Every September people flock to the small, sleepy, medieval town of Mantua in Italy for a few days to experience the Festivaletteratura (a literary festival).
This September was no exception. And once again, I was there.
For better or worse, I fit the profile of a typical literary festival goer: female, between the ages of 30 and 70, bespectacled, sensibly-shoed with a big handbag full of programs, guides, maps, books, etc.
I used to go to the festival alone but in recent years Signor Lu has insisted on coming with me even though he is a non-reader. La Gazzetta dello Sport satisfies all of his literary needs. But you can kind of read vicariously by attending festival events.
There were 225 events on the program this year. I went to 8 of them. (I’m only human.)
The first event was an interview with the Iranian writer Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran). She didn’t disappoint. She spoke passionately and articulately about her country, literature, women’s rights and other lit-fest friendly subjects which earned her several rounds of spontaneous applause. Nafisi clearly knows how to work the lit-fest audience but she does it with sincerity and class.
Event no. 2 was Hugo Hamilton, an Irish writer whose work I have not read. He spoke eloquently about language, identity and Ireland. Interesting.
Event no. 3 was with Jeffrey McNeely, Chief Scientist for the International Union of Conservation of Nature (I’ve never heard of them either) who spoke inspiringly about biodiversity, ecosystems, gibbons in Indonesia, tigers in Asia, tomatoes in Peru, rice in Tibet and wolves and bears in Europe. It was fascinating listening. He also spoke about overfishing of tuna in the Med. As a result I will have to stop eating tuna as I don’t want to be complicit in the extinction of a species. But, dearest dwindling tunafish, I don’t know if I can do it: you are a staple source of protein in our household.
Next it was off to Africa, or rather off to see a film about Hugo Pratt, the comic artist behind Corto Maltese and other iconic comic books that are well-known in Europe but less well-known in the English-speaking world. Another great event.
Final event for the day was a Yorkshireman called David Peace who is apparently one of Britain’s best young writers. (I haven’t read any of his work.) Unfortunately there was a complete lack of rapport between the writer and his interviewer. The interviewer spoke far too much and the novelist far too little. When questions were opened up to the public, Peace gave more interesting and more expansive responses.
The following day began with Edmund White, a very cheeky, gay American writer. I haven’t read any of his work either. (Can you see a pattern emerging?) He knew how to work a lit-fest crowd too and he had me chuckling at his gay anecdotes.
Then it was off to another film: Interiors by Anne Perry, a murderer turned successful novelist. Vaguely interesting, slightly disturbing but not a must-see.
The very last festival event for me was an interview with Scottish writer Ian Rankin. I have read one of his books. (Black and Blue – quite good if you like crime fiction). I saw him some years ago at the festival (when I used to read the works of the novelists I was going to see).
Rankin trotted out some of the same stories he had told last time! They were still good. He had a better interpreter this year (one of my festival favourites, in fact) and he had refined his use of self-deprecatory wit, making me realize how much I miss this mainstay of Anglo humour. It translated well too which was interesting because even though Italians are witty and like to laugh as much as anyone else, self-deprecation does not form a greater part of Italian light-hearted banter.
Festivaletteratura 2010: another good year. I have new additions to my reading list but first, I really really must finish War and Peace …