With Warren F. Motte, Robert Ashley, Franco Baldasso, Nicholas Birns, Giuliano Boraso, Orly Castel-Bloom, Erica Johnson Debeljak, Craig Dworkin, Kyle Gann, Karen Grumberg, Todd Hasak-Lowy, Emmanuel Hocquard, Gerhard Meier, Christine Montalbetti, Werner Morlang, Gerald Murnane, Giovanni Orelli, Boris Pahor, Arthur Schopenhauer, Asaf Schurr, Viktor Shklovsky, Roland Topor, Aglaja Veteranyi
Against the Monotony of the Negative: A Conversation with Giovanni Orelli
The formidably learned Giovanni Orelli (1928–) is a central figure in Swiss-Italian letters. The first of his many novels, L'anno della valanga (The Year of the Avalanche), was published in 1965. He is also the author of several volumes of poetry and has been active in the cultural sphere of the Ticino. In 1997, he was awarded the Schiller Prize. His docufictional phantasmagoria Walaschek's Dream (1991)—inspired by a lesser-known painting by Paul Klee titled Alphabet I, which features black letters and symbols scrawled over the sports page of a newspaper—is a madcap and encyclopedic portrait of European culture under Nazism. With a cast made up of historical luminaries like Arthur Schopenhauer, Vincent Van Gogh, Viktor Skhlovsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, Paul Klee himself, and the titular footballer Eugene Walaschek, who led Switzerland to victory over Nazi Germany in the 1938 Swiss National Cup, Walaschek’s Dream is allusive, ironic, and elegiac, and can only be compared to the works of James Joyce and Arno Schmidt.
Giuliano Boraso: What is it like to see Walaschek’s Dream come out again in Italy twenty years after its first publication?
Giovanni Orelli: It’s a complete pleasure. I don’t know if vanity has anything to do with it, and anyway all writers are vain to some extent, which shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a bad thing—otherwise nobody would even write. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I wrote this novel—my fourth—for myself, after a certain disappointment after the first three. But if not for me, then for an alter ego. And so with a particular kind of pleasure, and also because of a little insomnia. When I couldn’t fall asleep I would invent the football teams you see in the book—devils, angels, the Fathers of the Church, intellectuals, artists, and so on—and I had fun with it. Just as I did remembering the names of soccer players from the past, which triggered associations related to my teaching, to teaching Italian meter, prosody, and stress in poetry. For example, I like the four, eight, ten rhythm of the hendecasyllable "Mi stringerà, per un pensiero, il cuore"—Umberto Saba. But I could also cite Dante: "Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura." And I said to myself, “Why not Bacigalupo, Ballarìn, Maroso,” the defense for the Italian National team and for Grande Torino [Turin’s famed team of the 1940s, all of whom perished in the 1949 Superga air disaster]?
GB: Even from these initial comments, it’s clear that Orelli the poet can’t be separated from Orelli the novelist. Your prose is also strongly influenced by poetry.
GB: One should never ask a writer—especially a poet—how he conceived of the structure of his own work. But the architecture of Walaschek’s Dream is so unusual that the temptation is overwhelming.
GO: Walaschek’s Dream grew out of a continuous association of ideas. Not for my other books, but for this one, I can say the exact date and time of its conception. One morning, before a UNESCO commission meeting in Berne, I went to visit the Paul Klee Museum, which was temporary at the time, near the train station. In a corner, that painting, Alphabet I, was specially displayed—a minor painting of Klee’s, even if I always advise great prudence when it comes to the adjective “minor.” When I saw it I immediately thought about how Klee had acted like the perfect homemaker who, when she needs something to collect potato peels, wouldn’t use the obituary page, because it would seem like an act of disrespect toward those who have just passed on to a better life, but chooses the sports page, because with sports—even if it is the religion of our time—basically, nobody gets offended. And so Klee, intentionally, I believe, also chose sports. And looking at the page up close, under the artist’s brushstrokes, you can see the names of the teams and the players. There, at that moment, the idea for Walaschek’s Dream was born, which then developed through this continuous series of associations of ideas. I’d almost be tempted to define this book not as a novel, not a diary, but almost an encyclopedia, an encyclopedia of memory connected to the setting of the osteria, where everything takes place. Now, I’m going to say something a bit delicate, I hope it won’t be misunderstood. About Dante, the greatest author in the world, who I’ve always drawn upon. The Divine Comedy is in a certain sense a giant encyclopedia. And I like to think that my Walaschek is also a kind of encyclopedia, a minor one, of course, but with many ideas inside it that are associated with one another, some congruously, others perhaps more arbitrarily.
GB: In fact, your novel has often been talked about in terms of accumulation, dizziness . . .
GO: . . . that was precisely the biggest risk I took, the risk of putting too many things together, or some that weren’t pertinent. That was the danger. Sometimes erasing is much more useful than adding. Take, for example, the Kafka story “A Message from the Emperor”: a sublime, utterly astonishing half-page. But with the device of accumulation, of free association, I also saw a positive, playful element, clearly taken from Dante, that is, the possibility of bringing characters together irrespective of their places in space or time. Earlier, I mentioned the osteria, the meeting place for the group of customers who discuss the meaning of the O drawn by Paul Klee on the sports page of the National Zeitung. Well, my parents actually owned an osteria, and that osteria was my first public university, because at home we didn’t have books, not even the Bible, not even The Betrothed or The Divine Comedy. But I had all those chance teachers at the osteria, and it’s there that, thanks to them, I came to learn what went on in the world. I received my first education thanks to men that I still cherish, like the carpenter who also appears in the novel, one of the greatest readers of Dante I’ve ever met, and I hung on his words because he told me things that seemed so fantastic, about murders and things like that, because he had emigrated to America and had brought back considerable life experience. And I bring him to life in the novel, and put him alongside Arthur Schopenhauer, Bertrand Russell. This is precisely the arbitrary, encyclopedic element: putting things from my everyday experience together with the great masters of my education. Running several risks, first of all the risk of disorienting the reader, or irritating him with overly personal material. That was the greatest difficulty to overcome.
GB: Which is overcome once the reader, within this “personal material,” perceives a sense of the universal tragedy, which, as I see it, is the support for the entire book. Despite its irony, playfulness, lightness, it is, for all intents and purposes, a tragic book. Despite Walaschek, who races ahead without turning to look at all the horror at his heels, and his liberating dream.
GO: That’s absolutely what it is. Even the choice to put at the novel’s center characters like Schopenhauer, whose ironic pessimism is very dear to me, says a lot about how much I agree with that reading. The foundation of human life is quite tragic, and old age even more so. But I didn’t want to radicalize that sort of pessimism throughout. In fact, when I recount Walaschek’s dream, when I have him returning
GB: And yet, to return to pessimism, the underlying message of the novel seems to be the exact opposite. In the face of 1938, the horror of Nazism, the brutality of man, beauty seems to succumb, powerless. Earlier,
GO: I was afraid of a monotony of the negative. And so I inserted this spark of hope, which is nonetheless related to a dream, a utopia. And it’s not a coincidence that the novel is called Walaschek’s Dream and not “Walaschek’s Reality.” 1938 was one of the most horrible years in the history of humankind. At that time, Hitler was winning and the utopianists were in jail. And the heads of government dealing with the advance of Nazism certainly weren’t utopianists, but people of “tears and blood,” like Churchill. In 1938, the historical picture is totally negative. You see, I grew up in a very Catholic family, I knew the Latin Mass by heart, I almost know it even now. But growing up I had a total crisis of faith: that faith collapsed, along with the myth of resurrection and everything else. It makes me think of Pirandello, when he stood behind the giant rear end of Marcus Aurelius’s horse and shouted, “Lucky you, yours is made of bronze!” Or Foscolo, or all those other giants who lost their faith. There remains a base of negativity, of pessimism, on which, however, one can’t linger too long, in a repetitive or monotonous way.
GB: A Klee painting is at the center of your novel and so it seems fitting to conclude our chat by returning to the “degenerate artist.” In his Diaries, Klee writes: “The more horrible this world, the more abstract our art, whereas a happy world brings forth an art of the here and now.”
GO: I must return again to the classics, to the continuous miracle that is Dante, or back to the battles narrated by Ariosto at his most Mondrianesque, which have always so entertained my kids in the classroom, with all those heads and arms flying around. I reference Mondrian not because I particularly care for him as a painter. I like Picasso more. Cézanne. Those are the modern painters I prefer. But there’s no doubt that Klee’s words hit the mark, that his retreat into abstraction is quite understandable. For him, abstraction was the pain of dealing with a world that had made him that way, that had made him paint an abstract tree that no longer had beautiful leaves that grow in spring. It’s the tragic sense of the world that leads to abstraction, it’s indisputable, one can’t not agree with a statement like Klee’s. Another painter who could be of assistance here is a Swiss artist, Ferdinand Hodler, who painted the face of his companion, Valentine Godé-Darel, day after day as she suffered from cancer, her face getting thinner, more hollow, her nose like a vulture’s beak. As the illness slowly takes its cruel course, his Valentine becomes more and more abstract, formless, horrible. After a certain point you can barely make out the features of her face. Some time after Valentine’s death, Hodler painted another portrait of her, but this time it’s in full relief, sharp, realistic, without that abstraction dictated by the progress of death. That’s Hodler’s dream, it’s peace rediscovered after his beloved’s death, after the pain has subsided. But then, in that case, the dead are more alive than the living, and the living are the dying ones. In this sense, the dead are the ones who win and not the ones who lose.