Gli Uomini Ombra e altri racconti (Italian Edition)
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Q You started your career as a journalist. Did you always know that you wanted to become a novelist? What kind of relationship do you see between these two forms of writing? A As previously mentioned, I have always been interested in creative writing. At the age of nine, when asked by my teacher at school to write an essay about what I wanted to do when I grew up, I wrote that I intended to become a writer.
This was clear in my mind. What is less clear is why it took me so long to pursue my ambition, since I published my first literary work when I was forty. Personally, I think that this has something to do with my upbringing. I was brought up believing that duty takes precedence over pleasure.
De l'un au multiple
As creative writing for me represents the utmost pleasure I had to postpone it until I finished all the things I felt I had to do: writing a doctoral thesis, giving birth to two daughters and follow their upbringing. The other fundamental factor is that I knew that I could only approach creative writing by talking about my father, as my father was a person who had a huge influence on my life.
He was both a terrible burden and an inspirational light, and I could not have dealt with these issues whilst he was alive. This explains why I followed so many diversions in my life. However, your original question was about the relationship between journalism and creative writing. Well, I like writing all sorts of things, even a simple letter or an e-mail message: the physical act of writing gives me pleasure.
As long as I can sit in front of a computer and write something I am happy. So, journalism was the obvious job for me, it allowed me to combine my passion for writing with the possibility to earn a living. Initially, I drew a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from journalism.
Later on, when I started devoting myself to creative writing, the two forms of writing started to compete against each other and the situation began to deteriorate: each year my suffering in having to set aside some time for my activities as a journalist became stronger and stronger. In the end I decided to give up journalism because, contrary to what most people believe, when one reaches a phase in life like mine, in which creative writing plays a fundamental role, journalism becomes an obstacle.
In fact, I seem to remember that an English poet possibly Ted Hughes, but I am not entirely sure , when asked why he had not tried to make a living by becoming a journalist, instead of working in a bank, replied that being a clerk was much more compatible with his literary vocation than going into journalism. Now, I am teaching at university, which is also a very demanding job, but far enough from literature not to compete with it. Q You have always been interested in Feminism and for many years you edited the journal Femmes suisses. A Let us say that I would like to make a distinction between the situation we had in the 70s and the situation we have today.
The recognition that women had something different to say compared to what men had to say was very important. Women had to talk about their experience as women and express feelings that had been repressed for centuries.
That was a very exciting and beautiful moment. When I began writing my first book about my father I was the editor of Femmes suisses and I was dealing with feminist issues all the time. However, my interest in Feminism was of a socio-political nature. By entering the world of creative writing I wanted to experience something else. This of course does not mean that literature should be totally devoid of a political message but simply that a piece of literature should not become a tool for political propaganda. My being a feminist and a writer are not totally different things, because I am the same person, but no one activity serves the other.
Q References to history and current affairs are frequent in your books, particularly in Homme tragique and Sentier. How do you view the relationship between micro and macro history? A I am very pleased to hear that this aspect was noticed because my literary ambition is to reconstruct the totality of an individual, of my characters.
In our experience as human beings micro and macro history are inexorably connected. Even when we are having a relaxed chat with friends in the garden over a glass of wine, macro history is present through the radio or other media informing us of events like the London bombings or the war in Iraq, and these facts stay in our soul even when we are thinking about something else.
In our subconscious, elements of micro and macro history have a symbiotic relationship and reciprocally influence each other. The perception of our personal circumstances is determined by bigger events around us and vice versa. As a writer, therefore, I am always striving to convey this continuum of feelings and sensations that can only be artificially kept apart.
Even as a reader, what I like in a writer like Antonia Byatt, for instance, whom I greatly admire, is this symbiosis between public and private sphere. Perhaps, women writers — I am also thinking of two other writers whom I consider my role models: Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro — are more determined to make their readers perceive this unity in our experience of life. Male writers — although generalizations are always dangerous — can more easily separate the two spheres.
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On various occasions the narrator appears to feel guilty for her lack of political engagement HT What is the role of a writer in society? Can art have a social function?
A It is interesting that you should point out the parallelism between the decline of the father and the Italian political situation because that was precisely the message I was given by my father throughout my childhood. He used to talk about Italy in terms of a country best forgotten.
What is more, the physical decline of my father indeed took place during very difficult and tragic moments in Italian history such as the anni di piombo, the years of the Red Brigades. As for the sense of guilt, that is also true because guilt is part of everyday life. There is something fundamentally artificial when people pretend not to feel guilty or to be fully satisfied with what they do to improve the plight of humanity.
Most individuals oscillate between moments when they are reasonably happy for having done something constructive be it the simple act of joining an environmentally friendly organization, or donating a small sum of money to a charitable cause and others when they are fully aware that they do not do enough, or that what they do will not make a difference. What is certainly a feature of my characters is that they do not choose to be politically active.
The Project Gutenberg eBook of Lezioni e racconti per i bambini, by Ida Baccini.
Personally, of course, I expressed my political engagement through Feminism. With my characters, instead, I wanted to stress this sense of doubt and uneasiness that inhabits each one of us. Finally, coming to the social function of art, as I previously said, I do not like the idea of art as a tool for propaganda. If the only message of a work of art is a militant one or if the political message is too explicit, the artistic aspect of that piece of work suffers. What is very important instead, is for writers or artists in general — I am thinking of Umberto Eco or Salman Rushdie — to use the authority they have as successful artists to denounce cruelty and injustices throughout the world by writing to newspapers or through public speeches.
Italian translations of Chinese literature
This is something I also do from time to time. In this case what we produce has nothing to do with art. If art can have a political message this must be achieved in a more subtle way. By appealing to the subconscious, the more elusive part of us, the part where our deepest thoughts and emotions are formed, where the factors that make us act in life develop, art can have an impact on our behaviour but not as a direct chain of cause and effect.
Q Your works seem to be characterised by the recurrence of certain themes, the most striking of which is death. Even Sentier, which is perhaps the most positive of all your books, opens with a reference to death. Why is the theme of death so central to your writing? A There is certainly something in me that is particularly sensitive to the idea of the death of a child as I think that this is the most horrible and traumatic experience an individual might have to face. I have friends who lost their children and it is something I can only describe in terms of a deep sense of horror and despair, which is why it was important for me to deal with this in all my books.
Sentier begins with the description of the death of a young boy, the protagonist of Avant had lost a child and even my latest book, the one I am currently writing, features a young person who comes very close to dying. As for death in general, it corresponds to one of my main literary and existential concerns, which is our human finiteness.
This is perhaps more clearly visible in Avant but is present elsewhere too. In the autobiographical book, for instance, the figure of my father is an example of someone who cannot come to terms with necessity the Greek goddess Ananke , and death, of course, is the most explicit example of necessity. Death is an extremely important theme for me precisely because it is the obvious manifestation of our finiteness. How close is this notion to your own views on time and progress? The title Avant seems to contain this contradiction between two opposite moments avant referring to the past but also implying a forward movement ; yet many of your characters seem to feel, in a rather existentialist fashion, that there is no recuperable inner core of being that resists the ravages of time and change, and that the individual is in a permanent state of self creation.
A This is a difficult question because it raises issues that are hard to express. I will try to answer by analysing the significance of the title Avant, a title that my publisher regrets having accepted because he thinks the book would have sold more copies if we had selected something less mysterious for it.
For me, however, it was important to retain the original title for its symbolic value. I see in it two contradictory elements which are not so much those you mention but the idea of time and that of its possible non existence.
What I mean is that if there is an avant a before , there is also a now and an after, proving the existence of time, but in avant I also see a reference to a situation, before Creation, where time did not exist. Before the emergence of life and, as a consequence, of the notion of finiteness, everything was static. In my book there is a kind of nostalgia for that condition, a condition in which angst did not exist, as angst is caused by the flow of time again, I am thinking of Heidegger.
The reference to Zenon stresses this kind of nostalgia because if movement does not exist neither does time.