Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Richard Ford at Rome Book Festival

Richard Ford and Sandro Veronesi at Libri Come
The fourth edition of Rome's annual book festival Libri come: Festa del Libro e della Lettura, which closed on Sunday, once again this year presented an impressive programme of encounters with important international authors. Whilst the focus of this edition was Europe, Sunday afternoon saw the arrival of one of America's greatest contemporary novelists and short story writers, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford, in a literary discussion entitled “How I write my books”. I've been a huge Richard Ford fan for many years and couldn't wait to hear what he would have to say when he joined Italian author Sandro Veronesi on stage in Sala Petrassi at the Auditorium Parco della Musica to warm applause from the small, yet enthusiastic audience of admirers. And so the discussion began... Or rather, Veronesi began expounding his own theories on Ford's work. Frustratingly, after several, very long minutes, our ebullient host Veronesi was still only half way through his verbose introduction. Eventually, however, he conceded the floor to Ford, and the talk could finally get under way.

Richard Ford cuts a physically impressive figure – he's surprisingly tall, with silver hair, sparkling, very pale blue eyes, and a warm, mischievous smile. His softly spoken, thoughtful answers, and modest replies during the conversation that followed, made him an irresistibly likeable person. He was utterly charming as he gently demolished Veronesi's opening comments on the presumed stoicism of Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of his famous trilogy The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land, reaffirming instead, the sense of optimism in his writing.
You know, I would hate to think that I was stoico! I would hate to think that I was a kind of tough, clenched jaw, sit tight kind of person... For me to practise that attitude of trying make something whole that has been damaged is to me supremely optimistic. Maybe that's the difference between the European point of view and the American point of view...I don't know...maybe I'm just a victim of stupid American optimism!...I might be, I might be...But if I am, I'm doomed to have it! I think that to try to regenerate your life, and to try to carry on, and that you have so much life left, is potentially even, if you'll excuse my saying so, joyous. […] I'm more of a Bacchanalian personality, so stoicism is almost alien to me! Surely in Rome people can understand the possibility for Bacchanalian personality...Rome invented Bacchanalia!
Richard Ford in Rome
In fact, Ford emphasised that optimism is essential to writing books in the first place.
[…] the whole business of writing novels is fundamentally optimistic because it imagines that there will be someone to read this book, it imagines that there will a future in which this book can have a life that will outlive me […]
The insistent Veronesi, however, refined his definition of Bascombe's stoicism as “patient endurance” and integrity, to which Ford, with a chuckle, agreed. This, in fact, seemed to really resonate with him, and after quoting a line from William Faulkner's 1951 Nobel speech about man's endurance, he talked about the important of patience in his own life and writing.
The whole notion of patience is very dear to my heart. I'm a very slow thinking, slow acting person, so patience has been a big part of my life from the beginning, so much so that I think there's an old maxim which says that impatience is a form of to be patient means to get the most done. It's certainly a feature in one's life which is necessary to write novels, if only because to write novels the real requirement is to stay in the book, not to finish the book...anybody can finish a book! But it takes real patience and real endurance and real interest to stay inside the book for as long as you can because it's only then that you can understand it better and make it better.
There was much anxious fidgeting from those around me, particularly Italian readers who have not yet had the chance to read Ford's latest novel Canada, released only this week in Italian translation, when Veronesi veered dangerously close to the spoiler-zone on several occasions, when talking about the new book. Thankfully, most of the discussion focussed on the recurrent theme in Ford's novels of crossing borders – both symbolically and geographically - and successfully avoided revealing too many plot details.

For Ford the sense of crossing borders begins on the page itself:
For me who was always writing sentences and paragraphs, one of the things I observed as a reader and as a writer was that when I came to the end of a paragraph and I started a new paragraph, something happened; there was some sense of torque, some sense of power that was achieved in getting across the white space from one utterance to another utterance.
He spoke about the creative process of discovering the theme of a book, and how the theme of crossing borders, with the sense of freedom it brings, had come naturally to Mississippi-born Ford, who left the south as soon as he could.
We've all had this experience. You can read something and it just resonates with you. It may be something seemingly insignificant, when you read it... it just has a little tingle about it, and those are the kind of things that cause writers to write novels, or the poetry writers to write poems, or essays, it's a kind of a commotion you feel on some level of sublimated emotion, a sense of emotion, a sense of commotion, and that's what we try to put in play in books. And sometimes these things become themes, like crossing borders […] I grew up in Mississippi, which is a very bad place to grow up in lots of ways, and I couldn't wait to leave, I couldn't wait till I was eighteen years old and could get on the train and cross the border from Mississippi, to go from the south, to go to the north, and so for me I come by this preoccupation quite rightly because for me crossing borders always meant some kind of freedom.
Ford's spoken language is as engaging and utterly absorbing as his exquisitely written prose - I could have listened to Richard Ford speak all day long! Sadly the discussion was over far too soon. One of the fun aspects of the Rome book fest, however, are the many free events, readings and interviews happening all over the Parco della Musica. On leaving the event I was lucky enough to stumble upon the recording of a Rai 3 radio interview with Richard Ford for the show Fahrenheit, which was taking place in the foyer, and where he was joined by another stellar literary name – none other than Salman Rushdie! Rushdie was in Rome to promote the Italian publication of his memoir about living undercover during the fatwa years - Joseph Anton.

Watch a very brief clip of the conversation between Richard Ford and Salman Rushdie below or click here to watch on YouTube.

To complete a perfect afternoon, I was thrilled to then get the chance to meet Richard Ford later in person and chat for a few moments at a book signing session in the Auditorium book shop.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Waiting for 'I Due Foscari' – An Encounter with Werner Herzog at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma

2013 sees the bicentennial of Giuseppe Verdi's birth and to mark the occasion Rome's Teatro dell'Opera will shortly be staging a completely new production of I Due Foscari, directed by visionary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, and with conductor Riccardo Muti on the podium. On Saturday afternoon Herzog was joined by journalist Valerio Cappelli, the theatre's artistic directors Catello De Martino and Alessio Vlad, and film critic Mario Sesti, in a hugely entertaining encounter in the splendid foyer of the opera house to discuss not only this new version of Verdi's opera, but also his wider relationship with music during his entire film career through a series of clips from his movies and personal anecdotes.

This is third time that Muti and Herzog have worked together and the director was keen to stress that it is always Muti who talks him into taking on an operatic staging. In fact, he rarely goes to operatic performances himself and instead prefers to listen to CD recordings, finding it disturbing when another person's visual ideas interfere with the images he has created in his own mind's eye when listening to the music.
“Maestro Muti really dragged me into it...he really wanted me to do this and when he calls I listen...not 100% but in a case like this, yes! And of course, the main reason is that musically it is very, very interesting. It's like a new phase for Verdi, a new discovery, he's changing course... it's a transition time for Verdi.”
Werner Herzog presents I Due Foscari
The preview of I Due Foscari was presented through a very rapid slideshow of tantalising shots of production designer Maurizio Balò's dramatic wintery sets. I Due Foscari, Herzog explained, was a difficult libretto to work with because there is little character development, and even turning to Lord Byron's historical play The Two Foscari, on which the opera is based, is of little help because Byron, whilst being a wonderful poet, was sadly “not a great dramatist”. Pausing on one particular slide he noted that the members of the chorus have turned their backs to the politicians and are instead more interested in watching the two clowns on stage. He emphasised, to chuckles from the audience, that this concept had been devised well over a year ago, and was in no way meant to reflect the present political situation in Italy!

As admirers of Herzog's cinema will know, music is of fundamental importance in his work, with operatic pieces used in his soundtracks to extraordinary effect. His masterpiece Fitzcarraldo famously uses recordings by the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso.
“[…] in Fitzcarraldo, in the screenplay I described that Fitzcarraldo plays Wagner...Wagner operas in the jungle, and as soon as I tried out Wagner music in the jungle it just did not fit together, it just did not find resonance, but it is Bellini all of a sudden that is wonderful, Bellini and Verdi...miracles in the jungle, it's their natural habitat. It's a place for fever dreams and that's where they fit! Wagner is too Teutonic!”
The opening scene from Wodaabe - Herdsmen of the Sun, in which the young males of the tribe roll their eyes and bear their teeth to attract females in a male beauty contest, as an early 1900s cylinder recording of Ave Maria sung by the last Vatican castrato Alessandro Moreschi plays in the background, is another mesmerising example.
“There are very operatic moments in my films, staged moments, accentuated moments.”
Avoiding the obvious Hollywood-style scoring where emotions displayed on the screen are hammered home by the accompanying music, he explained that he likes music to emphasis the separate, parallel story playing alongside the film, the one the audience creates for itself.
“Music in cinema has a great power; it does not change the projection of light, the music does not change the image, but it changes our perspectives.”
On some occasions, most notably in The White Diamond and The Wild Blue Yonder, the haunting music – a collaboration between cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger, Senegalese singer Mola Sylla, and Sardinian vocal choir, the Voches de Sardinna - was created even before filming had begun. When asked by the director of photography as to how The White Diamond should look stylistically, Herzog said that he simply put some earphones over his head and said: “Listen! This is how we do it!”

With such an obvious affinity for music, therefore, perhaps Herzog's most shocking anecdote of the day, was that of a childhood trauma of being made to sing against his will in front of his class at school, resulting in a complete refusal towards not only singing, but music in general during his childhood. Thankfully, for both Herzog and the world of cinema, he would later fill that musical void as a self-taught music lover in his adult years.
“I shut myself out like an autistic child from music classes and because of that when I left school there was a deep void and hunger for music, so it was all for something good I think.”
They do say that one should never meet one's heroes, but I threw caution to the wind and approached the great man to exchange a few words at the end of the discussion! Am thrilled to confirm that he was utterly charming, and I am now the proud owner of an autographed Fitzcarraldo DVD.

I Due Foscari will run from 6 - 16 March 2013 at the Teatro dell'Opera

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