No. 7


Alessandro Baricco 

in conversation with Margarita Meklina  

Translated from the Italian by Andrew Meklin and Margarita Meklina  



An interview with Alessandro Baricco taken on May 28, 2003 
in the city of Turin, Italy in collaboration with Andrew Meklin

Let me quote from “Novecento”:  “when you don’t know what it is, then it’s jazz.” Do you think so?

This line was like a joke, but there is a part of truth there; it’s mostly a certain attitude to things. It’s like somebody asks me, “what’s that book?” And I say, “it’s kind of jazz.” It’s something like a free form, out of an established pattern. Jazz is a huge container that can contain everything in a free form. It becomes a totem word, a benchmark word to signify unclassified things. Jazz is the word that we may use to identify something in between different things, something without a stable structure, something directly connected to improvisation and freedom.

How did the first idea of “Novecento” come to you? 

I have always been fascinated by piano players on big transatlantic ships. I read books about them; I always was interested in that. And there is this story of a guy who actually was born on a boat and never left this boat for all his life. And, by the way, the birth of any story is always a mystery, it can't be rationalized. 

You didn’t introduce one of the characters of “Novecento,” “Jelly Roll” Morton, who in the 20s was a very famous piano player, in a positive light…

This is because of the need of an opponent to the main character… the story simply had to be structured that way. 

I found a flavor of Paulo Conte’s songs in “Novecento.” You like Paulo Conte?

For us, Turin people, Paulo Conte is a very important thinker, who, with his songs, has been able to tell stories that are really meaningful to us. 

Since we started talking about music… Tell us about the CD “Air Baricco,” which was heavily promoted in the U.S.

If you think that our CD has been well-promoted, it’s because of “The Air,” and not because of me. “The Air” is a French duo that on the CD performs music, while I’m reading aloud. If “The Air” has an audience in the U.S., it’s because they recorded the soundtrack for a movie shot by a daughter of Francis Ford Coppola. The movie is “Virgin Suicides,” and it is based on the book by Eugenides. This soundtrack had a big success everywhere in the world, including the U.S. 

“The Air” has an audience — as for me, I cannot say that I have a big audience in the U.S., despite being published. Therefore I have to thank them for this promotion. I’m happy because Italian language is being recorded on the CD. 

The names of your characters are mostly English. How do you choose them?

To choose names is an important part of our job as writers. There are even classes in our school* about names for a character. It’s one of the many things we writers do and it asks for attention and special care. Everybody has his or her own special pattern to follow in this area, personal patterns. I mostly rely on the sound of the word… most of the times I don’t use Italian names because I don’t like them. And also because with my stories you never know where they are staged. My names are kind of assembled, and most of the time this assemblage is based on the sound. 

* In the earlier part of the conversation Baricco was telling about Scuola Holden, the school of arts which he manages and where the interview took place.

And in “Novecento,” they are looking for the name of a major character, a little toddler they found, and this is an example [of choosing the name] and kind of honor, homage, to the work we are doing. It is the example of the name assembled from different sources. First, the name of his father; second, since he was found on the box of lemons, he gets the name “Lemon,” and then they realize that something is missing, as a sound, and this is simulation of what is going on in our head when we are making the character’s name. Particularly, the writers like me who favor names little bit made up, not Italian names. 

And how do you pronounce Bartlebum, the name of one of your characters?

This name is made up, and everybody is entitled to pronounce it the way he or she pleases. The most important thing is that one should like the sound of this name.

Can Bartlebum be considered your alter-ego?

Not more than any other character I’ve ever written about. Nevertheless, despite that I don’t identify myself with him, it’s a character I really love, and more than other characters. He shows this blend of comedy and tragedy that has a certain appeal to me. 

Since we started talking about Bartlebum, let’s refer to two major characters of the “Ocean Sea”… Plasson is a painter. Bartlebum is an encyclopedist. In your work as a writer, do you see yourself as a painter or as an encyclopedist?

As Madame Deveria says, they are both two halves that are put together to create a unity, one single person. In fact, they become friends, and they are two characters who are strictly connected. They have a life only in relation to each other. In my job as a writer, there are both of these components. In fact, an encyclopedic issue is always present in every book. And if you dig deeply in any written work, you’ll find it. 

The encyclopedic intention always lies at the base of every story, which is always born thanks to the desire to collect bits of knowledge and make them transmissible to other people. On the other hand, there is also a desire to duplicate what your eyes see or your personal ghosts with a painter’s technique. 

In the “Ocean Sea” you talk about the end of the ocean… the end of art…

As Bartlebum, we study and struggle to make visible the event of the end, the happening of the end, the instance of the end. Nature is something that is always hidden, is blended; therefore it’s not about studying, let’s say, the oaks. To study the end of the things, you need a special vision and attitude; you have to dig very deeply. Think about the sea. How can you say where it ends? The end of the sea is always shifting. How can you say when a love is over? [We think about the end of things] when we try to understand that the time we spend with our kids is over, when the time for our passions is over. We are there staring at all these things; we are trying to look at the end or the beginning of something that may lead us to the interpretation of reality, to something extremely elusive. 

Therefore, what Bartlebum thinks in this case coincides with what you think?

Yes, that’s what I think. 

At the end of the book Plasson throws away all his paintings. When you finish writing a book, do you start another one on a blank page, or do you continue the previous one?

[My books are] one single gesture that is actually endless (Baricco gestures, as though drawing a rainbow in the air). It’s the gesture which has some different chapters. 

Working on portraits, Plasson always starts from the eyes. From what do you start when you embark on a new story?

I start from little characters or details that for me are shining and meaningful, sparkling and meaningful. These are for me some kind of cells that emanate sound. Then a story is built around these little cells. But the beginning of a book is always a gesture. Or a sentence, or an object. And among the countless stimuli surrounding you, there are these events that hit you, that affect your imagination. And from that you then start research and build around. And this object or gesture triggering your imagination can come from your own life experience or from somebody else’s experience.

What about the limits? Is there any limit for a word? For a book?

As writers, we need to write books with the end. After that, for a reader a book can last forever. It depends if a book was well-written or not. But we have to give readers a fully made object with the beginning and the end, something they can hold in their hands. It has to be a daily struggle to give readers this object, as a handyman’s daily routine. 

How do you decide when a book is over?

It’s like when a painter decides when he has to apply the last stroke. It’s a kind of mystery, because if you keep it a little bit longer, maybe, something would change. Think about “Mona Lisa”… It’s extraordinary that this guy, Leonardo, thought to himself: “that’s it, that’s enough; one extra stroke — and I will ruin the painting.” And we, writers, have to realize when there is a right instant to stop. And since this is very difficult, every book as a result is too short or too long. Every painting has something too much or not enough.

Obviously, everybody tries to understand where there is an exact moment to stop, but this may happen once in a lifetime. There are many things that contribute to the decision to stop, and among them is tiredness and exhaustion. 

Why do you so frequently refer to the expression "doing a job" when talking about literature?

For me it’s a job, and I always thought that it was a job. Actually, there are people making bread and I make books. There is not such a big difference. When you write a book, most of the times you have an ambition that goes beyond [a routine], but at the end of the day it’s what every artisan does on an everyday basis. 

As Walter Benjamin said, the craftsman who works on the precious stone can reach a mystical communion with it — and this is what also happens with us as writers, when we reach some kind of a mystical communion with words. 
But everything always starts from craftsmanship. 

Tell us about war, the recurring event in your work…

I usually don’t give any special meaning to war, other than the last book [Without Blood]. [The book represents] my personal thoughts about war. In every other book of mine, war looks as a jump, as a twist in a human life. War for me is a dynamic tool in history; war is something that puts everything back in motion, turning it to its beginnings. 

What paintings are referred to in the “Ocean Sea”?

One thing is the story about Plasson who paints portraits and the sea, and there, there is no connection to any painter. But the major influence in the book is Gericault. He also specialized in portrait painting. He was a highly paid portrait painter. In fact, the shipwreck of the raft is a heart of the book and the real event that really took place. And obviously all these events [described in the book] are the ones that were painted by Gericault in his painting. 

And, by the way, the white painting at the end [of the “Ocean Sea”] has nothing to do with any specific influence by any painter, Rauschenberg or Malevich or anybody else; it’s something that I thought of as a natural end of the story. 

Is it possible to draw any comparison between God and Sea?

For sure, the “Ocean Sea” is one of my books with the most evident religious influence. At the end there is this chapter about the blessing of the sea. Actually, there is an attempt to describe the connection between the sea and the divinity. But still, there is not such a clear message, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly what the connection is. As I already said, there are images and you can go around them and try to connect them, but it’s always something really foggy. Something not clear. It’s the reader who has the task to fill up the missing spots and links. 

The sea and water is a symbol frequently used not only by writers but also by painters and musicians. Hemingway, Debussy, Faulkner…Does it have a special meaning for you?

No, it doesn’t. I use the elements of nature, as many other writers before me, only as a complimentary for a story. Often natural elements can also become a symbol of something. I only write stories; I’m not trying to give any special meaning to anything. My mind is a storage of images that can potentially contribute to a story — and then all I have to do is just write down this story.

If you had to be in a shipwreck, what island would you prefer it to be close to?

I would like to shipwreck close to the island of Ponza [close to Napoli]. Together with Ponza I also can mention Procida, another island close to Ponza. Because we, Northern Italians, always are lured by what we don’t have. We admire Southern islands that we don’t have in the North. For me, the real dream is not Pacific Islands, but Italian South. 

One of your characters plays chess with Death. Do you like Bergman? Is there any connection between “The Seventh Seal” and the “Ocean Sea”?

When I was much younger, I really liked Bergman. And our brain usually works like that: we are like a sponge. Everything that surrounds us enters our brain and is somehow processed, but then it’s also forgotten. But it’s always there; it’s like a boiling pot. And without you realizing it, it somehow comes out. 

All these things that were boiling on the background can come back at any time. When I’m asked if some kind of image or scenes are derived from something, my answer is that they never come from something else directly. One exception is the “Ocean Sea,” where the central part is being built around Gericault, but this is clearly stated, since there are even the same names of the characters. 

Everywhere else is [done] unwillingly; it’s not done on purpose. You may say to me: “oh, I noticed in your work this and that,” and I will tell you: “really?!” Sometimes only at a later stage I realize that there is some kind of influence, but only after a reader focuses my attention on it. I really loved Bergman, when I was twenty.

That means that you don’t like him anymore?

There are some artists that actually aged. Even though I’m not completely sure that Bergman really aged, since I didn’t watch his movies since the last ten years. But, for instance, let’s take Visconti’s movies, which for me were the major excitement when I was in my twenties. Now I find them really aged. Even if I’m not sure that this is really a minus. In fact, aging might not affect at all their artistic standing.

Where do you find inspiration for your stories? Is it in your head, or because you travel a lot, read a lot, meet many new people?

I read a lot in the past and, compare to the average, I read a lot now. And then I’m not the one who writes locked in his room. Writing is not only an intellectual thing; it’s something that is made of your personal ghosts. I’m always trying to get as much stimulus in the world as possible as opposed to be secluded in a room only writing from my head. What happens is that the world somehow enters my personal boiling pot and after that it becomes something totally different. Therefore you will find really few real things, real facts in my books. 

So, you wouldn’t be able to go to Ponza?

No. I think that moments of peace and silence are required to get deep into yourself, while you are writing. But this happens as it happens for many craftsmen who need to have a peace of mind, when they do their job. But, besides this seclusion when writing, I will never be able to really live completely secluded. 

Is it true that you live in Paris?

No, actually I just moved from Turin to Rome, but I commute between Rome and Turin. In Paris I have a small apartment, where I stay when I don’t want to be bothered, where nobody knows my address and phone number.

I really like to work in Paris, but not to live there. Since now I live in Rome and commute to Turin, I’m always in a hurry and I need to hurry now. Bye-bye.




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