A new year to come. The new narratives of 2020 in an interview without a net with Raffaele Lauro.
Season’s greetings from the author
As a new year is about to start, we present our readers with a long, detailed interview with writer Raffaele Lauro (www.raffaelelauro.it) on the new narratives that his 2020 holds in store. As a relentless, prolific author and an intellectual knowing no boundaries in the fields of literature, philosophy, pictorial art and music, Lauro has published eighteen successful autobiographical, biographical and historical novels where he turns affectionate, mindful eyes on his beloved homeland, the Sorrento peninsula, and the values inherent in his origins, in this welcoming culture of hospitality – especially in his tetralogy on Sorrento, including Sorrento The Romance (the 17th-century clash between Christianism and Islam), Caruso The Song (Lucio Dalla and Sorrento), Dance The Love (the epic of dancer Violetta Elvin Prokhorova) and Don Alfonso 1890 (Sant’Agata sui Due Golfi and Salvatore Di Giacomo). In brief, a true master of life, active within the institutions, yet never barricaded behind them and hostile to the privileges of the political caste. A voice of the civil society, concerned with social issues as a former working student; a contemporary man, consciously immersed in the dramatic problems of our hard times, but also and not least a man of the future, with a realistic, yet always positive vision of the new generations and the times to come.
Where shall we start? Your multiple degrees, your career as a professor, an essayist, a prefect, a senator, or a writer? You will turn 76 next February. What is your assessment of your life path so far, and yourself?
Excuse me, is this an interview on my narrative, or my ante-mortem will? Anyhow, I will tell you. First, let’s leave my titles aside. I have never been sensitive to titles, whether academic or not, nor to honors or recognitions. I was named after my maternal grandfather, Raffaele Aiello, whom I never met – an intellectual, socialist, anti-fascist farmer, a melomaniac obsessed with Puccini, from whom I took the color of my eyes and my love for the opera. My name is Raffaele, and that is it. The only title that makes me smile is “prof” (for “professor”), as almost everyone calls me in Sorrento – most of all my former students from the Liceo Salvemini high school, where I taught history and philosophy for a decade before moving to Rome. As to the rest, my whole life path was marked by my inexhaustible intellectual curiosity, my thirst for knowledge, my feeling of love for the whole world, nature, all living creatures and people. An approach to reality that I inherited from my mother Angela, who provided my sources of inspiration and the raw material for my writing. I would not know how to judge myself, this is on others. I can only confirm that, despite my philosophic studies, I was never misled by any materialistic, existentialist or laicist ideologies, and I remain firmly anchored in my Christian faith, in the Divine Providence and, as a sinner, in God’s mercy.
An introduction of this sort, however, might lead to think that you are free from any flaws, mistakes or contradictions.
Nobody has no flaws or limits, they are inherent in the human nature itself. And I am no exception. My main flaw, however, is impatience, driven by my ancestral need to conclude as rapidly as possible what I have undertaken in terms of studies, work, and human, family and social relationships. I detest leaving things unfinished, if it totally depends on me. My mother used to call me “yesterday”, as I would not go to sleep in order to finish what I had planned. My speedy synthesis often clashes with others’ timings, and might unintentionally be misinterpreted as intolerance or rudeness. Monsignor Antonio Zama, my archbishop, the archbishop of Sorrento, once pronounced a solemn homily about this fault of mine, which I have never forgotten since. Today, this memory still helps me to temper my weakness: waiting for those who are behind, both physically and mentally, he said, is an act of Christian charity. Which is well known to all those who have patiently collaborated with me along these years, in Sorrento and Rome. As to mistakes, they are impossible not to make. What matters is being able to positively compensate for them in one’s life experience. Last, we live in contradictions, small and big, that might even turn out to be motivating, as long as they are not experienced to the detriment of others.
After such an introspective preamble, I understand how anxious you must be to talk about your writing. What is in your narrative pipeline? We have read some previews so far, but our readers will be interested in hearing more from you.
In late spring 2020, a critical essay on my whole narrative work will be published. It is now being completed by a sophisticated writer, professor and journalist from Messina who collaborates to the cultural pages of a Sicilian newspaper: professor Patrizia Danzè, a skillful event organizer as well as a tasteful interpreter of the complex literary world created by Andrea Camilleri, the father of inspector Montalbano, who recently passed away.
The essay, titled “L’Universo Amore”, is composed of two parts, with the first being the actual critical essay. The essay, similarly to how Gianni Bonina structured his analysis of Camilleri’s work, collects – in chronological order by publication date – a book profile featuring the cover, the novel plot with its main characters and an interview with the author on the unknown background of each work: its inspiration, the bibliographical and documentary research behind it, the underlying implications, the references, the most significant public presentations, the press reviews. A professional, remarkable, thorough work that provides the reader with all needed elements to agree, or disagree, with the author’s critical opinions. I must confess that Danzè kept me busy all summer giving suitable replies to her sharp, motivated questions, which dismantled all my defenses, even the most intimate, especially about love and death. She analyzed the deepest, most hidden, recondite meanings, mastered all my creative world, apparently so jagged and complex, and led it back to be interpreted as a whole.
Have you already previewed the essay? Are you satisfied, possibly pleased with it? How did you and Danzè meet, and how was this collaboration born?
The essay is under completion and I will only read it on corrected proof copies. I will not ask for the slightest amendment, to respect the author and her utmost precision. I am well aware of the honor she has granted me with, as well as the sacrifice she has faced to organize my diversified narrative work. I met her in 2002, when she was in Rome with Gianluigi Rondi to introduce the first volume of “Quel film mai girato”, on the life of my mother, who had passed away the previous year. I was impressed with her delicate reflections on the mother-son relationship, and a statement of hers was carved into my mind: “In this work, life becomes novel and the novel becomes life.” We met again many years later, and almost spontaneously started this collaboration, so valuable, satisfying and strongly motivating to me.
Moving on to your new novel, dedicated to Greta Garbo and coming out next summer – you have unveiled its beautiful cover, a rare picture of the Diva, taken in Rome in the ‘70s, years after her retreat from Hollywood’s sets. Could you clarify the reasons behind this bold choice of yours, confronting a symbol of the global cinema history?
The seed of this new challenge – not an easy one at all, although I was aware of how complex it would be – was planted in the years when I graduated in movie direction at NUCT (Nuova Università del Cinema e della Televisione) in Rome, under the guidance of three great masters of the Italian neorealism: Giuseppe De Santis, Carlo Lizzani and Florestano Vancini. During a debate on the 1940s revolutionary shift from silent to sound filming, the so-called “Mistero Garbo” (the “Gabro Mystery”) was brought up: the reason why the most admired diva in the world, the Diva par excellence, had forsaken her film career at the height of her success, fame and beauty, with no explanations or afterthoughts despite much insistence, to retreat in blissful loneliness far from the stages, until her death. Not a single interview any longer. At the time, several explanations were given: disappointment for the failure of her last film, all the gossiping about her sexual life and failed marriages, the terror of having to take on light roles hardly suitable to her with the advent of sound filming, the manipulations imposed by the production house on her classic character. The debate between students and professors, including screenwriter Ugo Pirro, was closed by master De Santis, who stated that the “Garbo Mystery”, underlying her timeless legend, would have never been solved, as the actual reasons behind that “escape” were rooted in Greta’s childhood, her subconscious, her will to take back the freedom that, in the years of her success, had been trampled on by the semblances and pretenses of the American cinema in the 1930s, so distant from reality. It struck a chord with me.
Why did you wait so long before bringing out this project, an introspective biography of Garbo?
To tell the truth, I had never thought of it, as I considered such a task too hard for me, almost inaccessible to my abilities. On the other hand, tens of unauthorized biographies have been written until recently on Garbo as a diva, some even rude or forging her personality. In addition, thousands of essays, reviews and memorial articles, at every anniversary of her death, every exhibition of her stage costumes or jewels, every sale of a house she lived in, or every auction of her autograph letters, never signed and written in pencil, addressed to her best friends, all infused with the same feeling: loneliness, a loneliness she had desired, not suffered. Last year, I was talking about Garbo with a dear friend, young, brilliant movie director Giuseppe Alessio Nuzzo – an enthusiast reader and presenter of my novels, and also the director of the Social World Film Festival of Vico Equense – and we were discussing his project of holding a retrospective on the actress. I revealed De Santis’ opinion on the “Garbo Mystery” to him, on that other Greta, the woman, not the diva, on her praise of loneliness. Other debates around this same subject followed, so it was from this memory of De Santis, and with Nuzzo’s encouragement, that I came up with the idea and project of writing a psychological biography of the true Greta and her wish for freedom, even if limited to an elective loneliness. Her escape from Hollywood was actually an escape to freedom.
This explains the title, “Il Mistero Garbo. L’altra Greta. L’elogio della solitudine (1942 – 1990)” (“The Garbo mystery. The other Greta. The praise of loneliness”). How does this new, fascinating work unfold?
The novel spans around 50 years, from 1942 to 1990. In 1942, aged only 36, at the peak of her physical beauty, her artistic ripeness and the global success of the movies she had played in even after the advent of sound filming, the Divine par excellence, Greta Garbo, suddenly and definitively retired from Hollywood’s sets. Until her death in 1990, at the age of 85, she would never betray her choice for privacy, while rejecting new offers from great directors and shunning the spotlights. Out of her many biographers, no one has managed to decode the deepest psychological, personal, moral and social reasons of such a radical choice, which she made with no regrets. The Garbo Mistery. So I took my try at this, by investigating the diva’s daily life among the Renoir canvases at her New York apartment, or in her Swedish home, surrounded by nature; her most intimate friends, men and especially women, often heralding scandals; her oriental philosophical practices and last, her frequent visits as a guest to noble residences, billionaires’ yachts or pleasant dwellings, almost always on the sea, like in Taormina, where she lived in complete anonymity. Little by little, the reader finds out about the other Greta, the real Greta, who goes back to her origins, her childhood, her repressed impulses, her nostalgic depressions and love for loneliness, a love she never betrayed or sold short in exchange for hypocrite facade marriages. A choice of freedom that Garbo would never gave up on, as it would have meant to give up on herself. I hope I have been able to weave, through Greta’s inner experience, a praise of loneliness as the universal dimension of mankind, as the utmost acknowledgment of our limits before the Absolute.
Where will you present the preview of this new, intriguing novel? And how do you expect it to be received? On a side note, it is not set in Sorrento or its surroundings.
Not in Sorrento, no. So far, I have never found any documentary or photographical proof of Gabro’s presence in Sorrento and its surroundings, but there will flashbacks with Great in Capri, particularly on the Amalfi coast, in Ravello, at Villa Cimbrone. Although this book indirectly explores the history of the American cinema, I believe that it can interest and engage not just cinephiles, but, for its universal nature, also all those who are fascinated by the lives of successful personalities as they set off along the “Sunset Boulevard”. But Greta’s fate was much different, as renouncing fame was her choice, not a sentence imposed on her. It is no coincidence that my novel opens right in 1950, when Garbo firmly rejected Billy Wilder’s offer to interpret the decline of Norma Desmond, a 50-year-old former diva of silent movies, in “Sunset Boulevard”, alongside William Holden and Erich von Stroheim. The role finally went to Gloria Swanson. One of the masterpieces of the American cinema, and, as Time defined it, “…Hollywood at its worst told by Hollywood at its best.” For the presentations of my book, I hope I will have the chance to follow the trail of a few cinema festivals – Cannes, Vico Equense, Locarno, Venice, Rome, and naturally Sorrento.
An ambitious project for 2020, the coming year, “l’anno che verrà”, as your beloved Lucio Dalla used to sing.
Thank you for mentioning this prophetic quote by Lucio Dalla, which is really dear to me, since these lyrics were written after he read a short story by Swiss-German author Robert Walser: The Walk. Although things do not go too well in these hard times that we are living, and we know it well, just like Dalla never embraced Walser’s pessimism, we should never give up hope. Even if 2020 will not do miracles! This is my wish for your readers, and all those willing to read this end-of-year interview of mine. Despite the problems and difficulties we face, let’s not surrender to them, let’s try not to always see what is negative, what is terrible – that is what Lucio hoped for. Let’s rather look at that ray of light at the end of the tunnel, like he did throughout all his life as a man and an artist. Happy Holidays and Happy new year!