and a long poem, which have been translated into French, Russian, Dutch, German, and Japanese. He works as an editorial consultant and a creative writing teacher. He is also well-known for his literary blog, Vibrisse. “On the Publication of My First Book” appears in Mozzi’s story collection This Is the Garden, forthcoming from Open Letter Books.
Elizabeth Harris’s fiction translations appear in numerous literary journals and in anthologies. Her translations include Mario Rigoni Stern’s novel Giacomo’s Seasons and Giulio Mozzi’s story collection This Is the Garden. She is currently translating Antonio Tabucchi’s novel Tristano is Dying. She is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of North Dakota.