Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Crossroads of Civilization - Venice International Literary Festival 2013

(Venice, Italy) The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read, so when I learned that Ondaatje would be a guest at this year's Incroci di Civilità literary festival here in Venice, I made an effort to attend. I have written about Crossroads of Civilization before:

Venice International Literary Festival - 2012 Crossroads of Civilization - Incroci di Civiltà

The Booker Award-winning novel, The English Patient, of course, was transformed into a film directed by Anthony Minghella that went on to win nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, with Ondaatje working closely with the filmmakers to bring it to life. It is a supreme example of a single writer's brilliant imagination lifted up by other creative spirits, transforming the original creation into an enormous, powerful energy that can touch the entire planet. Have a watch, and remember:

Michael Ondaatje was accompanied by his wife, the novelist, Linda Spalding, who received one of Canada's top literary awards, the Governor-General’s Literary Award, for her novel, The Purchase, in 2012. The discussion was conducted by Rosella Mamoli Zorzi. The couple both bill themselves as Canadian writers, even though Ondaatje was born Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), grew up in England, and then transferred to Canada, becoming a Canadian citizen, and Spalding was born in Kansas, then lived in Mexico and Hawaii before also moving to Toronto. Zorzi asked them why they considered themselves Canadian writers. Spalding said there was a strong community of international writers based in Toronto. Both she and Ondaatje are on the editorial board of the Canadian literary magazine, Brick, a publication that they took over in 1985 and transformed it from one that did book reviews into a solid, national literary magazine. So even though they are not Canadian by birth, they are Canadian in spirit.

Linda Spalding, Michael Ondaatje and Rosella Mamoli Zorzi
Ondaatje said that one of the things he enjoyed most about writing a novel is the act of discovery along the way. "How do I get out of here?" One of my favorite comments was by Spalding, who said that as a child she would watch herself from a third-person point of view: "Now she is walking across the park." As a child, I used to do exactly the same thing ("Now she is walking along the sidewalk, toward home") so I was happy hear of another writer with the same quirk.

I had a cozy feeling listening to the two of them read passages from their novels, thinking how lovely it was that two authors were sharing their lives together, gifting humanity with the benefits of their partnership.

Gilberto Sacerdoti and Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt was also here to talk about his Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Here is a short bio:

Stephen Greenblatt recently won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. He’s also the author of the New York Times bestseller Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, the general editor of The Norton Shakespeare, and eleven other books. He is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard and is generally considered the preeminent Shakespeare scholar in the United States today.

More than 2,000 years ago, Lucretius, a Roman poet and philosopher wrote a dangerous poem called, De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature of Things, inspired by Epicurus, who had lived a couple of centuries before. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, who said that the world was made up of atoms, there was no afterlife, that pleasure was the greatest good, and that the absence of pain was the greatest pleasure. De Rerum Natura disappeared for about 500 years until it was rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolin, a Florentine/Roman scholar, writer and early humanist who served under seven popes.

Poggio was also a manuscript hunter, searching for ancient knowledge that had disappeared. One of the manuscripts he discovered was De Rerum Natura in 1417 in a German monastery. On the Nature of Things became all the rage among enlightened thinkers, inspiring the humanist movement, until it disappeared again. About 500 years later, Greenblatt himself discovered a paperback version of the book when he was a young man. Greenblatt spoke about why texts sleep and why they awaken.

Here is an excerpt from a 2012 PBS interview between Jeffrey Brown and Greenblatt:

JEFFREY BROWN: ...In 1417, probably at the Benedictine monastery in Fulda, Germany, Poggio pulled a book from the shelf, the last surviving copy of "De Rerum Natura," "On the Nature of Things." 

We don't know what happened at that moment, but, somewhere, he pulls the book off the shelf and opens it, sees the title, and knows he's got something.

STEPHEN GREENBLATT: He knows he's got something, and he does something crucial, which is he copies it and sends it to his friends. And they begin to copy it, so it begins to spread again.

JEFFREY BROWN: So that's how things get passed on.


JEFFREY BROWN: The book spread, as did its ideas, to artists -- Botticelli's "Primavera" or "Allegory of Spring" portrays a scene from the poem -- to seminal thinkers, among them, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, who incorporated concepts such as the pursuit of happiness from Lucretius and other philosophers into his own thinking. and to the young Stephen Greenblatt.

There's a passage late in the book. I want to read to you: "There are moments, rare and powerful, in which a writer long vanished from the face of the earth seems to stand in your presence and speak to you directly, as if he bore a message meant for you above all others."

I mean, I couldn't help but think that this is you, in a sense.


First of all, it's me in relation to Lucretius, as it happens, because I happened purely by accident to come on this text at a point in my life when I was quite young, in which it spoke very powerfully directly to me. I had the eerie experience of something speaking to me, as if the person knew me. And I think anyone who has any experience of an encounter with the ghosts of the past knows what I'm talking about, where it seems impossible. And yet it's happening.

After living for fifteen years in a town inhabited by the ghosts of the past, I know that feeling well.

Ciao from Venezia,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read, so when I learned that Ondaatje would be a guest at this year's Incroci di Civilità literary festival here in Venice, I made an effort to attend.

  2. You have a great taste! For sure, is a must read book!