There were dreams in Pisa

Pisa is locked in the collective European imagination in a little box marked home of the Leaning Tower, so part of the task facing not only the civic authorities but anyone who delights in the riches has to offer is to inform intending visitors that there is more to the city than this one curiously beautiful building, to tell them that the city on the Arno is itself a monument to European, not only Italian, culture, that it was the birthplace of Galileo, that it is a city of great beauty, that it houses charming churches and splendid palaces, as well as the celebrated space which admiring observers down the centuries have called the Piazza of the Miracles, where alongside the Tower there stand such glories of European architecture as the Cathedral, the Baptistery and the awesome cemetery with its magnificent frescos.

And now the city is also the home of a major, annual cultural event, the Pisa Book Festival (PBF), established by the Della Porta publishing house. The event, a mixture of literary gathering and commercial publishing fair, is now in its thirteenth year and has grown to become the third largest in Italy. The figures proclaimed on the posters are impressive – 200 publishers, 150 guests, 300 events and 100,000 books on display. It has often struck me as curious that while Britain has several literary festivals, it has few literary prizes, while Italy has many literary prizes but few literary festivals, although the number of literary festas in Italy is growing. Such events allow readers to meet their favourite writers, and permit intellectuals, littérateurs as well as authors of works on cuisine, politics or history to gather and debate events and ideas. The best festivals operate in a context which is truly international, opening up horizons and encouraging the cross-fertilisation of cultures.

None does this better than the PBF. It is the practice of Lucia Della Porta, publisher and PBF organiser, to invite a guest country each year, Germany two years ago, Scandinavia last year and this year la Scozia. Seven Scottish writers arrived in November 2015 to make their own works and the culture of Scotland better known to audiences in Pisa, but also to broaden their own mental cosmos and to meet their Italian counterparts. For an intense weekend of formal seminars and informal discussions in bars and caffès, a Scottish posse consisting of well established writers such as Allan Massie, James Robertson and Ewan Morrison, emerging youthful writers such as Kirsty Logan and Jenni Fagan, the children’s writer and book illustrator, Ross Collins, and the unclassifiable Donald Murray listened, lectured, read, criticised, argued, answered, took note, pondered and invited reflection among those who attended their sessions. They also learned about common problems that they and Italian writers had to face and resolve. Allan Massie and Dacia Maraini, for example, writers of the same generation but of differing political views, discussed and agreed about the challenges of writing historical fiction. Ross Collins fostered and encouraged the artistic skills of local school children who copied his work and learned from his technique. A room in the eighteenth-century Palazzo Blu had been given over to him for an exhibition of his wild, free-roaming, extravagant work, created as colourful illustrations for children’s books.

These and other meetings provided the opportunity to examine links between Scotland and Italy inside or outside a common European residence, and to display something of the distinctiveness of the Scottish way of thought and life, where they are distinct. Judging by the number of visitors who in July and August leave the blue skies of Italy for the grey clouds of Scotland, it appears that Scotland is of interest to Italians, but what is the common perception of Scotland? The kilt, whisky, the lochs and rugged landscape as well as a particular kind of music are certainly part of any image, so it was appropriate that the first sound of Scotland at the opening of the festival was produced by the Royal Highland Company of Pipes and Drums, a grand title which conceals a quartet of Florentines, two pipers and two drummers, bedecked in kilts but looking more like the traditional flag-wavers who enliven ceremonial occasions in Tuscan towns.

There are demanding issues in Scotland’s public life today, and these were fully aired. Scotland the Brave was one of the tunes the pipers and drummers played as they marched around the festival venue, but while Scots may be brave in song, they are divided in debate. Questions of language, or dialect, matter profoundly to writers from both Italy and Scotland, but questions of social, historical and political identity are not only separate in themselves but are debated from different premises. With gusto and spirit, the Scottish contingent seized the opportunity to discuss their own work and vision, but also to give a glimpse of the culture of a country which is, after the referendum, more prominent in the public mind than it has been in centuries, but is, to the bemusement of Italians, torn between competing loyalties to the Scottish and British dimensions of public life.

In his crisp, trenchant or controversial, introductory address, Allan Massie recalled that in the course of the referendum campaign, he had been asked if he viewed himself as a Scottish or British writer. Both, he replied but also English, since that was the language in which he wrote. He even wondered if there was much sense in talking about a national culture at all, taking his example from America in the interwar years, where Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner were contemporaries but were motivated by divergent notions of the American dream. For Massie, Scott remains the finest of Scottish novelists, but he drew attention to the fact that he, like R L Stevenson in Kidnapped and Catriona, dramatises the theme of the clash of civilisations inside Scotland.

He could have found examples about the coherence or otherwise of a single national literature in the group from Scotland. He and James Robertson, excellent writers although both are, scarcely see eye to eye on any question of politics, nationality or history. Robertson caught the audience’s attention with his discussion of the Lockerbie tragedy, the subject of his last novel, The Professor of Truth. ‘Fiction can reveal truths that history cannot,’ he suggested, and since Italy in recent decades has seen certain troubling, mysterious disasters which were never fully resolved, they warmed to his warning against allowing holders of power to shape the narrative that is then given out as established truth. He also illuminated the incisive view of Scottish history presented by other works of his, most notably And the Land Lay Still.

There was no representative of the ‘tartan noir’ school of crime writing present, although several of their works are available in Italian, and William McIlvanney’s voice was heard in a pre-recorded interview. A Tuscan publisher, PaginaUno, has published translations some of his books by Carmine Mezzacappa, and as a spin-off for the festival now plans a series of contemporary Scottish fiction. The 2015 PBF may leave a deep trace if certain other planned translations of work by Massie, Robertson and Donald Murray do come to fruition. Scotland is, in Italy at least, more firmly ensconced in the general awareness than was the case even recently, when it was customary to talk only of English literature, with supposed regional variations. James Robertson opened a new vista with his assertion that Scottish writers alive at the fin de siècle had created four characters who had broken free of national moorings to enter into a wider international consciousness. His talk was on Stevenson’s Jekylland Hyde, and his readings were paired by those given by an Italian writer. Robertson’s aim was to underline the cross-national appeal of the novel, and the other characters he indicated as having crossed national borders were Jekyll/Hyde himself, Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes and Long John Silver, the latter as the very incarnation of the pirate. Pinocchio has the same international status, said a helpful listener.

The worry was that Scottish outlooks and concerns would be merely bizarre to an audience of cultural strangers but, as Jenny Fagan put it, explaining the title of her own novel, The Panopticon, we all inhabit a panopticon nowadays, and the view inside and out has a great deal in common. Maybe the task was easier for the younger writers, who inhabit a cosmos which grows increasingly more narrow, where differences in dress, habits of mind and of consumption tend to diminish. Ewan Morrison said he tried to write his novels as though they were filmscripts without actors, that he had found the films of Michelangelo Antonioni an inspiration, and had read all he could find of Alberto Moravia, who shared his obsession with sex and Marxism. Kirsty Logan’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Gracekeepers, taps into a contemporary taste for fantasy, but she was also at pains to stress that behind her depiction of a planet largely under water there lay ecological concerns for the future of the planet.

While critics and pundits will search for underlying themes which supposedly bind festivals into a seamless whole, most people’s memory will be of individual vivid scenes and encounters. No imaginative vision or style of life could have been more distant from the experience of urban Italians than that of Donald Murray, a native speaker of Gaelic, born on Lewis, now resident in Shetland and author of a recent book entitledHerring Tales. Food is of universal interest, but not necessarily the consumption of puffins, or indeed herrings. Murray enthralled the Pisan public as he spoke about the centrality of the herring, unknown in Mediterranean waters, to the cuisine and culture of peoples around the North Sea, but produced the same effect when he turned to the Italian Chapel on Orkney, recited an erotic poem about love-making on St Kilda, broke into the Gaelic psalm his father sang as he sat at the loom, and debated with a Corsican poet about the prospect of their languages.

The various sessions represented the point where the national morphed into the international, and gave substance to a line from Pasolini quoted early in proceedings. ‘Truth does not lie in one dream alone, but in many dreams.’ There were dreams galore in Pisa, and no nightmares.

Joseph Farrel

© 2015, Joseph Farrel.
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