This interview with Baret Magarian was conducted mainly in Italian. I have to confess that I wasn’t able to persude him to talk about his novel The Fabrications, nor was I able to find out in which year he moved to Italy. I imagined that he would have said more about his love affair with the Italian language, and of the literary friendships he made in Florence where he chose to live, but no … He wanted to remain mysterious and he jokingly told me the title of his autobiography (we don’t know whether or not will be written one day), a fetching title I must admit, which includes the name of a Tuscan town whose sound fascinates him… “Hm, nice title, I remarked, but I don’t know how it would sell.” And then he replied, “With great difficulty.” I wanted him to say more about the readings he had done, because before proposing to interview him I knew that he had read his poetry at the British Institute of Florence and parts of his stories at the Anglican Church of St Mark’s. No, he didn’t want to return to his past even if there were nice things that took place in it. Only once during our talk did he mention The Pain Tapestry that was staged by the author himself in Italian in Turin and in Florence with the Italian-American actor Roberto Zibetti. The same piece was also produced in English in Reykjavk, Iceland in front of a full house. In fact we conducted the interview during a moment in which all readings were taking place online amidst the severe conditions of serial lockdowns. Now, re-reading the interview I realise that it transmits little of his sense of humour that we discover when we read his works and which I am acquainted with in my personal relationship with him. But I would like to share a little taste, if the author would allow me… when we were choosing a photo of him to go with the interview I told him that we needed an attractive photo and he replied jokingly, “Can we use photoshop? To change certain details? Smaller nose, more hair?”
Melodrama, thriler, confession, enigma – someone classified your stories as having these genres. And someone on Amazon.it wrote: “The first story is a short film. “ What effect does it have on you to be compared to Samuel Beckett, Woody Allen and Billy Wilder and which of these filmmakers do you prefer?
Obviously I don’t deserve these compliments! But It’s very nice to be compared to such great artists. I think that Wilder is an absolute genius; and I bow down before his versatility, range and wit – he could do anything. My favourite Wilder film is probably The Front Page – simply wonderful.
Let’s begin with your relationship to cinema. Are you nostalgic about the cinemas that have disappeared from town centres?
Yes, I do feel sad about the disappearance of cinemas, I’ve always felt that cinemas seem to be magical places, mid way between dreams and reality, dream custodians, wombs, caves. They allow us to be anonymous, shapeless in the dark. I really hope that this pandemic doesn’t spell the end of cinema. I would die.
Do you have an Italian translation for Melting Point?
Punto di Fusione, but it’s a little bit ugly I think.
This book is with the afterword by Jonathan Coe … What things about his work have struck you as a reader, what are his strengths that you have noted and what would you like to say about him as a writer?
Coe is wonderfully human, he understands the human heart and its fragility, its aspirations, its desires and impulses toward nostalgia and the past and the pain of love and desire. He is a master of plot, he instinctively knows how to construct the architecture of a book, and is a great manipulator of coincidence, of twists and of the subversion of expectation. In the end he manages to fuse together so many different genres in a fluid way. He has taught me a great deal and he is also a wonderfully generous and kind person.
Do you have a favourite story amongst the ten in the collection or among all those that you’ve written?
My favourite story in Melting Point is probably ‘The Watery Gowns’ which is about a deep sea diver who can only be free of clumsiness when she is immersed in water. I am very fond of her. I really enjoyed writing this story and the way in which the story moves from a state of horror to one of celebration and lightness.
Do original kinds of narratives attract you? Do you search for them or do you find them?
Both I suppose, I always try and surprise the reader without resorting to tricks or manipulation.. If you can manage this you’re doing a good job!
You are of Armenian origin, what have you preserved from that culture and land?
I was born in London but my upbringing was essentially Armenian. My parents spoke to me in Armenian, I went regularly to the Armenian church in Kensington, my mother made Armenian food – really delicious! My mother was born in Syria and moved to Cyprus when she was a little girl when her father was offered the position of the Armenian priest of Nicosia. My dad was born in Nicosia where he worked as an insurance agent. My parents met there and emigrated to the United Kingdom because of the threat of a Turkish invasion of the island, which did in fact happen in 1974. However … my education was typically British, which meant freezing to death on the playing fields during the brutal winters, writing lines in detention as punishment, and sadistic school masters who would never find a job these days. I was a very unhappy schoolboy and I didn’t like taking showers with the other kids and I wasn’t good at games and sport. Naturally, as a result, I wanted to become a writer. It all makes sense! But I feel that my heart above all has remained Armenian…and my sensibility is perhaps more Armenian than English, I would say my writing is melancholic and also visionary and these two things are more Armenian than English …
The situation in Armenia isn’t very easy … what do you think about that?
The recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan was a tragic and terrible reminder that the Turkish forces of jingoism and chauvinism do not lie dormant for long. Despite the heroic and incredible efforts of the Armenian soldiers, and their extraordinary courage and strength, Azerbaijan, as Turkey’s poodle, succeeded in gaining the upper hand in the war owing to the overwhelmingly greater military resources at its disposal and Turkey’s support. Yet again we have seen that Turkey and Azerbaijan will stop at nothing in their attempt to terrify and destroy and uproot a peaceful people. They have tortured, mutilated, decapitated, and murdered the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. They have defaced an ancient, spiritual culture that stands at the polar opposite to their own cultural legacies, marked as they are by long stretches of savagery. Turkey should be immediately ejected from Nato as it has shown itself to be utterly incapable of following the rules of a civilized society. The Armenians have yet again been robbed of land, systemically slaughtered and had their souls lacerated by overwhelmingly hostile forces. All over the world Armenians voiced their opposition to this war but their voices were ignored: by the UK, by America, by European powers and politicians who were too hypocritical, too weak and too mendacious to intervene in, and stop, an illegal and evil war designed to inflate Erdogan’s demented ego, and prop up the toxic nationalism of the new Turkish empire he hopes to forge. Armenia will never forget this atrocity, and this attack upon its people, its culture and its identity. And Turkish jingoism will not go away. Europe, take heed.
However, President Biden has named things for what they are…
I find it extremely encouraging and also very significant that President Biden recently formally recognized the Armenian genocide. This sends a very clear signal to Turkey that it can no longer try and revise and distort the facts of the past, that its denial of the genocide can no longer be tolerated. I think now that Turkey will be forced to finally make amends for the atrocities that it perpetuated both recently against the Armenian people and historically during the genocide of 1915.
Your novella Mirror and Silhouette – is it easier or more pleasurable to write in third person for a woman?
It was great writing in third person for the protagonist Bryony, a rich English woman who lives in Venice. For some reason I felt that Bryony was easy to imagine and the novella was relatively painless to execute and compose. In a certain sense I suppose I am quite feminine and I can occupy the feminine point of view quite naturally and intuitively. Whether or not I understand women: that’s another story!
How many visits to Venice did it take to write this novella that is set there?
I’ve been to Venice many times, it’s a place I love obviously. But who doesn’t love Venice? I suppose I must have gone half a dozen times before I felt able to feel that I could have written easily and effectively about the place. It’s hard to write about Venice without resorting to cliches: but I guess that’s true of any subject in the end.
Venice is incredible you told me, but I am curious: did you never want to live there? You were content just to write about it, you chose the fiction that life every day in the city of lagoons would become…
I love Venice too much to want to live there. Florence is less magical and more flexible: it’s more functional, more real than Venice. I think that if you lived in Venice you would lose contact with reality, that its fascination is probably fatal and disfiguring in the final count. Maybe Venice is like a lover, Florence like a wife, so to speak…. And London ….? London is like the postman!
Will there be a novel for Florence like the one you wrote for London?
I have an idea for a novel set in Florence that is very ambitious. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it though. Campus sci fi is the genre that I have invented for it !
You told me that “our age is not one for novels”… do you really believe that there aren’t readers for novels of our time?
Obviously there are readers of novels and there are great novels but I think the novel as a form is no longer in tune with the zeitgeist, perhaps because there no longer is a zeitgeist because everything is too crowded, too fast, too changeable and fused together and overwhelming. The novel was great for the nineteenth century: the form of art perfectly reflective of those times. I imagine that today the form that reflects our times is a two minute video on you tube. I find that rather sad to be honest.
Comparisons can be useful … by now the models for writing an innovative novel seem to be exhausted… do you find it flattering to be compared to Kafka or Calvino?
Obviously I am very flattered. Kafka had a great influence on me when I was younger and he taught me how to fuse the world of reality with that of a dream. I don’t know Calvino that well, but his last book If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is marvellously rich and innovative. These great souls have left traces of themselves in their works and this is a great gift for us.
I have some questions … and the most pressing for me is how do you manage to edit a novel of 600 pages? It seems a titanic thing…
Yes, in effect! With blood, sweat and tears, as Mr Churchill puts it.
Then for me a novel of 600 pages that is so full bodied seems like one of the pyramids in Egypt … How do you construct it? How is it realized and then there are always the edges … are you worried about how the reader might feel?
I don’t want to frighten the reader with a book of many pages. In the case of The Fabrications I don’t really understand what happened – the story continued to grow and take on a life of its own. But I firmly believe that the length is justified and that it had to be that long in order to work and to attract the interest of the reader and immerse him or her as completely as possible in the novel’s world.
You told me that you needed 5 years to write it, a year to think about it and even more time to publish it…
Have you ever thought about going to one of the big literary agencies in London and finding yourself a good agent?
The agents of London look upon me as the literary equivalent of someone with fully blown leprosy.
Do you read novels that have won prizes? Those that win the prizes and are shown in the displays of all the bookshops?
No, they don’t interest me, though last year I read The North Water, which was long listed for the Booker. I thought it was really very good.
Finally we can’t not speak about your relationship with poetry, about your favourite beasts and how you worked with the Italian translators of your verse.
Poetry is difficult to translate – I wouldn’t ever be able to do it so I have a great admiration for those who are masters of this difficult art like our mutual friend Andrea Sirotti. I was lucky for my book of poems in that I had great translators: Andrea, Martha Canfield, Sylvia Zanotto, and Andrea Spadola. I was very spoilt! Poetry is like the sand, the sea, wine, blood, bread. It’s the stuff of life, it marinates life with its tears and moisture. The most essential things in life run and flow and ebb, the water of rivers and seas, the blood in our veins, the movement of the dance of poetry.
Which poets made you laugh and why?
I don’t find that much humour in poets, though I guess there are moments of melancholy humour in Larkin, Carol Ann Duffy, Dickinson.
Would you like to try and translate some poems by Italian poets from Italian to English?
For years I had wanted to try to do it and I concluded that it was quite a challenging thing. Because I always want to deepen and to translate some poetry of an Italian poet I feel compelled to read all his poems, all his books and even the new unpublished poems, in short, to be familiar with his poetics. It takes a lot of time and dedication which I doubt I will be able to offer. Despite this I translated a sequence of four poems by the young Italian poet Matteo Galluzzo entitled “The Game of Adam”, four short poems that were unpublished, but while I was working on the translations for several weeks, they were published in Italian by the paper magazine “Atelier” which I know. Luckily Galluzzo has an excellent knowledge of English and was helpful with some suggestions and I think the English translations will satisfy us both in the end.
And you even translated into Italian a poem by Fiona Sampson “The Nature of Gothic”…
Yes, this was a challenge because that poem is very fluid and rather mysterious in the original English and it was not easy to render it well in Italian but I think I managed. Sampson is translated into many languages but she is still little known as a poet in Italy, where people are acquainted with her biography of Mary Shelley, translated and published in Italian a few years ago. I am happy to have given my contribution to help make her known to poetry lovers in Italy, and I might add that she is a very skilled and sensitive poet … And I have also translated some poems by Tatev Chakhian, a young Armenian poet living in Poland, one of her poems is entitled “Ode to the translators” which I particularly liked. But I should add that I translated her poems from the English versions that the author herself did.
Translators are born or made?
I think that all the great talents probably owe their most essential part to having simply been born. Talent cannot be taught as a result, but discipline and technique can be acquired and perfected by dint of sheer hard work. Yet it’s always a fight to be really good at anything. You can’t rest on your laurels and you have to be constantly vigilant and have your antennae switched on!