Dacia Maraini on the books and characters which inspire her
‘I consider my life a journey in the magnificent, enchanted world of books’
Dacia Maraini: ‘With a classic you can be always sure: if a novel has survived many generations, it means that it has some qualities that don’t die with the death of the author.’
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
The first book, which was not yet a book, because we didn’t have books in the Japanese concentration camp where I spent some of my youth with my family in the 1940s, was Pinocchio, told to me by my mother. I was enchanted by Pinocchio through her voice.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I was in Japan during my childhood, so my first stories ware Japanese fairy tales - which were very dark and full of ghosts, but beautiful. My father, whose mother was English, used to teach me some English songs for children, like : “Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?” or “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall”, or even “Three blind mice, three blind mice, see how they run”… I still remember the tender voice of my father, who had learned those rhymes from his mother , whom he loved very much and missed while imprisoned in Japan for two years without any news of her.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
I love books of history. But also novels, poetry. I read a lot. I re-read classics - at this moment I am re-reading Demons by Dostojevskji - but also modern novels too.
What is your favourite quotation?
I will write it in Italian but it was written in English by Shakespeare, in Hamlet. “ La vita non è che un’ombra in cammino; un povero attore, che s’agita e che si pavoneggia per un’ora sul palcoscenico e del quale poi non si sa più nulla. E’ un racconto narrato da un idiota, pieno di strepito e di furore, e senza alcun significato.” (Shakespeare)
Translation: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Who is your favourite fictional character?
First of all Antigone, whom I think is a beautiful character. But also Jane Eyre, Effie Brist and La Pisana (strong character of a girl in the novel Le Confessioni di un Italiano , by Ippolito Nievo, an author of the 19th century) .
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
It depends what you mean by under-rated. The most neglected? The least well-known ? I am sure that it is a woman. Women often are under-considered.
Which do you prefer - ebooks or the traditional print version?
I prefer paper books. Paper is made of wood, it is a organic material, near to our body.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
I love so many books, each of them have given me so many emotions. Usually I fall in love with an author and I tend to read all their books. I did so with Dickens, with Proust, with Balzac, with Italo Svevo, with Tanizaki , with Dostoyevskji...
Where and how do you write?
I write at home, possible in a quiet room, in front of a window. I like to look at the landscape when I am tired of words. But silence is not easy to find in an apartment in town. At this moment for example, they are working on the roof and I have to make a great effort to concentrate. I write with the computer.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
I don’t remember a book making this impression on me. I think I constructed my opinion on novels slowly by reading, day after day.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
It took me five years to write Marianna Ucria (The Silent Duchess, in English). I undertook considerable research, reading books of history about the 18th century, and also journals, letters, chronicles of the time, novels written in that century and more. It took me about four years to write The Train to Budapest (published by Arcadia Books). I went many times to Poland to visit the Nazi concentrations camps and to Hungary and to Vienna.
What book influenced you the most?
I can’t tell. There are so many. It is impossible to isolate a book. I consider my life a journey in the magnificent, enchanted world of books, which will finish only with the end of my life.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
At 18 years you are not a child anymore. I would suggest reading a classic. For example Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
Maybe more books written by women. We grow up in a male library, in which the more prestigious and beautiful novels are written and proposed by men. At a certain moment I asked myself: I love those fathers, but where are the mothers? Is it possible that the great family of literature is made only of men? Then I discovered a lot of wonderful mothers. In Italy for example we have many writings by nuns, which have been ‘lost’ and forgotten in the convents for centuries. Only now has somebody discovered these writings, which are extraordinary.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
To read a lot, to be hungry for books, especially classics. Also read modern authors. But with a classic you can be always sure: if a novel has survived many generations, it means that it has some qualities that don’t die with the death of the author.
What weight do you give reviews?
Not much. I read them, but not as if they were the words of verity, but just as an opinion, and very often wrong.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
I don’t know. It is difficult to say. I think people need to read stories. Literature is necessary, but the way in which books are proposed to readers can change; it is changing and people think paper books are dying. I don’t believe so. Printed books don’t need energy, they are much more free than technology, that’s why I think they will survive.
What has being a writer taught you?
To observe people without prejudice, without stereotypes, with great attention. To observe objects, things, details with a transparent eye.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I think I would like to have a talk with Veronica Franco, an Italian poet of the 16th century. She was a courtesan, a poet and a strong and intelligent woman. I thing we could laugh together.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
Some of the scenes of Lazarillo del Tormes, a picaresque Spanish novel of the 16th century. The author is unknown.
What is your favourite word?
Peace. I think narration, the art of telling stories, needs peace to survive. Nobody cares about words when there is a war. When words are important and significant, weapons are silent. That’s why it is so important to care about literature. I don’t say: make love instead of war. I say: read and write, you will not need to make war.