Incidental Inventions, page 1
The Days of Abandonment
Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey
The Lost Daughter
The Beach at Night
My Brilliant Friend
The Story of a New Name
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
The Story of the Lost Child
214 West 29th St.
New York NY 10001
Copyright © 2019 by Edizioni e/o
First publication 2019 by Europa Editions
Translated by Ann Goldstein, the pieces included in this volume, with the exception of “Collisions,” were originally published over the course of 2018 in the Guardian.
Translation by Ann Goldstein
Original Title: L’invenzione occasionale
Translation copyright © 2019 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Illustrations by Andrea Ucini
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
Translated from the Italian by
18 March 2019
In the autumn of 2017 the Guardian proposed that I write a weekly column. I was flattered and at the same time frightened. I had no experience with that type of writing, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it. After much hesitation, I told the editors that I would accept the offer if they would send me a series of questions, which I would answer, each time, within the limits of the allotted space. My request was immediately granted, along with an agreement that the column wouldn’t last more than a year. The year passed slowly, and it was instructive for me. I had never put myself in the situation of being obliged to write, locked within an invulnerable perimeter, on topics that I myself had asked the extremely patient editors to suggest. I’m used to looking on my own for a story, characters, a logic, putting one word after another, often laboriously, eliminating a lot; what I find at the end—assuming that I find something—is surprising, especially to me. It’s as if one sentence had generated the next, taking advantage of my still uncertain intentions, and I never know if the result is good or not: yet it’s there, and now I have to work on it—the moment has come when the text will take the form I want.
But the Guardian columns were governed by the random collision between the editors’ subject and the urgency of writing. While the first draft of a story might be followed immediately by a long—sometimes very long—period of closer examination, rewriting, expansion or meticulous reduction, here the process was minimal. For these pieces I rummaged through memory in search of small illustrative experiences; impulsively drew on convictions formed by books read many years ago, then cast off and recovered, thanks to other readings; pursued sudden intuitions inspired by that same need to write; came to abrupt conclusions because the space had been used up. In other words, it was a new form of writing: every time I hurriedly dipped the bucket into some dark depth of my mind, I hauled up a sentence and waited apprehensively for others to follow.
The result is this book, which happens to begin on 20 January 2018, with the perennial uncertainty of something done for the first time, and happens to end on 12 January 2019, with the clarity of something done for the last time. I was tempted to give a more thoughtful order to the different parts, and I drafted possible arrangements. But setting them out as if they had originated in a carefully considered project seemed an exaggeration, and in the end I left them in the order of publication. I didn’t want to hide—especially from myself—their nature as incidental inventions, no different from those with which we daily react to the world we happen to live in.
The First Time
20 January 2018
Some time ago, I planned to describe my first times. I listed a certain number of them: the first time I saw the sea, the first time I flew in an aeroplane, the first time I got drunk, the first time I fell in love, the first time I made love. It was an exercise both arduous and pointless.
For that matter, how could it be otherwise? We always look at first times with excessive indulgence. Even if by their nature they’re founded on inexperience, and so as a rule are not very successful, we recall them with sympathy, with regret. They’re swallowed up by all the times that have followed, by their transformation into habit, and yet we attribute to them the power of the unrepeatable.
Precisely because of this innate contradiction, my project began to sink right away and shipwrecked conclusively when I tried to describe my first love truthfully. I made an effort to search my memory for details and I found few. He was very tall, very thin, and seemed handsome to me. He was seventeen, I fifteen. We saw each other every day at six in the evening. We went to a deserted alley behind the bus station. He spoke to me, but not much; kissed me, but not much; caressed me, but not much. What primarily interested him was that I should caress him. One evening—was it evening?—I kissed him as I would have liked him to kiss me. I did it with such an eager, shameless intensity that afterwards I decided not to see him again. But already I don’t know if that really happened then, or in the course of other brief loves that followed. Certainly I loved that boy to the point where, seeing him, I lost every perception of the world, and felt close to fainting, not out of weakness but out of an excess of energy.
Consequently, I discovered, what I distinctly remember of my first love is my state of confusion. Or rather, the more I worked on it, the more I focused on deficiencies: vague memory, sentimental uncertainties, anxieties, dissatisfaction. Nothing, in fact, was sufficient; I expected and wanted more, and was surprised that he, on the other hand, after wanting me so much, found me superfluous and ran away because he had other things to do.
All right, I said to myself, you will write about how altogether wanting first love is. But, as soon as I tried, the writing rebelled, it tended to fill gaps, to give the experience the stereotypical melancholy of adolescence. It’s why I said, that’s enough of first times. What we were at the beginning is only a vague patch of colour contemplated from the edge of what we have become.
27 January 2018
I’m not brave. Most of all I’m afraid of anything that creeps, and especially snakes. I’m afraid of spiders, woodworms, mosquitoes, even flies. I’m afraid of heights, and of elevators, cable cars, aeroplanes. I’m afraid of the very ground we stand on when I imagine that it might split open or, because of a sudden breakdown in the workings of the universe, fall down, as in the nursery rhyme we recited as children, playing ring around the rosy. Ring around the rosy, The world falls down, The earth falls down, All fall down: ah, how those words terrified me. I’m afraid of all human beings when they become violent: I’m afraid of them when they shout, when they insult, when they wield words of contempt, clubs, chains, weapons that slash or shoot, atomic bombs.
And yet, as a child, whenever it was necessary to appear fearless, I appeared fearless. I soon got used to being less afraid of dangers, whether real or imaginary, and began to fear more, much more, the moment when others reacted as I hadn’t known how to react. My girlfriends shrieked because there was a spider? I overcame my disgust and killed it. The man I loved proposed a vacation in the mountains with the obligator
Once, the cat brought in a snake and left it under my bed, and I, with a broom and dustpan, screaming, chased it out. And if someone threatens my daughters, or me, or any human being, or any harmless animal, I resist the desire to run away.
Popular opinion has it that people who react as stubbornly as I’ve trained myself to have real courage, which consists precisely in overcoming fear. But I don’t agree. We fearful belligerents place at the top of all our fears the fear of losing self-respect. We value ourselves very highly, and in order not to have to face our own humiliation, we are capable of anything. In other words, we drive away our fears not out of altruism but out of egotism.
And so, I have to admit, I’m afraid of myself. I’ve known for a long time now that I can get carried away, so I’m trying to soften the aggressive reactions I’ve forced myself to have ever since I was a child. I’m learning, like a character in Conrad, to accept fear, even to exhibit it with self-mockery. I began to do this when I realised that my daughters got scared if I defended them from dangers—small, large or imaginary—with excessive ardour. What perhaps should be feared most is the fury of frightened people.
Keeping a Diary
3 February 2018
I kept a diary for several years as a girl. I was a timid adolescent; all I said was yes, and mostly I was silent. In my diary, on the other hand, I let go: I recounted in detail what happened to me every day, very secret events, bold thoughts. So I was really worried about it: I was afraid that my family, especially my mother, would find it and read it. Thus I was always inventing safe hiding places that soon seemed to me unsafe.
Why was I worried? Because if, in everyday life, I was so embarrassed, so cautious, that I scarcely breathed, the diary produced in me a craving for truth. I thought that when one writes, it makes no sense to be contained, to censor oneself, and as a result I wrote mostly—maybe only—about what I would have preferred to be silent about, resorting among other things to a vocabulary that I would never have dared to use in speaking.
This soon created a situation that exhausted me. On the one hand, I made an effort of expression every day to demonstrate to myself that I was ruthlessly honest, and that nothing would ever prevent me from being so; on the other, I was terrified that someone might set eyes on my pages.
That contradiction was with me for a long time, and in many ways it’s still alive today. If I chose to make visible in writing what, if I hadn’t written, would have remained completely hidden in my head, why then was I anxious that my diary might be discovered?
Around the age of twenty, it seemed to me I’d found a solution that satisfied me. I had to stop writing my diary and channel the desire to tell the truth—my most unutterable truths—into an invented story. I took that route partly because the diary itself was starting to become fiction. Very often, for example, I didn’t have time to write every day, and as a result it seemed to me that the thread of causes and effects was broken. So I filled the voids by writing pages that I later back-dated. And in doing so I gave the facts, the reflections a coherence that didn’t always exist in the pages that I wrote daily. So it was probably the experience of the diary and its contradictions that transformed me into a fiction writer. In the invented stories, I felt that I was—I and my truths—a little safer.
In fact, as soon as that new writing gained ground, I threw away my diaries. I did it because the writing seemed crude, without worthwhile thoughts, full of childish exaggerations and, above all, far removed from how I now remembered my adolescence. Since then, I’ve no longer felt the need to keep a diary.
10 February 2018
More and more often I hear my friends say: it’s not death that scares me but illness. And I, too, repeat the phrase. When I try to unpack it to understand it a little better, I discover that for me it means: I’m frightened not by the idea of ceasing to exist, but by the invasiveness of treatments, by the oscillation between the illusion of recovery and disappointment, by death throes. It’s as if I were confessing that what truly worries me is the end of good health, along with everything that that entails: debilitation, progressive inactivity, pleasure diminished to the simple assertion that I am still “I,” and that for now, somehow or other, I’m still alive.
As a result, the idea of death itself seems increasingly pallid. What is terrifying, instead, is the end of enjoyable life, of a full life. And for me that’s because the belief in some kind of beyond, acquired during childhood, has faded over time.
When I was a child, my grandmother was the most active person in the house; then she had a stroke and was paralysed for years. She sat in a corner of the kitchen and I, as a girl, didn’t experience her suffering and humiliation, nor did she signal it to me, even with her eyes, as something intolerable. Death came suddenly, and I grieved within the religious framework in which I’d been raised. Death meant that she had gone away, leaving a body reduced to a cold, rigid thing. Her dying had very precise features: I felt it as a terrifying immobility and a very mysterious movement. My grandmother had crossed over into an elsewhere.
Later, every form of religious belief seemed absurd to me, and death was as if disfigured. The immobility remained, the movement vanished. The dead body became simply the sign of the end of life in a specific individual. Today I would never say: he has gone away. I’ve lost the sense of the crossing over: nothing goes up to heaven, we don’t move to another world, we don’t return, we aren’t reborn. We remain definitively immobile; death is the last point on the segment of life that has chanced to be ours.
Thus my attention, like that of many others, is concentrated not on dying but on living poorly. We hope that life is as long as possible, and yet that it will end conclusively when we have declined to the point where no treatment can make it tolerable. I don’t know which is better: this adult belief or the belief I maintained until adolescence. Beliefs aren’t good or bad; they serve only to bring order, at least momentarily, to our anguish.
The False and the True
17 February 2018
I can’t trace a line of separation between fiction and nonfiction. Let’s say I have an idea for a story in which, at the age of forty-eight, in an empty country house in winter, I am locked in the shower cubicle, I can’t turn the water off, the hot water is used up. Did that really happen to me? No. Did it happen to a person I know? Yes. Was that person forty-eight? No.
Why then do I construct a story in the first person, as if it had happened to me? Why do I say it was winter when, in fact, it was summer, why do I say the hot water was used up when it wasn’t, why do I make the woman’s imprisonment last for hours, when the actual person got out in five minutes, why do I complicate the story with many other events, with feelings, anxieties, frightened reflections, when the event recounted is a small, unimportant episode? Because—I could answer—I am trying to make fiction by following a course that Gogol summarised like this: Give me any small everyday event and I will make a five-act play.
But I don’t intend to answer like that. I want to offer the opposite example. I’m tired of fiction; I no longer see a reason to go hunting for anecdotes from which to make five-act plays. So I talk to my friend who was locked in the shower for a few minutes with the intention of recounting faithfully what happened. I go there with my iPad and I even make a video; I want to stick as closely to the facts as possible.
Then I go home and set to work. I read and reread my notes, I look again and again at the video, I listen over and over: and I’m baffled. Why does my friend get muddled when she talks about the defective cubicle? Why are the first well-considered sentences followed by faulty clauses, an accentuation of the dialectal cadence? Why, when she reports to me her trivial experience, does she look insistently to the right? What is there on the right that I can’t see in the recording and didn’t see in reality? How will I work when I move on to the writing?
In other words, my effort at faithfulness cannot be separated from the search for coherence, the imposition of order and meaning, even the imitation of the lack of order and meaning. Because writing is innately artificial, its every use involves some form of fiction. The dividing line is rather, as Virginia Woolf said, how much truth the fiction inherent in writing is able to capture.
24 February 2018
I love my country, but I have no patriotic spirit and no national pride. What’s more, I digest pizza poorly, I eat very little spaghetti, I don’t speak in a loud voice, I don’t gesticulate, I hate all mafias, I don’t exclaim “Mamma mia!” National characteristics are simplifications that should be contested. Being Italian, for me, begins and ends with the fact that I speak and write in the Italian language.
Put that way it doesn’t seem like much, but really it’s a lot. A language is a compendium of the history, geography, material and spiritual life, the vices and virtues, not only of those who speak it, but also of those who have spoken it through the centuries. The words, the grammar, the syntax are a chisel that shapes our thought. Not to mention our literary tradition, an extraordinary refinery of raw experience that has been active for centuries and centuries, a reservoir of intelligence and expressive techniques; it’s the tradition that has formed me, and on which I’m proud to have drawn.
Other author's books:
- La frantumagliaThe Neapolitan NovelsThe Story of a New NameMy Brilliant Friend
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