I began to write non-fiction, about Italy, to draw this experience into my writing.
Where fiction was concerned, I looked for a different kind of storytelling that didn’t involve an intense contemporaneity, or was set outside the UK.
I was immersed in Italian in a way that I think has become difficult today.
I say I was learning Italian, but in fact I was learning English too. Nothing makes you more aware of your own language, its structure and strategies, than the differences of a new one.
Then, beyond specifically linguistic concerns, what audience do you write toward if you are no longer regularly speaking to people who use your language? Sebald, writing in German while living in England, Dubravka Ugrešić writing in Croatian while living in Holland, or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky, who went on writing in Russian after being forced into exile in the United States.
The most famous candidate for a reflection on this situation would be James Joyce, who left Ireland in 1904 aged twenty-two and lived abroad, mainly in Trieste and Paris, until his death in 1941. One could go back and look at Robert Browning’s fifteen years in Italy, or Italo Calvino’s thirteen years in Paris. Yet the easiest example, the only one I can write about with some authority, and, frankly, one of the most extreme, for length of time away and level of engagement with the foreign language and foreign country, is myself.And very soon I had my first major pay-off from all this effort. I had chosen Ginzburg merely because friends advised that she was the easiest Italian writer for foreigners.But something in the laconic colloquial voice meshed with my own writing.A novel like , where foreign language teachers working in an Italian university travel together to the European parliament to present a petition, was a deliberate attempt to turn this displacement from England into drama.Now I consciously played with Italianisms in English, to see what effects might be achieved that way.The writing was too obviously hankering after its model.But transferring Ginzburg, whom I doubt I understood perfectly at the time, into my English world, linguistic and cultural, made something new happen, something that was neither Ginzburg nor the old me.Though both books were rejected dozens of times, I felt confident that I had got it right.Five years later both were published and won prizes.In a previous piece I mentioned that early on in Italy I wrote a novel in Italian.This came immediately after and this too was influenced by Ginzburg.