The bestselling Italian writer, longlisted for International Booker Prize, talks about ‘Lost on Me,’ why the phenomenon of Elena Ferrante has been counterproductive for Italian literature, and more

When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished, they say. Actually, the family will be just fine, as has always been the case since the dawn of time, while it’s the writer who’ll meet with a terrible fate in the desperate attempt to kill off mothers, fathers, and siblings only to once again find them inexorably alive,” reads the opening lines of Lost on Me (Grove Atlantic), the exhilarating fourth novel of Italian writer-translator-screenwriter Veronica Raimo, which has been longlisted for the 2024 International Booker Prize. Raimo (45), who mines her own life for the novel, is fortunate in this respect. “Most of my relatives were already dead, so it made things a bit easier for me… The ones still alive (my mom and my brother) luckily were very supportive and they have a good sense of humour,” she tells The Federal.

Translated by Leah Janeczko, Lost on Me has been described by the jury as ‘a funny, sharp, wonderfully readable novel that takes us to the heart of an obsessive, unpredictable Italian family’; it’s ‘an inverted bildungsroman’ in which the author, who co-wrote the script for Marco Bellocchio’s Sleeping Beauty (2012; an exploration of euthanasia), ‘takes on the uncertain enterprise of becoming a woman.’ The novel, which is being adapted into a film, is a work of auto-fiction. The genre has become a global literary trend of sorts; the 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature to French writer Annie Ernaux, whose books fuse fiction with her experiences as a woman to explore life in France since the 1940s, had put the spotlight on writers writing about the personal in such a way that their works resonate universally.

Writing about ourselves

Lost on Me, told in the wryly ironic voice of Veronika or Verika or Vero, an unreliable narrator — the multiple aliases she has is intended perhaps to accentuate this aspect — takes us into the wonderfully chaotic world of an eccentric and dysfunctional Italian family. A fabulist, she endears herself to us with her irreverent recollections of childhood and adulthood, filtered through the haze of memory. “How can you reconcile with something or someone if your memories are hazy? If they change in the very process of forming? They can take away everything but our memories, people say. But who would ever be interested in that kind of expropriation?,” she writes. You might be tempted to label it as one, but Raimo says she doesn’t really see the novel as a coming-of-age story because at the end of it, the narrator doesn’t get any maturity.

The novel is peppered with sad and painful remembrances of things past; the days of being raised by neurotic parents are recounted with great humour. Her father, suffering with ‘a subtler form of paranoia, has a pastime: building walls in their apartment, ‘dividing up rooms, for no reason at all.’ She writes: “There were no real doors to speak of — just sliding panels without locks. It was like living on a theatre set; the rooms were purely symbolic; simulations for the benefit of spectators.” As a child, when Veronika falls ill with rheumatic fever, her father is ecstatic that a family member is actually sick, and wraps her in paper towels; sweating, he believes, will harm her. Her mother, a middle-school teacher with high anxiety , is no less in this department. Every time, she calls her son, Christian, and can’t get through, she assumes he is dead, and phones Veronica several times a month to break the news to her: ‘Suffering together is her form of happiness; misery shared is misery relished.’ The disparate vignettes also weave together moments of love, longing and loneliness, and risqué, ribald episodes of sexual discovery.

The fragmented storytelling

Through the caricatures of parents and metaphors like building walls, did Raimo want to reflect on the absurdity and the underlying anxieties of parental protection? “I tried to add some surreal flavour to them, working on exaggeration and make them funnier, but it’s strange because I realized only later that building walls could work as a metaphor. So, some metaphor could be unconscious,” she admits. When she writes about the narrator’s initiation into the physical and the sensual realms, she does not flinch even a wee bit, and does this with a dash of irony. “I wanted to talk about sexuality in a very direct way, and often this means to depict it with irony, because sex education is something which can be funny when you are young and you come from very sexophobic family,” she says.

Like all works in the genre, Lost on Me blurs the line between fact and fiction, the real and the imagined. Does auto-fiction, in some way, subvert the conventional notions of autobiography? “I think every autobiography is a form of fiction. We are the ones who choose what to tell, which memories to recollect, what point of view can work better. These are all stylistic devices. And I don’t think we can be really transparent to ourselves, so when we are writing about ourselves, we are writing about someone we don’t know so well, and that’s the most fascinating aspect of it,” says Raimo, who does not follow a linear structure. Was the fragmented storytelling vital to the exploration of memory and perception in the novel? “Yes, but it’s also the only way in which I am able to write. I am really not fond of linear structure, and I know I couldn’t manage it very well. I am much more interested in a kind of osmotic relationship between past and present, in the way one keeps on questioning the other,” she underlines.

The Elena Ferrante factor

At some point in the novel, the narrator says: “Sometimes we write not to process grief, but to make it up.” Does Raimo process grief in the novel or make it up? “I don’t believe in writing as a form of therapy and in general I am very sceptical about the idea of healing from our traumas,” says the author, who terms the emphasis on the idea of healing “a sort of a capitalistic consequence, in which you should spend money in order to be functional somehow.” She would rather prefer some ‘imperfect solutions’, in which the process itself is more interesting than getting to a ‘closure’. Raimo leaves the reader grappling with questions of authenticity, particularly in relation to the narrator’s own self-awareness. “It was a question not just directed to the reader but to myself, too. I feel I built up a character of myself working on the novel, so I do consider it a fictional character with all the ambiguity which it involves,” she says.

The novel boasts of sublime translation by Janeczko, who comes from Chicago, but has lived in Milan since 1991; it is attuned to the quirks and charms of Italian family life. “I felt she created a voice in which I recognized myself — even in another language — and being myself a translator, I know how important this is and I am very fond of her translation,” says Raimo, who is upbeat about the current moment in Italian literary landscape. She, however, adds that very few of the generation of writers born during the 70s and 80s — writers she feels more connected to — have ever been translated. According to Raimo, if Elena Ferrante has brought the world to Italian writing, it has also been counterproductive because she has created a kind of interest which is very much identified with her kind of aesthetics.

Ruined by their upbringing

While Raimo likes both Deborah Levy and Natalia Ginzburg — writers she has invariably been compared with — they were not her immediate references when she wrote Lost on Me, even if she clearly sees a connection and is happy about the comparison. “There are so many writers who have been very important to me, so it’s difficult to mention just some names, but a definite big influence was Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) by Philip Roth,” says Raimo. Roth’s novel, which made him a celebrity in the United States after it was published, is about the joys, trials and tribulations of growing up as a Jew in America. It is told through a young Jewish lawyer, Alexander Portnoy’s impassioned and often comically exaggerated monologues (read scandalous sexual confessions) to his psychoanalyst. It also explores the fraught bond between parents and children — his relationship with his overbearing mother, in particular, leaves Portnoy in the throes of inner turmoil and self-reflection — and the lasting effect of childhood experiences on adult behaviour.

“They f*** you up, your mum and dad/ They may not mean to, but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you,” wrote Philip Larkin. It rings true in the case of Veronika and Christian, both of whom could never learn ‘hazardous things as swimming, riding a bike, skating, or jumping rope (in a flash we might have drowned, cracked our skulls, broken a leg, strangled ourselves),’ thanks to their sheltered, strict upbringing. “We spent our childhood cooped up at home, bored off our asses. It was such an all-consuming activity that it soon became an existential pose. We knew how to be bored like nobody’s business,” Veronika tells us. It is no wonder then that both became writers: “I don’t know what he answers when people ask him why that is. I say it’s thanks to all the boredom our parents imparted to us.”

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