At the Byron Writers festival in August I was on author panels with Trent Dalton (Boy Swallows Universe), Jarrah Dundler (Hey Brother) and Elise Valmorbida (The Madonna Of The Mountains). I read their books for professional reasons, figuring that if I were going to be on a panel where the discussion would centre on their books then it was only fair that I read them. I enjoyed all three books very much, but had a particular soft spot for Elise’s book which is set in northern Italy through the Fascist period and the war. It’s a part of the world I am fond of and a period covered by my own book, The Fireflies Of Autumn. If I read fiction it is usually because the subject matter interests me.
These days I mostly read non-fiction, with a bias towards politics, foreign affairs and history. I have most recently read Bob Woodward’s Fear, Michael Wolff ‘s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House and Laura Tingle’s latest Quarterly Essay Follow The Leader. My fiction reading period extended from my childhood, through adolescence and into young adulthood. It was in this period that I read the books that had a formative impact on me. If I were to name the books, they would be those that belong to what was once called in English ‘the canon’, except that they would include a few French and Italian writers, both novelists and poets.
As research and stimulus for my next book I am currently re-reading Lettres persanes (Persian Letters) by Montesquieu and La luna e i falò (The Moon And The Bonfires) by Cesare Pavese, both of which I studied at university.
Montesquieu wrote Lettres persanes in 1721. It is about two Persians travelling through France and observing the customs of the locals. In my next book the Italian settlers in north-east Victoria observe the customs of the local descendants of the English, Scottish and Irish settlers. The viewpoint of the outsider is what interests me and I’m hoping to pick up some pointers from this three-hundred-year-old French book. Reading it in French stretches my brain and takes me to a different literary / writing space.
In La luna e i falò (1949) Cesare Pavese writes about the dislocation felt by a migrant who returns to his native village in northern Italy after making some money in America. He envies Nuto, his best friend, who never left. The novel has a heavy, melancholy tone. It is not surprising that Pavese suicided not long after the book was published. A friend of mine recently started reading it and had to stop because the book was too depressing.
La luna e i falò was one of the books I read when I was preparing to write The Fireflies of Autumn and Other Tales of San Ginese. The advantage of reading in Italian and French is that what I am reading does not interfere with my writing. It’s hard for me to write in English and sound like Cesare Pavese or Montesquieu.
I also have on my reading list The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, which is about leaving your homeland, and Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming. I read Bradbury as a teenager and have never forgotten the unbearable melancholy it produced in me. By reading Deep Time Dreaming I hope to learn a little about Indigenous Australian archaeological history to inform my current writing.
So almost all of my reading at the moment is for professional reasons.
My casual reading pile includes La storia insolita di Venezia (The Strange History Of Venice) by Marcello Brasegan, and Immigrants turned activists: Italians in 1970s Melbourne by Simone Battiston. I think both of these will be books I dip into now and then.
I re-read Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic regularly. I am currently carrying around a 100-page Penguin edition in the Great Ideas series.
Childhood, Adolescence and Early Adulthood
For my ninth birthday my grandfather Giuseppe sent me, from Italy, The Adventures of Robin Hood—in Italian. It arrived in a parcel wrapped in brown paper with lots of sticky tape around it and funny handwriting on it that wasn’t Australian.
I had never read an Italian book and struggled at first but, when I finished, it was exhilarating.
A year of going to school in Italy at the age of fifteen forced me to write and read in Italian. We studied I promessi sposi, the classic nineteenth century novel by Alessandro Manzoni.
As an adolescent I read the science fiction classics: Asimov, Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke. For a while in my late teens The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus was my most well-thumbed book.
I have never forgotten the impact of reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment at the age of seventeen, Anton Chekhov’s stories (again recently to see why people are still reading him one hundred and twenty years later), Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, not War and Peace), Ivan Turgenev (I fell in love with Asya), Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (I fell in love with Emma and hated her aristocratic lover, although I felt sorry for her boring husband), Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight and, later, Margaret Attwood’s Wilderness Tips.
When I was younger I read for knowledge. I read to learn about the human condition. The human condition to me was not about work, family, ambition, power, lust, greed, love etc. It was simply about knowing you will die and how you should live in the meantime.
In the 1970s while hitch-hiking and catching trains in England, France and Italy I read a collection of Voltaire’s writing called Romans et Contes. I had a job collecting unwanted household goods and this was a book someone was throwing out. From Voltaire’s collection I can only remember the famous Candide, and the idea that we all have to get on with life, despite all the fancy talk, and ‘cultivate our garden’. I liked Dr Pangloss’s idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds.
Another book I found in the household goods collection was H. G. Wells’ The History of Mr Polly. It is about a man whose wife ‘s cooking gives him indigestion so he leaves her and finds fulfillment.
The book that had the most impact on the young me was The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer. I was staying in Lyon, France, and borrowed a copy in English from the library. I read it in two sittings in my little attic room, which I rented from Madame Clape, on the fifth floor above a small supermarket, just opposite the cable car terminus in the old part of the city high up on the hill.
Germaine did not intend her book to be about women only. I have never understood why its broader message has been neglected over the years. She was telling the men that the system was screwing them too.
Of Albert Camus’s L’étranger I remember a tortured, defiantly anti-social protagonist, Meursault. The perfect hero for a young man. Le mythe de Sisyphe, taught me resilience.
Hemingway was a favourite in my early twenties. He was a tough guy who wasn’t as tough as he made out. Henry Lawson was a softie too.
A writer I loved, in my top four for impact (with Germaine and Albert and Ernest) was Luigi Pirandello. Luigi set out to write a story for every day of the year and got to about two hundred and fifty. The stories are funny, sad, full of pathos, bathos, lonely people, sad people, human beings. I wanted to be him.
In the mid seventies I was just working my way through David Ireland (The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and The Glass Canoe) and into Gerald Murnane when I stopped reading. Children and a mortgage occupied the next thirty years. David Ireland was writing about the enslavement of the human race. Gerald Murnane could write about a crack in the footpath and make it interesting. I think the last Australian book I read in my intense reading phase was Pieces For A Glass Piano by Gerard Lee.
Nowadays I have some sympathy for the view expressed by David Szalay, who wrote in The New Yorker, (October 10, 2016):
I sat down to think about writing a new book and just didn’t see the point of it. What’s a novel? You make up a story and then you tell that story. I didn’t understand why or how that would be meaningful.
As a consequence, my first book The Fireflies of Autumn and Other Tales Of San Ginese is as close to non-fiction as I could make it.
Moreno Giovannoni was the inaugural winner of the Deborah Cass Prize. The Fireflies Of Autumn And Other Tales Of San Ginese is his first book and was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction.