Articulating the phenomena of nature, in fabricating narrative from different dimensions of time and layers of emotion (viscerally felt or unconsciously absorbed) more often than not finds expression in gobbledegook (more words and fussier interpretations than necessary) but when a casserole of impressions can create form in paragraphs and words fittingly tailored as poetry or prose, or inner visions articulated into harmonious forms of architecture, there is no arguing. The above illustrations are from a book attempting to express Vivaldi’s swirling drama of The Seasons with words and pictures and was just one example among many dozens of interesting picture books for adults at the Mantua Literary festival. I admired the artist’s courage, wit and elan in conveying her response to the elusive art of sound through line and colour which managed to resonate with the composer’s art. The range of books, the literary and musical events in the festival programme was awe inspiring. The Mantua Literary festival, like the Oxford Chamber Music Festival, was celebrating its 20th anniversary and it felt genuinely joyful, carrying a sense of community and participation by almost every business and family in this small and exquisitely formed north Italian city. The patterning of paving stones, the soaring Renaissance buildings and spacious palazzos of the traffic free inner city provided a repository of aesthetic and hedonistic delights, designed to please the soul and body.
“Let me choose your dinner for you”, said a kindly man called Rosario who had seen me wandering aimlessly looking for a restaurant called La Cucina somewhere in the narrow alleys He gallantly offered to take me there. He was an ex army officer, a little coy about his former designation and my conspiracy prone mind immediately brought the word “Intelligence” to the fore. He was visiting Mantua with his family for a cure. He looked over the menu, handed to him by a snooty waiter (unusual, as most waiters who served me in other establishments were the epitome of charm). “I can suggest donkey meat or pumpkin ravioli”, he proclaimed. “Donkey meat is a Mantovan specialty and I think you will like it.” I chose ravioli of course, which was delectable. In return for his kindness I recommended my friend Sally Bayley’s book, No Boys play Here, for which she was enthusiastically cheered by an audience of 500 plus, cosily sheltered from a thunderstorm under a large white marquee. Rosario took down details and almost immediately started a correspondence with Sally via Whatsapp, thrilled to be in touch with a real live author. “I cannot believe it” he kept saying. “I have only read Shakespeare and other writers who are dead.”
Sally’s writing is hard to pigeonhole, being a mixture of poetry, literary allusion, fantasy and memory; yet her beautiful modernist prose is embraced by Italian readers (in an excellent translation) courtesy of her enterprising Italian publishers Clichy. Clichy, a husband and wife team who specialize in literary writing, and they along with Marella (the manager of the festival) made enormous efforts to make us both welcome and comfortable.
The huge variety of events on offer to Italian book lovers was exhilarating, from concerts and talks to happenings. (William Dalrymple, John Banville and Ben Okri were seen going in and out of the book tent, like many anxiety-prone writers checking the placement of their titles) The small city was buzzing, with full restaurants, long queues at the gelato seller, crowded thoroughfares. Chiara, the literary divinator had photocopied pages from her favourite reads (including No Boys Play Here ) which were suspended with clothes pegs on a revolving stand. Her clients stood inside a hula hoop while Chiara twirled the stand till it was halted by the client’s hand, after which she read the destined page and closed her eyes to deliver a witchy personal divination for the open mouthed delight of teenage girls hoping for magical insights to their half-known desires. Everyone, especially the true book lover, longs for order from chaos: explanations, directions, guidance, narrative from the confusing undergrowth of their lives. This is the secret quest of readers, of whom there are seemingly more in Northern Italy than in Britain.