Incroci di Civilta festival 2017

News - Festivals Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Mary Hoffman (below right) reports from the Venetian festival, which took place before Bologna

As your Italian correspondent, I have been really busy this spring. Before the Bologna Book Fair (report here), I spent four days in Venice, as a guest of the fabulous Incroci di Civiltà Literature Festival, which was celebrating its 10th year.

It's hard to think of a better Western European city in which to celebrate cultural crossroads than Venice. A gateway between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, it has been invaded, fought over, captured and remained resolutely independent over centuries.

It was from here that the warships built in the Arsenale set out for the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Now the same area celebrates the Biennale, one of the biggest international art festivals in the world.

The "Incroci" Festival has so many sponsors that I shall mention only two: The Ca' Foscari, University of Venice and the Bauer Hotels. The events were largely held in the auditorium of the former in the Campo Santa Margherita in Dorsodouro, and the latter provided the luxury accommodation for the writers.

The Guest of Honour should have been Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, but he had been called back to Turkey for a family emergency, so the opening ceremony, held in the Teatro Goldoni, became instead a dialogue between Vikram Seth, Michael Chabon and Abraham Yehoshua.

It was a double shame that Pamuk was not there, as he had won the Premio Bauer Ca' Foscari, previously won by V S Naipaul and James Ivory. The YA equivalent was won by Mariana Enriquez, described as the "Edgar Allan Poe of the 21st century."

The discussion began with a question about the role of the reader, but was swiftly derailed by Yehoshua, who didn't feel inclined to answer that. Instead, he wanted to know why it was that if any of his colleagues had to choose their top 10 books from the 20th century, the selections would probably all be from the first half.

It's incredibly annoying when a politician does this, but it actually led to a very lively discussion. Yehoshua (right) argued that "something bad is happening to literature" and "a lot of people don't want to read but they want to write". It was to do with novels no longer having a moral message.

Seth agreed to some extent, but felt we shouldn't ignore the role of the novel as an elevated form of gossip. It was other people's lives that fascinated us, and the moral question was not the only one. Chabon said that novels gave us a "liberation from our own mind and the vivid and intense experience of living another life".

When Yehoshua declared that Seth's A Suitable Boy was a serious book whereas An Equal Music was " a good story" (something he appeared not to value), Seth elegantly got round the issue by saying that he never "quarrelled with his muse".

In the following days, authors from the Czech Republic to Japan, and Hungary to Libya, talked about their books.

My own event was a panel on introducing children to the literary classics. With me were Marcia Williams (left), who has transmitted so much Shakespeare to children through her re-tellings and strip cartoon versions, and Luigi dal Cin, an Italian ex-engineer, who has re-told Ariosto. We had not one but TWO chairs - Professor Laura Tosi from the University of Florence and Professor Carol Rutter from the University of Warwick.

It was the first time that children's writers had been included in the Incroci programme, so we had to give of our best; and I think we did, in an interesting mix of English and Italian.

Later that evening we went to hear Vikram Seth's own event, in which he was interviewed by Gregory Dowling, an associate professor of Anglo-American Language and Literature at Ca' Foscari, the University of Venice.

Seth talked as much about his poetry as his novels, reading several poems from his most recent collection, Summer Requiem. He told us about his heroes - Pushkin, Schubert, Carpaccio, Leopardi. He had translated Leopardi's famous poem "l'Infinito".

But we had some interesting insights into the novels too: A Suitable Boy, which I remember having to rest on a pillow to support its weight while I read it, actually lost about 500 pages from its first draft! And the question of when we would ever see its sequel, A Suitable Girl, was rather skirted round. (You remember that Seth (left) was rumoured to have had to return a massive advance to Penguin Random House when the book was not delivered in time for its scheduled publication in 2013? The novel will now be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

But there was a hint in his reading of his villanelle, "Can't":

I find I simply can't get out of bed.
I shiver and procrastinate and stare.
I'll press the reset button in my head.

I hate my work but I am in the red.
I'd quit it all if I could live on air.
I find I simply can't get out of bed.

The closing event was to a packed auditorium as Haitian writer Dany Laferrière and British actor Charlotte Rampling talked about their books, in French. Now over 70, the elegant Rampling has written a very short memoir in French, while the Haitian had lived under a dictatorship in his home country, then fled to Canada, where he worked illegally, then experienced the earthquake in Haiti.

Rampling (right), whose sister's suicide was kept secret from her, said her family had been lacking in warmth. Leferrière's upbringing by his grandmother seemed entirely different, but both struck me as very solitary people.

They share a publisher for their work translated into Italian: 66th and 2nd, based in Rome.

The final party was held in the stunning Ca' Rezzonico, which until now had just been a vaporetto stop to me. It's an 18th-century museum, whose only drawback as a party venue is that you can't sit on any of the chairs. But it seemed an appropriate setting in which to celebrate a week of glittering glamour.

I can only say if you are ever invited to speak at Incroci di Civiltà, don't hesitate for a minute; you will never have a more elegant and civilised time.

Author photos: Incroci di Civiltà

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