The Joyce industry is celebrating the centenary of “Bloomsday” this year, and in the attendant publicity Roddy Doyle recently was quoted as saying “Ulysses could have done with a good editor”. As someone who has written about Joyce, and indeed as a novelist who has done his fair share of experimentation, what do you think?
Tough question. I'm not a great lover of Joyce's work. I feel that without a doubt he is the single most overrated novelist of the twentieth century. That said, he did write some quite extraordinary passages and definitely gave other people so many examples of different ways of doing things. Sometimes I'm all admiration and sometimes I find the whole project dull. The Joyce I do still love is the Joyce of The Dead and one or two other stories in Dubliners, the first half of A Portrait, the Christmas lunch scene is simply breathtaking, then some set pieces in Ulysses. But so much of the latter is overwhelmed with Joyce's complacent enthusiasm for the method he has discovered that, yes, as Roddy Doyle suggests, a little cutting here and there might have done no harm. But then, there are few of us who couldn't benefit from some cutting. Perhaps the irony is that Ulysses was produced at precisely the time when the universities were eager to show that literary criticism could be a form of science. Joyce's myth-approach and their need for material that would suit their method called to each other.
Judge Savage has as a protagonist a mixed race Judge. Nearly all the reviews I’ve read, whether in praise or damning, have an air of anxiety over the choice? When writing the novel, were you ever worried about its controversiality?
I'm worried about mo
re or less everything when I'm writing a book. But it was absolutely essential that he be of mixed race. What I was trying to create was a feeling that one can no longer feel at all sure of what is behind a face, a voice, an accent.
You lecture on translation. How possible is translation of a piece of literature? And for example how involved are you in the translation of your own books into Italian?
One can translate so much, no more. What is lost is the writer's relationship with his own milieu, the extent to which any book can only be understood in the context of the language and place and time that produced it. If I take certain liberties with standard English, for example, not just out of caprice, but to undermine certain received ideas, standard positions, whatever, it can be very difficult to reproduce this in the other language which has a whole different set of ideas and assumptions, a different mesh between word and mind. On the other hand, many of the best books I've read, I've read in translation.
In Italy at the moment there’s considerable concern over copyright piracy – particularly in relation to music and films being downloaded over the internet – but there’s also a growing trade in books. Does that concern you as a writer?
I don't worry about this stuff. I just worry that the publishers will keep wanting to pay me an advance. Frankly, while the problem with music and films is clearly enormous, in the sense that people are just exchanging the stuff for free on the computer and getting it in exactly the form they want to use it, that's not quite true with books. Having a book on the screen can be okay for reference, but useless for reading. E.books on portable screens haven't caught on. Nobody wants to print out a whole book. We're probably safe for the moment. Or rather, our problem has never been with photocopying and electronic text transmission, but with the library system, which involves a considerable loss of copyright. Two years ago I started receiving PLR for the first time. Before that, for reasons that remain obscure and were probably unconstitutional, people living outside the UK weren't eligible. Anyhow I started receiving about 1000 a year minus tax on borrowings of around 50,000 books. This is clearly crazy, especially as the books most borrowed are the ones that have just come out and that one expects sales from. Libraries should be forced to wait a couple of years before they can pick up a book.
What’s the current state of play with Hellas Verona? Do you still go to the matches? Were you ever tempted to switch sides to Milan or Roma – to savour victory?
I've had a season ticket for more than ten years now. It has never even crossed my mind to support a different team. What matters for me is to get down to the stadium and see the guys I know and laugh and gripe and maybe pick up a beer afterwards and feel that one is part of something, even if it only really exists Sunday afternoon. It's a good part of life. You don't worry about anything but Hellas when you're in the stadium. Nor do the people you know there ever try to invade your life outside. I like that.
As a football fan, what’s your opinion on the state of health of Italian football?
(Editor’s note – this interview was conducted before events at the Rome vs Lazio Match that ended in riots)
People want excitement, controversy, suspicion, conspiracies, a feeling that they have been cheated. Etc. They get it. Precisely in the general chaos, all is well. Perhaps sometimes they overstep the mark. I really can't understand why they can't use rapid TV evidence on such things as offsides.
Any advice for a Bologna supporter at the moment?
Please finish ahead of Chievo.
You’ve mentioned a possible film version of your earlier novel Cara Massimina – what’s the latest news on this?
The news is that every time they start casting it, something goes wrong on the financial side or someone important dies. The book appears to have a sort of curse on it. Good job I was paid for the rights years ago.
Through “Italian Neighbours”, “An Italian Education”, and “A Season with Verona”, you’ve written extensively on Italian culture and society. Have you seen any major changes in Italian Culture/Society since the publication of “Italian Neighbours”?
The obvious answer is yes and no. Italy constantly seems to be on the brink of becoming 'a modern European country', reforms are always about to be made, but then somehow at the last moment they never are. I would say that after an illusion that things were changing rapidly during tangentopoli, I now feel that things are more or less as they always were, that these 'adjustments are physiological.. But perhaps that's partly because I've been reading a lot about the fifteenth century and discovering how many behaviour patterns go way way back. Anyway, this is not meant to be a hot-under-the-collar criticism. I think Italy has it's peculiar way of getting through. Not to be scoffed at.