Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “Something Written” by Emanuele Trevi

For the entire duration of my last meeting with Laura, in her office, the sharp blade of a box cutter quivered a few millimeters from my jugular.

Via Ann Goldstein, also the translator of Elena Ferrante, here is a colorful extract from Emanuele Trevi’s Something Written, winner of the 2012 European Literature Prize and finalist for Italy’s Strega Prize. In a few deftly executed strokes, the literary critic recreates the cutthroat atmosphere presided over by a former boss (aka “Madwoman”), and mulls over what he took out of that period of “extravagant daily persecution”.

Among the many—too many—people who worked for Laura Betti at the Pier Paolo Pasolini Foundation in Rome, all of them endowed with a colorful store of more or less unpleasant memories, I believe that I can boast of, if nothing else, above-average endurance. Not that I was at all spared the extravagant daily persecution that the Madwoman (as I soon took to calling her, in my own mind) felt it her duty to inflict on her subordinates. On the contrary, I was so irredeemably odious to her (there is no more precise word) that I succeeded in plucking all the strings of her protean sadism: from the ceaseless invention of humiliating nicknames to real physical threat. Every time I entered the offices of the foundation, in a dark, massive corner building on Piazza Cavour, not far from Castel Sant’Angelo, I sensed almost physically the animal hostility, the uncontrollable rage that flashed, like the zigzag lightning in a comic book, from behind the lenses of her big square sunglasses. The standard greetings immediately followed. ‘Good morning, little slut, did you finally figure out that it’s time to GIVE HIM YOUR ASS? Or do you think you can still get away with it?!? But you don’t fool ME, you sweet-talking little slut, it takes a lot more than someone like you’—and this first blast of amenities was ended only by the eruption of a laugh that seemed to come from a subterranean cavern, and was made more threatening by the counterpoint of an indescribable sound halfway between a roar and a sob. Very rarely could the avalanche of insults dumped on the unfortunate victim be traced back to meaningful concepts.

Besides, as a general rule, the Madwoman detested meaning, in every form. There was no human instrument that in her hands did not become a dangerously explosive device. And language was no exception. Her tirades revolved on the pivot of an offensive epithet, savored with pleasure and constantly repeated, as if the gist of the conversation resided there, in the pure formulation of the insult. If addressed to a male, the epithet was generally feminine. Even people she liked, and admired, had to put up with this sort of symbolic emasculation. Alberto Moravia, for example, to whom she was very attached, at a certain point became ‘grandma,’ and there was nothing to be done about it. The entire remainder of the conversation, once the insult had been uttered, was pure and simple improvisation—a Piranesian prison of malevolence and contempt, heedless of logic and syntax. ‘Little slut’—that was from the start the essence, the perfect expression of what I inspired in her. Sweet-talking, vain, lying, fascist little slut. Jesuit, murderer. Ambitious. As for me, though I wasn’t yet thirty, I had already, like the prisoner of Edgar Allan Poe, groped my way around the walls of my character, which, as in all dungeons, were properly damp and dark. That the Madwoman was not completely wrong I could easily enough admit. What really infuriated her was my wish to please her, my ostentatious lack of aggressiveness, and, ultimately, the indifference that has always been my sole defense against the threats of the world. There was no doubt about the type of damned who would willingly take charge of tormenting for eternity that sort of Dantesque monster, enveloped in the smoke of the cigarettes she left burning in the ashtray, with her excessive bulk and her hair, of a terrifying reddish-orange hue, knotted in a tuft that inevitably made you think, when she shook it, of the jet of a whale, or the crest of a psychotic pineapple. Laura hated hypocrites and, more generally, all those persons who, incapable of expressing themselves, appeared to her as fake, condemned to hide behind a papier-mâché mask. This was what I liked about her, even as I suffered the consequences. It seemed to me that, hidden in the recesses of all that hostility, there was a kind of medicine, a lesson leading to salvation. And so, from the moment I started going to the foundation, where I quickly gained experience of every sort of temperamental storm, from the slightest to the most severe, I had concluded that the time I spent there, in the shadow of that mental Chernobyl, was time well spent. What was it, exactly—a punishment that I had inflicted on myself by myself to expiate some grave sin? A spiritual exercise imbued with the most rigorous masochism? At a certain point, there could be no doubt, the Madwoman would fire me, as she had dozens of others (some such relationships had lasted no more than a few hours). But I, as far as it was in my power, would do nothing to leave. My job, which wasn’t very complicated, consisted of tracking down all the interviews that Pasolini had done: from the first, which went back to the time of Street Kids, up to the most famous, the one he did with Furio Colombo a few hours before his death. Once the material was gathered, I would assemble it into a book. Nothing exceptional, apart from the labor of doing it; and Laura was very generous when it came to money. She liked to tear off checks, after writing them in her dramatic way, transforming every compensation into an undeserved gift, something stolen from her greatness of soul, and a clear, unalterable confirmation of that greatness. If she could, she would have carved those checks in marble. She was also very skillful at getting hold of any type of public financing, to support all the initiatives of the foundation, and to pay a few regular employees: a great archivist, Giuseppe Lafrate, who was as patient and detached as a Tibetan bonze, and a couple of girls whom she flayed alive but who, without admitting it to themselves, ended up almost loving her. As far as I was concerned, inevitably, sooner or later, I would be fired: I was mathematically certain of it. The fact is that Laura had her own notions about how to publish those interviews. They were crazy, incomprehensible ideas, of no practical use, and she tortured me about them for hours. ‘Listen to me, little slut, these interviews of Pier Paolo are BURNING, do you understand? You’ve read them. Even you must get it. Burn-ing. And so, in this book, all the words have to FLY, you understand what a form that flies is? You have to make them fly, fly, fly.’ And I: Yes, Laura, I absolutely agree, that’s what I want, too, to make them fly. Like eagles. In reality, I wanted to publish those interviews as they deserved, and I would never ever understand how they would be made to fly. I continued on the only path that I considered possible. The accomplished fact—I predicted—would trigger the catastrophe. And that was how it happened. In the meantime, having tracked down all the interviews, I had arranged them in chronological order, taking care to eliminate the mistakes and misprints of the newspapers, translating some from French or English, and preparing lengthy, informative notes. Finally, I had written an introductory essay, in which I tried to explain how Pasolini, more than any other artist of his time, had considered the interview a literary genre that was anything but minor and casual. At that point, I could no longer put off the reckoning. For the entire duration of my last meeting with Laura, in her office, the sharp blade of a box cutter quivered a few millimeters from my jugular. The chain of insults reached levels of verbal tightrope-walking worthy of a Rabelais. I understood how precise and literal the expression ‘foaming with rage’ is. I was afraid at any moment of bringing on a stroke, for which I would have been in some way responsible. The wretched file containing all my work ended up, not without the usual melodramatic solemnity, in the wastebasket. The threat of that blade made an impression, but I didn’t think the Madwoman would go so far as to kill or wound me—it wasn’t that type of madness. Apart from the assault of cold steel, I had foreseen it all, in my insistence on carrying out the work as I thought best. Many months had passed, more than a year, in fact, since I started going to the foundation. I worked slowly, and other duties had been added, which delayed the collection and preparation of those damn interviews. What ended so abruptly had been, therefore, a period of time that was in all senses very instructive—I don’t know how else to describe it—for me. I consider it a kind of apprenticeship. We all need to learn something, and, before that, learn to learn. But the only schools that are truly worth attending are the ones we don’t choose, those whose thresholds we cross, so to speak, by chance; just as the only materials that we ought to study deeply are those which don’t have a precise name, and still less a rational method of being studied. Everything else, finally, is relative. Laura was a raucous and unpleasant textbook to page through, but full of revelations that, if they remained hard to describe, were no less penetrating. And to this I would immediately add, because it’s a fundamental fact, the publication of Petrolio, which struck Laura’s little kingdom in Piazza Cavour like a thunderbolt, like a handful of gunpowder on a crackling fire.

Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

Click here for more information about the book.

Emanuele Trevi is an Italian writer and literary critic. He has written many critical essays on poets and writers, and his book on the poet Pietro Tripodo won the Sandro Onofri Prize. He was creative director of the publisher Fazi, and, with Marco Lodoli, he edited a school anthology. Trevi has served on the jury for several literary awards and has written for magazines and various national newspapers, including La Repubblica, La Stampa, and il manifesto. In 2012, he won the European Literature Prize for his book Something Written. It was a finalist for Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Strega Prize, and was on the Italian bestseller lists for many months. His work has been translated into over ten languages.

Ann Goldstein is an editor at The New Yorker. She has translated works by, among others, Elena Ferrante, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Alessandro Baricco, and is the editor of the Complete Works of Primo Levi in English. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the PEN Renato Poggioli prize, and awards from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


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